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F1 roars back to China after Covid absence

Kick Sauber's Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu (C) arrives to take part in the drivers' parade before the start of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix race at the Suzuka circuit in Suzuka, Mie prefecture on April 7, 2024.

PHILIP FONG-AFP


Two years ago the Shanghai International Circuit hosted a Covid hospital, but this weekend it will stage Formula One once more as the sport returns to China for the first time since the pandemic.

Adding to the excitement, they will see Shanghai native Zhou Guanyu drive at his home track in Formula One for the first time.

"I'm extremely excited, in these 5,000 years of (Chinese) history there has only been one Zhou Guanyu," said fan Wang Xiaotian.

Shanghai last witnessed an F1 race in 2019, before Covid and China's travel restrictions put a halt to almost all major international sports in the country.

Tickets for the action-packed Formula One weekend sold out within minutes of going on sale in January.

Ma Qinghua, the first Chinese to drive an F1 car when he took part in a 2012 practice session, said the sport's return will have a "very good impact", especially on younger fans who did not have the chance to see their heroes in the flesh during the pandemic.

"This group of people are very much anticipating the chance to witness a race personally," Ma, a pioneer of China's motorsport industry, told AFP.

 'Extremely proud' 

Two years ago, at the height of the city's lockdown, the Shanghai circuit became the site of a makeshift 13,000-bed Covid hospital.

That was just a few weeks after Zhou had his first grand prix drive in Bahrain, finishing 10th to score a point, but the pandemic delayed 24-year-old Zhou's home F1 debut until this week.

Even though he is unlikely to challenge for the podium, Zhou is desperate to put on a Shanghai show.

Growing popularity

China is relatively new to motor racing, with cars a rare sight even in major cities as recently as the 1980s.

Shanghai staged the country's first F1 grand prix in 2004 and, before the pandemic, the sport's decision-makers had talked about the possibility of a second grand prix each year in China.

During Formula One's five-year absence, China continued to put resources into motorsport.

In 2022 the island province of Hainan poured five billion yuan ($691 million) into an electric vehicle racing circuit and Formula E is returning to China next month, with Shanghai hosting for the first time.

© Agence France-Presse