Today’s confirmation the Chinese Grand Prix will not be reinstated to the 2023 Formula 1 calendar means the world championship will be absent from the country for at least five years.Shanghai International Circuit in 2019 was also the 1,000th round of the world championship. But eight months later, around 800 kilometres west in Wuhan, the first recorded Covid-19 infection took place.
Its effects were, of course, not confined to China, though it was the first country to cancel its round of the world championship as a result of the ensuing pandemic. While many more followed, chiefly those located outside of Europe and the Middle East, all had returned to the schedule by last year with a single exception: China.
At a time when F1’s popularity is rocketing, the series remains unable to visit one of the countries it has identified as a top target for growth. F1 has consistently made it clear it intends to resume racing in China as soon as it can. When will that happen?
Last month, shortly after the first announcement China’s 2023 race would not go ahead, the country hurriedly tore up its ‘zero Covid’ restrictions under which it continued to impose lockdowns in response to outbreaks of the virus. This was prompted by the rare sight of protests criticising the Chinese government and leader Xi Jinping over their handling of the pandemic.
So sudden was China’s U-turn on its Covid policy that some speculated the 2023 grand prix might yet be reinstated. Today’s announcement has put that idea to bed, though it is striking that F1 hasn’t taken the option of replacing the race when it had feasible alternatives.
The scrapping of ‘zero Covid’ in a country where vaccine efficacy rates and uptake are lower than abroad has led to rapid rises in infections and deaths, though by exactly how much is difficult to quantify (a recent report estimated almost two-thirds of the country’s population has the virus). Nonetheless, there will be hopes the race can return in 2024.
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China’s enthusiasm for F1 had grown slowly but steadily from its first world championship race in 2004. Before the race disappeared from the calendar in 2020 there was talk of building on its growing popularity in the country by holding additional rounds in China, as F1 is now doing in the USA, another especially important market.
At the 2019 grand prix, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was among those pushing for a second race in China.
“Certainly I think it’s a big enough place,” he said. “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.”
But FE’s presence in China took a hit even before the pandemic arrived. Its planned 2020 return to Hong Kong – a special administrative region of the country – was scrapped amid rising tensions in the city state between pro-democracy protesters and the Chinese government, leading to widespread unrest.
Multiple races in China remains a goal for some in F1. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown said last April “the dream scenario would be to have at least two races in China and another in Asia in the next five years”.
While F1’s enthusiasm for racing in China appears undimmed, is the feeling mutual? In 2019, the 16th year that F1 had visited China, three-day crowds at the grand prix stood at 160,000. That was only around 40% of capacity at the vast Shanghai circuit, and well short of the record-breaking figures F1 had at many venues last year.
The strong attendance figures at grands prix since 2021 may be partly due to a post-pandemic surge in interest among millions of fans who were unable to watch races in person during the year-and-a-half of events being held behind closed doors while there was lockdowns across the globe and not just in China. But with no Chinese GP for five years how many locals will be clamouring for F1’s return and how many will have forgotten about it?
The good news for F1 is it finally has its first driver from the country: Zhou Guanyu. Unfortunately he has now seen his home event cancelled in both of the years he has been racing in F1. There will be many in F1 hoping another strong season from the Shanghai native will persuade Alfa Romeo to keep him on from a third year and ensure he is on the grid for the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix – if it happens.
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