Lighting up the way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am

Former world champion Fernando Alonso said 'impossible', fellow Formula One star David Coulthard called it a 'gimmick', but Singapore Grand Prix executive director Michael Roche says a 'unique and exciting challenge' is about to become a reality.

Forget the International Olympic Committee meeting in 2005 which awarded the Olympic Games to London, the inaugural Youth Olympics to be held in 2010 or the two multi-billion-dollar casinos rising out of Marina Bay, Singapore is about to host its 'biggest sporting and social event', says Roche.

The first night race in the 58-year history of Formula One will be staged in the Lion City on September 28, making Singapore 'the leader' and an 'exotic addition' to the Formula One family, says F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

The organisers proudly claim they have already sold 92 per cent of the 100,600 tickets and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is expecting a tourism bonanza of S$100 million (HK$578 million).

Night will become day for the 20 drivers and their teams as the organisers deliver on Ecclestone's promise that Singapore's CBD is 'going to be lit as if it's daylight'.

All safety requirements have been met and the FIA has given its blessing, says Roche.

'Creating the first night race in Formula One history sets us apart, and the design of our track will give the drivers some unique challenges,' said Roche. 'The combination of long straights and fast, flowing corners will create one of the fastest street circuits.

'Understandably, as this is a new circuit and the first ever night race, the drivers and teams are going to have concerns,' he said. 'Once they have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the course during the practice sessions we are sure they will feel more comfortable and look forward to this unique and exciting challenge.'

The three-storey pit building was completed last week and the installation of the lighting system is being carried out, along with modification works to existing roads, such as the removal of kerbs and traffic islands along the track.

'We wanted to create a state-of-the-art grand prix street circuit right in the middle of a living, functioning city,' Roche (pictured) said. 'Our prime challenge has been to ensure the city continues its day-to-day life, while creating a dynamic event at its heart. The track has been designed to be technically challenging, while showcasing an interesting mix of Singapore's heritage buildings around the Padang, Anderson Bridge and City Hall, as well as our dynamic and fast-growing financial district close to Raffles Quay. Once the integrated resort has been completed at Marina Bay in 2010, this will only add to the excitement of the route.'

Singapore will then further its claim to being a sporting capital in Asia, thanks in large measure to property tycoon Ong Beng Seng. 'If it wasn't for him [Ong], there wouldn't be any possibility of a race in Singapore,' Ecclestone said after signing a five-year deal, with the city-state having an option to extend for another five years. 'We have five countries waiting to host a round of the championships. It's because of our friendship over the years that he has persuaded me to come to Singapore.'

The Lion City will deliver a race within 18 months of clinching the deal, instead of the usual two years. But the road was long and fraught with pitfalls, particular the 'money part of it', said Ong, the managing director of Hotel Properties Limited (HPL).

The cost of holding the race will be about S$150 million, and Ecclestone let the cat out of the bag saying the government (or the Tourist Development Fund) would foot 60 per cent - or S$90 million - of the bill and Ong's Singapore Grand Prix Pte Ltd the rest. The hosting rights paid to Ecclestone are believed to be about US$35 million a year - similar to what the Shanghai Grand Prix is believed to pay. Taxpayers were outraged they would be helping fund an entrepreneur's dream and the government tried to put the cat back by announcing a novel tax to help fund part of the cost - up to 30 per cent on hotel room revenues.

'We expect hotels in Singapore to benefit and we need our hotels to contribute their fair share,' said Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran. 'The F1 tax, which will be imposed for about seven days around the race period, will be tiered so track-side hotels, which will benefit the most with the increase in room rates, will pay a higher rate and those farther away will pay a lower one.'

The F1 tax on hotels is expected to raise about S$15 million to S$20 million per year.

Roche had earlier revealed to Singapore's Today newspaper there was a cap on how much Ong could drive off with.

'We can't run away with S$50 million and say, 'Ha, ha, got you there', it is not like that,' he said. 'We have a [profit] cap. We have a small amount of profit and then there are government claw-backs.

'If our budget estimates turn out to be off the mark and there is all this profit, it all goes back to the government. It will flow back, and affect [reduce] the following year's grant from the government.'

Roche said there was also a high level of risk - one the government was aware of. 'If there are any losses, we are on own. If there is a bad year, it can be anything, another Asian financial crisis, terrorism, a Sars-type scare, we may never really recover,' he said. 'There is a high level of risk, but there is also an upside. We expect it to bring benefits beyond mere dollars and cents, such as jobs for Singaporeans and a wealth of business opportunities for local, regional and international companies and brands. Most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to showcase Singapore. We feel this is a win-win situation.'

The Singapore government has invested heavily in sports, particularly the Sports Hub, which will soon be built on some prime real estate in Kallang, and has been supportive of the formula one race.

'In my mind it is without doubt one of the most supportive and visionary governments when it comes to developing sports,' said Roche, who came to Hong Kong in 1986 from London before moving to Singapore four years later where he founded music events promotion company Lushington Entertainments.

'This strong support will allow us to deliver a Formula One race within 18 months of receiving approval, instead of the usual two years, which we believe is a significant achievement.'

The deal would still be stalled on the grid if Singapore was not willing to pursue the night option so it is time friendly for the European audience, which makes up two-thirds of F1's television viewership.

Ecclestone turned Formula One into the multi-billion business it is today by pioneering the sale of television rights in the late 1970s. He and his companies also manage the administration, setup and logistics of each grand prix.

When he wants something, Ecclestone usually gets it. Countries fall over themselves to be part of his circus and he has convinced Malaysia to also see the light, while Melbourne Grand Prix organisers have saved their race by agreeing to a later start time.

The Shanghai Grand Prix, meanwhile, is resisting pressure to race under the stars.

The night option immediately raised safety fears, with two-time world champion Alonso saying 'I think, it is impossible. There is a huge safety issue racing on the streets. No one has thought that something might happen if the lights go out. It is not a football match.'

Coulthard said it was a gimmick, but after a test drive softened his stance.

'I think you could do it, but then there is a question of rain or a blackout that could embarrass you if don't do your homework. I have done a few laps of a track and there were a few places that needed to be made safer,' he said.

Roche and the FIA assure everyone the best brains have done the research and planning and now the preparations are almost complete. The Lion City is about to roar again - this time to the sound of Formula One engines.

Grand vision

capacity: 100,600

84,600 three-day walkabout and grandstand passes

13,000 corporate hospitality and Paddock Club seats

3,000 single-day walkabout passes

61 Laps:

One Lap: 5.067km

Race distance: 309.087km

310 Maximum speed:

Along Raffles Boulevard, between 250 and 300km/h on Pit Straight, St Andrews Road and Esplanade Drive

23 Turns:

Comprising 13 left and 10 right turns

Ticket prices:

S$168 (HK$972) walkabout pass

S$1,388 for pit and grandstand passes

S$7,500 for three-day Paddock Club pass