Don’t hit me. I confess. September is a special month for me. I remember the month because since 2008, when the first ever Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix was held here, I have been getting fewer people asking me if Singapore is part of China.
Now, they say, oh, Singapore, where the F1 night race is.
I still recall fondly the first time I heard the F1 cars start up in the paddock. It was like magic and I had goosebumps on my arms. The streets that we take daily suddenly turned into a stage, all pretty and lit up like Christmas came early. When the television camera panned across the city skyline and beamed it to international audiences, I couldn’t help grinning – this is my home, my country.
This year is the fifth year of the night race and I still feel this same sense of pride when I see the city come alive for F1.
I am also particularly nervous. One of the most talked-about issues as we enter the weekend is the contract renewal. The five-year contract will be up after this weekend and amid all the speculation, there has been no confirmation of the contract being extended.
I have heard people asking, when will it stop? The bad news for them – and not immediate heartbreak for me – is that even if Singapore does not renew the contract, there will be at least two more years of the race here until 2014. We need to give a two-year notice period should we decide not to continue.
Reports in recent months showed F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone claiming terms have been agreed between the Formula One Administration and Singapore for another five years. However, race organisers Singapore GP stepped out to clarify that negotiations are still ongoing. They said a decision will be made before mid-2013, but I am hoping the good news will come sooner for fans. The tension is killing me.
For some people, it is an attitude of indifference. Formula 1 comes and goes, and does not benefit or affect them. Others intentionally plan their holidays during this period so that they can escape the city centre road closures, traffic congestions and other commuting-related inconveniences.
Enthusiasts like me, however, look forward to the Grand Prix occasion with glee. Not that I don’t hear those who groan about the noise and disruptions – Singaporeans are not presenting themselves to be very tolerant people these days – but because I feel we need to be less myopic about this.
LOSE THE POSITION?
Singapore is the 14th race of the 20-race F1 2012 calendar. Eight of these races are held in Asia and the Middle East. China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are already on the calendar. Can Singapore afford to lose its spot? There will be others waiting to take over as the next talked-about Southeast Asian venue.
In the lead-up to this weekend, I’ve been speaking to some of the drivers and also Mr Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing, and all of them unanimously agree that Singapore should stay on the F1 calendar.
Mr Horner said: “There’s a lot of competition for places on the calendar and a lot of countries and venues want to be included within the Formula 1 calendar. Hopefully, Singapore has established itself as one of the great races of the year that it will be here for years to come.
“I think everyone in the pit lane will be really disappointed if we didn’t come back to Singapore after the end of the current contract. It’s a great race, a great spectacle, and it puts Singapore right on the spotlight a weekend a year where you get a global audience.”
People may feel that F1 does not directly benefit the average man-in-the-street, and the consensus seems to be that it’s a waste of money and resources, especially when it costs about S$150 million to stage it with help from private investors, as reported by The Business Times.
BACK TO PAYROLL
Yet, F1 is a huge international event and the benefits are reaped on a large industry and national scale. Money goes back to Singapore companies in the fields of events management, public relations, media, logistics, F&B, retail and entertainment, and these eventually trickle down to an individual’s payroll.
Mr Jason Chew, director of Pit Crew, an events company specialising in cars and motorsports, said he has seen a 50-per-cent increase in interest for driving events since F1 came to Singapore. These driving events are held not just by automotive companies, but also consumer brands who want to include an element of driving and cars in their initiatives.
He said: “F1 has definitely helped other businesses grow, such as industries of F&B, hospitality, transport, events management and engineering. It is more than just a one-weekend event. We run 90 per cent of car- and driving-related events in Singapore and we have seen an influx of these over the last four years.”
In the Singapore Tourism Board’s annual report 2011, chairman Chew Choon Seng said that Singapore “recorded new highs in tourism receipts and visitor arrivals and successfully executed projects that re-established Singapore on the world map as a prime tourist destination.” One of these projects is the F1 night race. The board also stated that the race attracts an average of 40,000 international visitors.
Over the last four years, the tourism receipts have amounted to more than S$560 million – about S$168 million in 2008, S$93 million in 2009, S$160 million in 2010 and some S$140 million in 2011.
Looking beyond monetary benefits, F1 has also added credibility and expertise to Singapore’s capabilities of hosting mega international events, and it has also encouraged knowledge growth.
In the first few years, overseas consultants had to be engaged to train the race officials and the medical officers. This year, all these are entirely managed from home base.
A HOME FAN BASE
These indirect benefits, such as the strengthening of the Singapore dollar, will be better realised in the long run.
The challenge is in how to keep the interest going for overseas fans once the novelty of a shiny new venue wears off. Ticket sales have continued to be strong these five years, but 40 per cent of these are from tourists. The aim then is to start building a Singapore fan base.
The general lack of knowledge and interest in motorsports here requires that there be more education on the bigger picture and the smaller details that affect them. People say they are put off by the crowds, but it is not any worse than the weekend shopping crowds, and probably less because everyone wants to keep away. The vibe is certainly much better than having to squeeze through throngs of mad, aimless shoppers – the happy atmosphere of a sports carnival prevails. Our air-conditioned underground malls and MRT links ensure transport and rest stops remain a breeze.
Yes, encouraging both consumer and commercial interest for the sustainability of F1 will be a tough nut to crack.
A temporary street circuit in the heart of the city was not something that crossed people’s minds. The motorsports scene in Singapore fell into the dark ages when the heydays of the Kallang carpark races faded into history. F1 revived it and gave a reason for like-minded people to gather.
It brought about the possibility of having our own permanent race track – until it fell into the wrong hands when the appointed consortium failed to fulfill the contract requirements, resulting in its termination. And now, there is no certainty that the land allocated will still be for motorsports use, because market studies are being conducted for feasible projects.
The lack of a permanent circuit makes it extremely difficult to sustain interest in motorsports the way people follow table tennis or football, because it feels like it has no place to call “home”.
The debate of whether F1 should stay or go looks to be an endless one. For now, I am just thankful I get to enjoy it while it lasts. The two-hour night race is the longest race of the F1 calendar. Our hot and humid weather, the floodlights, the tight corners, the unforgivable walls and the little run-off areas, make this one of the toughest races of the season.
Not to mention the prospect of rain. If the ground is wet after a shower, the drama grows tense with the slipping and sliding, and teams are tested on their ability to navigate the even trickier conditions. Should the downpour get too heavy, the race might forcefully be shortened just like it happened at the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix when it had to be abandoned halfway.
As I watch the flag-off this Sunday, my fingers will be crossed tightly for F1 to continue in Singapore.
*This was first published on InSing.com here.