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April 19, 2017

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

For car performance credentials: show, don’t tell

APRIL is the time of year when carmakers in China race to the finish line.

The hustle and bustle goes beyond the Chinese Formula 1 grand prix held earlier this month in Shanghai. Now the focus shifts to the annual international auto show held in the city.

Under the media’s glare, automakers are displaying their latest innovations in a dazzling marketing blitz.

Many people I know become once-a-year car enthusiasts when the Shanghai Auto Show comes to town. Every April, I am bombarded with requests for tickets or guided tours because of my long ties to the auto industry. As their excitement mounts, mine ebbs year by year. There is something sad about seeing engineering feats on rotating platforms, with their thunder often stolen by celebrities as presenters.

What interests visitors most is the exhibition hall, where supercar brands are showcased. While autonomous driving and connectivity are the elements redefining cars as computers on wheels, the ultimate cars for many people are those evoke a sheer passion for life.

And what stirs passion? Speed. Sheer speed.

Though every piece of these “super machines” is heavily guarded and kept at a distance from photographs at the auto show, people are still willing to queue for hours for a glimpse. My friend Charles, after his first visit to the auto show, was so impressed by the ludicrous horsepower, torque specs on supercar display boards that he quoted them to me later as if they were from the Bible.

“Why don’t you come to the racetrack with me and feel the adrenalin first-hand?” I asked.

I knew my suggestion was a hard sell. China is still at a very early stage in motorsport, where the most famous Chinese racer, Han Han, is still better known as a best-selling writer and movie director, and where racing events besides Formula 1 hardly arouse public interest. China Touring Car Championship, the highest-level competition of its kind in the country, doesn’t even bother selling tickets.

Hours of tires squealing might be too much for people not used to racing, but action speaks louder than any marketing lingo when it comes to a car’s capability. If the auto show might be described as a parade of carmakers flexing their muscles, then the racetrack is the arena where reputations are really made or lost.

Nio, an automotive start-up from China, recently shattered the Nurburgring lap-time record for electric vehicles with its Nio EP9. There is probably no better way for the company to convince people of its intention to build serious cars and dispel suspicions that fancy figures and claims are just slick talk.

Last year at the Beijing Auto Show, a peer of Nio wouldn’t allow journalists to photograph its concept car up close after a high-profile debut. Accusations followed that the car project was just a scheme to fund other businesses of the cash-strapped company.

With reputations on the line, others prefer to play it fair and square. Team McLaren is being held back in Formula 1 racing this year, primarily by its lackluster engine supplied by Honda. The Japanese carmaker has had to bear the backfiring of its marketing speechcraft about engine technology leadership.

“Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari can talk proudly about their latest performances in Formula 1 to promote their turbo-charging technologies,” lamented Richard, a journalist friend of mine. “To do the same, Honda would have to resort to its faded glory days of the 80s.”

A recent fancy launch of Honda’s new turbo-charged vehicle only added to the skepticism.

“You should be glad that Honda is still in the game, squandering money not just on marketing events, but also new engine development,” I teased.

If winning were the only acceptable result, then carmakers probably would all drop out. Be it Formula 1, the 24-hours Le Mans endurance race or the World Rally Championship, participation itself can be a cost too far. The old saying about “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” is beginning to sound like urban legend.

Track to street

It is the prospect of technology transfers from the track to the street that really matters. From engine efficiency, aerodynamics and lightweight design, to weight distribution, heat management, and durability, a lot of critical knowhow applied to cars is developed through grueling tests at extreme limits.

In fact, if it were not for races, auto shows would have far less to show. Turbo-charging, direct injection and regenerative braking, which are widely promoted as fuel-saving technologies by various automakers, all originated from racing events that burn rubber and oil regardless of cost.

Cost-effectiveness might be viewed as an irrelevant topic for auto show organizers in China. As the size and scale of the Shanghai Auto Show grow ever larger and its glitz and glamour dwarf the prominence of overseas shows, it remains a mystery how closely auto show participation correlates to actual sales.

At the 2017 auto show, which starts on Friday, salesmen will eventually take over the exhibition stands to promote the latest offerings. The most newsworthy sales story during the show has always been the most expensive supercar finding a buyer.

I asked auto-marketing professionals who specialize in event planning whether the money they spend is worth it. They told me it’s all part of the “grand event” culture in China, and one cannot opt out.

It is just one way to remind the world that China has developed into an auto market no one can ignore or belittle. We might be able to afford the most extravagant show and the most expensive car, but there are things money cannot buy so readily, like technology expertise.

The racetrack is one of the hotbeds for technology. Global carmakers come with ambitions, leave under financial pressure, and then return for new challenges. Racing is the recurring theme of all the automotive legends, and the Chinese have yet to write their own chapter.

“Chinese speed seems to have no limits,” my foreign friend Paul exclaimed when he saw a dazzling auto show stage erected in three days, only to be dismantled a week later.

“This is nothing,” I said, trying to sound modest. “There is a Chinese saying that even the highest tower rises from the ground.”

If this country can build an acclaimed performance car, then the world will truly see how fast we can go.


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