The staging of the sixth Rotax MAX Challenge World Finals in Langkawi, Malaysia offered me an unexpected bonus when it was all over. My flight home was via Kuala Lumpur, so I took a couple of extra days there to see what I could learn about the wider karting scene in Malaysia. I was lucky. My host was James Leong whose karting prowess in Malaysia is second to none. Indeed, among the many trophies I saw in his home and office, were newspaper cuttings referring to him as the King of Malaysian karting and even the uncrowned King of Malaysia.
For me the knowledge that he had raced against and led Ayrton Senna was all I needed to know. James was heavily involved with the Rotax Finals, as he was with the previous staging in 2002 on behalf of MOFAZ, the Malaysian promoter for whom he worked for five years. Now however he has been appointed as Chief Executive of Swiss Hutless Asia Pacific who opened their new premises in December in the USJ district of Petaling Jaya just outside Kuala Lumpur. Swiss Hutless Asia Pacific expect to have a throughput of 50-60 chassis per month as they service the region including not just Malaysia but Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and the Phillipines. Initially the factory will employ ten persons as well as James and his number two, Marketing Director Ray Kong, himself a successful kart racer who has made the podium more or less every time he has raced in 2005. Malaysia has about 200 kart drivers with a broad mix of chassis such as CRG, Arrow and Gillard competing with Swiss Hutless.
There are kart tracks at the Sepang F1 circuit, the former full race circuit at Shah Alam, at Kota Bharu on the East Coast, the Elite Circuit on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and, of course, on the island of Langkawi. As well as the Morac circuit on Langkawi, I walked the tracks at Sepang and Elite, the former with a wonderfully smooth surface and the latter a most exhilarating track close to 1000 metres in length and owned by MOFAZ. Of course the Swiss Hutless venture is primarily a commercial operation. However, there is a philanthropic motive as well. The Malaysian government through the Sports Ministry is hugely supportive of efforts to enhance the motorsport credentials of the country. It is recognised that all today’s F1 drivers began their careers in karts and the government is concerned to see Malaysians given the same opportunity that is available elsewhere in the world if they are to achieve their stated goal of having a Malaysian F1 World Champion by 2020. Ray Kong’s hope is that by assembling karts in Malaysia the sport can be more affordable and his vision is to build their own ‘Made in Malaysia’ karts within five years. Today’s young kart racers are seen as a long term investment. James Leong told me he has government encouragement for his company’s plans to organise a schools’ competition for 7-8 year olds. The big hope is that this will lay down the foundations towards the common goal. There were certainly some good youngsters I saw in Langkawi.
Jazemaan Firhan Jaafar at 13 years old, the youngest competitor in the World Finals, won a heat as did Calvin Wong and Aaron Lim. Mohammed Nabil and Ooi Fei Hoong also caught the eye along with Hiqbar Danial and Bryan Homi Mehta, two drivers not yet in their teens who drove in the supporting Cadet races. One of the best incentives to succeed in world sport is to win the rivalry with your close neighbours. Indonesia had a strong team in Langkawi and provided the winner of the Masters title and the runner-up in Senior MAX. Thailand also had a couple of good drivers on view. Ruling the world can wait a little while, gaining the ascendancy over Indonesia and Thailand will do for starters for the Malaysian kart racers. If the current crop of young drivers can achieve on the international stage a tenth of what James Leong achieved on the domestic stage, then their future is bright.