China could finally have its first F1 race
driver in 2013, amid reports emanating from Shanghai that Ma Qing Hua is to be promoted from the occasional testing role to partner Pedro de la Rosa at HRT.
Ma was a surprise addition to the Spanish team's roster ahead of the Silverstone 'young driver' test in July, but has since been given a handful of Friday morning practice outings with the squad, mostly at the expense of Narain Karthikeyan. Now, with the Indian rumoured to be exploring the IndyCar scene for next year, Ma appears to have earned himself the chance to graduate to the full race line-up.
According to the Tencent
sports channel, the 24-year old Shanghai native was announced as one half of HRT's line-up for 2013 during a press conference in his home city, a move which would make him the first Chinese native to be given a shot at competing in a full grand prix season. Dutch-born Ho-Pin Tung, of course, tested with the Williams team but never actually contested an F1 event.
Ma's latest outing saw him complete the first of three free practice sessions around the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi some 1.6secs off Marussia debutant Max Chilton, and a further 1.4secs off what Karthikeyan would go on to achieve in the quicker evening session. HRT will no doubt be hoping that his place in the squad will bring sponsorship from China, despite having had its fingers burned in a similar experiment with Karthikeyan and India.
Should the deal be ratified by HRT, it is likely that Ma will partner veteran de la Rosa in 2013, the Spaniard having been all but confirmed by team principal Luis Perez Sala in the wake of the Korean Grand Prix. de la Rosa, a renowned test and development driver who spent many seasons working behind the scenes to give McLaren a winning car, also brings a vital Spanish element to the Madrid-based HRT squad as it seeks to embrace its home nation.
Ma's signing would also end any immediate hopes nominated reserve Dani Clos may have of joining de la Rosa in an all-Spanish line-up, the GP2 Series race winner having had his own Friday outings curtailed by the Chinese driver's arrival. Jaime Alguersuari and Giedo van der Garde have both also been linked to HRT, but are thought unlikely to have included the minnow in their plans for next season. Alguersuari is still being talked of as a possible Sauber or Force India pilot, while van der Garde has his immediate sights set on graduating with Caterham.