Back-to-back Malaysia and Singapore GPs proposed
If Sepang International Circuit (SIC) chief executive officer Razlan Razali has his way, the Malaysian and Singapore Formula 1 races next year will be scheduled one after the other.
In town for a short visit, he sat down with The New Paper yesterday at the Grand Hyatt for a chat, ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix on March 29.
This will the final race of the Malaysian GP under the current contract and, while renewal talks with F1 surpremo Bernie Ecclestone are still ongoing, Razlan is hopeful there will be an announcement of an extension soon.
"We're not there yet but, before the 2015 Malaysian GP, we hope we can announce an extension," said Razlan.
After 17 years of hosting a Grand Prix at Sepang (right), he conceded there was a "10 per cent chance" the deal might not go through, but was confident the race would go on.
Traditionally, the Malaysian GP is scheduled early in the season.
This year, the season kicks off in Melbourne this weekend, with Malaysia the next stop. The Singapore Airlines Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix will be held from Sept 18 to 20.
Said Razlan: "We briefly mentioned (a proposal for back-to-back races with Singapore) to Formula One Management. Just in casual conversation, because they asked us to propose dates for next year onwards.
"One thing that's clear is we don't want to be Round 2 any more. We need time for us to promote better, so we want it to be the second half of the year.
"And looking at the logistics, since the Singapore GP is just before the Japan GP, it could be Malaysia-Singapore-Japan."
Perhaps there is a touch of irony to his idea of a link between the Sepang and Singapore races.
The 42-year-old became SIC CEO in 2009, one year after the inaugural Singapore night race.
The Singapore street race proved a huge hit, and he admitted it affected the Malaysian GP.
"We cannot deny the fact we lost a lot of corporate clients," he said.
"Before, we had the likes of Citibank, ING, because they had no choice but Malaysia.
"But, with the Singapore GP, and the fact they have headquarters here, of course they'd rather do that.
"We saw a decline of consumers, Singaporeans too, but after a while they came back."
Indeed, getting the fans to return to Sepang has been Razlan's biggest challenge.
"After 17 years, you run out of ideas," he quipped.
This year, his team have embarked on a family-centric approach to lure Malaysian fans to the circuit.
The foreign spectators still make their way to Sepang religiously.
Of the total of 105,000 who turned up over the three-day race weekend last year, 27 per cent were foreigners, with visitors from Singapore - the third-highest foreign contingent after the UK and Austria - accounting for six per cent.
While they hope the strategy to woo locals works, Razlan believes one surefire way of filling Sepang's capacity of 125,000 is if a Malaysian racer is in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car.
"Look at MotoGP," he said.
"It has been in Malaysia for 25 years, but the spectatorship in the last five years has gone crazy-high. It has even overtaken F1 spectators in terms of overall numbers.
"Why? Because we managed to put a Malaysian boy in from 2009 onwards. Even (rookie rider) Zulfahmi Khairuddin, in his first year, has fans from Italy who are 13 or 14.
"That's what Malaysia needs for F1. We had Alex Yoong in 2002, but I can't remember the impact because unfortunately he was not ready and didn't finish the season."
Razlan has steered the SIC through a tough period and they've come out on the other side.
When he was installed in 2008, Sepang was in the red. Now, it makes an annual profit of about RM15 million ($5.6m) to RM20m before tax.
He said: "Basically there are two aspects to the SIC: our major events like F1 and MotoGP, and the SIC as a sustainable business.
"The major events, there are ups and downs, it plateaus. Every year, you crack your head to think about how you can get people to come back."
This year, with the anniversary of MH370 and the implementation of the GST on April 1, it may affect the races also.
"But, aside from this, the Sepang track itself is fully occupied 96 per cent of the year. We are even looking at putting up lights on the track, not for the F1 race but for the night track bookings.
"Contrary to the perception the SIC is a white elephant, we are always busy. And 46 per cent of our clients are from Singapore. Companies, car clubs, a lot of events."
Indeed, there seems to be reason for Razlan to smile.
As it stands, tickets sales for the Malaysian GP are six per cent better than this time last year.
"We hope the race in Melbourne will be exciting," he said.
"That could boost our last-minute sales."
A grand prix for the family
Lenny Kravitz will not rock Kuala Lumpur at the end of the month, but Sepang International Circuit (SIC) chief executive officer Datuk Razlan Razali has secured a replacement to entertain music lovers after the Malaysian Grand Prix on March 29.
"It is last-minute, but we managed to get Girls Generation and EXO," said Razlan, yesterday.
"I heard EXO are the No. 1 K-Pop artistes at the moment, and this is the first time they will perform in Malaysia. The two (groups) will be doing a collaboration."
Two weeks ago, Kravitz, who took to the stage with mega pop star Katy Perry at the Super Bowl last month, had pointed to "contractual scheduling conflicts beyond my control" as the reason for cancelling his date in Kuala Lumpur.
Razlan said the 50-year-old American was planning a tour to coincide with the Malaysian GP, with stops in Australia, Indonesia, China and Philippines, but decided to call off the whole venture because ticket sales were not doing well enough in other countries.
Razlan is disappointed the way things fell through, but he is hopeful the family-oriented strategy adopted by SIC to lure local fans to the track will work.
For this year's race-weekend, parents can take part in various motorsports activities like drifting, gymkhana, rallying and ATV at various pockets around the Sepang circuit.
For the mums and girlfriends, there will be bazaars and boutiques, while the children will have a carnival-like area to have fun.
Razlan emphasised the importance of fan activation.
"The question is: How can we get fans closer to Formula 1?" he said.
"That's the constant challenge."
Technical changes, like the Formula 1 cars' new hybrid 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines, which are not as loud as the former 2.4-litre high-revving V8 engines, are beyond promoters' control.
But he still feels the sport can do more to engage fans.
"There is a lot of emphasis on sponsors rather than (us) promoters," said Razlan.
"We get only a one-hour autograph session with the drivers, each of them for 20 minutes.
"What can they do?
"I pity fans who queue from 8.30am in the morning, stand for hours under the hot sun and end up with nothing.
"At least, now (F1) is waking up.... On our own, the promoters does their best to convince Bernie (Ecclestone, F1 supremo) to allow them to do certain things.
"For Malaysia, it begins on Friday when we are the only circuit that offers Malaysian schools a (tour of the) pitlane for ticket-holders. Even then, sometimes you just see the cars. No one entertains the kids.
"Come on. If you can't get the drivers, at least get the crew to be there in their full uniform, hand out postcards with autographs, something.
"For spectators, even a photograph with a mechanic in a Ferrari outfit pun dah cukup (is enough).
"But, F1 is waking up."