The way to F1 goes through Macau
He's young, ambitious and fast. Roberto Merhi could be the next potential superstar to come off the assembly line of aspiring Formula One drivers who cut their teeth at the Macau Grand Prix.
Merhi is certain where he is headed, and many who have followed the dashing 20-year-old Spaniard's career know it's only a matter of time before he might join compatriots Jaime Alguersuari and two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso in the highest echelons of the sport. And he says if he ever makes it to Formula One, he will not be there just to make up the numbers.
'I want racing to be my future job, as I have been dreaming since I was a kid of becoming the world F1 champion. That's why I work very hard every day in my life trying to achieve this,' Merhi said.
There is one matter Merhi has to address before he can even dream about achieving Formula One's lofty status, however. He must conquer next weekend's Macau Grand Prix.
Merhi will return to Macau for the 58th edition of the race and compete for a fourth time, determined to make amends for a qualification race crash last year, which cost him a realistic shot at making the podium. A year earlier, braking problems and a tyre puncture put paid to the young Spaniard's hopes of at least finishing sixth.
Merhi is putting all that disappointment behind him and staying focused on the job. He is expected to make a much bigger impact this time around, especially since joining forces with Prema Powerteam this year and turning his fortunes around.
Few drivers have dominated as Merhi has this season. He won the F3 Euro Series by a country mile, taking the overall championship last month on 406 points, a whopping 121 points ahead of Marco Wittmann of Germany.
Merhi also dominated the inaugural FIA Formula Three International Trophy, a seven-race series of the world's most prestigious Formula Three races that began at Hockenheim in April and ends at Macau. He wrapped up the championship in August, long before the need to slip into his Dallara Mercedes for Macau. He has almost twice as many points as Wittmann, with 118 to Wittmann's 61. Such was Merhi's dominance that his four wins and one second could even afford him one disqualification.
Merhi was disqualified at the Dutch Zandvoort Circuit for causing a collision but that was a blip in an otherwise sensational season that also saw him take his 11th Euro Series win at Hockenheim last month to announce he has truly come of age.
'It has been an incredible year, the best of my career. I had to fight very hard in every race because the level is always very high. We have been very quick all season. Everybody has done a fantastic job, Mercedes, Prema and I garnered a lot of experience as well,' he said.
Merhi first started racing in karts, before competing in Formula Renault in 2007, then moved to Formula Three in 2009, finishing seventh in the Euro Series for Manor Motorsport. But since joining Prema Powerteam at the end of last year he has been almost untouchable, becoming the most dominant driver to win the Euro Series since Britain's Lewis Hamilton achieved 15 wins from 20 races in 2005.
Merhi cannot wait to race in Macau, where he has some unfinished business after his disappointments in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He has always been quick in Macau, especially in pre-qualifying but luck has never been on his side on race day.
'Everybody around me knows that Macau is my favourite circuit in the world. It is the most difficult and it's fascinating. We reach maximum speed in F3 [180-200km/h] because of the long straights. It is the tightest track in the world at some parts of the circuit. It's all very challenging,' he said.
'Winning in Macau would be great. I always felt I was good enough to win there. I have been really quick in qualifying but not quite good enough in the actual race.
'I have encountered many problems in previous races and crashed a few times. I am more experienced now.
'In my opinion Macau is the best open-wheel race in the world and should be open to F1 drivers. I would love to race there every single year.'
Macau is considered the biggest prize in Formula Three, and there will be no shortage of talent from many of the national F3 champions and drivers trying to achieve glory on the famous 6.12km Guia circuit.
Leading the 30-strong line-up is a five-car entry from the French outfit Signature, which helped the Audi DTM ace Edoardo Mortara become the first double winner of the event last year.
Philippe Sinault's F3 Euro Series squad will run four Dallara Volkswagens for their regular drivers, and FIA Formula 3 International Trophy competitors, Wittmann, Laurens Vanthoor (runner-up at Macau last year), Daniel Abt and Carlos Munoz, plus a fifth entry for the Formula Renault North European Cup champion Carlos Sainz Jnr, the son of the former double world rally champion and winner of the Formula BMW Pacific race at Macau last year.
Joining Merhi in Prema Powerteam's Dallara-Mercedes line-up will be his regular Euro Series teammate, Daniel Juncadella. The leading British Formula Three team Carlin will bring four of their six regular drivers this year.
The multiple British F3 race winner Kevin Magnussen, son of the 1994 British F3 champion and former Macau competitor, Jan Magnussen, plus the Trophy racers Carlos Huertas and Jazeman Jaafar will join the newly crowned British F3 champion Felipe Nasr in Carlin's four-strong Dallara-Volkswagen line-up.
The new GP3 champion, Valtteri Bottas of Finland, will return looking to improve on his third position last year. He will team up with Anthony Hieatt's Galaxy Double R Racing outfit, which will run three Dallara Mercedes and whose drivers include Marko Asmer, the 2007 British F3 champion, and Mark Webber's prot?g?Mitch Evans, who finished second in the Australian F3 in 2010, and won races in GP3 this year for MW Arden.