China 'needs another Yao Ming' to boost profile of motor racing

Rising mainland driver Sun Zheng says having a Formula One, or F3, Chinese star would help transform the sport in the nation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 10:57pm

What will it take for China to take an interest in motor racing? Sun Zheng, one of the mainland's rising stars, is in no doubt.

"Like Yao Ming in the NBA - we need someone like that," says the 21-year-old Beijing driver, racing for Galaxy Double R at the Macau Grand Prix this weekend. "We need a formula car driver, a very fast one. Maybe not Formula One, that might be too far away, but maybe Formula 3 - or winning in Macau can help."

So is Sun the man? This year he won the British Formula 3 National Class, a cheaper, easier-to-entry category than the main International Class and has impressed in the Audi R8 LMS Cup; last year he won the China Formula Grand Prix series, an open-wheel championship with cars co-designed by mainland company Geely.

We need a formula car driver, a very fast one. Maybe not Formula One, that might be too far away
Driver Sun Zheng

"I hope it can be me [to inspire a new generation of Chinese racers], but if not I'd like to help younger kids to be the one. I think there's some good talent coming through. I believe [a Yao-type figure] will transform the sport, but it will take some time. I think there's only three or four overall competing from China in F3 and one in GP2."

Ma Qinghua has so far come the closest to Formula One, as a test driver for HRT and Caterham. Sun, whose family is involved in construction projects and who funds his racing partly through the benevolence of a fellow driver in the Audi series, says his F3 win has raised his profile a little at home - but not a lot.

"Sponsors have shown a bit of interest, but Chinese people don't know motor sport that much yet. Not many [regular] people know about my win, but I think it was a big step to attract Chinese sponsors.

"The market is developing and the marketing of the manufacturers is quite big, but nowadays in China most manufacturers are promoting touring cars and GTs, not formula cars, because we don't have many constructor sponsors so it's hard for Chinese drivers."

Funds permitting, Sun hopes to step up to the next level in F3 next season. He knows a win - or even a decent result - in Macau would be huge in terms of gaining that attention from mainland companies and media, but it looks extremely unlikely.

He starts from last place on the grid in today's Qualification Race for tomorrow's main event after struggling to adapt to the car - a newer model to the one in which he won his title - and the deadly tight Guia street circuit.

"It's my first time in Macau and it's different to any other circuit with the barriers. You can't push it to the limit right away, so it takes time to get to know it.

"[A win here] is very important - F3 in Macau is not only F3, we have drivers from GP2, GP3 [the tiers above] so it's the top level. Getting a good result here means you're good enough to compete and have a good chance to go to bigger teams and it's great for the [Chinese] sponsors because Macau is China.

"[Next year] I'm going to do International class, it's more competitive, you have Ferrari Academy drivers, Red Bull drivers, you're basically racing with future F1 drivers.

"We have to try Formula 3 and then after experiencing this we will decide if I can go up. I'll have to see because there's only a few Chinese doing F3 now."