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November 28, 2010

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Racing thrills and chills

SOME of the world's top drivers will be in Shanghai today for the final race of the DTM (German Touring Car Masters) schedule this year.

The main race will be held in Shanghai's Pudong New Area at 3pm on a street circuit around Century Park.

Cheng Congfu (Frankie) will get home crowd support as the race marks the first time the Beijing native will compete in the DTM series in China. He is also the only Chinese player in the race.

Cheng, who drives a Mercedes, has so far had a forgettable debut season - failing to make it in the top 15 in the standings.

The 26-year-old says DTM is a lot different from formula car races. "It's hard, but it's cool, because it's challenging," Cheng says.

Cheng started his driving career at the age of 10, when he started racing go-karts with the full support of his family. He went to England to study in 2003 while seeking opportunities in European-based races. He drove for A1 Grand Prix Team China and moved on to Germany in 2008, where he became the first Chinese to finish the 24-hour Le Mans race.

As the 2010 DTM season comes to a close, Cheng says he wants to enjoy the Shanghai race.

"I'm a very luck guy to be racing in a top championship, for a top team, and to be the first Chinese driver in it," he says.

"At the beginning of the season, I was doing quite well as a rookie. Then my expectations got higher and I stopped making improvements, which made me go backwards and I completely lost myself. So the best thing is not to think too much but just drive."

DTM has a mixture of young and experienced drivers, including two women, whom Chen described as "hard ladies." It also features former F1 driver like Ralf Schumacher.

"It's a melting pot, a professional series with a good standard and a good name," he says.

Living in Stuttgart, Cheng spends only one month a year in China, however, he does have friends everywhere. To maintain form for today's race, Cheng trained with Alexandre Imperatori, a 23-year-old Swiss driver on the F3 circuit. Imperatori lives in Shanghai with his Chinese fiancee.

The indoor exercise program includes cycling and rowing, followed by a tennis-soccer match - a match played on a tennis court using a small soccer ball and feet instead of a tennis ball and racket.

"We met each other a few times when we were teenagers, and it was in 2008 when we were both racing in A1 GP that we became friends. Oh, those good old times," says Imperatori, who now races on the Japan F3 circuit. The two share a personal trainer, Helmut Fink, who was introduced to Cheng by Imperatori.

However, they have specialized training programs since they are driving different cars, which places different demands on the body.

"My car has a roof while his doesn't," says Cheng, laughing after being asked how his car is different from Imperatori's. A DTM car race lasts longer and it's hotter inside the car as it's closed, while a F3 car has an open cockpit and is faster in corners. Therefore Cheng has to learn how to deal with the heat and improve his endurance while Imperatori needs a strong body, especially neck muscles, to handle the G-force.

Meanwhile, they also have a different focus in mental training, as it's important for Cheng not to get bothered by things easily while Imperatori tries to remain relaxed during race weekends and not get stressed out.

Cheng says he will surely come back to China some day in the future, however, there's no doubt Europe provides more opportunities for his racing career. He was lucky to go out at a young age and develop himself in the European arena and reach a certain racing level. It's only after reaching that level that a young driver is noticed and has a chance to progress to top level races.

Getting started in racing is not easy because of the enormous costs involved. Plus in China, with the one-child policy, parents are not willing to spend millions for a future that is anything but guaranteed.

"When people talk about racing, they always have an image of a kid from a rich family driving a Ferrari or Lamborghini around for leisure and for fun, which is not really accurate," Cheng says.

Imperatori says: "It's a real thing, that's why we need to train so hard.

"It's a daily job and you have to be fully committed to it. It takes time for people to know what racing is about. But I think when there's a Chinese driver involved at the top level, like F1 races, people will get more involved," the Swiss adds.

Asked if he has any advice for young Chinese kids who want to become racers, Cheng says without a second thought, "Have a good attitude and work hard!"

How To Get There:

Transportation: Gate 1, 2, 7 of Century Park, Century Park Station, Metro Line 2; you can also take the shuttle bus from Yuanshen Sports Center Stadium which has eight stops for entrances into Gate A-H.

Time: Today, 3:23pm

Venue: Street circuit around Century Park


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