A HACK LOOKS BACK

Malaysian GP

This year's Malaysian GP will be the ninth in the series, though not, we are told, the last. Nevertheless, with their necks exposed to the hot breath of would-be F1 promoters in neighbouring Singapore, the Malaysians must be well aware that the region isn't capable of supporting two GPs. Malaysia and Singapore have clashed on similar issues in the past, and - given the huge losses racked up in Kuala Lumpur - my money's on Singapore if it comes down to a fight over who gets the privilege of giving Bernie the next big cheque.

Back in 1999, the Sepang circuit - built and financed by the same state-owned company which operated the nearby airport - was something new and exciting. At the time, Malaysia was only the second Asian country (after Japan) to have invested in an F1 race: guided by Formula One Management, the organisers seemed to be doing everything right. The circuit was designed by Hermann Tilke, the event had the full support of Malaysian strong man Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and the government-compliant national press was working flat out to persuade ordinary Malaysians that F1 was a sport they would enjoy.

Not everything went according to plan, of course.

First, the circuit was perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. During practice in 1999 I went out to Turn One and discovered it was a fiendishly difficult corner which tightened up on itself just as it went into reverse camber. It would have been great fun to see a gaggle of Formula Ford drivers getting it all wrong there, and I suspect that the MotoGP boys are good value, too. But F1 designers and engineers, unlike race fans, hate to see power slides and spinning wheels. As a result, the cars were set up to overcome the wiles of Herr Tilke, and they went through as if on rails, with not even a puff of tyre smoke.

Then there's the political aspect. We have to tread carefully here, because the Malaysians get a bit sensitive when anybody dares to suggest that their interpretation of democracy falls short of what most other nations understand the word to mean. Suffice to say, then, that Dr Mahathir was a lot more generous with his subsidies for Sepang than Tony Blair is ever likely to be for Silverstone, and he ensured that it was his face in the limelight. The publicity spin-off came at the glittering Thursday night party laid on in Kuala Lumpur, with a three-line whip for all the drivers and team owners to attend. The atmosphere was very tense until Dr M had been introduced in a blaze of flash guns to Mika Hakkinen, the reigning World Champion. Needless to say, the handshake picture appeared across eight columns on the front pages of all the Kuala Lumpur newspapers next morning.

Sadly, Malaysians don't appear to share their leaders' enthusiasm for F1. After a sparsely attended Friday there was a reasonable crowd in the grandstands on Saturday, and I went to join them. I estimated that no more than 20 per cent of them were locals, with the numbers made up by tourists from Europe, Australia and Japan. Although there was a decent crowd on Sunday, my very personal observation tends to contradict the circuit's claims of a full house, at least in later years. There was a reasonable turn-out of locals that first year, although most of them didn't arrive until the last minute. I suspect that many of them were expecting F1 racing to be a superior sort of demolition derby, complete with flying wheels and flaming debris.

What they got instead was the infamous Ferrari barge board scandal. Yes, the winning Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine were excluded after the race, by unanimous vote of the Stewards, for what appeared to be a clear breach of the regulations. This meant that Mika Hakkinen should have been safely home in his late season battle with Irvine for the drivers' title. But the details of the offence were so arcane, and the discrepancy (just 5mm) so seemingly insignificant, that it overshadowed the whole event.

As we know, Ferrari immediately lodged an appeal, which dampened McLaren's joy and left the title in doubt. A few days later, in Paris, Ferrari dazzled the judges of an FIA Appeals Tribunal with an ingenious interpretation of the rules and miraculously succeeded in getting its cars reinstated. The Scuderia's success hung on a technicality so obtuse that I willingly confess to being flummoxed by the details even now. I'm certainly happy that I wasn't a local Malaysian reporter trying to make sense of it all in Chinese or one of the local languages. What is the Mandarin for 'barge board,' anyway?

What a disappointment for Malaysia that the debut race should have ended so awkwardly.

As you may have gathered, your correspondent is less than enthusiastic about F1's apparent willingness to take the show to countries where the primary objective is to prettify an unattractive regime rather than to satisfy an intrinsic enthusiasm for F1 among the population. Politicians come and go, of course, even those who once seemed irreplaceable (if not immovable), and it is possible that Malaysia has already extracted as much political value from its race as it will ever get.

With Dr Mahathir now in retirement, and with Formula One Management's financial demands ratcheting up at well beyond the pace of inflation, the country's leaders don't have the same commitment to their F1 event. Officially, they are committed to the GP. But the accountants may conclude, as they have elsewhere, that the costs of their race are beginning to outweigh the benefits. Who knows what will happen?

Perhaps Malaysia will even go back to attracting tourists on the basis of the country's natural (and considerable) attractions. I hadn't even considered it as a tourist destination until I was invited to attend a presentation in London, about ten years ago, at which the Malaysian tourist office announced a sponsorship tie-up with the Stewart F1 team. It was Jackie Stewart himself, surely one of the most persuasive spokesmen that any sponsor could have, who told me what a delightful country it is.

At first, Malaysia seems to be a rather artificial mixture of races and cultures. The country's official slogan is "Unity through Diversity," which sounds like a contradiction in terms, though it works quite well in practice. There is a sort of quiet agreement that the Malays run the politics while the ethnic Chinese dominate the business world. The country is predominantly Muslim, and no doubt it is in a spirit of Islamic piety that so many young women wear the veil while out on the streets, although it is disconcerting to see that many of them also have a penchant for bottom-hugging skin-tight jeans.

So convinced was I by Jackie Stewart's sales pitch that in 2000, the second year of the Grand Prix, I persuaded my wife to join me on the trip to Malaysia. Clara, who is Colombian, is as interested in F1 racing as I am in competitive knitting. Almost all her knowledge of the sport at that time involved lurid stories about Juan Pablo Montoya, gathered from the newspapers in Medellin and filtered through the excited medium of her mother, who never misses a telecast and passes on the gossip by phone. But Clara liked what she saw in the brochures that JYS had given me, and she was very happy with the big room we had been offered in the glitzy airport hotel where most of the drivers were staying. One night I had the pleasure of presenting her, in Spanish of course, to Pedro de la Rosa.

"And what do you do?" asked Clara, who had slipped into unexpectedly regal mode, worthy of Helen Mirren.

Pedro gallantly responded that he was a driver ('piloto' in Spanish).

"Oh," she said brightly, "my brother is a pilot back in Colombia. He has his own small plane."

Understandably, Pedro decided that life was too short to untangle the confusion, and politely said he hoped she would enjoy the race.

My missus didn't go to the race, though. On Friday morning she announced she was going to take a bus trip to a place she wanted to visit down the coast, and would probably stay away for the night. I gave her the equivalent of 50 US dollars - which she said would be ample - and set off.

Over the next few days there were various messages at reception to say she was having a great time, and she didn't reappear until Tuesday. She had got on a bus, discovered a cheap place to stay in a village well off the tourist map. The only upset had been the bizarre approach to beach etiquette of local Muslim families. Why, she wondered, was it OK for the men to strip down to their Speedos while the women had to put on a head-to-foot black shroud?

No, I couldn't explain that either. Oh, and she still had change from the 50 bucks.

So take my advice. Visit Malaysia and take in a Grand Prix while you still can. It may cost you less than you expected. But hurry before it's too late.

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