The Japanese Grand Prix, as I have said before and will likely say many more times before I depart this realm, is one of the most historically stacked races on the Formula 1 calendar. The race has decided the F1 championship more times than one can be bothered to count, and has consistently been ranked as a favorite among drivers throughout the years.
For 2024, however, the Japanese Grand Prix will be moved from its traditional spot late in the season all the way to April 7 to serve as the fourth round of the season. Logistically, this makes a fair bit of sense as the third round will be held in Australia with the fifth round planned to see F1 finally return to Shanghai, China for the first time since 2019. While we’re here, let’s sweeten the deal for the sport.
Let’s have two Chinese Grands Prix.
The Shanghai International Circuit has received its fair share of criticism since its debut in 2004, but that’s not to say that there’s a shortage of history surrounding the $450 million facility. Nico Rosberg scored Mercedes’ first win since 1955 in the 2012 Chinese GP.
Keeping the Faith
While Suzuka’s movement away from its traditional spot on the calendar is significant, if not simply for the fact that we now have to confront the possibility of a champion being crowned in Azerbaijan, China’s return to the calendar after four years of Covid-inspired absence is equally significant. F1 has made a push to ground itself in the American market in recent years by adding the Miami Grand Prix in 2022 and the forthcoming Las Vegas Grand Prix for 2023. The American population of 340 million makes it the largest market currently on the F1 by a long shot. Brazil sits in second at 216 million. The 2022 Miami Grand Prix drew almost 243,000 spectators and the 2022 United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas drew a whopping 440,000 spectators across the whole weekend.
On the surface, China should be a booming market for F1. But in the interest of integrity, I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment.
The Shanghai circuit has only drawn a capacity crowd once, during its first appearance in F1 back in 2004. Since then, weekend crowds have hovered in the 130,000 – 160,000 range. For a circuit with a capacity of 200,000, that’s a depressing stat for an entire race weekend. Whether this is a result of the track’s Tilkedrome status (a label applied to tracks designed by Hermann Tilke, who has been criticized for producing tracks which lack opportunities for overtaking), or the track’s comparatively rural location relative to the metropolis whose jurisdiction it falls under may never be entirely clear.
These questions in mind, F1 still has faith in China. The Chinese Grand Prix’s contract was extended through 2025 in late 2021 after the event had already been absent for two seasons and by which point it was already certain that it would not return for 2022. Liberty Media CEO Stefano Domenicali has described the organization’s relationship with Juss Sports, the promoter in charge of the Chinese Grand Prix as “incredibly strong” and emphasized that China is “very important” for F1 at the time of the event’s extension in 2021.
Further, Zhou Guanyu’s ascension to the status of China’s first F1 driver in late 2021 sparked discussion about hosting a second Grand Prix in the People’s Republic. Domenicali confirmed that there was interest in such an event from other cities in China during an interview with The Race. While he stopped short of naming names regarding which cities had expressed interest in hosting an expanded F1 presence in the country, there are a few obvious candidates.
First up is the Zhuhai International Circuit in – not surprisingly – Zhuhai, north of Macau. The circuit was actually included on the provisional calendar for 1999, and Bernie Ecclestone had affirmed its future to the South China Morning Post in 1998.
“It will happen in Zhuhai if everything is ready,” Ecclestone said. “This is guaranteed. We had some of our people from the FIA inspect the track and their response has been quite positive.” Even when this deal fell through owing to concerns of the circuit being up to FIA standards (it currently holds a Grade 2 rating, one level short of clearance to host F1), the body still made a point to affirm its intent to host the circuit in 2000, which also never materialized.
I’ll go to my grave saying Zhuhai is a superior track to Shanghai, but that can be shelved for another discussion. In the meantime, the sim-racing community can provide a glimpse of what an F1 outing in Southern China might look like:
Onto Chengdu, a city of around 21 million and home of the best food in China, if you ever happen to be passing through.
Until 2019, the city was the home of the Chengdu Goldenport Circuit. The 2.092-mile, clockwise road course hosted A1 Grand Prix in 2008 and F4 China from 2016-2018. The circuit was unceremoniously closed in 2019 and slated for demolition. At the time, Joe Saward reported that plans were in the works for the circuit to be redeveloped to Grade 1 standards in pursuit of bringing a second Chinese F1 race to Chengdu.
In 2021, Saward said that there was “no real progress” regarding the hypothetical Chengdu Grand Prix. All things considered, that’s a shame. Chengdu is the center of finance, logistics and technology in Western China, even being referred to as China’s answer to Silicon Valley.
Luckily, footage of this now-departed circuit exists from the 2008 A1GP season.
Finally, China’s capital city, Beijing has its own motorsport history which could be lent to F1’s benefit.
Beijing has hosted the first ever Formula E ePrix, as well as its own A1GP round during the 2006/2007 season. Finding state financing, which will be used to support any major sporting event in China, clandestinely or otherwise, would perhaps be easiest in the country’s capital. Most notably perhaps, the city hosted Superleague Formula. This short-lived open-wheel series featured names such as Sebastien Bourdais, Mikhail Aleshin, Enrique Bernoldi and Robert Doornbos among others.
Other candidates may include the Ordos International Circuit in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Zhuzhou International Circuit in Hunan Province or the Ningbo International Circuit in Zhejiang Province, all of which hold FIA Grade 2 status and could feasibly be upgraded to Grade 1 and F1 eligibility with some beauty work.
To echo Mr. Domenicali, the idea of a second Chinese Grand Prix is perfectly feasible. Countries which have hosted two races in a single season already include Austria, Bahrain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The U.S. and Italy have even hosted three. The size of China’s market, the continuously growing disposable income of its populace, and the increasingly prominent role China plays and will continue to play on the international stage moving forward makes this sort of proposal of lasting importance to not only F1, but motorsport at large.
NASCAR has flirted with the idea of expanding into China in the past, and the recent influx of international talent into its three national series suggest there’s investment worth exploring there. IndyCar likewise turned its focus toward the Middle Kingdom for expansion prospects in the late 2000s and early 2010s, going so far as to include a street circuit in Qingdao on the provisional schedule for 2012 before a change in local government severed the project’s investment flow.
Napolean Bonaparte has often been – falsely – credited with the phrase “China is a sleeping giant, when she wakes she will shake the world.” In the 1990s, F1 took note of China’s coming rise and made a point to engage with this ever-important country. While the Shanghai circuit was never a smash hit, we saw it coming each year; nobody held sustained doubt that China would feature on the calendar.
The rapid easing of China’s zero-Covid restrictions – which had done the event in for multiple years – in late 2022 has opened a door for international tourism, business and sport to once again put tires to the pavement in the world’s most populous country. The second Chinese GP may only be a few seasons away.
About the author
Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.
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