Expectations are running high for Malaysia’s sole MotoGP rider Hafizh Syahrin as he takes on Le Mans, France - home ground of his team Red Bull KTM Tech 3 - this weekend.
For the 25-year-old, pressure is mounting as he has yet to secure a point for the season after four races.
“I want to improve in every race but we’ve faced a few tough ones,” says Hafizh ahead of the fourth round of the championship in Jerez, Spain where he came in 19th, behind rookie teammate Miguel Oliveira.
I believe we can arrive at the top but maybe not at the moment. I need to understand the character of the bike
Among riders who finished the race, Hafizh was last to cross the line in three MotoGP races this season.
“I believe we can arrive at the top but maybe not at the moment. I need to understand the character of the bike."
Well into the second season of the premier class, Hafizh has struggled for pace; his switching from Yamaha YZR-M1 last year to current KTM RC16 has been cited as the main reason for his uninspiring start - but he knows that can no longer be an excuse.
“I don’t want to put too much stress on myself but I understand the situation is tough. We need time to adapt to the situation. We will keep pushing hard on the training to improve.”
Hafizh Shahrin - A Rough Start to MotoGP 2019
Hafizh, nicknamed ‘El Pescao’ or ‘little fish’ for his dexterity navigating wet race conditions, made history last year by becoming Southeast Asia’s first MotoGP rider.
His love for motorbikes started at a young age, in large part due to him growing up at his father’s workshop.
“I used to help my father at the workshop and I would get some money from there,” Hafizh recalls. When he has saved up RM20, he would head for the nearest mall and spend it all on the pocket bike rides.
The Ampang lad grew up in a poor household. His father had been against Hafizh riding bikes and wanted him to focus on academics instead.
There’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to carry the country’s name. But this is the job. This is my passion
Yet, when Hafizh was nine-years-old, his father, buoyed by his son’s passion - and natural talent - got him his own personal pocket bike. “I walked into a shop owned by father’s friend and saw a bike placed the cabinet. He told me to bring it to the car and when I asked ‘Whose bike is this?’
“He said it’s for me,” Hafizh reminisces with a smile. “That was when my passion for riding really took off.”
At the age of 13, Hafizh made his debut in the Malaysian Cub Prix championship. By 16, he stepped up a league higher to the Petronas Asia Road Racing Championship, with a bigger machinery, a 600cc SuperSport bike.
He moved into Moto2 series two years later and rode full time with Petronas Raceline Malaysia by age 20.
The elusive dream of competing in the pinnacle of bike racing in MotoGP arose in 2018 when he was picked to replace German Jonas Folger at Monster Yamaha Tech 3.
“I felt really proud because we never had any Malaysian rider to compete in premier class of motorcycle grand prix racing,” says Hafizh.
“At the same time, there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to carry the country’s name. But this is the job. This is my passion. So I need to continue to work hard and improve in every race.”
Hafizh Syahrin - First Malaysian in History to Race in MotoGP
Hafizh counts himself lucky growing up in the city; the access to race tracks allowed him to hone his skills, while proximity to sponsors helped kick start start his career.
He notes that many young talents are deprived of such opportunity due to the lack of infrastructure to train.
“In Spain, for example, there are many race tracks. Riders can go to the track and improve themselves. But we only have two tracks here and both are near Kuala Lumpur - one in Subang, one in Sepang.”
“For kids from other states, it’s too far for them. That’s a problem. We have a lot of talent in Malaysia. We’ve seen at the Malaysian Cub Prix that we have many good riders.”
“But we also need good management that will give them the opportunity to race in Asia, then Europe.”
“I had a very good sponsor (Petronas) who supported me all the way to the championships. From there, I used prototype bikes in Moto2 which are similar to the the riding style and position in MotoGP.”
Hafizh Shahrin on Training Future Talents in Racing
Going into Le Mans, there are high hopes for Hafizh to repeat his strong performance on the Buggati Track, as he did there last year, when he delivered points for the French Tech3 team.
The pressure is also building on Hafizh to keep pace with his rookie teammate Oliveira. The Portuguese has finished in the points twice in the first four MotoGP races of 2019.
While Hafizh prepares for a tough race in Le Mans on May 19th, he is excited at the opportunity to be back in Malaysia for Hari Raya - his first Eid homecoming in three years.
“I felt quite emotional the first year I was away for Raya. But when I jump on the bike, I know that it is my life, my job and my family is there to support me. So I must do my best.”
“I’m really happy to have this opportunity to come back for Raya this year, and I urge everyone to drive safely.”