Petrol­heads: Mo­tor­sports boom in China

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Trail­ing enor­mous plumes of dust, the Silk Way rally cars tore through the Gobi Desert bound for China’s Im­pe­rial city of Xi’an-fresh ev­i­dence of the Mid­dle King­dom’s new­found love of mo­tor­sports. From the wellestab­lished Chi­nese Grand Prix to an ex­plo­sion of kids’ karting events, the coun­try which un­til re­cently re­lied more on the bi­cy­cle than the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine is get­ting be­hind the wheel in a big way.

Mo­tor­sports are en­joy­ing a boom across China, from the two-week-long Silk Way odyssey to the hun­dreds of lo­cal car ral­lies, mo­tocross events and tour­ing car cham­pi­onships that take place ev­ery year. Just 30 years ago, such events were more or less un­heard of in the fast-chang­ing coun­try, which now boasts the world’s sec­ond-big­gest econ­omy af­ter the United States and a grow­ing ur­ban mid­dle class with money to burn on hob­bies.

“Peo­ple have more and more means and free time,” said Wang Xudong, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Zhong­shi Huan­qiu, a Chi­nese com­pany that or­gan­ises mo­tor rac­ing in the coun­try. “And in par­al­lel the Chi­nese car mar­ket is grow­ing.” It is hard to be­lieve now, so clogged with traf­fic are cities such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai, but cars were still rare on Chi­nese streets three decades ago. With sales of 24.38 mil­lion pas­sen­ger cars last year-up 15 per­cent in 12 months-China is now the world’s largest car mar­ket. And since the wa­ter­shed 2004 Chi­nese Grand Prix in Shang­hai-now an an­nual fix­ture on the For­mula One cir­cuit-mo­tor­sports have been on tur­bocharge. The first For­mula E race-auto rac­ing with elec­tric cars-in his­tory took place be­fore 75,000 spec­ta­tors at Bei­jing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic sta­dium in 2014.

‘THIRST’ FOR MO­TOR­SPORTS

The Silk Way Rally set off on July 7 from Red Square in the heart of Moscow, trav­elled through Rus­sia’s grassy steppes and the great plains and moun­tains of Kaza­khstan be­fore cross­ing the daunt­ing Gobi. Ex­hausted rac­ers crossed the fin­ish line on Satur­day in Xi’an, some 9,599 kilo­me­tres (6,000 miles) later, with Chi­nese driver Han Wei com­ing home third in his Chi­nese-made Geely car.

The event-co-or­gan­ised be­tween China and Rus­sia-has am­bi­tions to ri­val the pres­ti­gious Dakar Rally. “The Chi­nese have a thirst for or­gan­is­ing their own events, like what has hap­pened in Europe, but are a few years be­hind, and they have re­ally be­come fans of dis­cov­ery and ad­ven­ture,” Hu­bert Au­riol, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Dakar Rally, told AFP. Au­riol was brought in by or­gan­is­ers of the China Grand Rally for his ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise and was race di­rec­tor be­tween 2013 and 2016. “Per­haps we had in mind a some­what stereo­typed im­age of the hard-work­ing Chi­nese, but it is like any­where else in the world: at one point it is about leisure, re­lax­ation and do­ing some­thing else,” Au­riol added.

Yang Yulin, a 28-year-old Chi­nese ac­coun­tant mar­vel­ling at the rally cars pound­ing their way through the Gobi sand, told AFP he was a mo­tor­sports fan. “I do karting and I love rid­ing my 4x4 in the dunes,” he said.

PO­LIT­I­CAL WILL

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of mo­tor­sport in China also owes much to the ex­ploits be­hind the wheel of writer, blog­ger and di­rec­tor Han Han, 34, a trendy youth icon and 2012 na­tional rally cham­pion.

Cru­cially, the Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties also ap­pear to be fans of the sport. In Oc­to­ber last year the Chi­nese govern­ment called for “con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment in the or­gan­i­sa­tion of mo­tor­sports”, urg­ing the cre­ation of new rac­ing cir­cuits and en­cour­ag­ing the stag­ing of ral­lies and other events. “There is the po­lit­i­cal will, so be­hind ev­ery­thing, ev­ery­thing is eas­ily or­gan­ised,” said Au­riol, who sees “enor­mous po­ten­tial” in the coun­try for the sport. “China is densely pop­u­lated, so peo­ple tend to imag­ine that there are only cities, but in the north you have gi­gan­tic re­gions with mag­nif­i­cent deserts that are to­tally suit­able to rally-raids.” And a new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese drivers is com­ing, said Wang, the race or­gan­iser. “Be­fore, they started to com­pete in adult­hood, but from now on they are trained in karting (at a young age) and the fu­ture is promis­ing,” he said. That was echoed by the rally driver Han Wei: “Bit by bit, you’ll see, we’re get­ting closer to the in­ter­na­tional level.” — AFP

SHANG­HAI: This file photo taken on April 9, 2017 shows Mercedes’ Bri­tish driver Lewis Hamilton driv­ing dur­ing the For­mula One Chi­nese Grand Prix in Shang­hai. Trail­ing enor­mous plumes of dust, the Silk Way rally cars tore through the Gobi Desert bound for China’s Im­pe­rial city of Xi’an — fresh ev­i­dence of the Mid­dle King­dom’s new­found love of mo­tor­sports. —AFP

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