“It’s lights out and away we go!” – these words are enough to send a familiar thrill down the spine of any good Formula 1 fan. Roughly every other week, this huge community of hundreds of millions of people follow, through screens or in-person, drivers and teams as they compete on breathtaking tracks all over the world. Speed, class, technology, passion – for 70 years the highest-class auto racing in the world has gifted us all of this and much, much more.
China is not a traditional F1 country. Since its beginnings, the sport has been fairly dominated by Europeans: British McLaren and Williams, Italian Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, French Renault, German Mercedes. A quick look at the statistics can help support this claim: 7 out of the 10 teams currently competing are located in the area around Silverstone, UK - appropriately renamed the “Motorsport Valley” - while 14 out of the 20 drivers are European.
So how does China come into play? For over 40 years in F1 history, the PRC was not even a blip on the radar. During the Cold War, the country was notoriously isolated and dealt with immense economic and social crises. Chinese people did not commonly own a car and even possessing a driving license was extremely rare. Then came the Opening Up and, by 1985, while the national car production still only amounted to 5,200 units, China imported more than 350,000 vehicles at $3 billion from Japan which replaced the USSR as the country’s main car exporter (Mann, 1989). The trade deficit pushed the government to limit imports through taxation while boosting the existing joint-ventures car production agreements locally.
With the automotive industry booming, a growing interest in motorsports was sure to follow. The closest circuit was Macau, one of the most demanding tracks in the world which had been hosting races since the 1950s. In the 1990s, China hosted several races on a street circuit in Zhuhai City, in the Guangdong province. Close to Macau and Hong Kong, the location was chosen as the first Chinese F1 circuit. As the F1 requires compliance to very strict circuit parameters, the project was entrusted to the Australian company Kinhill Engineers Pty Ltd which had already worked on the F1 track in Adelaide. Unfortunately, the circuit failed the inspection from the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA) though it keeps its historical value as the first permanent track in China (The Racing Spot by Pirelli, 2019).
The Chinese organizers moved their focus 1500 km north. In 2002 a deal was reached with F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone for a seven-year commitment to race in Shanghai. The chosen location was in Jiading District, home to the Shanghai automotive factories. The immense project resulted in a remarkable track whose shape recalls the Chinese character shang, as the first half of the word Shanghai which on its own can mean “on”, “high”, or “to ascend”. A nice touch was the paddock facilities, designed as pavilions to resemble the traditional Yu Garden in Shanghai.
This time, the circuit passed the FIA inspection and on 26 September 2004 the first Chinese F1 GP was held. Its first winner was Rubens Barrichello on a legendary Ferrari F2004 and since then the circuit has earned its place in the hearts of many, both inside and outside the paddock. Over the years, the Chinese GP has given us some of the most unforgettable moments in Formula 1 history, such as the first Red Bull win, which foreshadowed the incoming Vettel era in 2009; the heartbreaking pit lane incident, which cost Hamilton his rookie title in 2007; or the tear-jerking final victory of Michael Schumacher in 2006, right after the announcement of his retirement. Not to mention that the track holds the record for the highest number of overtakes during a GP.
Meanwhile, the popularity of F1 in China was rising. In 2018, CCTV became the main free-to-air broadcaster of the sport in the country and the number of viewers more than tripled bringing China in the top 5 countries in terms of television reach (F1, 2019). The huge potential of this market is not lost to Liberty Media, the American company which owns Formula 1. Interviewed by Xinhua, in 2019 Formula 1's Head of Global Sponsorship Murray Barnett said "We would love to have a second race here. […] We can't just be here for the three days of the Shanghai Grand Prix. We need to have a year-round presence here and be much more locally relevant in order to really establish a big fanbase here" (Butterworth,2019).
There is however something else that could help Mr. Barnett’s plan: the Chinese dream of a national hero on the grid. Until now, there has never been a Chinese F1 driver – the closest thing being when Ma Qing Hua, Chinese Formula E driver, took part in an FP1 session during the Grand Prix weekend in Shanghai in 2013. In those years, unknown to many, a young boy by the name of Guanyu Zhou won all of his Chinese junior kart races and caught the attention of that same FE driver. He introduced him to the sport management organization SECA, and soon after young Guanyu Zhou was sent to Europe to pursue a career as a driver.
At 15, he joined the Ferrari Driver Academy and the Italian Formula 4 Prema team. He then moved to Formula 3 gaining his first win in 2017 in Pau, France. Some investors became interested in him and Renault, which has a joint venture with Dongfeng Motor Group and strong ties with China, offered him a spot in the Renault Sport Academy and as a Formula 2 driver for UNI-Virtuosi Racing team. During the 2019 season, Zhou achieved the first Chinese pole position in Silverstone and placed seventh in the championship, receiving the Antoine Hubert Award for the highest-finishing rookie (Saward, 2020).
Everybody knows that Formula 2 is the gate to a potential F1 career. Already serving as Renault Formula 1 Team’s development driver in 2019, at the beginning of 2020 Zhou was promoted to Test Driver, becoming the first Chinese to have a role in a Formula 1 team. Because of his talent and results, and the sponsorships and fans that he brings to the table, many thought that Zhou would receive the seat of Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo, who announced his transfer to McLaren for 2021. But in July 2020 the team announced the comeback of their two-times World Champion Fernando Alonso.
There are still several possibilities left for Guanyu Zhou. Alonso is 39 years old and his contract of 2 years is unlikely to be renewed, leaving the seat open from 2023. The other Renault driver, 24-year-old Esteban Ocon, has a contract until 2021 which is not guaranteed to be extended. Yet another possibility is that Zhou could attract the interest of an altogether different team. This is a less likely alternative since F1 teams usually recruit rookie drivers from their youth programs (or connected ones, such as how the Ferrari Driver Academy can also provide for Alfa Romeo and Haas).
There is yet another possibility that should not be overlooked: what if a new Chinese team were to enter the competition? Back in 2017, Christian Horner, Team Principal of Red Bull Racing Team, announced that several of his employees had been asked to switch companies and join a new Chinese team supposed to enter the competition in the 2018 or 2019 season (Unraced F1, 2017). Since nothing of the sort happened, the project likely failed. But a new project could very well succeed.
F1 is in the middle of a crisis triggered by the complete dominance of Mercedes since the beginning of the hybrid era (the engine regulation changes in 2014). Lack of competition equals races with an often predictable outcome, and the current season has seen Lewis Hamilton and to a lesser extent, his teammate Valtteri Bottas not only finding themselves on the podium of nearly every GP but consistently lapping half of the grid on an alarming number of tracks. A new team could do good for the sport. Some have wondered if SAIC Motor Group or Geely (owner of the historical Lotus brand) could be up to the task. The Chinese economy is strong enough to sustain the huge investments required, it would be very easy to find sponsors, and the Chinese automotive industry is one of the biggest in the world. Not to mention the national prestige that this could bring to the country.
Lastly, it is worth considering the entrance of a Chinese engine manufacturer in F1. Out of all the possibilities explored, this is the least likely to occur for several reasons. First, the Chinese automotive industry, encouraged by the government’s incentives and regulations, is focusing on full electric - while F1 remains committed to hybrid technology and will probably continue on this path even after the regulation changes in 2025 (Rencken, 2019). Secondly, F1 engines are very complex to build and test, especially for a new manufacturer. Another negative factor is the cost: a competitive engine can require an investment of over 1 billion dollars without any guarantee of success (Sylt, 2019).
As Mercedes and Renault have experienced, only providing the engines brings an immense disadvantage: the costs are high while there is no revenue besides the actual purchase from the teams. Liberty Media mentioned the introduction of some contributions for motor manufacturers in their repeated attempts to attract new names in the market, but so far none have come forward. If a Chinese manufacturer is evaluating the possibility, it would be better to wait for regulation changes and then enter in 2026 with their own team to profit from sponsorships and fan revenues.
China has come an incredibly long way in its history with Formula 1. From being a complete outsider to becoming one of the most exciting destinations in the competition, this country has shown it has a lot to say in this motorsport and we can expect to see much more of it. A second Chinese GP, the first-ever F1 Chinese driver on the grid, and perhaps – who knows – even a Chinese team with its own in-house engine. At the moment all of these are simple speculations, and some may even sound impossible. But let us never forget the wise words of Murray Walker: “Anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does.”
Giulia Alessandra Foti is an Italian law student in love with her country, proud to be European, and passionate about anything related to China. She has a degree in Music and will spend hours talking about history and outer space. Huge fan of football and Formula 1. You can find her as Giulia Alessandra Foti on LinkedIn and Facebook or as @giuli_andra on Instagram and Twitter.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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Butterworth, M 2019, ‘Formula 1 to stage second Chinese Grand Prix?’, Xinhua, viewed 01/12/2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/23/c_137768581.htm
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Mann Jim, 1989, ‘Beijing Jeep: A Case Study of Western Business in China’, Westview Press, p. 149
Pirelli, The Racing Spot, 2019, viewed 01/12/2020 Chinese Lanterns, https://racingspot.pirelli.com/global/en-ww/race/chinese-lanterns
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