The MotoGP grid is a cauldron of ambition, ego, professionalism, desire and – perhaps – a degree of questionable sanity. The 24 riders coming from 10 different nations and with a mix of stories, backgrounds and reasons why these athletes (and their families) have compromised to reach the pinnacle of motorcycle racing.
Pitched squarely into the middle of the pack is 24 year old Hafizh Syahrin. The first ever Malaysian to make the premier class of Grand Prix famously snared his chance to rise from Moto2 (where he’d scored three podiums) with both hands and joined the ranks of Monster Yamaha Tech 3 amidst glee and trepidation.
Halfway into the campaign and #55 has dealt with injury and ripples on the ferocious learning curve of MotoGP (electronics, resources, speed and technique) and has fought to adapt to the demands and requirements of the category to match his new peers. Hafizh has performed admirably.
But where he differs from the rest of the field can be found in his roots and rise to the FIM World Championship.
“It’s quite a long story,” he smiles.
“When I was a young kid my mother and father got divorced and one year I’d stay with my mother and another I’d be with my father. When I was eight I stayed more regularly with my father but we didn't have a home! He was a mechanic and had a workshop and there was a small space there to sleep, study and to eat. We never cooked, just ate in the restaurant or out on the street.”
Syahrin heralds from Ampang, a district in the east of the capital city. The motorcycling-obsessed country uses bikes as a means of life and naturally embrace racing as a major sport. For youngsters a two-wheel introduction usually means something rudimentary or a specialised model such as the mini-bike or ‘pocket’ bike.
“One day a supermarket close to the workshop had made a small circuit in the parking lot for pocketbikes and were running some races,” Syahrin continues.
It was at this point where the irresistible urge to satisfy curiosity led to some desperate measures. “I didn't have any money. I’d just go to school and go back to the workshop; that was my day. Usually when my Dad had repaired someone’s bike and had dirty hands he’d ask me to take the money from the client and put it in the till. So I ended up taking a little bit aside and stashing it in my safe box, just 20 ringgit a day so 5-6 dollars! I saved a lot and enough to go and ride the Pocketbike over and over.”
The ruse was short-lived. “A friend of my Dad told him one day that he’d seen me on the riding. My Dad got a bit angry! All parents want you to only do well at school I guess. He told me I could not ride. I was not angry but really disappointed and wasn’t interested in talking with him any more! One day he said ‘come with me to buy some spare parts for the workshop’ I told him I didn't want to come but he pushed me. I stayed inside the car while he went to see his friend in another workshop. He beckoned me to come but I was still disappointed at this stage. I looked over and saw him wheeling a pocketbike towards the car. I said ‘who’s that for?’ and he said ‘for you’. I still remember my smile now. It was the start of my ambition to be a rider. I was nine, and I already loved bikes.”
Syahrin’s racing journey had begun and his efforts and success on the little machinery fed his will to keep on competing and his father’s curiosity at how far his son could go. “From that point I missed more and more school as we visited more races around Malaysia. We’d drive three-four hours to get to circuits and we’d sleep in the car because we didn't have enough money for hotels. I’d win the race and the money would pay for the fuel to get home or to buy some other things for the bike or to help me. I’d try to be bit better every race.”
The Syahrins’ eagerness to practice and to get faster often involved some risky moves. “We’d use parking space at the nearby stadium – because not many people parked there – to place some tyres and make some laps. In the end the police came. They didn't stop us because they knew we were training and we’d put the tyres to try and keep a bit safe. We were not racing on the road, just using the parking.”
It took three years of competition for the first sponsors to start rolling in. A nearby supermarket invested enough for Syahrin to have his first leather suit without having to borrow a friend’s old set. “I had a new suit – which I loved – and we looked like a little team!” His ascent continued and caught the eye of influential people in Malaysian racing circles. Soon Grand Prix beckoned and he made his debut in Moto2 in 2011 at the Sepang International Circuit at the age of 17. He’ll be hero-worshipped at the same venue then MotoGP comes to town in October.
“It is a big step from that parking space by the supermarket to MotoGP,” he grins. “Racing in Malaysia or Asia is a different type of racing. They use scooters or small cylinder or moped bikes: 50cc in GP style with the fairing. I always wanted to be a MotoGP rider but never knew when or if it might happen but I got a very big opportunity from Herve [Poncharal, Tech 3 team manager] along with Monster and Yamaha. I was training in the jungle with my mountain-bike in the winter when I had the call. I was planning a year in Moto2 and this chance came earlier. I could not believe it at first but I had to believe it quickly because I needed to work hard and try my best straight away. I knew an opportunity like this would perhaps never come around again.”