The Associated PressShanghai inaugurates F1 track

SHANGHAI, China -- Shanghai inaugurated its Formula One circuit Sunday, marking international auto racing's arrival in China and a milestone in the nation's rise as an international sports venue.

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Competition at the track, designed by Germany's Hermann Tilke, began with the China Circuit Championship, which featured touring car and Formula Renault events.

Shanghai will also host the China Grand Prix, the country's first F1 race, on Sept. 26. It is the second new event added to this year's F1 season after Bahrain, and a major step into new Asian markets.

Auto racing is still a novelty to most Chinese and organizers tried hard to imbue Sunday's event with all the noise and glamour associated with professional motor sports.

During a break, the Ferrari F1 team's test driver Gerhard Berger zipped around the track in one of the team's reserve race cars and more than 60 of the company's low-slung yellow and red sports cars also did a lap.

Formula Renault racers included Hong Kong singer Aaron Kwok, who declared the track "the best."

"It's very hard, very exciting, especially the first turn," said Kwok, who blew a tire and failed to finish his race.

In the pit area, race cars revved engines while female models roamed the concourse in skimpy outfits emblazoned with team logos.

"Today is a huge landmark for auto racing in China and we will work our hardest to stage a successful F1 race," Chinese racing official Shi Tianshu said.

Nearly two years in the making, the Shanghai International Circuit rises out of former farmland in the Shanghai suburb of Jiading, home to the city's bustling car industry.

Its 3.3-mile circuit features a punishing 14 turns, some on 8 percent grades. Seating areas can accommodate up to 200,000 people, about 1 percent of the population of greater Shanghai.

"It's a very fast, very technical track," said Portuguese racer Rodolfo Avila, who won the morning's Formula Renault event.

Organizers reported no major hitches during the weekend's events, although guests had to be repeatedly shooed off of the pit lane and some drivers complained of lax officiating by the Chinese race marshals.

China's 1.3 billion people and its skyrocketing economy have attracted an increasing number of international sports events. Beijing is to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and Shanghai, China's biggest and wealthiest city, has been the recent venue for major professional tennis and golf.

While the country has no tradition of auto racing, booming private car ownership has heightened interest in the sport among the urban middle class.

"With the strength of our auto industry and the large numbers of people who now have their own cars, there's no doubt auto racing has a bright future in China," Shi said.