A1GP Chengdu Paddock Round Up

While all the thrills of A1GP World Cup of Motorsport continued on the track in Chengdu, China, there was also plenty of action going in the paddock and in the build up to the race last weekend.

The week kicked off with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. With many drivers and teams finding the time to visit the centre, none of them were left disappointed at getting the chance to see these much loved creatures up close.

The giant panda is an endangered species with the latest World Wide Fund for Nature survey estimating only 1,600 pandas living in the wild. Over 80 per cent of the world's Giant Pandas live in Sichuan Province and the work done by the scientists here hope to increase the captive population of Giant Pandas and ultimately reintroduce the animals to the wild, with the help of artificial breeding.

Chinas Ho-Pin Tung and Congfu Cheng, Australias John Martin and Portugals Filipe Albuquerque were just a few who had the unique chance to hold one of the one-year old giant pandas being reared in the centre.

Tung said: It has been a very special experience. It was the first time I had held a Panda or had one sitting on my lap and I really enjoyed it!

When I was a kid my mum used to take me to the zoo in Beijing to see the Pandas but they were always behind glass, Cheng commented. To be given the opportunity to see them here and to hold one has been a phenomenal experience!

Motorsport also met the world of football last week, kicking off with a selection of drivers taking on the Chengdu Blades in a friendly match. The Chengdu Blades is a professional football club competing in the Chinese Super League (equivalent of the British Premier League) and owned by British club, Sheffield United FC.

A selection of its star players including Li Tie, a former Everton F.C player and Ma Ming Lu, the former captain of the National Chinese football team, took time out to take part in a football skills training session and friendly match against the A1GP drivers this morning at the Sichuan University in Chengdu. The drivers eventually lost out on penalties but in return the team members and executives were invited to the A1GP race on Sunday.

Chengdu Blades coach Don ORiordan, a former Republic of Ireland youth player, was particularly excited to be given a warm welcome by A1 Team Ireland, getting the chance to experience the atmosphere of the grid ahead of the races and meet Adam Carroll on pole position ahead of the Sprint race.

Sheffield Uniteds Group Executive Director, Mike Farnan, and Group International Marketing, Mike Hall-Taylor, both who A1 Team Ireland seat holder Mark Gallagher knew beforehand, also joined the team at the track before inviting the Irish squad to join them at Chengdus Irish bar, the Shamrock, to celebrate their successful weekend later that night.

A1 Team Mexico arrived in Chengdu having had no testing and, despite the efforts of the team working through the night, was not quite ready for practice on Friday morning. A1GP organised an extra practice session to give Mexican David Garza some seat time ahead of Saturdays practice and qualifying. Unusually, this extra time was courtesy of championship-winning team A1 Team Switzerland as, in a unique sporting gesture, it let Garza borrow Neel Janis racer to get a feel for the Chengdu International Circuit.

Garza, was definitely on a run of good luck this week as not only did Switzerland offer its car for him to get some mileage, but legendary boxing promoter Don King was staying in his hotel and happened to bump into the 20-year-old Mexican creating a once-in- a lifetime photo opportunity.

Monacos Clivio Piccione went one step further however. Piccione headed to the World Championship Boxing, which was taking place in Chengdu last weekend. He attended the WBC heavyweight fight between Polands Andrew Golota and Ray Austin of the USA, but got more than he bargained for when Don King spotted him in the crowd and invited him into the ring.

The last thing I was expecting was to be invited into the ring by Mr Don King and to be introduced to the Chinese crowd with the words hes the man!, said Clivio. It is definitely a memorable and special occasion for me. I was very pleased to experience the support of the Chinese crowd for the first time.

The theme of the boxing match, which took place at the end of the 46th annual World Boxing Council Convention, was We Are Together, which is the English translation of Wo Men Zai Yi Qithe rallying cry used by the Chinese people to lift the spirits of those who were struck by Mays devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province. The earthquake registered 8.0 on the Richter scale leaving thousand dead and 1.5 million people homeless.

Finally, A1 Team Great Britain played its part in honouring Armistice Day (11 November). Remembrance Day, also known as Poppy Day, is the closest Sunday to the date and a day to commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces and of civilians in times of war, specifically since the First World War, with this being the 90th anniversary of the Great War. With the date falling on race day in Chengdu all members of A1 Team Great Britain along with the British car could be seen sporting a red poppy, with the side-pod carrying the poignant words: we remember.

A1GP next heads to Sepang, Malaysia for round three of the championship, 21 23 November 2008.

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