Asian motor racing

Apart from in Japan, motor racing in Asia has suffered from lack of funding and political instability although in recent years, as the Asian Tigereconomies have developed, there have been signs that Asia will become a much more important player in motorsport in the years ahead. In this respect Malaysia has lead the way with the construction of the Sepang International Circuit and the Malaysian Grand Prix, first held in 1999.

Of all the Asian countries, Malaysia had the most motor racing tradition, dating back to the days of the European colonial system when wealthy Europeans shipped cars out from Europe and competed against one another. When the colonial system was dismantled - after World War II - the newly-independent states had more important things to worry about than financing permanent racing circuits.

There were a few street races which survived like Singapore's Thomson Road, which hosted a regular "Grand Prix" right up to the early 1970s. This featured an unusual hazard for racers, sticky oil trails left on the roads from the local diesel buses.

There were similar events in Malaysia with 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 when a purpose-built facility was constructed at Batu Tiga. 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. It is also sometimes known by the name of Selangor.

There is also a permanent racing circuit at Pasir Gudang, an industrial port city near Johore Bahru - close to Singapore. This first gained international recognition with a Formula 3 race in 1989 but it was not until 1998 that the 2.4 mile track hosted a major event - a round of the FIA World Motorcycle Championship.

In the mid-1990s Malaysian president Dr. Mahathir Mohamad embarked on a series of projects designed to turn Malaysia into a fully industrialized country by the year 2020. Mahathir ordered Malaysian companies to invest in the automotive industry: the national car company Proton bought Lotus Engineering and the national oil company Petronas invested heavily in Formula 1 in partnership with the Sauber team.

The most extraordinary part of the plan was the construction of a Multimedia Super Corridorlinking Kuala Lumpur with the impressive new Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang. The corridor will include two intelligentcities designed for the 21st century with fiber optic cable networks linking all the buildings and an integrated transportation system. Out near the airport Mahathir ordered the construction of a Grand Prix standard motor racing facility - which would be a showcase for the new Malaysia. The Sepang International Circuit - which hosted the first World Championship Malaysian Grand Prix in 1999 - was a big success.

In nearby Indonesia, General Raden Suharto had similar plans to those of Dr. Mahathir. The dictator hoped to use Grand Prix racing as a means of promoting Indonesia's car industry. This was being overseen by Suharto's youngest son Hutomo Mandala Putra, who was the sole beneficiary of a controversial policy which gave his Timor Putra Nasional company tax and tariff breaks to build a national car - to be called the Timor - in partnership with Kia Motors of South Korea.

Hutomo MP also bought shareholdings in Lamborghini and the America sportscar company Vector in an effort to spread Indonesian influence around the world. He was a keen racing driver - under the name Tommy Suharto - and also chairman of the country's national automobile association. It was in this role that he oversaw the construction of the Sentul International circuit, situated to the south of Jakarta, near the town of Bogor. The track was opened with a Formula Brabham race in 1993 and received the necessary clearance to hold a Grand Prix. Indonesia was included on provisional World Championship calendars in 1995 and 1996 but the race never happened. The country became less and less keen on Suharto's regime and serious civil disorder in 1998 led to his resignation.

Other countries in the region had considered using F1 as a means of promotion. In the 1960s and early 1970s Singapore ran a regular Grand Prixon the roads in the north of the island, including along sections of the Thomson Road. The organizers even built a section of road through a forest to complete the track. Those who raced there remember an unusual hazard caused by the buses which normally ran along Thomson Road. In the course of the year they left a track of oil on the road surface - which made racing an exciting experience. The circuit eventually disappeared but in 1988 there was a feasibility study into the construction of a permanent circuit out near the airport at Changi. This never materialized.

Thailand has a permanent racing circuit near the city of Pattaya. The Bira International Circuit hosts rounds of the South East Asian Touring Car series and has extensive karting operations.

The development of motorsport in India was largely restricted to the use of the old British airbases at Bangalore, Madras, and Sholavaram, near Chennai. Various motor clubs were established and ultimately they joined forces to form the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, which was based in Madras.

Rallying proved to be easier to organize and was much more successful - notably the dramatic Himalayan Rally in the north and it was only in 1988 that work began on the construction of a proper racing circuit at Irungattukutai, outside Madras.

In 1998 two British-based businessmen began to make plans for the construction of a F1-specification track and after feasibility studies of Bangalore, Pune (near Bombay) and Delhi chose Calcutta as the best location and identified two possible sites for a track. A 500-acre site at Bantola was chosen by the West Bengal state government which established a 22-member steering committee to oversee the project. Considerable infrastructure work was included in the project.

China began planning to build a Formula 1 circuit as early as 1991, picking the city of Zhuhai - which is only 35 miles from Hong Kong. The development, which included hotels and a golf course, was shared between the Chinese government and Malaysian businessman Datuk Lim Kheng Kim of Lamdeal Investment. The 2.75-mile racing circuit was built on a 1000-acre parcel of government-owned land and in 1993 the Chinese staged their first race - for touring cars - on a street track in Zhuhai. The street races continued in 1994 and 1995 with the first event at the new Zhuhai track in 1996. This was a GT sportscar race was won by a Porsche driven by Emmanuel Collard and Ralf Kelleners. There were, however, doubts about the local infrastructure and although China was given a provisional date on the 1998 F1 calendar. it was not confirmed and work continues at the track in the hope that F1 will eventually go to China.

South Korea has also shown interest in hosting an F1 race with plans for a Grand Prix track being announced in 1998. The Sepoong Group planned to construct a 2.8-mile track in the Chollabuk-do region. The financial crises later that year put paid to that idea but in the autumn of 1999 there was a Formula 3 Korean Grand Prixon circuit laid out on the access roads of a sporting complex at Changwon City, the provincial capital of Kyongnam. The event was attended by all the major Formula 3 teams which had competed at Macau that year and was won by British driver Darran Manning.