Formula 1 is sometimes accused of being a detached from real life, stuck in its own little bubble of over-extravagance, opulence and ostentatiousness.
Detractors needs only to point to the mixture of helicopters, private jets and luxury cars that transport some drivers, and various other VIPs from race to race, or the vast sums of money that teams spend to find that extra tenth-of-a-second of performance.
This perception clearly has its downsides. At the last race in Italy, there was too much attention surrounding Lewis Hamilton and his perceived hesitation to sign a new contract with McLaren. It appeared, at least to the casual observer, that Hamilton was being wooed by Mercedes not for the promise of a faster car, but by the potential to earn more money through wages and image rights. In a global recession, it is difficult to have any sympathy for a multi-millionaire sportsman clamouring for a big pay rise, and that does not do much for the sport’s image.
But this madness that engulfs Formula 1 can be a force for good too. A prime example is the Singapore Grand Prix, which takes place this weekend. And here is why:
The fact that any Formula 1 street race takes place at all is remarkable in itself. Nevertheless, busy venues like Melbourne, Monte Carlo and Montreal close public roads each and every year, spend months erecting sturdy fencing, crash barriers and temporary grandstands, and all for just three days of on-track action.
Furthermore, the organisers, especially in Melbourne, put up with constant complaints from residents about inconvenience and noise, and also pay vast sums of money not only building the circuit, but just for the privilege of hosting the race.
It is the same in Singapore, albeit amplified by the fact that it is not a big place, and is densely populated and extraordinarily busy. The circuit is all public roads – unlike in Melbourne of Montreal where only some of the track is regularly used – and those roads surround some very important places. The amount of disruption to the people of Singapore must be huge.
And to top it all off, Formula 1 demands that, if Singapore wishes to host a race, it is done at night. This is to allow the television audience, most of who are based in Europe, to watch the race whilst enjoying their Sunday lunches. Therefore, 1500 lighting projectors span the 5.073km circuit, illuminating the track in such a way that, from the drivers’ cockpit, it is as light as it would be during the day.
Although the reasons for racing at night are largely commercial, the result is spectacular. The track-side lighting causes the track outline stand out amongst the dark shadows of the tall buildings that make up the Singapore sky line. The roar of the engines reverberates around these concrete towers, and the cars look simply stunning under the lights. Watching motor racing at night, whilst looking out over the picturesque Marina Bay complex, and still being able to see everything happening on the circuit clearly, is an amazing experience. No other sport could do anything similar.
This Sunday is the fifth running of the event. The race itself is not easy for the drivers, what with Singapore being incredibly hot and humid, and the twisty street track with close walls ready to catch out any driver whose concentration lapses. Also, the race will be run close to its two hour limit, making it the toughest event of the season for the drivers.
That could explain why only world champions have won here in the past. Fernando Alonso was victorious in the inaugural event (famously with a little help from his cheating Renault team and team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr). Lewis Hamilton won the second race in 2009, and then Alonso was back on the top step of the podium (fairly this time) in 2010.
Last year, this Singapore preview was filled with the different permutations of results that would give Sebastian Vettel his second championship. Although Vettel did go on to win the race, the fact that Jenson Button finished second meant that the German had to wait until the next race to clinch the 2011 title.
This year, any one of those three former winners could well add to their tally. Red Bull has endured a torrid time at the last two races, which took place on the two tracks least likely to suit the RB8. In contrast, the twisty, stop-start nature of the Singapore track, plus the lack of long straights, should be right up its street (pun fully intended). The double-DNF at Monza hit the championship chances of both Vettel and Mark Webber, and they will be eager to bounce back.
It will be interesting to see how McLaren do. They have now won the last three races, with Lewis Hamilton, who now sits second in the title challenge, the victor in two of those. However, Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh, speaking to Sky Sports over the weekend, is remaining cautious over his team’s chances of dominating again in Singapore.
And Ferrari, although they had some reliability problems in qualifying at their home race, still have one of the fastest cars. With Alonso seemingly the Singapore master, the smart money may be on the Spaniard to take the win, and extend his championship lead beyond 40 points.
This year, the usual party atmosphere around Singapore will be tempered slightly by thoughts of Professor Sid Watkins, who died last week. Tributes to the neurosurgeon that did so much for safety in Formula 1 and the wider motorsport world have been plentiful in the last few days (including a heartfelt statement from Bernie Ecclestone), and there will be a lot more over the weekend.
These recollections of Watkins have emphasised that, despite the weird, detached existence of F1, it is a sport that attracts some amazing people. ‘The Prof’, as he was affectionately known, is remembered as incredibly kind and caring, and an immense force for good who revolutionised safety within the sport.
F1 also attracts the ambitious, and the visionaries. Like the people who had the idea for a race in which it will be necessary to close down the centre of a south-east Asian major city, build a race track, illuminate it and go racing at night.
The fact that it worked, and that the Singapore Grand Prix is Formula 1’s best modern showpiece event, is something of which the sport should be incredibly proud, whatever the commercial motivations behind it. Enjoy the spectacle!
- Qualifying for the Singapore Grand Prix begins at 14:00 BST on Saturday, with the race getting underway at 13:00 BST on Sunday.
- There will be live coverage in the UK of events in Singapore on Sky Sports F1 HD, BBC One (HD), and BBC Radio 5 Live
- The author of this preview will be in Singapore for the race this weekend. For an on-the-ground view from the race track, follow @Dr_Bean on Twitter.
Also on thecheckeredflag.co.uk this weekend:
- Look out for our comprehensive cover of the 2012 Britcar 24 Hours event from our team at Silverstone. See the provisional entry list here.