Melbourne: Ma Qing Hua is mobbed by starry-eyed fans in his home town of Shanghai, has four rapidly growing social media accounts and is set for a triumphant unveiling at the Chinese Grand Prix next month. Not bad for a reserve driver for a struggling Formula One team yet to run a race. Ma was named one of British-based Caterham's back-up drivers in the off-season after his previous team, the Spanish-registered HRT, folded.
Ma, China's first driver to conduct an F1 test and take part in a grand prix weekend, shrugged off the set-back of his first failed team and has re-focused on making the top grade with Caterham.
"They've given me a lot of support and everyone's very professional," the 25-year-old. I'm feeling very comfortable here... For sure the car, everything, the catering is better, no question."
Shanghai has been a feature of the F1 calendar since 2004 but Chinese drivers have been slower to get off the grid.
Shanghai has been a feature of the F1 calendar since 2004 but Chinese drivers have been slower to get off the grid. Ma, who has raced in various series, including now-defunct team-based series A1, and won the Chinese touring car title in 2011, is determined to bring his 1.3 billion countrymen up to speed quickly.
"It's very difficult, for China, because motor sports is so new for Chinese people. It's just been around for a few years. Most of the people don't understand it. The population of motorsports fans is growing but we still need time. But for me, personally, I'm very happy where it's at. I want to be the person to develop, to introduce F1 to China."
Ma has been confirmed for Friday practice at the Chinese Grand Prix in his home town of Shanghai and will do his bit to educate the locals by appearing in a television segment during the local broadcast to explain the sometimes mystical world of Formula One. The idea of a Chinese driver helping to unlock the world's biggest marketplace in the manner that former Houston Rockets centre Yao Ming did for the National Basketball Association, would be a salivating prospect for both Formula One management and cash-strapped teams in the paddock.
Many Chinese viewers switched off last season, according to an F1 report on TV audiences, and Ma might help rekindle their interest. Caterham have not shied away from the commercial realities of the championship, with their two new drivers, Frenchman Charles Pic and Dutchman Giedo Van der Garde, both bringing sponsorship to the team.
Caterham, who competed as Team Lotus in 2011 and Lotus Racing in their debut season, declined to clarify what, if any, support Ma had brought to the table. But his manager, Albert Fabrega from Spain-based China Sports Management, said the driver had already signed a contract with a Chinese corporate backer and the deal would be announced at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Although Ma is relatively old to be starting out a career in F1, he believes he has the skills to achieve his dream of winning a seat, despite few others sharing his confidence.
"Even people close to me, friends and family, almost nobody could really believe that there could be a Chinese driver in Formula One," said Ma, whose father runs a go-kart business in Shanghai to help finance his son's career. People have supported me a lot but didn't really believe it could happen. But I believed very strongly that I would get this far, and still believe I will get a seat. I trust myself a lot because I know how to be a professional F1 driver."
Ma will bide his time racing in the GP2 series for Caterham this year to gain more experience while he awaits his chance. The prospect of other Chinese drivers waiting in the wings, ready to nab the first F1 seat for the country does not faze him, however.
"Actually, I didn't think that way. If I can see other Chinese make it to this level, then I'll be very happy, I want to see all Chinese be strong in motor sport."