Why Singapore Grand Prix extension to 2021 is a smart move – and how Formula One could have kissed Asia goodbye

Fears over future of the iconic Marina Bay night race erased as organisers announce agreement for four more years

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 11:31am

It was only last November that Formula One’s colourful former chief Bernie Ecclestone blasted ungrateful Singapore, saying it was “just an airport” before his circus arrived in town.

The Lion City looked set to dump its grand prix at the time, with this weekend’s upcoming edition set to be the 10th and last.

But organisers of the night race announced a four-year contract extension until 2021 on Friday, with an agreement reached after several rounds of negotiations.

It had been expected – Chase Carey, Ecclestone’s replacement as F1 chief executive and chairman following the US$8 billion takeover by Liberty Media in January, couldn’t have been more gushing this week in his praise for the floodlit street race.

“Singapore anchors our Asian strategy, it is the signature race for Asia,” the American said on Wednesday.

“It’s also our gateway into Asia, which is important for our future and our growth. Singapore is truly an iconic race on our schedule worldwide.”

Marina Bay has become a high point in the calendar for motor racing fans worldwide since its inaugural race in 2008.

It’s a spectacular event – a proper test for teams and drivers on a tough and twisting street circuit that throw ups exciting races and the odd unexpected result in front of a glittering backdrop of skyscrapers and landmarks.

It’s also great for television – Singapore pioneered night racing to cater to European audiences, attracting 640 million viewers worldwide since 2008, according to promoters.

Losing a race previously dubbed “the crown jewel in F1” by Ecclestone would have been a blow to both parties.

F1 still has other race hosts in Asia, but they pale in comparison in terms of glamour to Singapore, with its lavish pop concerts in Padang during race week.

Japan was included on the first release of the official 21-race 2018 calendar in June, but

Malaysia will host its last race next month after 19 years at Sepang.

Shanghai’s future remains in doubt, too, with its fate unlikely to be decided until December.

The Chinese Grand Prix was listed as provisional on the calendar, with concerns over its viability amid falling attendances.

So it could have been catastrophic for F1 if Singapore had dropped off the calendar too and been replaced by a non-Asian round.

Liberty’s main focus is to build more European races – a French Grand Prix will be held for the first time in a decade, at Le Castellet in Provence.

The American company also wants to venture into America with a second race, meaning it could have essentially kissed Asia goodbye as a market if it lost three races in the region in one fell swoop.

For the Singapore government, it was also surely a no-brainer to renew the deal.

Yes, there are the usual complaints about traffic disruption that go with street races.

There is also disgruntlement that the main City Hall MRT station shuts down for the weekend, while the building and dismantling of the stands around Padang takes away from its beauty.

Malaysia organisers cited rising costs for cancelling the ir deal, and Singapore’s race doesn’t come cheap either – S$150 million (HK$871.5 million) per edition, with the government stumping up 60 per cent of the costs.

As Ecclestone put it last year, though, during his rant: “The grand prix has cost Singapore a lot of money, but we’ve also given them a lot of money.”

The race generates an average of nearly S$150 million in tourism – there have been over 350,000 international visitors to the track since 2008.

Admittedly, ticket sales for the most recent edition were at their lowest in nine years, down roughly 15 per cent on the average attendance.

Race promoters said the daily attendance around the Marina Bay circuit was 73,000, while the total number of spectators over the three days was 219,000.

However, Singapore’s trade and industry minister put the dip in ticket sales down to economic uncertainty in Singapore, with last September seeing the start of a recession.

“I think both of us recognise the great potential to continue to grow on what we’ve built here to date,” said Carey.

So four more years is a great deal for all involved. For while Ecclestone may have been right that F1 put Singapore on the map, Singapore in turn has clear value to F1.