It’s a housing estate, baking in the relentless heat of the tropical sun and 34 degree days with 100 per cent humidity. Nearby is a massive swim complex, an indoor sports complex and an athletics stadium, all built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games. But in the late 1960s Shah Alam had another sporting claim to fame: the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Here among the palm trees and semi-detached houses of Shah Alam (scarcely more than a town based around industrial developments at the time but now a city of 385,000) some of the biggest names in motor racing came to compete at the Shah Alam or Batu Tiga raceway for some fairly fat prize purses.
Though circuits at the time were mostly pretty temporary-looking affairs, Shah Alam had 57 pit and paddock spaces, covered grandstand seating for 8,000 and open air seating/standing area for another 18,000. The track was 3.38 km long, and ran clockwise, with 14 corners and a longest straight of 600 metres.
The Malaysian Grand Prix ran for Formula Pacific, Formula Atlantic and Formula 2 cars, and the last GP was for Formula Holden (Brabham) in 1995. But it’s the Formula Pacific years that interest me most. Kiwis won that race in 1978 (Graeme Lawrence), 1979 (Kenny Smith) and 1980 (Steve Millen). Those were all Formula Pacific years, the cars that are the natural predecessors of the Tatuus FT40 and FT50 cars run in our own premier championship series today.
The Formula Pacific/Atlantic cars ran Ford 1600 BDA engines and later Toyota 4AGE engines, fantastic-sounding things that revved forever and were raw and wild, spluttering and barking back through their side-draft carburettors on downshifts and trailing throttles.
Sadly, Shah Alam was closed in 2003 and is now just a huge suburb, a sea of tiled roofs shimmering in the Malaysian sun. Part of the track layout is retained in the ring road that circles the housing development – but you’d be hard pressed to pick it out at ground level.
The point of all this was that Kiwis have been world-class or better since ages ago, evidenced by the bloke who won the Malaysian GP the year before Graeme Lawrence: some lesser noted Frenchman called Tambay. While the Bruce and Denny show were taking the accolades and publicity in Europe and the USA, Kiwis who stayed home were having their share of fun in the sun as well, and not without success.
Top of that group of course is always going to be Earl Bamber, who started in karting in 2002, did the obligatory couple of seasons in Formula Ford and then went to Malaysia and won the Formula BMW Championship. Nine pole positions, ten race wins all in his rookie (debut) season. Languishing back in ninth in that stats list is some Aussie bloke called Ricciardo. But let’s not muse over whether Earl could have taken his talent all the way to F1 given his dominant form over the man from Red Bull.
Since his Formula BMW Asia victory Earl has had the classic mixed-category career, racing open-wheelers up to GP2 Asia and GT classes all over the region, then driving Black Beauty in A1GP for the Giltraps before returning to Asia to contest the Porsche Carrera Cup. He’s a lot like Craig Baird in this – able to adapt to any category and able to win in any moderately competitive drive.
Wins throughout Asia in the Porsches put him well and truly on Porsche’s radar and soon enough they put him in an LMP1 car – where he promptly rewarded them with a Le Mans 24 Hour title and subsequently joined Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard on the ‘A team’ that took the championship in 2017.
Perhaps in addition to his place in the NZ Motorsport Hall of Fame, we should be celebrating this unassuming Wanganui-born driver a bit more.
But Earl’s not the only current-day Kiwi racer to do well in Asia. James Munro likewise came up through karting, starting in 2009, and went on to win the Formula Masters China series in 2014. He raced TRS too, but his best recent results are in GT: winning the Sepang 12-Hours in Malaysia at the wheel of a Lamborghini Trofeo Huracan in 2015 and finishing third in GT-am class in the 2016 Asia Le Mans Series, his last full year of racing. James is now studying sports medicine at Canterbury University.
Third, but perhaps also the best proponent of journeyman championship racing in Asia is of course Chris van der Drift. Chris rose out of karting (yep, him too), taking his first major wins in 2001, then hitting Formula BMW Asia in 2004, finishing fourth on debut. Fourth? Yeah, some bloke called Vettel won that year.
What I like about all this is that southeast Asia is a fertile proving ground for young Kiwi drivers on the way up. Top European, American and Asian drivers all come there to race, the various categories use relevant race cars and the GT scene up there is huge. There’s sponsor money sloshing around – or you can bring your own to the gig. Airfares are cheap, accommodation is luxurious.
Macau attracts the best in the world year after year despite being a pretty awful place to race – if you’re not top three then you’re most likely going to get beat-up in the first Lisboa turn of the race.
China offers itself to the world, its domestic race championships offering rich pickings for talented gwailou (foreign) drivers.
Nick Cassidy meets former F1 drivers and runs rings around them in Japan, all while living the life of a gaijin rock star.
Ultimately, perhaps the path to glory doesn’t automatically lead from these shores direct to Europe or the USA. Asia is an immensely important market for manufacturers like Porsche, and because Asian nations are massive customers of New Zealand primary products these days, it’s eminently sensible to look at a deal to race in Asia, picking up a couple of big Kiwi corporates along the way as sponsors.
Even for drivers who ‘only’ aspire to Australia’s touring car codes, honing single-seater skills and getting to know how the GT cars work at unfamiliar circuits from Malaysia to China and back is an appealing and clever move. Plus, the food’s pretty good!