Alister Yoong: Malaysia's Quickest Teenager

Alister Yoong: Interviewing Malaysia's Quickest Teenager
Alister Yoong: Interviewing Malaysia's Quickest Teenager
Alister Yoong: Interviewing Malaysia's Quickest Teenager

Alister Yoong may not be a name many readers are familiar with, and that's a crying shame because Alister is the embodiment of a person who lives The Racing Life. When he's not competing at his local track, the MotoGP and ex-F1 venue, Sepang International Circuit, this young Malaysian is in a sim racing rig or guiding others on how to drive fast. Moreover, despite being a teenager, Alister is a Formula 4 race winner who also is a whizz mechanic. Put simply, Alister knows what to do if there's a car involved.

Following in your father's footsteps is a timeless story that crosses all borders and countries across the globe. It's a familiar journey in motorsport, and one Alister also slightly traverses thanks to his father's time in F1. Alex Yoong raced for the Minardi team in the early 00s as Malaysia's first and currently only F1 driver before competing in other international championships.

Alister is very much his own person. He didn't even start karting until his teens. No, this is an articulate, intelligent, and most notably modest gentleman with wisdom beyond his years while still being a teenager. Hearing Alister Yoong's story makes you feel like you're hearing from an experienced team boss or journeyman driver in the twilight of his career. There's no way to know precisely where he will go in 10, 20, or 30 years, but after spending an hour with him, the answer is clearly "far".

This interview is for the section of FORTLOC called The Racing Life. I feel you embody that because, from my understanding, you're either racing or helping people to race. So, the racetrack is basically your office, and racing is your life. Is that right?

Yeah, I mean, it's an obsession that's turned into my life, I reckon. But I have the privilege that my family was already into it beforehand. I just got extra bumped into racing a bit late but yeah, it's all I do. It's all I think about now.

Because it's so expensive, and as an athlete as well, you've got to live and breathe it. You've got to be obsessed. That's the only way you keep the interest up [and] you keep the motivation. Maybe it's just a mindset thing of not giving up. I don't know, it's weird!

For those who haven't heard of Alister Yoong, how would you introduce yourself with what you do, what you've achieved, and what you're aiming to achieve?

I'm a mechanic and part-time driver...? I don't know!

I'm Alister Yoong, 19 years old, son of ex-Formula One driver Alex Yoong, but people probably won't know who he is anyway., Formula 4 race winner, multi-podium finisher, Formula 3 test driver, and upcoming star in the young Asian motorsport hopefully we'll see what happens.

FORTLOC - And you're a mechanic as well?

As a driver, I love motorsports. I love racing. I can't get enough of it. COVID deprived me pretty severely, so I took my chance as a tire mechanic to go off to the UAE in Formula Regional. [I] did the first year in 2020, which went quite well. I managed to sneak a couple of sessions in the car as a test driver, and that also went well.

The year after, which was this year [2021-22], I was again a mechanic, but halfway through, I kind of became an engineer as well. So, the great thing about racing is you can continuously learn about it, and that just helps knowledge. With more knowledge comes more opportunities to put it into what you do. And for me, I think it makes me a better driver.

There are some drivers, I understand, who don't understand the car. They just say, "I've got a bit too much oversteer. I've got a bit too much understeer. I want a tighter front end," and so on. Then theres the opposite with you, Alister. You will know what changes to make to the car because of your knowledge of the engineering side of things. That must help you get gain tenths or even seconds on track?

I'm no performance engineer or anything, but I definitely try my best to learn and apply myself where I can and to make the car better, to perform better. But, yeah, you get those drivers who are incredibly talented, and they don't need to know a lot about the car. They can drive almost anything.

As for me, I came into the sport a bit late. I didn't have the foundations that I needed, so I've always had to work a bit harder to catch up, I feel. But I'm at that age now with five years of experience not a lot compared to many drivers but enough to find my footing where I need to be and where I need to go.

Well, let's talk about those recent years. It's a racing household with Alex Yoong. Racing, I presume, dominated your childhood in some regards, in terms of watching or being aware of it; it was always part of your life. But why did you start so late?

So [Alex Yoong's time in] F1 was before I was born, so I never really experienced any of that. My first memories of [his] driving was in A1GP the World Cup of Motorsport. I love those cars. I still watch the races. A couple of months ago I watched one on YouTube, even though the series is long gone. But I remember that being cool; I think I was five or six.

And then, my parents got a divorce when I was around seven. So, I kind of distanced myself from my dad a bit around that time, and I was with my mom. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was in Year 2... but I wasn't very good at science!

And then my dad was driving in the Audi R8 LMS Cup. I was old enough to experience it and see the magic in motorsports, teamwork, and people. He was winning at the time, so it always makes the atmosphere better. With the proudness I felt for him, I was like, "Oh that's something I want to do. That's something that I want to be able to achieve."

Then probably a bit of school sports got my competitive side out. I figured I was already around motorsports, and it made sense to go into it. But yeah, that's how I found the love [of motorsport]. Then when I started go-karting and racing... Oh yeah, [I was] hooked!

FORTLOC - So, did you only start karting in your teens, then?

Yeah, I was 13. 13 in fun karts, 14 in Rotax [karts]

FORTLOC - And you hadn't jumped in a kart just for fun at a track or in A1 GP?

A funny story, actually. I tested a little cadet kart when I was, I think, 10. But I didn't even get a lap because I came out of the pits, and me being a 10-year-old not knowing anything about it, my dad expected me to kind of figure stuff out. I didn't check the pit exit and got absolutely collected by a senior driver. So that also turned me off from racing for a couple of years. I remember that quite clearly. I remember it hurting for a while.

FORTLOC - I bet every single time you've come out on track now that you always do a little check to see in the mirrors.

Oh always! You always see me stop and just be like, "Ah... yeah...okay...". In cars, I'm always looking in the mirror, like, "Is anyone there?"

I suspect people in Malaysia know the Yoong surname. Is that something you find when you go to racetracks or anything?

People at the racetrack know, yeah.

FORTLOC - But do they try and beat you? Is that something that, if they find out, they want to speak to you about it, or do they want to beat you on track?

I remember in karts, or maybe my first year in F4, there was definitely a bit of a thing going on like, "Oh, he's an F1 driver's son... he has it so easy... Money, money, money." We were broke doing it!

Yeah, it was just a lot of hard work. And it doesn't make a difference if you're an F1 driver's son if you start ten years late. It definitely put a bit of pressure on me when I was younger; I don't think people ever targeted me so much.

I don't know. It was funny; it was weird. It was hard to put my finger on because 1) I was too busy trying to figure myself out, and 2) I was too scared to go around, and I was always keeping my head down at the track. Especially if I knew I wasn't quick enough. There was always that embarrassment of, "Well, I'm not fast enough I'm not worthy."

FORTLOC - That's very open I appreciate this. This candidness is the difference with people your age today. 20-30 years ago, people would be like, "Oh you can't say things like that." So I love that everybody feels like this, and now we're finally able to say it.

I figure you just say it and hope you don't get in trouble!

In your situation based in Malaysia, there's not necessarily an abundance of race tracks. You've got Sepang, and you'll know Sepang better than the back of your hand. So how well do you think you know the circuit, and how do you give tips to those driving there?

There are hundreds and hundreds of markers I have around the track for different types of cars. The difference between having a car with a front-engine, rear-engine, mid-engine... different types of power, weight ratios... How you drive different corners depends on that. Carrying more speed, carrying less speed, just blasting out depending on the amount of power you have. Just so much.

I know the contours, from the bumps to the little mistakes on the curbs. Sometimes there's a slippery patch over here. But if you do enough laps anywhere, you can do this. It's just something you can pick up. The great part about Sepang is that there are three configurations that you can run, so that makes things interesting every now and then. You don't go on the other two very often, but Sepang's such a cool track with different characteristics of corners. There's always something to be learned whenever you go on.

With you doing racing in multiple cars, do you have particular favorites you get to drive?

On the sim, I'd say a GT3 or an LMP2 car. GT3 just because that's the car I know the most about. I used to clean my dad's Audi between races, between sessions, like getting all the rubber out of the wheel arch for fun. And then the mechanics told me off because I was doing it wrong! I do love Audi and that car. It's got a special place.

But in terms of real life, driving the F3 car around Sepang was pretty cool. And the first time ever doing it, I wasn't even meant to drive that day. I got seven laps, put it on my YouTube, and I loved it. So F3 was definitely cool because that was the first time I got that high downforce, with that little bit of extra torque. And I had a turbo which I'd never driven before. So, there's that extra bit of kick right to the end of the throttle, where I just didn't expect.

FORTLOC - How do you clean out rubber wrong?

Yeah, I used fuel... because the other stuff wouldn't get all the rubber off the wheel arch. So, I was like, "This fuel's working really well!" And they're like, "Hey don't use fuel, it's going to mess it up."

FORTLOC - Haha! You could've set your dad's car on fire because there's fuel over it?!

I was like 13. I was trying to get it clean and was like, "weight reductions!"

On the mechanical side of things, you've been in the garage from an age when a lot of race fans might dream of being in the garage. So, when were you first picking up a wrench or some nuts and bolts to adjust to a kart or a car, and who taught you what to do?

I'm actually not that good at playing with ride heights, for example, or a camber on a car. I just don't have the hand dexterity, and I don't really know what to play with. But in terms of cleaning and helping and talking to the mechanics, just basically the teamwork stuff, I think every driver does it in karts.

You need to have a pretty close-knit team of people you work with because there's a lot of trust that goes into making a kart or a car fast. And the driver needs to trust the people fixing it to be able to get the most out of it as well.

There's a lot more teamwork involved in racing than people think. A lot of the thought is there's just a guy in the car driving around. In F1 at least, you get hundreds of people... thousands of people in a factory, hundreds of people on the ground. So, it's definitely a team sport. It's just part of the game; you gotta help out any way you can. The more efficient you can be is often when you get the most time to relax and think about driving.

How did the F3 Asia stuff come about with you being a tire mechanic and then a semi-engineer? What's involved in the role day-to-day? Is there enough to do tire mechanic stuff for a full day shift?

So, I was a tire mechanic for [Pierre-Louis] Chovet's car and Thomas' [Luedi's] car before Chovet came. Thomas is the master driver and shareholder of Black Arts [Racing] (the team Alister worked for). My dad was appointed team manager, and he needed help. There weren't a lot of mechanics in Malaysia because they were getting taken by the organizers to go help other teams. So immediately when I heard they were going to the UAE for Formula 3, which is what I drove a couple of months ago, I was like, "Please can I come? I'll do anything!"

They put me on tire duty, which is perfectly fine. Day-to-day, you wake up before dawn, get to the track as the sun's coming up, and unpack the garage. Then you'd have three to four sets of rims you need to clean, check tire pressures, clean them, and get them ready for the first session. Once that's all done, you do whatever else you can to help the teamgathering spare parts, labeling stuff, cleaning up the pit, whatever.

After the sessions or during the sessions, tire pressure is very crucial, and you get the pressure. You run to the engineer for that car, and they say, "Let's set them at these pressures," and you change them. Or they'd go, "Alright, I need these four pressures on those tires, change the tires for me." And then you'd work with the second and first mechanic and change the tires after you set the pressures.

Qualifying would get quite hectic just because there wasn't a lot of time, and you'd always have to do a tire change. Besides the tire stuff, I was also the fuel man. So doing all the fuel calculations, working very closely with the three engineers for each car. I was in charge of that. [I am] very happy that the cars didn't run out of fuel because otherwise, I would have been in a lot of trouble!

There'd be two or three sessions a day, and that'd be the repeated process. Then you'd close out the day, shut up shop, and pack the garage. Sometimes if the car crashed, you'd be there for a long time, getting spare parts, cleaning up, making food for the other guys, and grabbing snacks and water if they needed it. Or holding the yucky oily bits for the mechanics who were like, "You hold this, I'll play with the other stuff." So, you get all the gritty work, which is fine it's fun.

And then, when I started learning a bit more about engineering from Greg Wheeler. Greg is, I think, the Chief Engineer at Duqueine (an ELMS team) and also won Le Mans. And he was also with my dad on F1 and A1GP. So, I've known him since I was a kid, and I love Greg. He teaches me a lot. He taught me how to measure tire compounds because I figured out that a few dud sets were going around.

You know, when you get an anomaly, a driver goes on a new set of tires, they don't go as quick as you'd expect, or maybe even slower, you need to find the problem pretty quickly. The places you look at first are the driving and the tires. Tires because it's the only contact patch with the ground. So that's normally the issue, especially if it's not supplied by the team. Then obviously the other stuff... driving or the engine you check, and stuff like that.

But yeah, we figured out those tire compounds were a bit like this: You'd get a hard compound set which offered a bit less grip, but then you get slightly softer ones, and then there was a baseline that I found. Once we found out that there was this unfairness with the tires, I was then in charge of measuring it with a durometer. So, I can press three holes, [on the] outside, middle, and inside, of the tire surface, for every tire, for every car. There were probably around 60 tires, and I'm running around pressing and marking on my laptop.

FORTLOC - What was Greg looking for?

It's the depth of the initial application. I'm not 100% sure, but you press it in, and you get the number. The higher the number, the harder it is, and the lower the number, the softer it is. I guess if it's a harder material, the harder it would be for the needle to press into the tire, therefore creating a bit more force. Something like this.

FORTLOC - Are the tires meant to be the same compound?

Yeah, they're all the same compound, but because [the tires] get kept in hot and cold places. They can go through heat cycles, catch wrongly, [sit] below a lot of other tires, and get pressed... molded around a little bit. It's a lot of external factors, especially in Asia, where it can get so hot.

In the UAE, you're in the middle of the desert, you know. Extreme cold at night, extreme heat in the middle of the day. The tires go up like this in the metal containers (Alister motions a horizontal zig-zagging line with his finger). I was in charge of doing all that stuff, and we found a few dud sets. Then when you'd find the bad tire, you'd figure out, "Oh, we're running on an anti-clockwise circuit, so you put it on the left side because they'll be used less."

FORTLOC - There was no way for you to replace the tires? Were they bought and paid for?

At the beginning of the weekend, you ballot your weekend tires. So whatever cards you get dealt, you have to deal with it and try and figure out the best way around it.

It's problem-solving because a problem will come up, and then everyone's like, "Oh crap! This cannot happen again!"

What are you doing at the moment, and how are you able to finance that?

There's a little bit of sponsorship involved, but yeah still fighting a lot with money. I'm driving Toyota Vios at the moment, and they're road cars.

They souped them up to be race cars, and they're fun to drive; they really are. They do look quite cool. But because they're tin tops and they're stronger, you get a lot of bumping and barging and crashes, and it all adds up damage-wise. So that's my current problem right now just trying to figure out what I can do to fix that. But yeah, I'm trying my best.

When we talk about the actual weekend, I'm driving, and also kind of managing the team a little bit. Toyota Gazoo Malaysia TGR have a rookies program, which my dad's taking care of. Then I'm competing in the top program, so the most elite drivers are there. So I'm managing my car there and also my teammate's car, who is in the lower category. But honestly, he's so quick he shouldn't be.

I'm bringing the licenses, signing papers, making sure everything's okay, and allocating tires. Doing all that stuff. And then it's helmet on, game on.

FORTLOC - If you're at the racetrack you're happy?

Yeah... Well happy when it goes right! Just gotta figure out what happens when things go wrong.