KUALA LUMPUR, April 9 — When the Japanese Grand Prix comes to town, whole Japanese families will make the trip out to the Suzuka circuit near Nagoya.
There, they will bake under the 42°C heat, suck up the fumes and go deaf watching cars race around so fast you only get glimpses of them, says a Formula 1 fan named Ahmad Ikmal.
“It’s amazing, they bring food, umbrellas and just sit there like it was a picnic. I’ve never seen anything like it here in Malaysia,” says Ahmad Ikmal, who has been to Suzuka and is a regular at the Sepang International Circuit (SIC).
The cultish obsession of motorsports fans in Japan means hundreds will line up to get an autograph of Malaysian race car driver Farique Hairuman. In contrast, says Ikmal, Farique is barely known here.
The difference to how Farique is treated overseas and at home speaks of that paradoxical position that the SIC still holds in our public consciousness. That no matter how far the sport and the industries tied to it have come along, there are still critics who insist it has brought in as much for the country as what the public has put into it.
Its harshest critics
That the Sepang circuit brings in gold-plated visitors who do wonders for upmarket hoteliers and retailers is not in doubt.
But that is exactly the critics’ point — Sepang, and the type of motorsports it nurtures, is a spectacle of the elite, for the elite and which benefits only the elite.
Ironically, some of Sepang’s critics are fans and racers themselves who feel alienated by how high and sophisticated the circuit has elevated motorsports in general.
Syam Azhar is a weekend racing enthusiast who used to be a regular at the Batu Tiga speedway circuit in Shah Alam. The track was demolished in 2003 and the land was used for an upmarket residential area.
“Batu Tiga was so accessible to anyone who wanted to ‘test kereta’. You pay a very nominal sum and race all you want. It’s also very near to KL and PJ.
“Sepang is not the same. You have to drive all the way out there first and to get inside is expensive.”
Another fan, Farouk Hussein, feels that F1 could have wider appeal if the race was brought into cities like Alor Star, Ipoh or Penang and rotated every year. That way, locals could experience it first hand and the city could be promoted to foreigners.
Though motorsports in general has a respectable fan base in Malaysia, evidenced by all the street races and modified screamers you hear on the road all the time, there’s a feeling that the SIC is just not tapping into it.
Mechanic V.K. Tang explains that it’s even become affordable for the RM3,000 a month salary man to outfit a car and get into the occasional drag or drift race. It was this set that smaller tracks like Batu Tiga catered to.
“For the ordinary fan, getting into the races in Sepang is way too expensive,” says Tang, who specialises in modifying ordinary cars for racing.
It’s not just about racing cars anymore
Yet this weekend’s F1 Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix could be termed historic. Out of the 12 teams competing, three of them are being sponsored by Malaysian companies — Lotus (AirAsia), Mercedes GP (Petronas) and Renault (Proton).
Petronas Motorsports general manager Anita Azrina Abdul Aziz says that when the company decided to bring the race to Malaysia in 1999, it was more than just about pleasing Malaysian motorsport fans.
“We were bringing not just the Petronas name but also the Malaysia name internationally. Through the grand prix we bring the world to Malaysia.
“This is an event that is being watched by over 500 million viewers, with huge brand visibility for the projected brands, which is worth millions in advertising value.”
She says the company could not have achieved as much if it only stuck to sponsoring race teams.
And because Malaysia needed its own grand prix, it needed a big enough race track for it.
What is often not seen beyond the gloss and roar of F1 is that Petronas has a robust outreach programme to broaden public appeal towards the Malaysian GP and motorsports in general.
Foremost among these is the Petronas Formula One Experience, where kids in go-karting are taken and trained to be race car drivers.
There is also the F1 in schools technology competition which, Anita Azrina says, saw the participation of 29 schools including from Sabah and Sarawak.
“For a large majority of those involved in motorsports, racing is not a hobby, but is their livelihood.
“There is a whole range of industries supporting each race event. There are organisers, hospitality, advertising and promotion, technical support and logistics. As such, thousands of Malaysians are involved.”
Video killed the racing fan
So if the Malaysian Grand Prix and SIC have such a high-flying global reputation, why does it have uneven support at home? To put it another way, why has it not naturalised itself into the Malaysian landscape the way other “foreign” imports such as football, badminton and golf have?
Racing industry expert Ahmad Ikmal believes that it’s the maturity of the motorsports fan base itself.
“Our fan base started in the ‘70s when we had a few smaller tracks in Penang, Pasir Gudang and Shah Alam. In the ‘80s, rally races became the next ‘in’ thing and the small fan base shifted its attention there.”
(Ikmal has been involved in the industry for the past 12 years. He is an officer with a major international motorsports sponsor but requested that his name be changed for this article.)
Then in the mid-‘90s, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided to tap into the growing worldwide popularity of F1. Developments in broadcasting technology had widened its appeal as television stations started streaming live races into living rooms.
Like many other sports, television transformed the experience of watching F1. Multiple camera angles meant you could watch the lead cars rocket through the entire track and not miss a jaw-dropping crash.
TV made it more accessible to the casual fan who couldn’t fork out the money for a grandstand seat which, even at its best, only gives a static, glancing view of the action.
“So we had to grow another fan base in the last decade and make it attractive to come out to the track. The old fan base was not enough. Problem is, how do you get a fan base that got into the sport by watching it on TV to come to the track?”
Though it sounds clichéd, the reality is that it will take at least another generation for F1 to truly grow deep roots and be part of the Malaysian landscape.
And if the public one day decides to pull the plug on F1 and the SIC, it will also take another generation to recoup all the money and effort that been poured into it.