GLOBETROTTER

Death by taxi, a mystery, Brooklands and a rip-off

That Rubens Barrichello bloke thinks he was the fastest bloke in Shanghai. Anyone can go faster than he did. It's easy.

Having spent the whole weekend in Shanghai in cabs and shuttle buses trying to get to and from the hotel and the Shanghai International Circuit, we felt the need on Monday to see a bit more of what looked like an interesting city. The hotel would not extend check-up any further and we had half a day to kill before the flight and so, after a rapid ramble around downtown, we jumped in a taxi and headed to Pudong International Airport. Illogical? Not at all.

Well, if the truth be told, it is illogical to get into any device that runs on the roads on Shanghai. They are downright dangerous. Our particular cab had a list of bylaws in English and so we were kept amused to note that the driver would not allow any "spitting, smoking or dumping". Nor, apparently, would he accept any "psychotic or drunkard without guardian". Obviously the laws did not apply to the driver himself because he pulled on one white glove and floored the throttle. In an instant he was dicing through the traffic with all the skill and judgement of a cross between Michael Schumacher and Stevie Wonder. Each breath-taking maneouvre was accompanied by a few blasts of the horn. After 40 minutes of being part of what felt like a road rage video game, the taxi slewed to a halt at the terminal and we ran to the safety of the building where we were able to fully assess the damage. We had arms, legs, luggage and seven hours to go before the plane took off. But that was part of the plan.

Our next move was to put the bags into the Left Luggage and then we headed back to Shanghai. The Maglev train in the pride of Chinese technology and the fastest operational train in the world. The French once sent a TGV down a stretch of railway at a terrifyingly stupid 320mph but this was stripped down to the minimum and staffed only by a couple of very brave SNCF employees, who have long since been forgotten. The Chinese run the Maglev hundreds of times each day. We had been told that the Maglev would take us back to Shanghai in eight minutes and we wanted proof. Two round tickets please. VIP class.

"Not possible," said the man behind the desk. "This last train. You go only Shanghai. No train come back."

We knew that the return trip would have to be made by taxi but we were feeling brave and bundled down the stairs and into the train, pausing only to say "Hello" to the stewardess. Within seconds we were sliding gracefully out of the station. On the wall of the carriage they had a speedmetre to tell us what we were doing and we began to wonder just how fast this thing could actually go. We reached 100kph before we had left the airport and 200 after the first banked corner. Once we were on the straight the number went quickly up to 300. For some reason we had thought that the top speed was 325 but we were soon at 350 and still accelerating. Like a pair of excited schoolboys we started calculating how fast it would take to cover 30km in eighth minutes. As we streaked through 400 we were able to say with great authority that we had hit 250mph but the number kept on going up: 410, 420, 430. It peaked at 431 and somewhere or other a computer (I hope) said "That's enough!" and we stayed at 430. And then quite quickly we began to slow down. There was the city. Wow. We'd just gone 267.8mph in a train. If they had Maglev in Europe we'd have done London to Paris in an hour; or in US we would have cruised New York to Washington in a tad over 45 minutes.

Then, of course, it was time to go back to the circus and take another cab out to the airport.

We were impressed by the Maglev, but it is fair to say that we had been impressed all weekend. No one spat, smoked or dumped on us. Nor were we assaulted by psycotic or drunkard without guardian. Everything worked (except BBC.co.uk) and the Shanghai International Circuit was a really amazing place. We knew as soon as we arrived in Pudong that the Grand Prix would be a success. You can tell when a new race is going to work because you see the first signs of it before you even get to the baggage carousel. You are welcomed by a wave of civic pride in the event, adverts drawing attention to the race to make sure that everyone knows that this is a Grand Prix town.

And Shanghai is definitely a Grand Prix town even if only a tiny fraction of the Chinese population has the money to buy an automobile. But today the automobile is the dream of the masses, just as it was in Europe a hundred years ago. The Shanghai government has understood that it has a chance to become the Detroit of China and so has spent the money to do the job properly. The circuit is a modern marvel, a racing facility on a scale that is far beyond anything we have ever seen before. Bahrain was impressive but Shanghai raised the standard still further. It is as though someone has built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the space of 18 months rather than it having grown up in the course a century. It is the perfect example of what happens when people have the will to achieve something, and have the money and people to throw at a project. Even the sometimes overblown world of Formula 1 seemed dwarfed by the scale of it. The sport's silly little soap operas look out of place on so grand a stage. Is it a great white elephant or will the 2004 Chinese Grand Prix be a pivotal point in the history of our sport? That is hard to say. Will motor racing take off in China? Who knows? But as I went into the circuit on Friday morning I could not escape the thought that this was how the first journalists must have felt when they first walked into Brooklands. And look at the heritage that Brooklands left behind it. It is nice to think that when we grow old we will be able to tell our grandchildren that we were there in Shanghai on the day it all began but one has to ask whether it will survive. You can spend $300m to build a track but the one thing you cannot buy is history. Monaco, Monza, Silverstone and the like have years of stories, ghosts and heroes. There are triumphs and tragedies. You cannot buy a motor racing culture.

In the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams there is the mantra "If you build it, they will come". F1 is hoping that is true of the Chinese population. On Monday the local newspapers asked the people what they thought.

"They are burning money," said Zhang Jie, a taxi driver. "The ticket price is outrageous. The three-day VIP ticket costs more than my monthly salary."

"I spent $398 on tickets," said Zhang Jun, an out of town visitor. "I think it was worth it but it took me almost eight hours to get to the circuit from the railway station because few knew the routes. I am not sure I will come next year if the price stays unchanged."

"Everyone is stealing from my wallet," said Zheng Jie, a white collar worker. "Can you imagine a simple key ring with a Ferrari logo costing $18? It's outrageous!"

"It's too commercial," said Parry Huang, an auditor. "I wish they would lower the ticket price."

One can perhaps sympathize with the Shanghai government which is paying $40m this year for the race (and $44m next year) in addition to funding the construction. To break even on the race fees alone they need to charge 150,000 spectators $300 a head.

The Chinese love F1 - but they think it's a rip-off.

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