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Francis Lai and Ong Boon Keat – Partners at the wheel

Who could have guessed that a well of motorsport tips can be contained in just three little words: Keep your cool.

In the heat of the battle, it is exactly what Francis Lai and Ong Boon Keat, who are currently first in the 1.6 and 2WD category of the Malaysian Rally Championships, will hear over the intercom helmets.

It may come from their tuner, Ng Su Wah, who may want his boys to pace themselves. From Ng’s 20 years of experience, previously of the Subaru World Rally Team, it is not wise to push 100 per cent all the time. The end goal is to finish the rally, not toast the engine or crash into a tree.

It may come from Ong, 29, himself. Having been Lai’s co-driver since their student days in Multimedia University, there are times when he has to take on the role of pacifier.

Lai himself admits to being prone to aggression. But charging through an oil palm estate at 170km/h is no time to see red.

Insists Ong, the faster you go, the higher the risk. So, if one is not last, just being able to hold on to the position is good enough.

Vice versa, Lai, 30, may have also reminded his co-driver of three years to take it easy. It may have been done during a time when Ong was going through the pace notes. A stickler for detail, Ong is famed for staying up till the wee hours of the morning before a race to study details. Or, it may have come at a time when he did indeed crash and all a disappointed Ong could do was to sit in the car while Lai radioed the crew.

But observing the “keep cool” rule is really about enjoying the rally. The men may have trampled on each other’s ego in the heat of the moment but whatever happens in a rally, stays in a rally.

The Ong and Lai partnership has been an auspicious one from the start. For one, their names when combined sounds like the Chinese homonym of the “coming of luck”. Even at their first meeting, way back at the dorm rooms of their university days, it would come at a time when Ong was watching the World Rally Championship on TV.

For Lai, who has motorsport in his blood (his father Philip, now in his 50s, used to take part in gymkhana events in Shah Alam where he’d take Lai’s mother, Merine, for dates), his first thought was, “Here’s someone who shares a common interest with me”.

In Ong’s case, his first impression of Lai was, “Damm, this guy is tall”.

Ong naturally slipped into the role of co-driver when the duo first made their debut in the Zero to Hero reality programme on AstroRia to find the next Malaysian rally champ in 2009.

“All Lai did was say, ‘Eh, you want to try for it?’ and I was on,” recalls Ong.

Their initial investment was RM60 for an intercom system bought on E-Bay which Lai would solder onto their helmets and RM250 each for matching cargo pants and shoes. The rest was borne by the show’s sponsors.

“Image matters,” says Ong, explaining the rationale of a bigger budget allocation for clothes.

Out of 200 hopefuls, the pair made it and landed the sponsorship of a Proton Satria Neo from MRU Motorsports, owned by Muhammad Rafiq Udhaya. For the two boys who used to drift their father’s cars on the once-deserted roads of Cyberjaya, it would be a very lucky break for they have been spared the headache of having to run as privateers.

In describing their driving relationship, Ong and Lai reckon the best thing in maintaining cordiality is to refrain from thinking too much about it.

“We have heard stories from Ng about driver and co-driver punching each other in the car. This must have been a life-and-death situation for them to get so mad at each other. It is something we understand because there are times when we have made mistakes which have cost us dearly. But I think the best thing is to just trust each other and stop pondering on the ‘what ifs’,” they say.

To catch Ong and Lai in action, check them out at the last round of the Malaysian Rally Championship in Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, on Dec 8 and 9. For more information, log on to or D-24 Rally blog.

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  1. Ong Lai are amazing.
    Malaysia is proud to have the world rally in the making.
    Bravo guys and keep it up.

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