The creation of the Malaysian GP was a significant moment in Formula One’s history. The sport had settled into being a predominantly European racing series with just Brazil, Australia, Canada and Japan as the regular non-European events remaining during the 1990’s.
As part of a series of major infrastructure projects under Mahathir Mohamad’s government, the Sepang International Circuit was constructed between 1997 and 1999 close to Putrajaya, the then-newly founded administrative capital of the country, with the intent of hosting the Malaysian Grand Prix.
The return of Michael Schumacher
The inaugural race in 1999 saw the Malaysian GP become the first Asian Formula One event to be held outside of Japan in a new era of expansions panned by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
The event heralded the return of Michael Schumacher following his accident at the British Grand Prix where whilst leading the championship he crashed at Stowe corner breaking his leg.
Both Ferrari’s were disqualified from the race handing the championship to Mika Hakkenen although a successful appeal from the Maranello team meant the drivers’ championship was only decided in favour of the Finn later in Japan.
The Malaysian GP hosted many famous F1 moments including Kimi Raikkonen’s first win in 2003 and the infamous mutli-21 row between Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
The home of multi-21
Having secured a 1-2 for the team with Webber leading, Vettel was told to hold station but turned up his engine and passed his team mate causing an incredible frosty podium ceremony.
However over the years the event failed to maintain its appeal with the fans and a one point in 2008 the organisers suggested to the FIA they run the second night race like their neighbours in Singapore.
In the end F1 decided to run a late afternoon race at sunset which proved to be a disaster due to the late in the day rains which regularly prevailed in that region.
Despite having a contract until 2018, it was announced in April 2017 that this seasons event would be the Malaysian GP Swanson. Rising hosting fees and declining attendance were cited as the reasons for the race contract being terminated.
Organisers mistakenly thought F1 was win decline
Malaysia’s youth and sports minister at the time Khairy Jamaluddin said on Twitter: “I think we should stop hosting the F1. At least for a while. Cost too high, returns limited. When we first hosted the F1 it was a big deal. First in Asia outside Japan. Now so many venues. No first mover advantage. Not a novelty.”
The reality was that Malaysia had struggled in recent years to attract decent crowds its appeal having being damaged by the more glamorous night time event held just over 200 miles away.
The irony of the timing was that during the same year Liberty Media negotiated buying the rights to F1 and has seen its ‘novelty’ value rise exponentially. Previously less fashionable circuits now sell out within days of putting tickets on sale as well as there being a long line of new venues begging to be added to the calendar.
With the return of the prime ministership of Mahathir Mohamad in 2019 there were rumours that the Malaysian race backed by Mercedes team sponsor Petronas could be set for a return.
F1: a host of new races
“He did express his desire that one day F1 will return but we maintain that we would like to live life without formula one for at least five years from our last race in 2017,” Sepang boss Razlan Razali said.
“What I’ve heard is the last two years the situation has changed and I’m sure in the next two or three years Formula One will continue to evolve and get better in terms of racing.”
Yet a deal proved difficult to organise and Liberty Media have pressed on adding two new events in Miami, Las Vegas, Qatar and Saudi Arabia together with the return of a historic favourites in Zandvoort and Imola.
There’s pressure now on the calendar because with the eventual return of the Chinese GP the sport will hit its maximum agreed number of events with 24 each year as agreed in the most recent Concorde agreement.
Calls today for F1 return to Malaysia
This has not discourage the Sepang International Circuit owners from pressing again for a return to the F1 calendar. Tan Sri Mokhzani Mahathir who heads up the Malaysian Motorsports Association is reported today by bernama.com to be looking for sponsors for a revived F1 race in Malaysia.
“F1 is more popular now than it used to be it has a new audience following the Formula 1: Drive to survive Netflix series.”
Mahathir believes there is a new F1 audience in Malaysia and claimed that a number of the F1 drivers have supported his calls for the Sepang race to be reinstalled on the calendar.
“Its a matter of time,” Mahathir concluded though without offering any concrete evidence there are ongoing discussions with Liberty Media.
New Concorde deal for more races
That said Formula One’s CEO has called for early negotiations to begin on the next Concorde agreement with the teams despite the current agreement being signed recently in 2020.
Domenicali is believed to be ready to ask for a mandate to add up to another six events to the current schedule limited to 24. With the team’s insisting historically that at least one third of the F1 events are held in Europe.
This means with 25 races on the calendar Europe would host 9 and at 30 the number would be 10, but the next race above the current 24 must be a European event.
Up to 30 F1 races a year
Buoyed with the success of Formula One’s new venues, Domenicali went on record last year claiming, “it’s true that there is a big interest for new places – or old places! – to be part of our calendar.
“I think that with no doubt, without any kind of limitation that is correct to keep, there could be easily over 30 venues that we could do [a deal with] tomorrow, but we cannot go in this direction. “
Domenicali is up for his latest arm wrestle to persuade the teams to increase the number of allowable events each season but will indubitably have to give something in return.
Ten years ago today… 🗓️
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 12, 2023