In the first part of Tammy Gorali's interview with Razlan Razali, team principal of the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, and formerly CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, the Malaysian team boss talked about how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the circuit, and the 2020 season. He also talked about how he views rider contracts, and whether he would welcome Valentino Rossi into the team in 2021.
In the second part, Razali goes into more depth on the decisions he made as CEO of the Sepang circuit, including why he chose MotoGP over F1, the circuit eventually deciding to drop the contract with F1. He talks about the importance of the Malaysian market, and getting local fans into the circuit as spectators.
Part of that drive turned into the creation of what is now the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. Razlan Razali tells Gorali about the team's journey from vehicle to get Malaysian riders into Grand Prix racing via Moto3 into fully fledged team with riders across all three classes. Razali also talks about how they see their riders for 2021, despite the loss of racing. And he discusses the Petronas' team relationship with Yamaha, and the bike the Japanese factory has brought for 2020.
Q: You stepped down from the position of Sepang circuit CEO this month. You were a very bold and unique CEO, like saying to the F1 championship "thank you guys - go and drive somewhere else"...
Razlan Razali: [Laughs] When I joined the circuit eleven and a half years ago, I was given a mandate to look after the track, as it belongs to the government. So it's a strong mandate, strong responsibility and accountability. We needed to position Sepang to be a multifaceted venue, not only for motorsports but a lot of other events, while at the same time we also had to be self sustainable as much as we can, as much as we could. To some extent we did that, as we got through the economic recession, and like we see these days, motorsports and entertainment are the first ones to get hit and the last ones to recover. It was up and down for us and as I am very passionate about motorsports, I love doing events, which is my background actually and I made sure that any event that I manage and control is successful.
We saw that in MotoGP. The simplest formula is to put a national hero in the world championship and boom, within one, two, three years we saw the crowd coming in. We tried to do that in F1, but unfortunately, F1 is simply too expensive for us to put a Malaysian driver in, and they are very - how would you say - not very easy to work with compared to Dorna. They didn't see the interest of what we were trying to do, which was to promote the event better and to provide better accessibility for the fans, so we had some friction there.
It came to a point where before the final year in 2017, we noticed that there was a decline in spectators in seasons 2015 and 2016 and decline in TV exposure as well. So it became too expensive for our government to invest in and we made the bold decision that enough is enough, and we told F1 that this is it and thanked them for 19 years and called it a day.
Q: One of the other actions that you took was make sure the tickets are affordable, like the initiative to cut the taxes off the ticket prices so that not just tourists can come [Starting from last season, the “Entertainment Tax” was waived , a 25% cut – Ed.]
RR: I felt this was important. F1 and MotoGP must be mega events, not as big as the Olympics and World Cup that happens once every four years, but still it's big enough to be categorized as mega events. These kinds of events need to be fully supported by the domestic market, the local market, the country. And after we have hosted for many, many years, with MotoGP since 1991 and F1 since 1999, we needed as a circuit to make it interesting year in, year out.
At the same time, we wanted to be accessible, we wanted to be affordable enough for the Malaysian people to come and support the event. There is no point in a facility with the capacity of more than 120,000 people to only have 20,000 foreigners spectating, so we needed locals to come and support it. Branding-wise for the country it's positive, but also on TV when you see empty grandstands it's not nice, so we needed to drive the local interest in order to survive.
When it came to F1, we reduced our prices but still nobody was buying. Why? We understood it was to do the sport itself as well. In MotoGP, the excitement was always there compared to F1. That was my conclusion.
Q: You work hard to have Malaysian riders on track (2 riders in CEV but not in a SIC team, 2 in Moto3 and Hafizh Syahrin in Moto2), your big plan is to help the sport while helping your local riders...
RR: What's the point of having a circuit like the Sepang International Circuit and hosting a world championship like MotoGP without Malaysian riders? Malaysian population ownership of two wheels is very high [In 2017 there were 12,933,042 motorcycles registered in Malaysia (only 13,288,797 cars), and 546,813 units sold, 65% of which were Yamaha and Honda – Ed.]. So there is demand, there is talent, there was nobody proactive enough or making an effort to do it. We had to do it, purely for the simplest reason to promote the Malaysian MotoGP event better.
And we saw that, we did that by putting Malaysians in the championship, developing talent and so on. It's not natural for a circuit to develop talent. It's a platform for talent, but its not normal for a circuit to create talents and to run a team on its own. But that was the initiative of the move, to provide a place, to develop and use it as a platform but it became an animal and turned into what we see today!
Q: Currently Petronas Yamaha SRTis the only team to have the full line up of Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP teams. Did you expect this to happen so quickly?
RR: No, to be honest. We wanted to grow the team from Moto3 but not like that. Once the board gave me the approval to set up the Moto3 team, the objective was to continue developing the Malaysian Moto3 riders until they are competitive enough to go to Moto2. We knew that Hafizh Syahrin had a problem and left the Petronas team, so we took him on board and automatically created a Moto2 team.
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