Malaysia expects bumper crowd for F1

Malaysian Grand Prix organizers hope to attract more than 100,000 spectators to next month's Formula One race with renewed interest following the return of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.

Ticket sales dropped sharply last year amid the global economic crisis, attracting only 80,000 spectators compared to about 120,000 in 2008.

But the local economy is rebounding and Schumacher's return after three years of retirement has set the stage for one of the most anticipated title duels in Formula One, Mokhzani Mahathir, chairman of organizer Sepang International Circuit, said Monday.

The return of the Lotus brand after 16 years, backed by the Malaysian government and businessmen, adds to the excitement of the new season, Mokhzani said. In addition, national oil company Petronas has also become the title sponsor of Schumacher's Mercedes GP team.

"We hope to achieve more than 100,000 (spectators) this year. With Lotus, Mercedes and the return of Schumacher, we are seeing renewed interest in F1," Mokhzani said.

Lotus won 79 F1 races and seven constructors' titles between 1958 and 1994 before the team collapsed due to money problems. Mercedes-Benz has returned to F1 racing under its own name for the first time in 55 years by buying Brawn GP, which won the drivers' and constructors' championship last season.

This year's Malaysian GP on April 4, the third leg of the F1 circuit after Bahrain and Australia, will start an hour earlier at 4 p.m. local time (0800 GMT), officials said.

The 2009 race - which started at 5 p.m. local time to better suit European fans - was suspended after 33 laps as a tropical storm lashed the Sepang International Circuit, making conditions impossible for drivers. It was ultimately brought to an early end just before 7.00 p.m, making it the shortest Formula One race in 18 years.