Singapore and Suzuka – the two Grands Prix in Asia where the grandstands are packed to the brim. But they are packed for two very different reasons, a fact which often gets missed by local decision makers and Formula One specialists alike. And it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that both circuits have a big wheel.
Unlike Shanghai, which has struggled in the past to attract people to fill the massive grandstands, and Yeongam, which looks destined never to bring in an audience of any size, Singapore, stands alone among the new races in its ability to draw a crowd. It’s a unique race of course. It’s a real street circuit, in the middle of a big city. The race runs at night, and it doesn’t rely on the cars alone to provide entertainment. In fact, once you step out of the paddock it’s possible to get the impression that it is Formula One that is the sideshow, albeit a very important one.
The Grand Prix is the event of the season, if not of the year. The city is totally dominated by the holding of the race in a way that only Monaco is; roads are closed, businesses likewise. The city takes on a whole new form, with the circuit mapped out at night by the thousands of lights branding the layout into the minds of the residents. Throughout the week, locals ask each other “Are you going?” There’s no need to add “to the race”. Singapore is filled with thousands of people, all hungry for status. Nobody wants to miss out.
The crowd at Suzuka is completely different. More like Silverstone than Singapore. Situated in the middle of nowhere, it’s a trek to get there, but the Japanese understand and love racing, in much the same way as the fans at Silverstone do. There is no need for sideshows at Suzuka, despite the big wheel and the other fairground attractions; the crowd are there for the racing. Ayrton Senna used to be revered as a God when he was alive; nowadays spectators queue for hours outside locked gates in the hope of getting autographs from drivers. Rain or shine.
While Singapore has no racing history, Suzuka does. It was designed fifty years ago by John Hugenholtz of Zandvoort fame and is one of the circuits that drivers most love to drive. Singapore is the new kid on the block: bold, brash and full of youthful promise. Drivers still love it, but for different reasons, for the lights and the glitz, not for the high-speed S curves or for 130R.
So why does Singapore have full grandstands, when races in Turkey, Bahrain and Korea have played in front of empty stands? Is it a question of pricing, education, or maybe location? All of these play a role, but there is something more than this at work. Last year, for the Singapore race, I attended with a normal entrance ticket. No paddock pass, no media status, just access to a grandstand – although that in itself is something that many people can only dream of.
As a spectator, the Singapore event is more like a rock festival than a race. The race is important of course, but it’s only one of the acts on one of the stages. For some people it may not even be the headline act. A friend, recently moved to Singapore, was posting on Facebook from the event, as was pretty much everyone: “I’m at the Shakira concert, awesome”. That’s not untypical, although many people did mention the race too.
Look at this year’s line-up: Katy Perry, Maroon 5, plus a host of local acts and old international favourites: Noel Gallagher, Bananarama, The Pretenders and The Proclaimers. Plus a two-hour Grand Prix and an hour of Qualifying. And four hours of free practice if you have any idea what’s going on. The crowd at Silverstone are there to catch every minute of on-track action. Only then will they contemplate wandering down to catch Eddie Jordan and the Robbers on stage.
If you’re not used to festivals, where two acts can be on stage simultaneously, the timetable of the Singapore event can be slightly frustrating. The Shakira concert was timetabled to start 15 minutes after FP3 and finish only 15 minutes before the start of qualifying. Which sounds fine, except that the concerts are held on the Padang, from where you cannot see the track, and it takes 30 minutes to negotiate the funnel-like bridge that you need to cross to get to your seat. So you are faced with the choice of missing the end of the concert, or the start of qualifying. It’s a simple decision for a race fan, but most locals opt to see the hip-shaking encore.
This means that in the grandstands, there’s a constant flux of people moving in and out while the cars are on track; a constant search for the most interesting distraction of the moment. Like any entertainment event these days, iPhones and iPads are continually held aloft to record the event. The photos and videos will be immediately posted to Twitter and Facebook and never viewed again. If your seat is by a stairway, your view is blocked throughout the entire race by people moving slowly in search of beer or beef spleen, a snip at £1 a portion. Given that the straights are short, and you can’t see the corners anyway, that’s not too big a problem.
Before the race, there’s no race build-up for spectators seated away from the startline. The giant screens show what’s happening on the grid, but the loudspeakers keep pumping out electro-dance music until the parade lap starts. It doesn’t matter that for casual fans it’s virtually impossible to recognize Vettel from Webber, or even a Red Bull from a Toro Rosso. All that is important is that spectators can say they were there and it was amazing. Even if they didn’t understand what on earth was going on. They will have seen (and heard) the cars, and they will have seen (and heard) some famous musicians playing live. It’s a great night out by anyone’s standards.
The Singapore race is undoubtedly good value too: the cheapest seating for three days will set you back around 250 Singapore Dollars if you get organised and book in advance. That’s around £125 at today’s rates. In comparison, the cheapest early-bird seating at Silverstone will set you back at least 50% more. A Glastonbury Festival ticket retails for £205. For the record, that doesn’t mean that British fans are being ripped off, as it represents about the same proportion of the average disposable annual wage in both countries. That said, many of the attendees of the Singapore race do come from the affluent ex-pat and banking sectors, and they don’t have far to travel. For them it’s astounding value – one of the best value entertainment events on the planet. And given that it disrupts local life completely, it’s no surprise that many adopt the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach.
Is it possible to extrapolate from this and deduce what the race planners of Athens should do in order to make tickets fly out of the door if their mad plans come to fruition? Probably not, but it would be sound advice to recommend that they provide an entertainment package that their audience will understand and enjoy. Don’t rely on building a circuit and assuming a crowd will come. That might work for a baseball stadium in the USA, but it won’t work for an audience for whom motorsport is essentially an unknown quantity. Better still, drop the plan completely.