Analysis Sponsorship

Petronas to withdraw from Sepang Racing Team – an unfortunate repeat of history?

Malaysian oil giant Petronas is set to seek out of their partnership with MotoGP team Sepang Racing Team at the end of season, putting its junior Moto3 and Moto2 squads in jeopardy, a fate that Petronas is familiar with.

Reports from Austria indicate that Sepang Racing Team is to become another team with an uncertain future as title sponsor Petronas prepares to withdraw its sponsorship association.

The Sepang Circuit-owned crew joined the world of prototype motorcycles in 2015 as they took over the existing Caterham AirAsia Moto2 team, focusing on nurturing young talent.

Petronas joined the project in 2017 becoming Sepang Racing Team’s title sponsor across all classes forward, bringing the brand’s key motorcycle products on display to the world.

A big opportunity arose in 2019 as they moved up to MotoGP in satellite partnership with Yamaha with a superstar lineup in Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli, the latter finishing runner-up in the 2020 season.

It is irrefutable that Petronas is always mentioned in the front-row of the conversation in MotoGP, considering it’s not common for a up-and-coming team to be as successful in such short notice.

However, it’s worth mentioning that this sudden departure of the Malaysian state-owned oil company is not surprising, as Petronas is known to be quite impatient in motorcycling ventures.

A halted beginning

Petronas’ first foray in motorcycle prototypes was unveiled in 2001 at the Sepang Circuit (ironically) with the Sauber-Petronas GP1, a 990cc bike planned to race on the new MotoGP class.

MotoGP would be replacing the old 500cc class, in which fellow Malaysian motorcycle manufacturers Modenas-Proton were working with Kenny Roberts’s team.

During this time Petronas was in a technical collaboration with Formula 1 team Sauber, as such, the GP1 was manufactured in their headquarters in Hinwil, Switzerland.

A last minute executive decision at the end of the year prompted the cancellation of the MotoGP project in lieu of pursuing a different league with a renowned rider.

Superbike trials and tribulations

After quickly leaving the MotoGP paddock, Petronas joined ventures with World Superbike legend Carl Fogarty, who was launching a racing team of his own in 2003.

Team Foggy would use the Petronas-manufactured engines from the previous endeavour in a bespoke chassis created in-house by Fogarty’s team.

To meet the requirements for the motorcycle’s entry into the championship, the engine had to be reduced to 899.5 cc and Petronas had to produce 150 road version motorcycles for FIM homologation.

Once the superbike was ready for competition a bigger problem surfaced as FIM changed the rules to allow 1000cc machines, causing the Foggy-Petronas bike to be at a power disadvantage.

While the first two years were relatively successful, the rival manufacturers started to outperform Petronas as patience started to drop immensely at the Malaysian offices.

By 2006, patience run dry and Petronas quit the project and exited World Superbike as the season ended.

The failed campaign of the oil company in the championship led to Petronas being cited as never returning to world motorcycle competitions, until their eventual return in the mid-2010s.

It is believed that none of the 150 motorcycles produced were sold and only made for homologation, as in 2010 Motor Cycle News found 60 of them in a warehouse subject to a confidentiality agreement to Petronas.

Uncertainty in the horizon

Petronas departing from MotoGP could also be associated to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the global economy, recording multi-million loses since 2020 due to lower oil prices and demand.

An effort in sport partnerships whilst being in the red would be seen as redundant by accountants in order to save money and report profits in a COVID-19 affected reality.

The Malaysian oil giant’s other big motorsport partner is Mercedes-AMG, which has been linked to bring a more prominent position to stakeholder INEOS in the past year.

It would not be unimaginable to rule out the possibility of Petronas leaving Formula 1 in the foreseeable future as well.

On the other hand, Sepang Racing Team will have to focus on hunting a new partner that can bring a similar sum of funding as Petronas to save its junior crews.

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