Mokhzani – Team 1Malaysia Lotus F1

Published on September 21st, 2009

They say that the success of anything you embark on a lot depends on timing. In many ways the recent announcement of Malaysia’s plans to start up and run its own Formula One team is a case in point. When the idea of hosting the F1 race was mooted in 1996, there were also proposals to invest in a start-up F1 team. I think the decision then was to just sponsor teams and work on bringing the F1 race to Malaysia. Our involvement in Sauber via Petronas and Stewart Grand Prix via Tourism Malaysia was the outcome. By the time we had our first F1 race in 1999, you could say that Malaysians were slowly warming up to F1. The Sepang International Circuit was our infrastructure investment in F1 and, in many ways, was a boost for motor sports in Malaysia and the region.  Who would have thought we would see the world’s best drivers racing in our own backyard.

While Tourism Malaysia’s involvement in Stewart Grand Prix lasted only a year, Petronas went from strength to strength with their involvement in Sauber. Not only did the Sauber Petronas F1 Team enjoy numerous podium visits, we could also take pride in the knowledge that several Malaysians had meaningful roles to play in the organisation. I was proud to see Malaysians speak in the advertisements for the team and the Malaysian Grand Prix. It was a little sad later to see the Petronas name drop from the Sauber F1 Team name even though they remained as premium sponsor. I’m sure commercial reasons dictated all this but I’d hoped that other Malaysian companies would step into the fray and actually be a shareholder of an F1 team.

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It would seem that the timing for the Malaysian effort is now right. We have F1 till 2015 so there’s a lot more racing to see at SIC in the years to come. We’ve always been known to have great infra-facilities but not the Malaysian champions to cheer in them. While I’m not suggesting that by having our own team we’ll automatically have a champion, I do think we will have a better chance at creating one if we do. The FIA (motor sports’ governing body) has been pushing cost cutting measures for F1 in the last year or so. Talks of capping budgets were discussed but the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) shot this down. While the cap may not be there, economic realities dictate that teams must squeeze more out of their shrunken budgets. It’s a matter of survival. Rules and regulations are now written to ensure teams cannot overspend. It also means that funding alone will not determine the outcome of the championship. As proven by Brawn F1 this year, engineering ingenuity plays a key role. And as proven by Force India F1, perseverance and determination does reap benefits.

Reports in the media that running a new team would cost RM1billion a year are grossly exaggerated. There would be a cost to start-up, equip a suitable site, buy engines, get drivers and manufacture the cars. There would also be a yearly operating budget. Neither would reach the figures quoted in the press.

As for the proposed facility at Sepang International Circuit, who wouldn’t want to house an F1 team if given the chance.  It’s always been SIC’s plans to create a commercial/industrial complex to accommodate everyone involved in motor sports and the automotive industry. This would include garages, a R&D center, car and bike showrooms, tuning companies, parts warehouses, a hotel and much more. Racing teams are already talking to SIC about being based there. Our plan is to turn SIC into a real motorsports hub and commercialize motorsports. Contrary to popular belief, motorsports isn’t just about fun and games but is big business in other parts of the world. While we did embark in an effort to turn SIC into an entertainment venue, Phase 2 of our plan includes turning it into a business hub. We should exploit the facilities and events we have in Malaysia and really do something with motorsports. Let’s really participate and not just spectate.

Again, reports in the media about requiring land of 8000ha to 12000ha are widely off the mark.  By comparison, Putrajaya is about 5500ha. What is required for an F1 facility won’t take up more than 20 acres. That can easily be accommodated at SIC. What we hope to house is the R&D, manufacturing of some parts and do some testing. There must be technology transfer from Lotus to us in Malaysia. So many companies and educational institutions in Malaysia can provide engineering, manufacturing and testing facilities. I’m sure our engineers are itching to try their hand at designing an F1 car, pushing the envelope on aerodynamics, car design and so much more. All this will have positive spin-offs for our automotive industry as we will be working on the cutting edge of technology. None of this is easy but I think we can do it. After all, Malaysian talent is well known and accepted in many fields. How many Malaysian doctors are now practising in renowned clinics around the world? How many Malaysian engineers and technologists are working in leading companies outside Malaysia? Come to think of it, how many of our best minds are working outside the country. Maybe the F1 program will entice some of our best talents to excel right here, at home, now that the opportunity has been created.

In the years that we have hosted F1, we’ve always viewed the event as a marketing and promotions tool for the country. It’s been successful at doing just that but F1 is no longer exclusively ours. Currently and within the next few years, we will have F1 in Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Australia. F1 is actually moving away from it’s traditional European home ground and reaching out to a bigger global audience. So we need to do more to get people to look seriously at F1 in Malaysia. But what we also need to do is the get more Malaysians behind this F1 effort. A Malaysian driver in a Malaysian F1 car, winning the Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix is a dream we should all have. Sure, we won’t get there in the first year but we have to believe we can one day do it. After all, we’ve succeeded in so many other things before so why not F1? Maybe the combined spirit of 1Malaysia and Malaysia Boleh will see a Malaysian driver on the steps of the F1 podium before our F1 contract ends.

Team 1Malaysia Lotus F1 has all the ingredients to succeed. The Lotus name is as powerful a name as Ferrari in the racing world. Companies from around the world are talking about getting involved as sponsors and technology partners. If Malaysians need to rally behind an effort to unite our people, let’s use motor sports. I’m encouraged by YB Dato’ Shabery Cheek’s vision of industrializing motor sports and the F1 program will be a great catalysts to get things moving. I’m greatly encouraged by YAB PM’s enthusiasm for the 1Malaysia Lotus F1 team. What we need is a combination of public and private sector support to get this going and going fast. We need to hit the grid at full speed, 7th gear engaged and driving as fast as we can. Though we’ve been involved with F1 for more than a decade, we are now the new kids on the block. F1 is a ruthless sport and will take no prisoners if we don’t get our act together quickly. I’m sure we can so let’s put our backs into it, shoulders together to make Team 1Malaysia Lotus F1 another Malaysian success story.

Mokhzani Mahathir

Chairman, Sepang International Circuit

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