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Formula One racetrack in Shanghai prepares for its grand opening

On September 25, 2004, Chinese officials gather at the brand-new Shanghai International Circuit racetrack in anticipation of the next day’s inaugural Formula One Chinese Grand Prix. Though Formula One racing was traditionally a European sport, the builders and boosters of the state-sponsored Shanghai track–part of an elaborate complex called the Shanghai International Auto City–hoped that they could help the sport catch on in Asia. In particular, they hoped their high-tech raceway would draw attention and investment to the fledgling Chinese auto industry. (China was an enormous untapped market for carmakers: In the year the Shanghai track opened, there were only 10 million cars for the country’s 1.3 billion people.)

Formula One racing, in which drivers race around specially-designed circuits built to resemble twisting, irregular city streets (in NASCAR racing, by contrast, racers loop around an oblong track) is the offspring of European Grand Prix motor racing, an almost century-old sport in which drivers would zip from one town to the next on public roads. As the Grand Prix contests grew more popular, they grew more dangerous–to racers, spectators, and especially the ordinary drivers who happened to be on the roads during a race. Soon, race organizers decided to close the roads on the day of their events and to establish and enforce a set of official rules. In 1947, Grand Prix officials created the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile, which became the central governing authority of the championship races; its set of rules was known as the Formula One. Today, there are seventeen Formula One races every year, and they take place everywhere from Spain, Monaco, Belgium and Italy to Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and, of course, China.

Shanghai’s International Circuit raceway was designed to help China cash in on the skyrocketing international popularity of Formula One competitions. It is 3.3 miles long, with two long straightaways and 16 corners. It cost $300 million in public money–about $100 million per mile of track–and can seat 200,000 spectators. The day after the raceway opened, some 150,000 people filled the stands as the Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello won its inaugural race.

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