Motorsports: Multiple road blocks along the way, but Singapore's young drivers dream big

Race driver Andrew Tang in action during this year's Porsche Carrera Cup Asia. PHOTO: ANDREW TANG

SINGAPORE - There may not be a better showpiece for Singapore on the global sporting stage than the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, which takes spectators on a whirlwind tour of the Republic's iconic cityscape all lit up at night not once, but 61 times.

But what the Marina Bay Street Circuit does not have is the Lewis Hamilton to its Silverstone: A man in a car, on the track, to call its own.

A new generation of young drivers is getting up to speed, but the obstacles that lie in their way are formidable, with pure ability no guarantee of success.

To begin with, motor racing's top talent and most lucrative opportunities are still largely centered in Europe, and any driver good at burning the rubber will sooner or later have to compete there.

For Singaporeans, this inevitably means relocating far from home, and at a tender age.

Andrew Tang was 16 when he moved to Europe alone for three years, joining Irish karting team Kartronix International.

The early going was a real slog, far removed from the bright lights of F1.

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"It was just me and a Thai driver travelling with our team manager in a van from race to race, living out of a suitcase," recalled Tang, 23, who finished fourth in the recently concluded Porsche Carrera Cup Asia 2017.

"The longest trip we had to do was from Italy to Portugal - 3,000km in three days - in the summer with no air-conditioning in the van."

But the sacrifice is worth it for young drivers like Tang and Pavan Ravishankar, who is moving to Britain early next year to race in the single-seater British Formula 3 Championship,which begins in April.

The 18-year-old had hitherto been racing within Asia, but the past year has seen him begin to compete against top European contemporaries, including Manuel Maldonado, the cousin of former F1 driver Pastor Maldonaldo and Harrison Newey, the son of Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey.

Said Pavan, who made his British F3 debut in the final race of the season in September: "It's good to drive with guys who are better than you because you learn from them. Especially with team-mates, you see what they're doing from comparing the telemetry data (from the cars) and realise, 'Ok, there's this much more I could be doing, like maybe he's braking a little later or earlier at one corner.'"

Pavan's father Logan has also been travelling with him to races this year and has got a better measure of Pavan's ability by talking to the families of the European drivers.

"This year I gave Pavan all the ingredients. It's like a business, you want to invest in something, you have to know your product," said the older Ravishankar, a businessman.

"We found out that Pavan had spent the least time on track of all the racers and these racing families and fathers were telling me, 'Hey he's doing well, he'll be better next year...' They're the ones that gave me the courage to go for it."

That courage must be backed up by very deep pockets, however, as the reality of motorsport is that the further one progresses, the more expensive it becomes.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes' F1 team principal, estimated in 2015 that bringing a driver all the way from karting to F1 could cost €8 million (S$12.6 million).

According to multiple reports, Williams driver Lance Stroll's father spent anywhere between US$50 million to US$110 million on his son's racing journey to date.

For now, Pavan has secured a major sponsor in multi-level marketing company QNet while Tang is on a Porsche scholarship that covers the bulk of his costs, which he estimated to be around €400,000 for this season's Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.

"I'm very lucky to have the backing of Porsche but for young Singaporean drivers, sponsorship is the biggest hurdle," said Tang. "There are Singaporean companies that sponsor F1 but you need to sponsor an individual for him to reach that level."

The prickly issue of money is one that already worries the parents of 14-year-old Alex Brown, last year's X30 South-east Asia junior karting champion.

Said his mother Tessa: "The thing with motorsport is that there comes a point when you cannot self-fund, but it's quite hard for companies to look at someone Alex's age and see the ROI (return on investment).

"The irony is that it's at this stage when drivers need the funding most."

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Like many other local male athletes, drivers too have to contend with giving up two years of their prime for National Service.

Both Pavan and Alex felt that NS would be a significant disruption to their development at an age crucial to a driver's prospects of making it to the single-seater Formula cars.

Tang, who completed his NS last year, did not mince his words when asked about its impact on him.

"It was the biggest setback in my life because it looked like F1 was on the cards at that point (when I enlisted)," said Tang, who ended up being dropped from the McLaren young driver programme, a talent pipeline to the constructor's F1 team that has groomed the likes of four-time F1 champion Hamilton and current McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne.

But he was quick to acknowledge that young drivers have it better now compared to when he started out.

He said: "I think the community has at least quadrupled in volume. Thanks to the Singapore GP, people are more aware of the racing.

"There are also more kart tracks now and we're getting more international guys coming, which builds up the level of competition."

Producing an F1 driver from this enlarged talent pool could galvanise Singaporeans' interest in motor racing to an extent that should not be underestimated.

Alex saw this for himself when he was in Genk, Belgium, last month for a race on the home track of Belgium-born Red Bull driver Max Verstappen on the same day the latter won the Malaysian Grand Prix.

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"It was such a great atmosphere there on his home track, the Belgians were all cheering," said the St Joseph's Institution (International) student. "It'd be really nice if we could have people at the Kranji (karting) track one day watching on TV a Singaporean win the F1."

The road to that goal remains a difficult one.

Singapore has individuals willing to ride the bumps and hug the corners to reach the chequered flag, but they will need all the help they can get.

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