Ma Qinghua hopes to be driving force for F1 in China
The Shanghai native thrilled local fans by taking part in a practice session for the Caterham team, a first for a Chinese driver
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 round 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," said Ma, 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.
"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."
Heavily backed financially by authorities in Shanghai, Ma featured in several testing sessions last year for now defunct team HRT. Now with Caterham, he also races in the GP2 Series, a training ground for aspiring Formula One drivers.
Ma said 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 and also we have more and more local championships in karting, touring cars and there's more people doing business motorsports," 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."
Tom Webb, Caterham head of communications, admitted that 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."
Meanwhile, Ferrari's Felipe Massa set an "incredible" pace to top the timesheets at the end of practice yesterday after Nico Rosberg had led a Mercedes one-two in the morning session.
"In terms of everybody else on the tyre, the pace is not good, it's incredible," declared the Brazilian's race engineer Rob Smedley after Massa set a quickest time of one minute 35.340 on the soft Pirelli tyre.
Kimi Raikkonen, winner of the Melbourne season-opener in March, was second fastest for Lotus in 1:35.492.