Celebrating 20 glorious years of Malaysian GP

Published on September 14th, 2010

Long before Formula 1 came to its shores – in 1991 to be exact – Malaysia had already adopted the strategy of promoting itself in the international arena through motorsports. The World Motorcycle Grand Prix – the world’s biggest motorcycling event and now officially known as MotoGP – found a new home in Malaysia with the old Batu Tiga Circuit in Shah Alam in 1991.

Saying his prayers on the eve of the 20th edition of the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix this year, Sepang International Circuit (SIC) Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Razlan Ahmad Razali said that his biggest wish is for the world class event to continue to be staged in Malaysia for the next 20 years and beyond.

“I can only say that the impact that the Malaysian GP had has been immense … from the youths to the seniors,” said Razlan, who took over the executive leadership of SIC on October 5, 2008 – two weeks before the 18th edition of the Malaysian GP; but successfully steering it to another showcase event.

“Imagine those fans worldwide that had followed MotoGP for the last 20 years in Malaysia. Imagine the thousands of foreign tourists that had come to Malaysia for the last 20 years to catch this fantastic event; spending their money on everything from flights to hotels, food, transport and entertainment,” he said.

On the average, the Malaysian GP attracts between 35,000 to 40,000 spectators on Race Day annually with some 30 percent of them coming foreigners especially from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. Last year at the 19th edition of Malaysian GP and in Razlan’s second year in charge, the event recorded its highest Race Day attendance of 59,206 fans; spurring determination in the young CEO to deliver an even bigger event this year.

Razlan added: “You can also see the impact it had for the sports itself … we can see more National Championships develop due to the spin off interests of the Malaysian GP … championships such as the PETRONAS Malaysian Cub Prix Championship and the Asia Road Racing Championship had grown from strength to strength.

“The Malaysian Super Series (MSS) is also relatively now well known amongst the race fraternity in Malaysia and our neighbouring countries especially Singapore. We saw a few Malaysians venturing into the world championships itself whether as a wild card or full seasons.

“If not the world championship, Malaysians are very active in the region, producing Asian champions. I firmly believe that it was the Malaysian GP creating that interest and hence spurring the progress of Malaysian motorsports further especially in the two wheels,” said Razlan – the man who spearheaded the hugely successful GP Wildcard Programme last year.

Sepang, which first hosted the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1999, will host the 20th edition of the Malaysian GP and the 15th leg of an 18-round MotoGP world championship this season from October 8 to 10. Batu Tiga Circuit in Shah Alam hosted the first seven races before Johor Circuit in Pasir Gudang took over the duties in 1998.

Like many other Malaysian motorsports enthusiasts, the 38-year old Razlan, who ran Pineapple Motorsports and Pineapple Concerts before taking up the SIC job offer, missed the old Batu Tiga track, which had given way to commercial development.

“I heard a lot of good stories and it is sad to lose a track such as Batu Tiga. Until now, even the people in the MotoGP paddock are still talking about it. They remember it well because there were many world champions that raced in Batu Tiga … world champions such as Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi all raced in Batu Tiga and subsequently became world champion.”

“I only managed to use the Shah Alam track for about a year before it was closed for redevelopment and my biggest memories of Shah Alam track would be a personal one in which this was the track that I started racing on.”

“I managed to get my knee on the tarmac for the first time and it is something that I will remember. It is a great feeling to be able to do that after watching the professionals do it. So to be able to do just that then is something to remember by,” said Razlan, who actually put racing skills to test in the MSS for a season before deciding to hang his racing gloves and turned into managing riders under Pineapple Motorsports.

“I always love bikes but my parents are always against it. It was only until year 2000 that I managed to buy my first superbike and followed MotoGP closely as a fan. I started riding on both the Batu Tiga and Sepang Circuit in the same year and was totally fixated and addicted to bike racing and track days.

He added: “Unfortunately, I was not there in Shah Alam for the first Malaysian GP in 1991. But, I’m pretty sure at that time, MotoGP – being one of the first international event to reach our shores – was full of thrills, excitement and entertainment,” said Razlan, who was then studying in Australia.

Promoted by Selangor State Government, Malaysia hosted the final race of the season in 1991 with American Wayne Rainey coming to the Lucky Strike Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix with the premier 500cc world crown already in the bag.

The American, however, did not get to race on that historical September 29; having injured himself during free practice. Compatriot Kevin Schwantz was equally unfortunate as the Suzuki rider, whom had already secured third placing in the world standings, had also injured himself in training; putting Australian Mick Doohan as firm favourite to be crowned as the first Malaysian GP winner in the 500cc class.

Doohan, however, had tyre problems in the race; opening the path for another American John Kocinski to win that final race of the 1991 season with Wayne Gardner of Australia finishing second and Doohan taking third place. Malaysian GP’s first 125cc race was won by Italian Loris Capirossi and another Italian Luca Cadalora taking first place in 250cc.

For Capirossi, the victory was the start of a strong love affair with the Malaysian GP; as he went on to win the two other classes as well – the 250cc crown in 1999 in Sepang and the MotoGP crown in 2005. Only one other rider managed a similar achievement – Casey Stoner.

The Australian feat, however, was even more sensational as he won the three classes with three different machines – the 125cc race in 2004 on a KTM; the 250cc race in 2005 on an Aprilia machine and twice winning the MotoGP crown in 2007 and 2009 on a Ducati. Capirossi won the 125cc and 250cc with a Honda and a Ducati for the MotoGP class.

Despite boasting with four Malaysian GP crowns, Stoner is not the most successful rider at the Malaysian GP. That honour goes to none other than the legendary Valentino Rossi, who has five Malaysian GP titles to date including one won in 1997 for the 125cc class at Batu Tiga Circuit in Shah Alam.

Shah Alam hosted the first seven editions of the Malaysian GPs; which had Doohan’s name as the 500cc winner on four occasions. After his disappointing third in the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix, the five-time world champion was in unbeatable form in 1992 as he swept aside his rivals. Doohan went on to win again in Shah Alam in 1994, 1995 and 1997.

For Razlan, Doohan has always been his favourite.

“I was studying in Australia and Mick Doohan is a household name there. Doohan seems unstoppable … somewhat similar to Valentino Rossi,” Razlan said as he heaped praises in the superb qualities and professional approach that the pivotal strength of the five-time 500cc world champion.

“If you ask me about the current riders, Rossi is my favourite. I love his determination and especially his very colorful character. It seems that MotoGP is where it is at because of Valentino. I can’t imagine what MotoGP would be like when one day he retires.”

“A guy like Valentino only comes around once in 20 years or so. It is difficult to find someone who is so skillful, yet a master of originality when it comes to antics in the paddock,” said Razlan, who believes that having local riders in the MotoGP would be the key in filling the circuit for the Malaysian GP races.

“To me, it’s much more important to have a Malaysian rider than a Malaysian team with foreign riders. Why? It’s just is. It is more meaningful and emotional to support the local boy than a team. In fact, if a Malaysian rides for a foreign team, I personally believe that support from the locals would be just as great.”

In the 62 years of the MotoGP, Malaysia has had three teams including the current 125cc AirAsia Sepang International Circuit Racing (AASIC) which has Banting-born Muhammad Zulfahmi Khairuddin and Norwegian Sturla Fagerhaug as the riders.

The first was the Proton KR Modenas Racing Team, which as reflected by the name had Proton, Modenas and the legendary Kenny Roberts as prime movers for the 500cc team. It did not have any Malaysia as among its riders; but in its participation from 1991 to 2001, the team had seasoned riders with the likes of Kenny Roberts Jr, Jeremy McWilliams, Jean Michael Bayle and Nobuatsu Aoki among its pilots.

The other was a full-fledged Malaysian team – the PETRONAS Yamaha Sprinta Team TVK, which competed in three full seasons in the 250cc class with a young lady named Janey Looi as team manager and Teluk Intan-born Shahrol Yuzy Ahmad Zaini as its lead rider. Competed from 2000 to 2002, Yuzy had Japanese Naoki Matsudo as his partner in his first two seasons before his place was taken over by Sebastian Porto of Argentina in 2002.

“It was a pity that Yuzy only had three seasons … he has the potential to do better. Unfortunately the team disbanded at a time when he was progressing. However, he did have the opportunity and was offered a ride in the 125cc but he thought it was more of a demotion.”

“If only back then he took up the offer and prove to all of his talent and potential, he could be somewhere,” said Razlan, who hoped that Yuzy’s protégé Muhammad Zulfahmi Khairuddin – a former cub prix rider with Team Yuzy Modenas Racing Team – would be making an even bigger impact than Yuzy.

“I truly admire this boy. For him to perform what he did this year is something all Malaysians should admire. With essentially no international experience, he has done remarkably well. I received many positive feedbacks from the international community who thought that Fahmi will struggle in his first year.

“All of the riders in his category have at least two years riding in international championships in the 125cc. Fahmi has none; but has already scored three world championship points. He definitely still needs to be guided; and we are taking care of him,” Razlan said, adding that if budget permits, he would be working on having a second rider to team up with Fahmi.

“I agree with Fahmi that a Malaysian team-mate will help him to improve further … he’s staying in Italy all by himself and still learning to speak the foreign language of Spanish and Italian. Having another Malaysian will not only help Fahmi; but the other young rider as well,” he said.

A product of last year’s GP Wildcard Programme, which was brokered by Razlan and supported by AirAsia, Youth and Sports Ministry, Two Wheels Motor Racing, PETRONAS, Dunlop, Motorsports Association of Malaysia, Moto Millia and Malaysia’s governing body for motorsports – the Automobile Association of Malaysia, Fahmi’s commendable performance at the 2009 Malaysian GP caught the interest of the supporting Ongetta Racing Team.

The Italian racing outfit offered Zulfahmi to compete in the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix, which the Malaysian lad, unfortunately, crashed out as he pushed his Aprilia bike beyond its limits. Impressed with his dedication and skills, the team offered a seat for Zulfahmi to compete in a full championship this season via the establishment of the AASIC Racing Team.

Razlan said: “I have been trying to get our boys in the world championship few years before I accepted the job in SIC without much success. SIC then was not active enough to pursue it. After my first Malaysian GP in 2008, I made a point that we need to place a Malaysian in the wild card at least.”

“I got few people together who shares the same belief with me such as Mia Shahrizman, the former CEO of MAM; Ron Hogg of Two Wheels Motor Racing; Malique Razak formerly from Aprilia and partners such as PETRONAS, Yamaha and AirAsia to make it work.”

“We had a dream, not an impossible one and we did it. Not only we manage to put one Malaysian rider; but two and both did exceptionally well at the Malaysian GP last year,” Razlan said as he showered praises on Elly Idzlianizar Ilias and Fahmi, who finished the 125cc race in 16th and 20th place respectively.

That definitely marked the start of a new beginning for Malaysian GP, which Razlan firmly believes would now jumpstart another revolution in Malaysian motorsports especially in the drive to produce world class riders. In the GP Wildcard Programme, Razlan believes that Malaysia had found the formula for success.

“I think the formula that we have now works best… we’re still fine tuning it to have a concrete five to seven years’ plan. Companies such as AirAsia are extremely happy with their involvements and the returns from their investments justified it.”

“From a sponsor to the two wild card riders, AirAsia had ventured further to be the title sponsor for the British Grand Prix this and they are co-sponsoring with SIC in the Air Asia-Sepang International Circuit 125cc team.”

“In a short period of time, Air Asia became very active and dominant compared to companies who were involved in the two wheels sport for more than 10 years. AirAsia believed in what we are trying to do, they are confident and together we made it work. I hope to attract more companies including the existing ones to participate for 2011.”

For 2011, the SIC CEO has already had a plan in place – the second phase of the GP Wildcard Programme. This time around, however, on a more challenging 600cc Moto2 class – the second tier of the MotoGP world championship.

Incorporating it with SIC’s MSS Supersports Championship, the programme is offering the top three finishers of this season’s championship a seat in the final list of contenders for the single wildcard ticket at the 2011 Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix.

“It’s going to be very exciting. We have a very talented group of riders in this year’s Supersports Championship and I am confident we can do well. The Moto2 class is new; but already proving to be very exciting… this is definitely one category that many professional Malaysian riders would like to have a go,” Razlan added.

words & pix: SIC

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