Skip to main content

China's F1 hopeful Sun Zheng cuts his teeth at Macau Grand Prix

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 6:24 AM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
Sun Zheng, who is racing in the F3 Macau Grand Prix, hopes one day to be China's first competitive F1 driver
Sun Zheng, who is racing in the F3 Macau Grand Prix, hopes one day to be China's first competitive F1 driver
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sun Zheng is the first F3 racer from mainland China to enter the Macau Grand Prix
  • He aims to graduate to F1 racing to become first Chinese to compete internationally
  • Macau Grand Prix regarded as one of the toughest training grounds for future F1 drivers
  • The Galaxy Double R Racing Team holds the Macau speed record of 182 mph (292 kmh)

(CNN) -- Amid the whine of F3 engines and the clatter of pneumatic tools, 21-year-old Sun Zheng -- one of mainland China's small but growing pack of motor racing drivers -- considers his form for the next day's racing at the Macau Grand Prix.

"My time wasn't very good and there were three corners we kept missing," he tells CNN from the relative calm of the Galaxy Double R Racing Team's catering tent. "If I solve those three corners, I'll be two seconds off the pace."

As the first F3 racer from mainland China to enter the Macau fixture - roundly regarded as the sport's toughest training ground for Formula One drivers -- Zheng has a lot resting on his young shoulders.

"Of course, all F3 drivers want to be F1 drivers and Macau is like doing college," he says, adding that his ambition is to become China's first F1 driver at a Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA)-sanctioned event.

F1 legend on making it big in the U.S.
A crash course in F1 fitness
What's behind Vettel's winning streak?

"Most older drivers have done three or four years and then they graduate to F1. I hope I'll be first. I have driven in Formula Ones and nothing can compare with it -- it's in a different category," he says.

Read: McLaren takes chance on rookie driver

As the reigning China Formula Grand Prix series champion, fourth place-getter in the final 2012 Audi R8 LMS Cup and this year's national champion in the British F3, Zheng has already shown the kind of form that could take him to the pinnacle of motor racing.

At the moment, however, he needs all his concentration for Macau which he says is one of the most challenging circuits in the world. Even at the tender age of 21, he says the rigors of the track leave him exhausted at the end of the day's racing.

"Physically I'm okay but mentally I'm very tired because you're not just driving the car - it's not like qualifying or practice -- when you race you have to try to overtake, you have to try to defend, you need to think about a lot of things in a very short space of time.

"When you take risks, it's not like you can just do that blindly," he says. "You have to think, 'Okay well ... I have a 60-70% chance I'm going to go for it.'"

As a street circuit, the concrete canyons of Macau's Guia Circuit can throw up some chilling moments, even for experienced drivers who take some corners at upwards of 240 kph (150 mph) on each lap.

"You have to really push every corner and every lap during the race because the older drivers, the pace that they keep up is incredible," Zheng says. "They are preparing for Formula One races so they can't make mistakes -- they're not just fast on one lap, they're fast on every corner and every lap.

"I have done endurance races where you have a lot of time to take a rest; you're not competing with the car next to you. But in F3, once you start, it's a fight to the end.

Niki Lauda on F1's most dangerous years
Engines on, Formula 1 returns!
F1's spiritual home in the U.S.

Read: Macau Grand Prix: The final exam for racers

"When I start, I take a breath when the right light goes off and I push and push until the checkered flag comes down and then I let that breath out -- it really does feel like that."

With 15 laps at around two minutes a lap, 30 minutes might seem like a long time to hold your breath but, as Zheng explains, Macau is that kind of circuit.

"On other tracks, there's a white line on both sides of the circuit -- if you take a short cut and your four wheels go over the white line, then that's a penalty," he says. "But in Macau, the white line is a wall -- not even two wheels can go over; it's really difficult."

Double R Racing team manager Anthony Hieatt says his team has had some hair-raising moments at the Macau Grand Prix in the past.

"Crashes? Oh God yeah. Massive crashes. Huge ones," says Hieatt amid the drone of the F3 garage. "This is the toughest circuit in the world bar none -- it's probably one of the longest circuits with 23 or 24 corners and parts of it are like putting cotton through a needle.

The good drivers, he says, will always stand out.

"Good experienced drivers are always up the front and new drivers are always at the back. New drivers need experience so they come back two or three times but if you do succeed at Macau, then all the Formula One people are watching -- it's a calling card for your career."

His team currently holds the record for the highest speed ever attained at Macau at 182 mph (292 kph) which through the narrow historic streets of the former Portuguese colony is about as fast as it gets.

As soon as the driver feels they're safe, they're in the morgue
Anthony Hieatt

"To put it in perspective, they don't reach those sorts of speeds at Monaco," says Hieatt, adding that intense concentration is fundamental to every driver's survival at Macau.

"As soon as the driver feels they're safe, they're in the morgue," he says.

While advances in the carbon fiber monocoque design have made the racers safer than they were 20, and even 10 years ago (F3 racers now fitted with thick panels that protect drivers from intrusions into the cockpit), the last thing a driver wants is 'to go in', says Hieatt using the pit vernacular for having a crash.

"It's still a dangerous sport and it still hurts when you go in, but the cars are among the safest in the world."

For Hieatt, F3 -- as the poor man's Formula One -- represents the real, gritty spirit of motor racing in its purest form.

"Here we're dealing with raw talent," he says. "The F1 drivers always remember F3 because there's this fantastic bonding that goes on because they work with a small team.

"In Formula One, the mechanics wouldn't even speak with the drivers, but here they eat, drink and sleep with the team. It's really the university of racing."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:08 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
The big winners of this Formula One season could be road drivers rather than F1 racers, according to one former world champion.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
The Williams team welcomes the biggest rule changes to Formula One cars for a generation.
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton sums up the dawn of a new Formula One era in three juicy words -- weird, mind-blowing and challenging.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Formula One is taking another step in its techno evolution this season, which could be more unpredictable than it has been for a long time.
updated 5:55 PM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
Susie Wolff
Despite being a sport well into its seventh decade, only two women have ever driven in Formula 1 but Susie Wolff hopes to become the third.
updated 12:36 PM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
Jann Mardenborough on the similarities and differences between driving a race on a video game and driving a real F1 car.
updated 7:26 AM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
Russia's President Vladimir Putin watches the men's cross-country 4 x 10km relay event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on February 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
How Russian president Vladimir Putin helped turn a muddy hole in the ground into a $400 million futuristic grand prix track in Sochi.
updated 7:13 PM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Formula One racing director Bernie Ecclestone talk during a ceremony of signing of an agreement to bring Formula One racing to Sochi for a Grand Prix Russia to be held in 2014, the same year the Black Sea resort hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi on October 14, 2010. Putin, whose backing was crucial in Sochi winning the right to host the Games, is due in the city on Thursday to sign an agreement for work to begin on the construction of a new 200 million dollar circuit. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Vilified by the the international community for his government's attitude on gay rights, Russian president Vladimir Putin has found an ally.
updated 7:17 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
CNN's Rosie Tomkins speaks to Caterham F1 owner Tony Fernandes on the team's driver line-up for 2014.
updated 12:13 PM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is bidding for a fifth consecutive drivers' championship in 2014.
He is Formula One's undisputed No. 1, and next season Sebastian Vettel will have proof of that fact emblazoned on his Red Bull.
updated 11:33 AM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
A new era of F1 looms large on the horizon in 2014, but what do the new rules mean for how we watch the sport? Get up to speed here.
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Thu October 17, 2013
Explore our interactive of one of F1's most important and complicated pieces of kit.
ADVERTISEMENT