Singapore Grand Prix faces threat from Thailand, China

Singapore Grand Prix faces threat from Thailand, China

A man walks near decorations for the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix in Singapore on Wednesday. (EPA-EFE photo)

SINGAPORE: For most, a 10th anniversary is an occasion fit for celebration but, for the 2017 Formula One (F1) Singapore Grand Prix, festivities for this milestone are muted amid a future shrouded in uncertainty.

The world’s first and only night street race is entering the final leg of its five-year contract inked in 2012, with officials keeping mum for months on the progress of negotiations, TODAY reported on Thursday. No one can be sure if an extension is forthcoming, it added.

Responding to TODAY’s queries last week, the organisers of the Singapore GP said they are still in talks with new F1 owners Liberty Media over contract extensions, and “they do not comment on ongoing commercial negotiations”.

Similarly, the Ministry of Trade and Industry declined to reveal if any progress has been made. A spokesman said: “We are in discussion with Formula One on the term renewal for F1 and are carefully considering several issues. More details will be shared when ready.”

‘Keen to renew partnership’

In a media briefing in Singapore on Thursday, F1 CEO Chase Carey said his organisation is keen to renew the partnership with Singapore.

“This is the marquee race and our goal is to renew the contract. It is certainly a race we are proud of.”

But Carey would not be drawn into details on the contract negotiations, or a timeline for talks to conclude.

He added: “I will say we’re obviously actively engaged and given this is the last race under our current deal, we recognise it’s important for us to reach an agreement on what’s the future. I’m not going to put that line to it (on whether talks will conclude by Sunday), I’ll say we’re actively engaged.”

The future of the Singapore GP is further muddled after F1’s managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches revealed in Shanghai last month that the world’s elite race promoter is seeking two new street races in Asia.

“We will go to iconic cities where there are large fan bases, particularly new fan bases that we can activate,” he said. “From a fan standpoint the backdrops of these city centres can really make compelling television and pictures.”

The timing of F1’s revelation that it is seeking alternative Asian race venues is also not lost on observers, who believe it could be a matter of brinkmanship commonly seen in complex negotiations.

After all, during negotiations for the contract extension in 2012, the impasse was not broken until Qualifying Saturday of the 2012 race, when a media conference was hastily called to announce the deal — just before Qualifying was about to start.

Making public its plans to expand its Asian footprint might be a move by F1 to nudge the Singapore GP into staying for the party, said veteran F1 commentator Steve Slater.

“Of course it is, it is all part of the posturing of a major contract discussion,” he said.

If the Singapore GP decides to end its decade-long association with the F1, then the emergence of new Asian street race venues will not matter. 

But, if a new extension is on the cards, the new Asian venues will likely pose stiff competition to the Republic’s event, which earned the moniker of “F1’s crown jewel” through a unique night street race held in the middle of a bustling city, complete with the backdrop of a metropolitan skyline.

Fading allure

However, the allure of the Singapore race appears to be fading. Last year, daily average attendance (73,000) for the Singapore race slumped to the lowest in nine years, with the overall ticket take-up 15% lower than the average attendance since 2008.

Some motorsport analysts TODAY spoke to say the Singapore GP should use the emergence of Asian rivals as a spur to up the ante in order to stay on top.

More can definitely be done to fend off such competition, if Singapore wishes to remain ahead of the pack, said corporate lawyer Anthony Indaimo, who is an advisor to several F1 teams.

“Singapore should evolve … what I would like to see is closer interaction between fans and the teams, and in particular the drivers, combined with a greater use of social media,” said  Indaimo, who is also a partner at international commercial law firm Withers KhattarWong.

Slater said there is “very little” to nitpick about the Singapore GP — but this too can become a threat.

“The main challenge for a 10-year-old GP — and if you’re a good GP — is that everyone wants to have a piece of your action. Other races will aspire to become just like the Singapore GP,” said the Englishman. 

Refining the S’pore GP

Commenting on areas for improvement, Slater singled out the potential of virtual and interactive TV.

“One way is to work with technology, things like making driver’s eye-view a possibility. For years cameras have been mounted on the cars, so the next thing is to work towards the possibility of having a multiple-camera screen view on television,” he said.

“Television viewers could be looking down the sides of the cars and see exactly what the drivers would see. Could you imagine watching a lap of the Singapore GP as Lewis Hamilton sees it — especially with the majestic buildings in Singapore — all of a sudden you go into a completely new dimension.” 

“And that’s where the new generation of TV viewers will be coming from,” he added.

Others, however, believe the lights, glamour and value of the Singapore night race will be tough for other Asian cities to replicate.

“You could change the Singapore GP to a day street race and it would still do well,” said James Walton, Sports Business Group Leader of Deloitte Singapore and Southeast Asia.

“The Singapore GP is regarded as one of the crown jewels of F1 (due in part to) the world-class tourism infrastructure, the organisation… and the high net-worth market which play well with the organisers and sponsors of F1.”

Former race driver Melvin Choo agreed, adding that the Singapore GP has firmly cemented its brand by defying the odds to become the first full night race. 

“I recall when they were discussing holding a night race, there was doubt as to whether it will even work. But they’ve managed to install floodlights that are so bright, it’s brighter than day,” he said.

The competition

So which Asian cities will Singapore be up against? Observers of the sport touted Thailand and China as likely venues that F1 might be considering.

“I know if (F1) are looking, they will be looking at a place like Thailand,” said Choo, who cited the “huge motorsport community” in the country as a reason why it might be a top choice. 

“Interest in the sport is already established.”

Thai authorities, however, passed a law that banned racing in the city Bangkok in 2013. It might have ruled out the Thai capital as a potential race venue, but Choo said Pattaya could be an alternative.

“Pattaya already has an existing street circuit but, of course, it is not F1 standard,” he said.  

Indaimo agreed with the choice of Thailand, and pointed out that country already has the “necessary infrastructure” in place to host a sporting event of this scale.

“(Thailand) has hotels and a culture of hospitality — which is what you need to host a sporting event (like an F1 race),” said the Italian.

He also listed the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Beijing as “very good places” to have a street race due to its mix of “Eastern and Western cultures” and good infrastructure — a feature that is similarly characteristic of Singapore.

“The (East and West) cultural mix might potentially play well to the history and heritage of F1 that has traditions in Europe but at the same time has an Eastern-looking future,” Indaimo said.

The fast-modernising cities in Asia — keen to get their hands on a slice of the tourism pie from hosting races — might also be eager to prove themselves as ideal race venues.

Indaimo said: “Vietnam for one might be looking at (hosting) a street race to differentiate itself, and to demonstrate to the region that it is ready organisationally and financially as part of nation building.”

While there will be no shortage of suitors who are eager to flutter their eyelids at F1, the addition of other Asian cities into the race calendar should not be seen as a “loss” for the Singapore GP, said Choo.

The Singaporean said: “Having more Asian races is part of the strategy of F1. Adding other street races in Asian cities doesn’t mean that Singapore is losing. Rather, it is a win for F1 as a whole, as they increase their presence in this part of the world.