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An interview with Fairuz Fauzy – Karter turned Lotus F1 driver

At the beginning of this year’s Formula One season yet another former karter’s name featured on the entry list. Nothing extraordinary about that you might say. But for Lotus, and Fairuz Fauzy, it was very significant indeed.

BY ADAM JONES

After 16 years away, the iconic Lotus name was back in F1 – and for Fauzy it marked his return to the premier category after briefly figuring in 2007, as Spyker’s reserve driver. Today’s Lotus Racing may be tipping a reverential nod to Colin Chapman’s traditional 1green and yellow colour scheme of the Sixties – it is even based in Norfolk – but Tony Fernandes’ version of ‘the British Ferrari’ is a very different outfit altogether.

Full of respect for the heritage they may be, but Mike Gascoyne and his technical team’s thinking behind theT127 is far from Chapman-esque. It is conservative rather ground-breaking, solid rather than spectacular. Although, like many of Chapman’s cars, the 2010 Lotus did experience a few teething problems on it’s first run. Furthermore, after he famously introduced sponsorship into the sport and changed his cars’ traditional colours to the red and gold of Gold Leaf, the wily genius signalled that racing teams could only prosper with outside investment, and in that respect the marque remains true to its founder’s inspired thinking. Proton now owns the road car brand, and with a global marketing opportunity other Malaysian companies have been keen to invest – and a talented, home-grown driver has only made the proposition all the more attractive.

Not that Fairuz Fauzy would completely agree that he is Lotus’ third driver simply by virtue of hailing from Kuala Lumpur. He asserts that he is in F1 on merit and genuinely believes that he has the ability to be world champion. After spending a couple of enjoyable hours in his company, what strikes you is his passion for karting and how hard he worked to achieve his chance with Lotus. Most impressive of all though, was the fact that despite being an F1 driver with the world’s media following him around, he wanted to hang out at his Mofaz Racing team HQ in Wellingborough and talk to Karting Magazine – even if lunch turned out to be nothing more than a bottle of water.

Like many youngsters, Fairuz started his karting career at a young age, but it wasn’t in Cadets, rather and quite remarkably, it was in a Formula A kart. “There were no categories (in Malaysia at the time). I was just eight or nine years old and we had to put somewhere between 40 to 50 kilos of lead ballast on the kart. I was the only one (of a similar age),” he explained. “There was no proper structure. I was up against 27 plus drivers and in my first heat I finished 5th but in the final I DNF’d – my chain came off but I’d shown my potential. From there, I won 5 times in a row.”

By the time he was 12, he had begun competing outside Malaysia, in international events and often against adults. He claimed a famous first victory in 1995, competing in a round of the British Super 1 TKM championship at Buckmore Park. Back in Asia, a string of consecutive ASEAN titles followed, prompting his decision to graduate to cars. After sitting down with his father – who designed the kart circuits at Sepang and Langkawi and had a dealership selling Tony Kart, CRG and Formula Rotax products amongst other things – it was decided that Fairuz would move to England in order to race in the 2000 Formula Ford Zetec championship. His karting career was not completely over however and he went back to successfully defend his ASEAN title – a feat he repeated a year later, having made a successful move into Formula Renault.

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On track for practice at his home GP

At this point it is worth noting that he and his family had already made several sacrifices to get that far. Not only had Fairuz uprooted himself from his homeland and his family to carve out a new life and career in Britain, but his father had had to sell the family home to finance it. Moreover, he’d done something almost unthinkable today – he’d said ‘no’ to Michael Schumacher’s manager, Willi Weber who had approached him after the 1998 season. “I missed my chance,” he shrugs before reminding me that at the time, Asia’s tiger economy had just collapsed. “Doing Formula Ford cost me a lot more money because I wasn’t a Red Bull driver,” he adds with a wry smile.

What he may have lacked in finances, he more than made up for with strong results. Two years in Formula 3 lead to a berth in GP2, first with DAMS followed by a season with David Sears’ Super Nova equipe. A stint with Malaysia’s A1GP team convinced the bosses at Spyker to take him on as their test and reserve driver. The ill-starred project saw him free to move into the World Series by Renault championship, where he really made his mark. High-profile podiums underlined his burgeoning reputation and opened the door for a crack at GP2 Asia, again with Super Nova, with whom he took victory in Indonesia and podium finishes at Sentul, Dubai and Sepang. He dove-tailed these outings with further A1GP events before returning to WSbR and finishing 2nd overall, prompting a call from Tony Fernandes’ nascent Lotus Racing F1 project.

Even though he is now firmly placed at the pinnacle of the sport, Fairuz maintains a passionate interest in karting and is a big fan of Rotax because it is a “a cheaper option than Formula A,” as he keeps referring to Super KF as if to underline his old skool credentials, adding “it has helped a lot to promote karting.” Consequently karting is now very popular in Malaysia, and his success has created further interest.

“I am an inspiration for younger kids and there are two or three talented Malaysian karters coming through right now,” he says, but acknowledges that the process has been slow despite the initial excitement created by Alex Yoong’s spell at Minardi. “F1 has come to Malaysia, but we still lack the ‘software’ – people coming through. I was considered a prototype and have the Mofaz team to put something back.” He tells me to look out for fellow Malaysian prospects Nabil Jeffri and Aaron Lim.

As his karting career took off, Fairuz proudly recalls CRG backing him and being run by Dino Chiesa, who at the time was masterminding Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s great success in European karting, “he was one of the best,” Fauzy affirms with a big smile.

Despite his F1 and Mofaz AKA Lotus Junior Team commitments, karting still plays a big part in Fairuz’s life and he still gets back into a kart whenever he’s back home in Malaysia – “I do it for fun. In Kuala Lumpur, I practice in a DD2 – which is good value. Karting is too much money now. That’s why I think Rotax is good for the sport. It’s proven that it has created a ladder to single seaters. Rotax has created a great opportunity.”

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Racing on a CRG in Malaysia

At this point, he voices an intriguing theory. “I think the current Senior category should become the Junior class and DD2 become Senior. I think that will be good. The DD2 is like Formula Renault – because it now has a paddle-shift gearbox. You need to replicate what happens in FRenault.”

Fairuz also wants to reduce costs and is clearly aware of the difficulties facing drivers with smaller budgets. He suggests “the next generation of karting will move to the Far East because Europe is so expensive” and he highlights former KF1 star Richard Bradley’s decision to compete in the Formula BMW Asia series rather than its European counterpart as a refreshing example of a driver willing to buck the trend. He also looks a little pained that more UK-based drivers haven’t opted to race in Asia and the Far East in light of that part of the world’s willingness to buy and sell our products. He proudly points out that his family also sold Fullerton and Wright karts.

When asked if any of the skills he learnt in karting have been transferable to F1, Fairuz says “I enjoyed my karting days because you train your senses. It’s good for basic skills – smoothness and control. Skills from karts to F1? You need to be smooth and aggressive…when you need to be.”

Karting also conditions and prepares the body, especially when racing on sticky tyres. “With high grip levels – you can feel it in your neck.” There is a slight pause before he confides, “Karting is more tiring (than F1). There’s more vibration – you’ll see all the bruises. It teaches racecraft as well. Last year I could follow a car really well. It was like a go-kart only with aero and downforce.”

Fairuz says that in cars, it is easy to spot the ex kart racers. “If they’re not quick in quali’ they’re quick in the race. They know when to push. Kart racing teaches you to plan when to attack and tyre management.”

Given that his family had dealings with legends like Terry Fullerton and he himself became a successful driver, I wondered if Fairuz would admit to having his own personal heroes. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, “I looked up to Alessandro Manetti and Danilo Rossi.”

He succumbs to the temptation and picks up an issue of Karting Magazine and flicks through it. “Asia needs a Karting Magazine. Motorsport is shifting to Asia. The British are more passionate than the rest of Europe. F1 is run by the British, that’s why I’m here!” he says in a rapid-fire series of statements.

Inevitably and with the British Grand Prix looming in the calendar, the conversation turns to his role at Lotus.

“I’m their Reserve and Test driver. Last year, Tony (Fernandes) came to me and said he wanted to set up an F1 team. I thought he was joking. He and Nino (Judge, the Team Principal) had a good package. They got their slot quite late and I said ‘no way can you build a car in six months’ but they did. To get the people and put the infrastructure in place (for an F1 effort) is not easy. It took Stewart GP seven races to get a car to the finish and we did it (first time??). I think we’re doing really good.”

Much as the team has been successful at the back of the field in its battle with fellow newcomers Virgin and Hispania, Fairuz says the aim is now beat the midfield and finish in the points. “We just need a bit more pace, to have a car you can attack with,” he says with candour.

Apart from Sepang, Silverstone will be his home race. Literally. “I’m really looking for to it and the new track. I live 200 metres from it. Honestly, the Rally School goes right past my front door!” he says with genuine delight.

After a difficult start to the season, which had at the time of writing, yet to yield any points for the team, Fairuz won’t be drawn on whether or not he will be given a race seat chance ahead of schedule, preferring to state his aspirations based around his current role, whilst supporting his colleagues. “Nowadays there’s no test team, so I hope to get every Friday. Heikki is doing a good job and Jarno is just having bad luck. They’re both very friendly. You know, I started with Heikki (in Formula Renault) – although he was just a little quicker getting to F1,” he acknowledges with his customary honesty.

There is a steeliness when he adds, “I’ve got the personality to be in that circle (F1). Any opportunity I have to present and deliver, I’ll take it. I don’t want just to be an F1 driver – I want to be the best.”

It reappears albeit without any hint of irritation when it’s suggested that perhaps the latest incarnation of Lotus is in name only. Fairuz sees himself as part of a new chapter of the same legacy that the likes of Moss, Clark, Hill, Rindt, Fittipaldi, Senna and Mansell will be forever associated with. “It’s a Malaysian team and I’m a Malaysian. To me, I’ve always wanted to be in F1 and with a great name. The first time I drove the Lotus, I created history. It is a heritage team and to drive for a team that featured Senna is an honour. Of course, I see myself as part of that heritage. I want to be successful, I don’t want to be a failure. There are thousands of drivers who want to be in F1 – it’s a dream. It is very important for me to achieve. There’s been a lot of sacrifice for me and my family.”

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On the podium after winning the ASEAN Kart GP at Langkawi in 2000

It is that last statement that prompts him to offer some advice to young drivers hoping to enjoy a career in motorsport. “Sometimes when you lose it’s a challenge. Life is not easy. Make losing an aim for success. Create a long-term aim. I always plan myself.”

Referencing one of the key ingredients the top teams look for, Fairuz notes that family support is also important, as is education although he is realistic. “It is important but it’s not easy to do both (academic studies and racing). But you can do part-time education. (If it’s your long-term goal) You need to dedicate yourself to motorsport. You can study after you retire but then, if you can do both, then do both.”

At 27, Fairuz is one of the drivers bucking the current trend some teams have favoured in recent years by going for younger drivers, but he believes he is better for taking his time. “I had the opportunity at 16 to come to Europe, but it took longer for me to arrive – but I’m a complete driver. To win in every category I’ve run in is important. Whatever you do in life, think about yourself first. It’s very easy to think you’ve failed when you haven’t got the budget but you just have to do your best. With the budget caps (in F1) smaller teams are coming through and success is more than just money. Money can’t buy you everything. At my age there were a lot of sacrifices. I didn’t party and I don’t drink. I listened to my dad. He said ‘If you want to do it, you do it properly’. At 17, I chose to go to the next step. For me it’s not about the glamour. I want to write my name in the history books. For guys, girls can be a distraction but to be successful you’ve got to stay focused and on track. I got married early (at 23) and by doing that, I could forget girls.”

Girls yes, but karting? No. Talk returns to karting and Fairuz explains that he is keen to get his 3-year old son into karting. “He can steer the (family) car. He knows, he’s interested in cars. I’m looking for a Puffo (Bambino) kart.”

Because his World Series by Renault team is based in a leafy industrial estate outside Wellingborough, Fairuz has the opportunity to occasionally test at Whilton Mill and PFi. “Whilton’s very bumpy. It’s good fun and PFi’s first corner is really fast.”

Although he is a big fan of Rotax, he is reveals that he is something of a purist. “I miss air-cooled engines. The sound is incredible… I miss them.” That said, he is also a realist and pragmatist and counters his own wistfulness. “I have a feeling that karts will be four-stroke with a catalytic converter. Green issues will mean that there’ll be no noise and of course, soon fuel will be too expensive. We may even get electric engines coming in. Of course, I’d prefer old skool but looking at climate change…” His voice trails off.

Fairuz’s comprehensive experience of karts also saw him attempt to race a 150cc Kawasaki-engined machine at Shah Alam. “That was faster than a Formula Campus round there. I was just 12 or 13-years old. I only practiced because they (the organisers) wouldn’t give me a licence to race. I couldn’t feed the gears in. In one session I spun but carried on. Eventually, my times were 2.5 seconds faster than the older drivers.”

The experience does not appear to have put him off gearbox karts, which he says are his favourite machinery alongside F1. “There’s so much to do in a shifter and they teach you good skills.”

His F1 colleagues Alonso, Kubica and Hamilton have their own chassis ranges – indeed his team-mate Trulli, until recently had his own successful brand – and Fairuz says he would ultimately like to create his own series, “Not yet but in the future. I’d like to work with a manufacturer to create the Fauzy Trophy.”

With the interview complete, Fairuz gives me a guided tour of the Junior Lotus Racing team’s factory, where in the workshop Nelson Panciatici is having a seat fitting. It is extremely rare for a driver still looking for his first chance to race in F1 to have a front-running lower formulae team, but then Fauzy is perhaps rarer still. He is clearly now not short of money, but is aware of the sacrifices that have created the opportunities he now has. He argues convincingly that drivers should at least consider staying within the ‘Renault family’ and enjoy top-class racing without slavishly following the norm of F3 and GP2. He deserves listening to because he’s done it and therefore has direct, personal experience. He thinks Rotax should be considered as a serious and cost-effective alternative to the KF classes, with the unloved DD2 kart given a fresh new perspective as to its merits and wants to create a karts-to-cars ladder for kids who are every bit as talented but less financially fortunate than himself.

Thoughtful, direct, aware of how fortunate he is and yet unsentimental about the past. He has already achieved more than many ever will with their careers but remains unfulfilled with regard to his ultimate ambition. Fairuz deserves his F1 break just as karting deserves him too.