Hero to Zero! That was how I felt after the disastrous Sepang leg of the Asian Formula 2000 in 2002. This extraordinary Asian Festival of Speed journey has already gone through tragedy in Subic, mental challenges in Johor and the great swing of fate in Sepang.
With a struggling engine in Malaysia that gave us only 7th and 9th places respectively in Rounds 5 & 6, we had sunk to the lowest level in terms of race confidence. Just the day before those races, we were up in the clouds with our first pole position, beating out famous drivers and all done in the wet. What an experience!
Going to Rounds 7 & 8 in Bira, Thailand was going to be the make or break rounds if we could really hack formula racing. We had ordered a new Ford Zetec, AF2000 spec-engine, lighter body panels and many suspension parts that needed changing. My team also promised to rebuild my formula to the best of their abilities. There was no fear or doubts already in mind from that past Subic incident and I worked out extra hard to be physically fit for this race.
Bira track is a very short track that is about 4kms long and very tight and twisty. It also is very challenging as it has elevation changes and a very fast sweeping, flat right hander that needs a set of big balls! It would be very hard to overtake and qualifying will be very important.
However, the organizers said that my engine wasn’t broken in yet and I had to do it during practice. I thought that there goes my valuable time to set up the car but in hindsight, it proved to be quite a blessing!
While everyone was trying to explore the limits on the track, I chugged along in a very slow pace to help the engine bead in. This made me learn the track in a slow and controlled pace that made me confident since it was my first time here. Even though I was a bother to a lot of drivers, I was exploring lines that I wouldn’t dare do in race pace.
Come qualifying day, no one was paying attention to my car and the stigma of Sepang was still there. So when we made our first qualifying lap on new tires, everyone’s jaws just dropped; we took our second pole position in Thailand! Just to rub it in, we got another pole in the next qualifying session.
We again became the darling of the crowd and the press. All was forgotten and forgiven for the slow pace we had in Sepang and in the practice session. Most of all, the pressure was now on the others as to how my momentum was so strong and they were all huddling in my car and looking at it.
Since my team also handled Singapore’s Denis Lian, Japan’s Keiko Ihara and Japan’s Tohru Jitsukawa under one manager, Richard Smith, the others were all shaking their heads in disbelief. Some even asked me how I did it!
I was brimming with confidence as my team gave me a good car to race on. In the morning race, the weather was great and the sun was out. There would be nothing that will stop my opponents from catching me. They just didn’t know that I really wanted this and wasn’t going to give it up easily.
When the green flag dropped, I was able to make a good start and went ahead of Indonesia’s Meckel Ali. We battled all the way for 8 laps when he made a mistake in the chicane and spun out. He was really trying very hard as he was glued to my tail all the time before that incident. He lost another place to Lian in the end and no one was close when I crossed the finish line.
A sense of enormous joy and sense of achievement overcame me and I behaved like a teen again on the podium. I imitated my racing idol, Michael Schumacher, and jumped high on the top of the stands and did it again with the trophy. I sprayed champagne to all my competitors and mechanics and this was definitely the best time of my life!
Having such big celebration in the pits, I didn’t notice that a downpour came to bless us also and made the track wet for the pm race. I slid on the start and Ali was able to overtake on the hairpin and took first place. Still, I was already very happy with my 1-2 finish that I just didn’t have the hunger to go crazy in the wet.
In the end, the Bira track became the place where all my doubts of becoming a formula champion were thrown out the window. I knew from now on that I would be going for the championship with 4 races to go.
Stay tuned for the final part and see how our AFOS dream turned out. It’s a story you wouldn’t want to miss. Godspeed!