We’ll miss it, but F1 no longer needs Malaysia

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    It's sad, but not heartbreaking, for F1 to farewell Malaysia. (Source: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool)

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    After 19 years of racing in the punishingly tropical climes of Sepang, the chequered flag will fall on the Malaysian Grand Prix for the final time this Sunday.

    Over those 19 years — a tenure that ranks it among the longest-serving non-European grand prix — the Sepang International Circuit has marked itself out as a cornerstone of the Formula One calendar.

    Indeed Malaysia’s induction to the list of nations to host a Formula One grand prix is itself historic, with the likes of China in 2004, Singapore in 2008, South Korea in 2010 and India in 2011 all following in what was an aggressive push by the sport to establish itself in the fast-growing Asian region.

    Likewise is the circuit’s profile, penned by F1’s de facto in-house designer Hermann Tilke, important.

    The Sepang International Circuit was the first of the so-called Tilkedromes — entirely new racing tracks built for the primary purpose of hosting F1 races — and its success gave way to construction in Bahrain, Shanghai, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Yeongam, New Delhi, Austin and Sochi, plus street circuits in Singapore and Baku.

    Including his input in the redesign of the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico, half of this season’s calendar carries Tilke’s fingerprints.

    It is arguably the German architect’s best effort, with Malaysia often producing exciting racing around its combination of long straights, sweeping bends and technical corners.

    For this reason Formula One ought to miss the Malaysian Grand Prix. With drivers increasingly complaining about the difficulties of overtaking in the current generation of cars around the latest breed of manicured, generic racing tracks, Sepang offers a far-flung destination unconstrained by the conservativism plaguing some of its flyaway cousins.

    Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari

    (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

    Lamentable also is the loss of one of the most challenging races on the calendar. Coming two weeks after the Singapore Grand Prix, itself a credible contender for hardest grand prix of the year, the Malaysian Grand Prix, run during the heat of the mid-afternoon, under perpetual threat of monsoonal rain and in unbearable humidity, presents perhaps the sternest physical challenge of any modern F1 event.

    Formula One needs challenges like these. For years fans, pundits and drivers alike have moaned that Formula One has become pedestrian — that it is no longer the barely reachable pinnacle of motor racing — but Malaysia never lacked difficulty.

    “Here, the challenge. I mean, it sucks, the heat and everything, but it’s also really rewarding,” Daniel Ricciardo said on Thursday.

    “Last year was such a hot race and it wasn’t easy, but when I crossed the line [in first] — once I had a good race in the conditions — I felt like I really achieved something. That challenge I’ll miss.”

    But on the other hand the fading out of the Sepang race is illustrative the transition from old to new; from Bernie Ecclestone’s era to that of Chase Carey, Sean Bratches and Ross Brawn — and the Malaysian Grand Prix is in many respects an ongoing symbol of Ecclestone’s reign over Formula One.

    In truth Bernie’s expansion into Asia was not simply about capitalising on the region’s booming population; it was also a strategy to add to the calendar a host of high-paying government-backed races, bolstering the commercial right holder’s profits with dependable income.

    With little motorsport heritage, however, these countries needed new circuits, which could only be built far from their respective city centres due to scarcity of land. Convincing anyone beyond core motorsport fans to make the trek inevitably proved difficult.

    Malaysia is a prime example. The Sepang International Circuit is more than 60 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur, making the job of attracting a local audience difficult. The government continued to prop up the event, but the race proved unsustainable after 19 years of financial losses, bringing us to its cancellation this weekend.

    Such a race is incongruous with the direction of the sport’s new commercial rights holder. Today the desire is to for races to be taken to the people rather than the other way around.

    Street tracks in destination cities is the aim for calendar expansion, not only putting Formula One in markets in which it wants to be — as distinct from taking it to markets paying to be associated with Formula One — but making the sport more accessible to new audiences.

    “To be honest, I don’t know if we’re going to miss it,” Kimi Räikkönen said of the Malaysian Grand Prix this week. “It’s a nice circuit, but the only thing you see is the hotel, the airport, and the circuit.”

    This problem and its subsequent effects are ultimately what killed the Malaysian Grand Prix. Though as a sporting challenge it fit the bill, as an event it is from a different time no longer relevant to Formula One.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • Roar Pro

      September 29th 2017 @ 10:43am
      anon said | September 29th 2017 @ 10:43am | ! Report

      Most of the European tracks are in locations far from the city centre. Just about all permanent racetracks are.

      Malaysia wanted to end the contract early. It costs close to $100m to host. Australia should look hard at its contract because it loses tens of millions hosting every year too.

      The MotoGP sells out at Sepang. They get massive crowds so the location isn’t so much the issue but the quality of entertainment on offer.

      In 1999 F1 was special. These guys were gladiators.

      Even Silverstone isn’t prepared to pay the current hosting fee anymore.

      • Columnist

        September 29th 2017 @ 12:38pm
        Michael Lamonato said | September 29th 2017 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

        It’s true that most classic circuits aren’t too close to any major cities, but they all have the benefit of tapping into a significant motorsport culture. When you’re taking F1 to a country that doesn’t have a strong connection to the sport, that distance becomes more meaningful. Few people are going to travel an hour or more each way or fork out for hotels on a punt.

        Melbourne’s contract runs until 2023, and I’ll be interested to see what negotiations look like after that given it’ll be the first contract dealt by the new commercial rights holder. I still think when it comes to talking about the Australian Grand Prix critics tend to neglect how popular the sport is in most parts of the world, especially Europe, which is the target market for this advertising spend.

        Don’t underestimate Formula One in 2017. 1999 wasn’t even a particularly impressive season machinery-wise — even last year’s cars were substantially faster than their 1999 counterparts: pole was seven seconds quicker and the fastest race lap was four seconds to the good.

        Silverstone is being squeezed harder than some others as a legacy of the Ecclestone era, but it’s also one of the few purely privately funded F1 races, which puts it at a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean the fee isn’t too high or that fees generally aren’t too high, but it’s an important point relevant to the difficulties being faced by other events.

        • Roar Rookie

          September 29th 2017 @ 2:24pm
          Andrew Rickert said | September 29th 2017 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

          Melbourne’s contract runs until 2023…. [and] critics tend to neglect how popular the sport is in most parts of the world, especially Europe, which is the target market for this advertising spend.

          This is THE key point about the Melbourne race. Sure it would be nice if it turned a profit, but if it doesn’t – it’s all marketing and exposure for the city on the world stage amongst viewers who are generally more willing & able to travel.

          Plus what other city would be a serious contender? Melbourne will outbid Adelaide, while Sydney or the Gold Coast could steal it from Melbourne.

          The Gold Coast seem preoccupied with Indy.

          Baird promised to bring it to Sydney and the odd news article pops up from time-to-time, but where would they have it? Harbour Bridge, Cahill Expressway, pits in Hyde Park?? Way too much disruption. Over the ANZAC Bridge, through Glebe, Forest Lodge, with pits at the Fish Market? Not enough imagination.

          Malaysia may have left but Melbourne will be safe for the time being.

        • Roar Pro

          September 29th 2017 @ 5:00pm
          anon said | September 29th 2017 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

          In 1999 the cars were much more difficult to drive on the limit. The cars are faster in a straight line than they’ve ever been no doubt about it.

          Travelling one hour to a circuit is nothing. It takes hours to get in and out of most European circuits.

          • Columnist

            October 2nd 2017 @ 3:49am
            Michael Lamonato said | October 2nd 2017 @ 3:49am | ! Report

            I’m not sure where this more difficult to drive story comes from. Before 2017, when F1 cars had less downforce, they were deemed too easy to drive despite grip being at a premium. Now in 2017, with downforce and speed greatly increased, they’re still apparently too easy. The problem seems to be more with F1’s narrative than the cars, to be honest.

    • September 29th 2017 @ 6:46pm
      Simoc said | September 29th 2017 @ 6:46pm | ! Report

      There have been some very entertaining F1 races in Malaysia and I like the track. But it is very much a white elephant as the locals don’t go and it is apparently a fair old hike to get there.

      Melbourne is on the streets on the most boring of F1 tracks but it is great for Australian tourism. Tourists I’ve spoken to at the airport the next day are heading off on Australian adventures for a week or so. It’s always hard to evaluate costs and profits from these events. They’re pie in the sky what-ever because no-one really knows. But it is definitely good that Australia has an F1 event and an Open Tennis event. At least we’re known in the world in two major sports events.

      • Columnist

        October 2nd 2017 @ 3:52am
        Michael Lamonato said | October 2nd 2017 @ 3:52am | ! Report

        I think you’re pretty much spot on. Malaysia’s circuit will be a real loss, but F1 can live without the rest of the event, harsh though that may sound.

        Absolutely having these big-ticket events are important. Sometimes I think Australians forget that we’re relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things and also how far away we are. Keeping competitive as an international brand is important, and these sort of events play a major part in that.

    • September 30th 2017 @ 11:48am
      Daniel said | September 30th 2017 @ 11:48am | ! Report

      The reason locals dont go is Singapore has a race one week before. They all go there. I have Malaysian friends who do just that. Singapore has better night life and a casino. Sepang is in the middle of no where. Its only good thing is that is close to the airport. I love the circuit but yeh wrong place to put it.

      • Columnist

        October 2nd 2017 @ 3:54am
        Michael Lamonato said | October 2nd 2017 @ 3:54am | ! Report

        This is definitely part of the reason, but I don’t know if it’s the whole reason — after all, moving Malaysia to two weeks after Singapore only happened last season, so it doesn’t explain why attendance has been stubbornly low in previous years. Tickets are also more expensive than for other events in Malaysia, even if by F1 standards they’re extremely cheap.

        I think location counts for a lot, as you say, especially when trying to convince people to try F1 for the first time — but then MotoGP has no trouble selling out the place…

        • October 3rd 2017 @ 2:54pm
          spruce moose said | October 3rd 2017 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

          A key reason for the appallingly low attendance was that for years Malaysia was at the earlier part of the season instead of the latter end of it, which was a mistake.

          March/April is always the wettest time of the year in KL. Many qualifiers and races were ruined by the monsoon. And even when rain didn’t eventuate, it was still always a risk that it would and enough reason to keep people in KL.

          A shame. It was one of the better Tilkedromes.

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