Life in the fast lane

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am


The Singapore Grand Prix is far more than a Formula One race - it's a lifestyle event.

When Singapore GP director of operations Sarah Martin is asked what entertainment rivals existed before the race arrived in 2007 she answers: 'There weren't really any.'

The Lion City has struggled in the past with a perception, fair or not, that it was, well, a bit dull. One of the main aims of grand prix organisers was to change that, with the circuit operating as something of an arts/music/food festival rather than 'just' a motor race.

'Last year we had about 400 entertainers on site,' says Martin, who organised WOMAD world music festivals before joining the GP team. 'If you take away the race and just do what we did for entertainment, it is a full-fledged festival which could be a standalone event.

'Being a night race opens lots of possibilities with the evening landscape. Our ultimate goal is delivery of a lifestyle event. Yes, it's a very exciting Formula One race, but the idea behind it is that from the moment you step through the gate you're completely engaged before you even get to your seat.'

To that end, the entertainment budget for the event is S$5 million, spent on 10 performance stages, 28 bands, roving entertainers, food and drink centres, corporate hospitality and huge set-piece art displays.

The 686,000 square metre area of the circuit park is split into four zones, with ticket prices ranging from S$1,288 (HK$8,298) for the most expensive grandstand seats at the pits and first turns to S$148 for 'walkabout' tickets for Sunday.

This year's headline act is American rock band Linkin Park. Other acts include '80s legend Boy George, Colombian diva Shakira, Glee star Charice, plus Rick Astley and Shaggy and a DJ set from Massive Attack's 3G and Daddy G.

Elsewhere, race-goers can watch two full-fledged musicals for the first time, Bollywood Express and Forbidden Broadway. Around the track, there will be giant recreations of planets based on Nasa imagery, and the Venetian Festival, a theatre show involving elaborate props and costumed actors weaving through the crowd.

Add to that fireworks and parade bands such as Transe Express, the Jaipur Maharajah Brass Band and Samba Brasil, plus hundreds of roving acts - stilt walkers, magicians, Marilyn Monroe lookalikes, etc - and even those with only a passing interest in motor sport should be kept amused.

'In Padang in Zone 4, there's a massive concert stage that we're going to fly in from Australia,' says Martin. 'In Zone 1 we've got the village stage, with a spectator capacity of 2,000-3,000 people. This year racegoers can weave their way through an art installation featuring giant recreations of planets based on Nasa imagery before hitting the food and drink area. The Esplanade outdoor theatre is one of the most beautiful we have because the backdrop is the water. There are also smaller stages in Esplanade park with singer-songwriters, drumming circles and so on. We've presented everything from opera to jazz to pop and rock.'

Unsurprisingly, this all takes some organising and it's been a learning experience for all involved. A plethora of awards has followed from the likes of the FIA and Singapore Tourism Board among others - Motor Sport Facility of the Year, Autosport Pioneering and Innovation Award, Promoter of the Year, Breakthrough Contribution to Tourism, etc.

'Year one was a bit of a crash course. The idea was just to get this race off the ground,' says Martin. 'We had about 18 months to put it together, an insane timeline. In year two we looked at all the lessons from year one and thought, okay we can play a bit.

'We became more familiar with our site, what areas worked, what the crowd patterns were like, how people moved on site. Based on that, we decided to create pockets of experience.

'There's a huge gamut of stuff but we break it down into little areas and put it back together again - for example, just last week I found an amazing tree that I'm going to turn into a cave with lights and so on.

'We found after year one we didn't have enough drinking holes, so we invited all these bars to make sure everybody has enough beer and frozen margaritas. It's Singapore's highest beer consumption of year.

'Over the years we've found people get their favourite spots, whether it's the hawker village, or the Padang, or a particular tree.'

A small day-to-day team swells massively for the race weekend: 'The core team is quite small. I've got less than 50 people really. On site we've got 200-250 people in the entertainment team. In the security team there's just shy of 1,000 people, armed and unarmed. We work with the Education Institute to train over 1,000 student ushers, so we bring them through e-training that we've developed. We accredit about 24,000 people working on the site, including all the stakeholders. We've got about 30 hotels working to deliver the corporate experience for the boxes.'

Remarkably, given the site occupies streets and public areas, organisers don't get complete access to it until 12am on the Friday morning. Stages, bars, restaurants, art installations, replica Singapore shop houses, an entire hawker village - all erected piece by piece, used for three days then torn down to return the streets to the residents.

Befitting what sounds like a military operation, security and crowd control is a major challenge.

'No single [security] company can support us so we have to work with about 15 different companies, and the police and the army and the civil defence,' says Martin. 'We go from what we call the build period, were we have to protect the build, into event day, where security is ramped up to its fullest and we have to deal with dispersal and crowd control.

'There's anything between 73,000 to 80,000 people who can't all be in the same spot. So everyone in Zones 1 and 2 has access to everything. People in 3 can go to 4 but people in 4 can only remain there. We can't have 30,000 people moving into the Bay area through a three-metre gap in the fence.

'Over the years we've managed to tweak it so we have the right flow and the right numbers in each area so people don't think they're in a mosh pit. But while the spaces look small, it's very easy to manoeuvre. To get into the site is very easy. There's a train station at each gate and we work with the transport authority to put on shuttle buses and temporary taxi ranks.'

Close co-operation with the government, tourism board and private enterprises is vital. But the benefits to hotels and businesses - and to the city-state as a whole - are clear.

'It showcases the country in its best light - we're shocked ourselves when we see the amazing images so I can well imagine people in, say, Russia thinking, 'wow, where is that?'

'A lot of our hotels have been with us since day one. There's a sense of pride in being associated with the event because there's such high standards. We really do high-class dining on site, if that's what you want. We cater for about 10,500 hospitality guests per day.

'The benefits are huge, both tangible and intangible, in terms of visitor numbers and receipts. You can't buy that kind of coverage.'


The entertainment budget in Singapore dollars (HK$32.25m)

- There are 10 stages

- 30,000 attend Padang stage daily