Kuala Lumpur: Formula One's best kept secret
Driven's Matthew Hansen finds there's more to Kuala Lumpur and Sepang than just their purpose-built Formula 1 circuit
Being handed the keys to a hotel room can create either a stirring, cringe-ridden feeling of regret, or a certain kind of immature excitement at what wonders lie ahead.
Being handed the card to go with my room at the illustrious Traders Hotel was definitely the latter experience.
I had googled the hotel in advance to see what I was in for, but still, I couldn't help but laugh like an idiot when I eventually opened the door. It was beautiful.
Directly across from my bed was a full, perfect view of Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers. The whole thing was euphoric -- the kind of moment that forces you to wonder what in a past life you did right -- or who in the depths of hell you'd dealt with -- to get this kind of opportunity. Surely I didn't deserve it. This was awesome.
It started at my comparatively drab work desk with an email from a fellow named Jim, from a company called Global Sports & Events.
Jim's list of contacts and friends is an incredible compilation of people from all over the world; ranging from profiles in international tourism and travel to major players in all different forms of world sport -- and one of the jewels in Jim's elaborate crown is what he offers to Formula 1 fans. That was what he was about to offer me.
When I think about attending Formula 1, I think about distance and limitation -- sad thoughts.
I'm certainly a fan of the sport, but I've also long considered it something out of my league. As if the category and the stars who sail within it are from some kind of alien planet.
Then there's me, fresh out of Auckland's humble west; more chips on my shoulder than a Southland potato grower. You can therefore imagine the feeling when the little animated envelope Kuala Lumpur: Formula One's best-kept secret
logo in my email illuminated, Jim's name next to it, with an invitation to join him for a tour of Malaysia's Sepang International Circuit, which is holding the Malaysian Grand Prix from September 30 until October 2.
I had no real idea what I was in for -- three days away, with an 11-hour flight each way, and almost every element of the itinerary a surprise.
In my own head, I wondered about the merits of going on sports tours. "These things are usually designed to be as cheap and nasty as possible, aren't they?" I pondered.
Eleven and a bit hours later, I was transfixed by the view from this incredible, opulent hotel of what must be the most incredible snapshot Kuala Lumpur has to offer.
Cheap and nasty, this was not.
For those of us in New Zealand who are in the position of attending a Formula 1 event, Australia and the Melbourne Grand Prix are often considered the most obvious choice -- geographically close, populated by an almost identical culture, and cheap.
And yet, as I became immersed in Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur's rich culture and history, I learned that this trip stacked up at almost the same price as the journey to Melbourne.
Knowing that, it's hard to believe anyone would even consider Melbourne to be an option. It feels like one of those "no brainers".
We arrived at Sepang, around 25 minutes drive from the centre of KL, on day two, still a little tired and drowsy, but itching to try to stay awake in an attempt to drink in every experience as well as possible.
Sepang's circuit was big. Actually, no, it was huge. I've been to Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell and New South Wales' historic Mount Panorama, but neither was such an intimidating expanse of expense.
It instantly shot to the top of my list of circuits with the best spectator facilities.
Over the subsequent days, we toured a variety of locations. This included a walk through the Beverly Medical Centre -- a world class facility where you or your significant other can get all manner of medical and dental work undertaken for a pittance compared to our Kiwi pricing.
There was an endless barrage of shopping centres to cater to every taste, yet, a few minutes from the centre of town you became surrounded by scenic bushlands. The food was a sumptuous range, from the mild and accessible to the height of Indo-Chinese cuisine -- our stop at Tamarind Springs (above) for dinner among the tree-tops on our final night proving most memorable.
But, having considered the full comprehensive tour, and having turned over as many of Kuala Lumpur's proverbial stones as was humanly possible over just three days, I'd have to say the 20-odd minutes we spent at Sepang's little go-kart track was the highlight.
It was just a few minutes' walk from the full circuit, lying in its shadow on that particularly hazy early morning.
In some ways, the two were a stark contrast. The circuit's incredibly huge, modern, well-maintained facility juxtaposed by a group of go karts that looked like they had each done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson, housed in a track facility that could potentially double as a set on The Walking Dead. But the lack of glitz didn't matter when confronted with something that was so raw and fun.
Most of its corners mirrored those of the international circuit, shrunk down to karting proportions. The apexes and corner exits were lined with coloured ripple strips, painted by the scuffs of ferocious battle. The front straight was long, and the speeds very, very high.
"I think I know who's gonna win," said Jim, as he put his helmet on.
"Same," I reflected, with a knowing smirk.
• Matthew Hansen's trip was hosted by Global Sports & Events. Click here to find out more about their Malaysian Grand Prix Formula 1 package.