I AM not going to be a wet blanket, in prematurely criticising the government’s plan to enter Formula One.
The timing – in the midst of the global financial crisis – is probably questionable as this will cost us at least RM1 billion. The bulk of this money comes from national carmaker Proton, which in effect means the people are funding it.
There is a theory that the Finance Ministry will approve more special draws to help fund this venture.
However, in the long run, this may be one of our best investments; one of the best things Malaysia could have done in putting itself on the map. In terms of branding we are exposed 18 times a year – the number of races – to a global television audience of around 600 million.
Let’s not forget the potential tie-ups, endorsements and sponsorship deals which are a usual spin-off of a massive agreement such as this.
It also creates jobs and other opportunities through massive R&D investments, offering limitless prospects to local students for internships, training and attachments.
Ferrari, for instance, has a team of close to 800 people, including 200 frontline crew involved in pit and technical aspects of the race.
Now, with the Lotus name we cannot go wrong. The name itself evokes memories of the 79 grand prix wins that the team had before it folded and was bought by Proton.
But as the Malay saying goes, let this not be a case of "kera dapat bunga". In the hands of Datuk Tony Fernandes, one is more confident that our second foray into F1, albeit ambitious, will not go the way of our first venture with Team Minardi in 2001, with Alex Yoong being the country’s first ever F1 driver.
Minardi languished at the bottom and Yoong could boast of a position no higher than seventh place in Melbourne, when the other teams crashed out. Malaysia spent what is estimated at RM120 million in the tie-up and Yoong returned to the less competitive A1 race.
The worry is while we can impress with high-tech facilities and state-of-the-art headquarters complete with wind tunnel at the SIC (Sepang International Circuit), whether we can produce world-class performances from our drivers and technology is another story.
We can spend big bucks and pay millions for top notch drivers, but then, he will only be as good as the car he is driving.
Vitantonio Liuzzi, who is at the bottom of the drivers standings, cost Force India RM5 million a season, while Force’s chief engineer Mike Gascoyne is F1’s most expensive engineer at RM28.8 million a year.
Can we afford these kinds of salaries for average showings?
In our quest to put a Malaysian face in the cockpit, do we sacrifice quality and experience for Malaysia Boleh?
Probably, and we could end up a laughing stock languishing at the bottom of the 13-team race.
Hence, we need to be practical and ask ourselves what is the main motivation for the conception of the 1Malaysia F1 Team. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak’s explanation: "It will be a national team under the 1 Malaysia banner which stands as a unifying foundation for all Malaysians to come together in celebrating the cooperation between our multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious society through sports."
If one needed to use sports as a unifying factor, one only needs to go back in time to the era of the Malaysia Cup, the Thomas Cup and the Razak Cup to witness how for the sheer love of sports, Malaysians irrespective of ethnicity came together to cheer the multiethnic national teams.
The last time we witnessed a dramatic surge in national pride in the sporting arena was the 1998 KL Commonwealth Games.
Nicol David had succeeded to a certain measure in becoming a unifying factor through sports. The only set-back is that not many people follow squash.
If enhancing national unity is the main agenda, perhaps instead of spending RM200 million a year on an F1 team, we could explore strengthening the sports we already have.
Football has a tremendous following from Malaysians of all walks of life. It was only 30 years ago that we wore Pahang, Selangor and Kedah shirts with the same pride that we have today in adorning jerseys of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid.
Perhaps tweaking the organisation of sports associations and getting the deadwood out of the Football Association of Malaysia would be a cheaper and sure-fire way of getting football stadiums full again and reviving some of that national pride.
There is nothing to say Fernandes and the executives at Naza are not going to do a good job. Probably if anyone can get our F1 dreams on track it is the team unveiled by the prime minister on Tuesday. But at the end of the day, they are businessmen whose main focus is flying low-cost carriers and selling cars.
Malaysians would want to know what was the fine print when they signed on the dotted line and when do we pull the plug if this ends up draining our coffers yet again.