Top Stories from the News pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 16, 1999

With Formula One, Malaysia Enters the Fast Lane

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
First to arrive were the six jumbo jets carrying precious cargo: the million-dollar cars, stacks of tires and digital television equipment. Then, one by one, the big names landed: Hakkinen, Schumacher, Coulthard, Irvine, Frentzen.

The cast and props are now all in place in Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday. And while the expected 350 million television viewers might see the event as just 56 laps around a ring of black road, the race is a milestone for Malaysia, for Formula One and for the Asian sports industry.

Malaysia will become the first country in Asia outside Japan to join the prestigious Formula One circuit. For Malaysia, a successful race will be proof that a developing country can stage a major international motor-racing event as competently -- or better -- than the big boys in Europe.

For Formula One, the race Sunday is a test case that may decide the direction of the sport. Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's chief executive, has indicated that the Malaysian Grand Prix may be just the beginning of other races in Asia, where countries are willing to bend over backward to attract the millions of dollars that the sport can pump into an economy.

The region's trump card over Europe is clear, as Asia is relatively free of the obstacles that frustrate Formula One organizers in traditional markets: threats to ban tobacco advertising, limits on noise and red tape.

Formula One organizers have had nothing but praise for the new dollars 100 million track and facilities that Malaysia built.

''The crews say they have never worked in conditions like this,'' a Formula One official said this week amid hurried preparations for the race. ''They've never had this much room. Their first impressions are very positive.''

It is perhaps ironic that Formula One's foray into Southeast Asia is taking place in a country with no strong motor-racing culture. But that is not really the point.

Formula One is in Malaysia mostly because the government made all the right moves to lure race organizers, building first a major airport and then the state-of-the-art track a few kilometers away.

The result is that Malaysia will be the first new country to hold a race since Hungary in 1986.

The Malaysian Grand Prix is the brainchild of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who is clearly pleased to have lured Formula One.

''Motor sports will help to put us on the world map and attract commerce and tourists to Malaysia,'' Mr. Mahathir said Thursday at a motor sports exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.

Indeed, a recent study commissioned by the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, indicated that nearly dollars 500 million is spent each year by spectators visiting the 10 or 11 races in Europe.

The Malaysian government made its first move into car racing in 1995, when the national oil company, Petroliam Nasional, or Petronas, took up sponsorship of the Sauber Formula One team.

A year later, Malaysia became the first government to sponsor a Formula One team in a 41-million ringgit (dollars 10.7-million), two-year deal with Jackie Stewart's new team. The sponsorship, which was canceled after a year because of the regional economic crisis, included a ''Visit Malaysia'' logo on the team car.

But before the crisis set in, Malaysia had struck a deal with Formula One to hold a race in Asia and then came out on top against several other Asian rival countries.

China was to have been the site of the race and was on the 1999 schedule until it was removed because of logistical problems experienced by the organizers.

Other countries that bid for the race at the same time as Malaysia were Singapore and Indonesia. India, too, has recently shown interest, as has South Korea.

Mr. Mahathir appointed Basir Ismail, the chairman of Malaysia Airports, to carry out the negotiations.

At Mr. Ecclestone's suggestion, Mr. Basir signed up Tilke GmbH, a German company, to design and build the track.

The 5.5-kilometer (3.4-mile) circuit, which features 15 turns and 8 straightaways, is the world's widest, at an average of 16 meters (52 feet) across.

That design, race organizers say, promises an exciting race with constant passing.

Some 70 percent of the track is visible to spectators in what is the sport's longest grandstand, a double-frontage structure seating 30,000.

The grandstand's large roof canopies were designed to block out the tropical sun.

Malaysia's climate may pose an added challenge for drivers on Sunday. Mika Hakkinen of the McLaren team, who visited the track in March, said the cars would suffer more than in Europe and be more susceptible to breakdowns.

Also a challenge will be the daily rains.

Races in Europe are rarely stopped for the rain, but, said Hermann Tilke, the track designer, ''if a monsoon comes, the race has to stop.''

While the weather is out of their control, race organizers say they have solved one potential problem: attendance.

Organizers had worried that the race could face the same woes as a Grand Prix motorcycle event staged by Malaysia in April. Crowd turnout was poor, and the series will not return next year.

To prevent those problems, Mr. Ecclestone installed a Frenchman with Formula One experience, Philippe Gurdjian, to promote the event.

Mr. Mahathir, for his part, has been marketing the product locally. This week was declared National Motor Sports Week in Malaysia.

While there appeared to be relatively few spectators in the grandstands during practice sessions Friday, organizers say they have sold 65,000 tickets and are expecting crowds of 80,000 to 100,000 on race day.

If the weather holds up, the fans may be in for a good show since Sunday's race could decide who wins this year's Formula One championship.

While it did not rain during the Friday practice sessions, the sky was cloudy and the track was wet for at least half of the two one-hour sessions.

Jacques Villeneuve set the fastest time in practice. ''It's a very simple track to drive on,'' he said. ''It's fun.''

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