Motor Racing

Cloudy future for S’pore GP dampens spirits at 10th anniversary race

Cloudy future for S’pore GP dampens spirits at 10th anniversary race
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. Photo: Reuters
To extend its stay at the party, F1’s only night race must up its ante and improve, analysts say
Published: 5:16 PM, September 14, 2017
Updated: 9:16 PM, September 14, 2017

SINGAPORE — A 10th anniversary is usually an occasion 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. No one can be sure if an extension is forthcoming.

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.”

In a media briefing in Singapore on Wednesday (Sept 13), F1 CEO Chase Carey declared: “This is the marquee race and our goal is to renew the contract. It is certainly a race we are proud of.”

While he would not be drawn into details on the contract negotiations, or a timeline for talks to conclude, he added: “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 Mr Sean Bratches, F1’s managing director of commercial operations, 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 is 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 the start of Qualifying.

Making public its plans to expand its Asian footprint is a move by F1 to nudge the Singapore GP into staying at 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, these races are likely to pose stiff competition to “F1’s crown jewel”, which earned its moniker through a unique night street race held in the middle of a bustling city, against the backdrop of a metropolitan skyline.

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

This year, things look a little better after a Singapore GP spokesperson said 10 of the ticket categories are sold out, with another 15 categories selling out fast. “Out of seven corporate hospitality and executive packages, five are sold out with very few seats left in the remaining categories,” the spokesperson said.

Motorsport analysts told TODAY the Singapore GP should use the emergence of Asian rivals as a spur to up its ante in order to stay on top.

Said corporate lawyer Anthony Indaimo, a partner at international commercial law firm Withers KhattarWong and 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.” 

Mr 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. 

He singled out the potential of virtual and interactive TV as an area for improvement.

“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 having multiple-camera screen views on television,” he said.

“Television viewers could be looking down the sides of the cars and see exactly what the drivers would see. 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.”

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 Mr James Walton, Sports Business Group Leader of Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia.

“It is regarded as one of the crown jewels of F1 (partly because of) 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 said 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.

So which Asian cities will Singapore be up against? Observers touted Thailand and China as countries that F1 might be considering.

Mr Choo cited the “huge motorsport community” in Thailand as a reason it might be a top choice. “Interest in the sport is already established,” he said.

However, Thai authorities in 2013  passed a law that banned racing in Bangkok, though Mr Choo said Pattaya could be an alternative.

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

Mr Indaimo also pointed out that Thailand already has the “necessary infrastructure” 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 Shanghai and Beijing as “very good places” to have a street race due to its mix of “Eastern and Western cultures” and good infrastructure. “The mix might potentially play well to the history and heritage of F1 that has traditions in Europe but (also) has an Eastern-looking future,” Mr 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.

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

The addition of other Asian cities into the race calendar should also not be seen as a loss for the Singapore GP, said Mr Choo.

The Singaporean said: “It is part of the strategy of F1. It 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.”