by sportswriter Michael Butterworth
BEIJING, Jan. 23 (Xinhua) -- Formula 1's Head of Global Sponsorship Murray Barnett says the sport is keen to establish a second Grand Prix in China and increase the number of F1 fans in the country.
Held at the purpose-built SAIC international circuit in Shanghai, the Chinese Grand Prix has been a permanent fixture on the F1 calendar since 2004, and with plans afoot to open a dedicated F1 office in Beijing, Barnett told Xinhua that another race in China could be on the cards.
"We would love to have a second race here," said Barnett. "Probably not in the short-term, given how congested the schedule is already, but we'd certainly love to figure out a way to have another Grand Prix here."
The 2019 Chinese Grand Prix is set to be the 1,000th Formula 1 World Championship race since the series began life in 1950, and Barnett added that expanding F1's Chinese fanbase was a priority, though he stopped short of specifying how exactly this might be achieved.
"We're looking at a number of different things to try to generate more interest on a local basis. We can't just be here for the three days of the Shanghai Grand Prix. We need to have a year-round presence here and be much more locally relevant in order to really establish a big fanbase here."
While no Chinese driver has yet started a F1 Grand Prix, one of the country's brighter prospects is Zhou Guanyu. The 19-year-old is set to race in this year's Formula 2 championship, widely considered as F1's primary feeder series, and Barnett noted that many within F1 are monitoring Zhou's progress with great interest, given his potential to affect the growth of the sport within China.
"We'd love to see him [in F1]. Ultimately, that's down to the teams, but I think even they recognise what a fantastic opportunity China is, and you never know, we might see him in F1 very soon."
In recent years, Formula 1 has sought to establish Grands Prix in countries outside its traditional heartlands of western Europe and South America, with Russia and Azerbaijan having joined the calendar in recent years, and 2020 will see the addition of the Vietnamese Grand Prix, to be held on public roads of the capital Hanoi.
Vietnam's inclusion on the Grand Prix calendar surprised some observers, with the country having little history of motorsport, and recent Grands Prix in South Korea and India having quickly disappeared from the F1 calendar earlier this decade after failing to generate significant local interest.
"We've learned what we did wrong in those races, and we're making sure we don't make the same mistakes again. Both of those races only had short-term deals, and we certainly believe in investing for the long-term," said Barnett, who would not be drawn on the exact length of Vietnam's contract with F1, though he did acknowledge that it was longer than the three- and four-year stints afforded to India and South Korea respectively.
Barnett was in Beijing for Formula 1's strategic marketing conference at the British Ambassador's residence, where U.K. Trade Commissioner for China Richard Burn told Xinhua that despite the ongoing impasse over Brexit, sporting ties between China and the U.K. remain as strong as ever.
"There is huge interest in British sport [in China], and Formula 1 is a leading example of that. I went to the first Chinese Grand Prix in 2004, and I remember the excitement and the huge turnout they had for that race. Having the 1,000th Grand Prix in Shanghai 15 years later shows the scale of the opportunity that F1 sees in China."