7:34 PM ET
Jake MichaelsESPN Associate Editor
- Jake Michaels is a Melbourne-based sports writer who covers everything from Aussie Rules to Formula One, basketball to boxing. He joined ESPN in June, 2013 and works as an Associate Editor, covering sport in Australia and around the world.
SINGAPORE — As Fernando Alonso sipped champagne on the Marina Bay podium, and firework smoke settled into the night sky hovering above Singapore’s capacity-filled street circuit, a bunch of journalists crowded around Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock, eager for his thoughts on what was an historic night for Formula One.
“Could Singapore one day be the jewel in the F1 crown?” posed one reporter.
Ecclestone barely hesitated, before quipping, “why not? It more or less is now.”
Later, he added: “With the street race at night, Singapore is going to be the leader. We anticipate it will quickly establish itself as the most dramatic and atmospheric race on our calendar. [It will] be the best in the world.”
During his reign as Formula One chief, Ecclestone was prone to hyperbole and grandiose claims in an effort to prop up his motor racing empire, but there was some serious truth and inevitability surrounding his remarks following the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix in 2008.
The sport’s first night race, which would be remembered as being one of the most controversial events in modern F1 history, put the tiny Asian transit city on the map. Singapore’s picturesque city skyline and floodlit circuit, illuminated like a Christmas tree, was an instant success among drivers, racegoers and those watching on from living rooms across the globe. It created a buzz and excitement which the sport had seldom seen outside of the famed Monaco Grand Prix, particularly in the lacklustre years following the first of two retirements by all-time great Michael Schumacher.
“It was all anyone could talk about. Not just the week of the race, but for months in the build-up and then afterwards,” restaurateur and Singaporean native, Joseph Soon, tells ESPN. “Singapore had never been put in front of so many people like that before. Those [TV broadcast] views of the city and the track … there was a definite rise in tourists in the months and years [that followed].”
By year two, the Singapore Grand Prix had skyrocketed to the summit of many motor racing fans’ bucket-list, leapfrogging the likes of historic locations, such as Spa, Monza and Silverstone, which were beginning to feel somewhat outdated. Singapore was more than a motor race; it was a spectacle, one which attracted music, film and sports stars from all over the planet. It was fresh. It was glitzy and glamourous. And it felt as if it was just a matter of time before Ecclestone’s bold prediction would come to fruition, and we would unanimously accept Singapore had overtaken Monaco as the sport’s marquee race.
But Formula One’s quest to expand into Asia, and establish Singapore as that premier event, suddenly stalled when the commercial rights were sold to Liberty Media in 2017 – the focus quickly shifting to growing the sport in the United States. And while recent initiatives such as the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive have increased Formula One’s overall popularity exponentially, there’s an argument to be made that Singapore — which hasn’t hosted a race since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — has lost a great deal of its lustre, and been left behind as the sport has thrived.
What made the Singapore Grand Prix so unique, and beloved, when it was first added to the calendar — the trifecta of having a night race, on a street circuit, in an exotic location away from F1’s traditional European hub — has since evaporated. No longer is Singapore the sole night race, with the 2023 calendar set to feature a record six races run under floodlights. Eight of the 24 tracks are classified as street circuits, doubling from four when Singapore made its debut in 2008. And when it comes to exotic locations, there’s an abundance, most notably the recent additions of Miami and Las Vegas.
Since taking control of Formula One, Liberty Media has been desperate for Las Vegas to re-join the calendar, so the announcement earlier this year that it would finally return in 2023 was met with serious fanfare. The initial driver reactions alone were enough to suggest the Las Vegas Grand Prix had instantly bypassed Singapore, and every other race, on the bucket-list spectrum, all before a single car had hit Las Vegas Boulevard.
“There is no better place for Formula One to race than in the global entertainment capital of the world,” F1 chief Stefano Domenicali said, following confirmation of the Nevada-based race. “The Las Vegas Grand Prix is going to take F1 race weekends to the next level. There entire city is buzzing with excitement.”
Just as when Singapore was added 15 years ago, there’s plenty which will make Las Vegas unique in 2023. Perhaps the most notable element being the ‘weekend’ shifting forward to allow the grand prix to run on a Saturday evening, something which hasn’t occurred in 40 years. “Formula One cannot be static,” Domenicali told Sky Sports earlier in the year, when asked what prompted the change. It’s a reminder that F1, under Liberty Media, is prepared to take risks and move with the times.
So has Singapore come back to the pack, so to speak, or does this race still have enough for it to stand out as one of the sport’s very best?
Well, ask any driver, past or present, and they’ll tell you there’s at least one element which continues to make the Singapore Grand Prix unique – the unparalleled gruelling nature of the race. Heatwaves, extreme humidity and the fact the grand prix almost always runs to the full two-hour time limit combine to make race day in the ‘Lion City’ the most physically demanding challenge a driver will face all year.
“When I’m training in pre-season, in January and February, I’m not thinking about the first race, I’m thinking about Singapore,” Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz said Thursday, ahead of the race weekend. “It’s no secret that this place is a bit of an oven for us. To keep mentally sharp is the most difficult, because in the heat, if you want those last three-tenths of performance, of focus, it’s really challenging. If you survive Singapore, then you’re fit for anything else in Formula One.”
Typically, drivers will sweat out close to three litres of fluid during the 61-lap event, which, for many on the grid, is around 4-5% of their body weight. According to Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, racing in Singapore is like sitting in a “mild, humid sauna” where drivers must battle dehydration to avoid nausea and vomiting. Add in the fact the Marina Bay circuit is one of the bumpiest on the calendar — extra punishing given the stiffer suspension used in the current generation cars — and that a season-long 1,403 turns are required to complete the race, and you have the ultimate F1 test.
“I’m very excited. It’s definitely a fun racetrack … one of the coolest tracks on the calendar, and at the same time, one of the most difficult to put together,” McLaren’s Lando Norris said ahead of the weekend. “It’s warm and sweaty but it’s an enjoyable place to come back to.”
What about the off-track entertainment?
“The Singapore Grand Prix has been a pioneer in terms of blending the excitement of racing with entertainment,” Ong Ling Lee, Singapore’s Executive Director of Sports & Wellness, tells ESPN. “Over the years it has established itself as one of the top races on the calendar that people look forward to, from both a racing and off-track entertainment point-of-view. It’s still one of the factors which sets it apart [and] we remain confident that the race will continue to be a favourite in years to come.”
From Ariana Grande to The Killers, Rihanna to Justin Bieber, and Pharrell Williams to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Singapore Grand Prix has been a destination for all musical A-listers since the race’s inception in 2008. Some fans even make the journey to Singapore specifically for the entertainment, as evidenced by the hordes of spectators abandoning their Bay Grandstand seats in the latter stages of the 2012 race, in order to secure a vantage point for Katy Perry’s post-race performance on the Padang Stage.
Earlier this year, a seven-year extension was struck between Formula One and the promoters of the Singapore Grand Prix to keep the race on the calendar until at least 2028. It costs S$150 million to host the race, with the Singapore government tipping in 60% and the other 40% coming from race promoters, headed by Malaysian billionaire Ong Beng Seng. It’s not going anywhere, and according to Ling Lee, it shouldn’t.
“Since its debut in 2008, the Singapore Grand Prix has generated significant economic benefits, including S$1.5 billion in tourism receipts,” she tells ESPN. “It has remained a strong draw for international visitors, with more than 40% of total racegoers foreign visitors. It has also provided employment and training opportunities to locals, with approximately 30,000 staff, contractors and stakeholders accredited to work the event annually. Local businesses involved in race preparations and operations have also reaped economic benefits, while gaining exposure.”
Gauging the success of races in recent times is a tricky task, not just because some, like Singapore, have been on hiatus for three years, but because the sport’s recent surge in popularity has redefined what is now considered a healthy audience – both from an attendance and viewership standpoint. But the TV audience of the Singapore Grand Prix was already bucking the declining trend in the pre-Liberty Media years, with a total international broadcast audience of around 80 million, making it one of the most watched races on the calendar. As far as attendance, this year’s event looks set to smash previous records.
“Ticket sales for this year’s Singapore Grand Prix are stronger than 2019, which saw the second-highest attendance ever,” a spokesperson for the event told ESPN. “The majority of the ticket categories are already sold out, or are very close to selling out. Due to the overwhelming demand, all hospitality packages have also fully been taken up.”
In the wake of the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix, then McLaren team boss Ron Dennis declared the event a “big step in the history of grand prix racing” arguing that “we can take this model and apply it to anywhere in the world.”
Formula One may well be doing just that, but instead of viewing Singapore as a race which has been left in the 2010s, perhaps some perspective is needed to understand it’s been a trend-setter for modern F1. It should also be one which stays atop everyone’s bucket-list.
The Singapore Grand Prix is live on ESPN at 7:55AM (Eastern time) on Sunday, October 2.