As published in today's Mailsport
By Prem Kumar
SPEND five minutes with Nabil Jeffri and you know he lives and breathes racing.
But long before the 21-year-old driver made his Formula BMW Pacific debut in 2010, his journey started on the lap of a Thai woman.
“When I first sat in a go-kart at the age of four, it was on the lap of my maid,” recalls Nabil, shortly after we sit down for a chat.
“I remember my family visiting a circuit in Kuantan and I really wanted to drive. Unfortunately I couldn’t reach the (accelerator) pedals so she placed me on her lap and took care of that part while I steered the wheel left and right.
“We returned for holidays every year and I was always eager to drive. It was my maid who accompanied me and assisted me until I was old enough to reach the pedals.”
Nabil may owe his interest in the sport to Kak Mah, 40, his family’s long-serving domestic helper who still follows his career, but if was not for grandfather Pawanteh Che Din, he would not be where he is today.
Through the frequent trips to Kuantan, Pawanteh took note of his grandson’s love for speed and started exposing him to other speed-related activities like jet-skiing.
Nabil eventually chose go-karting and took it up seriously at seven and his career has gone from strength to strength.
“It began as a hobby but when I started getting better at it I realised I could go far,” explains Nabil.
By the time he was 16, Nabil was a karting star, winning the Asian and Malaysian Rotax Max Junior Championships. He also finished an impressive sixth at the World Finals the same year. He then stepped up to Formula BMW in 2010 with Eurasia Motorsport.
Nabil’s steady rise caught the attention of AirAsia supremo Tan Sri Tony Fernandes - then owner of Formula One team Lotus Racing - who offered the 16-year-old a chance to carry out an aero-dynamic test at Duxford’s Imperial War Museum runway, becoming the youngest racer in F1 history to do so.
“I was very proud and still am,” says Nabil, whose record still stands.
“When most 16-year-olds were in school studying, I was testing a 320kmh car thanks to Tony. It was an unforgettable experience. Now my appetite to get there (F1) and race with the amazing drivers I had the privilege of spending time with has grown bigger,” adds Nabil, who hopes to race with his idol Lewis Hamilton one day.
Starting young meant Nabil had to juggle studies with his racing commitments, a punishing task nevertheless made easier by his teachers and classmates at SMK Damansara Utama, who were always happy to lend a helping hand with “homework and stuff like that”.
“I was rarely at school.
“But everyone was brilliant, especially the teachers. I remember coming back from a race in Macau a day before SPM and they were kind enough to give me some very useful last minute tips,” remembers Nabil, who scored 9As.
Discipline is also a very important aspect of Nabil’s life. His day starts at 8am with cycling, swimming or running before hitting the gym.
He tries to get enough rest between his activities but that was not always the case.
“When I first arrived in Europe last year, I just went for races without training. Having won everything domestically and continentally, I thought I was still a champion. I did not take care of my fitness and ate whatever I wanted and was in really, really bad shape,” admits Nabil, who is now particular about the food he puts into his system, trains regularly and even plans his day according to European time!
“When the first test came, I only managed two laps. I was gasping for breath and my neck hurt. The G-force in F3 is high and some of the turns are even faster than F1. You really need to be very fit.
“That was a wake-up call for me,” reflects Nabil, who will compete in his first triathlon next week in Morib.
Nabil will participate in European Formula 3 for the next two seasons after recently completing his second German F3 Cup season as runner-up to Germany’s Markus Pommer.
The Petronas Talent Development Programme driver’s ultimate aim remains F1.
“I have been set a goal by Petronas and if I achieve that, they’ve promised me the chance of being a reserve driver for their F1 team in a couple of years’ time. I’m confident I will because I know I have the talent and I trust myself a lot,” says the determined lad, who also plays futsal regularly to stay in shape.
Eldest of three male siblings, Nabil’s drive and steely determination to achieve his Formula One dream is clear to see.
It would not be long before Malaysia witnesses another driver at the sport's highest stage.
Name: Muhammad Nabil Jeffri
Date of birth: Oct 24, 1993
From: Kuala Lumpur
Hobbies: Practicing on racing simulator, road-biking
Favourite food: Chicken rice
Favourite other spor: Futsal