MARCH 20, 2001

Malaysia signs race deal until 2010

THE organizers of the Malaysian Grand Prix have agreed a new deal to continue staging the event until 2010.

THE organizers of the Malaysian Grand Prix have agreed a new deal to continue staging the event until 2010. They say that they would prefer to have a date at the end of the World Championship calendar but this is thought to be unlikely as Bernie Ecclestone's deal with Indianapolis Motor Speedway is believed to include the proviso that the United States Grand Prix will be either the last or penultimate event of the year in an effort to draw more attention to the event. Given climatic restrictions there is little choice for Malaysia other than March and there is no doubt that it twins very well with Australia.

The change of date seems to have been the main reason for the lack of demand for tickets for this year's race. The organizers believe that the early date and lack of championship-deciding status have worked against the event this year and in the run up to the race cancelled local television coverage in an effort to boost the ticket sales.

The ticket sales prior to the event were very disappointing and there were reports that only 28,000 of the available 94,000 tickets had been sold, as the local populace has opted to stay at home to watch the third running of the event rather than pay out a month's salary to attend. Malaysia is one of the cheapest races for foreign visitors but a 300% increase in the price of some hotels in the Kuala Lumpur area is believed to have counteracted the enthusiasm for the event at the standard-setting Sepang facility, causing many potential visitors to think twice before flying to see the race.

The chairman of Sepang International Circuit, Tan Sri Basir told Malaysians that it as their patriotic duty to support the event.

"If Malaysians want to watch the race live they can buy a ticket and watch it here," he said. "This is not my event, it is a national event being staged in our own country. We must be patriotic and show our support so that we have a positive image throughout the world. It's like a war, there are those who watch it on TV and there are those who go out and fight."

The appeal was a success. A large number of the tickets were sold for race day and so it was agreed that the event would be put back live on the local TV stations. There were, however, still large areas of spectator space which were not filled.

The company which owns the circuit, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd, has indicated recently that it will need government assistance if it is to pay back the loans given for the construction of Sepang and the impressive KLIA airport. This is currently only operating at about 60% capacity but is still doing well. The company's debt burden is, however, the issue although it is likely that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will make sure that everything is under control. Malaysia Airport Holdings in half-owned by the Finance Ministry.

The Formula 1 race is an important element in Mahathir's long-term plans for the technological development of the country.