F1 in China: Stuck in the slow lane

Chinese driver Adderly Fong went to Europe to compete in races with the dream of hitting the big time in Formula 1.

After taking part in a series of championships on the continent, Fong returned to China still intent on pursuing his goal. But despite his successes abroad, he was disappointed.

"Nobody in China knew who I was when I came back."

The admission highlights a startling issue in the world of F1, the country has no Chinese equivalent of Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, despite the sport's eagerness to tap into the lucrative Chinese market – including running a grand prix in Shanghai.

142915981RC023_China_Tourin
Robert Cianflone | Getty Images

Motor sport governing body the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) continues to expand in to China with big tournaments. The Formula E, an all-electric car championship kicks of in Beijing in September, but this is not helping the country's grassroots infrastructure.

Read MoreFormula 1 racing ... for electric cars?

"F1 should take a lot of the blame for lack of development of the sport in China," Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider told CNBC in a phone interview.

"Without F1 developing drivers and educating the fans, it is no surprise that people are a bit 'take it or leave it' when it comes to F1 in China."

Moving to Europe

Fong began racing in 2006 when he was 16, after initially wanting to become a car designer. After competing in some Asian tournaments, the 24 year old left for Europe and competed in German Formula 3 and British Formula 3 between 2008 and 2011. The tournament is seen as a stepping stone to F1 for young drivers.

"The level of racing in China was not that high. The culture and heritage of racing hasn't been in Asia that long," Fong told CNBC in a phone interview.

Read MoreFrom grid to forecourt: F1 makers feel brand boost

"Europe was the right choice to practice racing. Every kid there starts from four to six years of age from go-karts. It's much more competitive. Having raced there many years in Europe, it did help a lot in my driving."

Sun Zheng, another Chinese aspiring F1 racer has travelled a similar path. After starting go-karting from the age of 14 in 2006, Sun competed two years later in an adult competition in China. Several years later, his journey quickly landed him in Britain's Formula 3 race where he is the reigning champion.

Sponsorship troubles

Regardless of where a driver starts out, the cost of entering races in Europe is extremely high. For top-flight racers, sponsorship is the key way for them to advance and enter bigger and better tournaments. It is the sponsors that bankroll a driver's entry fees and a lot of the other costs. But the lack of big sponsors willing to try untested Chinese drivers his holding back the development of F1 in the world's second-largest economy.

146927768DI037_British_Form
Darrell Ingham | Getty Images

Fong did not want to reveal where his funding has come from but Sun said a man known as Ricky R, who has invested in Chinese racers, funded some of his tournaments. Zheng said that entrance into the FIA's European championships cost between 500,000 and 700,000 euros ($685,800 to $960,120), while it could cost around 10,000 euros a day for practice.

"Sponsorship is everything to a driver's career," Fong said.

Read MoreHistory of...the engine

Fong says that since tobacco companies were banned from advertising in F1 and alcohol brands have stayed away, sponsorship is hard to come by.

"The only big sources now are banks after cigarette and alcohol sponsors went. Drivers have to bring sponsors to the team."

The FIA defended their role in China and highlighted their work in the country.

"It's true that we do not have a Formula 1 driver in China yet. Undoubtedly a Chinese driver in Formula 1 would strengthen even more the popularity of this Championship in the country," a spokesperson told CNBC in an email.

"Our role is to support the growth and development of motor sport and the emergence of new talent everywhere in the world. We do that through our worldwide network of sporting clubs, such as those in China, as well as with training programmes organised by the FIA Institute."

The next superstars?

F1 is lacking one major component to be successful in China: a big Chinese superstar driver. Without this, aspiring young drivers in China have nobody to look up to in the sport.

"If there was a superstar driver in China, it would massively speed up the development of F1 in the country. The sport is tolerated not encouraged in China. The government is really worried about the image of spoiled kids associated with the sport, particularly with the rich and poor divide in China," Dreyer said.

This has not stopped Fong or Sun from dreaming of hitting the major league of F1. Both are hoping to reach that level at some point in their career, though Sun struck a bearish tone.

"I think to have a Chinese real Formula 1 driver we need to wait another 10 years. We'll need more Chinese drivers racing in Europe first. If I have a chance I will try to do it of course," Sun said.