Long time friend of EFTM and occasional test driver for us – Greg Rust – is in Singapore this week working at round 15 of the Formula One World Championship (he won’t be at Sandown for the TCR coverage). He stopped in Malaysia on the way to play wannabe race driver!
That famed Darryl Kerrigan line was on repeat in my mind as I arrived at the Sepang Circuit, which is right near Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Tell him he’s dreaming!
You see when I was a kid I used to jam a wooden spoon between the cushions on the lounge at Mum and Dad’s and shift gears while watching Bathurst pretending to be a race driver. I’ve grown out of it you’ll be happy to know even if I did drive my folks mad with incessant talking and making engine noises….yes I can still do a good rotary.
Years later I would do some karting, lap dashes and rallysprints but I was average. In fact that’s overstating it. Some YouTube gold can easily be found of me wrestling a steering wheel off an Aussie Racing Car at Winton. That kinda sums up my (lack of) talent.
I’m a realist though. Over time broadcasting work and PR events have allowed me to share the track with pros on occasion. There is no greater way to keep any potential ego in check than these moments. They’re operating on cruise mode by comparison to their usual competitive environment and you still get smoked!!
I remember doing a 4-stroke endurance kart race once. Marcos Ambrose caught me in the blink of an eye. He even tapped the rear bar of my kart to let me know he was coming through. Picture Cole Trickle from Days of Thunder saying “remember me” to Russ Wheeler. I reckon Marcos is still laughing. I was gutted!
So it was with painted helmet and a pocket full of dreams that I stepped off the bus into the September Malaysian heat and humidity. Normally I’m with other journalists on these sorts of missions but today it was mainly influencers from Australia and Asia. A Miss Korea was among them. Others like Mark Trueno have a massive following in the automotive space – 10 million on FaceBook alone!
Colleagues have told me about the Michelin Passion Experience over the years and raved about it. Today the legendary French tyre manufacturer was hosting us and they planned to use almost every part of the Sepang complex for some seriously cool activities.
The Aussie group started with laps of the South Circuit layout in Formula 4 cars. This category is aimed at juniors and is the first step on the pathway in many countries for those moving up from karts. After a briefing we were strapped in to the 160BHP single-seaters and given 20 minutes of track time behind a Porsche Pace Car. To keep overconfidence in check you were not allowed to pass the pace car! Sorry if I just opened a Pukekohe wound for some of you reading.
It would be hard to top this I thought. The sensation of driving an open wheeler again was tremendous. Not too powerful that it scares you and so well connected to the bitumen beneath the lightweight chassis plus a joyous sound in the upper part of the rev range.
For those wondering Miss Korea went ok. The car lurched its way out of pit lane with some very nervous instructors looking on. While it wasn’t fastest time of the day it came back without a scratch. Nice work for someone with limited experience in a manual car let alone a racing thoroughbred.
Next it was on to a range of ‘real world’ tests on the northern part of the circuit using BMW X3’s shod with Michelin’s new Pilot Sport 4 SUV tyre. From slaloms or motorkhanas in the damp and dry to high-speed emergency braking simulations.
We did a back-to-back comparison with a competitor tyre in some of these exercises. Most of us agreed the Michelin was quite surefooted in the rear during the slaloms and its stopping distance was on average two meters shorter or better in the braking tests.
It wasn’t all circuit work with a visit to a 4WD playground to try out the company’s BFGoodrich rubber on Ford Ranger and Ranger Raptor as well as our best attempts to be Ari Vatanen in the Raptor on a short rally course. I get all “Sammy Serious” not wanting to damage a car that belongs to someone else but you could not wipe the smile off my face.
The day ended with hot laps in a Seat Cupra TCR car on the full Grand Prix layout, at night and under lights. We don’t currently have a Seat among the various makes in the Australian series but there are rumours about a Cupra joining the field. It would be a great addition.
Over a Michelin Star dining experience in the one of the corporate boxes we pondered a day we were extremely fortunate to take part in. They don’t come round very often which is why I jumped at the chance. It’s the kind of event that gives you a better understanding of why the company has been so successful in all sorts of motorsports and how the learnings ultimately benefit everyday use.
Although they are the control supplier in various categories the love of competition is such that they would actually relish going head-to-head in a tyre war again. Ahhh the old days. I miss the tyre battles too.
During the day the instructors kept an eye on our performance and consistency. At the presentation our Aussie team picked up the winner’s trophy. It’s not a proper world title or a Grand Prix win but for a fleeting moment a greying pretender stood on a podium and wore a laurel wreath.
Back to reality now for GP week in Singapore. Oh but I’ll be round next week for dinner to tell you all about it Mum…..and make the car noises too.
Rusty was in Malaysia as a guest of Michelin