Being a motor journalist has a habit of taking your preconceptions of what a job should entail and setting them on fire. Having started my stint at paultan.org less than a month ago, I was all set to just sit in the office hammering out news while my colleagues were out covering cool events or driving the hottest new cars. I mean, that’s what a newbie is supposed to do, right?
UPDATE: We’ve just been informed that the Proton R3 Suprima S Touring Car draws 155 hp at 7,500 rpm and 185 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm from a modified 1.6 litre IAFM engine (same setup as R3 Preve racer), and not 178 hp and 224 Nm from a CPS as previously stated.
But then an email came in about a Proton test session for a race series I had never heard of at the Sepang International Circuit, and an invitation to ride with one of their drivers out on the track. The editorial team thought it was a good idea for me to get a taste of racing and of the track itself and told me to have fun out there. These guys are nuts, I thought to myself, entrusting this to someone like me.
Not long afterwards, I braved my way through the suffocating haze to Sepang, and as soon as I parked and got of my car my ears were inundated, no, assaulted by the sound of engines buzzing around at full chat, some of them I knew were very serious race machinery. I was about to get my first taste of the Malaysian Super Series.
For those of you who don’t know, the MSS works pretty much like the VLN championship at the Nürburgring – it consists of five rounds all held at Sepang (the first race is a support race for the Malaysian Grand Prix later this month), culminating in the Sepang 1000-km endurance race at the end of the year. Each round consists of two races – one for touring cars, one for GT and Sports Production cars.
The paddock really was a spectacle to behold. Walking down the pits, I spotted race-prepped Porsche 911s and Ferrari 458s nestled in their specific garages, while Lamborghini Gallardos and Audi R8s roared down the main straight. There was variety too – further down the pit lane sat a Honda Civic Type R and even a Caterham Seven.
But I wasn’t here for those cars. I was instead gestured to Garage 5, where Proton’s R3 boys competing in the Malaysian Touring Car class were stationed. There I met Gary Lee of Proton Motorsports, who showed me the car I was actually here for: the Proton R3 Suprima S Touring Car. Here for its track debut, it will be racing alongside the Prevé, which was also present.
The car, covered in the team’s new blue, yellow and silver livery, sat low and looked mean, if a little under-wheeled – the tallish body, normally fitted with 17-inch wheels, instead sat on lightweight 15-inch R3 wheels wrapped in 195/55 Hankook Ventus Z221 semi-slick tyres. The wider track helped with the stance somewhat, but at first it looked like nothing more than a Mat Rempit‘s wet dream.
But this car is not to be sniffed at. Under the bonnet sits a 1.6 litre IAFM four-cylinder engine, modified to produce 155 hp at 7,500 rpm and 185 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm. By way of comparison, the Persona SV‘s IAFM unit delivers 110 hp and 148 Nm, while the Preve Executive‘s IAFM+ motor does 107 hp and 150 Nm.
To extract that kind of power, the engine has been extensively re-engineered – so much so that only the block and crank remain unchanged. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a CUSCO close-ratio five-speed manual – with dog engagement for faster, more precise shifts – as well as a 1.5-way limited slip differential.
Keeping the Suprima under control are an Ohlins racing suspension kit as well as Alcon racing brake calipers all around. The bodyshell has also been lightened and strengthened, and a six-point roll cage fitted inside, with a new design compared to the Prevé. Completing the package are a front splitter and side skirts lifted from the Prevé, as well as custom brake ducts cut out of the front bumper.
In addition to its two racing cars, Proton R3 also brought along a Satria Neo road car, which was used to test new components that will eventually be sold to the public. Aside from the usual performance addenda you can buy right now, the car was also fitted with a half-cage, one of the planned additions to the R3 catalogue.
After I was made to sign a release form, I donned a helmet and got into the Suprima, five-point harnesses tethering me securely into the hefty Recaro buckets next to Syafiq Ali, who along with teammate James Veerapan claimed the class title last year. The door slammed shut and now all I could do was wait until the one of the mechanics gave the signal for Syafiq to set off.
Finally, the go ahead was given and we shot out of the pit box, immediately restrained by the pit lane speed limiter. A few seconds later and we were out, the limiter went off and we speared towards the first corner.
Now, at this juncture I’d like to say that I’ve been fortunate enough to have been to Sepang many times, with a number of Formula One races under my belt as well as the Super GT race last year. I’ve also driven around the track virtually many times through countless F1 simulators. But I had never actually been out on the track before, never mind in a proper racing car at full bore.
The first thing that struck me was how wide Sepang is. You just cannot take in the full scale of a modern Formula One track through watching races on TV – only when you’re out on the circuit and the kerbs are wider than half your car do you feel dwarfed by pretty much everything around you.
The second thing I noticed was just how fast Syafiq was negotiating the first corner and how resistant the car was to understeer. The car cornered flat and had so much mechanical grip through the corners it felt like the car was literally trying to tear my face off.
We sped at full throttle out of the first two corners and at first the car didn’t feel particularly fast – with a high-revving, naturally-aspirated engine you’re never going to get a thump in the back every time you step on the accelerator. Only after a while did I realise how much speed we’re carrying into the fast-approaching 90-degree Turn 3, and Syafiq is supposed to be braking hard now…
But he didn’t brake. The car carried on, Syafiq’s foot still planted firmly on the throttle. I looked at the metre boards indicating the braking zone and I was sure we’d gone past the point of no return; that this could only end in bruises, tears and an embarrassing write-up. The car screamed right past the 100 metre board and Syafiq finally hit the brakes, thrusting me brutally into my harness.
We flung through the corner, clipping the apex, my heart stopping as the grassy run off and the wall at the end of it loomed frighteningly close. We skirted right past the kerb and onto the brick edging beyond it. Expecting a sickening crunch, then a spin, I was surprised the Suprima instead handled it with aplomb, remaining composed through the bumps. I looked in the mirrors to find dust billowing from the back end.
Throughout the rest of the lap, the car displayed the same incredible composure and grip, all the time reminding me of how serious this bit of kit is. Syafiq pushed on, undoubtedly egged on by the hard-edged soundtrack – a blaring highly-tuned four-cylinder snarl, accompanied by the exhaust’s metallic bark.
At one point, through Turn 14, just as I was about to finally breathe easy again on the long straight ahead, the car flicked sideways, which Syafiq cured by administering a considerable dose of opposite lock. I whooped, half ecstatic, half cowering.
At the end of the straight, we pulled into the pits. Harness undone, I extended my hand to shake Syafiq’s, but he pointed to the red lights above the start/finish line and said we could go for one more lap as soon as they turned green again. Hurriedly, I was strapped back in and we set off again, pulling to the outside of the first corner to allow a McLaren MP4-12C GT3 to rumble past.
So, around the track we duly went for the second time, the speedometer, g-meter and stopwatch that was the seat of my pants indicating that it was faster than the first. And as soon as that, we were back on the final corner and the Suprima slid sideways into the pits. We came to a stop back at the pit box, I finally thanked Syafiq for the amazing driving and I emerged out of the car, shaking furiously but with a great sense of exhilaration.
After I got some time to come back to reality, I sat down with driver and team principal Tengku Djan Ley to talk about the team’s strategy for the upcoming season as well as Proton Motorsport and Proton R3’s plans as a whole.
Djan spoke about the increasing competition year by year – the series having only started in 2010 – and the team’s main focus was simply to stay at the top of the Malaysian Touring Car Championship.
The “Prince of Drift” also pointed out the changes the team has made into building the Suprima after two years running the Prevé, with a focus on improving the car’s roll centre and bump steer characteristics, among other things. “We’ve got a better weight distribution now between and front and rear axles and a slightly different geometry to improve the handling of the car,” he said.
Djan also heaped praise on the Suprima S road car, claiming that it was a much better base than the Prevé on which to develop a racing version. “You can actually feel that the chassis is a bit tighter, the way the car moves is a bit more fluid compared to the Prevé,” he added.
“We had to do a lot more work on the Prevé to achieve what we wanted to get, whereas for the Suprima S, we are only on our second day of testing and we are already quite close to where we want to be.”
Djan also reiterated Proton Motorsports’ focus at the moment on the domestic arena – the MSS and the Malaysian Rally Championship (MRC) taking up the lion’s share of its efforts – while they are plan for their expansion into other events within South East Asia.
When asked about full-on R3 versions of the Suprima and Prevé, Djan remained mum – saying that whatever information currently available has already been reported – but he did let slip that the company was aiming to put them out on the market in 2015.
As for bolt-on performance parts, Djan said that Proton R3 sees a big market in grassroots motorsports. “We are actually working on a specification for entry-level motorsports that will be targeted towards the Satria Neo as it is a three-door and with a really good chassis to start off with, and that will be out pretty soon.”
I left Sepang that evening, gaining newfound reverence for the track. It was much more thrilling and engaging than I would’ve ever expected driving around the countless virtual recreations that I have.
I also emerged with greater respect for the team at Proton R3 as well as the local motorsports scene as a whole. With the industry growing from strength to strength, I have faith that its future will shine brighter than ever before.