COVID-19 SPECIAL

Formula One: S'pore Grand Prix running out of time in a year of twists and turns for F1

Race promoters Singapore GP have said that it is not feasible to conduct the race behind closed doors.
Race promoters Singapore GP have said that it is not feasible to conduct the race behind closed doors.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE -The decade-long success of the Singapore Grand Prix has been down to this formula - a one-of-a-kind night street race in an iconic city, complemented by world-class entertainment that draws crowds in the hundreds of thousands, from Bishan to Brazil.

But the equation for this year's Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix is vastly different.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which surfaced in late December, has ushered in a new reality of social distancing, severe travel restrictions, and a recession which has affected not just Singapore but the world.

Set against this backdrop, it appears only a matter of time before a decision is made to officially cancel the Sept 20 race at the Marina Bay Street Circuit.

The Formula One season - originally scheduled to flag off in Melbourne on March 15 - is set to make a belated start in mid-July with closed-door races in Austria.

But race promoters Singapore GP have ruled out such an arrangement here. They have said that it is "not feasible to conduct the race behind closed doors".

This realistically leaves three options - delay the race; proceed with the original timeline and hope the outbreak would be contained sufficiently to stage the event with spectators in attendance; or, the most plausible scenario, cancel the race.

A TIGHT SQUEEZE

The 2020 F1 season was supposed to have had a record 22 races in 22 cities.

With the Covid-19 contagion, four organisers have already called off this season's races - Australia, Monaco, France and, last Thursday (May 28), the Dutch GP.

The status of another six - Bahrain, Vietnam, China, Spain, Azerbaijan and Canada - are in doubt with F1 owners Liberty Media trying to reschedule them for the second half of 2020, while the remaining 12 races have not announced any changes to their schedule.

 
 
 

In late April, F1 chief executive Chase Carey outlined the tentative plan.

"We're targeting a start to racing in Europe through July, August and beginning of September," he said.

"September, October and November, would see us race in Eurasia, Asia and the Americas, finishing the season in the Gulf in December with Bahrain before the traditional finale in Abu Dhabi, having completed between 15-18 races."

While the revised calendar has not been released officially, leaked versions of a provisional calendar show no feasible gaps in the final 11 weeks starting from October to squeeze in a Singapore leg.

Delaying the Singapore Grand Prix till the end of the year also runs the risk of racing in the monsoon season, making conditions difficult and dangerous, particularly on the 23-turn track widely regarded as among the sport's most challenging.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

If delaying the race is not an option, might there be a chance it would carry on should the pandemic situation improve?

Between February and April, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) put up at least four tenders related to the set-up of viewing facilities and ancillary activities. Some had read this as the race being on track to happen here.

STB's director of sports Ong Ling Lee told The Straits Times on Saturday the race is a contract between the Singapore GP and Formula One.

"Only the parties to the contract can decide whether the race will continue to be held in Singapore," she said.

Pending the decision between those two parties, the STB had - as in previous years - called for tenders.

These were to procure F1-related services such as transportation, hotel accommodation and events planning to ensure that facilities and amenities woould be ready - should the race proceed.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Singapore GP said on Saturday that the latter is in discussions with all stakeholders to assess different possibilities, and an announcement will be made this week.

The scheduled Sept 18-20 race weekend will likely fall in either Phase 2 or 3 of the reopening of Singapore's economy, and observers have serious doubt on its viability.

For one thing, there is the issue of spectators.

 
 
 

Last year's race drew a three-day total of 268,000 spectators - the second-highest after the 300,000 total for the inaugural 2008 edition.

Even at Phase 3, there will still be limits on gathering sizes for social, cultural, religious and business events.

Infectious diseases expert Leong Hoe Nam, who practises at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said: "If people know how to wear the mask properly and maintain their distancing with appropriate measures, then the race is possible. However, it is a tall order, and everyone needs to work together."

The Singapore race audience has on average comprised 40 per cent tourists.

Between 2008 and 2018, more than 490,000 foreign visitors have attended the night race, contributing more than $1.4 billion in tourism receipts and benefiting local businesses, including retail, hospitality and food and beverage.

The big question is whether F1 fans overseas will come to Singapore for the race - or be able to, given how international travel has been severely restricted because of the pandemic.

With all 10 F1 teams based in the United Kingdom, Italy and Switzerland, Europeans form a sizeable portion of the visiting F1 fans here.

While Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are among nations looking to reopen airports over the next two months, mass travel is unlikely to resume anytime soon.

According to the Singapore Tourism Analytics Network (Stan) website, visitor arrivals in March - the latest month available - was 239,880, down 84.7 per cent from March 2019. This is in line with the World Tourism Organisation's prediction in May that international tourism will fall by up to 80 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Currently, all short-term visitors are banned from entering Singapore though travellers will gradually be allowed to transit through Changi Airport from June 2.

While the Republic has established a green lane with China and is in talks with Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea to ease some travel restrictions, it remains to be seen what sort of quarantine guidelines will be in place in September for Singapore and the rest of the world.

Beyond overseas spectators and the F1 teams, there is also the matter of whether international acts will be in a position to travel.

The entertainment segment of the Singapore GP has been a key selling point, and a scaled-down programme is unlikely to be an attractive selling point to fans. Last year's top acts included Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Gwen Stefani but this year's line-up has not been announced.

Content executive Jae-Eryana Fitri, 21, has already decided to skip this year's race. She said: "I only go because of the concerts, to catch my favourite artists live in action. The concerts add colour and life to the F1 races."

OF DOLLARS AND SENSE

From European football, professional golf and tennis to F1, the financial health of all international sport has been hit hard by the pandemic.

The globe-trotting nature of F1, the massive logistics involved in each race, and also how fans are allowed to move around in large groups, make the sport even more vulnerable in a new normal that demands social distancing.

Figures released by Liberty Media showed its first quarter (January-March) revenue of US$39 million (S$55 million) compared to US$246 million for the same period last year.

With no live races, the bulk of this drop was from race fees, TV deals and sponsorship - it took in just US$13 million from these three areas, down from US$198 million in the first quarter of 2019.

Liberty, a US-headquartered media giant, recently shuffled assets between its subsidiaries, giving F1 a safety net of US$1.4 billion cash to tackle the crisis.

This has given it leeway to build a racing calendar in Europe and satisfy its broadcast obligations.

For the British GP, expected to be held in August, it is understood Liberty has waived the £15 million (S$26 million) hosting fees and will also help cover other operating expenses at Silverstone.

This arrangement will apply to most of the European closed-door races until early September before the competition moves to Asia, where rescheduled stops in China and Vietnam are expected.

In fact, Hanoi was set to make its F1 debut in April when it got sidetracked by the pandemic. The Vietnam News Agency reported this week the race will now be held in November and open only to locals. Organisers would lose as much as US$35 million in revenue if it was held behind closed doors.

Vietnam, with a population of 97 million, has just 328 confirmed coronavirus cases and zero deaths as of Saturday.

While Singapore GP did not elaborate on why it deemed a closed-door race "not feasible", associate professor Prem Shamdasani from the National University of Singapore Business School's marketing department felt it did not make financial and marketing sense for the hosts.

Without the off-track highlights and international fans, the multiplier benefits to the economy and global publicity will not materialise, he added.

"Given the low and uncertain return on investment for the F1 race this year, cancelling it would be a prudent decision," he said.

The Government, through the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and STB, funds 60 per cent of the $135 million bill to organise the night street race each year, with Singapore GP footing the rest.

It is a hefty outlay compared to races held in dedicated existing tracks which do not require big set-up costs.

Singapore GP declined to reveal revenue from ticket sales but observers say that based on crowd size and admission charges - a three-day pass this year starts from $278 and the most expensive category is almost $10,000 - ticket income is at least an eight-figure sum.

 
 
 

It is unclear how a cancellation might affect Singapore's current deal with F1, which is due to end after next year's race .

But Mr James Walton, head of Deloitte South-east Asia's sports business group, said it is unlikely to result in F1 imposing financial penalties.

"The moves by F1 so far have been to keep race owners, organisers and teams on its side so I'd be surprised if F1 took such an aggressive line and risked potential backlash from the public," he said.

"Imagine a host city decides to cancel a race for health and safety reasons and F1 slaps them with a fine. It would be a huge disaster from a PR and branding perspective."

With an unprecedented global health crisis, F1's journey this year has been much like racing on the tight and twisty Marina Bay Street Circuit. The experience has been a heart-stopping ride, with the odd crash requiring the race to restart.