SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia gave Formula One a rousing send-off on Sunday with the country’s last Grand Prix drawing its largest turnout in four years.
Organizers said a total of 110,604 spectators went to Sepang International Circuit near Kuala Lumpur’s international airport over the three days of practice, qualifying and Sunday’s race.
That was the largest weekend turnout since 2013, the season before Formula One replaced the screaming 2.4 liter V8 engines with quieter 1.6 liter turbo-hybrid power units. It was also 31.9 percent more than last year.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said it was a sentimental moment.
“We have hosted this for 19 years and I think we have seen some thrilling events,” he told reporters at a news conference with Formula One Chief Executive Chase Carey, adding that an eventual return could not be ruled out.
Malaysia made its debut in 1999 and pioneered the sport’s regional push, with Japan until then the only other country in Asia to have a race. China and Singapore, with a spectacular night race, have followed.
”We’ve had a great history here,“ said Carey, who replaced former supremo Bernie Ecclestone in January. ”But change is part of life.
”We’re actually very excited about the opportunities we have in Asia in general.
“We have a number of places where we have great interest and new opportunities to continue to grow the sport.”
Singapore has just signed a fresh four-year deal securing its place on the calendar until 2021, while China’s latest agreement runs to at least 2020.
Ticket prices for Sepang were slashed by 82 percent this year but crowds have been on the wane, particularly since 2014 despite the domination of Mercedes backed by state-owned oil giant Petronas.
Officials say tourism returns have also been diminishing while the high hosting fees have made the event financially unviable. The country’s annual MotoGP race draws much bigger crowds.
Sepang CEO Razlan Razali told Reuters on Friday that Malaysia would not want to host Formula One even if it were offered for free, with the sport not serving up enough excitement to draw in the local crowds.
“The attraction for the Malaysian fans is the problem, especially since 2014. That is something that for us as a promoter is difficult to sell,” he said on Sunday.
The championship battle between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has provided a gripping narrative, however, even if Sunday’s race stretched the former’s lead to a hefty 34 points.
Malaysia also made the sport accessible to other countries in the region as one of the most affordable races to attend, and has been a favorite of international spectators.
One of the most physically grueling events on the calendar, with its heat and strength-sapping humidity, has also been a real challenge for drivers.
“I think it has provided very good racing,” said Vettel, who moved up from last to fourth in Sunday’s race won by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
“I’m not obviously involved in why we’re not racing here any more but, who knows, maybe we’re back after a year’s break or two.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin