LONDON, April 5 (Reuters) - Ma Qing Hua set his sights on becoming the first Chinese to race in Formula One after being announced as a member of the HRT team’s ‘young driver development programme’ on Thursday.
In a deal timed to generate interest ahead of next week’s grand prix in Shanghai, Qing Hua’s home city, struggling HRT held out the possibility of the 24-year-old testing their car later in the year.
“The formation programme designed by HRT... includes professional assessment in his career as a driver, private tests with cars from different categories and simulator tests,” the Spanish-based team said in a statement.
“If the results of the partnership are satisfactory, Qing Hua could take to the wheel of the F112 at the Formula One young driver test.”
HRT have struggled to compete since they arrived in the sport and, without testing their car before the season started, failed to qualify for this year’s opening race in Australia.
They are now in their third season in Formula One still without a point and with the oldest driver line-up on the starting grid in Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa and Indian Narain Karthikeyan.
Spaniard Dani Clos, the team’s official test and reserve driver, is also in the development programme.
While it could be some time before a Chinese driver competes for any of the leading teams, those at the slow end of the paddock have long offered a way in for drivers bringing sponsorship cash.
“I‘m very honoured to form a part of the driver development programme at HRT Formula One team since, with work and effort, it will allow me to become the first Chinese Formula One driver,” Qing Hua said in a statement.
”It’s a very special moment for me and it’s hard to express how happy I am. I’ve dreamt of becoming a Formula One driver since I was very small.
“Now finally my childhood dream has become true,” he added. “Driving an F1 car will be the most incredible experience and I‘m going to work hard to earn it.”
China has hosted a grand prix since 2004 but, with motor racing in its infancy there, has yet to provide a local for the fans to get behind despite an immense potential pool of talent.
Dutch-born Ho-Pin Tung was the first Chinese national to be involved in a Formula One team’s line-up when Renault, now Lotus, named him as an official reserve in 2010.
He also tested with Williams in 2003, after winning that year’s Asian Formula BMW series. Last year he became the first Chinese licensed driver to compete in the U.S. Indycar series.
Qing Hua won the Chinese national karting championship at the age of 12 and won the Asian Formula Renault title in 2004. Last year, he won the Chinese touring car championship.
HRT said they wanted to serve as a platform to launch young talents like Qing Hua into Formula One and had followed his progress when he was racing in Spain.
“I knew he had potential, but I was surprised with his speed, safety, adaptation capacity, attitude and professionalism,” team principal Luis Perez-Sala said.
“All these virtues make us believe that his incorporation to the programme will be very positive and will lead to a fruitful and lasting relationship”. (Editing by John O‘Brien)