Last minute calls from racing teams to race are not at all unique in motor racing. The most recent high-profile ‘case’ of this happened just last year when Brendon Hartley was called up by Torro Rosso to replace Pierre Gasly at the US F1 Grand Prix just over a week before the race weekend.
But for three young Malaysians, being offered a drive for a Le Mans-tested racing team in the LMP2 category must have been numbing and exciting all the same, especially when the phone calls came in during the off-season. Well, except for some series such as the Asian Le Mans Series (ALMS) which has to stretch its calendar into the traditional off-season.
“Two weeks before the Buriram race…”, said Weiron Tan, one of the three drivers when asked when the call to race for Jackie Chan DC Racing X Jota came in. His other two teammates are Afiq Ikhwan Yazid, and Jazeman Jaafar who couldn’t make it to the interview. Weiron added that they all were also, naturally very excited and never imagined for it to happen. Particularly when the Buriram race in Thailand was already the third and second final race of the season, before the final round in Sepang a couple of weeks ago.
“I think I can speak for the rest. I think we were all getting ready for Christmas, getting ready for the holidays, and soon we got the phone call and said ‘hey, get ready because you’re going to Buriram in two weeks.’ Okay! And there we went, it was the first time the three of us worked together as teammates. I knew Afiq and Jazeman a while back but not personally. I knew of them but never really talked to them and get to know them as a person.”
Yet, it was a slightly risky move for the team as well because only Weiron had racing experience in the Prototype category. Afiq tells us, “For me it’s the first time – first time in LMP2, first time in a high downforce car. All this while I’m racing in Formula cars (Formula Masters) before moving to GT cars. And then, Sepang offered me to drive in LMP2 for them so, why not I give it a try?”
Afiq was of course referring to the fact that the Sepang International Circuit (SIC) now represents him and his teammates (Weiron and Jazeman), in addition to Nabil Jeffri.
“What Sepang is trying to do is to bring the Malaysian drivers to the Le Mans 24-hour race; first-ever Malaysian drivers because all this time they are supporting two wheels programme.”
What Afiq said is just part of the objective, which in the larger scope is to focus on young racing talent, be it on two- or four-wheels.
Weiron, Afiq, and Jazeman drove the team’s car no. 7, with another car (no. 8) driven by Stephane Richelmi, Harrison Newey, and Thomas Laurent. The Malaysians did well at Buriram in January, crossing the finish line after six hours of racing in first place with car no.8 trailing close behind.
However, things didn’t go so well in Sepang. There were some issues during practise and qualifying which meant that driving time were limited. They started fourth on the grid, and despite running well for a large part of the four hour race, electrical gremlins and penalties resulted in the car only managing a ninth place finish. Still, Jazeman did manage to record fastest time of the race, as he did in Thailand.
With both races over (the deal was to race in ALMS with the Nissan-powered Jackie Chan DC Racing X Jota team for two races), Weiron and Afiq are still deciding on what their next move will be. For Afiq, his racing calendar includes racing in Japan with the CarGuy racing team, both in the SuperGT GT300 (driving a Honda NSX GT3), and Super Taikyu (likely in a Lamborghini Huracan GT3).
For the younger racing drivers, Weiron’s advice is to not focus on F1. “I personally think the sooner the younger guys can realize that F1 is not a realistic goal… the better. There are so many other ways of achieving a professional career in motor racing.”
In addition, SIC’s re-focus on young talent development in two- and four-wheels racing instead of just F1 means that there is a greater chance to move up the ladder with greater support. Weiron cites the plan by SIC to get drivers into the TCR Asia series, for instance.