Xi'an, China - Trailing enormous plumes of dust, the Silk Way rally cars tore through the Gobi Desert bound for China's Imperial city - fresh evidence of the Middle Kingdom's newfound love of motorsport.

From the well-established Chinese Grand Prix to an explosion of kids' karting events, the country which until recently relied more on the bicycle than the internal combustion engine is getting behind the wheel in a big way.

Motorsport is enjoying a boom across China, from the two-week-long Silk Way odyssey to the hundreds of local car rallies, motocross events and touring car championships that take place each year.

Just 30 years ago, such events were more or less unheard of in the fast-changing country, which now boasts the world's second-biggest economy after the United States and a growing urban middle class with money to burn on hobbies.

"People have more means and more free time," said Wang Xudong, chief executive of Zhongshi Huanqiu, a Chinese company that organises motor racing in the country.

"And in parallel the Chinese car market is growing."

It is hard to believe now, so clogged with traffic are cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but cars were still rare on Chinese streets three decades ago.

With sales of 24.38 million passenger cars in 2016 - up 15 percent in 12 months - China is now the world's largest car market.

And since the watershed 2004 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai - now an annual fixture on the Formula One circuit - motorsport has been on turbocharge; the very first Formula E race was run before 75 000 spectators at Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in 2014.

'Thirst' for motorsport

The Silk Way Rally set off on 7 July from Red Square in the heart of Moscow, travelled through Russia's grassy steppes and the great plains and mountains of Kazakhstan before crossing the daunting Gobi.

Exhausted racers crossed the finish line on Saturday in Xi'an, some 9599km later, with local hero Han Wei third in his Chinese-built Geely.

The rally - co-organised between China and Russia - has ambitions to rival the prestigious Dakar Rally.

Hubert Auriol, former director of the Dakar, was brought in by organisers of the China Grand Rally for his experience and expertise and was race director between 2013 and 2016. 

"The Chinese have a thirst for organising their own events," he said. "like what has happened in Europe, but are a few years behind, and they have really become fans of discovery and adventure."

"Perhaps we had in mind a somewhat stereotyped image of the hard-working Chinese," he added, "but it is like anywhere else in the world: at one point it is about leisure, relaxation and doing something else."

Yang Yulin, a 28-year-old Chinese accountant marvelling at the rally cars pounding their way through the Gobi sand, said he was a motorsport fan.

"I do karting and I love riding my 4x4 in the dunes," he said.

Political will

The growing popularity of motorsport in China also owes much to the exploits behind the wheel of writer, blogger and director Han Han, 34, a trendy youth icon and 2012 national rally champion.

Crucially, the Communist authorities also appear to be fans of the sport. In October 2016 the Chinese government called for "continuous improvement in the organisation of motorsport", urging the creation of new racing circuits and encouraging the staging of rallies and other events.

"There is the political will, so behind everything, everything is easily organised," said Auriol, who sees "enormous potential" in the country for the sport. 

"China is densely populated, so people tend to imagine that there are only cities, but in the north you have gigantic regions with magnificent deserts that are totally suitable for rally-raids."

And a new generation of Chinese drivers is coming, said organiser Wang . 

"Before, they started to compete in adulthood, but from now on they are trained in karting (at a young age) and the future is promising," he said.

That was echoed by the rally driver Han Wei: "Bit by bit, you'll see, we're getting closer to the international level."

Agence France-Presse

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