Mercedes' Wolff names Formula One return to China 'important moment'

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes AMG Petronas Motor-sport Formula One Team, speaks during a press conference. Sebastian Gollnow/dpa
Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes AMG Petronas Motor-sport Formula One Team, speaks during a press conference. Sebastian Gollnow/dpa

Mercedes motor sport chief Toto Wolff (52) has named this week's return of Formula One to China after five years an "important moment" for the sport and the brand.

"As the world's largest automotive market and second-largest economy, China is of crucial importance for the sport's global presence," Wolff told dpa.

The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai was last held in 2019 before being scrapped the following four years owing to the coronavirus pandemic and China's strict zero-Covid policy.

The F1 world was very different one last time out on the Shanghai International Circuit which also marked the 1,000th grand prix in the sport.

Mercedes were still totally dominating F1, with Lewis Hamilton winning the race en route to his sixth of seven world titles.

The Briton has a record six victories overall on the course, and Shanghai was also the place where Mercedes got their first success since their return as a works team in 2010, from Nico Rosberg in 2012.

Mercedes are not the favourites this time, with Red Bull led by triple world champion Max Verstappen, who is yet to win in China, and Ferrari considered superior. Verstappen had won just five of his now 57 races when he came fourth in Shanghai in 2019.

But Wolff said that racing again in China was additional motivation for the team.

Interest is huge, with all tickets snapped up within an hour when sales started on early January, despite prices of up to $530.

"Formula One offers fans an opportunity to engage with the brand on a more human level and to understand the values and what we stand for," Wolff said, referring to the advertising value of F1 for sales, particularly of electric cars in China.

"This can often be just as important as the product itself when making a purchase decision."

China is a major automotive market for many other brands, including Ferrari, whose last F1 success in Shanghai came from Fernando Alonso in 2013.

Ferrari's Greater China Hub president Giuseppe Cattaneo said last year that China is a special market because “our clients are without doubt the youngest, compared to the rest of the world. The average age is 35.

"China is a dynamic market that is expanding, one where in coming years it will be important to work on the fidelity of the customer base, so that they become ‘repeater’ clients.”

Ferrari said it sold its first car in China in 1993, the F1 race in Shanghai made its debut in 2004, and Wolff said that the sport has continued to grow since the last race there in 2019.

"We have expanded into new markets, further growing our audience and attracting a new generation of fans. This growth has continued in China and the return of the Chinese Grand Prix will help fuel this progress," Wolff said.

China will see the first weekend including a sprint race this season, with a tweaked format, with sprint race results no longer determining the grand prix grid.

Practice and sprint qualifying are on Friday, the sprint race and a new grand prix qualifying Saturday, and the Chinese GP on Sunday.

Verstappen enters the race 13 points ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, having won three of the first four season races. His best Shanghai result to date is third place in 2017.