In the early 2000s where Formula 1 had stars like Mika Hakkinen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Eddie Irvine and Micheal Schumacher, we in Malaysia had another name to focus on: Alex Yoong. In 2001, the KL-born native took a big step forward by becoming the first Malaysian to enter F1 and hold a FIA Super Licence. Yoong joined the Minardi team at the Italian Grand Prix, replacing Tarso Marques for rounds 15-17 of the 2001 season, and racing alongside his teammate, Fernando Alonso, at the time.

The Malaysian’s path to F1 was a long one, starting with the Formula Renault series in 1996, followed stints in Formula 3, Formula 3000 and Formula Nippon. However, while he was able to obtain some good results in those racing classes, it was a different story in F1.

On several occasions, he did not manage to qualify for races after failing to record times within the 107% rule of qualifying, while mechanical and other car issues further contributed the lack of results. Yoong kept his seat for the 2002 season, with Mark Webber replacing Alonso, and the Malaysian got his best-placed finish in F1 at the Australian Grand Prix, finishing seventh in that race. However, he did not get retained for the following year, and by the end of 2002, his F1 career to an end.

In a video interview titled “Passion to Prefession” by The Motorsports People, Yoong expressed his disappointment that F1 not only ruined his career, but also disrupted the development of motorsports in Malaysia as a whole.

According to Yoong, even though Minardi offered him a seat in their race car, he still needed to seek out his own sponsors. “The life of a motor racing driver is you have to learn how to find your own sponsorship, because no one is going to do it for you,” he said. Due to financial difficulties, Yoong said he had very limited seat time in the car.

“I was a very unusual F1 driver, I didn’t have the same sort of usual days as the other guys. In those days, people were testing every week. We had no money, and the promise of testing evaporated very quickly. So, the whole year, I only did two days of testing. You’re only in the car, other in the race weekend, I was only in the race car for two days,” said Yoong.

On the impact of F1, Yoong said, “Formula 1 damaged my career in many ways. Because, we were always at the back and we didn’t had success. So, I tried to rebuild my career after that. I went to America; I went to Australia. Again, with no money, just jumping into cars and driving. Very much like a journey man sort of thing.”

He went on to say, “the whole Formula 1 thing was a lovely idea. But I think you can see it as a failed experiment. I mean, for putting Malaysia on the map, undoubtedly. As a marketing exercise, undoubtedly, fantastic. For building a motorsports business, I would say very negative.”

“We got a great world-class facility, but then they close down our other two tracks which were perfect. Batu Tiga and Pasir Gudang, fantastic tracks, but they’re gone. It never quite got to the critical mass where it would’ve just taken off. I think Malaysia got very close there in the 90s, it was just reaching that critical mass and Formula 1 came and it killed everything,” he contined.

“I still love motor racing, but I feel it’s too expensive and it’s too hard to get into. Having one track and trying to get days there, you can never make a business out of it, not a proper business,” ended Yoong.

When asked how has Malaysia’s motorsport scene transformed over the years, Yoong’s reply was as direct as they come. “You tell me, how has it changed? Come on, you tell me. There are a lot of new tracks, huh? Motorsports’ been growing, huh? Who’s winning locally? Oh, the same guys, huh? Wow,” he replied.

“Keifli [Othman], you know he started in the 90s as well, you know? Who else is out there? Tengku Djan, 90s. I remember when he was racing Proton, he did Proton the same, well, the year after I did it,” he added.

During the interview, Yoong also talked about his history with motorsports, which started at very young age due to this father, Hanifah Yoong. Back in the day, his father held the lease for the Batu Tiga circuit in Shah Alam from 1988 to 1998, and Yoong started out in the one-make Proton Saga racing series, which has a similar format to the Saga Cup organized by Malaysia Speed Festival (MSF) at Sepang today.

After leaving F1, Yoong set out to rebuild his career. In 2005, the A1 GP Malaysia team was formed and he was given the chance to become the main driver until 2008, with his best result being an overall fifth place finish in the inaugural 2005-2006 season.

Yoong also raced in the Audi R8 LMS Cup from 2012 to 2017, where he was crowned champion in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. Currently, he is managing his own company – Axle Motorsport – which was founded to find upcoming talent via simulator racing; among them being Mior Muhammad Hafiz, who represented Malaysia at the FIA Motorsport Games in Italy last year.

With all said and done, what are your thoughts on the local motorsport scene? Do you agree with Yoong’s thoughts on the matter? What should be done to improve things and bring forth a new wave of talented Malaysian drivers? Let us know what you think in the comments below.