Muslim F1 drivers travelling the right path in Ramadan

It is not easy for Muslims in Formula One to observe Ramadan, but driver Fairuz Fauzy of Renault, and Lotus team members SM Nasarudin and Riad Asmat do their best.
Fairuz Fauzy says it is not always easy but he has found ways to observe Ramadan while still competing in his racing career.
Fairuz Fauzy says it is not always easy but he has found ways to observe Ramadan while still competing in his racing career.

The phrase "life in the fast lane" has rarely appeared as appropriate as it has for Fairuz Fauzy this past month.

The Renault reserve driver is the only Muslim driver in Formula One, so while the majority of the paddock used the mid-season break as an opportunity to relax and recuperate, the 28-year-old Malaysian has been observing Ramadan and going without food during daylight hours.

"Ramadan is the most special month of the year for me," Fauzy said. "It is a way of life that ensures you follow the good path."

Fauzy is the only Muslim driver in F1, but he is not the only Muslim in the paddock.

Over at Renault's rivals, Team Lotus, they have a prayer room installed at their factory headquarters in Norfolk, England.

This month, away from the smoke and mirrors often associated with the pinnacle of motorsport, a small group of staff clad in the famous green and yellow have been reflecting on things of a different nature. SM Nasarudin and Riad Asmat, both also from Malaysia, have been fasting and using the Holy Month as an opportunity to consider those less fortunate than themselves.

"It's a month where you appreciate what you have," said Asmat, the chief executive officer at Team Lotus.

"There are unfortunate souls out there who may not have the benefits, or the good fortune, that you have, so it's a whole month of reflection.

"I have done it since I was a kid and never missed a year. It's one of the pillars of Islam, and I am at an age where I have to do it because I am a Muslim family man and my little ones are now going into that age that I have to set an example - even though I am far away and often in various different continents."

Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the game, used to say he played better when he was fasting.

Having been drafted by the Houston Rockets ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft, when Olajuwon converted to Islam in 1991 experts deemed it impossible for him to maintain his high level of performance without taking on food and fluids.

Yet he annually scored more points during Ramadan than he did in other months and was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1994.

Asmat, a keen basketball fan, can understand such a phenomenon.

"Hakeem was incredible," he said.

"It is a lot more mental, to be honest. No doubt, the body needs fluids during the day, but if you manage to take your proper intake of liquids in the morning before fasting starts, you will be able to manage all expectations throughout, and even exercise."

Fauzy said he has fasted in previous years and even won a karting race during the Holy Month.

"Personally, when I fast, I actually feel stronger, mentally," said the GP2 driver.

"It keeps you in good shape, and teaches you to respect and understand others who suffer. It's a mental thing - you become more focused.

"Of course, every human is different - David Blaine [the illusionist] did not eat for a month - but it's all psychological."

Karting, admittedly, is far removed from F1. Such are the demands placed upon the human body while driving a Formula One car - a driver is said to lose between three and five kilograms during a grand prix through sweating - it would be dangerous to sacrifice hydration.

The Quran allows for exceptional circumstances, said Fauzy, and Muslims can carry days over after Ramadan comes to its natural close. Last year, he was forced to carry over 10 days.

"Motorsports can be very draining, and so it is dangerous if you do not stay hydrated," said Fauzy, who spent the weeks leading up to this month making up for the days he had left over from 2010.

"When you are young, it is different, but in F1 or GP2, there so many more things to deal with. This year, though, so long as I am not racing, I will be fasting."

Another challenge many of Formula One's Muslim community have faced is that with all 12 of the race teams based in Europe, the hours of daylight are longer than those from the Middle East and Asia are accustomed to.

This year, in Kuala Lumpur, the sun is rising at around 6am and setting at 7pm, but in England it rises at 4am and sets at 9pm.

"This month is always special to me, and where I fast I'm not particular, but where I am now offers some real challenges. Saying that though, I went through it last year, and when you tend to be doing work you forget anyway. It's just a motion that you go through," said Asmat, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca for his Haj in 2006.

Ever since that trip, he said, he has become a better person - far more calm, less easily agitated, not as confrontational - and the memories of his pilgrimage continue to benefit him today. "My religion has not impacted on me in Formula One, but what it has allowed me is support that I can always rely on," Asmat said. "That is something that I can always think back to in times of sadness. It's given me a level of stability."

Fauzy, too, said he has benefited from his faith.

Having visited Mecca three times earlier, in 2009 he returned once more, midseason, for Umrah, a pilgrimage that can be taken at any time of the year. He asked for forgiveness and for life to pave him a smooth path.

Going into the final race of the Formula Renault 3.5 season, he was sixth in the championship. He finished on the podium in the first race and fourth in the second to catapult him to second in the drivers' standings.

"I look at that as a blessing," he said.

With the mandatory two-week shutdown imposed by the Formula One Teams Association this month, both Asmat and Fauzy have been spending some valuable time with family in the run up to Eid Al Fitr, the celebratory period immediately following Ramadan.

Asmat returned to Kuala Lumpur for a short break with his wife, Arnida, and three children, Alya, Ali and Aysha. Fauzy spent the majority of his break with his wife, Dara.

"To me, the most important thing in the world is the bond you develop with your family," said Fauzy, who lives near Silverstone in England.

"Living so far away and always travelling makes it very hard. For instance, growing up, Eid was a very joyful, family time, but I have not had a chance to celebrate Eid now for maybe five years.

"Every year, when I try to celebrate, it clashes with a race." While last year Eid coincided with the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, this year the three-day celebration will take place just after Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.

Asmat, whose Team Lotus are enjoying their second season in the sport, acknowledged it is difficult to be separated from his family during such a special month, but he takes recompense from advancements in modern technology.

"Eid is a very family-centric moment, so it was very hard for me not be there," he said, before explaining that last year, while in Monza, he used Skype and watched his family from his laptop screen as he asked them for forgiveness.

"It's still hard not to be with the people you love, but technology helps make it that bit easier."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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