FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the Chinese Grand Prix

Surely the most intriguing question hovering over this year's Chinese GP is whether or not Michael Schumacher will be able to come to terms with the Shanghai circuit at his third attempt. If any venue in the world can be described as Michael's bogey track, this is surely it. In the 2004 race - which was won by his team mate Barrichello - he was already off the pace when he managed to get tangled up with rookie driver Christian Klien before spinning. Last year he simply couldn't come to terms with the awkward, tightening Turn 1, where he spun off both in qualifying and the race. So far, Michael has yet to score a single point in China.

No doubt this knowledge will provide a psychological boost for last year's race winner Fernando Alonso, who evidently loves the place. Nando described his 2005 victory in Shanghai as his easiest of the season, and last week he said he expects to be fighting back at Ferrari and extending his current wafer-thin two point lead over Michael in the Drivers' Championship. On past form, that's certainly not an over-confident boast. Nevertheless, Michael will be equally determined to demonstrate that he's got all those Shanghai phobias out of his system before he hangs up his helmet in a month's time.

At this point I have to confess that once again your previewer won't be in China. As explained before the Turkish GP, I'm a bit reluctant about attending races laid on for reasons of a country's national self-interest rather than sporting competition. But rather than gloat over the punishment which hit the Turkish organisers when they ignored my warnings last month against confusing politics with sport, I commend you to seek out the Editor's wisdom on the subject.

This does not mean to say, though, that I have never attended a race in China. Back in the days when Macau was still governed by Portugal, I was an enthusiastic and frequent visitor to that enclave on the Chinese mainland, home to one of the most spectacular events on the international calendar.

Visiting Macau was never boring. The principal industry there was gambling (strictly forbidden in Hong Kong), which meant that this rather seedy Las Vegas of the Orient was full of casinos and the sort of tawdry entertainment associated with slot machines and blackjack. Outside, though, real life continued. The local cuisine was a sometimes fiery blend of the two cultures, the streets were full of market stalls selling excellent knock-offs of big-name fashion items, and the locals had the knack of being able to extract the maximum number of dollars from the tourists. Not unlike Shanghai today, I'm told.

The Macau circuit was (and is) a bizarre half-and-half mixture of flat-out drag strip along the seafront and a wiggly infield section where the slightest mistake would put you into the barriers. Adding to the excitement in the old days was the presence of dozens of mad bike racers, who had their own event on Saturday. One year a guy from the local TV station proudly informed me that enough cash had been found to put in an extra camera, adding to the meagre total (I think it was six) that were usually in place.

"Where have you put it?" I asked.

"Oh, outside the Accident & Emergency entrance at the hospital," he replied. "It means we will be able to get some good shots of the bikers who've crashed when they're hauled in to be patched up."

My first visit to Macau was in 1982, the last year of running Formula Atlantic cars before Formula 3 was brought in. It was not an exactly star-studded field, although Roberto Moreno - an established winner with the factory Ralt-Honda F2 team - had been roped in to drive a car belonging to his old mate Pee Wee Siddle.

"Shorty" Moreno was always a bit of a prankster, and he had something planned in case he won, although he very nearly didn't make it. He was in the lead with a couple of laps to go when he managed to damage the nose of his Ralt. The front wings were dragging on the road, so he was forced to make an emergency pit stop - still with one lap to go. Miraculously, the entire nose assembly detached itself and slithered to a halt at Pee Wee's feet as Roberto braked in the pitlane, allowing him to speed up and rejoin, still (just) in the lead.

Having safely crossed the line, Roberto did a quick change in the cockpit, taking off his crash helmet and replacing it with a rubber chicken's head for the rest of his victory lap. To this day, I'm told, locals still talk of the year when the Macau GP was won by a chicken.

The start of the F3 era in the history of the Macau GP coincided with the period when the PRC (Peoples' Republic of China) began to extend commercial opportunities to the West. One of the products which the PRC agreed to import was cigarettes, and the race weekend in Macau offered a great opportunity for communist "commercial cadres" to meet tobacco people, place their orders and generally let down their hair in defiance of the strict Marxist-Leninist principles in force back home across the border.

To add some impact to their sales pitch, the cigarette companies descended, cheque books open, on the F3 teams taking part in the race. This not only enriched the grateful team owners but also made things much easier for the local journalists and race commentators, none of whom understood anything about racing unless it involved horses. Instead of having to learn how to pronounce the names of unfamiliar drivers and cars, they needed only to identify the cars by their cigarette brand names. "It's the Marlboro in front of the Viceroy - and the John Player has just crashed!"

Coming after the European and Japanese racing seasons were over, those F3 races at Macau attracted all the top competitors. They also seem to have touched an important spot in high places within the PRC, because rumours started of a permanent international circuit being built. A rather uninteresting track was eventually created not far from Hong Kong, and a couple of race meetings were held there, but all the talk of F1 proved to be in vain until the construction of the Shanghai International Circuit (SIC) started in 2003.

Whatever reservations one might have about the true purpose behind China's determination to stage major international sporting events like the Grand Prix in what is supposed to be a communist country, it is encouraging to see that everything has been done so efficiently. I know they don't all ride bicycles anymore, but having read some of the country's history during the 20th century, at first I wondered whether the Chinese would be flexible enough to accept the tough demands made on F1 circuits and their owners by the FIA and Formula 1.

My concerns melted away early in 2004 when I started receiving press releases from the SIC's PR agency (based in west London) informing me of developments at the track. Among them was the information that the shape of the circuit was based on the Chinese character which comes closest to representing the first letter of a US-based fast food company. Then I learned that among the first honoured visitors to the track was a man whose most important claim to fame was being the second-born son of the Queen of England. The Mayor of Shanghai himself made a special visit to the circuit to greet him.

What, I wonder, would Marx, Engels and Mao Tse Tung make of that?

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