The Formula Masters China Series might be a relative newcomer on the junior single-seater landscape, but with strong competition, low budgets and backing from Volkswagen Group China, it's a wise choice for open-wheel racers.
An LMP1 driver in FIA WEC. An FIA F3 European Championship runner-up on the verge of debuting in GP2. Two class winners of the Sepang 12 Hours.
For a category that's only been around for four years, the Formula Masters China Series has already helped a number of its alumni reach serious heights in the world of motorsport, both on the fledgling Asian racing scene and on the worldwide stage.
While the championship has long made a concerned effort to promote junior single-seater racing in China, FMCS is well and truly an international motorsport competition, the podium ceremonies in which have featured drivers from all continents of the world but Antarctica.
It is also a series that has presented a strong career avenue for both drivers with previous single-seater experience and karting graduates – and, crucially, one that has proven more affordable than the traditional junior routes in other parts of the world.
American racer Oliver Askew, who made his single-seater debut in FMCS in 2015, recalls: “We looked at all the opportunities to switch to cars in 2015, including Mazda Road to Indy – but ultimately could not produce the budget required.
“But then, FMCS and the Absolute Racing squad helped us and found team sponsors, which allowed me the opportunity to do two rounds – and ended up with a couple of podiums”.
Askew's sentiments were echoed by 2014 champion James Munro, who joined the series after a successful career in his native New Zealand and would put together a series record streak of six consecutive wins in his title assault. “The costs were at least half what they would've been in Europe or America,” he says.
Munro also adds: “In other championships, there's a lot more scope for outspending opponents to get a leg up - through extra testing or even extra championships.
“With FMCS, the in-season testing was limited, both by regulations and by cars having been in freight most of the time, so there was less room to get an advantage over your rivals through money – which makes it more fair.”
FMCS is a one-make championship, all of its competitors running a Tatuus FA010 chassis with a 185bhp two-litre F3 engine by Volkswagen.
“It's really good-quality chassis and the engines run really well,” reckons Munro. “They're pretty bulletproof. Some would say the cars are getting a little bit old, but they're still very good cars.
“They're always patched up as well after every season - in good condition, the teams look after them. And it was quite good to drive - it was one of my favourite single-seaters, very well-balanced.”
Askew adds: “The cars are very enjoyable to drive, they race well and are perfect to learn the basics of an open-wheel race car.”
The championship's spec-series nature also contributes to creating a level playing field in the championship. As Munro puts its: “All all of the teams are competitive with the right driver in the car. They're all pretty close – and there's scope for any of them to win.”
While competing in Asia can naturally sound a bit intimidating to drivers who cut their teeth racing in their native countries on other continents, FMCS' foreign contingent appear to have had little trouble adapting.
English speakers, for instance, should find themselves unhampered by any sort of language issues. Munro says: “From a language point of view, it was actually really easy. Most of the teams are dominated by Europeans, Australians and, while the mechanics are a little bit limited on English, you can still communicate with them - and the engineers certainly are all English-speaking.
Askew, meanwhile, notes that he has had little difficulty resolving any cultural or language barriers – and says that he was genuinely pleased with the atmosphere that surrounded the series' events.
“Both the officials and some of the established competitors made me feel very comfortable and welcome at my very first event,” he says.
“I don't think you have that hyper-competitive vibe that sours some events – FMCS is professional, well-managed and objectively officiated, which I think allows the drivers to relax a bit and have some fun in addition to being competitive.
“Oh, and the fans are great, I did not expect to see this many spectators in the stands.”
“With the series being run by Volkswagen Group China, there's definitely a few good options for graduates because Volkswagen Group China has links to so many series,” Munro says. “FMCS looks after its graduates very well – there are no championships that do anything like it, really.
“I got a drive in Asian Le Mans and in the Porsche Carrera Cup car, received a couple of tests in Audi R8 and Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo. And I raced in the Sepang 12 Hours,” the Kiwi adds, having claimed a class win in the prestigious race alongside 2015 FMCS champion Martin Rump and fellow series alumni Afiq Yazid and Yuan Bo.
“The support is increasing with each year as well and it's not just the champion that gets supported. They give you these opportunities and if you take them, you can be very successful.”
But the series doesn't just help up-and-comers. Talented Belgian racer Alessio Picariello, who has been largely on the sidelines after his dominant title campaign in ADAC Formel Masters in 2013, said his ultra-successful part-time turn in FMCS last year proved of great benefit.
“It seems it helped me quite a bit,” he says. “I wasn't driving all year before FMCS and it was the best way to come back for me. And it helped me build myself a name in Asia – the perfect preparation for the next step.”
Munro, who had been aiming to go into Formula 3 on the heels of his FMCS campaign before the national F3 championships collapsed, says: “Without support I got from racing in FMSC, I would've found it hard to be competing at all last year. I would've probably found myself on the sidelines, more or less.
“Instead, I still ended up racing, through chances I got via FMCS, my team KCMG and Volkswagen Group China.”