The Business Of Sport

Singapore F1 'engine' never runs idle

Singapore GP executive director Michael Roche says investors in F1 will always stick with winners such as the night race here.
Singapore GP executive director Michael Roche says investors in F1 will always stick with winners such as the night race here.ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

Roche and his team go full throttle to ensure night race drives up more interest each year

Unlike Donald Trump, Michael Roche wants to roll out the red carpet to as many Mexicans as possible.

In fact, the Singapore GP executive director is eyeing the whole of North America as a potential new customer base for next year's Formula One Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.

He had attended the Nov 1 Mexican GP in Mexico City and was stunned by crowds numbering 140,000.

"I just want 2 per cent of that and I'm happy," said the affable Briton in a one-hour interview with The Straits Times earlier this week.

"We've not been very active in Mexico in the past because they didn't have a race... But I tell you we'll be active there from now on."

The 57-year-old's keenness to attract motor racing fans from all corners of the globe is unsurprising.

RUNAWAY SUCCESS

This is shining a spotlight that we didn't have before in Singapore.

MICHAEL ROCHE

Foreigners to the Marina Bay Street Circuit comprised 45 per cent of this year's 260,192 spectators, a change from the 60-40 local and tourist split in previous years.

After eight editions of the race, it was only natural that interest from the domestic population would dip and Singapore GP had to explore overseas markets, noted Roche, a permanent resident based here since 1989.

Nevertheless, since the inaugural race in 2008, F1's only full night race, with its unique blend of on-track horsepower and off-track headline acts, has proven to be a consistent magnet for fans, petrol heads or otherwise.

This year saw an 8 per cent overall increase in ticket sales compared to 2014.

It was also the third-highest attendance after 2008 and 2013.

The Singapore Tourism Board estimates that the sport's "crown jewel" brings in an average of $150 million in incremental tourism receipts each year, a conservative figure by Roche's reckoning.

That this interview was conducted in the Pit Building's ultra-exclusive Temasek Suite - now stripped bare save for four dusty chairs but a melting pot for the rich and famous less than two months ago - reinforced his point.

"It's a lot more than that. The amount spent in this town in race week is phenomenal," added Roche, gesturing behind him at the backdrop of the city's financial district. "You can get bars and clubs taking in a million dollars.

"It's a huge amount."

In recent years, the Republic has attracted several high-profile sporting events such as tennis' WTA Finals, football's Barclays Asia Trophy, world-class golf tournaments and the HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens.

But none of these is comparable to the financial muscle that powers the sport of F1.

According to a Forbes report earlier this year, the sport has been more lucrative than the Fifa World Cup in the past 15 years, generating a combined revenue of US$16.2 billion (S$23 billion) compared to US$14.5 billion by Fifa in the same period since 1999.

With Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes having sealed the drivers' and constructors' titles with two races still to go, the storylines for 2015 have mostly been written.

But nothing remains stationary in a world where cars travel at speeds in excess of 300kmh and talk has already switched to next season.

The 2016 schedule puts the Singapore and Malaysian races back-to-back for the first time on the calendar. The Singapore race will be on Sept 18, two weeks before the Oct 2 Sepang event, leading to fears that this revised line-up will cannibalise spectators either side of the Causeway.

Singapore GP last month stated its objections and Roche, also managing director of gig promoter Live Nation Lushington, admitted that this arrangement was not ideal.

But he remains bullish about the pull of F1's first night race. He said: "We've never really looked over our shoulders and at what anybody else is doing. We're focused on what we do. We're looking in one direction and that's forward.

"If there were four races around us from the region, it still wouldn't change our mindset of what we do and how we do it."

The threat posed by Russia, which is planning to turn the Sochi GP into a night race - reportedly as soon as next year - is similarly not causing Roche sleepless nights.

Nor is the speculation surrounding the future of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, 85, a known admirer of the Singapore race.

Said Roche: "Anybody who's going to invest in the world of F1 will want to stay with the winners and retain the winners, whether it's Abu Dhabi, Mexico or Singapore...

"And Singapore is considered a winner. From the buying of F1, it's all about TV and broadcast, that's where the big dosh (money) is, not selling tickets. And we are so photogenic and it's exotic and it's at night time. We tick those boxes.

"It's lucrative for all parties."

Since 2008, the Singapore race has attracted an international television audience of around 80.7 million annually. This, despite the global viewership of the sport slipping steadily from 600 million viewers in 2008 to 425 million last year.

From devising ways of delivering ice around the gridlocked 5.065km circuit to ensure cold beers for patrons and monitoring more than 80,000 pieces of signage to witnessing the improbable sight of an intruder on the track, the learning never stops for Roche and his team of 60 full-time staff.

"It's not all perfect, but if it wasn't here, the wind would be sucked out of Singapore. It's become a very important part of the calendar," he said. "This is big time. This is shining a spotlight that we didn't have before in Singapore. It's much more than a car race. It's become this event that has reinforced Brand Singapore."

Roche has an old newspaper clipping in his office from 2008 whose headline reads "The greatest F1 show on earth". Eight years on, it is a slogan he still firmly believes in.


•The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline 'SINGAPORE F1 'ENGINE' NEVER RUNS IDLE'. Print Edition | Subscribe