The search for Formula One’s next Asian driver

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The 2013 F1 season looks likely to begin without an Asian driver on the grid. Guest writer Felipe Bomeny (@PortuGoose) looks at where the next Asian talent might be found.

Sebastian Vettel’s 2012 championship victory was unique all of his five race victories occured outside of Europe. The tracks he triumphed at reflect how the sport is moving beyond its Europe heartland and towards new territories, including the growing economies of Asia.

Eight of the circuits on the 2013 calendar are located in Asia and Bernie Ecclestone is planning a new race in Thailand.

But paradoxically, the season-opening 2013 Australian Grand Prix grid is unlikely to feature an Asian representative – something which hasn’t happened for over a decade.

The demise of the GP2 Asia championship also raises question about the future of Asian talent in the sport’s top flight. How has F1 ended up without an Asian driver on the grid this year – and where will the next one come from?

Japan’s F1 interest dwindles

Japan was the first Asian country to embrace Formula One in a big way. But its connection to the sport has been in decline for several years.

The disappearance of Toyota and Honda (and offshoot team Super Aguri) has had a significant effect. Drivers like Takuma Sato, who scored a podium at Indianapolis in 2004, plus Kazuki Nakajima, Sakon Yamamoto and Yuji Ide enjoyed their backing.

But by the end of 2009 Honda, Toyota and their Japanese sponsors had left Formula One, citing the global economic climate as the motive for their exit. Bridgestone followed after 2010. This proved unfortunate timing for the last Japanese driver to enter the sport, Kamui Kobayashi, who made his debut with Toyota in the penultimate race of 2009.

Peter Sauber spotted Kobayashi’s potential and signed him for 2010. He remained at Sauber for three years and peaked with a front-row start in Belgium and a popular podium finish in his home race. But by then his future at the team was in doubt, and the man now considered Japan’s best F1 driver by many (including 1980 world champion Alan Jones) was dropped for 2013.

The disappearance of Japanese engine suppliers and the prohibition of tobacco sponsorship means Japanese drivers are increasingly inclined to look towards domestic series such as Formula Nippon and Super GT. Sato continues to race with Honda backing in IndyCar. Meanwhile F1 teams are looking elsewhere for an Asian Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel.

F1 looks beyond Japan

The introduction of new races in Malaysia (in 1999), India (in 2011) and China (in 2004) has helped connect drivers from those countries with F1 seats, though the latter is yet to see a home-grown driver start a Grand Prix.

HRT brought Karun Chandhok into F1 and hired Narain Karthikeyan, who had already made his F1 debut for Jordan in 2005.

The team also made headlines last year when it ran Ma Qing Hua, who became the first Chinese-born driver to drive a Formula 1 car. But with HRT’s collapse it is unlikely Karthikeyan or Ma will feature in F1 this year.

Tony Fernandes’ Lotus team (now Caterham) made history when they evaluated 15-year-old Nabil Jeffri, the Malaysian becoming the youngest person to drive an F1 car. Fernandes also gave Friday practice session drives to Fairuz Fauzy. However Malaysia is yet to discover a successor to its sole F1 racer to date, Alex Yoong, who last raced in 2002.

In 2011, Fernandes’ rival Eric Bouiller of the former Renault team snagged Fauzy and added him to their testing rostrum, which included Ho-Pin Tung, the first Chinese driver in F1. Dutch-born Tung had previously tested a BMW-powered Williams in 2003 as a reward for winning the inaugural Formula BMW Asia championship.

The Virgin (now Marussia) team also evaluated GP3 talent Rio Haryanto, who became the first Indonesian to drive an F1 car in 2010. Haryanto, who drove for Marussia’s GP2 affiliate Carlin, also tested in 2012 alongside the team’s new race driver Max Chilton.

Asian junior championships

In order to locate and develop potential new Asian talents, several teams have launched initiatives in the continent. Ferrari’s Driver Academy, which recruited rising stars Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi, introduced the Formula Pilota China series, an Asian counterpart to the Italian Formula Abarth championship.

After bring criticised for not including Indian drivers in their lineup, Force India began a search for Indian talent in the “One in a Billion” programme, where the team selected a trio of young karters. The Caterham team runs its young Asian drivers in the JK Asia Series, formerly Formula BMW Pacific.

However the JK Asia Series and Formula Pilota China are yet to yield an Asian champion. The champion of the inaugural Formula Pliota series in 2011, Switzerland’s Matheo Tuscher, graduated to Formula Two last year where he finished as runner-up.

His fellow graduate David Zhu (China) joined him in F2 but enjoyed little success. Another of their competitors from the Chinese series, Japan’s Nobuharu Matsuhita, enjoyed a successful 2012 and won the Formula Challenge Japan title.

Italian Antonio Giovanizzi won last year’s Formula Pilota China series after early leader Shota Kiyohara (Japan) switched focus to another series. Giovinazzi impressed in his Formula Abarth guest drive in Monza where he won two races, one from last on the grid. His team mate Sean Gelael of Indonesia failed to make the same impression in Monza but will partner Giovinazzi in this year’s British Formula Three championship.

The first JK Asia champion was Lucas Auer, nephew of Gerhard Berger, who beat Malaysians Nabil Jeffri and Afiq Ikhwan to the 2011 title. Auer graduated to German F3, finishing as runner-up and rookie champion while Jeffri and Ikhwan remained in the Asian series.

Both Malaysians again lost out, this time to karting graduate Aston Hare of South Africa. Another Malaysan, Caterham’s development driver Weiron Tan, could only manage seventh in the championship with two podiums.

However, the JK Asia Series’ previous incarnation, Formula BMW Asia (later Formula BMW Pacific) did produce Asian champions that fared relatively well in Europe. Ho Pin-Tung went on to win the German Formula 3 Championship, although he struggled in GP2.

The following Formula BMW champion, Marchy Lee of Hong Kong, earned a Minardi test although budgetary issues prompted a switch to sportscars. Teenagers Rio Haryanto and Jazeman Jaafar won the Formula BMW championship and are currently faring well in Europe.

Asian talent in Europe

Some teams have tried to nurture Asian talent by supporting drivers in Europe. In 2003, McLaren added China’s ‘Frankie’ Cheng Congfu to their development program, but the Chinese racer did not show the prowess fellow signee Lewis Hamilton did. Chandhok and Karthikeyan both appeared on the Red Bull driver development programme earlier in their careers.

Last year Red Bull added Anglo-Thai karter Alexander Albon to their junior team. Red Bull, whose soft drink originated in Thailand, had obvious reasons for pursuing him, but following a disappointing 2012 campaign (38th in Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup and 16th in the Alps series) he is no longer listed on their roster of young talent.

This year Force India will support their trio of karting stars as they make the move to Europe while Tony Fernandes’ ventures AirAsia and Caterham are sponsoring Weiron Tan and Singaporean karter Haim Hishamuddin’s progress through the ranks.

Names to know

With the influx of emerging talent, it’s important to know whom to watch in the junior ranks.

Rio Haryanto, a GP3 race-winner and GP2 polesitter, is the closest to debuting in Formula 1 due to his previous experience with Marussia/Virgin. Haryanto will begin his second season of GP2 with Addax, the team that brought success to Vitaly Petrov, Sergio Perez, and Charles Pic.

Jazeman Jaafar went into the final round of last year’s British Formula Three championship leading the points standings, but was pipped to the crown by Jack Harvey. A move to Formula Renault 3.5 looks likely as the Petronas-endorsed ace demonstrated good pace in the tests.

Filipino GP3 race-winner Marlon Stockinger was seventh at the Aragon tests with the Lotus team.

Below them in GP3, F3 veteran Adderly Fong performed well in the post-season tests for Marussia Manor, the same team Haryanto won races with. The driver from Hong Kong may prove one to watch.

Top Formula Renault 2.0 team Fortec has two notable Asian racers, Shahaan Engineer and Hongwei Cao. Engineer, from Mumbai, finished seventh in the 2.0 NEC with double poles at Zandvoort and two second-place finishes at the same track. Cao was 14th in the 2012 BARC season but impressed in the winter series, where he finished fifth with a second-placed finish at Rockingham.

Although it is likely there will be no Asian driver on the F1 grid this year, F1’s increasing eastward expansion means that will probably not remain the case for very long.

Over to you

Which Asian drivers do you think could enter F1 – or return to it – in the near future? Have your say in the comments.

This is a guest article by Felipe Bomeny (@PortuGoose). If you would like to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.

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    Images © Sauber F1 Team, Team Lotus, Force India, Virgin Racing

    32 comments on “The search for Formula One’s next Asian driver”

    1. As a fellow Filipino, I’m very keen for Marlon Stockinger to get into F1. He’s done the right things so far (winning at Monaco included), but he’ll still need some of the chips to fall his way to get in.

      Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kobayashi returned to F1. But I fear it may end up being with a backmarker team with no real prospect of returning to the midfield.

      1. I don’t believe Kobayashi wants to race for a backmarker team. I think his possibilities for 2014 are at Lotus or Williams where if Grosjean doesn’t return to form and keeps crashing this year then Lotus may drop him, or if Maldonado moves onto to a bigger team.

        1. @slr Lotus has a driver development program, so they’d probably get from there. Williams is an option, but I don’t see Maldonado in the frame of any big team just yet.

          Also, Kobayashi’s insistence to drive F1 and only F1 will hurt his 2014 prospects, as he’d be idle this year.

          1. I think he should be trying to get a spot in Toyota’s LMS program, seeing as how they’re the ones who brought him to F1 in the first place.

            Unless we get some sort of surprise, like Force India signing him, the next best thing is probably LMS (which I think several ex-F1 drivers have done).

    2. Marlon Stockinger is fast he is the the future of Asia in F1..

    3. Great article @PortuGoose

      BTW, Jazeman Jaafar has been confirmed for Carlin’s 2013 FR 3.5 team:-

      1. Ah, that makes the article almost a prediction on that part @tdog, nice reading, thanks for the article @portugoose

    4. I’m still holding onto the dream of a Bhutanese Formula 1 driver.

      1. @prisoner-monkeys I think we’ll have a Maldivian F1 driver before that. There’s one who did well in karting, I think.

    5. Keith

      Can you please run a similar blog on Formula One’s search for the next Italian Formula One Driver.

      1. one tip is in the article already (Antonio Giovanizzi), it seems these series are a bit of a replacement for the former Japanese F3 route several drivers used to take (I think J.Villeneuve, Irvine, Ralf Schumacher all did some spell in Japan racing before making it to F1, didn’t they)

      2. There are several Italian drivers who can stake a claim to be the next big thing. Kevin Ceccon, 19 won AutoGP in 2011 and is racing in GP3 now. Giovinazzi, the winner of this year’s Formula Pilota China is already mentioned in this article. Others include Riccardo Agostini, who won the Italian Formula Three this year, and the runner-up Eddie Cheever, Jr.(he’s Italian, but son of an American). Another one is Raffaele Marciello, of the Ferrari Driver Academy, who finished a strong 3rd in the Formula Three Euroseries on his debut seasom. He’s only 17.
        Oh, and there’s Edoardo Mortara of course, but I doubt he’ll ever get a look-in.

    6. Great article!
      As an Indian, I can tell you that the chances of the next Asian driver coming from India are close to nil. Racing is very much an elitist sport and an extremely costly one. Their is very little infrastructure to support it either.

      I would bet on an Asian driver who has already been racing in Europe for a while to be the next F1 driver. A purely home-grown racer will take a lot of time. But most likely, he will come from eastern China. As that is the only ‘developed’ part of the continent where pursuing motorsport can be plausibly done.

    7. Robert Sebastian
      10th January 2013, 11:23

      Rio Haryanto !

      He is potential, and of course he have much fans from his country Indonesia

    8. the best Asian driver in junior formulae is absolutely Rio Haryanto!
      not because I’m Indonesian, you can search GP3 Nurburgring 2011 on youtube.
      He’s still learning in his 2nd season in GP2, and this year signed for Barwa Addax

      1. Nurburgring 2011 – I was there and it was an impressive performance indeed.

      2. it’s Rio Haryanto~~~ he has potention and he is a hard worker~~~ with sucha good things and good talent he can make it in the next 2 years or 3 years later~~~ he is good young racing driver

        1. thanks God he make it to F 1 Rio H

    9. Who cares aside from Bernie! They’ve all been pretty rubbish and if Kobyashi (average at best) is the best of a bad bunch and isn’t even deserving of a mid-grid drive….

      1. Rubbish. Kobayashi is way more talented than you give him credit for. He has been punching above his weight ever since he got into F1. I hope he gets a chance to prove all his doubters and haters wrong and I stand by my opinion that he’s a future world champion given the right machinery.

      2. If you can call Kobayashi average, there’s no point in trying to have a conversation with you. By that measure, Kovalainen, Sutil or even Barrichello were all average too..?

    10. Great article and very informative! I think the problem really lies with the expectation of something perhaps a little naive. After Europe, Asia is F1’s next biggest market but it’s still a relative newcomer in such a large capacity. The worst thing to do is force anything.

    11. An Indonesian driver Sean Gelael finished fifth in last year’s Formula Pilota China. He will drive for Double R Racing in British Formula 3 this year.
      Among Indian drivers who looked impressive in 2012 were Parth Ghorpade, who was third in this year’s Formula Pilota China. However, he had a poor French F4 season in 2011, and lack of funds would cripple him. Another was Shahaan Engineer who was an impressive season in Formula Renault 2.0 NEC finishing 7th. But I can’t see him getting a full-time Eurocup drive soon, or a move to Formula Three.

    12. Great article Felipe.. but Sato’s podium was in ’04.

    13. Given Malaysia’s increasing involvement in F1, it’s likely that the next Asian driver will be Malaysian.

      Mind you, Haryanto does have connections with Marussia — maybe he’ll be Timo Glock’s new teammate in 2014?

    14. For me, definitely Rio. He is the Asia’s best hope in the short term. Perhaps he has paled in comparison to Max Chilton in GP2 this year, however, its only his first outing in the series and lets remember he is only 19. I remember watching him at the 2009 Formula BMW Pacific race at the Marina Bay circuit, he was a class above the rest, extremely quick.

      The kid’s got pace, I think he has proven that throughout his career. With good guidance, I am sure he can make it to F1 and do well. Lets not forget he is backed by Pertamina, which is the Indonesian state Oil Company. With large investments being made in the Indonesian Energy market, Im pretty sure they would want to increase the brand profile globally.

      As a Malaysian, it would be good to Jazeman make it to F1 on merit. He has been working way up the junior formulae, hope he continues to do so. If he does well in Formula Renault, the Petronas connections could open up doors for him at Mercedes? Long shot, but you never know.

      The profile of racing in Asia is definetly on the rise, but the problem is, the sport still remains too expensive for the average middle class joe to have a go at. The racing fraternity in most Asian countries are extremely exclusive and it is not easy to break in, unless you have the funds. Having said this, open whell racing still lags behind the likes of GT racing and MotoGP. Japan GT is quite big, its a big event whenever the series comes around while sight of full grandstands at MotoGP races pretty much say it all.

      1. @jaymenon10 And the key here is that they still need to race in Europe to get to F1. Racing in Japanese F3 and springboarding from there isn’t enough anymore. And it’s a bit of a shame really.

        MotoGP is on the verge of pulling off something big. The stands at Sepang last year stunned me. Never seen anything like it in Asian racing – not even Singapore. If their Malaysian riders make it all the way to MotoGP (and succeed in the premier class), that could change and would change the economic dynamics of motorcycle racing.

        1. @journeyer

          Absolutely agree with you. The need to be in Europe is a big stumbling block for aspiring racers from Asia. Most of them often find themselves at the mercy of sponsors in order to race, and in the current economic climate, it is even more difficult. However, it also appears that the interest in Formula racing in Japan is in decline, has been for a few years now. GT racing seems to be more appealing, be it Japan GT, FIA GT and recently, WEC. I suppose this is directly proportionate to the involvement of Japanese manufacturers.

          MotoGP enjoys a larger fan base globally in my opinion, because it probably have more casual fans thats arent hardcore followers. Plus, the fact that tickets are priced at a fraction of what F1 charges, more people generally can afford to go, in many cases, to bring their kids with them as well. The aspect of MotoGp is that it is more fan friendly. The riders make more public appearances and provide local media interview etc. Also, as the President of the Sepang track mentioned, MotoGP allows the track organizers more freedom in how the event is managed whereas F1 is extremely rigid.

          1. @jaymenon10 Not quite convinced that MotoGP is bigger than F1 just yet. MotoGP’s big problem is its over-reliance on Valentino Rossi to get the sport some attention (even moreso than Senna and Schumacher’s times in F1). Thing is, Vale is retiring soon, and while Lorenzo, Pedrosa, and probably Marquez will more than make up for the loss of Rossi’s talent, none of them seem to capture the fans’ attention the same way Rossi does.

            But that’s a different subject for a different thread. :)

    15. @keithcollantine u forgot to mention Aditya Patel currently under Audi’s driver programme. But lack of F1 interest in India remains a problem.

    16. This article reminded me of how much I’m going to miss Kobayashi this season. :(

    17. Ryo Haryanto seems good

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