From its origins in Western Europe, the series made its first step into a different culture and economy at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 1986, three years before the Soviet Union collapsed and lost its grip on Eastern Europe. With Hungary, the series was on its way to becoming a true world championship, breaking into many countries and regions.
But China remained a world unto itself — not to mention the biggest potential market for the series’ car manufacturers and sponsors. It was, and still is, the most exotic locale for a Grand Prix.
Shanghai is China’s biggest and most populous city, with nearly 23 million people. It is the financial and commercial capital of the country and a leading cultural center in Asia. It had been the dominant city of Asia in the early 20th century, and then it underwent rapid growth and redevelopment throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
The city has a thriving tourism industry. The Bund port area, along the Huangpu River, with its historic buildings that once housed the banks and trading companies of the previous era, is one of the main tourist destinations. The skyline in the Pudong business district in eastern Shanghai is still growing, with towering skyscrapers as futuristic and ambitious as the circuit where the Formula One race takes place.
When it was inaugurated in 2004, the Shanghai International Circuit was — and still remains — the biggest, most ambitious Formula One circuit ever made.
Built at a cost of $450 million on 5.3 square kilometers, or 2 square miles, of swampland, it required a propping up of the land with concrete blocks that were then covered with polystyrene. According to the sport’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation, the circuit bought out the entire Asian market of polystyrene for the job.
While China had wanted to show that it could do bigger and better than anyone else, it instead showed world racing-circuit builders just where the limit lay: In the end, Formula One judged the circuit paddock to be too vast.
But the circuit is interesting and pleasing to drivers.
“It’s a good, modern circuit with a couple of interesting touches,” said Jenson Button, a driver at the McLaren Mercedes team. “The first corner is quite unique: You enter it at full-throttle in seventh gear, then come down through the gears as the corner continually tightens. It’s a very long corner — it’s all about being patient — and there’s a little bump right on the entry, which can make it quite tricky, too.”
The first year, the race attracted 260,000 spectators, and a few thousand more in 2005. Since then, however, attendance has steadily dropped. The problem is that tickets are too expensive for many Chinese. Last year, good seats cost from 3,580 to 3,980 renminbi, or $550 to $610, which is the average monthly salary in Beijing and more than double that of a worker. Ticket prices for the race this weekend have gone down.
If China overshot its goal with the circuit, the atmosphere surrounding the race in Shanghai remains one of the most successful and popular of the series.
In recent years, a subway extension was completed, connecting the track with central Shanghai via a 40-minute train ride. Last year, however, the link was closed on race day. The track is also about a 40-minute car drive from central Shanghai — but frequent traffic jams can make it a two-hour trip.
This does not discourage much of the Formula One personnel and most of the foreign spectators from staying in Shanghai, where they can taste the city’s vibrant cultural life and exceptional food and tourism possibilities.
“I like Shanghai as a city, it is a very interesting, a big place,” said Adrian Sutil, a driver at the Force India team. “It’s a great place to go out for night, parties, bars, amazing restaurants and it’s great for shopping. So you are going to lose money in this city.”