What It Takes To Go Faster

Motor racing doesn’t have to be the preserve of a select few. Given the right steps, the path towards it is very safe.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Car prices in Singapore are among the most expensive in the world. Despite this notoriety, it has not stopped the mounting number of million-dollar supercars zipping on the city-state’s roads. Whether it’s a Porsche, Maserati, Aston Martin, McLaren, Ferrari or Lamborghini, Singaporeans are willingly flashing the cash for the most powerful machines carmakers can produce.

Many owners of such precision engineering works are petrolheads keenly aware that their prized possessions are not designed for our congested city and suburban streets. Like pedigree racehorses, these need to be able to run at top speeds of up to 300kph now and then to keep their mechanical muscles in optimal condition.

So they head to Sepang, Selangor, to stretch the car’s legs on Malaysia’s Formula 1 racing circuit.

For some, however, this is not enough. When the speed bug hits hard, they entertain thoughts of pitting their skills in actual competition against the pros. Fortunately, many racing championship series, including those in Asia and Australasia, allow participants to choose the race they want to compete in without committing to an entire season.

It costs a minimum of 25,000 Euros (S$40,375) to participate in an entry-level GT4 racing series. This includes the use of a racing car, mechanics and hospitality. With motorsports competitions filling the calendar year in the Asia-Pacific, especially in Malaysia, China, Japan and South Korea, the opportunities to race are plentiful.

But how can a driver get the most out of a car at top speed and still steer it safely? Two accomplished racing drivers – Melvin Choo and Andrew Tang – offer tips.

Choo, 50, is the first Singaporean to race in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, competing in two rounds in 2008. He also took part in two seasons of the Japan Super GT in 2010 and 2011, and other major series in Asia over five years from 2007. Tang won the 2014 Toyota Racing Series title in New Zealand and the 2011 Asian Open Karting Championship. The 25-year-old was also a member of McLaren’s Young Driver Development Programme in July 2012.

At the very top of their list is preparing your car to operate safely in a very demanding environment. Just as important, if not more so, is your physical and mental fitness as a racing driver.

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The community of motor racing enthusiasts is growing in Singapore and Asia, says David Sonenscher, CEO of Kuala Lumpur-based Motorsport Asia. His company has been organising racing competitions in Asia since 1997, including Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and TCR Asia Championship, and an event for entry-level racing enthusiasts that was launched last year.

Called Porsche Sprint Challenge Asia, it is the perfect fit for supercar owners who feel they have outgrown track days and want something more. “You can drive a car all day long on track days, but this is only one level of excitement and entertainment,” says Sonenscher. “Competing is another notch up and until you have done this, it is hard to understand the difference.”

Although there are no racing academies in Singapore and Malaysia, he says there are racing instructors who can help prepare drivers keen on taking up motor racing. Sonenscher adds that major carmakers also conduct performance driving courses and this can help enthusiasts make the step up to handle even faster cars.

“In line with our sprint challenge, my company is looking to put into place a programme early next year that we can market to people interested in motor racing. We know there is this necessity, and we have been discussing this project for a while already.”

Once novices are ready to go racing, the next step is to get a motorsport licence from a national governing body such as Motor Sports Singapore.


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Throwing a novice racer in at the deep end is not a dictum in motor racing. It is dangerous and likely to end as a short-lived adventure. Learn to walk first, says Choo, before making any attempt to run.

Although career drivers usually start with kart racing at a very young age, this does not preclude adults in their 30s and 40s from taking up motor racing in powerful cars. Dutchman Robert Doornbos, who competed in Formula 1 with Minardi and Red Bull in 2005 and 2006, is one such driver without a karting background.

“If someone wants to become a race car driver, I’d take him around a racetrack in a manual road car to build his confidence first,” says Choo. “The technique of driving does not change whether you are in a regular car, a supercar or a race car. It’s about building someone’s confidence to brake to the limit at high speeds, to negotiate corners and to overtake in a 1.3-litre car before he does the same things in a more powerful car.”

Choo explains that people who enter a race without learning the basics of driving to the limit will be overwhelmed, lose confidence and make mistakes because their cars are too fast. He says this takes the fun out of motorsports.
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Motor racing is physically demanding as the human body is subjected to extreme G-forces for extended periods. In Singapore and Malaysia’s humid conditions, a driver typically loses up to 4kg of body mass during a two-hour race. If unfit, it can affect his concentration and turn him into a potential danger on the track. A physically fit driver, on the other hand, will have the confidence to race to the limit.

Both Tang and Choo run and put in hours of gym work to stay in tip-top condition. “I also usually stay off alcohol the night before a race or even for a week,” says Tang. “I also make an effort to sleep well for a minimum of three nights, and at least eight hours each night. If I don’t, it will be difficult to recover after a gruelling race. As it will be hot in the car, hydration is important, too. I usually consume energy drinks and tons of water.”

Eating well, especially carbohydrates, to store enough energy in the body is also key. Days before a race, Choo stays away from oily foods and loads up on salads and whole meats. Then he goes on an energybased liquid diet on race days. Tang’s choice is pasta and rice.


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To extract the maximum out of a race car, it needs to be set up to complement the pilot’s driving style. Having experience in setting up a car makes a huge difference to a driver, too, says Choo.

“If the car is not set up correctly and goes all over the place when you drive it, then you will not have the confidence to go fast,” he explains. “Initially, you may not have experience in setting up a car and will need a good mentor and mechanic. This can help make the car feel planted to the tarmac and give you the confidence to go as fast as you can. Even if the car loses control, it does so gradually instead of snapping.”

As an example, Choo points out that some experienced drivers prefer to angle their tyres in a negative camber while others adjust the front wheels to be stiffer than the rear pair. The objective of these adjustments is ensure the car grips the road better, especially at the corners.

It's also important to give the car the correct gear ratios to enable it to hit maximum speeds on the straights and let it come out of corners at the fastest speed. “You need to talk to your mechanic on the optimum configuration based on the track you are driving on.” 
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Formula 1 drivers jogging and cycling around the Marina Bay Street Circuit after midnight are a common sight during the Singapore Grand Prix.

Says Tang, “A track walk is recommended but it is useless if you don’t know what you are looking for. The things to note include any changes to the tarmac and whether or not they will affect your tyre grip. Also whether there are bumps that could throw you off mid-corners. You also have to check if the kerbs are flat or high to determine if you can take them on. I also identify the entry points and apex of corners that will tell me where my racing lines are.”

Corners present the best opportunities for overtaking and are places that separate the best drivers from the rest of the field. Choo says there are three key parts: entering, hitting the apex and accelerating out.

“The tendency is to brake gradually when approaching the turns, which is wrong,” says Choo. “The correct way is to brake hard and then gradually ease off. This will give the car more grip and allow you to steer towards the apex and flow out of it quicker. Corners are easier to overtake because, on the straights, drivers stick to the racing lines, which leave little room for another car to pass.” 

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The steps towards making the starting grid of competitive racing and surviving that first corner are meant to build confidence. Physical fitness allows a driver to concentrate on racing and make split-second decisions despite the demands it puts on their body. Also, a car that is properly set up allows it to perform to its limit safely.

“It is all about confidence and knowing what you are doing,” explains Choo. “If you are not well-prepared, you will lose it and this is where bad accidents happen on the track.” 
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The Passion To Collect

Childhood distress might be at the root of this.

“Even a person who disavows the material world collects something – life experiences, successes, respect from peers.”

In the '90s, my mother kept bus tickets. A modest collection, but there was something appealing about those little paper slips neatly stacked in a mini tower. This may seem anachronistic but, in the weird and wonderful world of collections, anyone can collect, well, anything.

In North Carolina, for instance, a dermatologist has amassed a Guinness-record repository of 675 backscratchers. Others, like the Rockefellers and their art collection, exhibit a patrician fondness for expensive collectibles.

What drives this passion that seems attached to the human condition? After all, even a person who disavows the material world collects something – life experiences, successes, perhaps respect from peers. In his 1994 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger traces this desire to a person's formative years. When a child feels anxiety from being alone when a parent is away, a soft toy or pillow gives comfort, and this material attachment represents the first passion for possession.

Acquiring something brings about a sense of relief, an emotion that echoes a childhood sentiment – and is “not simply recreational but an enriching respite from the sometimes frustrating demands of everyday life” , says the author. He points to one conspicuous trait being the continual desire to add to one's collection.

What else might explain the psychology of an avid collector? A 2014 study proposes that a collection is likely to begin when one already owns a few similar objects. The tipping point comes when the person is unable to reconcile their enjoyment of the object with the wastefulness of having more than one of it and justifies this by seeking additional items to form a defensible set.

Whatever the cause, what is common among collectors is the excitement and spirited discussion on the topic of their prized possessions. I once spent two hours listening to a gem collector trace his journey over a Zoom call (I enjoyed his stories, too). This phenomenon is so entrenched that the English lexicon abounds with specific words to describe collectors: grabatologist, scribophile and numismatist, to name a few.

While what is deemed valuable varies, luxury items are always in favour, due to a storied history, great craftsmanship, or simply ingenious marketing. Also winning the popularity stakes are toys. I know because I am hooked on Pop Mart blind-box dolls, as is a whole swathe of mostly female fans – based on anecdotal evidence comprising like-minded enthusiasts.

Muensterberger would say that I find comfort in them, while the divergent theory holds that I want full sets. Wang Ning, the 33-year-old founder of the Beijing-based Pop Mart company, probably couldn't care less, with sales spiking from US$22 million (S$30 million) in 2017 to US$73 million in 2018. Revenue last year hit US$240 million. Unsurprisingly, in July, Forbes christened him a new billionaire.

I probably have something to do with that.