SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia would not want to host Formula One after this year’s final grand prix there even if it was offered to the country for free, Sepang circuit chief executive Razlan Razali said on Friday.
Local organisers have cited declining ticket sales, viewership and tourist numbers for their decision to pull the plug a year early on a race that first appeared on the calendar in 1999.
Razali has also complained in the past about the cost which he said made the government-backed event financially unviable.
In April, he accused former commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone of making promoters “look like idiots” with comments about how Formula One had charged high hosting fees without delivering what was paid for.
Speaking to Reuters at the track on Friday, he said he had struggled to convince fans to turn up because the show had not been exciting enough.
“Even if we got the greatest of deals, do it for free for example, what’s the product?” he said.
“I myself am not able to sit in front of the television and watch from lap one until whatever lap (for) two hours. It’s hard to sell this kind of event and to get bums on the seat...and it’s not worth the investment at the moment.”
The promoter said attendances and television audiences had been on the decline since 2014, the year the quieter 1.6 litre turbo-hybrid engines were introduced.
Only 46,944 spectators turned up for the race last year, a slight improvement on 2015 but well off the 88,450 who came to watch in 2013.
Grandstand tickets for the race, which comes two weeks after neighbouring Singapore’s floodlit spectacular, are still on sale despite being at an 82 percent discount. Razali expected about 80,000 spectators.
Tickets for next month’s MotoGP race, which the track will continue to host, are already sold out.
Razali said the sport’s recent change of ownership and management, with Liberty Media buying Formula One and replacing Ecclestone with Chase Carey, was not enough.
“I turn it back to the media — what changes have you seen that makes it any more exciting than in the Bernie days, in terms of the sport, in terms of racing, what have they done?,” he asked.
“Fans engagement, yes. What they have done off-track...it’s great but what triggers for someone to buy tickets to come to the circuit? It’s the product, the sport, not because of the activation they have done.”
Razali declined to say whether Liberty had offered to cut the race-hosting fees but suggested the U.S.-owned rights holders had not pushed for a deal.
“They did not work hard enough for us to change our minds,” he stated.
There was no immediate official comment from Formula One Management.
The track action this season has changed, however, with champions Mercedes facing their biggest external challenge in years and fans enjoying the spectacle of faster cars on fatter tyres.
Mercedes, sponsored by Malaysian state-owned oil giant Petronas, have dominated since 2014 but Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel led the championship until this month.
With six races remaining, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton is 28 points clear for Mercedes but failed to finish in Malaysia last season.
Attendances have been up at some other circuits this year compared to 2016.
While the engine rules are set in stone until 2020, Carey and his management team have been studying a longer-term overhaul and have already moved to open the sport up to fans.
Razali said Malaysia, whose circuit is popular with drivers, would be happy to come back if Formula One delivered a show that would bring in the fans and keep them on the edge of their seats.
“The easiest part is to come back and negotiate with Liberty Media for F1 to come back,” he said. “The hard part still is whether the sport has changed for the better...”
Editing by Alan Baldwin and Toby Davis