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Formula 1 Has Long Been Part of Asian Racing

But More Races in Asia Now Than Ever

By

The Caterham team may be named after a British sports car, but it is owned by the Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes and is based partly in Malaysia, with Malaysian money pouring in; a Japanese driver, Kamui Kobayashi, races at the Sauber team and is proving to be one of the best Japanese drivers to have raced in Formula 1; the HRT team has an Indian driver, Narain Karthikeyan, and there is also an Indian-owned team, Force India.

For the first time in the series' history, a Chinese driver drove a Formula 1 car during a Grand Prix weekend, in the Friday morning practice session at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2012. That driver was Ma Qing Hua.

''I feel very lucky to be the first driver,'' he said, ''and I am very proud of my country, China, it is the first time at this very high level of formula racing.''

With his country having hosted a Grand Prix race since 2004, in Shanghai, Ma said that China had in fact been developing Formula 1 more quickly than it appears.

''Formula 1 started at about the same time as all motor sports in China,'' he said. ''At that time, I was racing go-karts, so we have grown up pretty quickly. In China, we started all of motor sports, like rally cars, in around 2000, really. So it is very quick. No country can have motor sports develop a Formula 1 driver in only 10 years as China has done.''

Thanks to government funding in various domains, China has historically excelled at producing circus performers, Olympic athletes and chess players, and Ma said the country has started doing the same for racing drivers.

''The F.A.S.C., the Federation of Automobile Sports of China, has already started to support a lot of young drivers, from go-karts to other categories of car racing, and I was supported by the F.A.S.C. when I was in Formula Campus Asia series,'' he said. ''I think motor sports can go very far in the future in China.''

Asia in general is one of the most important regions for Formula 1 team sponsors and the strategic development of the series.

''Asia is, irrespective of the driver, a very important market for each team,'' said Monisha Kaltenborn, the team principal and part owner of the Sauber team, ''because looking at the races - especially now in India that is still so new to Formula 1 - there are so many brands that want to establish themselves there. Hopefully there will be Indian brands that want to use this brand to establish themselves globally.

''So it's a give and take situation in both directions,'' she added. ''Asia is definitely, next to the Americas, an upcoming market.''

But what will it take for the region to truly take off and become a stronger power in the series? According to Pedro de la Rosa, a Spanish driver at the Spanish HRT team, Asia needs a winning driver.

''What it takes is you need a hero just to light the fire,'' he said, adding that it could happen quickly. ''Spain is a good example. I was there before Alonso; he came, he transformed the sport in our country - for which I'm very grateful - and now we have this Spanish team in Formula 1. All of this would not have been possible if we did not have the 'Fernando effect.' Because now we have a national interest, and this is crucial for having companies, teams, drivers developing.''

But to do that, a country also needs to have a racing culture in which the driver can develop. This is what has helped India to be one of the most successful of the new Grand Prix races.

''We have been following racing for a long time,'' said Karthikeyan, the Indian driver at the HRT team. ''The British had motor races in India even in the early 1920s - and once a year we had the big Madras Grand Prix, and in the '80s it was quite big. We have always had rallying, which was also quite big.''

But he pointed out that they had had very basic cars.

''The first single-seater that was ever mass produced was powered by a Suzuki 3-cylinder engine and produced 40 horsepower,'' he said. ''We didn't have go-karting. So obviously with the exposure to Formula 1 since I got in, in 2005, and then Force India came in, people started following it quite a bit. But now as we speak, India has a good series that has been introduced, based on a Formula 3 Dallara car, and it is probably the fastest one-make series in Asia now, including Japan.

''But India is still a developing country, and to find money for racing is still not a priority,'' Karthikeyan added. ''And cricket is a very big sport in our country, and it sucks up all the money.''

Japan, on the other hand, has a big car-manufacturing industry - with companies such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan - as well as a motor sports history, where China has only the recent industry of the car manufacturing, so there was little inherent culture.

Yet Kobayashi noted that he had grown up in Japan in karting, although he had no idea of watching Formula 1.

''When I started racing karts, I didn't know Formula 1 because my family was not interested in motor sports,'' Kobayashi said. ''I was just interested in driving a car, and I kept saying I wanted to drive a car. And one day I saw go karts on the television, and that was the start of my history.''

''I did not start looking at Formula 1 until I was around 17 or 18, when I came to Europe to race in cars,'' he said, adding that he had been supported by Toyota.

But the real problem for him, he said, was the timing of the Formula 1 races in Europe.

''I did not watch Formula 1because it was too late, Sunday at 1 a.m., and I needed to go to school and could not keep my eyes open,'' he said. ''Everyone would want to see it if it was at 7 or 8 on Sunday night, in prime time.''

But today, times are literally changing, with so many Grand Prix races being run in Asia.

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