Weiron Tan had vowed to ‘make his nation proud’ ahead of his debut in the ‘toughest race in the world’ last weekend – the 86th edition of the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours – and the highly-rated Malaysian ace was as good as his word as he and team-mates Jazeman Jaafar and Nabil Jeffri dug deep to battle their way from plum last following early misfortune to a brilliant top four LMP2 class finish.
Having only steered his burgeoning career from single-seaters to sportscars last year, Tan is currently in his maiden campaign in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) – widely acknowledged as the global pinnacle of the discipline – and he, Jaafar and Jeffri constitute the first all-Malaysian driver line-up in the series’ history, officially supported by Sepang International Circuit (SIC).
Competing for Jackie Chan DC Racing x JOTA Sport, the trio qualified tenth in the fiercely-disputed LMP2 category and 20th overall amongst the 60 high-calibre protagonists around the iconic, 13.626km La Sarthe track – but a pipe leak within the opening ten minutes of the race with Jaafar at the wheel caused the engine to overheat, prompting an unscheduled pit-stop to rectify the issue and leaving the crew several laps down.
Tan was next to climb into the cockpit of the team’s 600bhp ORECA 07 prototype, and by the end of his initial stint, #Fortunecat37 was back up to 29th outright – an eye-catching 31-place improvement upon its first hour woes – but the drama was not over yet.
A third of the way through, the Jackie Chan DC Racing x JOTA Sport mechanics effected a bodywork change, while not long after mid-distance – in the middle of the night – Tan found himself facing the wrong way on the exit of the Porsche Curves after he unexpectedly hit debris while lapping a slower car, pitching him into a spin and sideswiping the wall.
Given the lack of visibility for oncoming traffic, it was a worrying few moments before the recovery crane got the No.37 entry pointing back in the right direction again and enabled the 23-year-old to return to the pits for a rapid repair job.
Tan and his two countrymen continued their charge over the remainder of the race, all-but matching the class leader for pace, with the former Caterham F1 Academy member posting his personal fastest times right at the end in evidence of his continuous improvement. Their reward was an excellent sixth at the chequered flag out of the 14 LMP2 finishers, and a commendable tenth overall.
Barely 24 hours later, however, disqualification for two of the cars ahead promoted the Jackie Chan DC Racing x JOTA Sport crew to a provisional fourth in-class and eighth outright – elevating them to third in the FIA WEC title table two rounds into the series’ 2018/19 ‘Super Season’.
“What a whirlwind!” Tan smiled. “The whole Le Mans week was one heck of a journey and a mega experience. Our race obviously got off to a far from ideal start, which was just sheer bad luck and left us properly on the back foot, but at the same time, it set the stage for an epic fightback.
“We never gave up, and to finish inside the top eight overall and fourth in-class I think was an incredible achievement by the whole team. For me, the goal had simply been to reach the chequered flag, so to do so in such a strong position was fantastic.
“My first stint was a lot of fun; being on the comeback trail, it was all about getting through the traffic cleanly. My second stint was after dark, and racing at night was a whole new ballgame for me and very cool; I’d never woken up at 3am to jump into a race car before, but qualifying had at least given me some idea of what to expect and I really enjoyed it.
“Unfortunately, there was a small incident when I tried to overtake a GTE Am car at the Porsche Curves. I went to pass on the outside, but when I jinked off-line I saw there was debris there and being committed to the move, it was too late to back out of it. That sent me into a spin and I clipped the wall, but thankfully there wasn’t a huge amount of damage and we were close to the pit-lane so it didn’t cost us too much time.
“In my final stint, I concentrated on settling into the groove, taking care of the car and not pushing too hard. I felt a lot more relaxed by then, which I think was reflected in my lap times as they kept on coming down and that’s very encouraging going forward.
“I must add that we couldn’t have done any of it without the full support of SIC, JOTA, Jackie Chan DC Racing, our physio Susie Jones and Pete Webster, who looked after nutrition and driver changes and basically spent the whole 24 hours managing us. They all did a superb job and we owe them a massive debt of gratitude.
“Better still is that we get to do this all over again in 12 months’ time, and when we return to Le Mans for the ‘Super Season’ finale next June, I’ll have a much clearer understanding of how the whole event works and will be far better prepared for all the lessons learned this year. I can’t wait!”