FEBRUARY 1, 2002
The Mole loved fairytales when he was a little lad and in life it is always rather comforting that once in a while there is something to reaffirm the belief that fairytales can still happen. Watching the Australian Grand Prix from Mole Manor, The Mole experienced a decidedly warm feeling as Mark Webber took his Minardi to fifth place in the Australian Grand Prix. It was the perfect story and great news for the growth of the sport in Australia and, indeed in the whole Pacific Rim area (which is a term used by American types to describe everything from New Zealand to Japan).
The Mole's staff are, however, reporting that there is an even better story happening in Formula 3000 and that it will probably not be long before the gentlemen in question joins the Formula 1 circus in some form or other. This fairytale is about another Australian although he has the unusual name of Rob Nguyen.
When The Mole was the commercial attache at the British Embassy in Saigon in the 1960s he knew a lot of people called Nguyen. In fact it is the family name of Vietnam's last imperial dynasty, founded in 1802 and terminated in 1945 with the last emperor Bao Dai. They were busy lot by all accounts (Emperor Minh Mang, for example, having scored a total of 40 wives, 78 sons and 64 daughters). As a result of this Nguyen in Vietnam is as common in Britain as Smith.
There are as many Nguyens in the world as there are Polish princesses.
Rob Nguyen confuses matters somewhat as he is an Australian, born and bred. His antecedents are, of course, Vietnamese, his parents having got out of the place when the Communists were taking over at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Rob was born in Brisbane in the summer of 1980 (when Alan Jones was becoming the last Australian to be World Champion) and it seems he had a normal Australian upbringing, with lots of sports and sunshine and although a big fan of motor racing (like many Australians he stayed up half the night watching F1 races being broadcast from Europe) he never actually competed.
At the start of 2000 Nguyen was sent off to Lausanne in Switzerland to study business at the universary there and he did so well in his studies that at the end of his freshman year his parents decided as a reward that they would pay for him to have a run in a Formula Opel car at Walter Penker's racing school in Austria.
Nugyen had never sat in a racing car before that day in November 2000 but he did his first runs and was so fast that, after picking himself up off the floor, Herr Penker invited him to do a second test, back-to-back with Penker Racing's regular driver. The track was damp but Nguyen was almost as quick as the much more experienced man and Penker, seeing stars in his eyes, signed him up to do a season of Formula Volkswagen in 2001.
Formula Volkswagen is a promotional formula in Germany with cars which are more powerful than Formula Renault but not as good as Formula 3. Nguyen, who had to have a Swiss licence, because there were no grounds for CAMS in Australia to grant him an Australian one, was immediately fast. His first race took place in pouring rain and he qualified fifth fastest and in his third race he was on pole. The progress continued throughout the year and he ended last season fifth in the series with two podiums and seven top 10 results in nine races.
Penker was amazed at the progress of a man with no racing experience and arranged for a test in a Formula 3000 car, run by Team Ghinzani in Italy. Nguyen jumped in the car, was seven-tenths of a second faster than the regular driver and set a fastest lap which was only a tenth slower than the team had ever managed before.
Penker's advice was for Nguyen (who does not have much money) to see if any of the International Formula 3000 teams might be interested in him and a test was organised at Valencia with Team Astromega, which last year won one race with Giorgio Pantano. In that first test Nguyen was only seven-tenths of a second slower than Mario Haberfeld, a former British F3 Champion who now has three season of Formula 3000 experience.
The Mole's insiders say that the management at Astromega were stunned by what he achieved in his testing and they immediately signed him up on a two-year contract, despite the fact that he has competed in only nine races (and no karting) in his entire life. They are still shaking their heads in amazement.
The Mole has seen a lot of rising stars over the years but has never heard a story like this one. Nguyen is a phenomenon rather than a racing driver and while it may take him a while to pick up race craft, he very clearly has the speed to do great things.
The Mole will be watching with interest how Nguyen goes when the Formula 3000 season kicks off in Brazil later this month. As the championship supports Formula 1 it is not going to be long before one of the F1 teams realises that there is a serious talent out there waiting to be signed up and no doubt Penker will be whispering into ears. As the manager of Andrea Piccini, Penker has close links with Minardi, which is of course an Australian team.
It sounds like the perfect place for Nugyen to go in the future.
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