Next month's race promises to be most exciting so far, but ticket sales are off to a slow start

Ticket sales for next month's Formula One race in Sepang, Malaysia, have not taken off with the same fury as in past years and some industry sources are blaming this on an "overload" of Formula One.

"Usually, you wait for almost a year for the race to come back here," said an industry source. "But this time it is back barely five months after the October 2000 Formula One race in Sepang. That may have taken away some of the excitement and expectation."

Others reckon it is due to the recent holiday season and the fact that the race, from March 17 to 18, falls within the same financial year as the October event.

Ironically, the slowdown in ticket sales comes as some in the motoring industry have been looking forward to the most exciting race since Malaysia joined the Formula One circuit in 1999.

"Last year, Michael Schumacher had already sewn up the driver's championship at the second last race in Suzuka, Japan, before he came down to Sepang," said a BMW Asia spokesman.

"This time, it will be much more exciting and unpredictable. There will be new engines, new chassis, new technology, new drivers, new bosses, and more."

One of the closely watched new drivers will be the BMW Williams team's Juan Pablo Montoya, who has moved over to Formula One from the American racing scene. In 1999, Montoya won the CART FedEx Championship Series (the US equivalent of the Formula One) in his debut season. Last year, he won the Indianapolis 500 race in his first attempt.

Industry insiders reveal that only a few thousand tickets have been sold here so far. In contrast most of the 10,000 tickets sold here were snapped up within two weeks of last year's event.

However, ticketing agents and tour organisers remain quietly confident that sales will pick up over the next three weeks.

Christopher Quek of Wheels for Fun, who sells popular packaged deals for the Sepang Formula One, confirmed that ticket sales are already picking up.

"Sales have not been as high as last year," he said. "Part of the reason was the Chinese New Year holidays. Also, this year's race falls within the same financial year as the previous race, so some corporates may find their entertainment budgets stretched. But sales have improved in recent weeks."

Many of the tickets Mr Quek sold last year and in 1999 were snapped up by corporate sponsors which bought them for clients, business associates or staff.

Last year, Mr Quek organised a motorcade to Sepang for several hundred racing enthusiasts, with hotel accommodation, breakfast and a wild F1 theme party included in the package.

He plans to do the same this year. Among the corporates that have signed on for his F1 ticket packages are oil companies Mobil and Shell, and tyre maker Michelin.