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Aviation mogul puts Malaysia on the map

Aviation tycoon Tony Fernandes has added another feather to his cap after helping put Malaysia on the world sports map by steering his country to a place on next year's Formula One grid.

The ebullient 46-year-old is at the forefront of the return to the sport of the Lotus brand, which announced its intention to race once again on Tuesday. The new team is backed by 1Malaysia F1 Team Sdn Bhd, a public-private partnership involving a string of top local entrepreneurs, as well as national carmaker Proton.

Its return to the fold comes as the sport battles the global financial downturn, which has forced major players like Germany's BMW and Japan's Honda to pull out.

Fernandes, who created Southeast Asia's biggest budget airline, AirAsia, from scratch to become Malaysia's 19th richest man worth 290 million dollars according to Forbes magazine, will be team principal.

It is a high profile role and he joins other luminaries such as fellow airline mogul Vijay Mallya of Force India and flamboyant Renault chief Flavio Briatore.

Kamarudin Meranum, deputy chief executive of AirAsia, which is one of the partners in the 1Malaysia team, said the homegrown Formula One outfit would allow Malaysia to develop new technology and boost its international profile.

"It will help brand Malaysia and spur excellence in sports and education," he told AFP. "We are excited with this F1 programme. We feel it is good for the country. It will bolster our local car industry. The spill-over effect is enormous."

But he insisted that despite Fernandes's dizzying array of business and sporting interests, the new role would not be a stretch for the AirAsia boss.

"It should not be a problem for Tony. He will act as a spokesperson and liaise with the FIA and he can still give directions for his other businesses," he said.

Kamarudin declined to reveal how much it would cost the Malaysian team to compete in the expensive world of Formula One.

"I can't tell you. We are looking for investors," he said.

Fernandes, whose entrepreneurial skills have seen him called the "Richard Branson of Asian air travel", has transformed AirAsia from its origins in 2001 as a tiny two-airline operation. It now covers more than 130 routes with a fleet of 80 planes, and Fernandes has branched out with an express courier business, a budget hotel chain and telecommunications services.

After graduating from the London School of Economics, he began his career by working as an accountant for Branson's Virgin Records from 1987 to 1989.

This is not his first foray into sports. AirAsia had a two-year sponsorship deal with Manchester United from 2005, and Fernandes is also the chairman of the Southeast Asian Basketball League which he launched in January.

The Lotus brand name is making its return to F1 after the original team by that name competed in the championship from 1958 through to 1994. Malaysian national carmaker Proton bought a controlling stake in the company in the mid-1990s.

The team will initially be based in Norfolk, England, near the Lotus Cars factory at a facility built by Toyota for its initial Formula One programme and then used by Bentley for its successful Le Mans programme, but the team's cars will be designed, manufactured and tested at Malaysia's Sepang International Circuit outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, which has hosted a Formula One race since 1999.

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