China’s first and only Formula One driver set another landmark yesterday just by taking part in his home Grand Prix weekend in Shanghai, saying he hopes to inspire a new generation of fans and racers.
Ma Qinghua may have clocked the slowest time of the session, but when he took to the circuit during morning practice he became the only Chinese driver to have featured in a Chinese Grand Prix weekend, adding to a growing list of “firsts.”
The 25-year-old, a reserve driver for Caterham, brought up the rear just behind teammate Giedo van der Garde.
Not that his lap time appeared to matter to home fans and media, who crowded around the Shanghai native, scrambling for his signature and posing for photos with their Formula One trailblazer.
“I hope I can be a big help for Chinese motorsports,” Ma said, speaking comfortably in English.
“It is a new sport in China and it’s becoming very popular very fast. During these recent years we’ve seen more and more people watching the race and coming to the circuit,” he said.
“They’ve got their own idol driver now and I believe this weekend there will be lots of fans. They came to support me and I’m very happy for them,” he added.
Heavily backed financially by authorities in Shanghai, Ma featured in several testing sessions last year for the now defunct team HRT. Now with Caterham, he also races in the GP2 Series, a training ground for aspiring Formula One drivers.
Ma told reporters ahead of tomorrow’s race — in which he will not take part unless one of the lead drivers has to pull out — that there had been a noticeable boom in the popularity of motorsport in China.
“In the last five years there has been a lot of young people starting careers in professional motorsports. We also have more and more local championships in karting and touring cars, and there’s more people doing business in motorsports,” he said.
Reflecting on how he first got into a sport that still does not have broad appeal in China, Ma said: “When I was seven there was one day my parents took me to play something at the weekend, but they saw a go-kart circuit near my home. At that time we didn’t know what a go-kart was.”
“After that I knew that Formula One was the top of motorsport, and I thought: ‘Yes, I want to do that.’ Remember, even now motorsport is very new in China, so when my parents were young they knew nothing about motorsports and nothing about Formula One,” he said.
Ma admitted that it was taking a little bit of time to get used to his new-found fame in China, especially in his home city.
“There has been a big change from last year to this year,” he said.
“I start having a bit of trouble to walk freely in the street. It has changed and it is changing all the time, but now I see more and more young Chinese people taking part in international races, in Britain, Europe and Asia, all over the world,” Ma added.
Caterham head of communications Tom Webb admitted there were obvious commercial reasons in handing Ma a chance.
“Having drivers from anywhere where there are maturing [Formula One] markets is a good thing,” he said. “We also have Alexander Rossi [from the US] on our books and America, now hosting one of the most successful races that’s been brought to Formula One in a long time, also needs that hero figure.”