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How Malaysia scuppered its motor racing future

Bryan Edwards

Let's be clear: I've lived in Malaysia, I love Malaysia, I'd like to live there again. It's a wonderful country full of absolutely lovely people (with a few crazy exceptions) and in the ten years I lived there it began to restore its fortunes as a regional leader, a position it had somehow lost in the 1980 until the mid 1990s. Amongst its crowning achievements was the astonishing Sepang circuit. But, due to a succession of errors of judgement, this amazing place managed to lose its pole position as the regional home of motor racing, surrendering without a fight to newcomer Singapore which doesn't even have a track but has a can-do, will-do attitude that seems to have completely eluded the Malaysian authorities. The reasons, it saddens me to say, are plain to see and are a mix of the neglectful and the deliberate. Things have become so bad that I'm in Malaysia but I'm not going to the race.. read on to find out why I and many...

I'm not angry, I'm sad. I'm disappointed. Giving up Formula One is like cutting the top fifty stories off the top of the Petronas Towers: it's removing an iconic aspect of the country that brings it enormous international recognition. Did it cost too much? Yes, but surely once ownership of F1 had passed to a business-minded organisation rather than the magpie that was Bernie Ecclestone (just how much is enough, Bernie?) renewed negotiations might have resulted in more affordable fees?

The Sepang circuit is an amazing track, the only track permitted to use, for a while, the term F1 in its name. Like so many circuits, the pit straight grandstand allows a view of the grid and the pits but pretty much nothing of the race. And yet, for this year's race, that grandstand is the only place on the entire circuit where it is possible to reserve a seat. Views from other grandstands allow, depending on the seat, a clear view of almost half the circuit. Yet, no matter what you pay, you can't reserve one of those seats. The Malaysian organisers have decided on what they call "free seating" - that means that if you want a good seat, you have to arrive in the very early morning but you can't leave your seat because, if you do, someone else will take it. So, no visits to the toilet, to get drinks or to buy food for, perhaps, eight hours. Given that temperatures are often in the low 30s Celsius, that is a mad decision.

More importantly, who is going to fly across the world without knowing whether your party can sit together? What's even worse is that you must pay for entry to a particular grandstand and, if you can see that another one has lots of empty seats (as often happens at the Malaysian race, hence the problems) you can't go to that grandstand. The idea worked for the old A1 Grand Prix series, a wonderful country-fair atmosphere that Sepang has tried to replicate with its village design last year - a design that was so poorly promoted that I didn't know about it until practice started on the Friday. But for F1, where tribalism is as important as the racing, and which attracts a crowd from right around the motorsport world, it simply cannot work.

This year, the organisers are pre-selling food but it's not the kind of food international F1 fans want. Worse, if recent events at Sepang are anything to go by, it will be very difficult to find and buy a beer.

Singapore is also difficult if you want to find and buy food or a beer inside the circuit cordon but the big difference is that in Singapore, one can walk out of a gate and 100 metres away be amongst dozens of good restaurants and café / bars. There are a few "pop up" restaurants within the confines of the track but they cannot meet the demand of the whole crowd.

Sepang, as a purpose built circuit, is literally miles from anywhere. If the organisers want to make their political point about what food and drinks are available within the circuit then fine but there is plenty of space outside the track, in the tarmac car parks for example, where proper restaurants could be set up for the duration of the long race weekend. I know a number of chefs in KL who would be delighted to operate there for the event - and to showcase just how good food is in Kuala Lumpur. Believe me: there are some places to eat outstanding food. But the political restrictions on the nature of food and drink that can be served would have to be removed and the Selangor State Government, in whose area Sepang is, operates very restrictive policies for some parts of the state.

Within the circuit, like race tracks of old, the food has always been disastrously bad. These days, at almost all other tracks, that is not the case. Proper, unrestricted as to food and drinks restaurants within the circuit, would hugely improve the attraction for overseas fans. Last year's idea of a handful of food trucks available post-race for the single-act concert simply won't cut it.

The Sepang track's infrastructure went through a massive maintenance scheme in time for last year's race: the fact is that buildings in the tropics start to look shabby really fast. That was completely fixed and, more importantly, a resurfaced track with flattening of the bumps into turn one, plus the re-profiling of the final turn returned Sepang to its justified position as one of the best tracks for drivers, as well as spectators, anywhere in the world. Especially important was that the work provided better drainage and a grippier surface as the track dried. The improvements were genuinely massive. But this work was done in such a low-profile way that, again, hardly any fans knew about it until right before the race weekend. And, last year, the decline in numbers continued. Some blamed this on the change of date so as to be two weeks after Singapore. This is a very poor excuse. The real reason is simple: the authorities made little or no effort to capitalise on the fact that a huge holiday crowd was literally just down the road and, after Singapore's race weekend entertainment was over, there's not much reason to stay there.

Malaysia has, right from the outset, failed to provide any proper entertainment for the F1 crowd and that is remarkably short sighted. The fact is that Singapore is, from a racing fan's point of view, pretty rubbish. You can't see anything of significance from the vast majority of the seats. In fact, last year, I watched qualifying from a gap in the fence where I had a better view than from my paid-for and allocated seat. I watched the race on TV in my hotel and strolled down to the track for the concerts. In truth, knowing from previous experience how poor the views are, I went for the music, not the race. This year, I didn't go to Singapore at all: the entertainment : it didn't have enough things I wanted to see. Singapore has become a four day music festival with a motor race thrown in for reflected glamour. In fact, a Grand Prix ticket that includes all the concerts can cost less than a ticket to see just one of the headliners on tour. It's an absolute no brainer. And it's not just concerts: major international art exhibitions have featured: Dali and Warhol amongst them, often displaying things outside their home venue for the first time.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has never managed to organise a decent last night line up, much less four days of serious players. Some years ago it had city centre EDM gigs on Saturday but they caused so much noise across the city that there were well justified complaint. Again, politics has played a big part in the failure - and it's another reason why people don't travel ; for some years, announced gigs were cancelled because the authorities delayed permits. On one particularly bad occasion, the headline band had not received authority to perform by the time they would have had to take off to get their kit into KL and set up. It's not a problem that is restricted to F1: permits for foreign entertainers are often subject to conditions and delays that performers are unwilling to accept. It's ironic that, until about ten years ago, it was Singapore that had restrictions such that there was almost no culture, ancient or modern. Now, it's opened up to a wide range of art and performing art and removed petty restrictions and it is reaping massive benefits while KL is a cultural backwater with little or no art, theatre, opera, not much classical music and very little modern music, especially international music.

Another issue is that travel to the circuit is not easy but it should be: in the past decade, the government has, without any fanfare, created one of the world's best metro-rail systems including a high-speed rail link to the airport just a couple of KM from the track's main entrance. There is also a quick train that stops in various places. For far less than the cost of some of the vanity projects that are soaking up e.g. 1MDB funds in central KL, the government could have provided a rail spur to the track. This, if it had run from early morning to after the close of entertainment, would have made it possible to run entertainment events at the circuit, especially if there were proper food and drinks available as noted above. Better still, the track could have been used as regular entertainment hub, taking concerts that are run in residential parts of town out into what is, for most of the year, a large empty region: the only difficulty there is that KL and Selangor, where the track is, have very different views on what is acceptable entertainment.

There has been no attempt to think who the customers are and what their requirements might be. Instead, the Grand Prix with the cheapest ticket prices on the calendar, has empty seats. KL and the surrounding area, which could have ten days in which those who had left Singapore went north and spent holiday money in both the city and the countryside, islands and beaches, is, on this long weekend, deserted. The restaurants and bars that should be full of F1 fans waiting for next weekend do not have augmented crowds. There are no concerts to go to because the organisers, the publicity said when I last looked a couple of weeks ago, have organised only one event : on the night of the race, there will be the final of a local talent competition that no one I know watches on TV.

And so, with the running of the 19th Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix, it's goodnight and goodbye Malaysia. That would be bad enough, but it's not the only reason world class motor racing in the country, except for MotoGP, has pretty much died.

In 2015, Kuala Lumpur City Council authorised a street race. Unlike Singapore, it ran through the city centre, not through a park. The caf&eacutes, bars and restaurants were literally track-side. There were many vantage points. There were some grandstands but the booking system was a nightmare and fans soon found out that they could in fact walk right around the track and find vantage points where they could see at least as much, if not more, than from the grandstands - and they didn't need a ticket. There were several classes of international racing including a test / demo by a handful of the mighty Aussie V8 series. A tiny number of people moaned that they suffered inconvenience while the track was built but, in all honesty, there was little or no real problems: they were just moaning because they wanted to moan. For thousands of people, there was a wonderful weekend where politics didn't disrupt enjoyment. True, the musical entertainment was dire but that was probably because the organisers didn't realise that the event would attract an international audience.

But, and the reasons for this have never been made clear, some kind of dispute arose as to who would run the event in the following year. Aussie V8 said it would sign a contract when it was sure that the contracting party had authority to run the event. KL City Council failed to address the issue and it is almost certain now that the city race, which from a fans' perspective was far superior to a race around Marina Bay in Singapore, will ever return.

It's tragic. And sadly one more reason to visit Malaysia will come to and end next week. Me? I'm already "in country," but I'll not be at the track. I like a beer and good food with my racing and I don't want to have to gamble on whether I'll get a decent seat nor struggle to get there and back if, as it has every time I go, the monsoon comes just as I'm leaving the track. I'll join a bunch of mates in a pal's city centre flat with a big screen and a loud sound system and we'll eat and drink whatever we want. You'll be able to see us: the F1 telly-heli always flies by the window during the scene setting.

Unless, of course, one of the teams invites me to join them :)

For Malaysia, and for all the businesses that could have made a serious contribution to their annual bottom line had it been managed properly, I am sorry. You are almost my favourite place in the whole world and you had a wonderful opportunity but it has been squandered.