Interview by Ellfian Rahim
Could you give us an insight into how big of an economic impact motorcycling events bring to Asia?
“MotoGP has been recognised as the most exciting sporting event, to some extent, even above Formula 1 in terms of excitement. In terms of value, it’s second to Formula 1. If you look at the ranking of what we call ‘mega events’, MotoGP ranks fourth behind Formula 1, Olympics and the World Cup. It’s one of the top five global sporting events in the world. For Malaysia to continue hosting it since 1991 is a great honour and achievement, and it shows how the event has grown in Malaysia over the last eleven years. Internationally, it’s huge. I think it’s great for Malaysia to still be a part of it, hopefully for the next five years, because a country does need a big, international event like this in order to promote it, directly or indirectly.”
The year 2020 started well for your team, which outperformed the Yamaha factory outfit under your direction. What was in your mind back then?
“Yes. The first milestone was the creation of the Sepang Racing Team that took the MotoGP world by storm. We were the dark horse. We were the underdog. We came out of nowhere. The MotoGP community is very familiar with the Sepang International Circuit (SIC), purely because we promote Malaysian MotoGP very well. We are like the crown jewel for MotoGP in Southeast Asia just like how Singapore is for Formula 1. We set the standard.
Then, when we suddenly announced together with Petronas that we got an entry for MotoGP, we created another buzz. When we presented ourselves for the first time in Europe, we presented so well that we did not look like we were a new team.
My philosophy in everything I do, especially when it comes to sports, is that presentation and perception come before the results. We need to create confidence, credibility, and ultimately, a great brand. Presentation is the utmost priority in terms of the outlook of the team; the people, riders and assets are so important. Then, fortunately, in our first year, we exceeded everybody’s expectations, including ours, and finished fifth.”
Did you face any issues in getting the riders that you wanted?
“We started off our life too well. It’s extraordinary because if you look at us who are only in our third year, and if you look at other independent teams that have been around for more than 20 years, they have not achieved what we have. We were second in the world championship last year. But this year, compounded by the pandemic, we couldn’t get the riders that we wanted.
We were offered a legendary rider like Valentino Rossi, who at the time, I wasn’t convinced that he could do what he can, which is competitive (riding) until the second race in the Jerez circuit last July, where he placed third. That was one of my most memorable experiences because we were first (with Fabio Quartararo), (Maverick) Viñales was second and Valentino was third, and I was on the podium with all three of them. Then, when I saw Valentino up there, I was like, okay, I’m convinced that this guy may have another year or two in him to race.”
Petronas decided to withdraw its title backing at a critical time. Could you share more about that?
“What I’ve learned so far in this business is that there are many layers to it. Hence, the equation change and the emotions change as well. It’s about what sponsors want and the targets that we need to achieve for them. They’re looking at R&D, new businesses, branding, exposure, engagement, activation and so on. Of course, on-track performance also relates to the objectives and targets that they want.
We did very well in the first year. The second and third years were a bit difficult because of the pandemic. But at the end of the day, it’s all business. We are dealing with one of the top Fortune 500 companies in the world, so we are thankful for the support that they’ve given us up until now. We also respect their decision because we understand how the situation is like here in Malaysia with the pandemic, and how the government relies on Petronas. So the justification makes sense; we respect it and at the end of the day, it’s just business. We just have to survive it and life goes on.”
How are racing teams like yours hoping to effectively pivot in this era of the pandemic?
“That’s a good question because we are a new team and we are still trying to find our footing and be financially stable in order for us to continue for the next 10 years. I think we’ve been thrown into the lion’s den nearly all at once. Yes, we’ve had a very rosy two years with MotoGP. Then, results did not come in this year and sponsors pulled out, so what are we going to do? I could easily just give it up and walk away but I don’t want that because I want to show that we can survive. I want those who aspire to be where I am to see that you don’t have to rely on government money. If I give it up just because Petronas pulled out and we are in dire financial traits, we will never ever get the entry to MotoGP again.
This is what I love to do. This is my passion, my dream, and I have to make it work. This could be this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in my career since being in SIC as a CEO. When you run things on your own, it’s a totally different mindset and strategy because you’re fully committed.”
Tell us who inspires you in this industry.
“My mentor, if I could address him that way, who motivates me is, of course, Carmelo Ezpeleta. If I need advice for anything, even on how to run the team or the situation that I’m in currently, I would consult him. I think it’s important to get support and have a close ally of the rights holders.
In terms of inspiration, the one person I can think of is Sir Richard Branson. He is someone that I’ve been following from the moment he started Virgin Records. There’s this famous quote of his, which goes, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” which I apply to some of my team members during my time in SIC. I fully believe in it up until today. If you see something that’s crazily good and you’re not sure how to do it, don’t worry. Take it first and sort it out later.
The person who I idolise in terms of business, is Tan Sri Mohamed Azman Yahya, the current chairman of the SIC. He’s an entrepreneur and someone that’s respected in the Malaysian Business Council. I enjoy learning from him, his style, his humbleness and his simple thought process. So these three individuals.”