A1 experience helps Yoong regain appetite for motor racing
Alex Yoong is enjoying his motor racing again. He became famous in 2001 as the first Asian to race in modern-day Formula One, but two years with the perennially under-funded Minardi team eroded the Malaysian's reputation.
After dropping out of F1 he raced in the United States and then Australia before grabbing the opportunity to create, and then drive for, the Malaysian A1 GP team. A front-runner in A1's inaugural season, Yoong won the penultimate round in Shanghai in March and shortly afterwards announced he would be racing in the Le Mans 24-hours next month.
'The success in A1 has restored my credibility,' says Yoong, 29, at the first round of the Le Mans Series in Istanbul.
'The whole time I was at Minardi I had just four or five days testing. Basically the only time I sat in the car was at race weekends,' said Yoong, who didn't have a road car so the only time he drove at all was at the grands prix.'
It's easy to forget that Yoong's teammates at Minardi were Mark Webber (in 2002), who went on to Jaguar Racing and is now with Williams, and, for those first races in 2001, Fernando Alonso. 'He was pure talent,' remembers Yoong of last year's champion.
'I'm not sure he understood then how he does it, not like he does now, but he had talent in bundles. Very few people knew the full picture - that actually I was doing a good job. There were some races in which I drove badly but I was really happy with the last third of 2002,' says Yoong calmly. 'Mark would still out-qualify me but I think I was racing stronger than him.
'But people in Malaysia didn't understand, they expected me to be at the front. So I received negative publicity and because of that sponsors weren't willing to commit to new projects. That was really tough. I knew I had done a good job but the perception was that I'd done badly.'
The dream had become a nightmare and with no chance to continue in F1 Yoong looked to the US' Champcar series and ran several races in 2003 with Dale Coyne Racing: 'Another low-budget team, the Minardi of Champcar!' laughs Yoong. 'Actually things went well: I had a few top-10 finishes and I was quick. But the team had no money; I had no money; we had to stop.'
For 2004 Yoong raced in Australia's hugely popular V8 Supercar series. He remembers this as 'a bit of a disaster - and I was pleased to get out of that environment'.
When Yoong first heard about A1 Grand Prix he didn't think it would be successful. 'But it became clear there is a lot of money behind it and I started to realise it could work,' he says.
A1 GP has positioned itself as the World Cup of Motorsport with each one-car team representing a country. 'It's a super concept,' says Yoong, who decided not to follow the obvious route of hiring an existing European operation to run the car. 'There's enough experience between Jack [Cunningham, his partner] and I to know good from bad. We knew who to employ. We understood there would be teething problems but that in the longer term this had to be the way to do it.' About half the team personnel come from Malaysia.
'In the first half of the season we were on the pace and running in the top 10; in the second half we were in the top five,' says Yoong, who lives in Kuala Lumpur with his wife Arianna and their three-year old son Alister. 'He [Alister] loves racing and because my A1 car is yellow he now wants everything to be yellow.'
Alister's father beat some high-calibre drivers in the A1 series, not least of whom was the Netherlands' Jos Verstappen, a veteran of 107 F1 grands prix between 1994 and 2003. Yoong's battles with Verstappen caught the attention of Netherlands team boss Jan Lammers, himself a former grand prix driver and winner of the Le Mans 24-hours.
'I was impressed with how he overtook my driver,' laughs Lammers, 'and then found that Alex is also a great guy.' The two chatted earlier in the year and, 'Jan said he'd really like to have me in the car at Le Mans,' remembers Yoong. 'And I replied I'd really like to be in the car.
'I've always wanted to do Le Mans and I think the way I drive will go very well for sports car racing,' says Yoong. 'The car is quick and the team have lots of experience. We're never going to beat the Audis [winners of the 24-hours on five of the past six occasions] but we could be best of the rest.
'Jan is still really quick when you consider he rarely drives the car and is almost 50 years old,' says Yoong before adding: 'Did you know he's unique in having a 10-year break in his F1 career - stopping in '82 and coming back in '92?' It's this kind of knowledge which endeared Yoong to his new boss.
'I find Jan fascinating because he comes from an era when men were men; when you got into a racing car then you had to seriously think about death.'
'It's interesting,' he continues. 'Before I raced in F1 I would read everything I could about motor sport and loved all the history stuff. But after my time in F1 I didn't pick up a magazine for three years. I think F1 does that to you ...' Yoong looks thoughtfully into the distance, perhaps remembering the angst of those Minardi days. His smile returns and it's clear Yoong is back in favour again with motor sport - and the feeling is mutual.