It’s a pulsating time in more ways than one with racing driver Zen Low.
“Oh my God, I can’t breathe.” The words swim helplessly in my mind like some mantra being repeated over and over again. Through the “partition” in the centre that divides me and the driver seated to my left, I can see Zen Low of team Naza Aylezo adjusting the strap on his helmet before reaching for the steering wheel.
“Just tap me if you need me to stop,” he says through his helmet, his voice muffled. By this time, nothing is registering as I’m more intent on fighting the sense of panic that’s starting to well up from within.
“Just breathe. Don’t think about it,” I repeat silently to myself.
But it’s no good. I can feel beads of sweat already dripping like rivulets down my face. Inside the car, a Ferrari 488 Challenge, the first-ever turbo-charged one-make race car, the temperature is already hitting well past 30°.
Desperately fighting the all-familiar feeling of claustrophobia that’s beginning to envelop me, I steer my eyes to look beyond the windshield where the tarmac is sizzling under the scorching sun.
It’s no good. “Get me out, please. Now,” I mouth the words to an assistant clad in Ferrari red waiting outside.
Next to me, Low cocks his head questioningly, his eyes concerned. Outside, there’s bewilderment among the small group of people that have gathered around the car as they see me frantically yank off the helmet like it’s burning my head.
The door finally opens and a gust of hot air washes over me. I don’t even know whether it’s hotter in the car or outside on the sweltering track of the Sepang International Circuit where the plan was for me to experience the power of the Ferrari 488 Challenge car over two laps in the company of one of the most successful race drivers in Asia, Zen Low.
Sheepishly, I hand over my helmet to a waiting assistant and make my dejected exit from the paddock.
At least I’ll get to chat to Low later, I appease myself, as I head for the drivers’ lounge and away from the track, where the temperature has already hit 37°.
A racer’s life
In the cool comfort of Ferrari’s hospitality lounge, the distinct roars of Ferrari supercars whizzing around the track providing background audio, I recall the harrowing experience with much embarrassment.
Seated opposite me is the dimunitive Low, his eyes crinkling in amusement as he soaks in my tale of terror.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I exclaim to the Kuching-born racer who, just moments earlier, had been formally introduced as the sole Malaysian to be participating in the Ferrari Challenge Asia-Pacific 2017 race series (Ferrari Challenge APAC 2017) and the first Malaysian to compete at the wheel of the brand new Ferrari 488 Challenge model.
He’s due to show his mettle after our chat for Round 5 of the challenge.
In the previous four rounds, Low successfully secured three podium finishes, coming in second in the first race and third during the second race at Abu Dhabi. Currently ranked third overall in his category (Trofeo Pirelli), he’s since gone on to secure two further podium finishes in Shanghai and Zhejiang.
The Ferrari Challenge was established as a one-make series in 1993, bringing together complete track novices and drivers with prior competition experience. The series spans three regions: North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. This year, the Ferrari Challenge uses a multi-class format; drivers are grouped under Trofeo Pirelli, Trofeo Pirelli AM, Trofeo Pirelli 458, Coppa Shell, Ladies’ Cup and Gentlemen’s Cup.
Competing under team Naza Aylezo and the race number, 69, Low, an astute businessman with a passion for racing, founded Aylezo Motorsport in 2009.
Over the years, he has participated in a variety of motorsport events, locally and regionally. For the 2017 season, the Ferrari 488 Challenge makes its debut, taking the place of the Ferrari 458 Challenge.
“It can definitely get very hot in the car,” begins Low, adding: “The temperature can reach 40° and you can imagine what it’s like for the driver who has his suit on. There’s very little oxygen in the car as the window can’t be opened.”
There’s much that a driver has to go through once he’s behind the wheel. Elaborates Low: “There’s the G-Force (a form of acceleration that causes the accelerating object to experience a force acting in the opposite direction to the acceleration) that he needs to deal with and of course be alert to what’s going on in front and behind.”
Continuing, Low says: “You also need to listen to the engineer who’s talking to you at the same time, telling you your position. You need to monitor your instrument for signs of overheating etc. All senses have to be functioning simultaneously. People outside see us in our suits and think, ‘Wah, the drivers look so calm’. Not really. Pressure is always there for every race driver but they never show it. But suffice to say, everybody will break at some point.”
A huge part of any race preparation is mental, shares Low. “I train three to four days a week at my private gym while the remaining time is used to mentally prepare myself on simulators. By the weekend, we don’t do any more physical training, just mental preparations. We need to keep the body as relaxed as possible.”
Once race day rolls in and he’s on trackside, Low confides that he’d switch off the world outside as he prepares to get into his “zone”. “I’ll have my headphones on and that’s my subtle way of telling people that I don’t want to talk to them. I’ll walk around with heavy rock music blaring from my headphones, just to drown out all the bullshit in my head. You can’t overthink or you’ll just end up malfunctioning. I tell myself to just get in the car and whatever I see, just process and deal with it.”
On the one thing he fears most as a driver, it’s fire. And he’s been through three already, admits Low. “My very first fire was here in Sepang during the 12-hour endurance race. It happened during refuelling. When it was my turn to drive, the hose broke and fuel spilled all over me and the car. And of course the car is hot as it had been running for several hours. Seven of us were injured. Luckily I was protected because I had my fireproof gear, helmet, etc on. The other guys weren’t so lucky and ended up with third-degree burns.”
The other two times the fire occurred on board while he was driving, recalls Low. It was the engine that caught fire.
“I managed to get out unhurt. As drivers we need to accept the fact that there are risks involved in this sport but they’re controlled risks. If we think too much about it, then none of us would be doing anything.”
Thirst for speed
Before his fast-paced life on the track, the 40-something Low enjoyed an idyllic beginning. Born in Kuching, he recalls a carefree childhood. “I’d go to the forest or jump into the longkang (drains) to catch fish, or play behind the Chinese temple.”
Chuckling, the Aquarian adds: “Our longkang was like a river. I’d go down there with my friends armed with my dad’s old battery and electrocute catfish. They’d float to the surface and we’d scoop them up in a net and then head to the forest where we’d have a small barbecue.”
Low’s parents, who were in the hotels and clubs business, had an interesting background.
His father hailed from a poor family while his mother’s was wealthy. “My three siblings and I weren’t spoiled by our parents at all. We were brought up in a typical Chinese family where respect was stressed upon always. If you misbehaved, the rotan would be wielded. The person who spoiled me was my rich grandmother
on my mother’s side.” In fact, it was she
who kickstarted his journey into the fast lane.
Recalls Low: “I discovered BMX at age 12. I obviously went to see my grandmother because she was my source of funds. I was whizzing around the neighbourhood and building up my own bumps and obstacles and teaching myself how to jump etc. I devoured magazines because I wanted to learn how to ride like a professional.”
His first race was on a BMX and it was a local kampung race. He was 14. By the age of 18, Low discovered go-kart and he has never looked back since.
As the signal for me to conclude my interview is frantically given by the PR, I ask Low for his advice for aspiring race drivers. His brows furrow before he replies:”Motorsport isn’t really a good career to pursue because the odds are against you. To make it, you need to spend a lot of money. And at the beginning, no one is going to support you.”
Hie countenance earnest, he continues: “I supported myself using my own money to take myself to a certain level where I can finally be recognised. It’s risky. You don’t know whether you’re going to make it. You need to win and be competitive. If you don’t win, that money is burnt. And how long can an individual fork out that kind of money? Hence sponsorship is important. But no one is going to sponsor you until you start winning races.”
He got his first call after winning a Malaysian championship, says Low, but by that time, he’d already spent millions.
“Now its payback time. It’s a tough journey. It’s not like any other job. But for me, this is what I always dreamt of doing — to live a racing driver’s life. And this is what I’m doing now.”
Lowdown on Low
Sepang International 12 hours race, formerly known as the Merdeka Race, which took place every year in August. I started attempting it in 2009 and finally won it last year — that’s seven years and seven attempts. Endurance race is different. It’s not about speed; it’s more luck. If luck isn’t there, some guy can just take you out. And that’s what had been happening over the last seven years. Out of the seven years of trying, on the sixth year, we managed to finish the race but in second place. By the seventh year I promised myself that if I could win it this time around, I’d stop. And I did. Seven years is a long time; a lot of money and effort had been invested. I’d tried to win this race through so many teams, beginning with Honda, Lotus, Lamborghini, and finally I won it with a British team called Ginetta.
What drives you in life?
My three children. I do what I do so I can build a better future for them without them knowing. I don’t want to spoil them and allow them to think that daddy will just put everything together for them. I try to make them earn their keep.
Important traits to have to do what you do?
Discipline, determination and humility.
How would you describe yourself as a driver OFF the track and what car/s do you drive?
A respectful driver. I try to stay below 110km when I’m driving. For my daily life, I prefer simple cars like my BMW SUV or my truck where I can just put the key in and drive. I used to own all the super cars before such as Ferrari, Lamborghini etc but I sold all of them as they were just sitting there in the garage.
Who’s your hero?
I have two. One is my dad. He worked his whole life to give us kids a good life. I also admire the late Brazilian racing driver, Ayrton Senna. He’s like my “race driver god”. Senna raced in an era where technology wasn’t as superior as today’s where it’s all about technology. The driver just steers the car. It wasn’t like that in the 80s or 90s. Then the technology hardly existed so really it was all down to steering. Senna could get in the car in any condition and make it work.
To bring the first Malaysian team to Le Mans 24 hours, one of the greatest events in motor racing.