Time to overtake

Racing ace aims for grand prix breakthrough

Time to overtake

Tung: could this man be China's first Formula One driver?

The raw material seems to be there, says racing legend Michael Schumacher. Chinese taxi drivers are able to execute sudden and flashy turns, he muses. They drive very fast. So for the former German motor racing champion it is “simply weird” that China has yet to produce a Formula One driver.

It is not for the want of trying. Shanghai got a slot on the Formula One race calendar in 2004, and this year – for the first time – Beijing also hosted the Race of Champions event. The races took place in the Bird’s Nest stadium – home of China’s Olympic triumph – and saw the likes of Schumacher compete.

However, Chinese eyes were on the performance of Tung Ho-pin, the driver thought to be China’s best hope to claim one of the eight unfilled seats in a Formula One team next season.

Tung – who turns 27 next month and was born in Holland – beat 15 other Chinese drivers to earn the right to represent China in the Race of Champions Nations Cup. He got to the semi-final before being beaten by F1 champion, Jenson Button.

“It’s great to race here. It’s my first time in the Race of Champions and also in the Bird’s Nest. It’s a big honour to drive against the world’s best,” Tung told the China Daily. “It’s a great achievement as it is China’s first participation in the event.”

The Race of Champions – now in its twentieth year – brings together the best rally and F1 racing drivers. The organisers added the Nations Cup in 1999 so as to determine the world’s fastest motorsports nation. At this month’s Beijing event Germany won for the third consecutive year.

Nor was this Tung’s first taste of glory. In 2007 he earned a podium finish for China in the A1 Grand Prix series – a competition known as ‘the world cup of motorsport’. Having won the Asian Formula BMW Championship, he had climbed another rung on the professional ladder in 2004 by becoming a test driver for F1’s BMW-Williams team.

He has since been driving in GP2 – the racing division below F1 – but reckons he is now ready to make the leap to the top echelons of the sport.

“My experience, my general speed and my knowledge about cars has improved in recent years,” says Tung. “F1 is still my dream. You have to take the opportunity when it is there and be ready when it’s available. At the moment we are pushing hard.” In fact, Deng’s manager Bert Winkler is increasingly optimistic it is going to happen.

“The discussions we have had with teams are positive,” he says. “They absolutely want Ho-pin in a F1 car. However, we need some partners. We are close to making a deal with some people. We still need some more Chinese companies to give us some back-up. It’s 50-50 that Ho-pin will be in a F1 car next year.”

The chances are probably better than 50-50 if F1 supremo, Bernie Ecclestone has anything to do with it. The Briton is keen to grow F1 in China but thus far he’s been disappointed by falling attendances at the Shanghai Grand Prix. Ecclestone thinks that “only if China has its own F1 drivers can F1 really take root in China.”

With three new teams now set to join F1 this season – and an unprecedented number of drivers switching cars – there has never been a better opportunity for Ecclestone (and Tung) to get their wish.

But as China Youth Daily points out, F1’s development in the country remains embryonic. It cites the former general manager of the Zhuhai circuit as saying the country still lacks “driving talent” – primarily due to a lack of training opportunities at the grassroots level.

In countries like Germany and the UK, young drivers start out on the go-kart circuit and there is steady progression – fully sponsored for young talents like Lewis Hamilton – towards the glory of F1.

In China that infrastructure is still lacking – most especially the corporate support. China Youth Daily gives the example of Xu Jia, a 16 year-old driving prodigy, who is worried that he won’t be able to continue in the sport: “I’m spending Rmb200,000 per year and I do not know how long my family can bear this cost. I would like to have a sponsor – just like many foreign peers. But I know that such conditions do not exist in China yet.”

So until local companies like Geely get excited about F1 – and start sponsoring young drivers – the starting grid will retain a distinctly un-Chinese flavour.

Michael Schumacher may find it strange, but that’s the commercial reality.

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