Ma Qing Hua made his first appearance as a Caterham F1 driver in the opening practice session at his home grand prix amid concerns that China has yet to embrace the sport as fully as its participants would have hoped.
McLaren and FOTA head Martin Whitmarsh has already expressed concerns that F1 has not realised its full potential since making its debut at the Shanghai International Circuit in 2004, while the country itself has not been in a position to push talent towards the top flight, with Ma the first to break through and not necessarily by talent alone.
“I'm worried about China,” Whitmarsh told the AP
news agency in the build-up to this year's grand prix, “The potential is huge, the importance is massive and we must make it successful there. We need to work a little harder. As a sport, we are a little bit arrogant – we assume that we'll arrive and people will want to come to see us. But China doesn't need us….”
Ma, meanwhile, has another take on the situation, claiming that the sport still needs time to impact on the public, although he quickly points out that 'F1 is already a top five sport and growing very fast'.
"Motorsport is still a new sport in China,” he told the People's Daily
, “It has only been developing here for around 15 years, and the people still don't really understand the sport, especially the F1. However, we are growing up very fast. In the past ten years, we saw a huge change from zero to now having F1 and a lot of international racing in China. We now have a lot of local championships, for go-karts, formula and touring cars, so it's already been developing a lot in a short time."
Having made several similar appearances with the now-defunct HRT squad in 2012, Ma got to drive in front of his compatriots as Caterham slotted him into Charles Pic's car for the opening practice session of the Shanghai weekend.
“It was a very proud moment for me to be the first Chinese driver to take part in an F1 session in my home country but, to be honest, I was focusing on doing my job,” he reported, “I'm pleased with how it went, and I want to thank Caterham for this chance and for helping make me so comfortable in the car and all weekend.
“We did 20 laps and my times kept coming down as I was more and more comfortable with the car. It felt like we had a slight issue towards the end of the session that cut the fourth run short but, after a few checks, it looked like a sensor problem, so I was able to finish the session with a car that felt good with the final changes we made.”
The 25-year old ended the 90-minute session six seconds off the pace of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes, and 1.5secs slower than team-mate Giedo van der Garde, bringing up the rear of the 22-car field. While admitting that seeing his relationship with HRT disappear along with the Spanish outfit, he is determined to build anew with Caterham, which has also signed him as one of its drivers in the GP2 Series.