MECHANIC: Minal Kanagasundaram, the globe trotting silent achiever
By Mat Coch
Sunday 13th September, 2020 - 2:00pm
From Mallala to Monza, Silverstone to Suzuka, Nurburgring and beyond, there are not many places Minal Kanagasundaram’s love of motorsport hasn’t taken him.
Born in Sri Lanka, he grew up in Brunei before his family moved to Australia when he was 12 years old, where he fell in love with motorsport.
A competitor, engineer, team manager, and much everything else as needed, he’s one of the most rounded and experienced figures in Australian motorsport.
And yet it took some prodding for this article. Minal is not one to boast, preferring to play his cards close to his chest and let his work do the talking.
But his is a fascinating story, one driven by passion, hard work, determination, and strong personalities.
“When I was in uni, I used to nerd out watching BTCC, the old DTM; we’re talking early ‘90s,” he told Speedcafe.com.
“I used to watch Schnitzer, Smoking Joe (Joachim Winkelhock), Alain Menu and the like, really fantastic racing back in the day.
“At that time my parents really pushed me to do medicine and I ended up doing biomedical engineering.
“While I was doing biomedical I used to go to Mallala with an old rusty Fiat 124.
“There was no money for a jack stand, so I used to fix up my Fiat propped up on chunks of old tree trunk and used a busted skateboard for a GoJak.
“Anyway, I did biomedical, then after that I pushed back and went into mechanical engineering because I enjoyed the racing.”
That decision to return to university set the course of Minal’s life.
Taking the initiative, a trait that he has maintained throughout his career, he began calling teams across the country, offering his services simply to get experience in the industry.
He had a spell with Stone Brothers, where he met and formed lasting friendships with Campbell Little and Paul Ceprnich, the latter of whom would play a key role in Minal’s career abroad.
His break, however, came courtesy of Chris Smerdon, where he’d been working as a volunteer while still studying and holding down a job pouring beers.
His first paying job in the sport was not a glamorous one, mopping the floors and other janitorial tasks, but it earned him the money he needed to survive and continue working towards his goal.
He also crossed paths with Carlo Lunetta, who had formerly worked with Osella, Birrana, and Ferrari.
Lunetta put Minal in contact with Adriano Morini, founder of Draco Racing, which at the time fielded a Formula 3000 team based out of Italy.
“I rang Draco and wanted to speak to Adriano Morini, but Morini doesn’t speak any English,” Minal explained.
“So he passed the phone to his young driver who I spoke to about the possibilities for a job.”
That driver was Augusto Farfus, who would win the Euro Formula 3000 title with Draco that year.
With no job sorted but the bright lights of Europe beckoning, Minal packed his bags and headed to the United Kingdom, where he couch surfed and worked in a pub to the north of London.
After three months of hard grind, in the space of a week his fortunes changed.
Through Ceprnich he had the opportunity to work with Schnitzer Motorsport at a test in Germany, then landed an interview with Ian Pocock, Engineering Director at the Jaguar Formula 1 team.
“I was staying with my sister-in-law, sleeping on the lounge floor, sometimes on the couch,” Minal said.
“Getting to the Schnitzer test was a mission; the trains were down in London so I had to bus it to Stanstead Airport and sleep there on the floor, then caught a Ryanair red-eye from Stanstead to Dusseldorf.
“I arrived at midday, did the test, then I was so buggered that I went back to the hotel to rest.
“I didn’t tell Charly (Lamm, Schnitzer team boss), who came looking for me.
“At about 20:00 I was fast asleep, then bang, bang, bang at the door, I open it in my undies and there’s Charly Lamm.
“In typical Charly fashion he came in for one-minute chat and stayed for two-and-a-half hours; him dressed in his finest BMW Motorsport team gear, me in the best that Bonds had to offer.
“Charly said, ‘Ring me next week and we’ll sort out a job for you’.”
Bright and early on Monday following the Schnitzer test, Minal had an interview with Jaguar.
“I didn’t know anyone in Formula One, I just rang around like crazy.
“I got in touch with Malcolm Oastler who I knew was Australian and I just pestered him until he got me an interview.
“I feel sorry for him because I just kept on calling and calling until he said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you an interview’, so I had an interview with Ian Pocock.
“The only job they had available was part of the design team doing a little bit of aero and a little bit of mechanical stuff, with a view to moving permanently to the test team.
“Being young and with Formula One stars in my eyes, I accepted the job.
“This was literally four days after having an interview with Charly Lamm.
“After I started the job, I spoke to Charly about Jaguar and he said, ‘Well done, let’s see how you go in a few months’.”
A year later, Minal elected to leave Jaguar, seeking a return to “the thick of the action, not a specialised role in such a big team”.
Before he left F1 he called Lamm but there were no roles available at that time, so it was back to working behind the bar, this time at a fish restaurant.
At the end of 2003 he returned to Adelaide and soon found work with Paul Morris Motorsport, where he stayed for a year.
It was there he met Andy ‘Barry’ McElrea, who at that stage was in the process of making his mark on Porsche Carrera Cup Australia.
In 2005 and 2006 Minal joined Britek, where he worked with Warren Luff.
Throughout that time he remained in contact with Lamm, calling and emailing in the hope of landing the job he’d turned down to work for Jaguar. Eventually, in November 2006, his chance came.
“I let the opportunity go the first time and I was not going to let go the second time,” Minal explained.
“I remember it like yesterday, we were at Symmons Plains with Britek, staying at a cruddy, old, bad motel.”
His phone rang, and Lamm offered him a job in Germany for 2006.
“My day-to-day at Schnitzer was performance engineer, so like a data engineer,” he recalled.
“But also we were designing components, we were also race engineering, we did a multitude of different things.
“That was what was so exciting about that job; you had multiple roles. The damper guy was sick and so you had to rebuild dampers before the truck left for a test, stuff like that.”
He was welcomed into the team as though he were part of the family, a feeling that hasn’t changed in the decade since.
His arrival with the team also coincided with Farfus’ stint there, the Brazilian campaigning the BMW Team Germany entry in the World Touring Car Championship.
“We worked super hard, we were ultra-competitive and yet we didn’t end up with a championship,” Minal said.
“We had the fastest cars at every race weekend but we had way too many incidents.
“To put into perspective how hard we worked, in one of those years we did something like 70 test days with two cars, each car with maybe three or four new sets of tyres per day, not to mention seven-post rig work and simulation.
“We had a fairly good regime of design on Wednesday, test on Thursday, race on Saturday and Sunday.
“This meant you learnt a massive amount and you also end up learning what really matters.
“The important thing was that we had the resources and the technical juggernaut of BMW Motorsport behind us.”
Aside from the World Touring Car Championship, Minal was part of the team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Spa, and Nurburgring, winning the latter with just four gears left and the car catching fire after a pit stop.
“We won the Nurburgring 24-hour with a wing and a prayer,” he admitted.
“It was a tough race and we had really good drivers (Pedro Lamy, Uwe Alzen, Augusto Farfus, and Jorg Muller).
“We must have used up all of our luck at Nurburgring because at the Spa 24-hour we absolutely dominated and led from the start of the race until 23 hours and 20 minutes.
“The drivers had touched too many things with the right front wheel and the tie rod end broke.
“It was super tough work, not to mention that for the whole weekend I was hobbling around with a fractured ankle because I fell off a ladder while we were setting up.”
Family, friends and the lure of home led Minal back to Adelaide and a life away from motorsport.
His time working directly with Lamm left a lasting impression.
“He not only embodied technical excellence from the time where he used to actually run the cars and be the team manager, but he was also a master of soft skills, knowing what was going on in the paddock, talking to the officials, having a chat with the media; all the stuff you don’t realise is a big part of the success.
“He had the support of Dieter, his twin brother behind him.
“Dieter was the maestro of the workshop, he made sure cars happened, the logistics happened and everything that had to be dotted and crossed was done.
“These guys really knew how to do it together, and because they’re brothers, because they both love motor racing, it was just a natural fit.”
Upon his return to Australia, Minal found work in the mining sector, but freelanced with Tekno, where McElrea was working as Team Manager.
For the next three years he did fly in, fly out work at Olympic Dam, though had cameos with Schnitzer at key events such as Le Mans and Nurburgring.
In typical style, McElrea punted Minal into Porsche Carerra Cup Asia, after outings with McElrea Racing, working with Tony Walls and Warren Luff at the Bathurst 12 Hour, Australian GT and Porsche Carrera Cup Australia.
Like the relationship he formed with Lamm during his time with Schnitzer, a genuine friendship grew between he and Walls.
“I would like to think our characters are somewhat similar and as a result we’ve got a good relationship,” Minal reasoned.
“I would put him down as one of my mentors.
“Another key figure who has helped me on my professional journey is Andreas Schallinger at Schnitzer.
“He’s currently in about his 42nd year of employment with the team and he helped me understand a holistic approach to race car engineering.”
Reflecting on his learning, Minal puts results down to teamwork, an unrelenting commitment to learning and a no-blame culture.
“You can have some hotshot engineer but if the rest of the package is not there it doesn’t matter one bit,” he asserted.
“The best setup is nothing without the tyre man being on point; the best strategy does not work if the car is unreliable; the best mechanics are wasted with a team manager who can’t lead.
“What makes a great team great is bringing all of those elements together and making it work.”
In 2016 Minal’s relationship with Schnitzer was rekindled on a full-time basis, though in the most unusual logistical circumstances.
Minal was back in Adelaide when Lamm asked him to join the DTM squad.
“There was slight issue; I had commitments in Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and also a young family,” Minal admitted.
“The solution we had was FIFO DTM.
“My daily routine, while I was at home, would be to get online at 10:00, prep the work for the day, then by 13:30 Germany would be online, we’d have meetings work ‘till 03:00, then I’d go to bed, get up in the morning and start the routine again.
“For the race weekends I would leave Adelaide Saturday morning and arrive in Freilassing Sunday morning before the race meeting.
“I would travel to and from the race track with the crew, so after the race meeting we’d have the debrief, analysis and reporting.
“I’d leave Freilassing Friday afternoon after the race, arrive home on the Sunday morning and then Monday start again.
“I made a promise to Charly that I would make FIFO DTM work and for all accounts it worked fine.
“There were complications that we had along the way, for example, when we had meetings in Freilassing and when I was away racing with Carrera Cup Asia or travelling, but where there’s a will there’s a way.”
The experiences gained across a career in motorsport were this year set to be put into practice with his own team, Bergwerk Motorsport, debuting in Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.
“We had all the staff, two cars ready to go with Porsche Holding and Kiddyworld Racing, won a couple of races in February and then obviously coronavirus hit,” Minal explained.
“So we’re on hold for now but will be back on the track as soon as restrictions are lifted.
“I think in essence we can say Bergwerk Motorsport has an Asian heart, Aussie can-do and a German head.”
Away from work, Minal remains passionate about cars and motorsport, and still dabbles behind the wheel himself.
The Fiat 124 which jump-started his career has long since departed and his tastes are now somewhat more contemporary.
“I actually had the chance to buy the Fiat back about two years ago,” he laughed.
“I nearly did but the problem is it’s rusting on the showroom floor and as you can imagine after 40-odd years there was not much left!
“I just recently bought my old Honda EK Civic back off one of my friends.
“I consider myself very, very fortunate,” he concluded.
“Motor racing is my hobby and through luck and the help of others and a little bit of perseverance, I’m able to make my hobby my vocation, my full-time job.
“It is completely true I’d say; when you are working in an industry, doing what you love, you’re actually not really working, you’re having fun and someone’s footing the bill for it.
“That’s the way I see it.”