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
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
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