With his deal to drive for Alfa Romeo in 2022, Shanghai’s Guanyu Zhou became the first full-time Chinese driver in Formula 1 when it was announced on Nov. 15. Zhou, currently in his third season of Formula 2, has four wins to his name and is a championship contender for 2021. He also won the 2021 F3 Asia Title and participated in his first Grand Prix weekend drive FP1 for Alpine at Austria earlier this year.
In 2012, long before Zhou’s time, fellow Shanghai native Ma Qinghua became the first Chinese driver to take part in a Grand Prix weekend when he piloted an HRT at Monza. Ma drove for HRT three more times through 2012, all in FP1. What many don’t know is that Ma came within an inch of becoming China’s first full-time driver six years before Zhou entered F2. Had HRT not folded before the 2013 season, Ma would have partnered with Josef Kral for the team’s 2013 campaign.
Instead, he was left to move to Caterham as a Friday test driver while also competing in what was then known as GP2. His GP2 career was also short-lived as he was eventually replaced by Alexander Rossi, though not before he became the first Chinese driver to drive in a session at the Chinese Grand Prix.
But why was Ma Qinghua only the first Chinese driver to partake in an F1 weekend? And why has motorsport been historically scarce in China? (Weʻre excluding Macau in this discussion for political purposes).
The first proper Formula 1 World Championship was contested in 1950, the year after Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen Square and formally declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. A mixture of mismanagement in cleaning up the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) and disastrous political policies left China in a long period of political, economic, and civil instability.
Only in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Deng Xiaoping took over as Paramount Leader of China, did economic reform and international engagement bring China into the modern age. In 1980, the GDP per capita in China was less than $200. In 2021 that figure sits at $10,000. To put things in criminally simple terms: for the longest time, the money required to finance motorsport was not passing around in the hands of the Chinese population.
The period from 1990 to 2015 in China is often referred to as an economic miracle. The country experienced growth in wealth and affluence at a level which most of us will never bear witness to and occurred in a startlingly short amount of time. Coinciding with this economic boom was a growing interest in international sports for the Chinese government.
When Jiang Zemin consolidated his political position as Paramount Leader in 1993, a period of even further liberalization and development began. Economic growth continued at a near-miraculous rate, and political freedoms were extended debatably as far as they had ever been since 1949. With this continued liberalization came furthered emphasis on a Chinese presence in international sports. In 1994, that emphasis manifested in the city of Zhuhai, where the BPR International GT Endurance Series capped off their season at a short-lived street circuit. This event became the first international motor race in mainland China, technically.
The BPR Global GT Series returned to Zhuhai in 1995, and the event was moved to the newly constructed Zhuhai International Circuit in 1996. The FIA GT Championship also made sporadic appearances at Zhuhai, while the circuit also hosted A1 GP in the 2007-2008 season, and became the promotional center of the China Superbike Series after it was established in 2007.
Currently, Zhuhai is the center of the Hong Kong Touring Car Championship but has not hosted the TCR China Touring Car Championship which is the country’s most prominent domestic series. The circuit was well and truly the center of Chinese motorsport through the ’90s and early 2000s. Most notably, Zhuhai hosted China’s first bid for a spot on the F1 calendar.
Zhuhai nearly brought F1 to Guangdong province in 1999, but was removed from the calendar before the season began because it did not meet standards set by the FIA. The circuit currently holds a Grade 2 rating, with Grade 1 being necessary to host Formula 1 events.
Come 2002, enter Shanghai. The Shanghai Jiushi Group, a partially state-owned joint-venture firm signed a seven-year contract with F1 to host the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit from 2004 through to 2011. The track, designed by Hermann Tilke, can hold 200,000 people and is designed to resemble the Chinese character Shang (上) which can mean “above,” “ascend,” or “go,” among other meanings.
Shanghai has hosted the Chinese Grand Prix every year from 2004 to 2019, and is contracted to run through 2025 as of November 2021. It simply makes sense for Shanghai to be China’s host for F1, despite the appeal of other megacities like Guangdong, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenzhen, and even Beijing. Shanghai is a global hub of finance, shipping, education, and science. It is the most populous urban area in China (by most measurements) with a population of almost 25 million, and an economy backing those numbers. China is a vast country and Shanghai is perhaps the most well-connected city in the country.
While Zhuhai was the first circuit in China to become well and truly engaged in international motorsport, Shanghai has run far with that legacy. From 2005 – 2008 the circuit hosted MotoGP and brought the Australian V8 Supercar Series to China for a one-off round in 2005. Currently, the circuit is also visited by the FIA World Endurance Championship and the GT World Challenge Asia series. With such a prominent circuit sitting in the country’s financial center, certainly more and more Chinese drivers will begin climbing the ranks, right?
Motorsport in China has certainly surged in presence on the shoulders of the Zhuhai and Shanghai Circuits, that much is not up for debate. The China Formula 4 Championship was launched in 2014 and coexisted with Formula Pilota China (2011-2017) from 2014 to 2017. China Formula 4 has expanded the reach of international motorsport to Beijing, Chengdu, Ningbo, Wuhan, and Qinhuangdao, while also making the obligatory visit to Macau’s Guia Circuit. Likewise, China dominates the Formula Renault Asia Cup schedule. As an honorary mention, Beijing and Sanya both hosted rounds of Formula E in the past as well. The domestic presence of motorsport isn’t lacking.
Despite this growing presence and increased integration into the FIA’s worldwide motorsport infrastructure, the domestic Chinese racing series have failed to establish a transparent ladder from the bottom to the top of the motor racing pyramid. Motorsport is still expensive, and as China’s Post-90s generation (the first generation born into a consistently stable and prosperous China) continues to come of age, it makes logistical sense that more families of means will be funding their child’s racing dreams.
But for every Ma Qinghua, for every Guanyu Zhou, for every Ye Yifei, for every Hopin Tung, for every Peter Li, how much young Chinese talent is getting stuck somewhere in the ladder? How many young Chinese drivers are finding themselves without the funding or logistical resources necessary to break into the international motorsport network? To understand why many drivers never make it out of China, we would do well to examine what is unique about those who did.
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