at racing in the Far East

Here I am in the Peoples' Republic of China, en route to the Grand Prix That None Of The People Will Pay To See, and the more eagle-eyed readers among you may well recall some hackery from this column not too long ago in which your correspondent said he would never set foot in this particular socialist paradise. Yes, I admit I occasionally take a high-principled pop at despotic regimes which pay Bernie the money -- and maybe a few shillings more -- for GP races which they believe will make themselves look a little prettier in the eyes of the world than they really are. Well, I've been overtaken by events. I'm here at the invitation of an old friend who's currently resident in Beijing (the price was six bottles of Glorioso, a Spanish wine made in Rioja) and it was just too good an opportunity to miss. Hypocritical? Moi? All I can do is refer you to an old Marxist saying (Groucho, not Karl): "I have my principles, and if you don't like them, well ... I have others."

It's not the first time I've been to China, but it is the first time that I've visited a region of it that wasn't administered either by Her Majesty or the State of Portugal. Those were great times in Macau and in the dying days of British rule over Hong Kong. The shopping expeditions were sometimes even hairier than the Macau GP itself. Stepping out in search of a camera with Ayrton Senna in 1983 and watching him barter his way across Kowloon taught me just what an unscrupulous opponent he could be in a tight corner -- and these were still F3 days, remember. One year later I was even more impressed by Ayrton's buddy Mauricio Gugelmin when he won the same race for the same entrant (Dick Bennetts). For Mauricio, bargaining was sheer entertainment. He would walk into a shop, select an item that he had no intention whatsoever of purchasing, and put on a show of buying it that was as convincing as any Oscar winner's. Having pitilessly beaten the salesperson down to a price which was probably well below wholesale, he would then walk out. Even hard-bitten Chinese shop assistants were reduced to tears by this performance.

It comes as a shock to discover that this year's race at the Shanghai International Circuit is the sixth championship GP in China. Like too many of the events which Bernie has chosen to bestow on countries which have no motorsporting tradition whatsoever, the first year attracted a substantial crowd. My theory is that the unknowledgeable locals buy their tickets in the expectation of a gory gladiatorial show, with cars somersaulting down the road in flames and bodies piling up. Then, when they discover that the contestants don't share their own death wish, the punters resolutely stay away for ever after. There's certainly a serious lack of linkage between F1 and China. Anybody who saw last year's race from Shanghai on TV will not have failed to notice the nine huge grandstands which stood empty apart from the advertising for a forthcoming Expo in the city.

The larger question is how long it will be before F1's Asian bubble bursts. Unless you've seen the sheer extravagance of the Shanghai circuit, it's difficult to imagine the sheer scale of the stories about the wonders of F1 racing which Bernie must have told the Chinese government, not to mention those wise and far-sighted bankers who bought into the same sales pitch. My first sight of this gigantic Chinese circuit reminded me of a trip I took, back in 1971, as a guest of some Californian businessmen who had sunk a shedload of money in a new circuit, the Ontario Motor Speedway, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The track consisted of an oval with an infield road section, but it was the facilities which impressed most. Unusually for the period, there was seating for all the spectators, with restaurants and clean toilets. The feature which was expected to make money was the array of hospitality suites, an idea copied from American football stadia. History records that the Speedway attracted small crowds and soon descended into bankruptcy. The Shanghai circuit, of course, is backed by the Chinese government, and will be allowed to survive for as long as the politicians behind it require to save face. But it's not difficult to imagine it with the weeds growing over the concrete as it awaits the bulldozers.

At one time, Max Mosley and the FIA clearly believed that F1 had a future in the Far East. At a press conference he gave more than ten years ago, Max went so far as to claim that 70 percent of our sport's TV audience was to be found in Asia. Where, I wondered to myself, could that information possibly have come from? But Max confidently blustered on: European viewers, he said, would just have to get used to rising early to get their fix on GP weerkends. It was at another such press conference, five or six years later, that Max was expounding on the importance of the European market when one of the troublemaking journos present (yes, it was me) dared to remind him of his earlier claims about Asia's fondness for F1 on TV. The President actually blushed as he admitted that he was now contradicting himself. And blushing is something his Maxness does not do very often, at least not spontaneously.

In spite of having committed the future of the sport to yet more Asian venues, even Bernie may be having second thoughts about the marketing potential of the region. Perhaps those F1-fanatical daughters of his have forced him to understand that Europeans don't enjoy rising before dawn to follow the fun, especially now that there's such a wide variety of other sports available on TV. Why else would he be demanding night races in Singapore and elsewhere?

In a selfless quest to ensure that readers of this website got the right perspective from me on the question of F1 and the Far East, I stayed on in the southern part of the region (it's called Australia) after the first round of the championship. It made it possible to avoid the horrible jetlag that comes from dashing back to Europe, although the Ozzie conviviality can be a hazard. Mr Saward has already blogged about one restaurant encounter attended by us both. I lagged well behind my British companion that evening both in terms of consumption of Shiraz and the number of tall stories told, but the important difference was that at dawn the following morning he was at his keyboard. Perhaps it's the advancing years which are turning against me, because I seem to have difficulty remembering things. The only consolation is that bad memory isn't limited to old hands like me. One recent TV moment which I hope you enjoyed as much as me was the sight of Jenson Button praising his team on Australian TV and suddenly realising that he couldn't remember the name of his engineer. For future reference, sunshine, it's Andrew Shovelin.

Finally, allow me to remind British race fans just how lucky they are to be receiving their F1 coverage of this year's races free of commercials on the BBC. In Australia, where I watched the Malaysian GP, coverage is in the hands of Channel 10, which rather pathetically tried to pretend that its two hair-gelled presenters were at the circuit. These two, with their occasional self-conscious claims to be "here in Malaysia," looked rather silly when they had to connect via noisy telephone line to Peter Windsor (who was, of course, actually at Sepang) for an update.

Australian TV is notoriously insensitive when it comes to interrupting sport in order to show commercials, and the F1 coverage suffers more than most. Just as the first rain was about to arrive in Malaysia, promising a sudden flurry of spins and place changes, the director threw to the important business of selling washing machines and pipe connectors. The parting shot from Mr Hair Gel Number 1 was "Don't leave us whatever you do." I couldn't help wondering if he would dare to reflect on the irony of the fact that it was Channel 10 leaving us, not vice versa.

Down with commercial interruptions of F1 and long live the BBC. Even if I am still waiting to know if I can have my old job back ...