20200614 Malaysia can rescue Formula One's 2020 season. This is how.

20200614 Malaysia can rescue Formula One's 2020 season. This is how.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

In the past week, we have learned that the 2020 F1 Grands Prix in Singapore, Suzuka, Sao Paulo, Austin and Baku will not, or probably will not, take place. take place. We have already lost the first half of the season including the much awaited Vietnamese Grand Prix. The underlying reason is that there remains great fear of the spread of the CoVid-19 virus and such fear is not misplaced.

But there is one place where ground can be made up quickly, easily and even cheaply.

Brazil has not yet reached its peak of the crisis but what it has is already amongst the most severe in the world. The other countries are widely considered to be close to their maximum risk or, even, over the hump but not yet safe and certainly should not be complacent.

It is into this environment that Formula One stepped in Melbourne for the first race of the season. At that point, almost nothing was known about CoVid-19 except that it spread fast and killed people. We now know that there is a wide range of possible outcomes ranging from non-symptomatic recovery to long periods in ICU and uncertain long-term prognoses and death. We know that previous models for patters of infection are not as reliable as first thought and that those models are also not convincing in relation to the effects on e.g. the elderly, the young and those with underlying conditions. We know that some ethnic groups suffer higher mortality percentages and that this is not directly attributable to either living conditions or available healthcare. And we know that there is no treatment proven to be universally effective and that there is no vaccine available.

We know that testing kits have improved beyond all recognition since the outbreak began but that in terms of speed, convenience and cost there remains a long, long way to go.

We now think we know that a 14 days quarantine period is enough to identify those who carry the virus but we also know that people can be non-symptomatic and in the community for up to 14 days. We know that a rough and ready assessment can be made using body temperature but we also know that some people have defeated such schemes.

We know that testing produces a point-in-time result as to antibodies and/or infection which might be different later and we know that criminals have produced false test results which is not to say false negatives – they are falsified as to the test having been taken.

We know that countries that put in place track-and-trace measures early have, generally, kept lower infection rates than those that delayed and we know that countries that compelled the citizenry to stay at home except for very limited purposes have similarly managed to keep the numbers of infection down. We also know that many countries that closed their borders to all but their own returning citizens have now largely eliminated transmission within the community but are seeing cases amongst those returning home.

In some countries, certain localities, often with a defined population, have been hot-spots and those have seen some intra-community transmission – some several weeks into their isolation which undermines the idea that anyone who hasn't already got it isn't going to get it if they don't meet anyone who has it or who is a carrier.

The idea of building a moat around countries has been at best patchy in most parts of the world. However in South East Asia, several countries have found it to be highly effective.

This is what we know. What we don't know is how effectively successes can be maintained when near-normal travel and activity is resumed. Everyone is holding their breath as countries, which have had a wide variety of measures in place, start to relax them. We know that there have been some spikes relating to movements have happened and we know that apparently random outbreaks have occurred. We also know that one person can infect dozens.

Ironically, the great reality that governments don't want to admit is that, in many countries, deaths related to CoVid-19 are not as many as those from influenza and that the number of CoVid-19 cases is often less than those related to mosquito borne diseases: the real problem with CoVid-19 is the danger that health providers will be overrun and that entire health service systems will collapse under the additional weight that CoVid-19 brings. For most governments, it's not about deaths per se – it's about managing public fears and managing resources.

The question that Formula One is asking itself is this: how can we get the vast amount of racing, track and broadcast kit into a country, with its people, safely in order to protect both those in F1 and those in the host country?

In the UK, it has been decided that it's possible and there will be two races, back to back. This is because most of the F1 paddock is based in the UK and there will be significantly less movement of people and things across borders than for any other venue. And, ironically, one of the things that is the cause of greatest criticism of Silverstone is, in this case, its advantage – its relative inaccessibility. Also, its private airfield can ferry people and kit without them entering, even briefly, the general population. The UK Government is granting a special waiver over its quarantine rules for those working at the races.

The question is .. is there anywhere else that can operate in such isolation?

The answer is … yes. Sepang in Malaysia.

Why did Sepang stop being an F1 track?

When Sepang opened, it was the only track in the world ever to have been allowed to use the Formula One name and logo in its name. Later that right was lost, perhaps by effluxion of time, and later still the management and government decided that Sepang could not support the costs of an F1 race. Also, the new management was vocal in its deprecation of car racing and its favouritism of motorcycle racing. As it closed its doors on F1, the circuit gave its boss his dream of his own bike racing team and it would be churlish to deny its success which has been remarkable in MotoGP, the pinnacle of motorcycle racing.

There were lots of reasons why Sepang struggled with F1 but none had to do with the racing. The track is superb; an lack of understanding of the deceleration forces at the end of the main straight led to serious ripples pushing up but that was fixed, drainage was improved and the final courner was "reprofiled" to give an exciting adverse camber exit which tends towards a "Champion's Wall" moment.

The biggest threat to Sepang was the development of the Singapore Grand Prix. Let's be clear about this: drivers love street circuits and SIN was always going to be a hit with them, especially as it dodges amongst some terrific architecture. But from a spectator's point of view, it's rubbish. No, the success of the SGGP is not because of the racing – it's because the whole city turns into a week-long festival which started out well and has become bigger and bigger and longer and longer and sucks every available penny, cent or pebble from the visitors. To put it into perspective – a ticket to see one of the several top level bands in concert would cost less than a ticket to all concerts and the entire racing weekend plus more. Bring the whole family – the racing's not even the biggest bit. Add in that the track is surrounded by the city with all hits hotels, restaurants and bars and with public transport within two or three minutes of every gate and SIN would be perfect – if you could actually see the racing and if you didn't have to climb dozens of steps to get everywhere making it impossible for the less agile to get between grandstands and music venues so one has to miss something – like the music headliners or the end of the race. But these are relatively few niggles. However, just 350 KM south of Sepang, it means that even the very low cost of tickets plus inexpensive hotels there were looking for budget that had already been spent.

There's more but they all relate to the "customer experience" at Sepang. Take out the customers and Sepang is the better choice.

And this season there will be no fans at F1 races therefore the customer experience is absolutely irrelevant.

Why Sepang now?

The drivers know it and those that have raced there before love it. It's ready: all the F1 paraphenalia needs to arrive and be set up but in terms of putting the cars on the track, it's just a matter of opening the gates and letting the trucks in.

So while SIN and Baku have said that their reasons for withdrawing are that they do not have time to set up their street circuits, especially because of complications of engaging workforces en masse, that does not apply to Sepang.

Sepang can be set up in its own moated area. This is perhaps its biggest advantage, globally. The circuit was developed alongside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and they are contiguous. Yes, trucks and buses will need to cross a road but essentially, if F1's cast and crew are delivered to a dedicated area of the cargo terminal, then taken directly to the circuit, they need never come into contact with the wider population.

And, even better, the bulk of the set-up crew can work in isolation.

A Malaysia Night Race?

If Sepang were to host two races back to back, one could be a night race. If F1 (actually FI, not delegated) were to ask to borrow or rent the lights, mountings and wiring from SIN, there is ample time to set them up. And while SIN is a shorter track and needs less lights than would be required at Sepang, there is an interesting feature at Sepang – the start finish straight is a virtual tunnel and therefore can be lit with lights similar to those in Monaco providing a different experience. Lighting over the start-finish line need not be super-bright: the tech gives the result anyway.

The track has ample space for temporary accommodation and there are hotels that can also be isolation centres, a total of several hundred rooms, within a few kilometres of the track. If secure transport is provided, the question of accommodation can be easily solved. Add in that the spectators' gallery above the pit lane can become a comfortable dormitory and that only leaves the question of catering supplies and that's no problem at all.

What about the money?

One of the reasons given for Sepang giving up with F1 was the cost. Let's leave aside all the reasons why revenue was falling and accept that the F1 model of charging vast amounts to host racing is already under pressure around the world. F1 is losing its prestige as it hunts for new venues where governments are willing to pay, until they find out the financial realities. The model has to change and it is already, quietly, doing so.

But in these critical times, it has to change again. With no spectators and no or only a tiny share of TV revenue, there is no incentive for a country like Malaysia to pay to bring F1 back. But there is an incentive, even an imperative, for F1 to pay to use Malaysia's facilities. Treat it as a track-day on steroids.

And, of course, F1 must guarantee to cover the medical costs of anyone who tests positive for CoVid-19 on arrival, during or on departure from the event including local marshals and other contractors. That would tie in with the essential changes in rules to allow foreigners to enter the country and to excuse them quarantine / self-isolation – so long as they stay within the boundaries of the isolation zone. Malaysia has been very effective in creating what it calls "Enhanced Movement Control Orders" in which areas are completely sealed for a period of, usually, two weeks. So, there's no need to learn anything new – just redeploy the teams that have experience.

Aside from that, it's business as usual – with a week (plus whatever acclimatisation time they choose) in Malaysia to ride bikes, run and play with cars around an otherwise empty race-track or bring their own fast karts and/or dirt bikes to have fun on the facilities within the boundaries of the circuit for a few days between the end of one race weekend and the start of the next.

So can it happen?

The biggest obstacle to such a plan has left his position as CEO of the Sepang circuit to concentrate on the MotoGP team. His successor is known to be less hostile to F1. The second biggest obstacle is political: the attitude of the incumbent government to F1 is not yet known. The government until early this year, which still has influence, is in favour of F1 at Sepang. That might tip the current government away from it.

Ironically it is political (small p) interference that was one of the reasons Sepang started to lose its international appeal from a spectators' point of view. It holds a surprising range of races, almost all with near empty stands. If the new management can be given the freedom to operate a fully international circuit with appropriate entertainment including catering, then maybe, just maybe, the international crowd might come back. Putting it back into the public eye with two races later this season would be a good start.

So long as Malaysia stands to make no loss and, ideally, a profit, there is little reason to say no. And this time, it's F1 that needs Sepang more than Sepang needs F1.

What's needed to flag it off?

F1 needs to swallow its pride and make an approach that befits a private corporation asking a government to help it out of a jam.

There really isn't much more to it.


Copyright 2020 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
All rights reserved.