x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Backing for local heroes at Malaysia GP is thin on the ground

Three 'home' teams attempt to drum up support, but Red Bull, McLaren and Ferarri are still the favourites among the fans.

European powerhouses remain strongly backed despite other teams having links to Malaysia.
European powerhouses remain strongly backed despite other teams having links to Malaysia.

Surrounded by Williams jackets and Sauber shirts, Nike rucksacks and Reebok running shoes, the gap-toothed hawker peddling counterfeit goods from his modest market stall in Jalan Petaling was unequivocal in his answer.

"Ferrari and Red Bull," said the young man in response to being asked which of the Formula One race teams' merchandise was selling best ahead of today's Malaysia Grand Prix.

This afternoon's race has been billed as a "home" event for three of the 12 teams in the paddock with Team Lotus, Renault and Mercedes-GP all having ties to Malaysia. But it would appear any plans to capture local support from the sport's traditional European powerhouses will take time.

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"I guess the Malaysia influence holds a little bit of sway, but I still support McLaren," said Adly Mohamed, an affable gent braving the searing heat at Sepang International Circuit yesterday in a black McLaren-Mercedes T-shirt. "I've followed them since the days of Niki Lauda and my family and I have been coming here every year since 1999."

Malaysia's involvement in Formula One has grown exponentially since the country first joined the calendar 13 years ago, but never has the relationship been as strong as it is this season.

Mercedes is sponsored by Petronas, the Kuala Lumpur-based oil and gas company whose twin towers have dominated the capital's skyline since 1998. Team Lotus's chief is the Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, who launched the outfit last year. And in December 2010, Renault were rebranded Lotus-Renault GP following heavy investment from Lotus Group, whose parent company is the Malaysian government-owned car manufacturer Proton.

The presence of two Lotus-named teams on the grid has brought confusion to proceedings already this season. In Australia for the first race, Melbourne's Herald-Sun ran a story focusing on Team Lotus and asked what impact the absence of Robert Kubica, the Renault driver, would have on the team.

In a quest to clear the confusion and increase market share, all three teams have been on the charm offensive this week with drivers visiting local primary schools, oil refineries and radio and television studios.

A controversial legal battle is ongoing between the two Lotus teams, who are separately owned entities. It did not, however, stop Fernandes, the chief executive of budget airline carrier Air Asia, saying earlier this week that Team Lotus is "the only team that has Malaysian blood running deep in its veins".

Mohamed in the McLaren shirt agreed and said he would be giving any leftover support to his compatriot.

"Team Lotus with Tony Fernandes, Heikki [Kovalainen] and Jarno [Trulli] is the real Malaysian team. They started first and gained some recognition and then this 'Lotus-Renault' came from nowhere," he said, refuting that his decision to back Team Lotus was influenced by their Finnish driver Kovalainen's two-year spell with McLaren.

"Lotus-Renault has a more experienced team and more money, but you have to always support the underdog, not the conglomerates. What Renault did was just wrong and Mercedes have enough support; they can buy friends."

Of the three teams, Mercedes certainly seem to have the most fans willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves. The Petronas-branded Mercedes shirts have been dotted around the circuit the past few days, while the green-and-yellow livery of Team Lotus and the black-and-gold of Renault have been a rare sight outside of the paddock.

Hafizun Kahapah, a twenty-something from Kuala Lumpur with no immediately noticeable affiliation to any particular team, said he was supporting Mercedes - although dismissed the notion his allegiance was linked to their Petronas sponsorship.

"Schumacher is my idol," Kahapah said, gazing around the busy stands through reflective Ray-Ban sunglasses. "I loved him at Ferrari and I hope Mercedes do the best this weekend, but I don't really care about the Malaysian connection. I just love Schumacher."

Kahapah added he was not aware of Lotus-Renault's Malaysian influence and would support Team Lotus only when they found some much-needed pace. "Who wants to support a slow team?"

Karmun Chan and his girlfriend, dressed head-to-toe in Scuderia red including Ferrari World caps - "one day we will visit Abu Dhabi" - said they too would support Mercedes this weekend courtesy of a certain seven-time champion's involvement.

"I have supported Ferrari since I was very young and Schumacher started racing with them," Chan said.

"I hope he does well this weekend with Mercedes - but not as good as Ferrari."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae