The sold-out signs are being printed for Sepang this Sunday as MotoGP™ mad Malaysia prepares for the penultimate round of the Championship. What a turn around. Remember those early days at Sepang. You could count the number of spectators in some of those vast grandstands with the amazing roofs. We would sit in the stand that towered above the back straight eating our hamburgers purchased from a deserted stall in the mall watching a practice session and we would be the only people there.
I first went to Sepang which is situated close to Kuala Lumpur International airport in 1999 to work at the Formula Car race and returned a year later for MotoGP™. The contrast was enormous with Kuala Lumpur buzzing about the arrival of Formula One at this state of the art glitzy shiny circuit and paying little interest in the bikes; so what happened to produce such a total transformation in two decades. Formula One has gone through dwindling crowds and interest and MotoGP™ has exploded.
The very nature of the two sports has helped with the pure excitement of close racing and overtaking on two wheels bringing the crowds flocking. You only have to stop at any set of traffic lights in Kuala Lumpur to realise just what a vast market Malaysia and the rest of the Far East is to the major motorcycle manufacturers. Ticket prices and facilities to suit the customers by the forward-thinking SIC Ceo Dato Razlan Razali has embraced all these facts while four times Sepang has witnessed the crowning of a new MotoGP™ World Champion, being the penultimate round definitely has its advantages. Finally, the adulation of Valentino Rossi that has lifted many a circuit into the black and a decent bank balance has never been more obvious.
The Doctor has won six times in Sepang on both Honda and Yamaha machinery and in the 500cc and MotoGP™ classes. Three times he’s clinched the MotoGP™ World Championship in 2003, 2005 and 2009 with his then team-mate Jorge Lorenzo winning the title at Sepang a year later although typically Rossi won the race and stole the limelight.
You could not imagine the total contrast in the facilities between Sepang and when we arrived for that very first Malaysian Grand Prix 27 years ago at Shah Alam. Full marks to the old circuit which ironically was situated near the old International airport before they both switched to pastures new but just as close. Shah Alam laid the very foundations for today’s success story staging seven Malaysian Grands Prix before Johor took over for a single year. Sepang hosted its first motorcycle Grand Prix in 1999 with Kenny Roberts victorious on the 500cc Suzuki.
The Sepang circuit will be jammed to the very rafters of those amazing grandstands on Sunday. It’s more like being at a massive football match with adrenalin fuelled noise, excitement and colour; that’s before the racing even gets underway. The only problem is that you have to leave the hotel an awful lot earlier than you ever did all those years ago.
A very small price to pay to enjoy a Grand Prix that is the perfect illustration of the MotoGP™ revolution that has transformed the sport over the last two decades.