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Three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart agreed the series could do more, including sending representatives to promote the sport beyond the race weekend. But he said China and other emerging destinations must be given time to catch up.

“I think it will take a little time because the motorized community is a new generation. It’s a new business altogether,” Stewart said of China. “To begin with, they are not going to be interested in motor sport … Motor sport whether it be Germany Italy, Britain or France have lived with it since they removed the red flag from the horseless carriage. That hasn’t been bred into the new generation of nations so we need to help them with that.”

Supporters insist the sport is growing in China, noting that attendance at the Chinese Grand Prix has picked up since 20010 when Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone accused local organizers of not promoting the race “properly” and suggesting no one in Shanghai would have known a race was taking place.

This year, 90 percent of tickets for this weekend’s race have been sold.

“There were some tough years, but it’s been getting better ever since,” the circuit’s sales manager Yang Yibin told local media.

Promotions have also on the rise, with the presence of new companies and organizations on the midway outside the main stands, including the British Consulate and South Korean tourism authority. Local firms in Jiading district near the track are eager to capitalize, and those tied to the automotive industry are running electric car demonstrations and other activities to draw fans.

Ma has seen the changes first hand.

Since moving up to F1 this year, the 25-year-old Ma says he has gone from a relative unknown to a minor celebrity at home. He is featured in the Chinese press and often is surrounded at restaurants and even on flights home by curious Chinese who want his autograph and to have their photo taken with him.

“For me, we just need some time to let people understand this sport,” Ma said. “At the moment, Formula One is already a top five sport in China. It’s quite big and growing very fast. In a few years, Formula One will be a big sport in China.”

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AP writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.