Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019

Was Shanghai the right place for the 1,000th race?


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By noon on Saturday most folk in the Shanghai paddock had agreed to disagree over whether the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit marked the 1,000th Formula 1 race, and got on with the task of ensuring that the race weekend proper proceeded according to plan.

There were, after all, 26 championship points on offer regardless of any off-track celebrations. And as Max Verstappen said, the 1000th grand prix happens to be the first race after the 999th round…

But there were few (if any) dissenters about two aspects of the event: first, that the Chinese Grand Prix marked the 1,000th world drivers’ championship round, and second, that F1 – and by extension, Liberty Media and SIC – had blown the opportunity.

There are of course, many mitigating circumstances. Not least the race’s distance from Europe, and the associated costs (and red tape) involved in assembling a collection of cars and memorabilia representative of F1’s various eras, from the first round at Silverstone in 1950 to date. The fact many iconic cars and kit from earlier periods are in the firm grip of one Bernard Charles Ecclestone surely made it no easier.

Equally, hosting the celebrations at race three in a set of four flyaways can only have further complicated the logistics and availability of cars, certainly more so than had celebrations been held in Europe. Simply put, the venue does not have the lure of F1’s more iconic events, and the byzantine formalities associated with travelling to Shanghai does nothing to stoke enthusiasm for the race.

Damon Hill, Lotus 49, Shanghai International Circuit
A solitary demo car was driven by 1996 champion Damon Hill
Still, there were three (locally-owned) cars on display. A championship-winning 1993 Williams, a 1997 Stewart and a Kimi Raikkonen-era Lotus which won a single race in 2012. A selection of helmets and trophies were displayed. The only other sops, apart from a celebratory poster handed to the media, were giant 1000 graphics painted onto the paddock surface, a red-carpeted legends walkway and a 1000th grand prix coin.

A fan festival event was held in Shanghai itself but what impact that had was hard to judge from the track, which is about an hour’s drive from the city. Renault used the opportunity to showcase its junior driver Guanyu Zhou, formerly of Ferrari’s Driver Academy, though the event seems to have attracted a modest turnout.

The distinct lack of interest from legendary F1 figures was noticeable. Did the milestone 1,000th event leave them cold? Was it general apathy about Liberty’s running of the sport, particularly as most (if not all) enjoyed some sort of relationship with Ecclestone? Inconvenience and costs of 30-hour return flights to what is arguably the most soulless venue on the trail?

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That said, “soul” does not necessarily equate to length of service on F1’s calendar: Although SIC has been on F1’s calendar for 16 years (now), it doesn’t hold a candle to, say Singapore’s race (12), or Mexico (five this year since its return after an absence of 25 years).

A race and venue has soul or not – just as human’s do (not) have charisma – and, sad to relate but no less true for it despite almost a half a billion dollars spent on this state-of-art venue in the early 2000s, in most books Shanghai is seriously lacking in the ‘soul’ stakes.

True, three world champions besides those competing were present – Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Nico Rosberg – but all were in China on duty: the French four-time champion with Renault, the other two as broadcasters.

F1 drivers and champions, Bahrain, 2010
Drivers and past champions at F1’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2010
1000th race photograph, Mercedes, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019
1000th race photograph, 2019

As for others who joined the current crop of drivers for a celebratory grid photo: Helmut Marko was present as Red Bull consultant, Jos Verstappen as Max’s father/manager, Derek Warwick as FIA driver steward and Esteban Ocon as Mercedes reserve driver, with Marc Gene doing Ferrari/TV duty. Seven others, including grand prix winners (David Coulthard/Johnny Herbert), had TV gigs. Would they have made this particular trip for celebratory purposes? Doubtful…

These factors were, though, known well in advance, yet Liberty ploughed ahead and scheduled ‘#Race1000’ for Shanghai. Forget not that F1’s commercial rights holder constructs the calendar for ratification by the FIA, and thus the host of the third race lay very much in the hands of Liberty.

Given that season-opening and closing races command premium fees, one wonders why Liberty did not hawk the rights to this milestone event amongst race promoters and sell to the highest bidder. If that turned out to be China, well and good, with incremental fees covering the logistics costs, and teams also benefitting.

At one stage there were suggestions that Liberty did not wish to offend the Chinese so kept the 1,000th race Shanghai. However (confirmed) reports emerged during the weekend that Silverstone had been offered the slot, but rejected it.

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This was due to its prior, costly experience of hosting an April British Grand Prix in 2000. Storms lashed the Easter Sunday race, qualifying attracted just 15,000 punters and all car parks were closed on race day. Chaos does not begin to describe the event.

F1 Fans Festival, Shanghai, 2019
A Fans Festival was held in the city
Ross Brawn, Liberty’s Motorsport MD and F1 legend, did not make the trip. Neither did Liberty Media president and CEO Greg Maffei, or John Malone, the chairman and controlling owner of Liberty Media. If Liberty’s biggest wigs could not be bothered to attend the biggest celebration of their biggest single acquisition, why should anybody else bother?

True, over the years there has been a massive improvement in spectator numbers in Shanghai. There was a time when young men, dressed in identical gear, arrived in hordes by strangely drab buses shortly before the start. But considering China has a total population of almost 1.4 billion, 40 million of which live in Shanghai’s metropolitan area, race day crowds of around 80,000 are nothing to shout about.

Although the words ‘sold-out’ were variously heard – including from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff – the fact is the circuit has a capacity of 200,000. Whole grandstands are routinely converted into giant advertising hoardings. The main stand was packed, but general admission areas were sparsely populated, while the stands around the back were less than half full.

FOM reported a three-day crowd of 160,000, so in real terms SIC operated at 40 per cent to capacity. To put these numbers in perspective, Spain (population 50m), admittedly with a local hero but facing stern competition from F1 races in close proximity, pulls equivalent three-day crowds, yet the population of nearby Barcelona is just five million.

Nonetheless Wolff suggested that China should consider a second race: “I think we’ve achieved the first step. This is to have a sell-out crowd in Shanghai. And, certainly I think it’s a big enough place. Formula E is having two races in China: One in Sanya and one in Hong Kong. Why not go to Hong Kong race downtown or go to Beijing? I would love that.”

Daniel Ricciardo, Renault, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019
Shanghai struggles to fill its vast grandstands
In fact, RaceFans understands that on Sunday, during a meeting between F1 CEO Chase Carey and team bosses, progress reports were given on a Dutch round – progress is being made, but nothing signed yet – while the chances of a second Chinese round, preferable a street race, were tabled.

Surely the trick is to ensure one event does the business before charming another promoter into a race? It’s a similar case in the USA: Austin’s US Grand Prix struggles to survive, yet F1 is desperate to stage races in Miami and elsewhere. Would it not be better to concentrate on sustainable races than chase calendar slots?

The make-up of the Chinese motor market – the world’s biggest – provides another lesson. It peaked at almost 25m units in 2016 before shrinking by around 15 per cent. In 2018 the best-selling brand was Volkswagen (3m units), with GM brands Buick/Chevrolet in second place and Honda third, albeit both with less than half VW’s sales. Volvo owner Geely was fourth.

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In the luxury segment Audi, BMW and Mercedes level-pegged at 600,000 each. Of the eight brands mentioned, only two are in F1. Renault, 51st on the list, battles to move just 50,000 cars per year and is comprehensively outsold by local brands.

1000th race car A Bathing Ape promo, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019
The 1000th race featured a fashion label tie-in…
Ferrari sold around 700 cars last year across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, so no big shakes given Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a combined population around a third as much yields five times as many sales, and the US market is worth 2,800 units. F1 appears to have little influence on car purchase decisions, particularly as Lamborghini is closing in.

“I think China is the largest market for us,” said Wolff, although the latest statistics indicate that the EU Common Market is 25 per cent larger.

“[China] is a great place, and to see all the major brands, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], the ones that participate in Formula 1, will use, will activate much more in China than they used to do in the past, and I think it’s good because we’re activating Formula 1, and we’re activating for everybody.”

It would be a real coup for F1 to ‘activate’ a Chinese OEM, but here F1’s foray to Korea in 2010-13 provides a lesson. At the time Hyundai/KIA ranked amongst the auto industry’s fastest-growing mainstream brands, so it seemed sensible to woo them to F1 via a grand prix, particularly one situated within an hour’s drive of Gwangju, home to one of Hyundai/KIA’s largest assembly plants.

Yet, almost a decade on, the company, now the world’s fifth-largest car conglomerate, is no closer to entering F1 than it was back in Ecclestone’s heyday. Indeed, with the company’s subsequent shift to electrification and alternate fuel cells, a case could be made the chances are diminishing by the year.

Furthermore, China’s fastest-growing auto segments are SUVs and ‘New Energy Vehicles’, i.e. full electric and plug-in hybrids. At this week’s Shanghai Motor Show executives predicted the NEV segment, currently representing less than one per cent of sales, will grow to 25 per cent by 2025. Municipalities offer massive subsidies on NEVs and provide free parking.

Marin Aleksov, Chase Carey, 1,000th race commemorative coin presentation, 2019
…and a commemorative coin was produced
Introducing Sunday’s race on Sky, Simon Lazenby opined that he had “Never seen so many CEOs from car companies at one race.” On the surface that is gratifying, but how many CEOs had made the journey to attend the 1,000th grand prix, and how many happened to be in Shanghai for the motor show and made a diversion?

Does China warrant a slot on the F1 calendar? Absolutely, as much as – but no more than – any of the other 20 hosts.

China has had 16 shots at establishing itself as grand prix host and remains wanting, particularly with regard to its tortuous visa regimes and archaic communication regulations, neither of which are up to 21st century global standards. Such issues need to be sorted before China is granted a second race. For too long now we have heard little more than excuses followed by: “Yes, yes, yes, next year…

Having counted up to the 1,000th race since last year, the event proved a damp squib. The obviously limited appetite for F1 in the area, 15 years since holding its first race, contributed as much to the let-down as did a lack of imagination on the part of Liberty and the teams. It seemed everyone went through a ‘1000’ motions, but did little more to ensure fitting celebrations.

For its 1000th event the WDC and F1 deserved better than a quick paint job on the paddock surface and a celebratory coin. If the ‘1000th F1 race’ meant so little to Liberty and China, adding another is unlikely to make a difference.

The sport should consider that before rushing to add a second Chinese Grand Prix. If there is a lesson to be learned from last weekend it is that Liberty needs to grow the sport of F1 in China organically, rather than through sheer weight of races.


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42 comments on “Was Shanghai the right place for the 1,000th race?”

  1. I’m amazed to see how little things went on. No cars from the past, almost no previous world champions… It’s incredible to think how disappointing it was given they have been promoting race 1000 for a year.

    I get that Silverstone didn’t want to host a race in April, but there are far better places that could have hosted the event and be a better place than Shanghai. Monza, Montmeló and Paul Ricard if you want to host the race in Europe, as the weather is rather good in April.

    And if you don’t want to move plenty of dates around, a date swap between China and Bahrain (like in 2017) wouldn’t have been a bad idea given the Middle East is much closer to Europe than China. Even F2 can do the journey, and I’m sure BIC would’ve done a much better job than SIC promoting the event

    1. No cars from the past

      Well, there was one ….

    2. @ofitus21 Maybe, but Shanghai is a bit too cool for F1’s liking in late-March in which the race would’ve taken place had the dates of it and Bahrain been swapped for this season. The further into the spring a race in the climate zone of Shanghai (and Suzuka for that matter as well, since their climates are similar to each other,) the better, in fact, the previous September and October slots were better for Shanghai temperature-wise, as September and October are generally warmer than April not only there, but in many other places of the Northern Hemisphere as well. Yes, the daytime temperatures in both Le Castellet and Monza are decent in mid-April as well, but shuffling the race calendar a lot just for one season only to then reshuffle everything for the following season wouldn’t really be worth it. In the end, I never saw the point in making a fuss of China hosting the 1000th WC event of F1 in the first place. It never was that relevant which country would host it, so people should’ve just let it be.

  2. Answering the article’s question – No, it was not the right place.

    But we see again and again, that Liberty doesn’t care about making “right” decisions, and only decide what they see as feasible or beneficial to do. totally disregarding fans, teams and everyone else.

    Most probably China just offered them such a huge amount of money and personal “gifts”, that they felt dumb not to agree.

    If they were really considering staging a proper 1000th race not for themselves, but for fans, they could have postponed a season, made a larger gap between races, and chose some proper venue.
    They didn’t, so there’s nothing really to say about this.

    Better to start packing good memories and be ready to abandon F1 in 2021, when they destroy it completely.

    1. The biggest problem Liberty has, I think, is who they care about most are those don’t watch F1! They want to make more money, ok, it’s pretty fair. But there should be some races on calendar is make to please the true fans.

  3. Definitely not, lackluster race all the way from start to finish. From Friday to Sunday, from polesitter to race winner.

  4. Spa’s weather prediction for this Sunday 22C, sounds like perfect weather and a perfect track with “soul”…

    1. @ju512 That’s most likely just an exception to the rule, though. The Northern Hemisphere summer months, in general, are the only suitable months for most of the European venues especially the likes of Spa, Silverstone, Red Bull Ring, and Hockenheim temperature-wise.

      1. @jerejj True, hard to predict weather that far out, I think Spa is such an awesome track, it would’ve been a fitting venue.

      2. @jerejj, it’s a huge exception to the rule – the normal daytime temperature in Spa in April is usually closer to about 10-12ºC, not to mention that the rainfall is still fairly high at this time of year.

        As you say, the weather conditions are usually a lot less favourable – in fact, I believe that the weather conditions that would have hit Spa last weekend were especially bad. Bear in mind that the Nurburgring is barely 90km to the east of Spa-Francorchamps, and the Nurburgring was having to cancel races because of heavy snow at the same time that they were holding the Chinese GP – it would be rather embarrassing if you’d made a big show of the 1,000th race, only for it to be snowed off.

  5. I think it would have been more fitting to have the 1000th grand prix at one of the tracks that was raced at in the first season, maybe even at the first track – Silverstone.

    1. It would have had the advantage of actually meaning something. Always useful when you want to promote stuff.

    2. @gardenfella72 As pointed out in the article already: April isn’t a suitable month to race in Silverstone purely for climatic-reasons ICYMI.

  6. They should probably have given it to. Monza seeing that it has been on the calendar since the beginning and has been there every year

    1. and has been there every year

      Don’t forget about 1980…

      1. Got my quote in the wrong place…point still stands.

    2. Monza was already booked.

      And the weather at Monza last weekend was also pretty bad.

      1. Well, what better than a wet race for the 1000th gp, especially at monza, where you can overtake?

  7. Just another reason why modern F1 is failing. As others have stated, they promoted this event for a full year before, and now its come and gone and no one will remember a damn thing about it, except that it was a dull race. It should at the very bare minimum, have been held at a European track, big enough to hold plenty of fans. It should have started on the Wednesday before the race and had vintage events and all kinds of things to promote the sport to both veteran and and POTENTIAL NEW FANS!
    But I’m sure that commemorative coin looks good sitting in Chase Carey’s desk.

    1. @careypatrick Almost all of the European venues are too cool for F1 in April, and even the ones in the Mediterranean climate zone can still be on the borderline of the ideal ambient temperatures.

  8. Maybe they’ll do it properly when it’s the 1000th actual F1 race…

    1. Thomas Bennett (@felipemassadobrasil)
      17th April 2019, 19:39

      Yes, it would be lucky if that happened to be at Monza wouldn’t it?

  9. As I have said before Liberty have no interest in F1 other than to make money. They will promote F1 as long as it benefits Liberty media and its share holders. in a couple of yrs they will be just as passionate about iRacing, drone racing or strip poker…what ever the current trend is.
    China is potentially the biggest market there is for all things at the moment, so it’s not hard to see why China was given the 1,000 race.
    But Eccolstone was no better in the end was he?

  10. It certainly looks like an opportunity lost, especially since F1 seemed to be focused on the 1000th race for some time, as already noted above by @ofitus21. Maybe 1000th World Championship Grand Prix could be another chance to capitalize on for F1 marketing and outreach…it comes at Monza, so there is plenty of time to prepare and do it right.

    1. @gpfacts The 1000th ‘overall’ F1 race according to an earlier article (an article posted here back in either February or earlier in March) on this very site is going to be the 8th round of the 2020 season, though.

      1. This debate is all about how picky one wants to be with words. China certainly was the 1000th World Championship race, and Monza will be the 1000th WC Grand Prix. Now, for sake of the argument that in 1952 and 1953 the WC was held for Formula 2, the 8th race in 2020 was quoted as the 1000th WC Formula 1 race. Maybe (one could argue that 1961-1965 cars also were F2) but it for sure won’t be 1000th overall F1 race! Formula 1 cars were racing since 1948 (1946 if Formula A is included) and in many non-Championship races, including during 1952. Not that it is all that important… :-)

  11. It was a non-event to me – my own starting point of indifference only compounded by how utterly ordinary everything about the weekend appeared. The only significant thing I really noticed was the poor commentators having to try to flog it as something meaningful, when everything their cameras were picking up disagreed with them.

    The whole thing struck me as being a bit, “What we plan to do when we’re drunk vs what we actually do”… like Carey, Brawn and Maffei got wrecked one night last year, confidently decided it was going to be awesome and special, rang everyone and told them, then woke up the next day and regretted it.

    1. robinsonf1 (@)
      17th April 2019, 16:15

      ^this lol

    2. LOL at that final paragraph 😁

  12. All points well taken.
    However what about contractual agreements of the involved venues and other events already planned.
    Also, for exclusive circuits such as Monaco, Gilles Villeneuve, ect. modifying their dates alters the entire calendar.
    The key here is binding contracts, perhaps liberty hands were tied. F1 is a global brand, all I’ve read is to keep it European base which is understandable, but how about other fans around the world that support and follow the sport, is it alright to ignore them, perhaps these were all things liberty looked it. F1 history is rich and does not change because 1,000 GP was in China.

  13. Electroball76
    17th April 2019, 16:32

    That spotty pink car sums it up nicely. Style over substance. And the style is questionable!
    Tbh though I haven’t even watched 4 out of the last 5 races, it just hasn’t seemed worth the effort.

  14. Lenny (@leonardodicappucino)
    17th April 2019, 17:22

    A quick google search turned out that the two F1 venues that have held to most races in the world championship, and two of the ones with the most ‘soul’, Monaco and Monza, both have decent temperatures at this time of year, 17 and 18 degrees on average respectively. Those would’ve made excellent locations for a 1000th world championship round

    1. @leonardodicappucino The weather in Monza last weekend was pretty bad & the circuit was also already booked.

      And Monaco wasn’t possible as the circuit needs to be built around the usual dates, Especially now because of the Formula E or Historic races that take place a week before the F1. I also believe there are agreements in place with local businesses, residents & other authorities dictating what weeks are available for it to be used.

  15. joe pineapples
    17th April 2019, 19:27

    LOL at that official 1000th race photograph, 2019. If anything sums it up, its that lot of disinterested folk. The more I look at, the more I question whether that was the final photograph used. Half of them aren’t even looking forward. Maybe the photographer should have shouted ‘paycheck’.

  16. Simple answer: No! Demonstrated by lack of associated events, lack of support even from the teams as they chose not to bring vintage cars, etc. Lived in China for 4 years, went to the race there twice – the cameras do not do justice at the huge number of empty seats.

  17. Why bother? F1 is dying…

  18. I was about to answer ‘no’, but the article change my mind.

  19. The thing to consider is that there are pre-arranged agreements in place which go into where races fall on the calender. Additionally what the weather is expected to be like as well as other local events are also taken into consideration not to mention other series which may have also asked for a specific date.

    You can’t just say race 1,000 will fall here so we’ll race there. When formulating the calender there are many things that are considered & these things are why the calender has traditionally been setup a certain way as they try & chase the expected best conditions in each region while as best they can avoiding local events & other categories.

    It’s the same with any series which is why you see certain circuits at the same spot in the various calenders for many years.

    1. @gt-racer I couldn’t agree more with you. People always seem to forget all of the potential aspects that have to be and indeed are taken into account when forming a race calendar for any given season. It’d just get too messy and complicated if the schedule were shuffled a lot for one season then only to reshuffle it for the following season, so not really worth to bother.

      1. For the record: since 2004 the Chinese Grand Prix has variously been the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 3rd-last, 2nd-last and last round of the championship.

        All it didn’t need to be this year is the 3rd round.

  20. Frankly I could never see it being any different than the damp sqib that it was.

    Yes this year we’re reaching the 1000 so if Liberty really wanted to generat interest, it should have flooded the media with all sorts of 1000 race “teasers” and features.

    Perhaps a Netflix special series with historical feature race footage run over the week leading up to it. Even a repeat of its series run at the beginning of the year.
    Flood YouTube with the same sort of thing – even offer it up to FTA broadcasters.

    It wouldn’t have mattered where they held the race – punters at the track are there for the race. What they needed was a big push to people who weren’t there but might have had their interest piqued enough to watch it or go to a race when F1 reaches their country.

    For all their marketing “expertise” there seems to be a general failure in understanding some pretty basic fundamentals. If you have a special event coming up, you need to make sure everyone knows about it and is motivated enough to take an interest. They may have gotten some way in the first part but failed dismally for the second.

  21. The obvious answer to the question is no. I think they did have a difficult choice though as others have aluded to. Would it really have been worth a major disruption of the calendar.

    What is of more concern is the idea of second races both in China and the U.S. Then there is the race in Vietnam, possibly one in the Netherlands, and also talk of Malaysia returning. All this is going to put added pressure on everyone but also on the older traditional races that are scraping by financially e,g. Silverstone, Germany, Italy, etc.

    It will be very interesting to see if Liberty are going to stick by their promises to maintain long standing, historic events or whether these will be left to wither when there’s big money to be made elsewhere.

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