Published on January 2nd, 2017 | by Amirul Mukminin0
A Mixed Bag of Experience for Sepang International Circuit in 2016
The course of 2016 has been one of ups and downs for the Sepang International Circuit (SIC). Challenges such as low spectator numbers and decline in revenue were tempered by sell-out successes and recognition received.
The year started out low-key, with winter testing for the MotoGP in early February followed by closure of the track from 15 February to 8 May 2016 to facilitate the resurfacing and upgrading of the track. Although leading to loss of income for SIC in terms of track rentals, the works involving the entire 5.543km track were a mandatory requirement in ensuring that the Sepang track would continue to be homologated by the FIA and FIM as a Grade 1 and Grade A circuit respectively. The closure also saw the Formula One PETRONAS Malaysia Grand Prix being moved in the F1 calendar for the first time in many years. In 2016, the F1 Malaysia Grand Prix was scheduled as the 16th race in a 21-race calendar, which was also the first time it has been held back-to-back with the Singapore Grand Prix that took place just two weeks prior.
The refreshed track nevertheless resulted in new speed records being created – by Tom Sykes at the MOTUL Superbike World Championship where he clinched the Tissot-Superpole award, beating the previous Best Lap record created by Sylvain Guintoli in 2014 by more than seven-tenths of a second. At the Formula One PETRONAS Malaysia Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton too created a lap record, during qualifying.
The MOTUL Superbike World Championship 2016, the first major international event to be held on the refreshed track, provided a healthy dose of local interest and excitement in the form of Muhammad Zulfahmi Khairuddin. Held on 13 to 15 May 2016, the weekend featured Zulfahmi in his first home race as the first Malaysian to compete for a full season in the 600cc FIM Supersport World Championship, riding for Team Orelac Racing VerdNatura on a Kawasaki ZX6R. In the Malaysian Round, Fahmi thrilled local fans in Sepang when he relentlessly battled head to head for the win with Italian Ayrton Badovini from Gemar Balloons-Team Lorini, narrowly coming in second when he crossed the finish line just 0.050s behind Badovini, after leading in 9 out of 14 laps. Fans also witnessed a spectacular WorldSBK race in the main class despite wet conditions. Nicky Hayden, fondly known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, took his first ever win in the WorldSBK for the Honda World Racing team.
With 2016 being the third year running that SIC has hosted the WorldSBK, the contract for the second biggest international two-wheel motorsports championship held in Malaysia was up for renewal. However, in July, with a heavy heart SIC announced that it was not renewing its contract to host the WorldSBK Malaysian Round. In the announcement, Dato’ Razlan commented that SIC would consider hosting the WorldSBK again in the future when the financial climate improved and if market insights indicated great interest and demand from fans to bring it back.
The Formula One PETRONAS Malaysia Grand Prix, held from 29 September till 2 October, too offered local interest for fans with both the GP2 and GP3 Series held as support races this year. For the first time, we had full-season Malaysian drivers in the GP2 and GP3, with Nabil Jeffri driving for Arden International in GP2 and Akash Neil Nandy driving for Jenzer Motorsports in GP3. The race in Malaysia was a high point for Red Bull Racing as they achieved a one-two finish with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, with Ricciardo also taking his first win of the season. Fan favourite Lewis Hamilton failed to finish the race after his engine caught fire, while eventual 2016 champion Nico Rosberg rounded up the podium trio.
Nabil and Akash, who were hoping for a home crowd boost, did not see their hopes come true when they were not able to collect any points in Sepang. Nabil ended his rookie season in the GP2 with 2 points while Akash is still looking for his first points.
At the end of the weekend, the F1 Malaysia Grand Prix had recorded a total attendance of 83,828, an increase of approximately 4% from last year. However, the challenge of hosting a successful F1 Malaysia Grand Prix remained, with ministerial calls to cease hosting the premier racing event due to high costs and insufficient returns. Nevertheless, SIC is committed to organising successful editions of the F1 Malaysia Grand Prix, to the best of its ability, until the contract ends in 2018, regardless if the Malaysian Government decides to renew the contract or otherwise. The 19th F1 Malaysia Grand Prix will be back on 29 September to 1 October 2017, in another back-to- back race with Singapore, also two weeks after the Singapore race, as the 15th round in a provisional 20-race calendar.
The Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix 2016 was another sell-out success for SIC, with tickets selling out beginning several months before the event. SIC charted another crowd record this year with a total of 161,553 spectators over the three-day weekend, surpassing last year’s record of 150,563 spectators, despite rain affecting all three days.
In the MotoGP, Andrea Dovizioso of the Ducati Team took his second ever victory and his first win of the season, while in in Moto2, Hafizh Syahrin waved the Malaysia flag high as the best performing Malaysian competitor overall, finishing 5th in the race. Johann Zarco of Ajo Motorsport won the race as well as the 2016 Moto2 Championship in Sepang, making history by being the first person to defend the Moto2 title since it was introduced in 2010. In Moto3, SIC celebrated Jakub Kornfeil of the DRIVE M7 SIC Racing Team’s second place finish, after he crossed the finishing line behind Francesco Bagnaia of the Pull & Bear Aspar Mahindra Team. Malaysian fans were disappointed when Khairul Idham Pawi finished 8th in a chaotic Moto3 race that saw 14 riders failing to complete the race, from a field of 31 riders. DRIVE M7 SIC Racing Team’s Adam Norrodin was among the riders who did not make it past the first lap, crashing shortly after the race commenced.
SIC also renewed its contract to host the Malaysia MotoGP for another five years until 2021, while Shell Malaysia signed on as the title sponsor of the Malaysia MotoGP until 2020. The 27th edition of the Malaysia MotoGP was held on 27 to 29 October 2016 as the penultimate round in an 18-round calendar.
In the 2016 season, Hafizh Syahrin finished in 9th place on the Moto2 table with a haul of 118 points, while Jakub Kornfeil achieved a 7 th place finish in Moto3 with 112 points and Khairul Idham and Adam wrapped up the 18-round season in 19 th place with 62 points and 28 th place with 14 points respectively.
SIC’s homegrown races continued to see strong interest in 2016. The popular Malaysia Championship Series saw favourites Sakura Tedco Racing Team, which had led the table in both classes over the season, clinching both titles. Fitra Eri claimed the Touring Production title and teammate Mark Darwin secured the Malaysia Touring Car title, making history by winning the Malaysia Touring Car and Touring Production titles in successive years. In the 2016 Pirelli Malaysia Superbike Championship, the season-closing double-header on 2 to 4 December saw Moto2 rider Hafizh Syahrin Abdullah showing his class with four podium finishes including three wins. He was riding for the Project X Racing Team on a Yamaha R1 in the 1000cc Superbike Open category. Australian Cameron Donald clinched the Superbike championship title for the season. In the Superstock Championship, Ahmad Nashrul Baharuddin of Team Project X Racing earned his first title in a closely-fought season, having secured three points more than fellow racer Jouni Karhu. In the even closer Open 250 championship, Singaporean Khairul Anwar Jamil of Razor Motorsports edged out his compatriot Muhammad Jazil Juraimi by a single point. Meanwhile, in the 600cc Supersport Championship, Ismael Smajli won the overall crown comfortably with a race to spare, in a class that missed a number of top riders who opted for the Asian Road Racing Championship in Buriram, Thailand.
The 2016 edition of the Sepang 1000 Kilometres Endurance Race received an influx of star power when Malaysia’s Drift King, Tengku Djan Ley Tengku Mahaleel led a combination team of professional and celebrity drivers to win his second overall crown in the event. He shared driving duties with racer Keifli Othman and celebrities Zizan Razak and Faye Kusairi in the Mayhem-FX Tune Racing team, completing the 181-lap battle around the 5.543km track in 8 hours 31 minutes 35.819 seconds in a Proton Suprima S. This year’s Independent Cup was won by an all-Singaporean team of Gerald Tan, Hong Tsui and Shawn Peh, which finished fifth overall with 171 laps in their Suzuki Swift. Pre-race favourite Sakura Tedco Racing had to settle for 12th place with 121 laps completed, after their Proton Prevé encountered technical problems.
The 2016 MOTUL Sepang 12 Hours, the classic Malaysian endurance race, returned to Sepang for its second year, as the final event in the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge. The race was won by the #15 Audi Sport Team Phoenix R8 car, driven by Christopher Haase, Robin Frijns and Laurens Vanthoor. Vanthoor, who was part of the winning team in last year’s inaugural Sepang 12 Hours endurance race, also won the drivers’ title in the Intercontinental GT Challenge, while Audi took the manufacturers’ title. Spectators also had fun off the track at the Sepang 12 Hours Party Rooftop for Paddock Pass holders and the Car Boot Sale Mercato with over 150 participating vendors.
SIC continued to be recognised in 2016, receiving the Industry Excellence Award for the Sports Entertainment Sector at the Utusan Business Awards 2015, as well as the Training Support Excellence Award for 2016 from pioneering international business standards and accreditation organisation BSI, for demonstrating business excellence and the highest standard of ethical conduct, standing out as a leader that exemplifies ethical standards and behaviour. Currently, SIC is pursuing ISO 20121:2012 certification, an Event Sustainability Management System certification accredited by BSI. In line with SIC’s constant push to maintain excellence, SIC would be the first Malaysian company to achieve the ISO 20121:2012 certification.
There was also leadership change at SIC this year, when Tan Sri Mokhzani Mahathir stepped down as the Chairman of SIC after serving for 13 years since 2003. He was replaced by Tan Sri Mohamed Azman Yahya, who was appointed Non-Executive Chairman for a period of three years by the Ministry of Finance Malaysia. Tan Sri Azman has served as a member of SIC’s Board of Directors since 2010. Tan Sri Azman is known for his passion for racing. He was named ‘Driver of The Year’ by the Automobile Association of Malaysia in 2004 after winning the Malaysian Super Series and the Open Class in the Merdeka Millennium Endurance Race.
SIC continues to appeal to new audiences as a premier multi-faceted facility, through non-motorsports events such as the Viper Challenge, Music Run, Motorsport Free Morning and night cycling events, as well as hospitality events such as auto shows, exhibitions, concerts, corporate events and even weddings. Nevertheless, the element of speed was maintained through events like the first SIC International Individual Time Trial, which saw the creation of a new record for the fastest single lap on a bicycle, by Sofian Nabil Omar Mohd Bakri from the National Sports Council team.
In 2016, SIC remained focused on improving and expanding its facilities and infrastructure in line with its aim to transform their state of the art circuit into an integrated, multi-faceted edutainment hub over the next five to seven years. In early September, SIC debuted two newly constructed facilities, the South Paddock and permanent Paddock Chalets ahead of the F1 Malaysia Grand Prix. The Paddock Chalets replace the temporary chalets previously situated at the same area while the South Paddock is a completely new building albeit utilising recycled materials from the disassembled temporary chalets. In the years to come, SIC will continue to pursue its plans to raise RM1.3 billion to bring the transformation of the circuit to life, by seeking investors and partners for projects within SIC’s 300 hectare land bank, such as a hotel and specialised drivers’ education facility or Advanced Safety Driving Academy. SIC will also soon relaunch the Hermann Tilke-designed Sepang International Kart Circuit with upgraded features.
“Looking ahead, 2017 looks like another year with economic challenges, particularly in terms of foreign exchange for Malaysia. At the same time, the spending power of Malaysians will likely be negatively impacted. In these times, the undying passion of fans shines through. On behalf of the team, I would like to thank the fans, our partners and the media for supporting SIC. Your support has been invaluable in the success of everything we do. We aim to continue bringing fans the very best in motorsports excitement and to enhance every event we host in creative and innovative ways,” said Dato’ Razlan in closing.