News and views on motorsports

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Haves And Have Nots

When we first brought Formula One to Malaysia, we had only karting and Formula One in our country -- Sepang Chairman.

This headline of and this one on PlanetF1 I'm sure would have caused a few raised eyebrows in Malaysia.

No arguments with our former prime minister's son. Malaysia has benefited from hosting a Formula 1 event every year since 1999. I know quite a few retail people for whom the Formula 1 weekend is an absolute make or break time during the year. With lots of foreign cash flowing in, retail outlets stand to make a killing during this time. Not to mention, hotel, lodging and tour operators as well. Plus, knowing that a can of Coke goes for 50p or more (RM 3.50) in the UK, you can squeeze those Mat Sallehs for some good dosh if you were fortunate enough to be selling refreshments during race weekends.

As a Formula 1 fan of more than twenty years, I can't help but feel very fortunate and thrilled that a race is held in my backyard every year. As I was growing up, it was always a dream of mine to see one held here. And its largely fulfilled. Although I never watched Senna race and despite the fact that Sepang is designed by a complete moron, nevertheless I'm quite chuffed by it all.

Those of you who read this Blog regularly would know that something's up. And you'd be right. Sepang's chairman had this to add: "If you look at the kind of facilities that we have in Sepang, they have put us on the world map and it has helped us develop a local motorsport industry." Really? Interesting, very interesting. I'd really like to ask the Malaysian racing teams, in what form did this development take place? According to Sepang's chairman: "We have seen a massive growth in local championships, with series such as Formula BMW Asia. When we first brought Formula One to Malaysia, we had only karting and Formula One in our country."

I think a lot of Malaysian racing teams beg to differ. When Formula 1 first ran in 1999, there was a lot more than just karting in the country. Does the Sepang chairman forget that there was a strong Proton championship being held at the time? Did he not know that races, even though they were amatuer events, were being held regularly at the former Shah Alam circuit and even more so at the Johor Pasir Gudang racing circuits? Surely he must remember that the Merdeka Mellenium Endurance race evolved from the all Proton Merdeka race?

I see their point of view now. As you may know, Formula BMW and Karting in Malaysia are the sport of the rich. Look at the competitors in these events and you'd quickly realise they are either rich on their own merit, or are the sons of well connected, affluent Malaysians. Most of these lads are talentless but they have cash.

Of course, one may argue that motorsport takes up a lot of dosh and talent amounts to the square root of bugger all if you don't have it but does it necessarily have to be the case all the time? The Sepang chairman cites the case of our Alex Yoong, recently rated 0 out of 10 in PlanetF1. Here was a well connected individual who somehow managed to reach the pinnacle of motor racing. And failed, miserably and is now quite unheard of and perhaps best kept so. And yet, I know of many Malaysians, who had bags of talent but simply did not know the right crony or businessman to finance themselves. I argue that for every one of these talented individuals that I know of, there has to be another 100 others hidden somewhere in Malaysia, destined never to receive their chances because they do not have the "right parents." Of those talented individuals that I know of, I would say they could all take on Alex Yoong and blow his doors off.

Maybe I take the Sepang chairman's words wrongly, but it would seem that recognition is given only to the Haves and the championships that they run in. Formula BMW is supposed to be the glamorous stepping stone to single seater glory but to a vast majority of Malaysians, it is completely irrelevant. The average Malaysian doesn't get to drive single seaters of that sort and does not identify with the rich kids who do get to drive them. They are just left forgotten and are mere annoyances I suppose to the people in Sepang.

Because of this lack of identification with the drivers, the average Malaysian largely ignores them. It is ironic that when the Super Series races are held in Malaysia, the grandstands in Sepang are woefully empty. Ever wonder why there are no pictures of crowds attending these races? Because there are no crowds to speak of. If you wanted a serene and relaxing time, come to Sepang. The grandstands are as clear as the Scottish highlands. Oh, just noisy every couple of minutes or so.

The Merdeka Millenium Endurance Race is another example. In previous years when the vast majority of entrants ran Protons, there were enormous crowd support. That's because the blokes that usually run in Protons are your average Malaysian. They in turn attract their friends, friends of friends, family, friends of family, fiances, in laws and practically the entire village to come out and see them compete. Again, the point is whether or not the crowd identifies with the competitors.

Nowadays with the rule changes, the race attracts a lot of foreign entrants and of course the Porsche driving businessmen, but the crowds simply find these people irrelevant. And so, as I watched the 2003 MME, I was simply confounded that the premier racing event in Malaysia failed to attract anyone at all. You'll find more people attending the Saturday night Drag Battle at Sepang than at the MME or a Formula BMW race for that matter.

The point here is if you can't attract the crowds then how are you going to attract the big name sponsors who are just interested in big crowds? If you don't attract sponsors, how will it make it worth the while of the talented but averaged income Malaysian to make themselves known and compete? And what about the Malaysian teams? Without sponsorship how would they compete against foreign teams. Motorsport development should not just be about drivers. Local motorsport expertise should be developed as well. And I'm not just speaking of some select few engineers in Petronas getting posted to Sauber. If one looks at Hong Kong for instance, because of the support they get from crowds and sponsors, their local teams get enormous benefits and are able to develop their own technologies and expertise. Some Japan GT teams evolved from illegal street racing to become top teams in one of Japan's premier motorsport category. This wouldn't have come about had they not received the grass roots support from the crowd and sponsors over the years. Now isn't that real motorsport development?

A whole motorsport eco system needs to be developed starting from the very bottom and encompassing drivers, teams, sponsors and support from the crowds. As it stands in Malaysia, that eco system is either non existent or is very weak. To say that the introduction of Formula BMW is a motorsport development for the country is ludicrous. Formula 3 and Touring Cars are the top categories in the UK but below them are sustained and thriving championships that feed into these categories. From racing old Porsche 924s, E30 BMWs, Minis, Citroen 2CVs to Formula Ford and Formula Vauxhall. All of them enjoy the support of crowds and sponsors. All of them involve teams and competitors developing their own expertise to be the best and be the next Adrian Reynards, David Richards, Ron Dennis and Mika Hakkinens. Anyone observing championships run in the UK will note that the vast majority of them are budget racing categories aimed not at the super rich but at those who are trying to make it. Hell, I've even had a few friends racing old BMWs and Porsches for an entire summer in the UK spending less than 3000 sterling a year! That's cheaper than racing karts for a season I think. These categories are aimed at seperating the geniuses from the merely talented and the hopeless. But this I think is something the establishment in Malaysia fail to see.

If everything is biased towards the rich select few, the really talented get missed out. I see a lot of individuals with petrol running in their veins but without money to burn simply walk away never to be seen again. It is a sad state. In frustration, a lot of kids who've got speed in their blood end up endangering their lives and worse still the lives of others on the roads on weekends because they'll never get a shot at proper racing. As it stands, the powers that be simply doesn't care. To them motorsport development is simply development of the rich man's racing. I hope he proves me wrong someday but I'm not holding my breath.

If only the establishment would simply open their eyes to an entire class of forgotten talent, then the racing industry of this country would really have a chance to flourish. Quite rightly, the Sepang chairman points out, we have superb infrastructure. So where is the industry to use such great facilites? Forget about pampering the rich, they can fend for themselves. It is the financially challenged talent that needs your help Mr Chairman of Sepang, sir. They do deserve consideration and not merely something to ignore or forget. If you do this, you'll quickly find that a whole phenomenon waiting to happen, recalling the glory days of the 70s and early 80s when motorsports were actually big in this country. Those massive crowds waiting to cheer on their heros, people they know and identify with, are going to quickly fill up those empty grandstands of yours and in turn make your circuit and the government a helluva lot of cash. In turn, you'll create a sport that brings out the best. Peopl who will make this country proud at the world stage. Then, we wouldn't have to apologize for another embarassment in the world's premier racing series.

1 comment:

Zeid Alqadri said...

true.. true..