It's perhaps surprising that a country numbering more than 1.38 billion people has produced just one person who has driven a Formula 1® car during a grand prix weekend: Ma Qing Hua. He never actually raced, but was a third driver for two seasons, making his free practice debut for HRT at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix.
TThe high point of his F1® career came in the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix, when he drove in FP1 in front of his home crowd, in a Caterham: the first time a Chinese driver had ever done so.
Hua achieved another important milestone just one year later, when he became the first Chinese driver to triumph at an FIA World Championship event, winning at the World Touring Car Championship round in Russia.
He was driving for the dominant Citroen team, with Citroen now selling more cars in China than they do in France. That’s far from a unique situation for European car manufacturers, thanks to China being one of the fastest-growing automotive markets in the world.
And that’s why, ironically, there has only ever been one Chinese Formula 1® driver.
Think about it. How did you learn to drive?
Almost all of you had your first lessons from your mum or dad, or perhaps from an older sibling. Then you probably took some paid lessons from an experienced professional instructor. However, you were familiar with the idea of driving long before that. You’d been driven around in cars since you were in nappies. Almost all the adult members of your family drove. You’ve been around cars all your life, unconsciously observing the road environment around you almost every day.
That’s not the case in China. If you’re Chinese, there’s a very strong chance that you are the first member of your family ever to have learned to drive. You weren’t taught by your parents, because – at least, until a few years ago – they probably didn’t drive either.
Up until the mid-1990s, China was still the country of bicycles. Motorised traffic was relatively rare, even in the big cities. Most of the cars were taxis or official limousines, and even they weren’t very numerous.
It wasn’t until 2000 that car ownership figures for China’s capital, Beijing, nosed above a million; but then there was a huge growth spurt in 2003 and the numbers had surged past two million by the end of that year.
One year later, the Shanghai grand prix circuit was inaugurated, reflecting the growing interest in motors during the new millennium. And today, the number of cars in Beijing is creeping towards six million, while car ownership throughout China is a staggering 172 million. There are nearly 300 million licensed drivers: the vast majority qualified within the last 10 years. What do they all do in their spare time? The Chinese version of Top Gear is one of the country’s most popular television shows, attracting more than 200 million viewers since it was launched.
These are almost incomprehensible numbers, yet China is still experiencing the very early days of its automotive culture. Who knows how far it will go? That’s why car manufacturers – and, by extension, Formula 1®, is so eager to establish a strong presence there. We are talking about the most monstrous emerging market in motoring history: like a four-wheeled version of the Californian Gold Rush.
Already, aside from Ma Qing Hua, there are some established motorsport stars. ‘Franky’ Cheng is probably the best known, although his birth name is surely worthy of note: Cheng Cong Fu.
Franky has been a factory driver for Mercedes, Volkswagen and now Audi, competing in the DTM, Nurburgring 24 Hours, Le Mans 24 Hours and other endurance series. His best Le Mans result was third in LMP2, while he was Mika Hakkinen’s team mate in the Zhuhai Six Hours, driving a Mercedes SLS AMG.
Aged 32, Cheng is now one of the Chinese racing veterans, along with 34-year-old Ho Pin Tung, a Chinese driver (actually born in the Netherlands) who was nonetheless the first Chinese man to race in Indycar.
Not only that, but he actually beat Ma Qing Hua to the accolade of being the first Chinese driver in a Formula 1® car (when he tested a Williams FW24 in 2003, although he never took part in an official grand prix session, despite subsequently becoming a test driver for BMW-Sauber and then Renault).
They may not be especially famous now, but history will record these drivers as the pioneers in a Chinese motorsport revolution. Expect many more to follow them.