So Malaysia will soon be out of a Formula 1. It’s not really a surprise, the country is not exactly booming and the current government is up to its neck in sleaze, with protests calling for the Prime Minister to resign and face charges of having plundered a government wealth fund. It’s not like the old days when Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who was Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003 – had a clear vision and made it happen. F1 was part of his plan to made the country a technology hub. And it helped a lot.
Now 91, Mahathir is so disgusted by the behaviour of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that he recently quit the party and formed a new opposition group. Last weekend he spoke at a rally in Kuala Lumpur and accused Prime Minister Najib Razak of stealing public money and said Malaysia was “controlled by thieves”. Najib denies any wrongdoing, but the U.S. Justice Department continues to investigate the case, along with several other governments.
Malaysia is still highly dependent on oil, with oil and gas providing about a third of all government revenues, which means that with low oil prices the government is struggling. It needs to cut costs and confidence has been shaken by the U.S. elections and the likely impact on trade when Donald Trump becomes President. The ringgit has fallen significantly making everything bought in U.S. Dollars more expensive – including the Grand Prix.
F1 did well in Malaysia until the arrival of Singapore in the sport, but since then the interest and crowds have waned. Once Malaysians were proud of having an F1 race, now they don’t seem to care, perhaps because they are now in the shadow of Singapore, which is not where they like to be.
F1 has done much for the country, but has also earned well from it. It will be a shame to lose Sepang, a decent track, but if the country no longer feels the need for the sport, F1 must – and will – move on.
The stories of Singapore stopping F1, which come from Bernie Ecclestone, are not new. It has been clear since this year’s race that the public-private consortium that runs the race wants a different structure. F1 has done a massive job transforming the image of the city and the government is keen to keep the race going, but the private investors want to pay less and thus earn more from the influx of visitors. The comments by Ecclestone should be seen as part of the negotiation to get the government to pay more. F1 needs Singapore and Singapore needs F1 – and it would be bad for both parties if the race dies.