EFF ONE

The teenage gang that passes for the intelligentsia in a local village called North Marston has recently changed the sign on the approach road to read "Welcome to Mars" and that just about summed up my first impressions of Shanghai.

It is a city that has always had a thoroughly-deserved dodgy reputation and over the years has been described variously as The Paris of the East, The Whore of the Orient and as a city of "gangsters, pimps and drug lords". No wonder then that everyone in Formula 1 seemed to fit in just fine last weekend when they came to town for the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix.

For a China virgin like me (there is a poignant pause while I contemplate the use of the words "me" and "virgin" in the same sentence) the expression "culture shock" does not even come close to describing my first encounter with the Chinese. Until now a Chinese was a place where I would go to get a takeaway meal.

You cannot actually see the place as you approach from the air because it is covered in a smog of which Los Angeles would be proud. But down on the ground floor the anally-retentive LA-LA landers would never have accepted the chaos that reigns in Shanghai. Within minutes of landing, I was told to wait outside and keep an eye out for a car with big fins. My search for something like a 1959 Cadillac Eldorada came to nothing, as it turned out I was supposed to be sharing a minibus with a bunch of journalists from Finland. Before we got to China we had been informed that foreigners cannot drive there. What we were not told is that neither can the Chinese. The biggest health risk in Shanghai was not some nasty Asian bird flu but rather the highways. No sooner had we escaped the airport than we witnessed a Mercedes-Benz narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a bicycle. Nothing strange there you might think, except for the fact that the cyclist was carrying a steel bar about half the length of a decent sized bridge and the Mercedes was overtaking us, while driving on the pavement.

That set the tone for the weekend.

The number of cars in Shanghai is increasing all the time and one can only worry about what it will be like next year. One might also wonder if we will recognize the place at all because Shanghai is such a boomtown that when you look out of your hotel window before going to bed you're not quite sure whether the skyline will be the same in the morning. At 2 o'clock one morning, I spotted a man welding the roof on a new building that had sprung up across the street.

Formula 1 was obviously keen to suck up as much money as it possibly could from the booming Chinese and there were more marketing folk per square metre than there were mechanics. The money men in each team were positively salivating at the prospect of milking the fatted cow and mining the cash-rich seam. There was certainly no mention of things like oppressive regimes, AIDS and all the other things that are seriously wrong with China. We were everyone's best friends.

There wasn't much wrong with the food although it was rather more adventurous than the average pub grub of steak and kidney pie or scampi. On the menu at my hotel one could order such delicacies as sparrows' gizzards, drunken chicken (it tasted fowl) and duck lips (no wonder the bill was so expensive!). After a few days living entirely off a diet of duty free vodka and cigarettes (and the latter are very hard to digest) I began to have hallucinations and was convinced that the garden gnomes at the circuit were actually moving.

Garden gnomes at the circuit? Yes, I know that sounds odd but you see the team offices in the paddock were not the normal portacabin constructions that one is used to seeing but rather opulent buildings each on its own small island (or on stilts). These were linked together by a series of walkways and were supposed to be "islands of tranquillity" for the F1 folk.

The traffic was so bad and the facilities at the track so good that one team boss was seriously considering moving into his office because it had more space than his hotel room and a much nicer bath tub. Anyway, it turned out that the garden gnomes I saw were actually small Chinese women wearing big hats, who were kneeling down and weeding all the flowerbeds. Fortunately for my sanity, a colleague was staying in a hotel serving real food although in the end I resorted to that age-old trick for those who need sufficient calories to be able to type and never asked what it was that I was eating.

But with all the novelties and the amusements in traffic, after a while it seemed that everyone was beginning to think that there were stand-up comedians. Michael Schumacher's unforced errors in both qualifying and the race can apparently be put down to the fact his energy is no concentrated on a planned new career as The King of Comedy. After his spin on Saturday he was asked what had caused it.

"Well," he said. "If they find nothing wrong with the car, it must be down to the part between the fuel tank and the steering wheel!" Ich bin Michael Schumacher, you'f bin vonderful, zank you and guten nacht."

The other possibility for his dismal performance is that he just had all the wrong Feng Schuey.

Not to be outdone by the World Champion, Rubens Barrichello was soon knocking out the one-liners as well. Having completely drowned Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo with champagne while on the podium, Rubens remarked: "That's probably the only time I will ever take a shower with a man!"

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