INTERVIEW

Yes Prime Minister: Mahathir Mohamad

Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was at Estoril to have talks with Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone about the possibility of holding a Grand Prix in Malaysia in 1999.

In an exclusive interview with F1 News Dr Mohamad confirmed that the Malaysian Grand Prix will be a reality within three years and will take place on a yet-to-be-built international-standard racing circuit planned for a site close to Kuala Lumpur's new airport.

"It is more or less agreed that we will have an event by the year 1999," the Prime Minister told us, "and so we will build a track near the new airport. We have a big piece of ground which has about 25,000 acres but we need only about 1000 acres for this project. We will build the best possible circuit that we know how to build."

There had previously been plans for a track to be built on the remote island of Langkawi, at the northern-most tip of Peninsular Malaysia, right on the border with Thailand. The local government had hoped that a Grand Prix would draw attention to the area and grab a share of the booming tourist trade in the region, emulating the success of Thailand's Phuket resort, which is only 100 miles to the north.

That project had the backing of the Sultanate of Kedah, which was to have financed the construction of the 3.75-mile circuit at Bukit Malut. The region already had the necessary infrastructure of hotels thanks to a huge arms fair in 1993 for which no fewer than 80 hotels had been built.

Representatives of the regional government visited several Grands Prix in 1994 and had talks with Ecclestone. Things began to change early in 1995 when Malaysia's national petroleum company Petronas - the full name is Petroliam Nasional Berhard - agreed a two-year sponsorship deal worth $4m with the Sauber team.

Petronas has owned all of Malaysia's oil and gas resources since 1974 but has gradually expanded to become a major player on the international oil and petrochemical markets with venture throughout Asia and the Middle East. The F1 sponsorship came about because of an aggressive new management style adopted by the company's new president Hassan Marican, who took office January 1995. He decided to transform Petronas into a multinational company aiming for overseas business to make up 30% of the revenues by the year 2005. The Sauber sponsorship was the first step in the process of raising the company's profile around the world.

In Estoril Dr Mahathir confirmed that the Malaysian government is also interesting in using its involvement in Grand Prix racing to develop the country's engineering skills.

"We have been involved in a small way in F1 for the moment but we want to get more involved," he said. "We want to look into not just the advertising part of it but also to understand the engineering involved."

The current deal between Sauber and Petronas includes a joint venture company called Sauber Engineering. When it was announced in January in Zurich the team said that it was intended that this company would "commercialize the technology made available thanks to the F1 programme".

In recent weeks it has begun to appear increasingly likely that this will mean that Sauber Engineering will soon be building its own engines. These are expected to be badged with the Petronas name. In an effort to speed up this process Petronas recently proposed buying the Yamaha V10 project. Yamaha turned down the idea. Current rumours suggest that Petronas is now talking very seriously with Brian Hart about a V10 project for 1998.

"We are studying what is there so that we can learn from racing and from the engines which they develop for racing," says Mahathir diplomatically. "There is no timescale. I think we need to upgrade our skills in engineering. We have a car industry in Malaysia but we are dependent on others at the moment. We would like to have some capability of our own."

Malaysia's national car is the Proton - manufactured by Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Berhard in a joint venture with Japan's Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. Like Petronas it is owned by the government.

In the meantime Jackie Stewart is hard at work trying to convince the Malaysians to put money into his new F1 team. He recently made a strong pitch to the Malaysian Tourist Board and we believe that he will soon announce that his cars will carry the message "Visit Malaysia". The deal is nowhere in the league of the Sauber-Petronas partnership but it proves once again that Malaysia has long-term plans to play a major role in motor sport.

Malaysia has a rich motor racing history, rooted in the days of British rule when there were street races in Johore Bahru, at Penang and on a road circuit near Kuala Lumpur named after the country's first prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahmann. This circuit was abandoned in the 1960s but a new track was built at Batu Tiga, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Owned by the Sultan of Selangor, whose palace overlooks the track, Batu Tiga's name was later changed to Shah Alam.

In the early 1980s Formula Atlantic was a visitor to the 2.1 mile circuit and, in the hope of attracting major international races, the track underwent major modification and was extended to 2.3 miles for a visit of the World Sportscar Championship in 1985. In recent years the Shah Alam circuit has hosted the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix.

Dr Mahathir's long-term policies may seem remote in an F1 world where things change every day, but there is no doubt that in the years ahead they will help Malaysia to build a strong motor racing industry. Such efforts are also being strongly supported by Marlboro, which is backing this year's Formula Asia Championship.

From little acorns do great oak trees grow...

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