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August 12, 2009

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Shanghai's the favorite pitstop for driver who lives life in the fast lane

SHANGHAI is my home now. My favorite cuisine is hongshaorou (pork braised with soy sauce)," says 22-year-old Swiss racer Alexandre Imperatori as he sips chrysanthemum tea and talks about his life. "I always prefer tea to coffee or other drinks."

Imperatori, a Formula Three and A1 Grand Prix driver, has lived in Shanghai for 18 months. He can speak French, English, German, Spanish and Mandarin, and is trying to pick up the Shanghai dialect. That's understandable - he has a Shanghainese girlfriend.

Most professional racing drivers share one thing in common - an early start to their career. It was the same with Imperatori.

As a boy he lived in Geneva and in the summer of 1991, he was with his father at a go-karting circuit in Spain. "I also want to try, not just you!" the four-year-old Imperatori told his father. "But you are too small and can't fit in the car," said his father.

Wooden boxes

After a week of fighting, Imperatori managed to get his first taste of speed - his father stuck two wooden boxes to his shoes so the little boy could reach the accelerator and brake. He loved the sport and after a year got his own go-kart from his father and went racing everyday after school.

There was a father-and-son-deal when Imperatori started to take racing seriously: His hobby would be supported as long as he could bring back good grades from school. That's what Imperatori did. Even in his late teens when races took up most of his time, Imperatori managed to maintain a balance. "I'm always a straight-A student," he says.

Compared to Europe, racing in Asia is much cheaper. After racing in France and Germany in his early years, Imperatori decided to come to Asia at the beginning of his Formula career and raced for Formula Renault in 2004.

Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, was the first city Imperatori chose to stay in. He was 17. As a self-supporting student racer at the time, he had to reduce traveling fees by applying to his school in Switzerland for an exchange to Hong Kong, which is only a one-hour trip by ferry to Zhuhai. It was at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, during an international business course, that he met his girlfriend Chen Xingyan (Karen), a Shanghainese.

After graduation, Chen came back to Shanghai while Imperatori was involved in Japanese Formula Three races. It was natural that he should stay in Shanghai then - to stay close to racing circuits while spending time with his girlfriend. That was in January, 2008.

Ranked second

Imperatori's first Formula race was at the Shanghai International Circuit in 2004 - the first year Shanghai held a Formula One championship. He took part in Asian Formula Renault and finished fifth.

He ranked second in 2006 Asian Formula Renault after finishing 10 times on the podium in 13 races. He defended the runner-up title the next year and for the first time raced in A1 Grand Prix for Switzerland as a rookie driver in Zhuhai.

Imperatori joined Japanese Formula Three in 2008.

He dominated five out of nine races to finish as runner-up.

Coming into his second season, Imperatori has won two races and four poles in qualifying. He went to Japan again last weekend for the race in Motegi. He finished second.

"For every racing driver, the ultimate goal is always Formula One." When talking about the top event in the Formula world, there is excitement in his eyes. "However, it's very difficult as you need a certain political background at the right time. If you have sponsors it's easier, and talent of course, and a right manager behind you. There are a lot of factors, but it is always a goal."

Imperatori once raced on the same track as current Torro Rossa F1 team driver Sebastian Vettel in Germany when they were both nine years old and Michael Schumacher has been his idol.

"He is the strongest for me and if you want to race in F1, you have to race like Michael."

Passion, motivation and commitment, these are the qualities Imperatori thinks a good racer should acquire. "You have to push 1,000 percent in the car. To always focus on goals is the number one thing."

The other racing event that attracts him is the Le Mans 24-hour race.

The current team Imperatori is driving for is planning to step into Formula Nippon, a higher standard formula racing event, next year. Living in Shanghai, Imperatori also wants to try the Shanghai-based team in the China Touring Car Championship.

Safety problems have come to the forefront recently in the motor racing world after two accidents happened in one week - 18-year-old Briton Henry Surtees, son of Ferrari's 1964 F1 champion John, was killed after a bouncing wheel hit him on the head in a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch on July 19.

A few days later, Ferrari's F1 driver Felipe Massa of Brazil was struck on the helmet by a bouncing metal spring broken off from compatriot Rubens Barrichello's Brawn car at the Hungarian GP qualifying.

Bad luck

"It's a lot of bad luck," says Imperatori, "the risks are there, but we believe the possibility is low."

He didn't talk to his girlfriend about the accidents. "I don't want to scare her." They seldom talk about safety problems even if Chen is aware of them.

"For an outsider, it looks very dangerous. For us, it's very unlikely to happen. Even if you have a crash, you seldom get hurt."

Outside the circuit, Imperatori drives a Lexus but never speeds. "I know what it is like to go fast, I don't have to experience it on the street where it's very dangerous. I'm trying to tell people, don't go quick on road, come to the circuit and have fun, it's much safer."

Attending races and sponsorship activities takes up half of Imperatori's time. What does he do in the other half?

For racing drivers, keeping fit is essential and Imperatori has a fitness trainer, Helmut Fink, who has also trained current F1 drivers Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Giancarlo Fisichella and Nick Heidfeld.

They spend a week together every month in Austria or in Shanghai. The training programs include power training, coordination and concentration training.

Normal training is about three hours a day but during the week the intensity will be raised to nine hours a day.

The gym close to his house is the usual location for training, while Imperatori also takes part in outdoor sports such as cycling, football and skiing.

Police school

Imperatori majors in Computer Science Engineering at Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne. He holds a basic law degree and is one year away from a master's degree, which is on hold because of his race and training schedules.

Chen's parents call Imperatori by his Chinese name and they can communicate with each other in Chinese with no problems at all. He spends two hours a day studying Chinese and will later move on to the Shanghai dialect.

Because of his talent for languages and his driving skills, Imperatori was invited to be an instructor on a teaching program at the Shanghai police driving school, to help the police improve their driving skills for pursuing and catching criminals, to better understand the rules of the road and be more efficient drivers.

Living in Shanghai for more than one and a half years, Alexandre loves going to the movies and looking for new shopping and dining places. Chinese food has become his favorite - "very tasty and very healthy."

Owning a new apartment in Hongqiao, Changning District, he and his girlfriend are busy decorating and choosing furniture.

"I love the city," says Alexandre.

"I stay here not only because of my girlfriend. It's very lively and has an open atmosphere. In one word, homely."


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