Why the final Malaysian Grand Prix signals the end of an era for Formula 1

The sun setting at Sepang Circuit

This weekend the 19th and final Malaysian Grand Prix took place.

The first Malaysian Grand Prix was in 1999. It was the first new circuit to be added to the calendar since I started watching Formula 1 in 1996. The Sepang circuit set the template for what Formula 1 would become.

Sepang International Circuit Grandstand Tower 2016 Malaysian GP

On its opening, it was a state-of-the-art complex designed specifically for Formula 1 and nothing else. There had never been anything quite like it before. Fans became used to journalists waxing lyrical about the magnificent facilities of the place.

Almost every F1 circuit that has been built since has placed a heavy emphasis on the quality of the paddock facilities. Less attention has been paid to the racing spectacle that is only enjoyed by the great unwashed watching on TV.

This trend reached its nadir with the Valenica Street Circuit, a track that seemed to be tailor-made to create the worst racing imaginable. Ron Dennis said he was “ashamed to be English” because its facilities were so great.

I think of Sepang as the first modern Formula 1 circuit. It was the first to be designed in full by Hermann Tilke, the person who has designed almost every new circuit since (including the diabolical Valencia Street Circuit mentioned above). His circuit designs have always been controversial, and there has long been scepticism over whether his approach truly encourages better racing.

I remember the same scepticism being raised about Sepang in its early days. But over the following decades the circuit grew into its skin and it got a few classic races under its belt. Now it is seen as one of Tilke’s finest designs.

Lewis Hamilton engine failure 2016 Malaysian GP 1

The addition of the Malaysia was also Formula 1’s first step into new Asian territory. Japan has been a historic feature of F1 calendars. But as the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions have developed economically, new grands prix in those territories have emerged.

Bahrain, China, Turkey, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, South Korea, India and Russia have followed where Malaysia pioneered — with varying degrees of success.

Some fans have bemoaned the reduction in the number of traditional European races to make way for these new venues. I don’t begrudge new countries wanting to be part of the F1 calendar. Formula 1 is a world championship, and it should embrace new opportunities globally — as long as they are the right ones.

Many of the new races were merely vanity projects for (sometimes authoritarian) governments. These circuits were placed in areas that did not have a big motorsport fanbase. It is soul-destroying to see empty grandstands on TV when popular races lacking government subsidies, are constantly placed under threat.

Malaysia never seemed to have much of a problem filling the grandstands. So for Sepang to drop out of hosting an F1 race may signal the end of an era. The sport is in a period of transition. Bernie Ecclestone’s old model is slowly crumbling. Its new owners are feeling their way around what the future of F1 should look like.

It has become clear over the past few years that the promoters of the Malaysian Grand Prix have fallen out of love with hosting an F1 race. Running an F1 race is an increasingly costly pursuit. The powers that be in Malaysia have firmly decided that the cost-benefit equation does not work in their favour.

2 comments

  1. Malaysia didn’t have an audience problem… …until the powers-that-be moved the race to be back-to-back with Singapore last year, to make the race lose less money each year. This year primarily got audience because it was known well in advance that it was the last running of the race.

    It did, however, always have a revenue problem. It had by far the cheapest tickets in F1, simply because the organisers knew that the crowds couldn’t afford to pay the usual rates. Even then, people couldn’t afford the hotel and travel fees, so many bought 3-day tickets knowing they’d only use the Sunday portion. From what I hear of racegoers, this itself a problem this year because Malaysia has rarely, if ever, had so many people show up for Friday practise or qualifying before, even in the early 2000s when audience peaked, resulting in 1990s-Silverstone-style traffic chaos. As such, Malaysia lost huge amounts of money. With a fresh recession coming, Malaysia is having to tighten its belt – reluctantly, because it still believes the multiplier effect is worth it in the long run – but for the moment, F1’s “upfront fee” is too expensive. (Contrast Silverstone, where there is no particular benefit to the multiplier effect, making that a question of the fee not working on any level).

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