The coronavirus pandemic has been an appallingly difficult situation for everyone and has also had a huge impact on racing drivers’ careers.
For drivers from one side of the world trying to race across the globe, it’s been particularly complex.
The Race has been catching up with some drivers whose 2020 seasons proved especially personally gruelling, and who face similar trials in early 2021. We start with Hong Kong-based international sportscar racer Ho-Pin Tung.
An FIA World Endurance Championship race and Le Mans winner, he is also an ex-Formula E driver and now paddock regular through his role at Jaguar Racing. He was also the first-ever driver Chinese race licence owner to officially test a Formula 1 car back in December 2003 when he tested for Williams.
As one of very few Asian based drivers that competed in Europe last season, Tung endured an often logistically complex existence for much of the year. Spending six weeks combined in full lockdown quarantine between September and the end of November he sacrificed more than most for his job.
Throughout those periods he lost time with his family, even missing his son’s first birthday due to travelling and quarantining commitments.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of 2020, he travelled several times from his home in Hong Kong to work and race in Europe and the Middle East.
This is his story on how he coped with quarantine and maintained his professional career while living in Hong Kong, and how the mental challenges have fostered new opportunities.
Tung has a distinctive heritage in that he was raised in Europe but has Chinese ancestry and now lives in Hong Kong as a resident with his young family.
“You know, growing up in Europe it would be easy to maybe have a different view on some things about this pandemic,” he tells The Race.
“I feel moral responsibility to do my part in trying to keep the numbers low because I want to travel and I need to travel for my job. That has a consequence that there’s always a chance, no matter how careful you are, you will get infected.
“The last thing I would want to do is to spread it out over here over more people, you have a moral responsibility.
“Everyone here, since day one, is very disciplined with wearing masks, sanitising hands. I mean everyone here still remembers SARS from 2002.”
Last summer, like most people, Tung was ensconced at his family home awaiting the re-activation of racing. But unlike most drivers he was based in Hong Kong and was unclear at the time what this meant for the remainder of his WEC campaign with the JOTA run Jackie Chan DC Racing team and his job with Jaguar in Formula E, he set off for Europe in July.
“I went to the Jaguar simulator to work and help prepare the team for the Berlin races and then subsequently the WEC event in Spa (originally intended for August but eventually moved to September),” he says.
“After Spa, I flew back to Hong Kong and immediately went in to two weeks of quarantine which was mandatory.
At that time he was still able to do this at home, but since his partner, Winnie, held a key job in the hospitality industry and “met a lot of people” it meant that she would have to declare to be living with “someone who is under mandatory self-quarantine,” according to Tung.
“I became a real expert in self-quarantining” :: Ho-Pin Tung
“That would restrict her movements and at the same time we didn’t want to take any risks, so I stayed in a hotel for fourteen days.”
“I’d really prefer not having to quarantine, but if it has to be like that then it is as it is and at the same time you get back, we can go racing, which is something that we all love and it’s also our job, so we will have to take this as a consequence.”
There was just over a week of brief normality for Tung as he re-engaged with his family after a long stint in Europe and then the quarantine period, before he headed back over for Le Mans.
Then it was fly-back, quarantine, and repeat in September/October. A month later he was travelling to Bahrain for the final WEC round to do it all over again.
Pictured on Le Mans 2017 podium
“By then the government in Hong Kong had made 14 days of self-quarantine in a hotel mandatory, so that meant a further two weeks and in total six weeks by myself.”
In the space of 10 weeks, Tung had spent six of them in complete isolation and had been forced to confront physical and mental challenges head-on.
“It’s not ideal, but keeping a positive mind and attitude is the most important [thing] with anything in life in my book,” he says.
“I became a real expert in self-quarantining.
“The first time I did it I had some elastic bands and a mini treadmill, a walking pad, which would only go six kilometres/hour. I walked a lot on that thing, like over 200 kilometres in the first 14 days. A decent effort!
“The second time I went into quarantine I got a Concept2 rower and it was delivered to the hotel room, so I used that a lot. The third time I added a small bench and weights.
“Funnily enough it meant that for the last two quarantines I have done, I probably came out of them in better shape than I went in.”
Hong Kong pandemic procedures are strict and well organised. If you test positive in Hong Kong, you are taken to hospital, whether symptomatic or not.
The Asia Expo centre, next to the airport, is transformed into a temporary hospital to have more beds for COVID-19 patients. This has meant that the number of severe cases is relatively lower than anywhere else in the world, and particularly in Europe.
Tung wore an electronic wristband that was connected to his mobile phone. He could have gone out of his hotel room, but the authorities would check and the penalties for doing so would likely have been serious.
As a professional athlete, his physical wellbeing was plainly crucial and he got to work on daily diet and planning routines.
“They (routines) are crucial. Getting up early, doing a workout and all these things really pays off because you cannot be lazy and discipline is really important,” he says.
“I missed both birthdays of the kids this year because I was either travelling or in quarantine” :: Ho-Pin Tung
“I guess I am lucky in a way because I’ve always been on a mission and had a purpose in my career. I take it very seriously, which means whatever the circumstances, you do what is right and positive.”
This is clearly evident in how he planned his eating habits. The hotel he stayed in provided breakfast, and he split it into two meals, “so I didn’t overeat,” he says.
“For dinner, I would just order something every day and obviously you can choose yourself what you eat.
“But what I did was to ask the hotel if they could provide me with a mixed salad cup for breakfast/lunch which I would then save for dinnertime too, so I would always have some kind of good nutrition.”
While his routine became ringfenced by his own determination, the logistical side was relatively straightforward even if the quarantine challenged a part of him he had not foreseen.
“Luckily, Hong Kong is very well connected to everywhere in the world, and in terms of flights, it’s still open.
“Non-Hong Kong residents are not allowed to come in, but since I’m a resident, and I also have a European passport as well, travel for me both ways is actually not a major problem. The only difficulty was quarantine.
“I mean it’s a choice you make in the end, I was happy to do it and I think it really was worth doing it as well.”
Tung believes that what he went through last year will be repeated for the majority of 2021 as well. Although his programme is still yet to be defined he is hopeful of competing on the international scene again.
“Honestly, I think it will probably be like this for the upcoming year, unfortunately, that’s what I perceive at least. And now the quarantine is up to 21 days, so another step in safety first, etc.”
With an abundance of time on one’s hands, minds can also wander. But for Tung, his own future and what it could be once his top-line professional driving career is over, came to the forefront. He decided to seize the moment.
At the very early stage of his career, he had been studying business administration in his native Holland but had to give it up as his racing activities gathered momentum. He quit his university course as a result.
“I have always said that one day I want to go back to studying and I wanted to do an MBA in the future. The first step to that is doing a GMAT test (business school application),” he says.
“So I thought ‘let’s just start preparing’ and I bought some e-books, I downloaded stuff and basically started picking up studying as well.
“It’s something that gives you a different state of mind and kind of takes you away a bit from the situation you’re in. It gives you a sense of not seeing things as a punishment almost, but maybe more as an opportunity.”
While the professional and self-management areas of his life were relatively straightforward, perhaps the personal and familial experience was the most challenging.
“I jokingly said to Winnie, ‘it’s definitely not that I prefer to be away from home, don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be with you!’
“But you know I’m much better trying to make the best out of it and grasp every opportunity that comes with a tough situation.
“In my case, I missed both birthdays of the kids this year because I was either travelling or in quarantine last year. But at the same time it’s a bit the story of our life I guess when you are in motorsports.”
Tung had many moments when he dwelt on all of these emotional conundrums but he endeavoured not to let frustration get the better of him.
“You can be sad, but it won’t solve anything, so you might as well just give the positive attitude and take it as it is and say ‘things will get better, and then we’ll all appreciate everything so much more.”