Friday, January 30, 2009

In fascination of the Dakar

In the time I spent with buddy Jacinto Vidarte, chatting along while we covered several editions of Le Tour de Langkawi together, I'd taken note of the other passion this veteran journalist turned publishing group editor-cum-communications manager for Alberto Contador, had - rally raid.
Jacinto, a true blue Spaniard now based in Cadix, had contested multiple editions of the Paris-Dakar Rally as a navigator. I thought he was crazy and remembered that this was also the undeniably most dangerous form of motorsport practiced on earth. Just check out the number of deaths in the Sahara route over the years and compare that to every other form of motorsport. The rally was moved to South America for the first time this year, starting in Buenos Aires, going across into Chile in a loop before returning to the finish in Buenos Aires again on Jan 18.
About a month ago, I received a phone call from a Malaysian woman who's running the PR show at Volkswagen Motorsport. They wanted to keep me informed of VW's activities in view of an impending entry into the motorsports scene in this region.
Been keeping an eye on the Dakar ever since. And VW finished with a sweep of podium placed, in an edition won by South African Giniel de Villiers and his German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz. They won the debut event of the off-road classic in South America ahead of their team-mates Mark Miller of the US and Ralph Pitchford of South Africa.

VW's latest release pinpointed the exact details that inspire fascination in this sport. I quote the facts and figures directly:

... the Dakar Rally was truly a resounding spectator success? Over 500,000 fans flocked just to the ceremonial start in Buenos Aires. Overall, the number of fans who accompanied the "Dakar” along the rally routes is estimated to amount to more than two million.

... the number of TV viewers tuning into the event was a success for the Dakar Rally as well? The fascinating pictures of the first South American "Dakar” were aired in 189 countries. The European sports channel "Eurosport” broadcast 48 hours of Dakar Rally coverage, reaching 33 million spectators. German TV stations aired more than ten hours of "Dakar” pictures, watched by 140 million viewers. 80 million people tuned into "Dakar” coverage just on RTL.

... the data of the engineers for Carlos Sainz revealed an average accelerator pedal position of 81 per cent? His longest stretch without "lifting”: 9.91 kilometres.

... the first victory of a diesel-powered prototype at the Dakar Rally clinched by the Race Touareg also marked Volkswagen’s tenth outright exploit in cross-country rally racing since 2004?

... 89 out of 184 possible stage victories since the Race Touareg program was launched in 2004 went to Wolfsburg?

... the highest elevation of the Dakar Rally was reached on the eleventh leg from Copiapó to Fiambalá? While crossing the San Franzisco pass, the contenders ascended to a height of 4,726 metres.

... the total time set by Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz at the "Dakar” – 48h10m57s – could have even been a few seconds better? On the tenth special stage, a loop around the Chilenean desert town of Copiapó, an armadillo crossed their path. More than likely, the mammal was more shocked about the encounter than the two subsequent "Dakar” winners.

... the competitive balance in the Volkswagen factory was particularly high in 2009? 24 out of 39 possible top-three positions on the individual stages were scored by Volkswagen. On average, 4m27.30s separated the best and the second-best contenders from Wolfsburg on the special stages. The smallest gap: 20 seconds – between de Villiers/von Zitzewitz und Miller/Pitchford on leg six.

...the average driving time of Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz on the special stages was 3h42m38s? Added to this were the liaison stages before and after the specials. For comparison: The contender who reached the finish after the longest driving time spent 11h52m43s hours in the car every day – also plus the liaison legs.

... Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz, Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford and Dieter Depping/Timo Gottschalk completed 4,330 timed kilometres on the 13 classified special stages? This equates to about 50 percent of the total distance of these 13 legs.

… "Dakar” winner Dirk von Zitzewitz used eight different colours to mark his roadboak and spent an average of three hours preparing it?

… Dirk von Zitzewitz and Giniel de Villiers can also communicate in German in the cockpit if necessary? Giniel de Villiers’ mother tongue is Afrikaans, which has its origins in the Dutch language. Phonetically, "left” and "right” are identical to German.

... the communication inside the cockpit between the two "Dakar” winners on one occasion was not enough to achieve the purpose? On the extremely rough and crucial twelfth leg Dirk von Zitzewitz pointed the way to his driver by running in front of the car through a field of scree – one of the keys to their triumph.

Just a fascinating note, apart from VW's nice PR build-up... Isn't it?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What a double!

Pic courtesy of Azizulhasni Awang (left)
Rizal Tisin (right)

First thing I did when I got out of bed this morning was turn on the laptop to check my emails, then went onto Facebook. Rizal Tisin just happened to be online over in Beijing as well, while Azizulhasni Awang was busy at the Laoshan Velodrome where he'd breezed past the first round.
Rizal seemed bemused. Coach John Beasley and the rest of the squad had left their hotel and were at the velodrome. "John cakap kilo pukul 8.30. Nak kena check ni," Rizal began figuring out how to get his hands on the schedule.
"Dalam website UCI ada," I told him. But he couldn't find it, so I copied and emailed it to him. "Kilo event ke 10 sesi petang," I informed. "Mcmana ni? Betul ke?"
"Ah, pukul 4.30 la aku pegi," Rizal said after doing the calculations to the schedule via indications of durations of each event from the start of the evening sessions at Laoshan at 5.20pm yesterday.
As usual, we'd talk about matters 'close to both our hearts' over the chatline, before we adjourned. "Aku memang kayuh mati-mati dalam kilo tu nanti. Aku nak medal tu," simple and straight forward was Rizal's parting shot.
As the anxiety began to grip me at the desk, refreshing over and over again the results sheet from the UCI website awaiting updates, "You got a message," went my phone. "Zizul first, Bauge second, third Mulder," read Rizal's message. The second round results hadn't come in at that time. So, I was confused. Then at one go, the whole results were updated. It read: Final 1-6: 1 Azizulhasni Awang (Mas). "Gold!! Gold!!" I shouted out aloud, as my boss Vijesh Rai scrambled to my screen. "Okay, relax. This is the backpage. Go get it on the sms updates."
"But wait, Rizal's next. Another medal's coming," I told him. The whole desk seemed excited, but I looked around this time and I could sense nobody really shared the faith I had in Rizal. Azizul is the newsmaker, everybody knows that.
Getting the updates done, a few smokes and coffees later, I returned to the screen, frantically refreshing the page over and over again, hoping the 1km time trial results would be in. At almost 8pm, sandwiched in between my SMS exchange with a few others, came Rizal's glorious line:"Aku 1st.. 1:02.268, Pervis 2nd, Kuczynski 3rd. Gold medal."
Yeah, of course:"Rizal got the gold! Rizal fuckin got the gold!" I just stopped short of shedding tears.
The string of sms messages began flowing out: "Rizal got the gold! We got TWO! We got TWO!!"
For me, Azizul's success thus far is destined. He's a special kid. Very, very special. He has been from day one. But if you followed the careers of our cyclists as closely as I did, you'd know that Rizal's was a long hard road. He charted his own destiny and not only did he have to work extra hard to first prove himself, then achieve results. He's not a born champion. Rizal Tisin is a self-made champion. He'd taken his fair share of hard knocks throughout his career.
A few months ago he was on the verge of quitting the sport. He's had a tough time. But this is a guy who'd been knocked down, got up again, rode again and gone all the way to a UCI World Cup gold medal.
Just a month ago, he'd cracked the Asian 1km record with a time of 1:02.157s, that after a three month layoff, and joining the national squad's training camp in Melbourne three weeks late, as he had to sort out issues regarding the uncertainty in his future. He solved that by getting the help of the National Sports Council and being given a shot at recruitment into the police force.
He was determined to prove himself in the keirin at first. He did so by becoming Asian champion in 2006. But failure to even qualify for the final at the Asian Games that year, took its emotional toll on Rizal, who almost gave up due to unbearable disappointment.
Then came Azizul in 2007, so Rizal was moved into the 1km time trial after some soul searching of his own. One year on, he took home the 1km time trial Asian title in Nara, Japan, where Azizul did the keirin-200m sprint double.
Klangite Rizal was ranked fifth in the world at the end of last season.
Believe me, the journey has just begun. And what a fighter this kid is.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Being in the middle is a tough game

Tried my best to understand what the problems were in the game over the years. In fact, I tried so hard that the only sense it all made was for me to stop trying to understand and move over.
But there's a certain pull. I've never been married but I guess that is probably how I'd describe it if I were. Probably the reason why you return to your wife. Or even the sort of feeling I have for my kid brother, the type when even after some fierce fights, the scent of his hair feels better than any perfume on earth when we hug and make up.
We try going away, but keep coming back for more. Even despite the chill of knowledge that the smiles, the welcoming arms, the urging, the encouragement aren't always what they seem.
You drill into your mind that doing your job is all you want.
The mess is so huge that it isn't just a cold war between two 'nations', the divide can be split into three, four, five warring factions, while on the sidelines the 'kompang teams' offer their version of who is right in all matters.
You then watch as six karters, four of whom are foreigners, form a grid for a cadet class race. You just barely come up with the heart to write a story about an 18-car line-up for a national rally round, with just four of those in with a real shot at the overall title.
You find time to be humbled by the devotion of that bunch of hardcore privateers lining up cars that would have been fit for the scrapyard before they put heart and soul into its transformation into a race car. You begin to think about what they're doing it for.
You read as your country's resources get pumped into foreign dreams without even one of the characters in the scripts you wrote along the years going along for the ride. You are left in utter disgust when your compatriots who dare to dream are left to fend for themselves without resources. And you then find that no question can be asked.
You listen to your long-time friend who ended his glorious years as the greatest ever Malaysian motorcycle racer and ache at his story of a struggle to keep a programme going. But then you find busloads of kampung boys coming to town, sharing a common dream of one day being just like that friend of yours.
You listen because it is your job to listen. And you watch because, cruel as the world may seem, this is your part in it all. You then form an opinion because you're bloody paid to do so. And your opinion triggers the crossfire that comes next.
And in doing all that you find reason. You find it all down to love. It is the reason for carrying on because you will love few the same way. And you soldier on into the crossfire, over and over again, still trying to make sense of all hell caused by love.
It is a tough life. But you're just the writer.

P.s.: Thus, I welcome all to the Motorsports Networking Night at the National Press Club for a night with the media on Wednesday, Jan 21. And I love you all.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The world is short of one great joker

Pic courtesy of Rizal Hashim

I'll never forget those times when I would be teased and tormented by Johari Syawal to the point where I'd lift him up and threaten him with a powerslam if he didn't apologise. The featherweight Jo would be laughing all the way, crying out:"Eh! Apa ni? Kau jangan nak rogol aku pulak!" Of course I would never have the heart to hurt this little clown. But the jokes, both verbal and practical, were never-ending.
Life was never too serious with Jo. Stories were always animated. If you took Jo too seriously, you'd believe he'd have no problem making the Brazilian national football team, beating Taufik Hidayat in the Olympic final, lapping Michael Schumacher around Sepang Circuit, even replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Prime Minister, and doing it on the golf course where he'd be capable of embarassing the likes of Tiger Woods. He would give you a graphic explanation about how it should be done, complete with hand, body and leg gestures.
He wasn't around the past two years in the sports scene as he'd served his final years as the Utusan Malaysia bureau chief in Kangar.
I never thought much of all those time we gathered and chatted near the front row of the Sepang Circuit media centre at all the races. Not much until an sms from Rizal Hashim, which was to stun me out of bed this morning, informed that those were the last incidents of Johari Syawal poking fun at me.
He passed away aged 40 in Muar this morning due to lung complications. I'm sure we'll all miss this Malaysian original. He was one great joker who brought about laughter just by being there.
Rest in peace Johari Syawal. Al-fatihah.