F4 driver Cao Zhuo carries China's F1 dream

Cao Zhuo is considered a strong candidate to create history for China by becoming the country's first F1 racing driver.
Ti Gong

Cao Zhuo, 16, was the year-end champion at last year’s Southeast Asia F4 championship. The Shanghai native is considered a strong candidate to create history for China by becoming the country’s first F1 racing driver.

China is still waiting for its first F1 racing driver to compete on the motor sport’s elite stage. A few have come close, including former F1 reserve driver Tung Ho-Pin. Dutch-born Tung, who is of Chinese origin, was signed by the Renault F1 team in 2009 at the age of 27 as its third and reserve driver. He followed the team to races for a year but never got a chance to sit behind the wheel as a racing driver.

Among the younger generation, 16-year-old Shanghai-based Cao Zhuo is considered a strong candidate to create history for China and realize his dream of “racing against idol Fernando Alonso on the F1 track.”

Cao will take part in six stops in the Renault Formula Asia series races this year representing the Black Arts Racing Team. There are also some domestic competitions and driving tests on his schedule.

Asked if he likes being described as “the closest one” to F1 compared to other Chinese drivers his age, Cao doesn’t hesitate: “I won’t agree out loud, but deep in my heart, I like it.”

Cao showed an interest in karting at the age of 6 and, with the support of his father, was able to take part in more competitions compared to other young drivers. He even acquired a karting coaching license.

At the age of 10, he became year-end champion of the China Karting Championship. In 2013, he placed third in the year-end standing of the Rotax Max Asia Challenge, and became Rotax Max Japan Challenge champion in 2016.

Last year, Cao took a leap forward and entered the formula world, representing Asia Racing Team in the Formula 4 series in Britain and for about six months studied and raced there.

Despite knowing that karting and formula are quite different, Cao admitted that his first driving experience was out of his expectation.

“I know all aspects of karting and know how to improve performance simply by looking at the statistics. But the formula car is of a completely different level.

“I remember the first time I sat behind the wheel of an F4 car, I simply didn’t expect the car to be so big and so fast. The centrifugal force also turned out to be so big in corners. But I managed to adapt myself to it after spending a day in it.”

Asia Racing Team’s French coach Philippe Descombes gave Cao a lot of help during that period.

“Some of his physical training equipment is especially designed for F1 drivers, which I had never seen before,” said Cao. “I practiced boxing to improve agility. There were also balance and neck power trainings.”

Cao learned quickly, despite being the second youngest of all the F4 drivers when racing in Britain.

He clinched his first F4 point last April, and reached the top of the podium at a Renault Formula Asia race in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, last July. He was the year-end champion at last year’s Southeast Asia F4 championship.

“Compared to my opponents, I can’t say that I’m rich in experience, but I have a stronger mind. I always keep myself cool when there is a crash in front of me or when I’m involved in an accident myself. Just like what my idol Alonso would do,” he said.

“The racing phenomenon in Britain is different from here,” he added. “The spectators there simply like and understand the sport well.”

Cao’s father is a joint founder of a Shanghai sports management company which serves China’s young racers, including his son. Cao has an agent to take care of his schedule and arrange race issues. There is also an administrative assistant from the company working for him.

As a grade one student at a local foreign language high school, Cao said it is becoming harder to maintain a balance between racing and his studies.

“A few years ago I did not have so many races to attend, so it was not difficult to ask for leave from school and make up lessons later. However, with my schedule being enriched, I’m feeling increasing pressure from school.”

Ti Gong

Cao Zhuo’s first F4 driving experience at Southeast Asia F4 championship in the Philippines in October 2017

Apart from races, Cao also takes part in car testing events to get as much access to cars as possible.

“The school already made exceptions for me including allowing me to keep my cellphone so that I can get in touch with my team in time. But that’s not enough. Also, high school courses require more time and energy, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to catch up if I miss classes.”

Cao said he has got into the habit of running in the morning. He does anaerobic exercises in the school gym, and attends physical training courses during vacations.

“I set an alarm clock at 5am and run for 90 minutes before getting ready for classes. A sportsman should take at least four hours of training everyday. But I don’t have that much spare time in school. When time allows, I study my own driving videos or statistics and seek for improvement.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling a lot of pressure, I dream of going into the mountains to hide from everything for a while,” Cao added.

Apart from pressure from school, the weak foundation of China’s motor sport also bothers young drivers like Cao. The lack of industry professionals, including fitness coaches and technicians, is also a problem.

“There are a limited number of circuits, and it’s expensive to practice or race there. Some circuits open more often to commercial activities instead of young drivers,” said Cao’s agent Xun Kun. “The basic facilities are lagging here compared to European countries.

“What Cao needs now is to seize as many opportunities as possible to try different cars on different circuits with different teams.”

The road ahead is long, but Cao has already made up his mind to turn professional in future, a decision supported by his parents.

“When I was still driving karts, racing in F1 sounded like a joke for me. But after winning a few F4 races, I feel myself closer to that dream. If I achieve good results in Renault Formula this year, I might try Formula 3 next year.”

Cao’s yearly expenses are currently around 10 million yuan (US$1.58 million). Commercial sponsors give some support while the rest is covered by his family.

“The cost will increase in a geometric ratio in higher level races,” said Xun. “To become a top-level driver is never easy. Apart from the diligence and intelligence of the driver, the operative ability of his team is also crucial.”

Cao said he has been experiencing pressure and a strong desire toward an unknown future at the same time. “I’m down to earth and will approach my dream with steady steps,” he said.

n it.”

Ti Gong

Cao is feeling a lot of pressure to maintain a balance between racing and his school work.

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