He may only have qualified at the back of the grid, and had more car problems than he would care to remember, but Alex Yoong has already made a winning start with many sections of the Formula One paddock.

The young Malaysian made a successful start to his new career in the top flight when he won over the press corps with a professional appearance at Thursday's official press conference. Sitting alongside world champion Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, Yoong showed no nerves, and confidently answered the questions of the assembled journalists. The general response from the 'hacks' was positive, with remarks that Yoong appeared "very mature" and "confident and impressive", and had a "good command of English and was articulate". He was also labelled "an interviewer's dream" - in contrast to some of the other drivers up and down the pit-lane.

The former Formula Nippon racer then turned in another winning performance when he won over the entire European Minardi team with a qualifying performance that belied his inexperience. Despite having his race car grid to a halt less than a kilometre from the pit-lane, and having to share the spare car with a similarly-afflicted Fernando Alonso, Yoong qualified well within the 107 per cent mark, albeit in 22nd on the grid.

"Alex could not have had a worse day than today [Saturday] for a person making his debut qualifying in Formula One," commented his manager Simon Munger, "Everything that could have happened to prevent him from qualifying happened. And yet he did it!"

"It was very tricky and really touch and go." Yoong added, "But I couldn't fail all the fans and Malaysians who turned up in Monza, and all the Malaysians watching this qualifying live back home, could I?"

"Without the practice runs in the morning, I had to find my braking points for the car in qualifying trim during qualifying itself, and I also had to be careful not to push too hard and fail to deliver the car back to Alonso for him to get further up the field. I am glad I managed it."

For the first time, Malaysian flags were hoisted at the spectator stands, and there was no shortage of support for the debutant. This included a contingent of close friends, a group of Shell Malaysia executives who had travelled all the way from Malaysia to be at the race, as well as the Malaysian Ambassador to Italy, Dato' Shamsudin Abdullah, and his family, who came up to Monza from Rome. Also spotted in significant numbers were a new breed of 'Alex Yoong Forza Minardi' fans, who came from all over Europe.



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