Malaysia’s motorsport

Malaysia's motorsport champion 01

Yoong at heart
Malaysia has had its own dedicated grand prix circuit since 1999 – right next to the airport – but nonetheless it isn’t a kingdom that is renowned for home-grown motorsport success: although an honourable mention at this point must be given to Alex Yoong, who drove for the Minardi Formula 1 team briefly in 2001 and then completed a full season in 2002, with a best result of seventh in Australia.
Following his F1 career, Yoong became a TV pundit, which means that he’s still a familiar face at his home grand prix (where he retired with gearbox failure on the only occasion he entered it, for the record).
What fewer people know is that Malaysia has produced its very own, bona fide FIA world champion. Furthermore, a world champion who won his title only 15 years ago, with the help of Pirelli tyres – in a home-grown car.

Singh for victory
Step forward Karamjit Singh: a Malaysian driver who won the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship in 2002 (not to be confused with Joginder Singh – also known as ‘the flying Sikh’ who made a name for himself on the Safari Rally during the 1960s and 70s, despite the not inconsiderable challenge of having to fit a turban under his crash helmet).
Karamjit Singh was a force to be reckoned with at the wheel of his proudly Malaysian Proton Pert: a car that would take the Production Car World Rally Championship by storm, beating the established showroom-class names such as Mitsubishi and Subaru.
That would appear to be an impressive act of giant-killing from the tiny Malaysian manufacturer: until you realise that the Proton was in fact a Mitsubishi, only wearing a different badge. In a technical collaboration that ran until 2005, Proton’s core road car business was re-badging Mitubishis, so the Proton Pert that dominated the production class of the 2002 World Rally Championship was very much also known as a Mitsubishi Lancer. 
While the car may have been a clone, the driver was unique. In fact, Singh is probably one of the most unassuming world champions that have ever existed.

Malaysia's motorsport champion 02

An unlikely champion
With his wire-framed glasses and neatly trimmed moustache, Singh looked more like a maths teacher than a rally driver. But the modest exterior belied an astonishing turn of pace that beat drivers such as Alex Fiorio and Gustavo Trelles: just two of Singh’s illustrious rivals for the production title in 2002. A key part of his success was the Pirelli tyres that the Malaysian used throughout his victorious season and he wasn’t alone: the reigning WRC champion back then was Richard Burns, winner of the 2001 title with Pirelli and Subaru, while another Pirelli-equipped Subaru (of Petter Solberg) would go on to win the overall WRC title the following year, in 2003. 
The Italian rubber was particularly effective when conditions were marginal, wet and slippery: types of weather that Singh was especially familiar with, having grown up in the tropics of Malaysia, where torrential rain is almost a daily occurrence. His mastery of these tricky conditions in particular was what won him the title. 

Protons (but no neutrons)
Singh’s last full season in the limelight was 2005: from then on he struggled to find sponsorship to remain on the world stage, although he carried on with the Malaysian Rally Championship, driving a Proton (naturally) throughout his career. And there’s no stopping him: he still drives there now, with a modest Proton Satria R3.
Proton continued to be prominently represented in international rallying right up until six years ago: did you know, for example, that the great Gilles Panizzi’s last appearance on the legendary Sanremo Rally – an event he won three times – was actually in a Proton Satria Super 2000, in 2010?
And the marque is still thriving now: in fact, it’s Malaysia’s most popular car manufacturer. If you’re reading this in Malaysia, chances are that you will have travelled somewhere by Proton today. Contrary to what many people think, it’s a company with genuine sporting pedigree.

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