There are four main elements to motor racing – the driver, the car, the team and the money. Some spend a lot of money on getting the best car to win and while I will not deny that having the most money can take you near the top, some level of talent is still necessary to get you there.
Driver development is a journey, a long-term process to groom younger drivers into successes of the future. To get a better understanding of a racing driver development programme, I spent a week in New Zealand with PETRONAS Syntium Team’s appointed driver trainer Richard Lester to experience Phase 1 of their programme for myself.
Since 1996, DWA Motorsports has been effectively grooming young Malaysian rookies to race under Team PETRONAS. Over the last five years, graduates from the PETRONAS Formula experience (PFX) programme were given the opportunity to be part of the five-time Super Taikyu champions PETRONAS Syntium Team.
The PETRONAS Syntium Team has its driver development in the following stages:
Phase 1 – Selection Process
Shortlisted candidates are sent to New Zealand for driver evaluation where they go through at least a week’s training of circuit driving, simulator driving and fitness workouts.
Phase 2 – Driver Training
Once the drivers have been selected, they will return to New Zealand for another three to four trips, this time each being a month long for more intensive training.
Phase 3 – Testing
Head of driver development for PETRONAS Syntium Team Andy Poon takes over from Richard here. Together with team manager Gen Suzuki and team engineer Niklas Thomassen, the drivers will be put in the team’s cars that are being raced in Super Taikyu for testing in Japan where the series is held.
Phases 2 and 3 combined will take about one year and by the end of that, the drivers will be tested to determine if they are good enough to be on the team the next year.
Phase 4 – Racing in Japan
Once selected for the team, these drivers will have the opportunity to race in the same cars alongside Japanese professional drivers Masataka Yanagida, Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka, who will provide them with valuable guidance along the way.
Phase 5 – Winning
So far, every rookie driver with the PETRONAS Syntium Team has had the opportunity to stand on the podium. On a higher level, the exposure, experience, mileage and seat time gained has also aided Yanagida, Taniguchi and Kataoka in becoming Super GT champions in Japan.
Phase 6 – Renewal Process
A successful racing team is not one that produces champions only, but one that is committed to a constant renewal process of identifying and developing new talent from the masses, giving opportunities to people from all walks of life, as a way of giving back to the community. Post-racing with the PETRONAS Syntium Team, some of the drivers have taken on the role of team manager or team mechanic in motorsports, re-applying these skills back to the community by training and grooming up and coming young drivers, forming an ongoing renewal process of driver development for progression and continuity to the sport.
In my line of work, I’ve gone for advanced driving courses and defensive driving classes, but I’ve never had the chance to go for a racing driver programme of any sort. When I was offered this chance to go behind the scenes and experience for myself what it is like, I accepted it gratefully but at the same time could not help letting some butterflies into the stomach.
The driver evaluation process consists of on-track driving techniques, simulator races in wet and dry conditions, track map planning, mountain runs, gym sessions for strength and endurance, as well as working on the concentration factor and driving under pressure.
During the week there, I spent some time clocking laps on the Pukekohe Park Raceway track, taking the corners aggressively on the simulators and also running in the hills every day.
It was physically and also mentally challenging, but it has allowed me to gain an insight into what racing drivers go through. This first phase that I went through is only the evaluation process and not even the tip of the iceberg, so I can only imagine the steep amounts of hard work and efforts from the drivers, trainers and the rest of the team to make it all happen.
Thank goodness I had these views to accompany me on those treacherous runs in the hills!
According to Dato’ David Wong, team principal of PETRONAS Syntium Team, the biggest challenge in driver development is in identifying the drivers with talent and developing them before they get too old. Interestingly, he also shared that the costs of driver development takes up an unpredictable percentage of the total racing bill, including the crashes they cause, the engines they blow up and the gearboxes they damage.
Jono Lester, son of Richard Lester and also driving for the PETRONAS Syntium Team this season, took me through the fitness aspect of driver development and training. Ideally, getting as much seat time as possible would be best in order to improve one’s driving. However, budget constraints don’t allow drivers to be in the racing car everyday and hence they need to find ways to train the body and mind in a manner similar to the pressures experienced when in the car. For example, training for an endurance race would mean to engage in physical activities and build a training regime that contains certain exercises of the same intensity to train the same muscles.
Anaerobic fitness and functional strength aside, the mental fitness of a driver is very important too. Staying focused in times of fatigue and making quick decisions under pressure are just some of the things that racing drivers go through during a race.
What I learnt in that one week is only a mere fraction of how much more a racing driver needs, but it has given me a tool to see for myself what it takes to be a racing driver. There is a lot more to what makes a driver – sporting, commercial, technical, mental, physical, nutritional and more. In essence, driver development is a lifelong process which even extends beyond the track, as it builds one’s personal character and also helps one improve driving on the roads in terms of being able to anticipate dangers better.