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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
High price takes shine off F1
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor

Rubens Barrichello of Ferrari leads McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen in the Chinese Grand Prix
F1 put on a great race at China's spectacular new track
Organisers of China's inaugural Grand Prix have been warned to make the event less expensive if Formula One is to take off in the country.

Local fans complained that tickets were too expensive, taking the shine off a fascinating race at Shanghai's lavish new 3.4-mile track.

Despite claims that the event was a sell-out, there were empty seats in the stands at Sunday's race.

But the circuit's manager said the race was a "fantastic advert for Shanghai".

Mao Xiaohan said the Grand Prix would have only positive consequences for China's business capital and richest city.

F1 personnel were also lavish in their praise of an event that they said had set a new standard for tracks around the world.

Team owner Eddie Jordan said: "It's one of the slickest and most professional efforts you will find, and the welcome and happiness of the people here is a compliment to this fabulous new event on the calendar."

The Jordan team's engine covers carried a greeting to F1's newest hosts
The Chinese event is of massive importance to F1
The Chinese Grand Prix is of enormous importance to F1.

The sport is going through something of a financial crisis and the opening up of a market of 1.3bn people offers the hope of a vast new well of money for a sport that devours it in voracious fashion.

In its current state, F1 cannot afford to get its foray into the Chinese market wrong.

The decision by US car giant Ford to sell its Jaguar F1 team and Cosworth engine supply company has opened up the possibility that three of the sport's 10 teams will close their doors over the winter.

China's decision to give F1 an exemption from its tobacco advertising ban allows the five teams sponsored by cigarette companies to continue to benefit from their rich revenue source - while 350m smokers in the country make the race a rare opportunity for the tobacco giants.

And the growing enthusiasm for cars in a land where the bicycle has traditionally been king is a big draw for the motor manufacturers.

None of this will be any good, though, if the Chinese people do not take F1 to their hearts.

Chinese fans wave a Ferrari flag at the country's inaugural Grand Prix
The Chinese fans were enthusiastic, but thought F1 very costly
The 200,000-capacity stadium was not quite the claimed sell-out - empty spaces were dotted around the huge grandstands and tickets were still available outside the track on race morning.

People trying to off-load tickets given to them for free by their work forced down the price of the cheapest from 370 yuan (25), or a week's wages for the average worker, to a more affordable 200 yuan (13).

Tickets for the race were officially priced as high as 3,700 yuan (248) - about five months' salary for urban Chinese.

And F1 merchandise in shops around the city was selling at prices equivalent to those in the West, with a Michael Schumacher baseball cap costing 350 yuan.

F1 will have to learn from this if it is not to lose friends. The Chinese fans were enthusiastic, but did not appreciate the high costs.

"Expensive affair, locals moan," ran one headline in the Shanghai Daily on Monday.

"Everybody is stealing from my wallet," said one spectator quoted by the paper. Another made the age-old complaint that F1 is too distant from its fans.

Max Mosley - the president of the sport's governing body, the FIA - said that high costs could hurt the development of motorsport in China.

The Jaguar of Christian Klien at the Chinese Grand Prix
Ford's decision to sell its Jaguar team has highlighted F1's crisis
He also said the emergence of a Chinese driver was needed to capture the public's imagination.

Chinese officials recognise the need for a Chinese face in the cockpit of an F1 car, but it appears to be a long way off even though McLaren and Williams gave Chinese drivers test drives earlier this year.

Shanghai lavished money on hosting the race, and questions have been raised about how the new 166m circuit will cover its costs for the rest of the year.

"We do not expect to make a profit for three years. It may take nearly 10 years to cover the investment costs," admitted Yu Zhifei, the circuit's deputy general manager.

Both the Chinese and F1, though, can take heart. In one of the most boring years in F1 history, in which Michael Schumacher has won 12 of the 16 races so far, China's new track produced a race of rare excitement.

The course has been criticised for being too technical, but it provided plenty of overtaking opportunities.

And Ferrari's race-winner Rubens Barrichello, BAR's Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren staged a battle that gripped the attention from start to finish, a powerful advert for the sport for those who could afford to watch.

When another Schumacher demonstration run was in prospect, F1 and the Chinese organisers must be grateful for that. But they will clearly have to try harder if they are not to undo all that good work.

Schumi shrugs off troubles
26 Sep 04  |  Formula One
Villeneuve remains upbeat
26 Sep 04  |  Formula One
Button rues poor start
26 Sep 04  |  Formula One
China track lauded by F1
24 Sep 04  |  Formula One
Cash fears worry Mosley
24 Sep 04  |  Formula One

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