x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Caterham enjoy the demands of being at home in Malaysia

The Malaysian Grand Prix weekend is the busiest of the year for Tony Fernandes' team.

The Malaysian Grand Prix is the home race for the Caterham team.
The Malaysian Grand Prix is the home race for the Caterham team.

The bustling Bukit Bintang district of Kuala Lumpur provides a glimpse of Malaysia's relationship with Formula One.

A large electronic screen broadcasting breaking news announces to passers-by that Christian Horner intends to remain as Red Bull Racing's team principal.

Near The Body Shop, a cardboard cut-out of a helmeted Fernando Alonso informs customers they can enjoy impressive discounts on their health and beauty products.

At the entrance to the Pavilion shopping mall's F1 Village, the Puma Motorsport Red Cube offers a wide range of Ferrari merchandise.

Such displays indicate a thirst for the sport in the capital. Yet as is often the case with international sport, the successful, storied teams command the lion's share of attention and leave the smaller teams starved of publicity.

A quarter of the 24-car grid at tomorrow's Malaysian Grand Prix will be competing in what they call - some more loosely than others - their "home race". Caterham are undoubtedly the most authentic of the three teams, and also the smallest.

Lotus F1 Team enjoys substantial investment from Lotus Group, whose parent company is the Malaysian government-owned car manufacturer Proton.

The Mercedes-GP team is sponsored by Petronas, a Kuala Lumpur-based oil and gas company whose twin towers have dominated the capital's skyline since 1998.

Caterham, in contrast, are owned by Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian business tycoon who owns the budget airline AirAsia and the Premier League side Queens Park Rangers. The three-year-old marque is based in Norfolk, England, but a team official said that more than 40 per cent of the 250 staff are of Malaysian origin.

"From our point of view it's a home race," said Riad Asmat, Caterham's Malaysian chief executive. "We have been doing this for three years now and the whole idea and philosophy of the business started here in Malaysia, so it's always nice to come back to your origins."

Nice, but tiring. The race at Sepang International Circuit came two weeks after Melbourne in 2011 but is back-to-back with the Australian GP this year - meaning the window of opportunity for promotional work and sponsor events is vastly smaller. And yet the amount of occasions has not decreased.

"We cram in whatever we can," Asmat said. "Whether we like it or not, we have obligations and everyone has to be extra vigilant and show extra commitment. We know what we need to do."

Caterham's Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen and his Russian teammate Vitaly Petrov started the week with an event for sponsors General Electric before helping launch the team's new merchandise range and attending a function hosted by the king of Malaysia. They also have been subjected to several sessions with local television, radio and newspapers.

Petrov, who raced here with Lotus-Renault last year and joined Caterham at the start of the year, is in a unique position to compare how each of the two "Malaysian teams" are viewed.

He said the sponsor commitments placed on him were "very similar" but that at Caterham "it feels more like a home race because we have Malaysian staff, AirAsia and Tony Fernandes".

Fernandes's ownership of an international carrier makes organising flights notably easier, but that is the only perquisite team members receive this week. Kovalainen, however, concedes he experienced one special benefit. "I get to fly the AirAsia simulator," he said, smiling.

"They have five or six different simulators and I got to fly the Airbus 330 the other day. I did the full circuit around the air field and landed on my own. Vitaly was the co-pilot, but he didn't dare to touch the controls. He just pulled his seat belt tighter as we were coming in."

Tom Webb, the Caterham communications officer, said the team are keen to ensure they receive no advantages or special treatment this weekend, but they benefit from some of the relationships that have blossomed within the team.

"We don't get any upgrades in our hotels or anything, but the perk that we do have is we get insider knowledge," Webb said. "We might be taken into Riad's house where we eat with his family, so you see a side of the country that you wouldn't normally be able to see."

Food is a key ingredient to Malaysian life. Satay stalls clutter the streets of the capital and restaurants often spill out on the pavements as families come together. Asmat's favourite aspect of racing in Malaysia? After sleeping in his own bed he is able to visit his mother-in-law's cafe to enjoy nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) for breakfast.

This weekend, Asmat said, Caterham are expecting to welcome more than 200 guests to their hospitality lounge in the F1 paddock. On any other weekend they tend to average around 35 guests. The chief executive has ordered the three chefs to serve European food - lamb chops, steaks, spaghetti - as a way of treating the predominantly Malaysian guests.

All Caterham team members are hoping, however, that the on-track action provides more food for thought than the culinary delights of the chefs.

The team are yet to score a world-championship point and Mike Gascoyne, the team's chief technical officer, said that is the target tomorrow.

Asmat added: "Coming back to Malaysia always feels enlightening and hopefully we can continue with our progress and show to the people here that we are a professional team progressing to plan and, in the near future, achieve even more success."

Petrov knows this weekend's quest will not be easily achieved, but appreciates "it is very important to this team that we show good results this weekend". Kovalainen said regardless of his hectic week, he is willing to extend his commitments into Monday for the sake of his team.

"I don't know if we have the legs yet or not in qualifying, but in the race, we should be able to show our pace without problems and fight with a few cars in front of us," he said. "In terms of our commitments, everything is finished by Sunday evening - unless we have a great result and Tony throws a party."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae