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Singapore spin

Devjyot Ghoshal  |  Singapore 

Devjyot Ghoshal takes in the sights and sounds of the Formula One spectacle in the island nation.

You may be forgiven for forgetting the Scuderia Ferrari headgear or the Red Bull Racing shirt, but there’s one thing no first-time Formula One spectator should leave home without: a good pair of ear plugs. Because those 2.4 litre V8 engines bolted on to carbon fibre chassis flying around the track will not only get your adrenalin racing, the fierce scream of 750 horsepower delivered at 18,000 revolutions per minute will also make you wish your auditory senses were half as sensitive.

And really, it’s the noise, apart from the cursory traffic diversions, that announces the arrival of the F1 weekend in Singapore. Early Friday evening, the slow, powerful growl of the F1 machines, out on their practice runs before the race weekend, bounces off the tall glass facades of the business district’s imposing office buildings. It’s an ethereal hum, an almost unsettling vibration in the air, not far removed from a typical science fiction plot where it could be the uncomfortable wait before impending disaster. If that isn’t unreal enough, the vibrantly lit skyscrapers of the central business district and legions of office goers moving around seemingly unperturbed merely add to the drama.

Then again, the Singapore Grand Prix is about drama. Formula One’s only night race may not have the outrageous decadence of Monaco’s streets or the storied automotive history of Germany’s Nürburgring, but there’s an element of spectacle that underlies Lion City’s annual date with the world’s preeminent racing championship. Undoubtedly, the very alignment of the race track, known as the Marina Bay Street Circuit, that runs through the heart of the city is unlike any other. The 5.073-km circuit starts from just beyond the Singapore Flyer, the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, after which it turns into a couple of usually busy public roads and arrives at the historic Padang, an open field in the city centre flanked by St Andrew's Cathedral, City Hall and the Old Supreme Court Building. Next, it swings behind the Singapore Cricket Club, subsequently passing by the elegant Fullerton Hotel, once the city’s general post office, then lines up alongside the picturesque Marina Bay, with the Durian-shaped Esplanade Theatres and the breathtaking Marina Bay Sands complex in sight, and finally back past the Flyer.

There is one more thing: if Singapore’s charm is beguiling during the day, it is doubly so after the sun sets. With the race beginning only at 8pm, the city’s stunning nightscape provides the most striking backdrop for any race on the Formula One circuit.

There’s something indeterminable about watching an F1 car go by. It’s not purely the speed; or the extraordinary skill and control of the drivers; or the collective dexterity of a team that puts these cars together and maintains them; or, for that matter, the intricate logistical and financial requirements that need to be fulfilled to pull off one of these races – it must a combination of all of these factors that make Formula One so special. But Singapore doesn’t just take the usual recipe to serve up a good dish. The city-state, with its typical panache, adds that extra bit of spice to make the Formula One experience here even more distinctive.

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Leaving aside the remarkable scenery, ask any F1 driver what he thinks of the Singapore Grand Prix and adjectives like ‘hardest’ and ‘toughest’ will feature prominently in the answer. With 23 turns in a race that lasts almost two hours on a somewhat bumpy (by F1 standards) street circuit in extremely humid conditions, the Singapore Grand Prix is a test like few others for even the finest clutch of racing drivers on the planet. In a sport where mistakes can be abnormally costly, the margin for error is even less in a circuit such as this. For a man with seven championships, and one often described as the statically greatest driver in the sport, even Michael Schumacher succumbed to the forces, flipping his car and then spectacularly crashing into the concrete barriers about half way through the race.

That Schumacher walked away unscathed was to the credit of the cutting-edge science that goes into these extraordinary machines which, to an extent, represent the frontiers of today’s automotive technology. And human errors notwithstanding, the F1 drivers are among the most conditioned athletes in the world; their bodies having to cope with sustained g-forces of up to 3.5g and the loss of even 3 kg of their body weight through perspiration during a single race.

At the same time, since no spectacle is complete without the spectator, the city turns on the style when the race arrives. The Formula One weekend is unarguably one of the biggest parties that happen in Singapore, and for three days — Friday’s practice session, Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race day — the Marina Bay Circuit is transformed into a heaving festival ground. Apart from the flurry of events that erupt across the city’s fabled nightspots and watering holes, the circuit itself hosts an incredible set of entertainment options. With seven distinct entertainment stages, operating across the three days, the Singapore Grand Prix this year brought in headline acts such as two-time Grammy winners Linkin Park, Columbian singer and songwriter Shakira, 80s showman Boy George and reggae artist Shaggy.

Unsurprisingly, the Singapore Grand Prix reportedly has raked in about S$100 million in tourism receipt every year since it started in 2008, with over 111,000 visitors coming into the city to watch the race over the first three years.

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The city-state’s large expatriate population, too, hasn’t missed out on the action, including Indian F1 aficionados who are waiting to see how the Indian Grand Prix later this month shapes up. Singapore, though, sets the bar pretty high up. “Watching the machines revving through in front of you with Marina Bay Sands and Singapore Flyer in the backdrop is just surreal. And there’s something for everyone from live musical performances to gigs to food villages to abundantly flowing beer. Not to forget, Linkin Park was a class apart from the rest,” says 26-year-old consultant Rachit Sahijani who attended all three days of the Grand Prix.

Others are more taken by the race itself. “Vettel, Vettel and Vettel,” screams another fan when asked about her thoughts on the three best things at this year’s race. Indeed, Red Bull Racing’s German driver Sebastian Vettel drives masterfully to win his ninth race this season, remaining just one point short of retaining his championship title. But for Singaporean themselves, the city’s Formula One race has thrown up a fascinating conundrum. By next year, Singapore must decide if it wants to host the Grand Prix beyond 2014 and the country’s Ministry of Trade and Industry has initiated a feasibility study to assess whether the race should stay or not.

With the annual cost of hosting the event pegged at around S$150 million, 60 per cent of which comes from the government’s coffers, it must make economic sense if the race is to stay in Singapore. On the other hand, critics have complained that the ticket prices – with three-day ticket prices starting at S$198 – are out of reach for the average Singaporean and the disruptions caused in the city’s central district come at a cost. Nonetheless, for young Singaporean like 23-year-old Amy Tan, the city-state hosting the Formula One race has other, intangible significance. “I’m not a big racing fan but I went there to see what it was like. It’s nothing like what you see on TV. You can see the cars, the track and the atmosphere is amazing. It felt good. I felt proud to be a Singaporean,” she says.

After the inaugural Indian Grand Prix, one wonders how many Indian will feel the same way. In any case, don’t forget the earplugs!

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First Published: Sat, October 01 2011. 00:48 IST