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MH370 CRASH: Grief slows F1 ticket sale
Publication Date : 28-03-2014
Despite the watered-down festivities, organisers of this weekend's Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix are adamant that the show must go on.
But not even Sepang International Circuit chief executive Razlan Razali can deny that the race has been hit by the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
"Because of the incident, promoting this year's race has been a huge challenge," the 41-year-old admitted yesterday.
Ticket sales - particularly among locals - suggest as much.
With the track action getting under way today, organisers are bracing for a 60 per cent fall in the number of Malaysians at Sunday's race from last year.
Of the 84,000 spectators who watched Sebastian Vettel clinch victory in Sepang last year, approximately 55,000 were locals.
The anticipated drop comes as no surprise to Razlan who noted that the country has been "in a sombre mood" since the Boeing 777 disappeared on March 8.
This was reiterated by Christopher Raj, the chief executive officer of Malaysian public relations agency Shekhinah which specialises in sports events.
"As the nation grieves for the lost plane, it is understandable that ticket sales have been slow," he said. "Sporting events and concerts up and down the country are all going through the same thing."
Even so, the impact from the MH370 tragedy could have some bearing on Malaysia looking to extend its hosting rights deal with Formula One Management, which runs out at the end of next season.
"We would have wanted to discuss an extension now but this may no longer be the ideal weekend to do so," Razlan said. "But we'll definitely finalise something at least six months before the 2015 season starts."
The future of the race - first hosted here in 1999 - has been in question in recent years, due in large part to dwindling crowds even though tickets are priced from 340 ringgit (US$103) - comparatively low for an F1 event.
Last year, 120,000 fans flocked to Sepang over the three-day event but that total was 20,000 lower than the record attendance of 140,000 in 2006.
Despite the fall, Razlan believes the race remains "very much relevant to Malaysia".
"This is the biggest international event of the year," he said. "Tourism Malaysia uses F1 as a promotional tool and it has had a hugely positive economic impact on the country."
He cited a 2011 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which suggested that the Malaysian race brings in between RM700 million and RM800 million a year in tourism dollars and global exposure.
"That's a return of nearly three to one, which is a good return on investment," Razlan said.
The cost of hosting the Malaysian race is less than the S$150 million (US$118 million) reportedly shelled out by Singapore each year - primarily owing to the availability of a permanent track.
But this weekend's race, the second this season, is less about money than a show of support for the families of the 239 passengers and crew on board MH370.
A concert in Kuala Lumpur - headlined by American singer Christina Aguilera - has been cancelled as a sign of respect.
And starting from today's practice sessions, the cars of Malaysian-owned Caterham will bear the hashtag #PrayForMH370 on their side panels, while those of Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will carry the message "Come Home MH370".
Local organisers will be setting up a tribute wall in a public area where spectators can pen messages of condolence. "Going on with the race shows our perseverance and hopefully unites everyone," Razlan said. "The sport can sometimes be seen as the opposite of humble but this is the time for F1 to show its compassion."