Why building a Formula One circuit in Hong Kong is a stunningly stupid idea

There are many, many better uses to which reclaimed land off Lantau Island could be put

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 6:15pm

Legco member Michael Tien Puk-sun has joined forces with the Hong Kong Automobile Association to “press for the construction of a Formula One circuit on a proposed reclamation site in Sunny Bay”.

Finally, a politician prepared to tackle one of the most pressing issues in Hong Kong society: our lack of adequate motorsport facilities.

The bent-double old ladies collecting cardboard, the thousands living in squalid ‘cage homes’, and the youngsters worried about their future under Beijing’s erosion of the city’s autonomy will all tell you: “We must have a Formula One circuit, and soon.”

You may detect a hint of sarcasm. How far removed from reality is Mr Tien, the Cornell and Harvard Business School-educated tycoon, if he considers this to be serving his constituents?

Parts of the government have long hungrily eyed the relatively unspoilt green spaces of Lantau Island, and the planned 80-hectare reclamation off Sunny Bay, near Hong Kong Disneyland, is a key part of plans to get the concrete flowing.

Hong Kong motoring body, lawmaker press for Formula One circuit at Sunny Bay reclamation

Public engagement exercises say most people would like to see housing on the site, but that was rejected due to its proximity to the airport.

(The government also agreed a ‘restrictive deed of covenant’ with the Mouse not to allow any high-rises within sight, as it is essential that visitors are not “able to see the ‘real world’ outside, so as to maintain the aura of fantasy”.)

If housing is not possible we could still use the reclamation for parks, sporting and recreation facilities for the benefit of Hong Kong citizens, but that won’t enrich local tycoons.

Which is where the HKAA and Tien come in, with laughable promises about the tourism benefits of Formula One.

They claim the Singapore Grand Prix generates HK$800 million in economic benefits and attracts 250,000 visitors a year. Unfortunately our government is dumb enough to believe this.

First Singapore, now Malaysia – tourism chief confirms Sepang will leave Formula One after 2018 race

Even if you accept the Singapore Tourism Board’s 250,000 visitors figure, the economic benefits of hosting F1 have long been doubtful.

Singapore pays S$150 million (HK$833 million) for the privilege of hosting, 60 per cent of which is public money, so it is a break-even prospect at best.

Ticket sales for this year’s race are at an all-time low and even Singapore’s cheerleading media has questioned if the contract should be renewed when it expires this year.

The body that benefits most from F1 races is F1. Cities must pay a huge fee to host and all the money from TV, etc, goes to F1. Local organisers only get ticket sales proceeds, which usually do not cover costs.

Maybe the exposure is a valuable intangible benefit, and Singapore’s novelty night race probably did give the city a tourism boost initially. But does Hong Kong need a similar kickstart to its international reputation?

We are not a Baku, Sochi, or Mexico City, some of the recent glamour additions to the F1 calendar. And in any case, the sport has lost one-third of its TV audience since 2008.

Singapore Grand Prix may stay beyond 2018 – but not on ‘frustrated’ Bernie Ecclestone’s terms, says expert

Elsewhere in Asia, the Malaysian Grand Prix will be scrapped after 2018 after authorities decided it had “no economic value”.

The South Korean race was a short-lived flop, losing around US$170 million of public money, mostly in hosting fees to F1, over four years.

The Shanghai Grand Prix has never captured the public imagination. The Indian Grand Prix was scrapped after three editions.

Then there’s the cost of setting up an F1 race from scratch, estimated by Forbes at around US$1 billion over 10 years. A great use of taxpayers’ money.

A street race through Hong Kong’s Central might once have been a great advertisement for the city. The smaller, less costly, Formula E showed it was possible last year and was a modest success, though it attracted plenty of critics. Racing around a featureless bit of reclaimed land is hardly the best way to ‘showcase’ Hong Kong.

Kenneth Ng Shing-yip, of the HKAA, says, “We’ve issued over 600 competition licences,” to local motorsport enthusiasts. “It’s a great pity that we have the software but not the hardware.”

Well, we better take care of this nearly 0.009 per cent of the population.

Mr Tien should examine other uses for the Sunny Bay land: a facility for the likes of cricket, softball and other sports in the city that are crying out for space to play, for example.

As for those 600 boy racers, they have a fine facility available on the other side of the Pearl River Delta, the Zhuhai Circuit (built with the idea of hosting F1).

They can use another massive Lantau-linked construction boondoggle, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge, to drive there.