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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Formula 1 season begins in mid-March and for 12 of the last 13 years, the Malaysia Grand Prix has been the second race on the calendar. Considered one of the hottest races of the year, it can be just as difficult for the fans as for the participants. If you aren't used to the heat and humidity of a Malaysian afternoon, you'll want to read this, should you plan to attend any sort of race here.
The Malaysia Grand Prix is held at Sepang International Circuit, which is located about 40 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The course was opened in March 1999 and immediately hosted a MotoGP race a month later, as well as the first Malaysian F1 race in October of that year. It is called the home of Malaysian Motorsport and hosts several events throughout the year. Sadly though, it might be most famous as the track where MotoGP race Marco Simoncelli died after a crash during the 2011 race.
The circuit was designed by Hermann Tilke, who is also responsible for the new courses in Shanghai, Bahrain, Singapore, India and Austin, TX, among others. The main circuit, normally driven clockwise, is 5.54 kilometers (3.44 miles) long, and is noted for two long straightaways separated by a hairpin turn.
This review is based on the 2013 Malaysia Grand Prix, which took place over three days near the end of March. With the event only occurring annually, changes can be expected every year, but the information here should help you prepare for attending a future F1 race. All prices are in Malaysian Ringgit (RM) with the current (as of this posting) rate about 3 RM to 1 US dollar.
It is also important to realize that all F1 races are weekend events and include races from other series, and as such, you can spend a full 9 hours at the circuit each day if you are so inclined.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Your food choices will depend on your location, as you cannot move from one seating area to another. If you are ticketed for one of the main grandstands, you will have several decent choices along the mall there. However, if you are at the K1 grandstand near turn 1 (the best place to sit for race action), you will have somewhat less variety being served from temporary stands. There were a few local options such as fish balls (10 RM), chicken rice (20 RM), and chicken satay (20 RM for 8 sticks). Burgers and hot dogs were also available, but looked less than appetizing.
The caveat here is that much of this food is made in advance and stored in plastic boxes in the heat with little cooling. I would recommend the satays, as they are cooked and served quickly, but other options should probably be avoided, as you cannot ensure that they have been made recently enough to be entirely safe, and it is possible that they might have been sitting there for an hour or two.
A good alternative is the freshly cut watermelon, which was just 5 RM for a pack and was useful as a rehydration tool. If you spend the entire day here, you will need to drink plenty of liquids, and not exclusively the alcoholic type. Cans of beer are available at 15 RM, but you are better served with three bottles of water for the same price. Local brands of juice and cans of Coke are also available for 5 RM.
Formula 1 races have a unique atmosphere and each circuit has its own distinct feel. At Sepang, the seating areas are quite far apart, and this limits the atmosphere a bit. When coupled with the heat, which can be a drag if you are there for an extended period, it tends to make the fans a bit quiet when compared to those in Japan and Singapore. Still, once the race starts, quiet is the last word on your mind and really, it is the roar of those engines that you are there for. There are a few other additions, such as having young children ask each driver a question and a military performance, but ultimately everything is overshadowed by 90 minutes of fast, loud cars.
In general, I can't imagine any F1 race getting a lower score than 4 in the category simply because the atmosphere is the race itself. Only those races with something more to offer, such as Singapore's night race, will get a perfect score.
Although very far from the city, the track is close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). From the top of the hill behind the K1 grandstand, you can have a great view of the airport and see some of the larger planes, including Malaysia Airlines' new A380. This also makes the race very convenient for international travellers. You can be at the track about 30 minutes after your flight lands.
Other than that though, there is nothing around, like most F1 closed circuits. Getting to KL takes about 90 minutes after either qualifying or the actual race, but if you want to experience some nightlife, this is your only choice.
F1 fans are a breed apart, as many travel thousands of miles to support their favorite team or driver. For this, and for enduring the heat for a weekend, they get high marks. However, there were a few bad apples near my section, including one guy who thought his garbage bag filled with empty beer cans belonged in the aisle, and a few people standing and sitting on stairs rather than in their seats. When you have a large crowd in a tight area, you need to make space instead of blocking people trying to get in and out.
The final complaint regards those who decided to leave early. Although the race was essentially decided with just 6 laps left, people started to get up and inch their way through the narrow path in front of others, blocking the view of those behind.
Getting to the track is easy, particularly from the Low-cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). The Skybus takes you there in less than 15 minutes for just 8 RM and offers a return trip, useful if you happen to be staying at the Tune Hotel located there.
There are also shuttles to the circuit from the main terminal - most of the passengers here are connecting from the train that takes them from downtown KL to the airport in under 30 minutes. A one-way trip is only 25 RM and a good deal if you are staying in the city.
As an aside, there are two terminals at KLIA - one is the main terminal where most airlines land; the other is the LCCT where AirAsia and Tiger conduct their operations. However, the LCCT is scheduled to move this year and so much of this section may need to be revised. If you are going in 2014, the options may have changed, so do further research.
Driving is not recommended as parking and traffic can be extremely difficult if you do not know where you are going. Taxis are an option, but be prepared to haggle; the meter is not an option after the race. In general though, access to this track is excellent for a circuit so far from the city; it is once you get inside that problems are noticed.
First, the legroom in the seats is too narrow, and there are 23 seats per row. If you are on the aisle, expect to get up and down a lot during the day. The second problem is getting out of the K1 grandstand. The entrance is narrow enough but at least before the race, there is no crowd, so you can walk in without an issue. After the qualifying and the race though, thousands of people converge on just 3 doors, causing a massive jam that takes several minutes to clear. Finally, the washroom is located far away from the seats and down a hill, so taking a break becomes a sweaty affair.
Like all motorsport tracks, where you sit makes a huge difference in your experience. The most expensive seats are along the pit straight, but I do not recommend those here. Rather, I would suggest the K1 Grandstand seats, particularly those in Block A or B where you have a clear view down the straightaway as the cars come at you into Turn 1 before they move into Turn 2. These tickets were just 330 RM during the half-price early bird sale (which expired at the end of 2012) and doubled to 660 RM after that. Obviously, if you are thinking of attending the Malaysia Grand Prix, it pays to plan early.
In the past I have seen the race from the main grandstand, and although there can be some excitement on either the back straight or the main straight, generally you are just seeing cars zoom by. At the K1 Grandstand, you can see more strategy as the cars use DRS on the straightaway and try to pass on the turns. It is also where many incidents occur, particularly in the first few laps.>
This is the cheapest F1 race out there and really should get a 5 but for two occurrences that made the race slightly less enjoyable. The first was that the Diamond screen (which shows the live TV feed) in front of our section was off for most of the race, only becoming operational with about 12 laps of the 56 total left to be driven. When at a big track like this, you want to see what is happening at other areas, along with replays. Not having this functionality was disappointing. The other problem was that the race commentary was in both English and Malay, meaning that some key points were not communicated to those at the track. The locals should have their own frequency and the full race should be broadcast in English; when combined with no screen, it meant that we missed some very important developments.
Make sure to pick up a pair of race radio headphones. The most expensive model is a mere 170 RM and will both protect your ears and give you the aforementioned race commentary as well. The headphones can be used at any other F1 race and are just a normal AM/FM radio, although you would look out of place wearing them at any place other than a racecourse.
There were two GP2 races over the weekend, which are quite interesting in their own right. GP2 is the feeder series for Formula 1 and can be considered more exciting in some aspects as the cars are identical, making driving the more important attribute. Full English commentary for these races was also available and a great introduction to open-wheel racing for newcomers.
There are a number of pavilions near the main entrance, including a display of old PETRONAS F1 cars and a Tourism Malaysia promotion.
After Sunday's race, a concert is held with free entry for all grandstand ticket holders. The act this year was Guns N' Roses.
Sepang International Circuit also features kart racing and motocross facilities that can be used during the race weekend.
Formula 1 is the biggest worldwide sport without much following in the United States, where NASCAR dominates the racing scene. This is unfortunate, because attending an F1 race is an experience that cannot be duplicated. If you are considering travelling overseas for a race, there are better options than Malaysia in terms of atmosphere and access, but none are more affordable. The seats at Turn 1 are the best I've had for any race and allowed me to really appreciate the driving skills on display. With the weekend ticket costing around US$110, it was money well spent, and I'd certainly recommend attending the 2014 race if you want to experience F1 in an overseas locale.
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