Alex Yoong interview: With Indian motorsports still at its infancy, X1 Racing League crucial for development

Amit Banerjee

Franchise-based leagues work well in certain sports such as cricket, as is the case with the cash-rich tournament that is the Indian Premier League, which then inspired the formation of similar leagues in badminton (PBL), Kabaddi (PKL) and so on.

Will it work successfully in the world of motorsports though? Ex-Formula One racer Alex Yoong certainly doesn't rule out that possibility, but admits that he can't say for sure until he's actually out there racing later this month.

"Well I know it works very well with cricket, doesn't it? I'm not sure, I need to come and do the race and see how it goes, to be honest. It's too early to comment on that, but I applaud X1 for doing it, 'cause in motorsports these days you need creative thinking. Especially when the motorsports and the circuit-racing scene is still at its infancy level in India."

"So it sounds good on paper, but I don't really want to say anything other than that until I actually come and do the races," said Yoong in a chat with Firstpost.

Yoong, at the time of this interview, wasn't too sure about the car that he will be driving later this weekend, and that his objective is simply to "jump in and enjoy".

"I don't even know what car we're driving here (laughs). I've heard conflicting things so I'm just going to get there and jump in. Lucky I've got quite a long career of driving off certain cars, so I'm just going to jump in and enjoy myself and hopefully help my team to win," said Yoong, the first Malaysian driver in Formula One.

Yoong is one of the international racers taking part in the inaugural edition of the X1 Racing League, which flags off on 30 November and 1 December at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, with the event subsequently moving to the Madras Motor Sports Club (7 and 8 December) in Chennai for the second leg of the event.

As many as 30 racers will be participating in the upcoming event, sanctioned by the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), which will feature six franchisee-owned teams. Each team will have four drivers including an international male, female and one Indian international and domestic racer each along with two cars, according to a media release.

The event is viewed by some as a move to revive motorsports in India with the Indian Grand Prix being shelved after three editions (2011 to 2013). Yoong believes that the Indian authorities should focus on events that develop the sport in the country at the grassroots level.

"I was there when Formula 1 was at Buddh and Formula 1 was a bit too early for India when it first came. But I think you need to keep supporting local motorsports, grassroots racing."

"That sort of thing is important. Things like what X1 is doing right now. Be nice to get some other smaller tracks up and running as well. Support the local series. But you know its India, (and) India is huge with anything it does," added the Malaysian racer, who visits Chennai to watch his son race in the Formula 4 South-East Asia Championship.

Among the international racers taking part in the upcoming event are Mathias Lauda and Freddie Hunt €" sons of F1 legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt whose storied rivalry was captured in the 2013 Hollywood flick 'Rush'. Indian driver Armaan Ebrahim, who is one of the founders of the league, had earlier quipped that the presence of the two in the league might lead to a "Rush 2.0" over the next two weekends. Among the international female drivers are the English duo of Pippa Mann and Alice Powell.

One of the drivers Young is looking forward to racing against is Narain Karthikeyan, India's first-ever Formula 1 driver and a man whom he considers his "good friend."

"There are some good drivers there and I've raced against them before, so I'm looking forward to racing with them again. 'Nari' and I go way back.

"We did Formula Three (British Formula 3) together. Gosh even when he went to Japan for the first time, we did Formula Nippon together. So I've seen him on and off over the years. Although we haven't caught up in a long time, I consider him a good friend," added Yoong.

Yoong describes himself as 'lucky' as far as his journey into the world of motorsports is concerned. While both his parents were into motorsports, which helped him get the kind of encouragement he needed from his family to take it up as a profession, Yoong and other kids in Malaysia had no access to F1 videos. The only way for him to watch some of his favourite racers in action was through VHS tapes.

"We couldn't watch Formula One; people had to bring it in on their VHS. I had to ask people if they travelled to the country to tape it on their VHS and bring it in. So we pretty much had a blackout as far as Formula One was concerned," revealed Yoong.

Malaysia's had a better deal than India as far as Formula 1 events are concerned. Unlike the three-edition Indian GP, the Malaysian GP saw eighteen editions take place between 1999 and 2017, an annual affair at the Sepang International Circuit that was part of the Formula One World Championship.

While there are talks of reviving the Malaysian GP, Yoong thinks the absence of the F1 event back home could be a blessing in disguise.

"Now it's gone, it's quite good I think if we can focus on grassroots racing and get programmes up and running. And hopefully they'll have more space for well-organised championships like X1 to flourish really, and hope we get something like that over here in Malaysia."

There weren't many Asian F1 idols when Yoong was growing up. But can the same be said today, especially in context of Alexander Albon's recent rise in the sport?

"There will be a lot of Thai kids and other Asian kids looking up to him and thinking, 'I want to try and do that.' So, that will be good."

Asked to pick the standout Formula One moment from the bygone decade, Yoong picked Hamilton's sixth title win.

"Hamilton always wanted to become a legend like his hero Ayrton Senna. What he and his team have achieved; okay they've had this far superior power unit ever since they've been in this hybrid era, but still it's pretty impressive what the team and Hamilton have done to remain strong for such a long time."

Also See: India's first Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan backs X1 Racing League, feels it will revolutionise country's motorsport

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