2015 Sepang 1000km Race Report
2008 was the year I entered my first FIA sanctioned race, back then it was called the Malaysia Merdeka Endurance Race. I joined the race with N1 Racing team in a Honda Integra DC2, it was a dream start of my racing career where we were constantly in podium position throughout the race until at 11 hours and 56 minutes, disaster struck as the engine blew. I was completely devastated as I was driving the car at a cruising pace, all the time thinking that we will finish second as first place was too far ahead and it was impossible for the third place car to catch us at the time.
A review of the data showed a mistake was made by the previous team driver 45 minutes before the end of the race and that had incurred damage on the engine. I could not sleep for the whole week after the race as we fell from a podium finish to a DNF (did not finish). It was a bitter pill to swallow but I learnt quickly that in endurance races, we should never take anything for granted until the chequered flag is flown.
Seven years on, with a lot more endurance racing experience under my belt, I made a return to N1 Racing team, this time in a Proton Satria Neo race car. It will be my first time racing in a Satria Neo and my debut in the Sepang 1000km. It was a field of fierce competitors with Proton and Honda fielding works teams, J’s Racing entering with their Super Taikyu-spec Honda Fit and a whole list of star drivers. It was going to be a weekend of close racing and great fun as I was teaming up with my good buddies, Lim Keong Liam and Shawn Peh!
Free Practice and Qualifying
The weekend’s action began as usual on a Thursday with Free Practice, all three drivers got our chance to drive the car and we made a few setup changes to suit our style of driving. We have decided as a team that we will want to take part in the Independent Cup (I-cup) which means we will only have 16 pieces of Hankook Semi-Slicks (Z221) starting from Qualifying to the whole eight and a half hour race.
I knew right from the start that tyre management will be extremely crucial and discussed a plan with our Team Manager, Julian Ng. We had a discussion on tyre allocation, drawing up an excel spreadsheet and a plan for various race scenarios. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, while you can never plan for everything in an endurance race, you will definitely need a road map to fall back on.
Starting qualifying session as Driver 1, I clocked a time of 2 minutes 39 seconds with a smooth driving style. I could not attack the track as usual because I had to keep the big picture in mind, tyre conservation was the name of the game. While I could have driven a lot faster, I was pleased that it was the first time in the history of the car that it broke the 2 minutes 40 seconds barrier. I kept the tyres in good condition and used the rest of the session to scrub in the other sets of tyres in preparation for the long race ahead.
The other drivers did the same for their session and we managed to clock a combined average time of 2 minutes 41 seconds to be third in the I-cup category. It was a decent result as our eyes were on the race finish rather than starting position.
I was the most experienced and fastest driver of the car and thus was selected to start the race. Starting the race is always exciting as all the cars are side by side where the racing is always expected to be bumper to bumper. The race was scheduled to start at 12 noon when the sun is at its brightest and track temperatures were around 50 degrees Celsius. It was blazing hot to be standing in the sun on the starting grid.
After the usual festivities ended, it was time to get serious, when the air horn sounded and the five minute board was shown, the grid gradually cleared leaving the drivers alone in the cockpit of their race cars. Engines revving and heart pumping, all the drivers were getting ready for the formation lap. I was in my car saying a prayer together with my Team Manager, Julian, visualizing the first corner and my plan for the race.
The green flag waved and all the cars moved off for the formation lap. I was 100% focused on the task ahead; get into a good rhythm, drive a smooth and clean first stint and hand over the car to the next driver. During the formation lap, the grid was close together at the back straight and I was all ready to pounce as the lights turned green. With all the cars having similar horsepower, it was really close going into Turn 1, the cars were within inches of one another jostling for position. I had a clean and close fight in the starting few laps with experienced GT driver Hiroshi Hamaguchi and PCCA Class B winner Alif Hamdan.
I was pushing really hard to try and get past them to get a clear track. It was close racing as the three of us were like in a synchronised dance, flowing from one corner to the next, I was accessing the situation and made a decisive move by out braking the both of them. After a few laps, I managed to break clear and clocked several fast laps claiming first in class and up to fifth overall. By the end of my stint I was 40 seconds clear from the second placed car, things were looking rosy at that time!
It was 70 minutes into the race, there was a flurry of activity in the pits as teams were refuelling their cars, changing driver and tyres. I came into the pits as well and jumped out of the car as fast as possible to minimise time lost in the pits. However, due to a fuelling issue, a lot of fuel leaked and the mechanics had to clean up the mess, the car was then pushed into the garage. Unfortunately, N1 Racing’s other car had a pit stop shortly after ours and the mechanics had to focus on the other car first while leaving our car in the garage. We lost 6 minutes of precious time in the first round of pit stops and tumbled down the order to be eighth in class.
Liam was the next driver, he went out and set consistent and fast laps catching up to fifth in class during his incident free stint. Shawn was up next but dark clouds gathered ominously above Sepang, it was a last minute team call to put me in the car next as I was quick in the wet. I got suited up and went for my second stint in the rain. I used my experience in the tough conditions, lapping between 6 and 8 seconds faster than cars ahead of me. The wet conditions played into our favour as we caught up from fifth to second in class during my stint.
I handed the car to Shawn who did a great stint as he improved 2 seconds per lap over his qualifying time. He worked hard on his technique and lines to set a faster time, he drove a clean and incident free stint. However, due to a miscommunication, he pitted earlier than expected. Liam was not ready when Shawn came in and during the driver change we lost another 1 minute. To make things worse, there was an issue with the seat rail and Liam could not reach the clutch pedals, another minute lost. It was only the fourth hour of the race and we have lost 8 minutes in total already!
The mechanics reported that they needed a further 40 seconds to rectify the seat rail issue during the next driver change. Liam went on and drove a good stint as usual and we managed to remain second in class as our pace was good. During his stint, Julian and I discussed the optimum driver and tyre strategy for the remaining two and half hours of race time. We decided to shorten Shawn’s stint while giving me used tyres for my stint. Using the used tyres for my last stint in the dusk proved to be a good gamble as I still managed to clock a good pace. We used every single bit of the tyre as by the time I entered the pit, the tyre was down to its threads! Liam had a fresh set of tyres and was tasked to push as hard as he could for the last stint.
However, first place was just too far ahead and even though Liam put in a great final stint, it was too little too late. The pit stop errors cost us a grand total of about 9 minutes, if we did not have the pit issues, we would have won our class by two laps and may have even finished third overall against the factory teams who have unlimited tyres for their race. In the end we were second in class and sixth overall, a decent result with all things considered.
It was a nice feeling, poetic even to return to N1 Racing team seven years later, together with my 2008 team mate Liam and actually complete the endurance race in second position. This race has buried all the devastation of our team’s DNF in second place back in 2008. It was pure joy to stand on the podium with your team and supporters cheering for you. This was my first endurance race podium ever in Sepang. While standing on the podium my thoughts already shifted to the next race taking place in two weeks’ time, the Sepang 12 Hours. Will I do well in that race? I certainly hope to carry the momentum from Sepang 1000km to the Sepang 12 Hours. Read the next race report for the details of the 12 hour race!