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.

Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there