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History of the Malaysian Grand Prix

Sakhir Circuit the First of International Expansion


That first Malaysian race came amid a larger threat to move the entire series to Asia to avoid regulations in Europe against tobacco sponsorship - the biggest source of cash for the series at the time. But few people believed that Bernie Ecclestone, the series' promoter, would carry out that threat.

Today, the series remains in most of the major European countries where its richest history has been written, but since 1999 it has also created many races elsewhere, running them on extraordinary purpose-built tracks that have left even Malaysia's behind.

By extending its reach, Formula 1 has sought not only to justify its self-named world championship of auto racing but also to cash in on the prices that emerging nations were willing to pay to show off their cities by hosting Grand Prix races.

There are now races in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Singapore and South Korea, India held its first Grand Prix last season, and Turkey held a race from 2005 until last year.

The globalization of the series has often been criticized as bringing auto racing to countries with no tradition or interest in the sport. This was not the case in Malaysia, however, which did have an auto-racing tradition before 1999, with many races in the 1960s sanctioned by the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body.

It held Formula 2 events, including many that took place in Singapore, when it was part of Malaysia, and the Shah Alam circuit hosted Formula Pacific, Formula Atlantic and Formula Holden races from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

Then on Oct. 17, 1999, the first true Malaysian Grand Prix on the Formula 1 calendar took place in Kuala Lumpur. It was a success not only locally, but attracted many Europeans from throughout the region and showcased the country's ability to stage an international sporting event.

The race ended in a controversy that, while it had nothing to do with the location, became a major Formula One technical scandal. Eddie Irvine won the race in a Ferrari, after Michael Schumacher, his teammate, had allowed Irvine to take the lead to help him try to win the drivers' title. Schumacher had just returned to racing that weekend, having broken his leg at the British Grand Prix in July.

But in the hours after the Grand Prix, race stewards judged that the aerodynamic wings on the side of the Ferrari's cockpit, called barge boards, did not adhere to the regulatory thickness. The team and drivers were disqualified, and McLaren's Mika Hakkinen, who had finished third, won the drivers' title.

But Ferrari won an appeal and the victories were reinstated. Hakkinen nevertheless won the drivers' title, although Ferrari won the constructors' title.

The Malaysian Grand Prix has always been among the hottest and most humid races in the series, adding an extra challenge to both the drivers and the car engines. In the 2001 race, a torrential rainfall created havoc, and both Ferraris - driven by Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello - spun off the track simultaneously. They returned to the race and finished first and second.

It was initially staged at the end of the season, but the Malaysia race was later moved toward the beginning. As a result, it has often provided interesting races, as teams come to grips with their new cars.

Although Malaysia threw itself enthusiastically behind the series - in 2001 and 2002 there was even a Malaysian driver, Alex Yoong - the government-owned Sepang circuit, which is on a palm plantation next to the airport outside of Kuala Lumpur, was soon neglected. The track itself remains one of the best, but weeds sprout around the track facilities, which appear rundown by comparison to those at other circuits.

In 2009, after calls from the series' promoter for a night race - so it could be broadcast in Europe later in the morning - the organizers refused to invest in the necessary lighting, but agreed to stage the race in late afternoon. But an hour after the start, with only 32 laps completed, a tropical rainstorm interrupted the race. The cars stopped and waited for the rain to end, but the clouds were so thick that it became as dark as night, and the race was abandoned.

The Brawn driver Jenson Button was declared the winner of the race. He went on to win the drivers' title, thanks in large part to his victories early in the season, because another team provided a late challenge.

In 2010 and 2011, the Malaysian race's start time was slightly earlier, at 4 p.m. Both of those races were won by Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull, and he, too, went on to win the drivers' titles.

A Formula One team that was partially based in Malaysia was created in 2010 by a consortium of companies . Originally called Team Lotus, it changed its name to Caterham this year.

The Malaysian oil company Petronas is the title sponsor of the race and has long sponsored Formula One teams, including the Mercedes team this season.

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