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F1: Sports organisers to blame for Malaysian GP fiasco
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#1
The blame for the abandoning of the Malaysian GP must lie squarely at the feet of Formula One's organisers. They must not be allowed to express or imply that the event organisers or the circuit owners are at all responsible for the fiasco of the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix.

It's equatorial. It rains. Hard. And, to a degree, it's predictable when it will rain. Malaysia's Sepang circuit was designed and built with rain in mind. And it copes very well. Until a monsoon arrives.

A monsoon is a special sort of storm. Those who think it rains in Manchester have no idea how much water can fall onto a small area in a short time. In the monsoon belt, they are used to it. And they build towns and cities to cope – but still they flood. In Central Kuala Lumpur, just 40 kilometres from Sepang, some of the world's most sophisticated flood drain systems are occasionally overloaded. And during a downpour, main roads flood within ten minutes – not occasionally but daily. Pavements are built over storm drains with inlets far larger than anyone sees even a few hundred kilometres north, and yet still they cannot handled the vast amount of water that a monsoon storm brings. The efficiency of the system is shown when, within ten to fifteen minutes of the storm ending, the roads are free of standing water.

It is against this background that the Sepang circuit's drainage was designed. There is, quite simply, no defence against a full-blown monsoon hitting the track.

The fans knew it, the organisers knew it but the FIA and FOM decided to risk the success of the event on a grander plan: to run races in the East, but to do it at a time that suits European audiences.

Lest we forget – it is only within the past few years that Bernie Ecclestone has said that the most important markets for F1 are China and other developing motorsport nations such as the middle east, Russia and India. What he means is that that's where the revenue will come from. But it's not worked out like that, and it's not where the audiences are. And continued failure of the USA to accept Formula One as the pinnacle of motorsport has refocussed the sport on its heartland in Europe.

So European TV audiences are the driving force behind the decisions to bring night-time and late afternoon racing into F1.

Last week in Melbourne, low sun created unnecessary danger for the drivers after the installation of lights in Albert Park was rejected by Melbourne's city representatives as too expensive. And in Sepang, where in at least each of the past two years it has poured down around 5pm, the circuit owners said that night racing is just too expensive to put on – and that as regional race numbers would be reduced because spectators would not be able to get home in time for work on Monday morning.

And so, in what was marketed as a compromise the race was scheduled for 5pm.

The only hope the race had was that the monsoon would come early – say around 4:15 and then – with a delayed start – it would complete. Or that Sepang's microclimate would mean that the downpour would pass by as it sometimes does, just a few hundred metres away.

That was gamble that was unlikely to pay off – although the first storm arrived later than expected and did indeed drift by close enough for light spotting on visors on one corner.

Then the rain proper came. It came without warning. The rain warning had been given for 10 minutes into the race but that storm missed. We did not see any other rain warning but, with 23 of 58 laps still to go, and so little time that not even a complete lap was done, Sepang was under water. An attempt by the safety car to pick up the cars and drive them around was abandoned before a complete lap was done behind it, and the cars were left to make their own way back to the grid under red flags.

When the rain stopped, there was around 15 minutes to go before the two hour maximum running time for a GP expired. But that was not enough time for the drainage system clear off the standing water and to allow the run-off from the hillsides to slow.

A restart requires ten minutes warning to the teams. And so, any restart must take place no more than one hour fifty minutes after the lights went out for the start of the race.

With 12 minutes to go to the deadline, drivers were sitting in their cars, expecting to start off behind the safety car for one lap, just to show willing to the spectators who had remained. But by that point, it was clear: the would not be led around the track until the safety car had at least done a reconnaissance lap – and that was not going to be at a speed anywhere near the 1:35 that dry conditions had been producing.

So, a combination of rules meant that, after 1 hour 50 minutes, almost half of which had been spent stationary on the grid in pouring rain, the stewards declared a result.

Cheated? You bet we were. A thrilling race had been curtailed by an avoidable risk.

And no matter what anyone tells you, the start time of 5pm decided upon by the FIA and FOM was the proximate cause of the fiasco.

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