ATCC: An Asian (non Japanese) Formula 1 driver, when ?

Yoong, Karthikeyan and Mikola, the Formula Asia legacy Six years have passed since the inaugural Formula Asia International Series in 1994 was launched. The products of Asia's first ever single seater series Alex Yoong from Malaysia, Narain ...

Yoong, Karthikeyan and Mikola, the Formula Asia legacy

Six years have passed since the inaugural Formula Asia International Series in 1994 was launched. The products of Asia's first ever single seater series Alex Yoong from Malaysia, Narain Karthikeyan from India and Indonesia's Ananda Mikola are now at the door steps of Formula 1. All of them hoping for a break and a chance for a shot at the pinnacle of world motorsports.

Before them, there had been a huge void of any contenders from Asia outside of Japan and now with motorsports booming in Asia despite the economic slow down, surely more of the likes of the trio from Asia will follow their paths.

The trio were all products of Formula Asia and they had all carved their initial race experience competing with highly rated European racers brought over by the Formula Asia organisers to act as yard sticks for Asia's young racers. With 14 rounds per year, it had proved to be valuable experience gained at relatively low costs compared to racing in Europe.

But then, Formula Asia enshrining it's original concept of having rated Europeans racing alongside inexperienced young racers from Asia folded after the end of the 1996 season and a new series called the Asia Formula 2000 (AF2000) replaced Formula Asia. AF2000's strongest European challenger in 1997 to 1999 was arguably Britain's former TVR Tuscan racer Mark Goddard who at 40 years of age in 2000 was still one of the top contenders for a race win in every round.

No new Asian feed-in into the European main stream ladder to F1 formulae has yet to come from AF2000, now in it's fourth year of running. What seemed to be the problems if competition is not the issue. By the natural progress it would be normal for a series which has no competition from anyone else to be able to supply the endless stream of youngsters who yearn for nothing else but Formula 1into Europe.

But let's look at the history of the original Formula Asia first. Formula Asia Sdn. Bhd. was incorporated in Malaysia on the 26th Aug 1993 by Malaysia's former Malaysian Production Cars Champion, YOONG YinFah (now known as Hanifah Yoong). Hanifah was at that time also the Managing Director of SAMP Sdn. Bhd. which were the lease holder of the Shah Alam International Circuit and already in 1993, in the third year of organising the World Motorcycle Grand Prix in Malaysia at the Shah Alam Circuit.

With the formation of Formula Asia Malaysia and with his firm vision of helping Asia to produce future Formula 1 contenders from Asia (outside Japan), Yoong proceeded to incorporate Formula Asia Ltd. in the British Virgin Islands on the 30th Nov 1993 after convincing the top motorsports personalities of Indonesia, Chandra Alim (Indonesian SuperCars Champion), Indradjit Sardjono (Rally Indonesia Organiser) and Philip Ma (HongKong's Porsche Champion) to become the joint investors with Yoong to start the Formula Asia Championship. Hanifah was the principal substantial shareholder and appointed the Managing Director of Formula Asia BVI which proceeded to formulate the promotion and organisation of Asia's first ever international single seater championship.

Hanifah proceeded to place an order with David Sears of ARGO Cars Ltd. in Norfolk, England to design and manufacture 25 cars based on completely new design with a 2000 cc Ford engine out-putting about 150bhp before even a single order have been received from a single customer.

Working at a feverish pace and with enthusiastic support from the Shah Alam Circuit management as well as from the Indonesia and Hong Kong partners a full grid of 15 cars started in the first race of the first full season in 1994.

David Sonenscher who was racing then in the UK took an interest to participate in the Championship and met Yoong at the first test run of the Formula Asia car in Snetterton at the end of 1993 and Yoong agreed that he will help to do all he can for him to set up his own team in the inaugural championship in 1994. Sonenscher started SM Racing based in the Shah Alam Circuit on a preferential treatment arrangement basis with Yoong and won the inaugural Formula Asia Championship in 1994 with former F3 racer Darren Shaw from Hong Kong second. 17 year old Malaysian Alex Yoong made his debut in single seater racing this year and won the final race in Zhuhai in China.

1995 saw the titantic battle between Briton Brian Saunders and Malaysian Alex Yoong with Alex winning 7 races to Brian's 6 wins. With the championship going down to the wire at the final of 14 rounds, Brian piped Alex by 2 points to the championship. Sweden's Scandinavian F3 Champion Niclas Johnssen finished third. Indonesia's boy wonder, Ananda Mikola at age 15, made his debut this year and had mixed results in the international championship but won the Indonesian National Championship. India's Narain Karthikeyan also made his debut this year but did not take part in the whole championship.

Next year, 1996 it was Narain Karthikeyan who was running away with the championship with a much weakened field which resulted from interuptions to the series promotions when the Hong Kong events promotion group Spectrum Ltd's Lincoln Venancio took over the control of Formula Asia Ltd. (BVI) from Yoong, through MM Holdings Ltd in May 1996, midway through the 1996 championship.

David Sonenscher who was then still running his SM Racing Team in the series was then appointed the Operations Director of the championship by the new owners, MM Holdings Ltd. Sonenscher was never a shareholder of Formula Asia Ltd. which owned the Formula Asia Championship rights.

Less than 6 months later, the new owners ran into troubles and could not keep the company afloat. Luckily for the car owners, David Sonenscher with his partner Darren Shaw came to their rescue and bought over the assets of Formula Asia Ltd. (BVI) from MM Holdings Ltd. These assets include the rights to the cars and the spares.

Formula Asia Ltd. became insolvent. Narain Karthikeyan was the last winner of the Formula Asia Championship and also turned out to be the last feed-in into the European system ladder to Formula 1 from Asia since 1996.

Sonenscher launched the renamed all new Asia Formula 2000 Series in 1997 with his company Motorsports Asia Ltd with mainly local and regional drivers participating. But his admirable efforts proved to be an uphill struggle as the scourge of the horrible recession swept Asia.

Since the launch of the Asian Formula 2000 Championship, there have not been any more feed in of Asian drivers into mainstream championships in Europe. What could be the reasons for this ? Some says perhaps the cars are now 8 years old in design terms or perhaps, the competition is not really that strong as compared to the Formula Asia years and furthermore what with the recession not helping.

Alex Yoong, Narain Karthikeyan and Ananda Mikola are now, in 2001 carving up their names in top flight Formula 3000 Championships in Europe and in Japan ready to take on the world, thanks to the Formula Asia Championship. One, perhaps two or even all three of them may make Formula 1 within the next 2 to 3 years. If not, they will be at least in America or elsewhere pursuing their respective professional careers in Cart, American LeMans or Sports Prototype racing series near the top of the motor sports world.

Who else will follow them from Asia ? Whoever next to follow from Asia it will certainly at least be a four year gap to the trio.

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Ananda Mikola , Narain Karthikeyan , Alex Yoong , David Sears , Philip Ma Chingh Yeung