Motorsports ranking amateurs

Amateur motorsport enthusiasts earn a chance to test their mettle against the professionals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 6:18pm

Alex Au raced radio-controlled cars as a teenager. Dino Crescentini visits his local go-kart track for kicks. When they are not busy with their high-powered day jobs, they like to get behind the wheel of a racing car and pit their skills against the professionals.

Amateur racers with a stash of cash and a need for speed are increasingly finding opportunities to get an adrenaline fix, with the launch this year of the Audi R8 LMS Cup.

Au, who works in finance, took part in his first races last year when he joined the Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific and Scirocco Cup China. Prior to that he took lessons and earned his motorsport competition licence.

"I always thought it would be fun to get into motorsport, but I thought getting involved was difficult," Au says. "You have to be talented at it, and go to a lot of driving schools, pass exams and get the licence, and so on, so I never got round to exploring it before."

His new hobby is already paying dividends. At the Shanghai International Circuit this month, where drivers hit speeds of about 270km/h on the straight, Au took second podium place in the amateurs' category of the Audi R8 LMS Cup series, the carmaker's first one-make racing venture. It was the finale of a season that spanned six weekends in China at the Shanghai track, and in Zhuhai and Ordos in Inner Mongolia. The amateurs' trophy went to Jeffrey Lee of Taiwan, while local singer-actor Aaron Kwok Fu-shing came third.

The Audi series is the latest opportunity on offer to owners in a pursuit also available to customers of carmakers such as Porsche and Ferrari. The manufacturer is building on not only more than 30 years of motorsport experience but also its position as China's top-selling premium car maker. It sold more than 313,000 cars in Hong Kong and the mainland last year. A small number of mainland drivers also took part in the series, including the only female racer, Zhang Ran.

Rene Koneberg, director of Audi Sport Customer Racing China, expects interest in motorsport to grow on the mainland as the market matures. The marque's Audi Driving Experience is an initiative to help keen drivers reach new levels of experience. "The first level is that you have to do a test drive; you learn how to handle the car," Koneberg says. "Then you go to the next level, called the sports car experience, where you go on the race track. You drive in a high-performance vehicle; it could be an RS5 or an R8.

"The next level is the race experience, where you are able to earn your licence. It's a two-day course, done in the R8 and integrated with the R8 LMS. For the next level you could enter the LMS Cup or you could start your own team under Audi Sport Customer Racing."

Prices start at 11,000 yuan (HK$13,600) and go all the way up to the Audi R8 LMS Cup package costing €350,000 (HK$3.5 million). This includes ownership of the car and a service package that covers fees, fuel, storage and a dedicated engineer for the duration of the racing series. If that's not enough of an incentive, it could also be a profitable investment.

"The market is very hot for the used vehicles," Koneberg says. "It is a GT3 car so you can use it in any other race around the world."

"Shanghai Audi R8 LMS Cup" Video by Mark Sharp

Audi R8 LMS (Le Mans Series) cars are identical, allowing drivers to shine on their own merit. They have a 5.2-litre, V10 engine with an output of 560hp and more than 500Nm of torque.

The Audi R8 LMS Cup featured 16 cars, with six amateurs taking part. "We wanted to have a balance between amateur and professional drivers," Koneberg says. "It's attractive to have some professionals and also some celebrities."

While Kwok was the star attraction, the professionals included local driver Marchy Lee Ying-kin, who won the trophy, fellow Hongkonger and runner-up Adderly Fong Chun-yu, and former Formula One driver Alex Yoong of Malaysia, who took third place.

Crescentini took part in the final meeting by chance after another driver dropped out and he was invited to take the car. He was the weekend's fastest amateur, coming fourth overall in the Saturday race.

The CEO of Los Angeles-based StopTech, which makes parts for high-performance car brakes, he values the experience gained by racing with the professionals.

"A typical amateur's mistake is to rush into the corners," he says. "So listening to the professionals, and taking heed, is really the biggest thing I've learned from them. It's about taking it easy and pacing yourself going into the corners so you can come out fast."

Kwok, who's as known for his enthusiasm for cars as for his glittering show business career, has been racing for more than 10 years. He provided a fitting moment of drama when Fong nudged him off the track. After veering onto the wet turf, he returned with what an Audi official described as "the most beautiful spin of the series". Kwok also credits the professionals with helping him improve his driving.

"When I was young there were not as many opportunities for me to take part in racing events," he says. "I remember when the track in Zhuhai was commissioned, and in 1997 I had that rare opportunity to get my hands on a racing car and learn a little from the professionals. To be a great driver you have to accumulate experience, methods and approaches on a real track and in a real race."

Crescentini says the sport is in his DNA. His father ran a repair shop when he was a boy and some of the people he worked with were racing car drivers.

"It was in the Los Angeles area and he used to take me to the race track there," he says. "So I just caught the bug early on. I always said, when I'm old enough and can afford it, I'd love to go racing."

Shanghai was Crescentini's first race meeting outside the United States, where he has taken part in many events organised by the Sports Car Club of America. With a business to run, it's not always easy to find track time, he says. "Unfortunately, I don't have a chance to practise when I'm not taking part in races. I go to the local indoor go-kart track and get my jollies out."

Au recommends driving courses for those who are keen to start racing. "If you are well off enough to be considering a yacht or a private jet, you should spend that money on motorsports instead. It is way more fun. If you have the money, just get in via the manufacturers. Porsche or Ferrari both offer courses that lead to racing licences. It's more of a luxury way to get in. If younger talents want to get involved without a lot of cash, the HKAA's path of racing cheaper cars to start with is probably better."

The Hong Kong Automobile Association is the only local authority approved to issue motorsport competition licences designated by the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA).

Applicants seeking a licence must first join the HKAA, study and pass an exam on the FIA's competition rules, and also pass a medical by an HKAA-approved doctor. There are various classes of licence with as many rules on how frequently a racer must compete and how often a medical is required. Details are available on the association's website.

Even those who have the resources to become part-time racers may not so easily find the time. Asked if motorsports ever interferes with his day job, Kwok says: "This has been a golden year for me. I have had a lot of work and have a lot of plans for filmmaking and concerts, and next year will be the same. So next year, if Audi wants to have me, or I want to have Audi, maybe they need to pay me more."

Au says racing is a great escape, but it's easier for business owners than employees.

"I would recommend joining one-make series with single-team support such as the Audi cup if you want to save time," he says. "I dread having to worry about mechanics and engineers and logistics to be competitive. Here, I just pay, turn up and drive. And if your family enjoys travelling to countries where the races are held, that helps with the family time."