The first part of my Inside Story on the Asian Formula 2000 Championship journey was both happy and tragic in my life. We never had a death in any of our races before in Subic and Mike Miller’s accident showed me how dangerous motor racing truly was.
With a lot of concerned family and friends advising me to stop, I just felt I had to continue and fight for safer races. I also wanted to give the honor of winning this series for the country since I got 2nd and 3rd places in the first 2 rounds in Subic. I was in good contention for the overall championship and our 2nd part of the story is unveiled below.
The next leg was held in the huge, sprawling track in Johor, Malaysia. Being my first time there, I was completely out of synch in practice. I didn’t know if it was my car or if it was my mind that made me felt lost. I felt like I was the only one affected by the death of Miller as no one was talking about it.
I even asked the Asian Festival Of Speed organizer, David Sonenscher, if there was anyone that even cared about what happened. He said that the drivers had taken out the memory of the tragic accident and set it aside so they will not get affected by it. David said I should do the same thing and just drive.
This was entirely against what I believed and thought that a proper investigation and recognition should be made for Miller’s death. I voiced this out during the drivers’ briefing and I believe no one ever seconded the motion. I don’t remember if we gave a minute of silence during the opening ceremonies but I knew everyone heard what I said.
In the end, I finished 4th places in both races and felt I could have done much better if my heart was in the right place. Nevertheless, we had good battles for the last podium spot with 3 drivers contesting it for both races. Indonesia’s Meckel Ali won both and first timer lady driver Keiko Ihara from Japan took 2nd in both races right away.
I knew I wasn’t 100 percent committed to late brake and dice with the others in Johor. There was a nagging thought that I could suffer the same fate as Miller. Fear was definitely in me during those races, with a lingering guilt that I caused the accident in Subic.
After Johor, l managed to hold onto 2nd place overall in the AF2000 Championship standings. However, I knew that if I couldn’t take out the fear and the guilt, then I better call it quits. It would be useless to race if I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and could have led me to an accident.
I decided that I would give it a try in the next round which was to be held at the new F1 track of Sepang, Malaysia. This would be the best time for me to drive in a proper track that had all the safety barriers, logistics and equipment in place. With all the excitement and hoopla that accompanied the build up to the races, I was able to switch my mind to full battle mode.
One of the good things about racing in Sepang was that you could play F1 games of the track on your computer. This was my secret weapon and I got myself the latest game and bought a steering wheel with pedals so I could simulate racing on it. I was really hooked on the game and slept late because I just couldn’t stop playing!
When I arrived in Sepang, I was flabbergasted at how massive the facility was! The best part was we were going to race the full F1 track that I practiced in my PC. The straights were about 1 kilometer long and they had 2 of them! They had a corkscrew at the first corner and 2 very fast turns that you can take flat out. I recalled every corner that I practiced and I was confident I would do good.
Right at the start of practice, I was doing very good times that even caught the eyes of other competitors like the much-vaunted New Zealander Fabian Coulthard. Fabian had the right pedigree being the nephew of McLaren F1 driver, David Coulthard. He was setting the fastest times and was surely the favorite to win the races.
In one practice session, Fabian deliberately waited for me on the track and diced with me for quite some time. We were both going flat out and I could stay with him in the corners. I even overtook him in the first turn after a late braking move.
When we went to the pits, he came up to me and introduced himself. We chatted a little and we both knew we were going to watch each other during qualifying. I definitely had gotten rid of the fear and was now brimming with confidence.
Unfortunately, in the last practice session on Friday, my Ford Zetec engine had slipped its cam belt and bent the valves in the process. A check made by my team manager, Richard Smith, and the organizers confirmed the worst- my engine was not going to produce enough power to race!
Since there was no spare engine available, we opted to open the cylinder head and try to repair the valves. Since no new valves were present as engines only came in complete, crated packages, we had to do what we can by knocking them back into shape. Definitely, not the best way but it will get us to qualifying the next day.
After an all nighter by the mechanics to get the engine running, I tried it in the morning practice session on Saturday. The engine was low on power and I knew I would not be able to give Coulthard a good challenge for pole position.
In the afternoon, the heavens opened up and rain fell on the track. It was going to be a wet qualifying session and I could not believe my luck. I didn’t even bother to go out in the first minutes of qualifying to conserve the engine. In the middle of the session, the sun came out and Smith asked me if I would like to try slick tires on a wet but drying track.
I said ok and we went out sliding all over at the start. However, the longer we stayed out, our times got better and better. In the final lap, I made a banzai run and had the right grip for the low powered engine. I knew it was the best run I ever made but I didn’t know if it was good enough since we didn’t have communications that time!
When I came into the pits, everyone was giving us the thumbs up and my mechanics were all jumping around. I knew I got pole and they confirmed it with a big celebration in the pits. All drivers came and congratulated us for a job well done, including Coulthard. My first pole position ever and it could not have happened in a better place plus with all the drama behind it!
In the second qualifying session, the track was dry and our engine just had enough power to put us in 3rd place. However, in the last few laps, we were going slower and slower and I knew the engine was expiring. There was nothing else to do but enjoy the moment and pray for it to rain the next day.
When I woke up on race day, the sun was out and I knew our prayers were not answered. From pole position in the first race, we were overtaken by no less than four cars just going to the first turn. It was a very agonizing experience since we just kept going back; I had no power to do anything. We finished a lowly 7th place in the first race and even a worst 9th place in the second race. From hero to zero in one day!
People thought I made a mistake somewhere but I told them that I just didn’t have the power. They didn’t believe me and I just had to turn away and did not make it affect me. A lesser person would have given up right there but I am no ordinary person.
I decided to get a new refurbished engine and even ordered a new fiberglass body to get the weight down. I would make a final stand and see if I could really win this series.
Stay tuned for the next installment next week and you would not want to miss the most dramatic finish in my racing career. Godspeed to all!