Drivers parade, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019

How serious a setback is F1’s five-year absence for its growth in China?

2023 F1 season

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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.

The last F1 race at the 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?

Shanghai held F1’s first Chinese round in 2004
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.

Zhou must wait for first home race
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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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 29 comments on “How serious a setback is F1’s five-year absence for its growth in China?”

    1. Chinese GP not getting substituted isn’t necessarily striking anymore since Russian GP cancellation didn’t get filled either both of which mean that F1 has a lower incentive to replace cancelled events than in 2020 & ’21 for the sake of filling.

    2. The track was pretty great, but Im glad that F1 isnt going back. Its human rights record is worse than middle eastern countries.

      1. True (about China as a state), but I don’t like excluding the people. Unlike those gulf countries, there are actual racing fans in China (there’s got to be, among 1.4 billion people) and if they want a race, I’d like them to have a race (who the heck am I to say otherwise). At the same time, the race should be used as a conversation starter about said human rights and other evil things that happen there (like a genocide, no less). After all, USA will have three races, and they are constantly and simultaneously involved in wars for decades; which is a bad, bad thing itself.

        Reply moderated
    3. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      17th January 2023, 17:40

      As for human rights I wouldn’t go to any in the Fund for Peace’s top 50.

      Human Rights Rankings

      But then I notice Brazil!

      Not so easy.

    4. i woudl rather F1 race in saudi than in china!

    5. José Lopes da Silva
      17th January 2023, 20:08

      Geopolitics might have a say in the future of the Chinese GP. The future is clouded and the coming European tour or Mr Jinping is not enough to clean those clouds. Let’s hope it’s just that, clouds

    6. Outside of a couple fun moments like 2012 or Riccardo’s win there I don’t remember ever loving the Chinese GP. I don’t think I’ll miss that race and the Chinese fans don’t seem too excited about it either.

    7. F1 shouldn’t mess with its European DNA, just to go to backward countries like China, Russia, India, etc. for the sake of dollars.

    8. Never had an interest in this smoggy circuit. I won’t miss it if it never returns.

      Reply moderated
    9. Coventry Climax
      18th January 2023, 0:42

      Given that western economies are waking up, finally, and that there is the tendency to jointly try and keep intellectual property from being stolen -and/or used for military purposes- by China, my answer to that question would be: Who cares?
      Surely not the Chinese themselves, as they hardly have a motorracing history anyway.

      Ofcourse, there will be people saying the dialogue must be kept going. Which is convenient for China, but will not increase China’s input into that dialogue to above the zero it is now.
      Or there’s those like Infantilo, who’ll say a horrid human rights situation is OK, because we too had that, couple of hundred years ago. Forgetting, for the sake of his wallet, that there’s something like gaining an insight.
      Or the FIA themselves: No political statements allowed. Without defining where politics start and end.

      Stop going to these countries.

      1. Stop going to these countries.

        Which countries, though? How do you decide who are the ‘good guys’ and who aren’t? Which metric do you use?
        China isn’t necessarily the worst place F1 goes to, anyway… One of the other (subjectively) worst places will have 3 GP’s this year, while another one contains most of the team bases and one of the longest-standing GP events and loads of history….

        General history, experience and psychology regularly shows that ostracising people because they are different just encourages them to be even more anti-social.
        Political behaviour is just an extension of human behaviour, after all.

        It’s important to have diversity in all things, especially a World Championship sporting-themed series such as F1. Inclusiveness is what people say they want, so kicking people out is hardly in keeping with current (modern western) values, is it.

        1. some racing fan
          18th January 2023, 2:13

          Which countries, though? How do you decide who are the ‘good guys’ and who aren’t? Which metric do you use?
          China isn’t necessarily the worst place F1 goes to, anyway… One of the other (subjectively) worst places will have 3 GP’s this year, while another one contains most of the team bases and one of the longest-standing GP events and loads of history….

          That is one of the most dishonest assessments I’ve ever seen of this topic. You know what metrics should be used first and foremost? 1. The country’s current (key word: current) human rights records within it’s own borders, 2. social and political stability and 3. whether it has the means or the infrastructure to support such an event.

          China is certainly down there with the worst countries F1 visits. The worst is probably Saudi Arabia, but Bahrain, Azerbaijan, the Emirates and Qatar are certainly among that ilk.

          So by your logic, not a single country in the world other than Canada, Iceland or Sweden is fit to host an F1 GP? The United States’s human rights record is not great- but it quite simply does not compare to China’s or any of the Middle Eastern countries it visits, which are atrocious. And all 6 of those countries I listed- those human rights abuses continue unabated today. The UK, France, Belgium and Portugal’s histories on colonization are of course filled with tragedy and sadness but that kind of thing does not continue today. None of those countries and the United States perpetrate human rights abuses on the scale they used to centuries ago.

          I know that if you had to pick only between going to the Saudi GP and a GP in the USA, you would pick going to a GP in the USA.

          General history, experience and psychology regularly shows that ostracising people because they are different just encourages them to be even more anti-social.
          Political behaviour is just an extension of human behaviour, after all

          Yeah but some things are out of their control. Ostracizing (I’m American, get over it) people sometimes comes with the territory if their ruling government’s conduct within their borders costs human lives and is not indictative of a developed nation’s conduct. But quite honestly we are sophisticated a species enough these days where we can see through government manipulation of nationalism and people as representative of their countries and culture, not the corrupt and authoritarian governments that rule their countries. It’s like having near-terminal cancer and expecting someone to be healthy enough to function normally. It’s too big a problem to overlook.

          It’s important to have diversity in all things, especially a World Championship sporting-themed series such as F1. Inclusiveness is what people say they want, so kicking people out is hardly in keeping with current (modern western) values, is it.

          Sure, I agree. Eastern countries like Japan and Singapore, with their developed statuses and their good human rights records are in the clear. But inclusiveness is honestly irrelevant when it comes to human rights records.

          1. some racing fan
            18th January 2023, 2:14

            *China is certainly down there with countries with the worst governments F1 visits

          2. Not dishonest at all.

            China is certainly down there with the worst countries F1 visits.

            By certain metrics, depending on each individual’s own values and beliefs, of course.

            So by your logic, not a single country in the world other than Canada, Iceland or Sweden is fit to host an F1 GP?

            I didn’t say that – but it depends entirely on the viewer’s opinion, doesn’t it.
            I could say, however, that determining who is eligible to host an F1 event has nothing to do with the internal politics of each country. By extension, I would be arguing that every country is eligible – which is proven to be the case.
            F1 isn’t a competition to see who is morally superior, nor is its event selection process.

            I know that if you had to pick only between going to the Saudi GP and a GP in the USA, you would pick going to a GP in the USA.

            Me personally?
            Yes, I would pick the US for a car race – but I would choose it because of its geography, climate and range of options for motorsport, and not at all because of its internal politics, values or history.

            Ostracizing (I’m American, get over it) people sometimes comes with the territory

            Not it doesn’t. It’s not inherent – it’s a deliberate choice, made by individual humans, usually under the protection of their group (in this case, a government with all its defences and corporate hierarchy which removes individual responsibility and consequences).
            What happened to treating people not just with respect, but the way you wish them to treat you?
            Someone has to do that first…. Even the most ‘developed nations’ aren’t even capable of it.

            But quite honestly we are sophisticated a species enough these days where we can see through government manipulation of nationalism and people as representative of their countries and culture, not the corrupt and authoritarian governments that rule their countries.

            I don’t think that everyone is that sophisticated, and evidence backs that up.
            I’d go even further to suggest that humans generally, particularly when in groups, are not very clever at all.

            Eastern countries like Japan and Singapore, with their developed statuses and their good human rights records are in the clear.

            Japan’s human rights record? Are you sure?
            Since WW2, perhaps… But then, they vowed at that time never to fight anyone outside of their own territory.
            It’d be really great if other countries made the same decision….

          3. 1. The country’s current (key word: current) human rights records within it’s own borders,

            You must be American or Russian if you think that a country’s human rights record should only apply within it’s own borders.
            It’s OK to bomb, kill and foreigners, is it?

            1. some racing fan
              19th January 2023, 1:27

              I don’t speak for previous administrations in my country. The Bush administration and the Iraq War was one I personally was vehemently against. That administration spoke for only about 35 percent of the population (yes, that much).

            2. I don’t speak for previous administrations in my country.

              Is that an admission that you have the authority to speak publicly for the current one?

          4. Coventry Climax
            19th January 2023, 1:47

            Thank you for that response. Personally though, I don’t think I’ll bother to reply to S anymore.

            1. Ah well. Your loss.

    10. I doubt that F1 itself is all that concerned while attendances and viewership is on the rise elsewhere.

      Manufacturers however, given that China is such a large market, are probably a little miffed. It will be them not F1 that will push to keep the series at a location(s) in China. Even though it’s no longer a case of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, F1 still provides an opportunity to keep marque brands high profile.

    11. some racing fan
      18th January 2023, 1:49

      Who cares? I’m only commenting because I’m astonished RaceFans is even writing an article about it. The Chinese market is insignificant with that country’s human rights record.

      1. The Chinese market is huge, regardless of their human rights record.

        1. some racing fan
          18th January 2023, 2:15

          So money is more important to you than human rights? OK, got it.

          1. To me? No it isn’t.
            But to large corporations who invest in F1? Yes, it is.

            1. some racing fan
              19th January 2023, 1:20

              Obviously. So please clarify who you speak for next time.

            2. The Chinese market is huge, regardless of their human rights record.

              Is a factual statement – not a personal opinion.

      2. Coventry Climax
        19th January 2023, 2:04

        The size of the chinese market is not even an issue. The issue is, that anything you export to china, is copied with the next step being the original manufacturer denied the market and robbed of it’s intellectual property. Whether it’s paperclips or chipmaking machines. Given that China’s behaviour is one of being enemies rather than friends, it’s not the state you want to export your knowledge to. Same as russia, belarus, north korea, turkey (russia’s nato spy state), and -unfortunately- many others.
        I personally don’t care what color the flower, or which side of the field it picks to grow on. I’m also willing to allow for an unequal amount of speaker time, but in the end, any conversation has to come from both sides. Currently, that is not the case. Unless you buy all the croc ofcourse.

        1. The issue is, that anything you export to china, is copied with the next step being the original manufacturer denied the market and robbed of it’s intellectual property.

          That’s not true at all.
          ‘The market’ is free for everyone to participate in, and it’s really competitive. Apart from anything else, Chinese law doesn’t completely exclude copying, reverse engineering or re-manufacturing as legal processes.
          It’s really no different than 2 Western companies who participate in the same market space, influencing and competing with each other. Do you feel the same way when one bakery makes a fruit bun, and then another one ‘copies’ it?
          F1 celebrates their long history of copying, but you don’t seem so concerned about that – is that because none of the teams are Chinese?

          Given that China’s behaviour is one of being enemies rather than friends

          Given that most Western countries treat China as the enemy by default, it’s hardly surprising that China reciprocates.
          The best way to make a friend is to treat them like one.

          I personally don’t care what color the flower, or which side of the field it picks to grow on.

          Provided that it’s not a Chinese copy of a Western flower…..

          but in the end, any conversation has to come from both sides.

          Do you spend much time actually listening to China? Try to understand their side of the story? See things from their perspective?
          All do you just buy all the (Western) crock?

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