jack_cunningham_a1gp
Words by Azrai Razuan, formerly Deputy Commercial Director, A1 Team Malaysia.

Jack Cunningham, as many of you know, was my former A1 Team Malaysia boss. As a Malaysian in motorsport, I feel that it is important that his impact on Malaysian motorsport is appreciated and not overlooked. Jack’s involvement in Malaysia’s motorsport was only for a brief period (2005-2009), yet was indeed significant.

Let us firstly look at the background of the A1 Team Malaysia venture. The A1GP series was a big budget global series start up, and though cleverly positioned in the global top tier motorsport landscape, it was ultimately in competition with the same audience market as F1. Historically, there have been many failures for high profile start-up series of this nature. The A1GP series is certainly no exception to the risk.

The A1GP concept required nation-based teams, and Jack chose Malaysia, I believe due to his close business ties to our country. Nevertheless, this too was a start-up venture, with large operational costs comparatively to other Malaysian motorsport ventures, intended to operate from a marketplace with only two qualified national drivers at the time, no engineering experience at that level of racing and a corporate market very unaware, uneducated and averse to motorsport sponsorship.

In addition to this, Jack further prescribed a team vision and mission which was in the true spirit of A1GP. The mission was to work towards a genuinely Malaysian team run by Malaysians, promoting Malaysia and Malaysian businesses, and this became the team’s self-proclaimed ethos. The intention was to make it 100% Malaysian after a period of time, and this caused the team to take a different approach as compared to most other A1GP teams.

The common, safer approach was for a team seatholder to hire a full, established European GP2 or F3 race team, to race under the flag of say, A1 Team Jamaica. Team Malaysia instead chose to hand pick the best Malaysian crew members they could find and train them with the eventual goal of replacing their more experienced European seniors.

On the commercial front, Team Malaysia chose to restrict themselves only to Malaysian sponsors as it pitched itself as genuine Malaysian concern for Malaysian companies to gain business exposure into world markets. Other teams did not strictly follow this formula and neither did A1GP strictly enforced it, to mitigate team operating risks, especially for nations lacking in motorsport development.

In hindsight, we took the high risk route and we applied the original spirit of A1GP which Jack felt was the whole point of the venture. Jack, a British national, financed himself the large capital required, for a venture designed to benefit Malaysia. A very courageous undertaking.

With this self-imposed mission, A1 Team Malaysia became the most successful Malaysian team EVER. Some may argue that there were other examples of single-seater Malaysian-based teams with a longer history and more recorded wins, but none operated to this level of high profile international racing. As for commercial results, clearly A1 Team Malaysia was the most successful. The teams sponsors will attest to that. Much experience and knowledge on professional commercial sports marketing was acquired by the Malaysians involved in that side of the operation, including myself. Jack wanted to ensure that even the commercial team was ‘Malaysian-ised’.

During my time, much thought and initiative were conceptualised, drafted, presented and pitched within the corridors of Putrajaya on support programmes to train young Malaysians in all areas of a race team operation – drivers, engineers, mechanics, marketing to ensure that there would be a talent pool that would support the dream of creating that 100% Malaysian A1GP team. We achieved 50% by the end of the last season.

Many Malaysians benefited from Jack’s mission, and it is worth noting that the team resurrected Alex Yoong’s professional international racing career and rewarded him with several wins and poles, a feat he did not successfully achieve previously. Yoong was awarded the Bruce McLaren trophy by the BRDC for driving in A1GP. Fairuz Fauzy was given the opportunity to build his confidence after two difficult seasons in GP2 in Europe. In season four of A1GP, Fairuz scored wins and led the A1GP championship as the team headed to Sepang. Fairuz arrived at his home race as a national hero.

It was no surprise that the crowd in the Sepang grandstands grew year on year and was filled to the brim in the final seasons, cheering for the yellow Malaysian team. Again, it was Jack’s goal that it would become the Malaysian fans’ yellow team. Malaysia arguably had the largest fan following among all A1GP teams rivaled only by the Netherlands.

Jack had created a team that all Malaysians were genuinely proud of. It is worth noting that A1 Team Malaysia was initially rated as ‘…just to fill up the numbers…’ at the inaugural A1GP race in Brands Hatch in 2005. The paddock was stunned to see Malaysia finish their first championship season in 5th against 23 other teams! From then on Malaysia was regarded within the paddock as among the top five best teams in A1GP.

jack_cunningham

Many other Malaysian talents benefited from Jack’s foresight. The Malaysian technicians, over time, became the best race mechanics in the country and were as good as any other mechanics in the A1GP paddock. Jazeman Jaafar on FB expressed his gratitude for Jack upon hearing of his passing. Jazeman and his father had a close relationship with the team, and Jack was always supportive of Jazeman’s career. Jazeman attended several A1GP races and was given seat time in the complex A1GP simulator in Europe working with our race engineer. Jazeman was indeed being prepared for a possible seat in the team for season five of A1GP before the series collapsed.

Jack also assisted Aaron Lim in his attempt at a professional career in racing. Lim was our rookie driver in the team, and unfortunately the Friday ‘rookie sessions’ were simply insufficient to progress him to become the main driver. An A1GP ‘rookie driver’ still required full season campaigns of his own in lower formula series to build up experience and skill to the level required for A1GP.

In a bold move to get Lim noticed by the market, Jack financed a race seat in the 2007 Indonesian round of the Formula V6 Asia series for Lim, who had no prior race experience in that series, in a non-front running team in the hopes he would do well enough to draw attention from corporate Malaysia. Lim rewarded the opportunity with a win and a podium.

A1 Team Malaysia highlighted his success to the press, though sadly there was no progression. Lim continued with his A1GP rookie driving duties until an opportunity to drive in the main race arose in the last race in season four, in replacement of Fairuz who was focusing on a competitive season in the World Series by Renault.

Jack was also persistent at introducing Malaysia and Malaysians to Le Mans. Again, thanks to him Alex Yoong drove in LMP1 in 2006 and 2007 during the A1GP off-season. Just as significant was the placement of two Malaysian technicians in the 24 hours of Le Mans in 2007 in a front-running LMP1 petrol powered team – race mechanic Shanker Ramachandran and data engineer Rueben Wong. A1 Team Malaysia mechanics received various race-related training including from F1 transmission specialists, Xtrac.

Jack also leveraged on his close relationship with Lola Cars UK and arranged for three Malaysian mechanics to do several months of work stints in Lola Cars UK to gain valuable experience on building composite Le Mans LMP race cars. He had also introduced Malaysia’s composite industry to the heads at Lola, giving a tour of all the key composite players in Malaysia.

In conclusion, I hope we acknowledge and recognise the contributions this selfless gentleman gave to Malaysia. On behalf of all the Malaysians that had the pleasure to work for him, we are all grateful for the opportunity he presented to us in our pursuit of our passion, motorsport. I hope this is not forgotten.

Lastly, in recent months I have been busy creating a new Le Mans GTE race programme that will begin campaigning next year. Had I not met Jack, I would not have been introduced intimately to Le Mans and subsequently be inspired to design and build the sole Asian race car that will compete in GTE at Le Mans in the coming years.

Our condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.