Will Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen win the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix? Probably not. For, although McLaren has a mighty fine track record at the Shanghai International Circuit, the first three grands prix of the 2014 season have shown us that, in terms of raw pace, their McLaren MP4-29s are still slightly lacking when it comes to mustering the ability to mix it with the very fastest cars, namely the two Mercedes F1W05s, driven by Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, the man who most recently won a drivers’ world championship at the wheel of a McLaren Formula 1 car.
Nonetheless, Jenson and Kevin – or Jens and Kev, as McLarenites tend to refer to them – enjoyed an auspicious start to 2014. They finished third and fourth on the road in Australia, later promoted to second and third after the demotion of Red Bull’s second-placed Daniel Ricciardo for what the FIA stewards soon determined was a technical infringement – and the performance of Kev in particular was widely and rightly hailed as a truly fantastic Formula 1 debut.
Not since Lewis’s Formula 1 baptism, also in Australia but seven years before, has a Formula 1 debutant finished as high as third on the road – and not since Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula 1 debut, also in Australia but fully 18 years ago, has a Formula 1 debutant been classified as high as second once the referees’ deliberations had been made and the official classifications issued.
As I say, McLaren has a mighty fine track record in Shanghai. The Chinese Grand Prix is only 10 years old – it first took place in 2004 – and since then the Woking lads have triumphed three times (2008, 2010 and 2011).
In 2008 Lewis achieved the triple crown or grand slam – win, pole, fastest lap – and went on to become world champion later that year.
In 2010 it was Jenson’s turn to win, but Lewis followed him home, meaning that the two McLarens finished first and second that day.
And in 2011 Lewis won again, with Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber second and third, while Jenson finished fourth in the other McLaren.
For all the drivers, the Chinese Grand Prix is just another race – an opportunity to drive well, to score points, for some of them even to win. Yet the Formula 1 circus’s presence in Asia, and in the People’s Republic of China in particular, also brings huge commercial and promotional benefits that the teams’ commercial directors and their sponsors are very anxious to capitalise (communise?!) on.
Seasoned insiders have seen it all before, however. Nearly 40 years ago the Far East had already become a much-touted growth area – and, ever since McLaren’s James Hunt had dramatically clinched the drivers’ world championship in torrential rain at Fuji way back in 1976, the year of the first ever Japanese Grand Prix, Formula 1’s marketing whizzes have tended to look east rather than west when in urgent search of wonga.
Even so, until we first saw it in 2004, none of us had bargained for the ambition and grandeur of the Chinese Grand Prix project. Indeed, many of us had disbelieved the rumour that the circuit had cost US$240 million to build; when we arrived, however, we no longer doubted it; it was that impressive.
First of all, it was built on marshland – which presented huge civil engineering issues to be overcome before the first spade had even been embedded in the first soil. But the scale of the project – with its twin nine-storey pit buildings, its spectacular 29,000-seat main grandstand, and its ornate and opulent paddock pavilions – was bigger than anything previously seen in Formula 1. Circuit designer Hermann Tilke described it as “a race circuit for the new millennium”; I remember thinking that we might have to wait another 1000 years to see its like ever again.
Is it a great racetrack? Not quite; I’d say “good but not great”. Its 3.387-mile (5.451km) asphalt encompasses an eclectic mix of corners and one very long straight, the longest in Formula 1 in fact, at the end of which lies the best overtaking point of the lap.
Turns One and 13 are particularly demanding on man and machine. The cars enter Turn One at 185mph (298km/h) then scrub off more than 140mph (225km/h) while turning right through 180 degrees towards a blind apex. Turn 13 is an 180-degree right-hander that opens up towards a fast-ish exit as the cars accelerate all the way through it.
If the race lacks something, it’s a local driver. If one of the 22 hotshots who are now preparing to descend on Shanghai were Chinese, and better still if he (or she?) were an ace with a decent chance of winning the race, make no mistake: Formula 1 would rapidly be becoming a national obsession in the People’s Republic.
You don’t believe me? Okay, well, it’s happening as I write to a rather slower and more genteel sport, namely snooker. The world snooker championship, beginning on the day of FP3 and Qualifying in China, was first played in 1927, in Birmingham, and it’s been played in the UK almost ever since – in Nottingham, London, Chesterfield, Blackpool, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton and, since 1977, in Sheffield. Apart from those fine British cities, it’s been played twice in South Africa and twice in Australia. But that’s it. For most of its history, snooker was a game played in the UK by Brits and in the Empire by ex-pat Brits, especially in South Africa and Australia, where local lads soon learned the secrets of the green baize themselves.
Even so, in the sport’s long history, all but three winners of the annual world snooker championship have been born in the British Isles: the exceptions are Horace Lindrum (Australia) in 1952, Cliff Thorburn (Canada) in 1980 and Neil Roberston (Australia) in 2010.
In recent years, though, Chinese players have begun to win tournaments on an increasingly regular basis, spearheaded by the skilled but taciturn Ding Junhui. Only 27, and already ranked number-three in the world, Ding has so far won 11 ranking tournaments (the snooker equivalent of Formula 1 grands prix) and has been in stupendous form during the 2013-14 season, so far winning the Shanghai Masters, the Indian Open, and the International Championship, ranking tournalments all; significantly, the beaten finalists in two of those three were also Chinese, Xiao Guodong and Marco Fu.
Will Ding become world snooker champion this year? Only the brilliant but mercurial Ronnie O’Sullivan looks capable of stopping him, in my view.
But Ronnie is 38 – and snooker, like Formula 1, is a young man’s game these days. Some time soon Ding or Xiao or Marco will become world snooker champion, just as some time soon a Chinese lead-foot, a young man or woman possibly not yet on any Formula 1 insiders’ radar screens, will become world Formula 1 champion.
And, when that happens, China will take Formula 1 to its warm but inscrutable heart, and grands prix will probably be run not only in Shanghai but also in Beijing, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Wuhan, Dongguan, Chengdu, Nanjing, Shenyang, Xi’an, Hangzhou et al.
Bring it on!