Making their mark
China is old news but still a buzzword in the automotive industry. Since 2009, it has
been the fastest-growing car market in the world: currently expanding at something like 10% a year (it actually used to be a lot more). And more than 60% of these escalating annual car sales are still accounted for by first-time buyers: the holy grail for marketing men, as if you capture these customers now, they might just become yours for life.
Chinese people love brands and have a huge degree of brand loyalty: particularly when it comes to lifestyle products or fashion (just look at the success of Burberry in China, for example). At Shanghai’s grand prix circuit, Ferrari caps fly off the merchandise stalls almost as fast as they can be produced. It’s a country where there’s a cult of fandom.
But what all these brands have in common is the fact that they are foreign and exotic. Would the Chinese ever get behind a home-grown company? In a country that has more car manufacturers than anywhere else, could there ever be a Chinese Formula 1 constructor?
That might seem unlikely now – but so did the thought of hosting a grand prix in Shanghai only about 25 years ago. A company registered in the UK as ‘China F1 Racing Team Limited’ recently sounded out the FIA about a potential slot on the Formula 1 grid in future. As is the case with many of these approaches, it might come to nothing: but all the signs are there.
The heat of competition
In truth, there are already a lot of Chinese manufacturers involved in motorsport. In Formula E, the NIO NextEV team is Chinese (owned by a tech start-up). That’s probably the closest you get to a Chinese manufacturer creating a single-seater car, but in rallying – which is based on production models – it’s a very different story.
Great Wall – China’s largest producer of SUVs, which racked up more than a million car sales last year – has regularly competed on the Dakar Rally, with a best result of sixth overall. Although around 70% of Great Wall’s cars are sold within China, exports are on the increase, with the firm even establishing a European base in Bulgaria.
Another Chinese car manufacturer has recently approached a well-known engineering firm for a feasibility study to create a model to World Rally Car regulations, although the details are shrouded in secrecy.
There are already several locally-built Chinese rally cars competing on the Chinese Rally Championship: a series well-funded enough to have attracted names such as Alister McRae and Chris Atkinson.
In China, the top class of cars run to regulations broadly similar to the old Group A world championship rules: two-litre turbocharged engines matched to mechanical four-wheel drive transmissions, and robust, off the shelf, suspension.
An electric future
Any car competing off-road in China has to be tough, clearly. But that doesn’t mean that Chinese manufacturers are afraid of new technology – and it’s this that will probably push a Chinese car company towards the forefront of a global motorsport series in the near future.
For example, there’s already a class for hybrid cars in the Chinese Rally Championship (complete with a rapid charging point in the service area), as China leads the way when it comes to electrification.
In 2016, 507,000 electric cars and hybrids were sold in China, a 53% increase from 2015. Meanwhile, 222,200 EVs and plug-in hybrids were sold in Europe: a mere 14% increase. And here’s another startling fact: Byd – the leading manufacturer in the hybrid class of the Chinese Rally Championship and the sixth-biggest car manufacturer in China – builds more purely electric cars per year than Tesla. It’s also begun exporting them to Europe.
It's easy to see why this industry has arisen: China’s issues with air quality are well-documented, and at the current rate of growth – with around 40 million vehicles expected to be produced there per year by 2025 – that simply isn’t sustainable.
As it is now, there are around 1.3 billion people and more than 160 cities with a population of over a million in China. With motorsport consistently pushing for ways to become more relevant, there’s a golden commercial and sporting opportunity out there for a Chinese manufacturer.
Whether that’s in Formula 1, Formula E, rallying or even rallycross (which recently committed itself to an electric future) remains to be seen. But one thing is sure – it’s definitely going to happen. Sooner than you think.