If you have been reading our columns for the past 3 weeks, you are definitely in for a treat in this final edition of our AFOS experience.
We had attained our hero status again after taking our 1st win and 2nd places in Rounds 7 and 8 respectively of the Asian Formula 2000 Championship held in Bira, Thailand. We were beaming with confidence and knew we could challenge for the championship with 4 races to go.
We had climbed to 2nd place overall behind Indonesia’s Meckel Ali who was ahead by 19 points with Singaporean Denis Lian only 3 points below me. I knew that we were the only drivers that could win overall title. Lian and I had the momentum but Ali was never going to back off a fight. So here goes the final 4 races.
Hala bira 2
For rounds 9 & 10, AFOS returned to Bira again and I was obviously very happy after our great first outing. I missed the first 2 practice sessions due to my obligations with the BLTBCo’s problems. I still felt that I didn’t need much practice anyway as the win was still fresh in my mind.
What I didn’t know was that my new engine was suddenly overheating even though it was newly overhauled in the last leg. We couldn’t do more laps in the final practice and the mechanics frantically checked what was causing the hot temperature. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the problem and we qualified a lowly 6th place and I was feeling the pressure building up before the race.
In the first race of the day, I had to look at the temperature gauge and back off when it was climbing. The car then suffered another problem; the rear sway bar broke after being stressed after cutting the berms in the tight 2.9 km track. I was able to climb 1 position to 5th after a clash with 2 cars that threw one into the gravel. However, I knew the championship was slipping away.
Luckily, Japan’s lady driver Keiko Ihara came back for this race and she drove flat out to take first place. This pushed everyone down including Lian who got 2nd and Ali 4th place after having handling problems with his car after an accident 3 days before the race.
It’s not over
With the weather threatening to rain for the afternoon race, I knew this would be a big help for my engine problem. My Chief Mechanic Richard Smith changed the sway bar and adjusted the suspension settings to give the car more stability.
Starting in 6th again, I felt the car much better than before. The race was comfortably led again by Ihara up to the middle part when suddenly her throttle cable broke. Ali inherited the lead and then almost immediately, broke his driveshaft and had to park it. That left Lian in front and I was catching him fast.
With 3 laps to go, I dove under Lian in the hairpin and we almost touched when he tried to defend the lead. Fortunately, Lian opened up and I took the lead till the end.
No one ever thought we could win after our lackluster first race. I was the happiest driver and showed it by jumping again on the podium! Thailand was truly a lucky place for me and my unbelievable 2nd win just proved it.
With Ali’s DNF in the last race, I took over the lead in the championship by only 1 point over Lian. Ali fell down to 3rd but it was a tossup between us 3 for the championship. The final 2 races were t be held in Zhuhai, China and I felt strong and confident.
I was one of the drivers that had prior experience with this Chinese track. When we raced back in 1996 in the same formula car for my rookie year, we were part of the first race in Zhuhai with the GT Supercars as the main event. I remember that there were like a million people in that race and all the grandstands and hills of the 5 km track were covered by people!
After 6 years, the excitement had died down and there were very few that came to watch our Formula race. Even with the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and 3 other race series joining us, the crowd was never near that of the first race. Even though the crowd was sparse, the atmosphere in the pits was just as electrifying as the first race!
Even though I had raced on the track before, I could not get the right handling and braking points for this technical and narrow, flowing track. It might have been the pressure, but I was just not at my best form and felt way below my usual drive.
In the first qualifying session, I tried to late brake in the first turn and went off into the gravel trap. The car was beached on the course and the session had to be stopped while they pulled my car out. For a title contender, this was definitely embarrassing. I could only take 6th in both qualifying sessions as my confidence was way down after that.
My title competitors were up there with Lian taking pole and Ali in 4thth. Lian’s pole position gave him 1 extra point and both of us were now tied going to the last 2 races. This aggravated my poor psyche and I thought the title was already lost.
We had a lot of new drivers in this race in preparation for the invitational race in Macau 2 months after. There were fast Japanese drivers but since they didn’t register for the series, they were not eligible for points in the championship. This was going to be a challenge because they didn’t care if they bumped you or not. Truly Kamikaze type of drivers!
Starting from the midfield was always going to be hard. The racers up front have not much traffic while the guys at the back don’t care how they go up the field. This makes for a lot of accidents in this middle group and I didn’t want to be in it.
Right at the start, there were a lot of dicing and bumping going on. I had to give way every time the kamikazes in front tried to take each other out. My 8/10ths pace proved to be good enough to finish in 4th and the best part of it was my 2 contenders finished behind me. Lian had transmission problems and finished 9th while Ali had handling problems.
I was classified 3rd behind Ihara and Zarith Alfian of Malaysia. I took the lead again by 6 points over Lian and I knew this was a good cushion going to the final race. At lunch, all drivers were quiet and I believe I was the only one happy with my result. Little did I know that taking the championship was not going to be that easy!
After checking the math on how to preserve my lead, I had to stay no more than 2 positions behind Lian. I decided to avoid all the bumping and crashing in front of me and drive as safe as possible.
For the final race, Alfian was in pole, Lian in 2nd, Ihara in 3rd and I was in 6th again. There were heavy rain clouds gathering right before the start and soon, light showers started to fall down. We were all on slick tires and you can imagine the stress we were all under.
The worse part came when the marshals frantically went around telling us that there would be a change of start procedure. We were going to a flag start after the lights failed to turn on. Can you imagine a Chinese marshal trying to talk in English with our helmets on and engines running? It was a recipe for a disaster and all of these happening right before the most important race ever!
After a long wait and all the engines were very hot, we were shown the green flag by the start marshal. However, the red lights also came on at the same time. The starter lowered the flag while the lights were still on. I saw the 2 cars of Alfian and Ihara started then braked.
The lights turned to green and off we went. I knew that there might be some problems by the 2 cars after a confusing start procedure given at the last minute. The rule states that jump starts should be penalized within the first 3 laps of the race by a stop go penalty in the pits. Since no car was called in, I thought the start was good so off we go chasing the leaders.
The bumping between Japanese drivers was harder than ever and I knew I had to stay cool. Lian was in 2nd place and I was in 4th and when you take out the non-tilte contenders, this was enough to win the title by 1 point. So when we crossed the finish line, I was celebrating like crazy! Alfian won the race but I couldn’t care less as long as I got the title.
When I reached the pits, I was jumping up and down and my fellow Filipino mechanics were all celebrating with me. Then I was suddenly told by the race officials that there might be some problem at the start and some would be penalized. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I was floored when they announced that Alfian would be penalized by 30 seconds for jumping the start.
This elevated Lian to 1st, Ihara 2nd and I got 3rd. However, 1st place had more points so I would lose the title by 2 points instead of winning it! My head was turning and I couldn’t believe it. Even my team couldn’t comprehend what happened and they told me to protest the decision.
Aside from the jump start penalty not being given within the 3rd lap as required by the FIA, a lot of people saw what I saw- that Ihara also jumped the start. So I included this point in my protest and we all were interviewed by the officials. The organizers took more than 2 long hours deliberating the protest. When the final decision came out, their initial decision stood as is and Alfian dropped down to 10th place with the 30 second penalty. No other driver jump started and my protest was basically thrown out.
It was just too much to bear and I literally cried when I heard the news. This was the first and only time that I cried after a race in my more than 20 years of racing in 2002. I couldn’t believe that I was robbed of the title in the end with only the stewards deciding the fate of our long journey in this AF2000 series.
The other teams couldn’t believe it also and wanted me to appeal it to FIA but that would entail a fee of $10,000.00 which I will never pay to get a title. I ended up as 1st Runner up and Lian taking the title by 2 points ahead of me.
After a few weeks, the AFOS TV special of the Zhuhai race showed the start line incident.
The host, Jonathan Green, mentioned that there was a definite jump start of Alfian and Ihara. It was a small appeasement for the worst day in my racing career! It was a big controversy even here and everyone felt my lost.
That was the last AF2000 race and the series was cancelled in lieu of the Formula BMW Championship the succeeding year. There was one final invitational AF2000 race in Macau that I joined but that’s another story. I hope you liked my roller coaster journey in AF2000 and will have more great motorsports stories soon. Godspeed and keep up the racing spirit!