How Singapore mastered Formula One in just 12 years

Formula 1

SINGAPORE — As we sat stationary on the Nicoll Highway overpass and I began admiring the floodlights raining down upon Marina Bay’s glorious street circuit, he glances up into the rearview mirror, catches my gaze and vents his frustration.

“Every year. Every single year. The race comes and it always disrupts the whole city,” my elderly yet feisty taxi driver complains through broken English as he drives me to my hotel on Wednesday evening. “They shut down all of these roads and it takes a long time to get to where you need to go.”

It was 2008 when Formula One first ventured to Singapore. The event was the sport’s inaugural night race and one that would rival the famed Monaco Grand Prix as the crown jewel in F1’s ever-expanding calendar.

The race was essentially set to put the southeast Asian nation on the map. Never had Singapore, a country with a population of just 5.8 million, hosted something of this magnitude, particularly on an annual basis.

“Before it all started, Singapore was just a stopover destination,” says Gerrit Chng-Lüchau, who works as the director of sales and marketing at the Intercontinental Hotel in Singapore. “Now, with the help of F1, Singapore has become an attractive destination. It’s now a country to visit and the country has really accelerated and grown from strength to strength.”

From a logistical perspective, there might not be a motor race in the world that rivals the Singapore Grand Prix.

Each June, four months out from the actual race weekend, a team of around 30,000 people begin preparing for what is easily the country’s busiest week of the year.

The first and most obvious task is to erect concrete barriers and fencing around the 5.073-kilometer circuit, but there’s so much more that has to be done. A polymer binder adhesive must be added to the tarmac to allow for increased grip, footbridges that act as walkways over the track are constructed, portable toilets and ticketing booths are brought in as well as thousands of grandstand seats.

Oh, and then there’s the lighting.

By race day, there’s over 100,000 metres of cable snaking its way around the circuit to help power 1,600 industrial-strength floodlights. To comply with FIA regulations, the lighting at the track must be 3,000-lux levels (on average), which is around four times brighter than what you’d see at a regular sporting stadium.

For all of the work that goes on behind the scenes, road closures begin only two days out from the first practice session.

My taxi driver, and many others in the city for that matter, may dread the Formula One circus rolling into town and around a quarter of a million people descending on Marina Bay, but there’s no doubt Singapore has managed to inject an enormous amount of efficiency into hosting one of the biggest sporting events of the year.

In fact, other cities hopeful of securing a Formula One race, such as Miami and Las Vegas, would be well advised to study and replicate exactly what Singapore has done.

“In 2008 it was a little chaotic and everything took a little longer, but now it runs seamlessly,” Chng-Lüchau says. “When you consider the magnitude of the event, it’s quite incredible.”

The ability to master everything logistically has paved the way for enormous tourism success.

Since 2008, Singapore has welcomed more than 490,000 foreign visitors for the Formula One race, and the country’s economy has thrived off the back of it.

“About 40 percent of total racegoers are foreigners,” Jean Ng, Singapore Tourism Board’s executive director, tells ESPN. “From that, the race has generated more than $1.4 billion in incremental tourism receipts for Singapore.”

With so many tourists descending on the tiny island nation, naturally, the 413 hotels and nearly 60,000 rooms sell out quite quickly.

“Singapore has a high room occupancy all year; it’s usually at around 80 percent citywide, but for the Formula One it spikes to fully booked,” Chng-Lüchau tells ESPN. “We have some groups who will even book [their accommodation] for the following year before they leave this year.

“Would there be an impact if F1 was to go? Certainly there would be.”

The Singapore Grand Prix is locked in until 2021. Not only will that please the country’s economy, but thousands of locals and travelling tourists.

Even those who seem unsold on the idea of Formula One cars racing around their city streets might just be coming around.

“Would you ever go?” I ask my taxi driver after we’d navigated around the road closures and arrived at my hotel.

“Actually, yes,” he responds. “I’m taking my son this year!”

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