Malaysia is planning to take a “temporary break” from hosting its annual race in the Formula One season because of mounting losses, officials said on Tuesday, in ominous signs for one of Asia’s longest-running grands prix.
Officials are due to meet this week to discuss the future of the Malaysian Grand Prix after its current contract expires in 2018.
“The locals are not buying the tickets to watch F1,” Razlan Razali, chief executive of the Sepang International Circuit (SIC), told AFP.
“If there is no economic value, why should we continue? We better take a temporary break.”
Falling ticket sales and ebbing TV viewership have sapped enthusiasm for the race, which has been held at the Sepang circuit near Kuala Lumpur since 1999.
It has become overshadowed by the glittering night Grand Prix in neighbouring Singapore, while Malaysia is also in the grip of political and economic problems.
Formula One races are often run at a loss but they are attractive to many cities because of their prestige and exposure to global audiences.
Razlan said Sepang, which can accommodate 120,000 fans, drew just 45,000 to last month’s race, and added that race-day TV ratings were also poor.
He noted that hosting F1 is “very expensive.”
In comments on Twitter, Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said competition from other events outside of Malaysia was also taking its toll.
‘We should stop hosting’
“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.”
“F1 ticket sales declining, TV viewership down. Foreign visitors down b/c (because) can choose Singapore, China, Middle East. Returns are not as big.”
“I think we should stop hosting the F1. At least for a while. Cost too high, returns limited.”
Official figures show Formula One has shed 200 million TV viewers globally since 2008, with common complaints including the predictability of races.
But the sport entered a new era last month when US firm Liberty Media announced a takeover, including a new chairman and plans for greater penetration in the United States.
The Sepang race, known for its tropical downpours and sauna-like conditions, is Asia’s second-oldest after the Japanese Grand Prix, which dates back to 1976.
It has been overtaken by Singapore, which hosted the first F1 race under floodlights in 2008 and quickly outstripped Sepang in terms of spectators.
Sepang, one hour’s drive from central Kuala Lumpur, has also failed to match the lively entertainment and concerts at Singapore’s downtown race, officials said.
This year’s Singapore race saw an average of 73,000 spectators attend for each of the three days of the race weekend.
Meanwhile, state energy firm Petronas, the race’s title sponsor which also backs the championship-leading Mercedes team, has been badly hit by zig-zagging oil prices, which have crimped Malaysia’s economic growth prospects.
Malaysian politics are also volatile as Prime Minister Najib Razak spars with his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad -- whose son quit as the Sepang circuit’s chairman last month -- over a money-laundering scandal linked to state fund 1MDB.
Razlan declined to offer accurate figures on the grand prix’s losses, but Malaysia’s MotoGP is consistently popular and this year’s race on Sunday is sold out.
Last month’s Malaysian F1 race was touched by controversy when nine Australian fans were detained for celebrating countryman Daniel Ricciardo’s win by stripping down to swimwear emblazoned with the Malaysian flag.
Displays of public indecency are frowned upon in Muslim-majority Malaysia.