Ma aims to be China's first full-fledged F1 driver

Updated: 2013-04-12 22:49


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SHANGHAI - Ma Qinghua has kept himself upbeat but refused to set a time table after the 25-year-old Shanghai native narrowly missed his chance of becoming the first Chinese-born driver ever to drive a Formula One car at an FIA-sanctioned event.

He could have become China's first ever F1 driver with his former Spanish team HRT, which bowed out of the world championships' 2013 racing season for bankrupcy, and joined Caterham as a test driver.

Driving a Renault in Shanghai International Circuit on Friday, Ma completed his home debut and finished at the bottem of the drivers' classification when Practice One got off this weekend's China Grand Prix.

His fastest time of one minute and 43.545 seconds was nearly 7 seconds behind pace-setter Nico Rosberg of Mercedes.

"We're very pleased to see his practice a successful one," commented Tom Webb, head of communications of Caterham F1 team.

According to the team official, Ma was not expected to run as fast as he can but to just do his test job for the racing car.

"We wanted him to do a number of testing tasks. We asked him to be carefully considerate, not making mistakes, and he did exactly that. We couldn't ask more from a driver at his age and his experience.

"To be honest, the times at the practices today were not important," Webb added. "We didn't ask him to go out try as fast as possible in his laps, because that's not what we required for a FP (free practice) run."

Ma explained himself in the similar sense. "I don't care the results or times or position of myself," he said. "My job is to help the team gather information and prepare for the qualifying sessions and formal races, and in addition to that, I hoped to get myself more experienced. I think I've accomplished both."

The Chinese started his F1 campaign as a member of HRT's driver development program 12 months ago and later made his world championship debut during an official practice session for the team at Italian Grand Prix on Sept 7, 2012 before taking part in practice sessions in Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

He won over the HRT team with his expertise and personality as the team announced in Shanghai early last November that Ma was expected to represent HRT as a full-scale grand prix driver, meaning that the 25-year-old could have become the first F1 driver of China in the 2013 season.

Taking his dream of being an F1 driver away from the bankrupted HRT, Ma joined Caterham last March and set his pace back as a test driver.

"My target of becoming a full-fledged F1 driver is always there. That's for sure," said Ma after Friday's Practice One. "But there's no rush."

"Formula racing is very special. It needs a driver to have acknowlegement in many aspects, not only about driving and technique, but also the cummunicating skills with other members of the team and good understandings of the engine. So my focus now is on learning and getting myself better prepared."

With Friday's performance, Ma also won over his new team, at least Caterham's head of communications.

"He made no mistakes under great pressure from his home crowd, so I think that's a very obvious sign of development," said Webb.

"He was calm, he was sensible, he was mature, and he didn't do what certain of the drivers had done in the past, which was trying to demonstrate he's a quick driver out there...He did exactly what he was told, and the main thing is he did not make mistakes, that beat somebody who has got experience behind them."

Webb saw potentials of Ma to become a "Real" F1 driver. "I think it's fair to say he has the potential to develop into a very exciting talent. He represent his country extremely well. He's dealing well with the pressure, which's distracting. What he has shown is that he can learn above all the distractions well and that he can develop. we cannot ask more for a young driver," he said.

The Caterham official, however, honestly admitted that the F1 team signed Ma partially for commercial benefit.

"I think having drivers manywhere when there's a mature market is a good thing," he said. "We also have Alexandre Rossi from Auburn of America, now hosting one of the most successful races that has been brought to the Formula One for a long time. It also need a hero figure. The American fans need a driver to pin their hopes on. In the same way the Chinese do. So we're lucky that we have relationship with somebody who got a lot of attention here in China."

Ma started racing at the tender age of eight and won the youth National Karting Championship when he was 12. He continued to race and achieved successful results in karting until 2004, when he entered the Asian Formula Renault Series and won the championship.

In 2006 Ma moved to Formula Renault 2.0 NEC, and claimed the title in the Chinese National Karting Championship (Super Group) one year later. In 2008 he drove in Formula 3 Spain and Formula 3 Spain Copa de Espana, finishing 7th in the Copa and managing two podiums.

In 2010 he represented Team China in two races in Superleague Formula before moving onto the Chinese Touring Car Championship in 2011 where he came away with the title after four wins and four podiums in the eight-race season.

Before Ma, Dutch-born Tung Ho-pin was the first ethnic Chinese to be included in a Formula One team's line-up when Renault (now Lotus) named him an official reserve in 2010. Tung was a test driver last season, but wasn't able to move beyond that stage.