Thrills and spills? Not at the Hong Kong Formula E races
Peter Kammerer questions the logic of shutting down the city’s financial heart for a motorsports event that has none of the glamour and excitement of F1
Hong Kong is one of the world’s alpha cities. As such, it would be assumed that when it comes to important entertainment and sporting events, we’d be able to attract the best. But think again: most of the major touring stars bypass us for elsewhere and the only significant annual sports competitions to our name are a downsized variant of rugby and a leg of the WTA tennis series, presently under way in Victoria Park. There’s no better proof that we’re hitting far below our weight than the hosting at the weekend of a race in the Formula E electric car championship.
Organisers of the two-day event said 22,000 watched Sunday’s final from the grandstand and eVillage.
The world’s sports media was able to take in our impressive harbour and skyline, giving the promotion to the world the government was seeking in agreeing to host the event. But let’s face it: Formula E is far down the roster of international motor racing spectacles. I’d put it somewhere around or even beneath go-karts. Formula E cars are not the noisy, exciting vehicles of Formula One. They hum around at something less than a blur and there are no big names behind the wheel. The pinnacle of the glamour and thrill of motor sports lies in F1, and that was on show with last month’s Singapore Grand Prix. As spectacular as our backdrop may be, there is simply no competition. I equate it to my high school years, where all the girls followed the guys who played football; I played chess, so lucked out.
To put it in numbers, cumulative TV viewership of Formula E in its inaugural year was 4 per cent of that for F1. Research firm Repucom compared the inaugural 2014-15 season with that for F1 in 2015 and came up with international TV audience figures of 61.5 million next to 1.5 billion. The two are not competitors, but do have cars that look similar and share some circuits. F1 cars are 25 per cent faster, though, and the battery life of Formula E vehicles requires a car change midway, which attracted criticism for disrupting the on-track action.
There are other reasons why bringing Formula E to our streets was a mistake. Electric vehicles are billed as environmentally-friendly, but their batteries are recharged using electricity from power stations still largely burning polluting coal and oil. Hong Kong also has some of the world’s most congested streets. Based on 2014 figures, we have 271 vehicles for every kilometre of road, with only Portugal and Monaco ahead. The streets of Central, where the race was held on a 2.1km circuit, are among our most grid-locked. The government should be pushing citizens away from private cars and onto public transport, not promoting an alternative to petrol- and diesel-powered ones.
As for the inconvenience of staging races in our financial heart, there’s no disputing how disruptive that has been. The five roads used for the circuit were shut down from 1am on Saturday until 6am on Monday. Numerous bus routes were affected, as was private parking. The event may have lasted only two days, but the nuisance will have spanned three weeks in some areas due to the placement and removal of concrete safety barriers and fences for spectators.
Ironically, this came on the second anniversary of the Occupy protests, centred just down the street in Admiralty. Authorities condemned the actions by pro-democracy advocates that shut down Connaught Road for 79 days, yet actively promoted the Formula E race and its associated closures.
Was it really worth all the trouble for the sake of a low-ranking sporting event that attracted a few tens of thousands of spectators and barely grabbed headlines outside Hong Kong?
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post