Fast and furious in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am


Here is a number for the government to chew on - HK$3.4 billion. This is the money racked up by Singapore in incremental tourist receipts by hosting the Formula One race over the past four years. This is money for jam. When one considers that the Singapore government coughs up roughly HK$540 million annually as its share of the costs for hosting the popular night race, it is strikingly clear how profitable the enterprise of hosting the F1 jamboree is.

While this tangible evidence is plain for everyone to see, what is not so obvious are the other benefits that a race of this magnitude brings. Prestige cannot be measured in dollars and cents. The cachet of holding the world's first night race has bolstered Singapore's reputation as a happening place. The race around the streets of Marina Bay has put Singapore on the map. Veteran Formula One commentator Steve Slater has described it as a 'three-hour long TV commercial for a host nation' and undoubtedly the Lion City has benefited from this exposure.

The Singapore Tourist Board estimates that while nearly 40 per cent of the spectators who attended the past four races - Singapore's first F1 race was in 2008 - were from overseas, the event was collectively televised to a global audience of close to 400 million viewers. So many people watching in the comfort of their sitting rooms this year could translate into fans booking their flights and hotel rooms for next year.

This September's race, the fifth and last one in the current contract, will not be the final one, according to FI supremo Bernie Ecclestone. He said this week that a new five-year deal had been hammered out, but Singapore quickly denied this, saying what Ecclestone was offering was insufficient to commit to a full five-year extension.

It is clear Singapore is way down the track, and well ahead of Hong Kong, when it comes to hosting major sporting events. We might have the Hong Kong Sevens, but F1 is of a greater magnitude.

It has been a fortnight since our new leader, Leung Chun-ying, took up the mantle. We have already asked that he take a long, hard look at sports as a way to raise the city's status. We beat this drum again, because it is only with government support that we can get this ball rolling.

Already there are a few wheels turning, we understand, with a group of entrepreneurs, led by a former HSBC hot-shot-turned-restaurateur, keen to bring F1 to Hong Kong. Their interest was sparked after last year's demonstration by Red Bull Racing, who brought an F1 car to run on the streets of Hong Kong for the first time. More than 40,000 people turned up to watch this exhibition which again shows the attraction of fast cars in our city. This syndicate prefers to work behind the scenes, but they hope the authorities will back them. And they will need all the help they can get. Apart from the financial chasm that has to be crossed, the bigger hurdle is the mindset of people from the Transport Department to the police.

The challenges are manifold. One sceptic put it succinctly when he said: 'Hong Kong is a city that can't even close a few roads for a marathon and thinks a mega-event is the Symphony under the Stars. The chances of an F1 race coming here are infinitesimal.' That will be the gut reaction from many. Rome wasn't built in a day but Singapore managed to organise its first GP in just 17 months. It will take a lot of convincing. How can a route that runs through the streets of Central - preferably along the roads adjoining the new government offices - be closed for a week so as to set up spectator stands and race barriers? Let's start this debate and get the government onside.

It won't be cheap. The rights fee for hosting a race is believed to have cost Singapore US$35 million for the first year and has now crept up to US$42 million. It costs another US$120 million or so to stage the race, of which US$70 million (HK$540 million) - or 60 per cent - is borne by the government with the rest pumped in by hotelier Ong Beng Seng. But as we revealed at the outset, the rewards are also huge for private enterprise. As for the government, the publicity such an event will bring cannot be quantified.

With Europe in a financial mess, it is more than likely that Ecclestone and F1 will be looking at Asia with renewed interest. Now would be the right time to jump on the bandwagon. We have the enterprise to do it, and even go one better than our neighbours. A night race through the streets of Central is a mouthwatering prospect, especially if the numbers add up.