Race faces challenging two years, says Syn

New F1 venues mean S'pore GP must constantly improve: deputy chairman

The old adage has it that getting to the top is not half as difficult as staying there.

And organisers of the SingTel Singapore Grand Prix are finding truth in that saying, as they enter the second lap of hosting Formula One's only full night race.

"These two years will be very tough for us," Singapore GP deputy chairman Colin Syn admitted.

It was a sobering assessment, delivered in juxtaposition to the visual feast which backdrops his interview with The Straits Times.

Filling the 66-year-old's Cuscaden Road office are enough motor sports memorabilia to fulfil a collector's dream - from a replica Ferrari steering wheel to a photograph of himself competing in the 1997 Peking to Paris race.

But even as he sits surrounded by reminders of the past, Syn's focus has always been on what lies ahead for the Singapore race.

As he pointed out, "F1 is an ever-changing game" and other regional races like Malaysia have for years been counting the cost of their stagnation.

Sepang even came in for some harsh words from F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone in 2007 - just eight years after hosting its first race - when he said it was getting "shabby".

What is more, the 2014 season will bring with it a whole new set of challenges.

Next year's race calendar has yet to be released but two new venues - Russia and Mexico - are expected to enter the fray, bringing with them a novelty factor.

Meanwhile, it is believed that the Bahrain Grand Prix organisers are on the verge of announcing a switch to a night event, in celebration of the race's 10th edition.

"Singapore is no longer the new kid on the block," noted former F1 commentator Steve Slater. "And it is only a matter of time before other venues opt for a night-race format too.

"Fortunately, Singapore has already made its mark as a must-see event - not just in Asia but across the world too."

That reputation did not come about by accident.

In fact, Singapore GP administrators have refused to rest on their laurels ever since Syn arranged for a contingent of government officials to visit the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix.

He subsequently played a key role in negotiations between a local consortium led by hotel and property tycoon Ong Beng Seng and Ecclestone's Formula One Management to bring an F1 race to Singapore.

But when all is said and done, securing its first five-year hosting deal may well prove to be the easy part of Singapore's F1 journey.

The hardest bit for Singapore GP is to outdo its greatest adversary - itself - year after year.

"Every year, we have to come back, sit down and ask ourselves what else we can do," said Syn, who used to race in the Singapore Grand Prix held at the old Upper Thomson Road circuit from 1961 to 1973.

"Every year, we're striving to improve - that is a process that will continue right till the end."

These efforts have certainly paid off thus far - especially away from the track.

Since its inception in 2008, the Singapore race has consistently produced a marquee entertainment line-up, with the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Shakira, Linkin Park and Maroon 5 thrilling the crowds in past editions.

Next weekend's race will be no different, with acts such as Rihanna, The Killers and Tom Jones set to light up the stage.

And while the nature of the Marina Bay Street Circuit makes significant track changes near impossible, the Singapore Grand Prix has benefited from an evolving skyline which has seen the Marina Bay Financial Centre, Marina Bay Sands and Gardens By The Bay sprouting up in recent years.

With a combination of stunning visuals and star-studded entertainment line-ups, it is no wonder that the Republic has established itself as a venue of choice.

"It is the biggest event Singapore has ever held," Syn stressed.

"Nothing has come close - not even the SEA Games can attract so many people and the wealth that comes with it."

That should come as no surprise, given the number of corporations which host high net-worth clients over the race weekend.

"Singapore is one of the most important races for Shell in terms of the number of guests hosted over the weekend," said Richard Bracewell, global sponsorships manager for the energy giant.

"It is a significant market and a strong regional hub."

These sentiments were echoed by UBS' Asia Pacific head of sponsorship Caroline Darcy.

"F1 provides UBS with an excellent hospitality platform to host unique and exciting client engagement activities," she pointed out, citing the Swiss bank's Cycle The Circuit race as an example.

Held in conjunction with ST, last year's inaugural event saw 130 participants ride around the street circuit alongside triple Tour de France Green jersey winner Robbie McEwen, with a reprisal scheduled for next week.

"As the world's most prestigious motor sports event, the race has placed Singapore on the global racing map and attracted fans from all over the world," Darcy added.

And from all over the world, they have come. Year after year, organisers have met their key performance indicator of having 40 per cent of spectators hailing from overseas.

But if the order of the first five years was bringing people to the race, the next leg is all about bringing the race to the people, particularly the Singapore public.

According to Syn, the increased emphasis on engaging Singaporeans - and youth, in particular - is long overdue.

"It's something we should have done earlier," he acknowledged.

"We're very aware of audience fatigue - there will be fans dropping out along the way.

"By educating the younger ones and getting them interested in F1, who knows - maybe we'll have a local fan base."

With that in mind, Singapore GP is making a concerted effort this year to engage members of the public with its Rev Up Singapore! initiative.

Launched in May, the programme includes visits to schools, educational talks for tertiary students and a pit-lane walk that is open to non-ticket-holders on Thursday.

The race organiser has also given away 1,500 tickets to preview screenings of Rush, a movie based on the 1976 championship rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

Meanwhile, an extension of a memorandum of understanding with the Institute Of Technical Education will see 1,000 students gain work experience over the course of the race weekend.

In the long run, these efforts will not only help grow the pool of potential spectators but also that of the thousands of volunteers that Singapore GP needs each year to man the event.

It is a win-win situation for everyone.

As Syn pointed out: "We want to share as much as possible with them and have them grow together with F1."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg