The following is my preview for the first ever Singapore Grand Prix, which took place at the end of September, 2008. It was the series’ first night race, and despite all of the fears and worries expressed in this story, the race went on to be one of the greatest of the series, more than living up to the series’ hopes:With the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix this weekend, Formula One enters new territory both geographically and temporally, and the anticipation – shared by the local organizers, the teams and the drivers – is greater than it has been for any race since the first one held in China in 2004.
Formula One’s first experiment in night racing, the Singapore race also takes the form of a double gamble, as it runs through city streets.
”Singapore will be the highlight of the season,” said Mario Theissen, the director of the BMW Sauber team. ”It’s a great city, an important city – business-wise – a region that will be really diving into the atmosphere of Formula One. We will have a spectacular setup, with the first night race, a city Grand Prix, a very special one. So I think it will be the No.1 event this year.”
But that also makes it the most challenging race of the season, and not everyone is comfortable. The BMW Sauber driver Nick Heidfeld said that there should have been a trial run.
”There are some concerns,” he said. ”I hope that the circuit will be safe. But for me the big unknown – as for everybody – must be the lighting situation.”
While he acknowledged that the lighting had been checked in advance, he noted that no one had verified it while traveling at more than 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, an hour in a Formula One car.
”And on top of that, we don’t know how it looks when it is raining,” Heidfeld added. ”I like the idea of a night race, but I think we should have tried it before.”
Indeed, rain is likely in Singapore, especially in the evening. Heidfeld and others are concerned about reflections and glare.
The lights are attached to an aluminum truss 10 meters, or about 30 feet, off the ground that encircles the 5.06 kilometer track, and they are angled so as to avoid shadows. Thirty-five electronic ”digiflags” will be used in addition to the marshal’s flags to signal accidents and display other track status messages.
The Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Bourdais, who raced at night in the U.S. Champ Car series, is less worried.
”The lights make it brighter than daylight, so I think we will use the darkest visor we can get,” he said. ”It’s difficult because the timing is hard for the mechanics – they are going to finish at 4 or 5 a.m. It’s much harder for everybody within the paddock, it’s much more fun for the fans: That’s how I would summarize the situation.”
Riccardo Ceccarelli, the Toyota team doctor, said that because of the lighting, the drivers would not have to be treated for night vision as they would be in overnight endurance races.
”The doubt is what will be the perception of the drivers at the braking points,” he said. ”It’s possible that the light will prevent the eyes from seeing immediately and carefully in one-tenth of a second the exact point of the braking.”
The race is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Singapore, which is 2 p.m. Central European Time, the usual Grand Prix start time.
Adapting to the later start will be less difficult for the drivers, Ceccarelli said, as they can simply sleep later than if it were a usual afternoon race. But like Bourdais, he said he was worried about the mechanics and the engineers, who will have to work late into the night.
Many arrived on Monday and had to resist adjusting to local time.
”If this happens on the night between Saturday and Sunday, when you arrive at the race you are really destroyed physically and mentally – low concentration, sleepy feeling, difficult to be clear-minded – so that’s actually what makes me worried,” Ceccarelli said.
Most teams have tried to function on European time all week, as the practices, qualifying and race are to be run at the usual European times.
Sam Michael, technical director of the Williams team, said that his team had an entire floor in the hotel reserved for team members who have to sleep part of the day. He said the hotel staff treat that floor differently than the others.
”It’s quite difficult to go back to the hotel and sleep during the day,” he said, ”especially when you’ve got people walking around tidying it up – knocking on your door at nine o’clock in the morning saying, ‘Shall I come and clean the room up?”’
But these difficulties are the price to pay for what Formula One hopes will be increased television audiences in Europe and a new way of generating revenues for the sport. This year, for the first time, Formula One earned more from the sale of races to venues than from the sale of television broadcast rights. The addition of Singapore and Valencia, Spain, which hosted a race for the first time last month, drove fees up to $403 million, or $23 million more than the amount brought in by television rights, according to Formula Money, a publication that follows Formula One finances.
But Europe remains the sport’s most important fan base. That is why Singapore is the first of what Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s promoter, hopes will be a trend of night racing in Asia. The intention is to avoid having to broadcast races early in the morning in Europe, which organizers fear would cut into television audiences and thus affect sponsorship.
Formula One team and commercial directors also have high hopes for Singapore. While Monaco has always been the most commercially important race of the season – the crown jewel – Singapore is considered a potential competitor, if not successor.
”Monaco is by far one of the biggest, sparkling diamonds,” said Nav Sidhu, who runs Sidhu & Simon, a Formula One public relations and sponsorship agency, ”but there’s nothing wrong with having two diamonds in your pocket, is there?”
The demand for corporate hospitality tickets was so strong in Singapore that the original 18,000-square-meter, or 193,750-square-foot, floor area of the Paddock Club, where the teams entertain corporate guests, was increased to 23,000 square meters to accommodate up to 4,000 guests.
The race will cost an estimated $150 million over five years, excluding Ecclestone’s fee. The government-owned Singapore Tourism Board is paying 60 percent and the remaining 40 percent is coming from a private company, Singapore GP Pte, which is owned by Ong Beng Seng, a local hotelier.
The company has lined up a week of festivities, including a music festival featuring, among others, The Wailers.
Yet the race has its critics. While Formula One aims to become more environmentally responsible by changing the technology and fuel of the cars, critics note the electricity wasted by the nearly 1,500 metal halide light units that provide 3.18 million watts of light on the track, making it almost four times brighter than a stadium.
Others question the safety. Since 1994 and the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the San Marino Prix, Formula One has tightened safety requirements at its circuits, imposing large runoff areas and other features not present on a street circuit.
For all these reasons Singapore will be the season’s most important test case. Frank Williams, a director and owner of the Williams team, said that if racing catches on in Singapore, it should catch on elsewhere in Asia, as well.
Sidhu, of the public relations firm, was optimistic.
”We’re talking a region of the world that’s growing,” he said. ”We’re talking about a consumer base that’s powerful in terms of its expenditure. And we’re talking about the growth of the sport. Formula One for too long has called itself global and has been very Eurocentric.”