When Proton first confirmed their partnership with Geely two years ago, rumours were abound that its motorsport division, Race Rally Research (R3) had to be shut and its staff transferred to other divisions within the company. It was a pleasant surprise of sorts to see R3 surface at the Sepang 1000KM (S1K) as a works team instead of taking supporting role in the customer racing programme the year before that.

That year in 2017, R3 reigned supreme as they clinched the Overall Champion title, with Admi Shahrul and James Veerapen piloting the #82 Proton Suprima S R3 to victory ahead of 2016 champions Tengku Djan Ley and Keifli Othman. The following year, teammates Fariqe Hairuman and Syafiq Ali took the win at the wheel of the Iriz R3 race car.

Did Geely really intend to shut down Proton R3 out of disinterest in motorsport, then? paultan.org was invited to the team’s shakedown session at the Sepang International Circuit ahead of the Malaysian Championship Series which enters its third round of the season this weekend, and we got to have a chat with Proton R3 team principal Gary Lee to find out about R3’s future direction, now that Proton is under the Geely banner.

Geely has never trivialised the value of motorsport, according to Lee; in fact, the firm has considered the world of motor racing to be a valid way of building an automotive brand’s image. We only need to take a look at the group’s luxury division – Cyan Racing, which had previously competed in the World Touring Car Championship, has returned to competition in the WTCR series with the Lynk & Co 03 sedan.

On top of that, Geely has reportedly purchased the Utah Motorsport Campus in the United States that will serve not only as a race meeting venue, but also to facilitate testing. Proton R3 now also has a direct working relationship with Geely Motorsport for matters relating to the field, Lee said, adding that Geely Motorsport has in fact come to visit Proton R3 and stated that the Malaysian outfit is experienced and rich in motorsport heritage; no small compliment, with Lotus also present at the family table.

For instance, Volvo appointed Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) to spearhead its British Touring Car Championship effort in 1994 with the Volvo 850 Estate race car, while in the case of Proton, the Malaysian outfit resides directly under Proton’s organisational roof with their own facilities within Proton’s Shah Alam plant, located close to Proton’s own main R&D division.

Though the R3 name only came to be in 2003, Proton’s motorsport division actually dated back to the Eighties, when it was known as the Petronas EON Racing Team, or PERT in short. It was from this platform that Malaysia’s own Karamjit Singh, the ‘Flying Sikh’, was thrust into the limelight thanks to victories which saw him crowned WRC champion for the 2002 season in the Production class, also known as Group N.

The ‘Research’ part of the R3 name extends the outfit’s scope of work beyond the rigours of rally and circuit racing, and also serves to augment Proton’s research and development unit with data gleaned from the realm of motorsport, which is applied to the mainstream division’s development of road-going models.

The ‘Handling by Lotus’ badge of Proton models past may come to mind, but the finely honed ride and handling manners of a Proton are the result of the work put in by R3 engineers – experts of the craft in their own right. This expertise enables Proton to release high-performance models such as the Proton Satria R3, as well as the subsequent Satria Neo Lotus Racing edition and Satria Neo R3.

Where to next, for Proton R3? While the motorsport engineering and research division is currently still funded by Proton and not by Geely, R3 is now being closely monitored by the China-based automaker. For now, possibilities are limited as Proton remains focused on recovery for the time being.

This means that a full factory-backed return effort to the global or regional motorsport scene, the Asia Pacific Rally Championship for example, isn’t quite on the cards yet. However, we now know that the Proton Race Rally Research division is alive and kicking, and with Geely keenly observing, there’s certainly room to grow. Watch this space.

GALLERY: Proton R3 customer racing programme