SHANGHAI SURPRISE

THE WORLD DRIVING TITLE TAKES A TURN.
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD R. MARTINSEN
SEATTLE SECTION

n my first visit to China earlier this year, I was amazed to learn that this country would be so much different than the image of it I had in my mind. When I thought of it I had imagined Communism with the mentality seen during the Cold War era in the USSR. I imagined military police everywhere trying to keep people from coming and going as they please. I imagined government-businesses were about as exciting as a dining hall in your typical U.S. National Park. However, what I found was a beautiful country of friendly people who welcome Americans with open arms and who share the same dreams, aspirations, and hobbies as we do. When I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Shanghai was a large metropolitan town that based on population alone, rivals New York City. But, I also knew that China wasn’t as modern as Japan so I was expecting a city more like Mexico City than what I saw. I was impressed by the dazzling lights reminiscent of Tokyo and the classic looking buildings of The Bund (Shanghai’s famous financial district). It quickly became evident that Shang-

O

hai was just as you would expect a city of roughly 19-million people in a superpower country to be. There was a public transportation system that makes owning a car a luxury rather than a necessity. It works so well that I wished I could bring it back to my congested hometown of Seattle, Washington. Free enterprise was alive and well as many common folks, especially women, were thriving in this booming economy. There were all of the conveniences you’d expect from home; with one exception nearly everything was priced dirt cheap. Whereas in Tokyo a 30-minute taxi ride might cost you $50 USD, in Shanghai you pay around $9. A five-star meal in Tokyo would cost you around $150 per-person, but in Shanghai you can feast for as little as $3 and never more than $24 (which includes all you can consume steak, seafood, and alcohol). It is a thrifty person’s paradise and a great escape from the crazy prices found in the rest of Asia. This, of course, is where Communism rears its head because things are so cheap due to government controls and strict labor laws.

As you begin to learn more about China you begin to see that with a population of 1.3-billion people, the government has to do something to keep people fed and employed. Its biggest commodity is labor and its solution involves keeping the cost of living low so that wages can remain low and businesses can afford to hire more people. In fact, businesses are required to hire a large number of employees so it isn’t uncommon to see things like an elevator attendant on several floors of a hotel or three people waiting your table. This system allows people to get paid as little as $200 per month, but government controls of domestic good and services also means that you can actually live better than someone in the United States getting paid minimum wage. With cheap transportation (subways as little as 40 cents per trip) and inexpensive food, you quickly discover that $200 can go very far in China. However, despite all of the cheap prices, the free-enterprise system that is developing in Shanghai has resulted in a class system that is very similar to that found in most
JAN/FEB 2008 | THE STAR 69

modern countries. At the top of this chain are the wealthy who own fine European vehicles, travel the world, own international stocks, and who want their beloved city to be recognized as a modern international city. It is for this reason that Shanghai worked hard to build what is arguably one of the finest race tracks in Formula 1 where the elite of China can gather to get a taste of a $7 beer (that sells for 50 cents outside the track) and hear the musical symphony of a Formula 1 engine. In this respect, the people of China are much like us and they gathered for the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix to witness one of the more exciting races of the season at their beloved Shanghai Circuit.
70 THE STAR | JAN/FEB 2008

n my flight to Shanghai I was convinced that Lewis Hamilton was going to become the first-ever rookie to win the Formula 1 Driver’s Championship. During the weekend before, in Fuji, Japan, Hamilton had managed to win despite horrible conditions and Alonso had failed to finish so his fate seemed to be secure. Who knew that I’d be in for an amazing change of events that would begin the demise of the seemingly unstoppable rookie phenomenon and the rise of former McLaren Mercedes driver Kimi Räikkönen? The weather for the practice sessions on day one and two were fantastic. Sunny skies, dry pavement, and tolerable temperatures from what is traditionally a hot and humid

O

Rookie sensation, Lewis Hamilton (top), started his weekend in China with a dominant performance. I saw many interesting things in the beautiful countryside of Hangzhou outside of Shanghai.

region. However, the first week of October is a national holiday in China to celebrate, among other things, the coming of the cooler temperatures and, in Shanghai, Formula 1. The first practice session proved it would be another exciting weekend as Kimi posted the fastest time followed by Alonso who had to prove that his season wasn’t over yet. However, with only .186 of a second separating Räikkönen from fourth-place Lewis Hamilton, who was racing on this track for the first time ever, it was clear that Hamil-

ton was determined to prove why he was first in the driver’s standings. Practice session two was even more exciting because it showed that the seemingly unflappable Lewis Hamilton was indeed human by doing something we hadn’t seen since the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. He would make a mistake! Not only that, it finally showed that the season might not be over after all and this could just be the beginning of one of the most exciting seasons in F1 history. Once again, the results of the second practice session mirrored that of the first, so it was clear that the Ferrari and the McLaren Mercedes cars were evenly matched and only driving ability would dictate the outcome of the race on Sunday.

Despite Hamilton’s miscue, he quickly recovered and began setting blistering times during the third practice session. By the end of practice he had leapfrogged Massa to put him only .100 second behind Alonso and just .127 out of the lead. It was clear that Hamilton had this track figured out and that the McLaren’s were going to be impressive in Shanghai. s an amateur photographer with aspirations of shooting F1 races professionally one day, I was in heaven with the joy of being at the Chinese Grand Prix. I was getting the best photographs of my life thanks to the cooperation of Mother Nature. Going into qualifying my biggest

A

fear was running out of disk space as each practice session had consumed another 8GB of disk space and I was running out of space fast. However, that was a problem I was prepared to deal with later as my priority now was getting to the race track for qualifying as I was running late. Due to unfortunate timing, and an unfortunate choice in transportation methods, I found myself about a quarter mile away from the track as the engines began to roar for the first qualifying session. I panicked and began to run with 40 pounds of camera gear on my back. Then, out of nowhere, the unthinkable happened. The zipper on my backpack had slipped opened from the momentum of running and all of my camera

The Bund & Pudong Financial Center (above) is known as “the exposition of architectures.” My trip to China was a life-changing experience that opened my eyes to the beauty of this land, which I once viewed so differently.

gear spilled out onto the concrete. My favorite lens was totally destroyed and my hopes of capturing Lewis Hamilton on his victory lap as the first rookie to win a world driving title were dashed. While I was disappointed in what had happened to my gear, I realized that I was now going to witness an amazing qualifying session and race as a mere spectator rather than a photographer. However, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t such a bad thing as the view with both eyes on the track is more
JAN/FEB 2008 | THE STAR 71

exciting than one eye looking through a viewfinder. The qualifying session was very exciting and, for the first time, Hamilton managed to secure the best time out on the track giving him pole position for what could be a historical race. I quickly began to wonder if this was fate’s way of allowing me to watch this great event, as everyone should, in real life with both eyes on the track. Just as I had reached the highest of highs by getting the best pictures of my life during practice session three, Lewis Hamilton would do the same by beginning the Chinese Grand Prix from the pole position and dominating the first part of the race. Despite the dark clouds and rain that had moved in as a result of a typhoon coming ashore south of Shanghai, the British phenomenon seemed to be unreachable by the rest of the drivers on the track as he dominated lap after lap. As a fan of Kimi during his years at McLaren Mercedes, I was convinced I was

witnessing yet another instance of him always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. He just couldn’t seem to catch up to Lewis no matter how hard he tried, and the gap just kept getting larger and larger. Hamilton stayed out too long and let his tires wear out which allowed Kimi to catch up and then, with the return of the rain on lap 28, Hamilton slid off the track to make it a head-to-head race between the current and former McLaren Mercedes drivers. On lap 29, Kimi proved why he is called the IceMan by getting past Hamilton to the roar of the crowd at the Shanghai Circuit. However, all was not lost for Hamilton, as he only needed to hold his position to secure legendary status in F1 history. On lap 31, the unthinkable happened when Hamilton finally decided to come in for a much overdue pit stop. With a corded rear tire on a rain slick pit lane hairpin turn, his car finally lost grip and ended up off

track and high-centered. Just as I had felt my stomach drop when my disaster occurred, Hamilton, too, was realizing that his race was over and his dream would not happen this weekend. Given all of the off-track excitement that happened during the race due to the poor weather, which would have hindered my photography anyway, I was glad that I was able to focus on being a mere spectator of the race. Like Hamilton, I had managed to have a bit of a disaster of my own, but I left China with no regrets. I had taken some of the best photographs of my life, seen the dazzling city that is Shanghai, visited the spectacular cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou, and witnessed an amazing race that will indeed be infamous for many years to come. I have no regrets, nor should young Lewis Hamilton for this is his first season and first visit to this amazing circuit. If he could perform this well this year,

As impressive as the F1 cars sound, it is still great to see all of the BMW fanboys’ jaws drop when they hear the roar that comes out of the CLK-based safety car. Chinese people aspire to own Mercedes too, and they earn them via hard work and effort much like we do.

just imagine what he will do next year. The future is bright for the young driver and our beloved McLaren Mercedes F1 team. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed the beginning of a new era in Formula 1. I think Hamilton has the potential to be the next Michael Schumacher, with the charisma of Tiger Woods, and the intensity of Michael Jordan all rolled into one. I witnessed something great with my own two eyes, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it. •
72 THE STAR | JAN/FEB 2008