My life: Ma Qinghua
China's first Formula One driver talks to Nicole Chabot about his journey to the race track
NEUTRAL START I am an only child and was brought up in central Shanghai. Up until the age of 13, my mother, father and I, and my paternal grandparents, lived on the ground floor of a hutong. It was an old apartment, not like the new ones you see in Shanghai now.
We were a standard family in that both my parents worked in a factory, one that specialised in machinery parts. My father was employed as the official driver, transporting goods, staff and customers. As my parents' situation got better and the economy improved, we were able to move to a 14-storey block five minutes' walk from the factory, but my grandparents stayed behind in the hutong.
THE WHEEL THING Fifteen years ago, cars were a new thing in China. Driving was something only a few people could do and it was a big deal to have access to a car, so my father was in a privileged position. Sometimes he would take me out in the company car - a Volkswagen Santana - so I knew from a very early age what driving was about. When I was little, almost all of my toys were cars or car related. I started go-karting at eight years old. My first thought was that it was a little scary, but my father urged me to be "more like a man". "You have to be strong, don't be afraid - it's just driving a car," he said. During the first lap I was very nervous, but at the end of the first session I was asking if we could do it again.
After that, we went every weekend. Go-karting became more and more popular in Shanghai, which led to the organisation of races, which weren't split into age group or gender; everyone raced together. I did my first aged eight, and I finished fifth or seventh overall, out of 70 or 80 people. When I was nine, I started professional karting, and, in 2000, I participated in my first professional championship race in China. I was 12 years old.
TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE KART I started driving with Formula Campus, Formula Renault, Formula Three; then a little bit of A1 Grand Prix, followed by touring cars in China. But the biggest highlight of my career so far has been the move to Formula One this year. The season started in March and it's been good we've done a very good job of working as a team [Ma is a member of the HRT Formula One Team, from Spain]. Our first driver is Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa - a very good driver, and very experienced. He has competed in more than 100 Formula One races. I think he started his Formula One career before I was born. Our second driver is Narain Karthikeyan, the first Indian Formula One driver; he is also quite experienced, having been in Formula One since 2003. I am the test driver and we have another young driver, from Spain. Normally, a team has two official drivers and one to three test drivers. To be an official driver, you have to get some mileage as a test driver first.
BURNING RUBBER By the time I entered high school, I was already travelling a lot. By the age of 13 or 14, I was racing outside of Shanghai six to eight times a year. When I went back, I would take extra classes to catch up; my maths and language teachers would stay late with me to teach me one on one.
In 2008, at the age of 21, I went to Britain to attend Loughborough University, which specialises in sports, and studied a two-year degree in sports technology, although due to a lack of participants that course no longer exists. I couldn't understand what was being said when I first went to the university and I never learned proper English, but I kept on talking, talking.
Like my school days, I was very busy travelling while at Loughborough. I would leave for two weeks and come back for one. I didn't really enjoy living in Britain. It was far from home and I had few friends - my classmates lived quite far from the school. There was little to life beyond the gym, school and my home.
Before Britain, in 2005, I lived in Belgium for three months - I have lived in various parts of Europe for a few months at a time. Now, I spend half my time in Shanghai and the other half in Madrid, Spain.
ALL REVVED UP I train every day. If it's not a race weekend, I do physical training for two or three hours a day. I do cross training, including tennis, table-tennis and football. Sometimes I do simulator training to get to know a circuit and to get the feeling of being in the car. And I go through mental training, including race starts and reaction times.
Hopefully, next year I will be an offi-cial Formula One driver, though this depends on the team's plans. Whatever happens, I will, of course, do some of the testing for HRT.
I feel very proud of being Chinese and very lucky to be the first Chinese Formula One driver. For me, this is just the beginning. I want to be a driver for the long term, not just someone who drives for a few seasons. Hopefully, in the future, I will win a world championship.