Is Malaysia Ready for a Formula 1 Revival?

Mahathir hopes to bring the Malaysian Grand Prix back, but it’ll probably take some time.
Wednesday 20 February 2019
Will we ever see Formula 1 at Sepang again? Photo:Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad revealed his hopes to revive Formula One in Malaysia after a two-year absence of the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang International Circuit (SIC), bringing newfound hope to fans around the region. But his remark has also raised doubts on whether the multi-billion dollar sport is a worthy investment for the country.

Mahathir, who was conferred for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the PETRONAS SIC Motorsports Association of Malaysia Awards on 13th February, said during his acceptance speech, “I remember my visit to Estoril in Portugal, which inspired me to have a similar track in Malaysia.

“I never thought it would bring 10,000 to 20,000 people to the track. The reception was good. Malaysians took up racing themselves and are now very well into motor racing and also the engineering behind the cars. We have gained a lot of things from the Sepang races and the money spent on the track was well worth it. I hope the races (at Sepang) will continue into the future, and I also hope Formula One will come back in all its glory.”

The final Malaysian Grand Prix was held at SIC on October 2017, after Formula 1 authorities agreed to cease its contract due to the organiser’s concerns over the eye-watering bills and low attendance figures.

sepang f1 - Sepang Formula One
Two Sauber Formula 1 cars pass before the grandstands during a practice session for the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang International Circuit in 1999. Photo:Jimin Lai/AFP)

Former Formula 1 driver, Alex Yoong thinks a few factors should be looked into before Malaysia can be ready to host the grand prix again. “I’d like to see it back, but not too soon. Firstly, I think we need to focus on building the industry of motorsport in Malaysia,” he says. “We have seen in the past that having a Formula 1 race actually detracts from that. I’d like to see it back in five to eight years time.”

Yoong, who is the first and so far only Malaysian driver to compete in Formula 1, believes the country could benefit from having more than one venue to host motorsport events in the country. “We must grow local motorsports, especially in the four-wheels category again. We need more venues for competitors and fans to come and use. In the ‘90s motorsports was very healthy in Malaysia. Outside of Japan, it was a market leader for Asia, as we had three functioning race tracks. Now we only have one.”

Another local talent, Nabil Jeffri, who was competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship for Jackie Chan DC Racing this year, thinks the reality of hosting a Formula 1 event in the country is currently out of reach. “For me, it’s a positive thing to hear of Mahathir’s wishes, but realistically I think it’s not possible because there are so many things (the government) wants to do at the moment and Formula 1 is not a priority for now,” says Nabil.

“It would be amazing to have Formula 1 back and you never know, but I’m not sure if the budget is there. Even for my racing programme this year, the budget was cut and it’s not even a big percentage compared to a Formula 1 budget. So, realistically I don’t think it’s possible at the moment.”

SIC was founded by Mahathir in 1999 and was built as a venue for Formula 1 which it hosted for 19 straight years until 2017. The circuit continues to host the MotoGP championship, a popular attraction that has garnered record-breaking ticket sales over the past few years.

While it might be too early to say it’s completely the end of an era for the Malaysian Grand Prix, South East Asia continues to be a burgeoning territory for Formula 1. The Singapore Grand Prix has signed a contract to continue hosting the popular night race until 2021, while Vietnam will be hosting its first ever Formula 1 event in Hanoi in 2020.

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