Vietnam Grand Prix? Hanoi should swerve Formula One instead of wasting millions pretending to be a mini Monaco
The Vietnamese government’s primary concern should be eradicating the squalor and personal struggle still faced by many in its capital, not putting on a flashy race for US$50 million
One of the more memorable clips from last weekend’s dull Monaco Grand Prix is not of the race itself, but a viral video of a woman watching it while on a treadmill. Normal enough, you’d think – except it’s not a television she’s looking at, but the Formula One drivers zooming around the streets of Monte Carlo as she works out on the top deck of a luxury yacht docked trackside.
The video epitomises the obscene affluence of the principality, which makes it a suitable setting for the glitz and glamour of F1 with its beautiful backdrop of lavish mansions and picturesque coastline of the French Riviera.
I was taking in a different but no less beautiful view at the time, looking out over Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, Vietnam – except instead of a line of extravagant yachts, there was a row of tattered rickshaws around me.
But while the two delightful cities are worlds apart in wealth, they could share the distinction of having a slot on the Formula One calendar next season.
“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, F1’s managing director of commercial operations, said last month.
“This is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base. And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”
Vietnamese promoters could reportedly pay between US$50-60 million annually to F1 owners Liberty Media as a race fee, which would be covered by the government.
Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain are all in a similar boat, hosting races thanks to the deep pockets of their authoritarian governments despite having little history in motorsport.
It’s a model Bratches said has “worked historically” for F1 – but something that would surely be hard to square with the locals of Hanoi.
The poverty rate in Vietnam fell from around 60 per cent of the population in the early 1990s to 9.8 per cent in 2016, according to data from the World Bank Group.
The government is well into a 2011-2020 development strategy focusing on skills development, improvement of market institutions and infrastructure development.
But as of February this year, Vietnam had US$575.63 million in loans from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and US$2.31 billion in credits disbursed by the International Development Association.
Vietnam may now be considered a middle income country, and no longer one of the poorest in the world, but it’s a questionable call for the government to sanction a flashy race with expensive cars when the World Bank has been financing investments in roads and transport, let alone to increase access to basic services like water and sanitation.
Vietnam’s economic progress in the past couple of decades has been impressive and the outlook is positive for continued progress in the fight to reduce poverty.
But it’s important for the country not to get ahead of itself and sing about its success too loudly before the job is done.
Hong Kong has expressed similar hubris despite its own poverty issues – last year a Legco member and the Hong Kong Automobile Association pushed to build a Formula One circuit on a proposed reclamation site in Sunny Bay off Lantau Island, despite thousands living in squalid ‘cage homes’.
Take in Hanoi and you don’t have to look far to see similar squalor and personal struggle, as opposed to the indulgence associated with F1, whose sponsors include Rolex.
Any Vietnamese Grand Prix would be likely to take in the beautiful surroundings of Hoan Kiem, but a stone’s throw away in the Old Quarter you can’t walk down a single street without being hassled by impoverished hustlers desperate to make a quick buck from tourists.
Some are so hard up for cash they crouch down to the floor and try to grab the flip flops of passers-by and shine them with polish.
Then there are those who try to foist fake cigarettes, Zippo lighters, greeting cards, magnets, bottle openers, fruit, desserts and all sorts of nicknacks on you. Their prices are vastly inflated in relative terms, but still small change in comparison to the currency of more developed countries.
Those rickshaw drivers will hound you down the street asking where you’re going and if you want a tour of the city, while one banh mi street vendor tried to charge me 200,000 dong (US$8.75) for a sandwich, something you can get for as cheap as 20,000 dong in a cafe.
Just spend a few days in Hanoi – or Da Nang, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh, wherever you go – and you will see a lot of people still have a tough time making ends meet.
Sure, the bright night lights of Hanoi would look mesmerising beamed around the world on television screens as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel hare past the city’s famous landmarks like the Hanoi Opera House. But the money could be put to better use.
And I shudder to think about how many more speeding mopeds one would have to duck and dodge crossing the street if a large section of Hanoi’s roads were closed off for the best part of a week.