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Why East Asia struggles to produce F1 drivers

by Ida Wood

Photo: AFR Media

An underlying trend in motor racing is the lack of overseas success for east Asian drivers.

The Asian peninsula has historically struggled to make an impact, and bar the powerhouse of Japan, there has been little productivity in the eastern and southern areas of the continent. B. Bira, Prince of Thailand (think the Ferdinand Habsburg of his day) made his mark on grand prix racing in the 1940s and ’50s, but only Malaysia’s Alex Yoong and Indonesia’s Rio Haryanto have competed in Formula 1 in the 21st century.

One country that has noticeably failed to produce a driver of Formula 1 standard is China. As its population continues to increase, the chances of one of its 1.41 billion citizens being the next Lewis Hamilton should be doing the same.

The number of drivers from China and the surrounding nations entering international championships has increased, and they are achieving considerably more success, but not to the levels predicted 20 years ago.

Despite being the second biggest economy in the world (according to a 2017 IMF forecast), the People’s Republic of China is still considered a developing country. Its GDP per capita is considerably less than that of developed countries, not assisted by the fact that over one-sixth of the population lives in poverty. It is also behind on its market reforms, although this has not harmed its influence in the global economy, which has come off its rapid economic ascendance since 1978.

In 1999, the economy was growing at 7.1%. Since then the GDP/capita has almost tripled, and 14 permanent and temporary motor racing circuits have appeared on the mainland. The Shanghai International Circuit has hosted F1 races since its inception in 2004, while two other tracks have hosted events with world championship status.

Permanent circuits built in China since 2000 that meet FIA Grade 4/capable of hosting F4

Goldenport Park Circuit – 2001 – Grade 3
Shanghai International Circuit – 2004 – Grade 1
Shanghai Tianma Circuit – 2004 – Grade 4
Chengdu Goldenport Circuit – 2007 – Grade 2
Guangdong International Circuit – 2009 – Grade 3
Ordos International Circuit – 2010 – Grade 2
Jiangsu Wantrack International – 2014 – Grade 4
Zhejiang International Circuit – 2016 – Grade 2
Ningbo International Speedway – 2017 – Grade 2

While some circuits have not been realised as imagined, often wishful real estate projects for wealthy investors, there have been others such as the recently opened and Geely-owned Ningbo International Speedway that have already earned a reputation for the driving challenge they present.

Ningbo cost approximately 900 million yuan to build, over £102 million using the most recent currency exchange rates, and has hosted China’s Formula 4 and touring car championships, and a round of the World Touring Car Championship.

With a bit of everything, it’s one of the best tracks for drivers to learn their craft. It’s also less than a five-hour drive from Shanghai, the equivalent of travelling to Croft Circuit from London. An easy tick for the accessibility box.

Chinese F4 visited twice in 2017, and will do so three times this year. The Asian Formula 3 Championship will be visiting twice, and the Asian Formula Renault championship once. Outside of these occasions, the chances of drivers visiting the circuit in 2018 could be slim, with complaints of high testing costs and poor communication from circuit management, while the track doesn’t exist on popular simulators yet.

Weather conditions can also be an issue. Many drivers who travelled to Asia over the winter of 2017/18 were met by several inches of snow. In the summer, there’s a chance their track time may be interrupted by a monsoon.

Simulators have almost acted as safety nets for budding drivers lacking in funds, as they can undertake preparation and improve their driving without the cost of visiting a track, and potentially crashing a car in difficult conditions, although access to them isn’t free either.

With an average monthly income in its biggest cities that looks similar to Eastern Europe, detailed at-home simulators aren’t common, and it should then be no surprise that there are still few Chinese drivers who are making a start in single-seaters.


Foreign drivers that have the money occasionally do race in the junior branches of Asia. Sauber’s 2017 stand-in Antonio Giovinazzi learnt his craft in Formula Masters China thanks to the assistance of Sean Gelael’s father Ricardo, which evolved into the recognisable ‘Jagonya Ayam’ support that several drivers receive today.

Prices are cheaper than Europe too. Belgian teenager Ugo de Wilde said the relative low cost of F4 South East Asia was ‘too good to pass up’ after making his debut this year. The same can’t be said for most of the locals.

Zhuhai, the first of the Chinese tracks and where most teams are based, is the de facto circuit to use for testing. It’s close to Hong Kong, assisting international drivers, is open at least three days every week for testing, and is the cheapest as there is no shipping, travel or hotel costs for the teams. It’s not the most representative track though, and is used primarily for car development due to its brake-heavy nature.

Times are changing. The 13th ‘Five Year Plan’ for the Chinese economy began in 2016, and should make motorsport a pursuable path for a greater percentage of the population.

The lack of single-seater drivers cannot solely be blamed on economic mismanagement. For a start, it’s the huge growth of the Asian Tigers economies and newly industrialised countries that has enabled motorsport to have a modern presence in the region in the first place.

There is no motorsport heritage in East Asia. Despite the talk of manufacturers, investors and Liberty Media on the importance of the Asian market, it’s a trickle down system of investment.

Geely, which owns Volvo, does have a hand in Chinese F4 (and China Formula Grand Prix), and Renault runs the ‘Road to Champion’ scheme as well as supporting AFR. Formula Masters, Asian F3’s predecessor, has also benefited from Audi’s investment in GT racing on the continent.

BMW coupled its early 21st century involvement in F1 with Formula BMW, and the Pacific series helped launch the careers of several drivers. Between 2005-’08, the best FBMW drivers from across the globe were invited to the World Final, which offered a prize F1 test and far greater exposure than Asia alone could offer. Once BMW pulled the plug on its F1 team, the writing was on the wall for its junior championships, and FBMW Pacific lasted two years without manufacturer support before folding.

Photo: McQueeny

Another beneficiary of rapid industrialisation and economic growth in the late ’90s and early ’00s was Malaysia, despite being hit by the Asian Financial Crisis. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was able to invest in a series of large infrastructure projects, one of which was the Sepang International Circuit.

Sepang was the first track to be designed by Herman Tilke, and there was disappointment when the Malaysian Grand Prix vacated its spot on the F1 calendar at the end of 2017 due to high hosting fees and low ticket sales.

One man who wasn’t surprised was Alex Yoong, Malaysia’s first and only F1 driver.

“It has been a 20-year marketing exercise and marketing exercises have shelf lives. So I’ve felt for a few years now it was coming to its end,” Yoong told Malaysian news last year.

If it doesn’t serve as a marketing exercise, what are the tangible benefits?

“Do you get enough money from gate receipts or do you get enough money sponsorships to justify the fee that F1 charges. The answer to that is no,” he explained.

The short-lived Kuala Lumpur City Grand Prix can be seen in the same light: a marketing exercise designed for short term gain. Although a rather harsh description of Yoong’s motorsport achievements, his presence in F1 was an extention of that marketing exercise.

East Asian stars of the past

B. Bira – 8th in 1950 F1, 1947 & ’54 Frontieres GP winner, 1948 Stockholm & Zandvoort GP winner, 1946 Ulster Trophy winner, 1937 & ’38 Campbell Trophy winner
Alex Yoong – 20th in 2002 F1, 5th in 2005-06 A1GP, 10th in 1999 Auto GP, 16th in 2001 Super Formula – 7th in 1999 Macau GP, 2nd in 1995 FAsia
Rio Haryanto – 24th in 2016 F1, 4th in 2015 GP2, 5th in 2010 GP3, 7th in 2011 Auto GP – 2009 FBMW Pacific champion, 3rd in 2008 FAsia 2.0, 6th in 2008 AFR
Andre Couto – 7th in 2002 FV8 3.5, 11th in 2001 Super Formula, 11th in 1998 Int. F3000, 2nd in 1997 Italian F3 – 2000 Macau GP winner, 5th in 1997 Macau GP, 6th in 1995 Macau GP, 7th in 1998 Macau GP, 8th in 1996 Macau GP
Jazeman Jaafar – 8th in 2015 FV8 3.5, 10th in 2014 FV8 3.5, 2nd in 2012 British F3, 7th in FIA F3 Int. Trophy – 8th in 2011 Macau GP, 2007 FBMW Asia champion, 3rd in 2006 AFR
Ho Pin Tung
18th in 2008 GP2, 2006 German F3 champion, 3rd in 2005 German F3 2003 FBMW Asia champion
Fairuz Fauzy – 2nd in 2009 FV8 3.5, 4th in 2008 GP2 Asia, 5th in 2005-06 A1GP, 12th in 2004 British F3
Marlon Stockinger – 9th in 2014 FV8 3.5, 10th in 2012 GP3, 8th in 2010 FR2.0 UK – 8th in 2008 FBMW Pacific
Sandy Stuvik – 17th in 2015 GP3, 2014 EF Open champion, 2nd in 2013 EF Open – 2010 AFR champion, 2010 AFR Winter Cup champion

What doesn’t make sense is the continuous deficient investment in Malaysia and its neighbours, whether that be on young racing drivers or the car industry in general.

According to market research from 2014, car ownership in Malaysia is above 93 percent. The preferred form of entertainment on wheels though is motorcycle racing, which pulls in capacity crowds every year for its grand prix.

Future F1 drivers are recommended to start their careers in karts, while aspiring motorcyclists learn their skills on a motorbike. The lack of quantity and quality in the karting arena is a symptom of this trickle down, marketing-led investment system.

Renault’s Road to Champion scheme was set up in 2016, and provided the best Chinese driver in the final three rounds of AFR a scholarship, provided by the Renault F1 team, for a full season of racing in Europe. Winner Marcus Song was still doing AFR a year later, and so the 2017 prize wasn’t as grand as what the previous year’s had promised.

The entry requirements also changed, with the required age of entrants expanding to encompass 12 to 55-year-olds. The top prize was now a paid drive in AFR or Renault Clio Cup China, as well as an invite to the FR Eurocup rookie test, with a separate system of prizes and rewards for top karters at all participating karting clubs in the country.

Although it wasn’t helping drivers to Europe anymore, there was now a legitimate incentive for young Chinese to enter karting, even if Renault’s proactivity to find ‘the first Chinese F1 driver’ is simply a marketing ploy.

Driver development, support and exposure is lacking. Firms don’t want to invest in the next Lewis Hamilton, they want to put their money in the finished product.

For those that do overcome all the difficulties mentioned above, and have proven themselves as talented drivers, why is it that they still fail to make an impact in Europe?

It’s the culture shock.

Despite its status as a global superpower, China still has an issue with multiculturalism. Historically, there has been mass segregation, including to an extent the “lost generation” that arose from the Cultural Revolution. In more modern times, it is the lack of integration of foreign communities that has really pegged back China’s desire to be a global country.

In Guangzhou, China’s second biggest city, the African community is often dubbed “Chocolate City” by the locals, and almost 50% of the city’s population are migrants. Nationwide this kind of percentage isn’t common as religious and cultural freedom is limited.

The hostilities mean these communities scarcely exist outside of international trade hubs, and many young Chinese people have little experience of other cultures outside of holidays.

It would be harsh to say nothing is being done about this, as the Party continues its push to improve China’s international image, but in real terms it’s what is to be attributed for Chinese drivers struggling with the culture shock if and when they make the switch to Europe.

Junior single-seaters in Asia can often be better described as for ‘gentlemen’

Asian F3 team BlackArts Racing is working to improve things, and is providing support for Asian drivers at home and abroad.

Josh Evans, general manager at BAR, has been leading the team’s expansion into Europe, which has been delayed a year as the team concentrates on its new Asian F3 programme.

“I think it’s really to give a bit more of a clear pathway for drivers in Asia to get to Europe,” said Evans of BAR’s European expansion.

“Everyone wants to get to Europe, to get into F1 or professional motorsport. It’s a big step, coming from the other side of the world: different culture, different climate. If we can try and break down some of those barriers, so a young driver in Asia could start with us in F4, go to AFR, [then] step up to FR NEC.”

At the time of the interview, BAR and 2017 AFR champion Charles Leong intended to move together to FR NEC with a Silverstone base. The arrival of Asian F3 has since changed both their plans, but BAR still intends to compete in regional F3 or FR2.0 in Europe.

“This makes it a little bit easier, more streamlined. You know, they can already feel comfortable with the team, the people they’re working with, the coaches, that help them.”

The coaching line-up at BAR includes Super Formula driver and European F3 winner Nick Cassidy, and former AFR champions Dan Wells and Josh Burdon. Higher quality driver coaches has led to a stronger belief in Asian drivers making it to F1.