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Pride and hype as F1 roars back to China after Covid absence

todayApril 16, 2024 3

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Two years ago the Shanghai International Circuit hosted a Covid hospital, but this weekend it will stage Formula One once more as the sport returns to China for the first time since the pandemic.

Adding to the excitement of fans, they will see Shanghai native Zhou Guanyu drive at his home track in Formula One for the first time.

“I’m extremely excited, in these 5,000 years of (Chinese) history there has only been one Zhou Guanyu,” said fan Wang Xiaotian.

Shanghai last witnessed an F1 race in 2019, before Covid and China’s travel restrictions put a halt to almost all major international sport in the country.

Tickets for the action-packed Formula One weekend — which begins with Friday morning practice, sees a sprint race on Saturday and ends with the grand prix on Sunday — sold out within minutes of going on sale in January.

Ma Qinghua, the first Chinese to drive an F1 car when he took part in a 2012 practice session, said the sport’s return will have a “very good impact”, especially on younger fans who did not have the chance to see their heroes in the flesh during the pandemic.

“This group of people are very much anticipating the chance to witness a race personally,” Ma, a pioneer of China’s motorsport industry, told AFP.

It was almost exactly two years ago, at the height of the city’s lockdown, that the Shanghai circuit became the site of a makeshift 13,000-bed Covid hospital.

That was just a few weeks after Zhou had his first grand prix drive in Bahrain, finishing 10th to score a point, but the pandemic delayed 24-year-old Zhou’s home F1 debut until this week.

Even though he is unlikely to challenge for the podium, Zhou is desperate to put on a Shanghai show.

“I can’t wait to give it my all, share the passion with our entire team trackside and at home, and start a new chapter of Chinese motorsport together with the crowd,” Zhou said Monday.

“It’s an opportunity to inspire and pave the path for future generations being interested in the sport.

“My country loves racing and has been waiting for this moment for years.”

His excitement is echoed by fans in the city.

“As China’s first F1 driver, we are extremely proud of him,” Hu Yanqin, 29, said at a recent fan event screening the Japanese Grand Prix — complete with large banners bearing Zhou’s photo.

Underlining the hype surrounding Zhou, who is in his third F1 season, fans greeted him at the airport when he arrived last week and a documentary about the racer, “The First One”, will hit Chinese cinemas this weekend to coincide with the race.

China is relatively new to motor racing, with cars a rare sight even in major cities as recently as the 1980s.

Shanghai staged the country’s first F1 grand prix in 2004 and, prior to the pandemic, the sport’s decision-makers had talked about the possibility of a second grand prix each year in China.

Ma, who was the first Chinese driver to take part in a Formula One practice session at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix, has witnessed the growth in motorsport first hand.

“It is a lot more popular now,” said Ma, adding that, when he started, “I didn’t even know where I could do a test or that there was such a thing as a racing licence”.

Ma’s F1 adventure did not go any further with the now-disbanded HRT team because of contract issues, he said, but he drove in other classes such as Formula E and the World Touring Car Championship.

Now 36, he runs a go-kart venue in Shanghai where aspiring speed demons zoom down a looping two-storey track tucked into the basement of a mall.

During Formula One’s five-year absence, China continued to put resources into motor sport.

In 2022 the island province of Hainan poured five billion yuan ($691 million) into an electric vehicle racing circuit and Formula E is returning to China next month, with Shanghai hosting for the first time.




Written by: Staff Writer

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