Monday, May 14, 2007

F1 Roars Into Singapore

TODAY, Saturday, 12th May, 2007
Loh Chee Kong
JUST a week ago, property tycoon Ong Beng Seng was wondering if his dream of bringing the glitzy Formula 1 race to Singapore would come crashing down yet again. His 18-year-old friendship with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone notwithstanding, differences over "the money part" and what the Briton termed as "a bit of pain" in dealing with Singapore officialdom threatened to scupper the long-awaited deal.
But just a day after a newspaper reported that hurdles remained in Mr Ong's F1 bid, the tycoon made a rare appearance at a press conference, alongside Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran and Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Lim Neo Chian, to announce the good news - F1 is coming to town next year.
True to his reclusive nature, Mr Ong, dressed casually in a short-sleeved shirt, was fidgety, clearly not comfortable being surrounded by flashing camera lights and a group of eager journalists. But whether he liked it or not, he was the man of the moment. Speaking from Barcelona via teleconference, Mr Ecclestone, 77, said:
"If it wasn't for him (Mr Ong), there wouldn't be any possibility of a race in Singapore. We have five countries waiting to host a round of the championships. It's because of our friendship over the years that he has persuaded me to come to Singapore."
Yet, just days earlier, the fate of Mr Ong's second attempt - he tried but failed to bring F1 to Singapore in 1991 - seemed to be in the balance. Mr Ong, who is managing director of Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), said:
"It's been very trying and challenging. It's been a long road with Bernie on this subject. It's taken us 12 rather difficult months to get to this position … Until last week, we didn't know if this was going to take place at all."
According to Mr Ong, there were many stumbling blocks, not least the commercial aspects - or as he put it, "the money part of it" - of holding a Grand Prix race on a street circuit, which Mr Iswaran said would cost about $150 million.
And in typical Singapore style, they had found a novel way to fund part of the cost. Mr Iswaran said the Government would impose a special F1 tax of not more than 30 per cent on hotel room revenues. And there were other logistical and safety issues that had to be factored in, especially since the negotiating parties were also considering the possibility of making Singapore the stage for F1's first night race ever, an idea that Mr Ecclestone was keen on.
"I think we can drop the possibility of a day race," said Mr Ecclestone, responding to scepticism over the safety of a night race.
Mr Ong added: "Being a street circuit, we have a lot of leakages, with a lot of office buildings and hotels and generally, whether we could fit everything in with all the F1 requirements."
And then, there was the matter of cutting through the bureaucratic red tape. In fact, the straight-talking Mr Ecclestone said it was "a bit of a pain" to deal with the Government, which would be footing 60 per cent of the $150-million tab.
At this point, Mr Iswaran interjected and said: "Be kind, Bernie, be kind!" - to which Mr Ecclestone responded: "I'm trying to be honest."
The flamboyant Briton, who just a day earlier had struck a 26-million-euro ($53 million) deal for the Spanish city of Valencia to host a street race, added: "It's just that the people in Government have been so, so thorough with it. I tend to do things a little bit more on trust."
While there was speculation that SUTL Group managing director Arthur Tay was also trying to bring F1 here, Mr Iswaran, who has been the Government's pointman in the negotiations, said that Mr Ong - who recently registered a new company, Singapore GP Pte Ltd, to organise the race - was the only person in the running. Of Mr Ecclestone, Mr Iswaran said: "I would say Mr Ecclestone is a tough negotiator. He calculates but at the end of the day, he's prepared to cut a deal."
According to sources, up until March, the parties were still carrying out feasibility studies. Issues such as sponsorship, broadcasting rights and the timing of the race still had to be ironed out. Even as late as last month, there was still no agreement on how much exposure the "Singapore brand" would get during the F1 race.
So, what was the deal breaker in the end?
According to Mr Ong, it was Mr Ecclestone's visit to the city two months ago, his first in the past "10 or 20 years". Mr Ong said: "After looking at our city, both Mr and Mrs Ecclestone were actually very impressed. And I think this swung the deal for Singapore."
While Mr Ong preferred to focus on the business aspects of the F1 deal during the 30-minute press conference, the journalists, who don't often get a chance to get up close with one of Singapore's richest men, also wanted to know something more personal: What kept him trying for the past 16 years?
Mr Ong replied: "It's a difficult question to answer. Some personal interests - I like sports. The second thing is I really believe it's good for Singapore. And I think it's also really good for Formula 1 to be in Singapore."
And now that his dream has come true? "Of course, we feel good. Second time around, you know. I'm quite elated at the prospect and I hope I can do a good job of it," came his understated reply.
WITH local hotels expected to rake in big bucks during the F1 season, a special tax will be imposed during the period to help the Government defray the cost of staging the race here. Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran said the Government
will impose an F1 tax of "no more than 30 per cent" on hotel room revenues for about seven days around the race period. In Monaco and Melbourne, hotels are near full occupancy during the F1 season and are known to raise their room rates by up to two or three times.
"We expect hotels in Singapore to benefit similarly and we need our hotels to contribute their fair share," Mr Iswaran said.
The F1 tax, which will be imposed for about seven days around the race period, will be tiered so that track-side hotels, which will benefit the most with the increase in room rates, will pay a higher rate and those further away will pay a lower one.
"We are looking at a cess of no more than 30 per cent to ensure that hoteliers still keep a significant share of the upside whilst making a meaningful contribution," the minister said. The F1 tax on hotels is expected to raise an average of about $15 million to $20 million per year. - Jose Raymond
EXPECT road closures, disruption to traffic and access restrictions in the run-up to the first F1 race in September or early October next year. With thousands expected to be affected by the event, Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran said "we will need the understanding and cooperation" of everyone, from building owners to retailers and the public.
He said: "As some roads will have to be closed in the period leading up to the race and during race days, as well as after the race, there will be disruption to traffic. There may also be some access restrictions around the track during the period."
The minister added that an inter-agency committee will be set up to work with the race promoters to ensure Singapore stages a world-class F1 race, while doing its best "to mitigate inconveniences". - Jose Raymond
Leonard Thomas
Sports editor
ON THE roads are million-dollar machines roaring along at mind-boggling speed, challenging each other; talent, skill and strategy tapped to the extreme to overtake and get ahead. Off them is the glitz and glamour, rich and beautiful people who are invited to the exclusive events surrounding the race. They mingle at parties where champagne flows, and on race day watch the duel on the track from the best and most sought-after vantage points. It is a high-octane mix synonymous with Formula 1 much more than any other sport in the world. As the country ramps up for a historic Singapore Grand Prix next year under the stars, the main aim of the organisers is to cash in on tourism receipts and showcase a modern city with buzz to an audience of millions around the world. The other must-do for the likes of Singapore GP Pte Ltd and the Singapore Tourism Board is to pull out all the stops and ensure the local populace does not miss out on what is the third-most watched sporting event in the world. The biggest concern will be the price of tickets for the race. While the Malaysian Grand Prix attracts many Singaporeans, I cannot remember ever seeing the stands and other vantage points full. Besides the logistics of getting to the Sepang circuit, ticket prices are an issue with Malaysians. Right now, organisers foresee the capacity for the Singapore Grand Prix to be at least 80,000. Only football, the No 1 sport here, has the ability to attract such a large audience in this country.
To fill the stands, it is vital the Singapore Grand Prix is made affordable to the common man - perhaps on race day, the mass-selling tickets can go for $50 each. Those who want a season ticket - including Friday's practice, Saturday's qualifying session and the race on Sunday - could be charged $100 each. Keeping ticket prices affordable is not enough. While the Formula 1 bug is biting more and more Singaporeans, it is hardly as popular as football, so a buzz must be generated to draw locals out.
Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran has described Formula 1 as more than just a sports event. It is part lifestyle as well, he says. The cars will be an attraction, as well as the world-class technology used. And style and fashion are all part of the Formula 1 circus. Perhaps if we emphasise the battle between the drivers and the teams, as well as the style and smarts of Formula 1, that will woo even more Singaporeans and get them hooked for the weekend. Throw in a huge party at the Padang on Friday night where superstar drivers such as Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen put in appearances to thrill the fans 48 hours before they fit themselves into their supercars and get down to racing, and the atmosphere may be right for the common man in Singapore to support the race when it hits town.
As much as the emphasis will be on the tourists - who are expected to crowd restaurants, clubs, pubs and hotels - the marketing strategy that will kick in from now must also include the common man in Singapore. If not, the worldwide television audience may well catch Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Raikkonen doing battle with great swathes of empty stands as a backdrop during the Singapore Grand Prix.
Jose Raymond
IN ABOUT 15 months' time, more than 500 million pairs of eyes from around the world will be on Singapore as it plays host to what could be the world's first-ever Formula 1 night race.
On Friday, during a press conference at the URA Centre to announce the agreement to host an F1 race in Singapore for five years (starting next year), the safety concerns surrounding night racing received much attention. Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran, who chaired the conference, said Singapore "could potentially stage the first-ever F1 night race" but "we will proceed ... only if the safety and
operational requirements of all parties - including the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, Formula One Administration and Formula 1 teams - are fully met. If not, we will revert to a day race".
But F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who fielded questions via teleconferencing from Barcelona, was in no doubt Singapore would host the sport's first night race. He suggested everyone assume there would be no day race, and when reminded that defending champion Fernando Alonso and Red Bull veteran driver David Coulthard both had expressed their reservations about such a race last month, Mr Ecclestone said: "Alonso has not been around long enough, while I do not expect Coulthard to be driving next year."
For the Singapore Motor Sports Association (SMSA), the hard work begins now. The association's president Tan Teng Lip said: "The Government and Mr Ong Beng Seng have managed to get Singapore into the F1 calendar. Now, the first thing to be done is to get the circuit confirmed. Once it is confirmed, a lot of other work can get started."
Mr Tan said the proposed circuit, which is about 5.26km long, has a proper mix of straights and curves. The roads will need to undergo resurfacing but according to him, this can be done closer to the race date. The SMSA will also be responsible for training between 400 and 500 road marshals for the event.
"This is the first time they will be involved in such a race and we will have to get them up to speed," said Mr Tan.
A permanent pit and paddock area that could cost anywhere between $40 million and $50 million is expected to go up behind the Singapore Flyer, facing the Marina Channel.
While all parties agreed there were many obstacles to overcome within a tight timeline, there was definitely a sense of anticipation at what lay ahead.
Singapore BMW Asia chief executive officer Roland Krueger described the agreement as "exciting". He said: "Congratulations to Singapore and businessman Ong Beng Seng for making this possible. This is good for the country and for the industry. It will be a very exciting event."


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