2007 Asian Karting Champion, 2009 Tony Kart factory driver, Three–time Philippine Karting Champion… I could go on and on about the accolades of this decorated racer but let’s not forget how old he is. At 18 years of age Stefano Marcelo is the most successful Filipino Karter ever, with records and achievements that put him on a pedestal almost without any peers and straight into pages of Philippine motorsport history. A third generation scion from one of the Philippines’ most prominent racing families (his grandfather a record-holding dragster and Formula racer, his father an AF3 driver, and his uncle the late Jovy Marcelo; the only Filipino to ever land a seat at the prestigious Indy 500), getting behind the wheel of a kart was a very natural experience for the young Marcelo. “In 2002 I remembered going to Subic, and we saw a go kart track. I decided to give it a go and the first time I ever got my hands behind the wheel, I wanted to go on forever…” says Stefano.
He started doing amateur karting for a year, then in 2005 he turned professional. Due to his sentiments that he started fairly late in karting, he spent a lot of time at the racetrack during his initial 2 years of karting professionally. “I used to go to the track straight from school. My leisure time to spend with family and friends were exchanged for working at the racetrack,” adds Marcelo. “It’s worth it though when you’re chasing and living the dream at the same time.”
In his first year, he joined the Tuason Racing Team headed by JP Tuason. He entered the Philippine Shell Series, and with hardly any experience, almost clinched the Rookie of the Year award just missing it by a point due to Kart failure on the last leg.
In 2006, former karting World Champion, Terry Fullerton was hired to be Stefano’s coach. It was in this year that he started to qualify and win a handful of races in the Shell Philippine Super Karting Series.
In 2007, his career turned pretty serious when he started to constantly travel back and forth to Europe to train with the best karting coaches. As Stefano learned and gained more maturity as a young racer, he was entered in as much races as possible having a schedule of 29 races out of 56 weekends in a year. The young Marcelo went on to dominate that year by pulling off a perfect winning streak by coming in 1st place in every single senior ROK series in Cebu and also went on to win 5 out of 6 Shell Open Class Series races. To top it all off, he started all of those races in pole position in wet and dry conditions. In October of the same year, he went on to represent the Philippines in Lonato, Italy for the ROK World Championship in which out of 160 participants, he came out at a very respectable 10th overall. At the end of 2007 alone, Stefano already became the most successful Filipino karter ever. This would also be the first time in Asian history that a karter from this continent would be crowned with four series championships and five awards including a Golden Wheel Award. All of those achievements were realized at the tender age of 15.
A promising career for the third generation Marcelo? You bet, because in 2008 Stefano competed in a series of races both locally, in which he dominated everything, and internationally where he won and placed very respectably. In the 2008 World ROK Championship in Lonato, Italy, Stefano greatly impressed everyone in attendance when he ended up in Pole Position out of 120 professional karters from around the world! He went on to win two of the elimination rounds but finished 3rd on the third round after getting bumped off. He finished in 8th position at the end of the race. “I had to make a decision whether to push the car further and risk getting bumped off and not finish the race, or to do everything I can to ensure that I cross the checkered flag. Racing in Europe is very different from racing in Asia. The mentality is just so different, it’s so much less forgiving,” Stefano states.
A month later Marcelo finds himself in Macau, and about to do something he’s never done before. He was about to compete in two different classes on the same weekend. He went on to win the Asian KF2 championship and right after that he was about to enter the KF1 league, which in karting terms is Formula 1. All these events on the same weekend! He came in 3rd, ahead of one of the Tony Kart factory drivers in the qualifying heat… and that changed everything.
At the end of the race weekend, Tony Kart officials approached Stefano and offered him a seat as a factory driver for the 2009 season with them in Europe. Let’s paint a scenario so I can better explain what that means. Imagine a Formula 1 race wherein a driver who isn’t part of the F1 grid is given a chance to compete; and then manages to out qualify the likes of Felipe Massa and ends up 3rd on the grid while not even piloting the very best machinery. And yes, because Tony Kart as a team is the equivalent of Ferrari in karting, getting an offer to drive for them as a factory driver is a feat in itself… It is the dream of every karter much in the light of landing a seat in the Scuderia as an F1 driver. In fact, seven-time F1 World Champion, Michael Schumacher is an alumni factory driver of Tony Kart. Stefano’s stint at Tony Kart made him the first and only Filipino to ever drive for the team.
“It was a complete honor to be chosen by Tony Kart. As a team they really do stand out from the rest, they are the most technologically advanced out there with quite possibly the most competitive karts,” Stefano says. Moving to Europe to work with Tony Kart was the realization of a dream. Though Marcelo was very happy to be there, he had no time to celebrate as work started immediately and the demands and expectations from them were very high. “They expected no less than 120% from us, and expected the perfect drive each time we went out there,” adds Stefano. “It was the most difficult and challenging experience I’ve had in my racing life, but it was also the most amazing one. We were treated like F1 drivers,” says Stefano. “I had a nutritionist and a special diet. I worked with trainers and had data logging. I learned how to analyze data and I took notes on how to get the perfect setup for the kart.”
Tony Kart expected perfection, but it wasn’t Stefano’s best season. He took it as a year to learn and adapt to the different environment and different approach to karting. “I learned so much, and learning from the very best in karting is something that I will never forget,” says Stefano. In racing, team chemistry is very important. “The key to winning is developing a team that feels like a family. It’s very difficult to race when the chemistry is off,” adds Marcelo. “It’s human nature that we tend to excel and do better when we are happy with the people we’re working with. It’s the same in racing. For instance, an engineer would work harder in building a car for a driver he gets along with versus the opposite,” says Stefano. His team is very special to him. “The mechanics, engineers, and the rest of the team work just as hard as the drivers,” says Marcelo. “In fact, they’re probably tenser than we are as they have to make sure that the car is at peak performance through every lap and that it gets through the checkered flag in the fastest way possible.”
INSIGHTS & FUTURE
Philippine motorsport today is filled with so much talent, but sadly, most lack financial backing and sponsors. Racing as a sport isn’t cheap and add to that the current situation of the global financial crisis, we end up with more hurdles to overcome. The government however could broaden their support for other sports other than basketball and boxing. They might find more talent too in other sports that could bring great pride to our country. “There are so many talented Filipinos not just in racing but in other sports as well like tennis and golf,” says the 18 year old. “I really hope that the government starts to take notice of this, because if there’s anything that we excel in at the moment, it’s in sports.”
When asked about how it feels to carry the Philippine flag when he races around the world, Stefano’s eyes light up with excitement and pride. “I had a problem in the beginning when I’d register and jot down my nationality before the race weekend. I carry a blue passport because I was born in the United States, but I’d always put Filipino as my nationality,” says Stefano. “It always caused some sort of confusion with the racing committee, but I was able to fix it,” adds Marcelo. “I will carry the Philippine flag for as long as I can because I am Filipino, my family and friends are Filipino, the people I love and care for are Filipino, my mechanics and team are Filipino and I will always carry the flag to honor them and the country I love the most.”
Stefano, like every other racer dreams to reach to pinnacle of motorsports. “Getting to Formula 1 is the biggest honor you could have as a racer,” says Marcelo. “Realistically though, as a Filipino driver today with the lack of funds, the goal is to get as far as you can,” adds Stefano. “It’s a sad reality when you give everything that you have, sacrifice your time and your energy, and give up a portion of your youth and know that the future could hold a dead end beyond your control,” says the young champion who’s currently seeking for more sponsors.
Now it is easy to see why Stefano is so successful. His passion for the sport is very visible and his determination to get to where he wants to be has paid off. Most importantly, it is his understanding of the sport that puts him ahead of the rest. Like any champion, he hates losing and never gets tired of winning. “You can never win too much or get sick of winning,” says Stefano. “Winning feels great every single time.” He admits though that losing is part of the sport. “Nobody enjoys losing, but it always creates time for you to learn… and in order for you to win, you must first learn to lose,” says the champion who doesn’t believe in luck, but believes in hard work instead. “In racing at least, luck is out of the question for me. Even when somebody bumps you off or your tire goes loose, that isn’t you being unlucky, that’s you or your team being unprepared,” the three-time champion says. As for the future he will focus on being on top of his game psychologically, mentally, and physically. With his vast experience, broad understanding of the sport, and exemplary skill as a driver, he will be a force to be reckoned with. A lot is in store this 2011 for this decorated young champion whose future is ahead of him. “I will work as hard as I can, learn as much as I can, and push myself as far as I can go. I’ll be striving for pole position and race wins,” says Stefano. “I am hungry for success, I want more and I definitely won’t settle for second best, I am this way, because it’s the Marcelo way.”