Four of Asia's brightest and most talented youngsters have been awarded scholarships for the 2004 Formula BMW Asia series, and will join the sterling line up for the start of the 2004 season at the Gulf Air Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix on April 4.
Three of the scholarship winners were chosen following a scholarship qualifying course conducted at the end of February, with the fourth automatically awarded to the winner of last season's Rookie Cup. The final scholarship will be awarded shortly from the remaining applicants, all of whom displayed tremendous potential. The selected youngsters are from South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, reflecting the truly pan-Asian nature of this burgeoning single seater series.
Each scholarship recipient will benefit from both a US$50,000 contribution to the cost of the racing season, plus a full Education and Coaching programme, designed to create skilled, professional young single seater pilots. The programme includes Driving Skills & Tactics, Vehicle Dynamics & Chassis Setup, Fitness Training & Nutrition, Media Training & Public Relations and Sponsorship & Sports Management, and is provided by a team of experts from the field of international motorsport.
One of the youngsters making his single seater debut is Nik Iruwan of Malaysia. The 19-year-old has been karting since the age of nine, notching up an impressive tally of wins, and is part of Malaysia's search for its next Formula 1 driver.
"Formula BMW has produced some very good drivers since it began," he said. "Names like Ralf Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and Tung Ho-Pin are just some who got to test an F1 car after doing well in the championship. As a BMW scholarship driver, I am privileged to be in the right programme where I have to go through different training programmes which for sure will help me learn to become a good driver. This is something that I need, especially in my first year in single seater racing and I intend to make full use of it."
Iruwan is realistic about his ambition to reach the highest echelon of international motorsport: "Like every racing driver, my ambition is to race in Formula One one day. However, it has to be step by step with no rushing into it. I have to be patient and keep on producing good results. I hope the people of Malaysia will be patient with me and I promise them that I will do my very best," he said.
Flying the flag for Thailand will be 21-year-old Robert Boughey. Boughey has three years' karting experience under his belt as well as some single seater racing, but is delighted at the unexpected boost to his racing aspirations. During a chance visit to BMW Thailand during a break in his overseas studies, Boughey learned about the scholarships and jumped at the opportunity.
"This has all been very sudden," he said. "I feel I did a good job at showing the instructors my skills and am grateful that BMW Motorsport seems to have appreciated them also."
Thailand has a long association with motorsport since the days of Prince Birabongse, after which the country's Bira Circuit is named. "I am very proud to be racing as a Thai and continuing the traditions of Prince Bira," said Boughey. "I hope I can bring greater attention to motorsport in my country and set an example for other youngsters. I already have a great deal of support and encouragement from Thai-based companies."
Boughey has already set himself goals for the season, illustrating the competitiveness of the youngster. "My aim for the season is to win the Rookie Cup, anything more would be a bonus but I would be lying if I said I wasn't aiming at the championship. It is my first year of serious competitive racing so I have much to learn and experience. I still have a massive amount to develop and Formula BMW Asia will play a major role in this development."
Gaby Dela Merced of the Philippines is not the first lady driver to compete in the series, but the 21-year-old will certainly be the focus of much attention back home. Unlike most drivers who begin their careers in karting, Dela Merced opted for domestic production saloon racing instead.
The fourth scholarship goes to South Korea's You Kyong-Ouk , also a scholarship driver last year and winner of the Rookie Cup. The structure of the series awards the winner of the Rookie Cup each year one of the five Formula BMW Asia scholarships for the following season.
You benefited enormously in 2003 from the Education and Coaching programme and his performances reflected this, culminating in a career best and memorable 2nd place in his home race at Taebaek Circuit last August. The 23-year-old is backed by BMW Korea and could well be a title contender this year.
Having signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Formula One Management last year, opening up the possibility of hosting a round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship in the future, the development of young drivers in South Korea has taken on greater significance making You's progress up the international motorsport ladder all the more important.
Returning to the series this year are the two 16-year-old drivers Dado Pena and Tyson Sy, who finished third in the Rookie Cup last year. Both drivers are from the Philippines and will this year driver for the newly-formed Minardi Team Asia. The team is owned and managed by Piers Hunnisett, Mark Goddard and Martin Quick, all of whom have extensive experience of international motorsport and an in-depth understanding of the Asian racing scene.
Japan's Tohru Jitsukawa represents Japan in this his second season, driving for Autosport with Arto, along with team mate and newcomer, Maekkasit Weraposal of Thailand.
Another newcomer this year is former Formula 3 driver Marchy Lee of Hong Kong with last year's championship-winning team, Meritus. Lee impressed in his first outing in a Formula BMW when he competed in the final two rounds of the series, winning one and finishing second in the other.
The 2004 Formula BMW Asia season will kick off as a support race for the first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain on April 4, giving the newest crop of Asian hopefuls a chance to show their skills in front of the leaders of the international motorsport community.
The impressive BMW single seater machine empty weighs 455 kilogrammes. A 140 bhp BMW four-cylinder engine propels the car to speeds of up to 230 km/h (143 mph).
The Formula BMW Asia Series runs as part of the Asia Festival of Speed (AFOS), the region's leading motorsport series, organized by Motorsport Asia Limited.
Motorsport Asia's Chief Executive Officer, David Sonenscher, is looking forward to an exciting second season of the Formula BMW Asia series and to nurturing the new crop of racing hopefuls: "These scholarship drivers represent the most talented youngsters in the region, and it is going to be fascinating to watch them develop throughout the season. Formula BMW Asia is proven to be the very best environment for young drivers to hone their skills with expert guidance and instruction throughout the year. All our 2003 scholarship drivers improved dramatically during the season as a result of the Education and Training Programme."