Cooper Straight

The F1 teams are already settled in to their new garages in Shanghai in readiness for this weekend's Chinese GP. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, both to the unequalled facilities at the track, and the vibrant city itself. Adam Cooper brings us the lowdown

Cooper Straight

The build-up to Shanghai wasn't exactly encouraging, with a few hassles concerning media visas and the prospect of a grand prix happening and nobody there to report it. All was eventually sorted, and once you got through the red tape at the embassy, you were ready to rock.

On my plane I picked up an English language Chinese newspaper, and a couple of stories caught my eye. One noted that China is becoming a leader in terms of supplying tourists to the rest of the world, and has already overtaken Japan. The fact that 95% of the seats on my flight were filled by Chinese seemed to bear that out.

Secondly there was a bizarre story about a truck driver who'd run over an old lady. The authorities were puzzled as to why he hadn't attempted to brake even after he realised he couldn't avoid her. It turns out that there's an 'understanding' amongst local truckies that it's better to kill someone that maim them, as the compensation involved is rather less. That warned me to look both ways before crossing the road...

On arrival in Shanghai the first signs weren't too promising. Immigration was a total zoo, with locals and visitors all piled into the same queues. But once you got to the front it took only a few seconds to get through, and the guy didn't even look at you. So much for those visa hassles. If only it could be so easy to get into the USA...

Alas when I arrived it was peeing down, and the boring bus journey into town - which also caught the rush hour - was hardly one to impress the tourist. Just what you need when you've had no sleep and you're seeing somewhere new for the first time.

I didn't know what to expect of my hotel, but it turned out to be more than adequate, and I'd love to find something of the same price range in downtown Melbourne, or within an hour of Suzuka. However, it's not a place I plan to spend too much time in this week, so at the first opportunity I dumped my stuff and headed out to get the Shanghai experience. I've already spent a couple of days walking the streets, and I've hardly scraped the surface of what there is to see.

What an amazing place it is. Not everyone likes big cities, but having lived in Tokyo for a couple of years, I immediately felt at home. The two places are incredibly similar, except that Shanghai has rather more old buildings still standing. It also has a slightly more chaotic, noisy feel. The streets are swarming with more bicycles and mopeds than you've ever seen - forget the trucks, just watch out for the killer two-wheelers. Stunning skyscrapers stand side-by-side with cramped, laundry-draped alleyways, and the Rolls Royce dealership is a few hundred metres from a market where you can buy live ducks and toads. A guarantee that your dinner is fresh!

There are swanky shopping streets full of the biggest brand names, and markets where everything and anything is available. In Bahrain obsolete Iraqi bank notes and replicas of George Bush's 'deck of cards' were the ultimate souvenir; here it's anything carrying the face of Chairman Mao, from original little red books to alarm clocks. Fancy a pirated DVD? They're openly on sale on every street corner at 50p a hit - half what they cost even in Kuala Lumpur. Prices generally are a pleasant surprise. Pretty much everything is cheap, and even a late night taxi ride across town is barely more than £2, and even in the trendiest bars a beer is about the same.

The ride to the track is even cheaper, for the organisers have laid on minibuses from the hotels where the journos are staying. That's pretty handy, especially as we're not allowed to rent cars or drive in this country; teams had to get special dispensation to get local licences for mechanics to serve as designated drivers. The trip involves a slog round the ring road, but once you get to the right exit there's a quiet stretch of motorway that takes you almost to the front door, apart from a little diversion around an industrial estate.

If you've seen the pictures, you don't need me to tell you what an awesome facility it is. No doubt Bernie Ecclestone will be using Shanghai as a stick to beat Silverstone with, but he ought not to forget Suzuka, Interlagos and other places that now look very old fashioned.

As you might imagine there are echoes of Sepang and Bahrain, but this is Hermann Tilke's masterpiece. The grandstands and buildings are astonishing, and the view from the press room is a bit different - we're hanging directly over the pit straight, nine floors up. The team offices behind the paddock, which stand on concrete stilts in a lake, are quite something. "It's just like Club Med!," joked Flavio Briatore, and he wasn't far wrong.

What really matters of course is the track itself. Those who came here in advance raved about it, and having experienced a couple of laps I can assure you that it is going to be mega. The first sequence of corners is like completing 75 percent of a roundabout and taking the third exit; later in the lap there's a left/right S-bend that will sort the men from the boys, and then there's the incredibly tight hairpin at the end of the back straight. Every corner seems to have its own challenge, even the tight 90 degree left hand entry to the pit lane that is bound to catch somebody out...

If the novelty of the circuit was not enough, there's plenty more to confuse us in terms of changes to the entry list. Then there's BAR switch to 555 livery; Anthony Davidson's third car has a temporary all-blue livery made up of entirely of stickers; I wouldn't want to be behind him when the whole lot peels off at 200mph! The other two cars have simply had the Lucky Strike logos replaced by the numbers 555 in blue, and frankly, they look a bit of a mess.

So has China taken to F1? It's too early to say, but it's easy to see how the promoters were able to sell so many tickets with such a huge city on the doorstep, and no shortage of punters with cash to spend. There's actually little sign downtown that there's a race going on, other than a few F1-related as campaigns by RayBan, Olympus and Panasonic, and the odd show car. But then you never see too much action in places like Barcelona. It can only get bigger from here...

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