Will it be alright on the night?

Just staging an F1 street race, let alone running it at night, is a mammoth task. But that is Singapore’s challenge this September, and it seems that all is going to plan
By Adam Cooper

In recent years Bernie Ecclestone has tried to spread the Formula 1 gospel by taking the World Championship to a host of exotic new venues, and there seems to be no end to the list of governments who are willing to invest in a Grand Prix with a view to promoting their country or region. Trouble is, to the TV viewer one Hermann Tilke-designed autodrome looks very much like another, and the actual venues don’t necessarily do much to help the folk who are paying the bills.

Ecclestone has got the message and he’s taking the sport in a different direction. Why hold a race an hour outside town when you can have it in town? Having studiously avoided such projects for years, perhaps because of the failure of such as Dallas and Phoenix, Bernie has now caught street racing fever. This year sees the arrival of new venues in Valencia and Singapore, and next season there’ll be yet another, of sorts, built on an artificial island in Abu Dhabi.

Of course Singapore has an extra, tantalising aspect to it, since qualifying and the race will both take place at night.

The gap between the Australian and Malaysian GPs provided a handy chance to drop into Singapore and get a taste of what we will encounter in September. I had no idea what to expect, having never previously left the airport, and nor did I know very much about the circuit.

A couple of days there, and the chance to walk around most of the 5km course, left me in no doubt. The inaugural Singapore Grand Prix promises to be a sensational event, even without the special element provided by the floodlighting. It’s a real street course, running via 24 corners through the very heart of this buzzing metropolis, and in places it is very, very fast. As I discovered, if it rains… Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t.

One of the men behind the project is Grand Prix deputy chairman Colin Syn, who as a student in London in the late ’60s would trek down to Brands Hatch at every opportunity.

On his return to Singapore he competed in the final few events held on the old Thomson Road circuit, which staged its last meeting in 1973. Some 20 years ago Syn was involved in an early attempt to bring F1 to his country.

“There were two pieces of land earmarked for a permanent track,” he recalls. “I went to see the people from Adelaide and co-opted them to do a presentation to the government. But at that time the rental costs of the land were beyond our budget and building a track at the same time was too much. However, even at that point Bernie was very interested in having a Grand Prix in Singapore.”

Syn then switched his attention to neighbouring Malaysia and there was talk of having a race at a rebuilt Shah-Alam, which had been the venue for an FIA World Sportscar Championship race in 1985. That didn’t happen either, although by 1999 the government had built a brand new track at Sepang.

That seemed to be the end of the story for Singapore, but Syn never gave up hope. By 2006 the government was interested in making a pitch for a GP, and this time Bernie was very interested. From the start he saw it as an opportunity to add a street race to an already busy calendar. Inevitably, circuit designer by appointment Tilke was involved in the early stages.

“He gave a feasibility study that was very, very raw,” says Syn. “I think his brother came, he didn’t come himself.”

Exactly how the design evolved is not entirely clear, but Tilke was not involved for long. Singapore soon turned instead to Kellogg, Brown and Root, the engineering group that was responsible for both Adelaide and Melbourne. Syn insists that the track more or less designed itself: “It was a no-brainer. The government wanted to incorporate all the iconic buildings, the old and the new, and the route covers all the areas that the government wants to show off.”

It’s certainly an impressive layout. Around 20 per cent of the track is new, built in a waterfront park on reclaimed land. Crucially, that means that the pit and paddock buildings are permanent, and construction has not affected day-to-day life. The corners at the start and the end of the lap are also purpose-built. But the rest of it is city streets, and the layout has the look of something dreamed up by a computer gamer.

After the initial permanent section there’s a long blast past an area packed with five-star hotels and shopping malls, and one can only imagine what sort of noise will resonate around the place. After passing under a mall the drivers will be in seventh gear, prior to a series of 90-degree turns that takes the track within a couple of blocks of the famed Raffles Hotel.

There follows a blast down St Andrews Road with the impressive City Hall and Supreme Court buildings on one side, and a huge open playing field on the left. This is The Padang, home to the Singapore Cricket Club. It’s probably the only time you’re likely to see sight screens and rugby posts alongside an F1 track.

That’s followed by an S-bend section that weaves between beautiful colonial buildings before the track narrows as it crosses Anderson Bridge, a remarkable steel structure that was completed in 1910. The tourist guides tend not to mention that during the Japanese occupation in WWII the severed heads of locals were hung on the bridge…

With the Fullerton Hotel in the background, the bridge is sure to become one of the iconic images associated with the venue. Afterwards the road takes a sharp left onto one side of Esplanade Bridge, a modern dual carriageway affair that provides the course’s only obvious gradients.

Then there’s a right that takes the track through the other side of the hotel/mall area, before it heads into a series of slow 90-degree turns that resemble Monaco’s Swimming Pool. Next to the waterfront is a 26,000-seat permanent grandstand that is normally used for National Day parades. There wasn’t enough room to take the track around it, so instead the road cuts back under the stand, through a specially constructed opening. This will give fans an interesting experience, to say the least.

Getting this far has not been easy, as so many government agencies are involved. Singapore is renowned for being a clean and tidy place, as evidenced by its ban on chewing gum, so where possible work is done with the minimum of disruption. Vehicles leaving the building site that currently forms the pit and paddock area even have their wheels sprayed to avoid taking any mud onto the streets.

There has also been a great effort to avoid any unnecessary removal of trees in a country known for its green credentials. Some in the pits area – introduced to help lock together the reclaimed land – had to go, but the protected ‘heritage’ trees that line the route are sacrosanct, and the lighting system has to fit around them.

Indeed, the lighting, provided by an Italian concern, remains the biggest logistical challenge. Not only does it have to avoid trees and other existing street furniture, it also has to be placed so that it can’t dazzle drivers – even when they’re facing the wrong way after a spin, something that was not a problem with the MotoGP event in Qatar. This being F1, high priority is also being given to illuminating the advertising signage.

While the most obvious work has been going on in the pit area and the permanent sections of track either side of it, more subtle activity has been underway elsewhere, with kerbs, traffic islands and paving stones being modified as necessary. In some cases they’ve been replaced on new bases, allowing them to be easily moved come the race. The biggest job will be resurfacing the entire section of public road; FIA guidelines mean that has to be done more than 90 days before the race.

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out that 10kms of fencing will have to be erected (and policed) on either side of the track, and yet life has to go on as normal in the hotels, shops and offices caught within the perimeter.

“The challenges keep popping up,” says Syn. “It’ll be ongoing until the race starts.”

Some folk still don’t seem to quite grasp what it’s all about. In a meeting with the FIA in March a minister was still under the impression that traffic would be running until five minutes before practice. He had to be politely told that in essence his roads would be unavailable for four days…

“Closing the roads is a big issue,” says Syn. “We have to manage it delicately – it involves a lot of stakeholders who are in the racing park area. It’s also the week before, when everybody’s working to put up the crash barriers, fencing, the power, the lighting. There’s a lot of planning and training involved to open and close the track.”

The logistical challenges are matched by the financial ones, and a levy is being charged on hotel rooms to help offset the cost. The man in overall charge of the project, and whose ultimately responsibility it is to get bums on seats, is Briton Michael Roche. He certainly knows a thing or two about major events, as he doubles as the top music promoter for Singapore and Hong Kong, and has imported acts like Bob Dylan, The Police, Eric Clapton, Oasis, The Eagles and the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Ticket sales are said to be good and there’s been a lot of corporate interest. Only Monaco can offer any kind of competition when it comes to entertaining VIPs. Forget helicoptering into a windswept Silverstone…

At the time of my visit there was still much to be done, but this is a place where tower blocks emerge from empty sites in a matter of months. The work on the track also pales into insignificance when compared to a project that is being realised on the other side of the river, where a massive, state-sanctioned Sands casino resort is under construction. The general aim is to turn Singapore into the gambling capital of Asia – a sort of classier Macau – and the timing of the arrival of F1 as a marketing tool is surely no mere coincidence.

It remains to be seen whether a street race at night is more a roll of the dice for Bernie Ecclestone, or for the government of Singapore. Let’s hope that everybody is a winner.