Chinese New Year is upon us and as we say goodbye to another year of the Ox, and welcome in the year of the Tiger, Badger is posing a question: why is there no year of the Badger?
Actually, no, we’re asking a more sensible question: why has China, the most populated country on earth, never produced a Formula One driver?
In asking this you can’t avoid comparing China with the undoubted home of Asian motorsport, Japan, which to date has produced 20 F1 drivers. Okay, they range from the quick-but-erratic (Takuma Sato) to the downright useless (Yuji Ide) but they’ve made the grid nonetheless. Sato even has a podium to his name, as does Aguri Suzuki.
The big difference is that Japan is home to some of the world’s largest car manufacturers, notably Honda and Toyota, who have paved the way for Japanese racers to make it. Sato is one of many who got to F1 on the back of Honda support, whilst Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi were both helped in by Toyota. Only Kobayashi has managed to stick around on talent alone.
China doesn’t have a major car manufacturer pushing its drivers towards F1. Nor does it have a major sponsor in the sport. Jordan were backed by TV station CCTV in 2003, whilst McLaren have run with the logos of Aigo, an MP3 manufacturer, since 2006. But neither deal was for big money- you’d be forgiven for not having noticed these names on the cars. In 2008 Williams ran with Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo heavily featured on their cars, but the deal only lasted one season.
So Chinese drivers are already at a disadvantage to their Japanese counterparts. This is only made worse by the fact that the switch from Asian to European racing- a must to make it to Formula One- isn’t an easy one. Culturally it’s another planet, much greater than the leap from South America to Europe. Getting to grips with a whole new way of life, whilst also trying to impress in a new racing series, isn’t easy.
Chinese hopes took another knock with the collapse of A1GP- the so-called world cup of motorsport- late last year. If nothing else A1GP gave drivers from countries like China a chance to race across the globe against some very talented opposition. The experience was vital, and, for Chinese racers, it’ll be missed.
But there is a beacon of hope in the form of new Reanult test driver Ho-Pin Tung. Born in the Netherlands of Chinese parentage- he races under a Chinese licence- Tung was German F3 champion in 2006 and has raced, albeit without success, in GP2. Will he be the man to end China’s F1 drought?
Well, maybe, though it will depend on how he does upon his return to GP2 this year. Unfortunately for Tung he’s up against a quick teammate in Jerome d’Ambrosio, who apart from having a great name also made then-teammate Kamui Kobayashi look ordinary last season. Yes, Kamui went on to race in F1, but he had Toyota to help him out. Remember what we said about no major Chinese car manufacturers?
But Tung has a fair bit of sponsorship behind him and could well find himself a seat with a team looking for a bit of cash. At 27 he’s a bit long in the tooth for a rookie, but he could still be the man to open the door to Chinese racers in F1.
And even if he doesn’t hope isn’t lost. There are a few other young Chinese drivers moving through the ranks, and China’s motorsport scene- like many of the nation’s industries- is growing. There are four or five good race circuits- including the Shanghai International Circuit, home to the Chinese Grand Prix since 2004- as well as the street circuit in Macau. A former Portuguese colony handed back to China in 1999, Macau annually hosts a prestigious Formula 3 race, won in the past by many drivers on their way to F1.
China is a complex country- far to complex to get in to here- but it’s also a country forging ahead in many walks of life, not least the car industry. You have to think that at some point in the not too distant future they’ll produce a racer worthy of a place on the F1 grid- or a Chinese company will stump up the cash to place someone in a seat. Don’t bet against a few Chinese drivers making their bow before the next year of the Tiger rolls around twelve years from now.