Threat of the China syndrome

Formula One forgets its roots at its peril in flirtation with the new order

"You are from England? Ah, Chelse [sic]. Machester [sic] United. Daveed [sic] Beckham!" The cab drivers here clearly have a greater grasp of Premiership football than they do grand prix racing. But it doesn't matter. The Chinese are already beginning to embrace Formula One with the brand of enthusiasm that saw the stunning Shanghai International Circuit rise from marshland, a 40-minute drive from downtown Shanghai, in little more than 18 months.

China is opening up to the automobile like a blooming lotus flower. With only two per cent of the populace currently owning their own cars, the world's major manufacturers are falling over themselves with the hard-elbowed frenzy of panhandlers in the Klondike.

That financial lust has provoked a lot of talk about the desirability of such opulent venues in preference to the tried and trusted places such as Silverstone and Imola, which both risk falling off the calendar in 2005. But the Renault driver Fernando Alonso summarised it best when he suggested that the calendar actually needs a balance of old and new.

Some might have you believe that Silverstone is now just a crumbling ruin, but what it has in spades over Shanghai is atmosphere and historic pedigree. While Shanghai might cosset its participants in air-cooled buildings that will double as holiday homes in the future, it must wait some years before it earns the magic that only the sites of great battles past truly merit.

But both tracks present excellent challenges. Silverstone deserves its place on the strength of that magnificent piece of curled spaghetti known as the road from Copse to Chapel, where the engine note of the top drivers does not vary even though the direction does. Shanghai has already been compared favourably with Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka. Given time it will earn its own special atmosphere, but that can never be bought - even by $240 million (£133m).

"I quite enjoyed it," said Rubens Barrichello, shortly before his satisfaction level was notched up further when he took pole position. "The first time out it is always a bit slippery because nobody has been out, but it is a good layout, the shape of Turn 13 is quite good and will provide some overtaking down to the end of the long straight. There are a lot of good points as well on set-up, because there is a mix that you can do, such as you can at Indianapolis. For example, you have a long straight but you have so many other corners that you have to go fast, so quite a good track in all respects." Note: in the race drivers' lexicon of understatement, the word "quite" really means "very".

Barrichello was also impressed by the local drivers away from the circuit. "They say Brazilian drivers are good because of the traffic - they should have many drivers here. They should all be in Formula One! Unbelievable!"

The Ferrari driver had the upper hand over team-mate Michael Schumacher on Friday, when the champion appeared to be in a strop that team insiders insisted had nothing to do with uncharacteristic electronic gremlins and understeer. It was back to business as usual between them when Michael edged ahead in practice and prequalifying on Saturday, but then the unthinkable happened.

As the last five drivers ventured out, the returning Ralf Schumacher and Sauber's Felipe Massa had successively come closest to beating Jenson Button's lap of 1min 34.295sec for BAR Honda. But then Barrichello ducked beneath it, pushing his Ferrari to 1:34.012. Barrichello himself was challenged by McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen as the winners of the last two grands prix fought it out. In the end the Finn's 1:34.178 just came up short.

Surely Schumacher, the last man, would grab the pole and push the silver arrow back to the second row. But it didn't happen. Instead, he made a mistake at the very first corner, and his face matched the colour of his scarlet racer as it spun. If you were a television screenplay writer (or Bernie Ecclestone), you couldn't have scripted it better.

"I'm not really sure what happened," Schumacher said. "We usually have to fight some understeer in that corner and we had not changed the car much. The data doesn't provide an answer. I don't know if it was my fault or not, but if we don't find something on the car then maybe it is down to what is between the fuel tank and the steering wheel!"

The conspiracy theorists had a field day afterwards when it was learned Schumacher's car would also require an engine change, some suggesting the spin may have been deliberate. In all probability he will do what he did at Monza and come through to chase Barrichello home - perhaps even beat him - but the Chinese could scarcely have been served up a better menu for their first-ever taste of grand prix life.

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