Lack of drive in Formula One scene


It may be the best dicision by the govt to do away with F1, particularly if stakeholders do not see is as viable

“WELCOME to the most beautiful racing circuit on earth!” announced the great Murray Walker as live pictures from the 1999 Formula One (F1) Malaysian Grand Prix captivated the world for the first time on Oct 15 to Oct 17 that year.

Butterflies hit the stomach. Goosebumps. If there ever was a moment you could pick to describe sheer pride, this was definitely it.

For the whole year that preceded what was then the greatest weekend in Malaysian motor sport history, motorsports was the talk of the town.

The Ferrari pair of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, the newly-crowned world champion Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, who led the McLaren charge that year, were now closer to arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

This was the world’s first purpose-built F1 circuit. It was a crowning jewel for the country, a source of pride.

It was also a festival, it wasn’t just another world-class event and Malaysia embraced it, so much that the two youth and sports ministers then — Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who succeeded him — made it almost their personal obsession to put a Malaysian on the F1 grid.

Malaysia not only embraced F1, but also began to embrace everything that came with it — from go-kart to single-seater — so much so that in 2001, we launched the short-lived Formula Malaysia series, with Suzuki Hayabusa engined cars that formed a support race for the Malaysian GP the following two years.

Karting took on a whole new life when the sports minister announced it would be important to create talent pools through karting, as all F1 drivers came from there.

From the Formula Malaysia support race, the carrot of a spot in the German F3 series was dangled and Rizal Ashram Ramli grabbed it with open arms. On another scale, Alex Yoong’s push for a swift entry into F1 took him to Japan for Formula Nippon and then Europe.

By 2001, Malaysia had lined up Yoong as the frontrunner to the throne as Malaysia’s first F1 driver; Rizal and Nurmad Jusad were making inroads at the German F3 series, and a 19-year-old Fairuz Fauzy would make his British F3 debut.

Ng Wai Leong, the untouchable karter in his prime, threw his name into the picture when he registered the first historic milestone in Malaysian motorsports, when he won the Asian Formula 2000, known later as Formula Asia, in 2000.

The drive was evident. You could feel it in the air. F1 was the new Malaysian dream and we just couldn’t get enough of it.

So, by a turn of events and a stroke of fortune, the Minardi Asiatech team discarded Brazilian Tarso Marques for the final two races of the 2001 season and suddenly, Malaysia was there, on the grid, riding with Yoong at the start of the Italian Grand Prix.

It was electrifying, and a nation was gripped by the sight of this driver who was to start on the last row of the grid.

Every mention of Yoong, particularly from the lips of the legendary Walker, raised the roof wherever in Malaysia you watched it.

Yes, Yoong was soon to be not only the first Malaysian F1 driver, but also the most criticised. Because a nation, now eclipsed by their association with the biggest annual motorsports show on earth, began to seemingly require him to beat Schumacher or Irvine or Hakkinen — which was never going to happen — and thus, he was, in most cases unfairly, criticised.

Still, the ensuing years saw F1 welcomed with festivities and activities even two months before its arrival.

But, somewhere along the way, that drive seemed to have been dissolved, so much so that promotional activities declined in numbers and even facilities remained as they were in 1999, with a few hits taken by the Sepang Circuit, most famous of all the toilet spat in 2007.

Thinking back now, that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone took his first “potshot” by calling the decade-old Sepang Circuit “shabby” and ridiculing its dirty toilets in 2007, was the first sign that — despite it being the first of German maestro Hermann Tilke’s masterpiece circuits — it was in dire need of rejuvenation.

Drivers and MotoGP riders commended the circuit, some even calling it their favourite.

But seriously, not just the renewed interest in MotoGP, driven by the presence of Malaysians in the second and third tier series of that championship, but the evidently lacking drive to rejuvenate interest in F1 would soon seal the race’s fate.

Under such circumstances, it could have been the best decision by the government to do away with F1, particularly if the stakeholders do not see it viable, while fans would have to simply look to Singapore, Japan, China or Australia for their dose of live F1 racing.

While talent and infrastructure development pledged along with the availability of funds will be a welcome shift of focus, one cannot deny the magnitude of changes within F1, from ownership to direction, and the attraction would see it become highly desirable again.

If not, the Mexicans would have made a huge mistake by signing a long-term deal with the sport’s new owners Liberty Media, and Canada would have made a rare big mistake by extending the Canadian GP deal to 2030.