There will be no Chinese drivers on the grid for Sunday's inaugural Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai, but it's only a matter of time before one breaks through. And the best will have an early opportunity to shine in the Formula BMW Asia series race which supports this weekend's main event. Last year's series winner, Ho Pin Tung, became the first Chinese driver to drive a Formula One car when he tested Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams BMW in December. The 21-year-old is the vanguard of a new generation of Chinese drivers, which is set to explode as the Shanghai grand prix stirs up motor racing fever in China.
“It's a very big thing for China,” Tung says. “They've built a magnificent facility and it's sold out for Sunday so I think you can tell how popular the sport is here. The Chinese are excited to see F1 cars driving for the first time, they've only seen it on TV. I'm sure that they will become addicted to it as I have.”
Tung has realised that to reach the top he needs to race in Europe, working his way up through the ranks in Formula 3. In his first year in the German series he has had three podium finishes and his goal is to do the series again next year. BMW Williams are keeping a close eye on his progress.
In the queue behind Tung is 22-year-old Han Han, who is racing in the Formula BMW race on Sunday. He is already a star in China thanks to his six best-selling novels which criticise the education system.
Han has been racing for two years and sees the arrival of the Grand Prix in China as a key moment. “F1 has committed to China until at least 2010 and in that time you will see racing develop a lot here,” he says. “It's a completely new thing in China.
“Beijing has the Olympics, but Shanghai has the Grand Prix. Shanghai is more interested in new things, it's a more dynamic city.
“Motor racing is developing very fast in China since F1 decided to come here. For quite a few years now China has had a rally. The Chinese government told us that it was very good, but I don't agree. Now we have our own Grand Prix and this is the highest level we have ever been in racing.”
Han started writing novels at 17 and has since sold more than 5m copies. “I started writing so I could make money to go racing,” he says. “I don't like the education system here, it is very old and very poor. It needs to be more international in its outlook.”
The books are hugely popular among students and the young and appear to be tolerated by the Chinese authorities. “The Chinese government is starting to become more open,” Han says. “Because I am talking about education, it's a light subject as far as the government are concerned, it's not like talking about Taiwan.” Han wants to follow in Tung's footsteps to Europe. “In Europe the standard is much higher than Asia,” he says. “Two years spent racing in Europe is worth 10 years here in terms of your development.” Han says he may soon start writing about his passion for racing, which would serve further to lift interest in the sport. For the moment Han's fans, mostly students, are excluded from the Shanghai track by the high ticket prices. At more than £200 they are equivalent to two months' wages for the average Chinese worker. But it has not put off the new rich. All 150,000 tickets were snapped up months ago.
The price means the event has a certain exclusivity for those who can afford it. A new era in F1 has begun.
■ BAR Honda drivers Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button set the pace on Friday on the first day of practice on the brand new Shanghai circuit. The track surface is very abrasive and all the runners found that their front left tyres are wearing more than expected. Managing this problem could well be one of the keys to winning on Sunday.