At this moment, three young Malaysians are living an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. One that was unthinkable just twelve months ago; not for lacking any talent, but their journey in the racing world was on a different trajectory.
Like so many before them Jazeman Jaafar, Weiron Tan, and Nabil Jeffri came up the ranks in the traditional manner: go-karts, then open wheelers, with the ambition of securing a Formula 1 drive. But the latter is a choke point, a close to impossible target not just for the fact that it’s 20 racing seats wrestled by thousands of the very best drivers in the world, but complicated by teams which prefer those who bring together with them sponsorship money. Lots of em’.
No time for that, really. Racing drivers have a relatively very short period where they operate at their best, and make the most money. Time for a change of strategy.
Meet the architect, Dato’ Razlan Razali. As chief executive officer of Sepang International Circuit (SIC) his everyday job is ensuring the smooth operation of Malaysia’s premier racing venue plus as race promoter; and as it turns out more recently, manager to Malaysia’s most promising racing talents. To these ‘kids’, Dato’ Razlan is a Kingmaker of sorts.
Well, kids, some of them. Because unlike the cadet karters and a few bike racers who are all in school-going age, Jazeman, Weiron and Nabil are in their mid-20s. And they are the core of SIC’s Driver Development Programme for four-wheels.
You would have learned of this programme here, but as a quick recap, it is a means to assist our best racers – both on two-wheels and four-wheels – compete at the global stage. Not just securing them a place in a backmarker team, but place them in solid, competitive ones.
That’s exactly what the Jackie Chan DC Racing team is, a winning endurance race team that in fact almost won the overall Le Mans race last year. So our trio of drivers is out to prove their mettle against the fastest people on four-wheels this weekend at the same event. The same game of crossing the finish line before the others, but in a style of racing all three are – despite their many years in racing – still getting the grips to.
But why is the Driver Development Programme only a ‘thing’ now? The truth is it has existed for a while now, but at a much smaller scale. As these things go, it requires capital, and for SIC that is a resource that has always been gobbled up by one need: F1. Like a car owner which has seen the term ‘full settlement’ on their auto loan contract, SIC now has money to spend.
I asked Dato’ Razlan if that’s the sole source of capital for the Driver Development Programme, and without hesitation the answer is ‘Yes’. Such is the amount, it can support Jazeman, Weiron, and Nabil in a full super-season of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and Asian Le Mans Series (ALMS), on top of Afiq Yazid (he was part of the WEC team at first), Mitchell Cheah (TCR), a list of young go-karters; to the two-wheel racers: a few juniors including in the Asia Road Racing Championship and CEV championship, and Adam Norrodin and Hafizh Syahrin.
And then there’s some loose change enough for SIC to bring in another blue-ribbon event that is yet to be announced. It won’t replace F1 per se, but it will bring bums to the seats. But that’s another matter altogether.
In Dato’ Razlan’s own words, “This first year we have done a lot more compared to the last 10.”
It is not just about taking our racing talent to the world stage, but also to develop the mechanics and engineers needed to support this effort. This will require a bit more time as professional teams must be confident in the mechanics’ capabilities and our people must start from national championship level to prove themselves. “This is a long process,” the CEO says.
For this, SIC is working with technical schools including IKBN (Institut Kemahiran Belia Negara) and TOC (The Automotive College). The programme will also help open doors and at this moment in time well-known touring car racing team Engstler Motorsport currently in TCR is a willing partner. “It’s still too early to ask them to take local mechanics but this creates the initial platform. Maybe next year they’ll have more faith in what we’re doing and will slowly absorb our mechanics. On a related note, SIC is also in discussion with the Engstler team to make Sepang as their regional hub.
Dato’ Razlan reiterates, “It still early days.” It’s not just about putting our engineers or mechanics in a racing team, but just like the guys on the bikes and racing cars, they too need to prove their mettle. It takes a lot more to perform in a world championship stage. People involved need to realise this.
“We’ve been working with 2-wheels teams since 2009, even our (SIC’s) own team in 2015; the problem with 2-wheel mechanics – not to offend those working in national championships, cubprix, or ARRC levels – but I can see a huge gap in terms of how they work professionally. We want fresh new graduates who follow standards required of them… in the beginning you must have that world championship standard.
“We put a timeline that by 2021 when we have established two bikes (in Moto3 and Moto2) at least 60 per cent of our team should be local mechanics and crew.”
There is a similar plan for cars, but SIC is still establishing that relationship. “We are not even looking to have our own team, because that requires a bigger plan. 2-wheels is easier for as long as MotoGP remains in Malaysia and we know it’s the biggest and favourite event for Malaysians then it makes sense for us to have a team.”