In the run-up to the 6 Hours of Shanghai, the fifth round of the FIA World Endurance Championship that will be held this weekend, we are publishing a series of articles on Chinese teams and drivers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In this first episode, we recall Cong Fu Cheng who was the first Chinese driver to take part in the race and appear on the podium after finishing third in the LMP2 class.
Born on 15 August 1984, Cong Fu Cheng started out in karting before joining the McLaren Young Driver Programme that notably detected Lewis Hamilton. His single-seater career took him from Formula Renault to the short-lived A1 GP series, in which each car represented a nation. He achieved his first podium in this discipline for China in 2006.
Cheng was hired by the Saulnier Racing team – subsequently renamed OAK Racing by its new owner Jacques Nicolet – to compete in the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the wheel of the #35 Pescarolo prototype with Pierre Ragues and Matthieu Lahaye. “We contacted him because I was looking to build a link between Asia – and particularly China – and the team,” Nicolet said. “Cheng was both consistently fast and safe. He will always be the first Chinese driver to make the Le Mans podium. I’m convinced that the creation of the World Endurance Championship proves that I had the right idea.”
Qualified in eighth place in the LMP2 prototypes class, Cheng, Lahaye and Ragues moved into the top three around the half-way stage. “It began to rain in the middle of one of Cheng’s stints,” Ragues recalled. “He was thrown into the deep end – Le Mans, at night, in the wet – but he raced perfectly.” Lahaye added: “He even surprised quite a few on Sunday morning in the rain by clocking the same lap times as Jos Verstappen in the Porsche RS Spyder, who went on to win the LMP2 class. We pulled off a superb result despite our inexperience.”
Cheng, Lahaye and Ragues held on to third place until the chequered flag, eclipsed only by the two Porsche RS Spyders in the field. A result that was almost worth a victory, as the two German prototypes were on another level that year. “Like Matthieu and myself, Cheng was taken aback by the crowd below the podium, and also by the Drivers Parade on the Friday,” Ragues continued. “I remember a couple of Chinese on the other side of the barrier, running along behind our car for a large part of the Parade to get an autograph!”
After competing in the 6 Hours of Shanghai with Rebellion Racing in 2012, teaming up with Andrea Belicchi and Harold Primat, Cheng returned to Le Mans the following year where he appeared for the Swiss team with Belicchi et Mathias Beche.
In 2015, the Chinese national anthem was played for the first time at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans, also in the LMP2 class. But that’s another story that will be told in the next episode in this series...
Photo (© ACO archives) – Cong Fu Cheng pictured throughout his 24 Hours of Le Mans début, from qualifying to the third step of the LMP2 podium, including the Drivers Parade.