Shanghai driving scene outrageous

Updated: October 1, 2004, 10:16 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to

SHANGHAI, China -- One of the most vivid memories the Formula One fraternity took away from Shanghai and the first Grand Prix in China was the driving. Not the driving on the track, although that had its memorable moments as well, but the driving to the track.

The population of greater Shanghai is about 16.7 million, and thousands upon thousands of new drivers and cars are being added to the mix every month.

"It is difficult to get out of the hotel because of the traffic," said Rubens Barrichello, winner of the Chinese Grand Prix. "They say Brazilian drivers are good because of the traffic -- they should have many (potential race) drivers here. They should be all in Formula One! Unbelievable!"

There is some aggressive driving on the roads upon which the Formula One fraternity travel, most notably in Brazil and Italy, but Shanghai, because of all the cars and traffic and novice drivers, took on its own special blend of thrills.

"They must be good drivers because -- it's amazing -- they overtake everywhere," Barrichello said.

One tour guide listed the main health risk in Shanghai as simply: "The roads!"

"It is surprisingly clean for a huge city," Williams BMW driver Ralf Schumacher said. "Good food, nice people; the traffic is a mess. It is a bit dangerous to cross the street, but apart from that it (the city) has been brilliant."

Depending on the time of day, the traffic and the route, it took between one and two hours to drive from the city center to the circuit. That may not seem bad compared to the ordeals fans endure at some NASCAR tracks, or even what Formula One fans face at places like Spa in Belgium and (until the new highway was put in) at Silverstone in England, but it was something very different for Formula One drivers.

No public helicopter traffic is allowed in Shanghai, so Formula One drivers couldn't fly over the congestion like they do at some tracks.

To make matters worse, one is not allowed to drive in China without a Chinese drivers' license. That meant that the entire Formula One fraternity had to be driven to and from the track and anywhere else in the city by taxi, shuttle bus or privately hired car and driver.

West McLaren Mercedes driver Kimi Raikkonen was fuming: "Why can't I drive? I want to drive!"

However, when I asked him in an official news conference about being a passenger, Raikkonen switched to corporate team speak.

"I was OK," he said. "Actually our traffic was not too bad any day. Our driver was taking it easy; in the back of the Mercedes it is pretty nice."

Jenson Button, who finished second in the race in his Lucky Strike BAR Honda, said he just closed his eyes when he was a passenger.

"Their driving is very interesting," he said of the wild action out of the streets. "It's very different to what we get in Europe. Every inch they use, which is quite impressive. I don't know if they would be good racing drivers or the opposite really. Our driver is quite good. We have this big Honda wagon and we can lie down in the back, so I'm quite chilled. I just close my eyes and I'm fine -- no problem with the long journey in."

The government has built a new toll road multi-lane highway out to the track, and once clear of the city, the traffic wasn't too bad. But getting in and out of the city could be a nightmare. A colleague spent 60 minutes stuck at one intersection on Friday night.

The circuit organizers put on a shuttle bus service for the media, and thus all we had to do was take a taxi to the central pick-up point in the city and then let the shuttle bus drivers cope with getting to the track. Not once, in any of my trips to and from the track, did the shuttle bus take the same route.

My taxi ride from the shuttle bus drop-off point back to the hotel on Saturday night was a real white-knuckle affair.

Some of our bus drivers were pretty aggressive too, like the guy who drove into the path of oncoming traffic so that he could get around the two lanes of blocked traffic going our direction. Then there was the bus driver who pressed indignantly on the horn to get a cop car out of our way!

Four members of the Williams BMW team were in a crash on the way to the track on race morning after their car was rammed and flipped by another. One of the guys was the grandson of the Queen of England. In one of those fortunate twists of fate, one of the first cars to stop at the scene of the accident contained FIA F1 doctors Sid Watkins and Gary Hartstein, and they were able to look after the people until the ambulances arrived.

Fortunately, none of the occupants in either car was seriously hurt.

Shanghai wasn't all crazy driving and traffic jams, of course. But Barrichello is looking for a hotel room near the track for the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix.

"It has been crazy, I tell you," he said of his experiences on the roads of Shanghai. "In all honesty, I think the reception we have had here has just been fantastic -- great people cheering on Formula One -- so it was really a great place to come. I hope next year I stay in a hotel close by (the track) or I will rent a bed just to stay here at the track."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and