Power in Precision - Interview with Karamjit Singh

The story of Malaysia’s Flying Sikh, Karamjit Singh began when he made his debut in the Castrol Daylight Rally in his father’s Peugeot 404 - the rest, as the old adage goes, is history. From rough, rocky paths to roads covered with snow, there is hardly any terrain on which he has little to no control over his vehicle.

Over the course of his career, Karamjit has won the Malaysian National Rally Championship a record total of 12 times despite him forgoing the championship to focus on international rallies between the years 2000-2006; reclaiming the title when he returned in 2007.

The speedy, talented Karamjit also became World Champion in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship in 2002 on his first attempt at the championship, also winning the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship that same year, going on to make his mark as the first Asian to clinch a world champion title in a motorsports world championship series.

Karamjit may drive at roaring speeds but a calm, focused attitude reveals an unassuming, disciplined nature both on and off the racecourse. He is a great champion, still despite all his successes, he has remained modest, always zealously challenging himself to surpass his last milestone with the definitive goal of pitting his skills and succeeding against the world's best, the attribute of a true professional and world class sportsman.

“The most important part is to know your car inside and out, it’s not about the speed or the type of car you drive, “says Karam, who continues to top the charts at local and international rallies with a factory-made Volkswagen Polo R2, even when competing with drivers half his age, “If you know how to handle the car properly, you will be able to manoeuvre it exactly the way you want.”                           

Dynamic Duo

Throughout his rallying career, Karam’s co-drivers have been (in chronological order) Ron Teoh, Allen Oh and John Bennie. His current right-hand man, Jagdev Singh has been featured alongside Karamjit in his recent victories and it is nothing short of a perfect match. Jagdev, who has worked with other drivers and received the award for Best Co-Driver on several occasions, is confident when he says Karam has everything it takes to be a winner. 

“What separates champions from those who only almost become champions, are their ability to concentrate and maintain focus over a prolonged period of time. More so in rallying because it is a competition that runs it’s course over several days. It’s not easy to maintain concentration and to perform each manoeuvre like clockwork, repeatedly and on demand.”

“Other drivers have often asked me, “What does Karam have for breakfast?” because he has full concentration and full speed from the get-go. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what Karam has for breakfast because he possesses extreme mental strength.”

Still, while rally drivers usually come out as the stars of the race, a short conversation with Karamjit and Jagdev will reveal that co-drivers play an equally, if not more pivotal role before and during a rally.

“Before any rally, we are allowed to perform two route reconnaissances, where we utilize a system called Pacenotes tailored specially to give a complete and accurate description of the route, the corners of the route and other surrounding factors. Karam has to call out these notes during the reconnaissance and I have to write them down, ” explains Jagdev.

Pacenotes are a unique and major tool in modern rallying, providing a comprehensive description of the course that allows the driver to predict conditions ahead and prepare for various course conditions such as turns and jumps. Television spectators will occasionally notice the voice of a co-driver in mid-race reading the pacenotes over the car's internal intercom.

Reconnaissance normally takes up two 14-hour days on the course, followed by 4-5 more gruelling hours reviewing and tidying pacenotes for easy reference during the rally.

“Each of the corners is graded from 1-10. As the number gets smaller, the corner gets tighter. Every corner is mentioned in our pace notes. If any corners are left out, he will not be able to give me accurate directions when I’m driving and that can prove fatal,” says Karamjit.

In rallies there are anything between 12-35 special stages ranging from 8 kilometres to 400 kilometres; for every 30 kilometres there are 35-36 pages of pace notes. In a single race, up to 10 books can be used for Pacenotes.

“We do not leave a single stone unturned; sometimes we even have to stop the car during the reconnaissance to move large stones out of the way,” says Jagdev.

While it appears that one simply has to know how to handle and manoeuvre a souped-up automobile to be crowned champion, the devil is in the details. From selecting the right pencil lead size (2mm) for Pacenotes to getting rid of unnecessary car parts e.g. power window systems to reduce the weight for greater speed, the preparation that is required as teams build up to a rally are far greater than the actual rally, which is why it is prime to have teammates who are on the same wavelength, allowing you to work effortlessly together like a well-oiled machine.

Going Off Course 

Since 1993, Karam has also provided stunt driving and precision driving services for commercials and movies. In these 20 years, he has performed over 70 precision driving stunts for brands such as F&N’s 100 Plus, and as a stunt driving double for several Bollywood movies, filmed in Malaysia and abroad.  

His area of expertise includes anything from high-speed car chase scenes to crashing cars for dramatic effect. Among some of the box office toppers he’s worked in are Mission Istanbul starring Abhishek Bachchan and Vivek Oberoi and Don: The Chase Begins, featuring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.  

When he’s not pulling stunts for famous Bollywood actors, Karam teaches rally driving to private candidates. He is also an ambassador for road safety in Malaysia, advocating for the implementation of rear seat belt laws in 2009.

Karamjit is also an avid fan of rock music. On off days when he’s not behind the wheel, Karamjit can be found moving to the beats of local bands belting out numbers from Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in venues around the city.

This article was published in the Unreserved on February 7, 2014.