Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Day 23: The Singapore Grand Prix

Singapore has a night-time street race for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. In the interests of cultural research Burness and I decided to attend.

It's fair to say that for the past week - since we arrived - Singapore had been gearing up for the occasion. The Singapore Grand Prix is one of only two street circuits (Monaco famously the other one) and is the only night race: therefore, it is something special. Although not a terrific Grand Prix fan myself, when I realised that I would be in the area when it was taking place I specially rejigged my itinerary to include it. The Grand Prix is a global event, and the Singapore street circuit, a new kid on the block, one of the most notable.

It was clear upon arrival into Singapore, last week, that something was up. We had picked up various leaflets from the Marina Bay Gallery, which had the routes for various short walking tours around the area. The Heritage Walk sounded the most interesting, an hour of taking in some of Singapore's historical buildings before they bulldoze them and build a lavish shopping mall in their place. Although known most for being the flashy belly-button of south-east Asia and the very model of skyscraper glitz and wealth, Singapore has some history lingering too, from its British colonial origins to the massive influx of Chinese at the turn of the 20th Century. Granted, it's a recent history compared to the rich backgrounds of all its neighbours, but the Heritage Walk allowed us to appreciate that Singapore isn't entirely air-conned malls and glass towers.

Unfortunately, the Grand Prix kind of got in our way, as after having walked through The Padang, an open field area in the centre of Singapore containing war memorials and surrounded by Singapore's historical buildings, we found our route blocked by massive steel fences. The Grand Prix barriers were being erected and roads were being closed off. The circuit takes place at Marina Bay and vaguely represents a wonky outline of a rabbit, with the long straight of the head running alongside The Padang Park before turning sharply at the handsome Fullerton Hotel and accelerating along Esplanade Drive back onto the large rabbit body. This very much clashed with the route we hoped to walk, and so after visiting the brilliantly white St. Andrew's Cathedral (underwhelming inside unfortunately with the shabby, narrow interior not matching the proud-looking exterior) we were unable to see the two most impressive buildings on the walk's list, the Old and the New Supreme Court Buildings due to barriers tough enough to presumably stop an F1 car. In the muggy heat of another Singapore sauna we didn't fancy pushing on and trying to find a way round, so skipped the end of the walk and went for lunch instead.

The lights came on that evening, at least as far as I noticed, upon watching from the SkyPark infinity pool in our one day of splendour staying at the Marina Bay Sands. The three-towered hotel stands across the other side of the bay from the track as though watching over it, and commands an excellent view of much of the circuit. Due to Singapore being a night circuit, and F1 cars not being equipped with headlights (although this would be a superb addition in my opinion), the entire track must be floodlit. Powerful lights fixed on the top of the high barriers beam vertically down upon the road, leaving the distant observer in absolutely no doubt as to the route. From the Marina Bay Sands, the distorted rabbit gleamed yellow, the outline of the Grand Prix circuit carved into Singapore's night scene.

On Friday, the roar began.

Anyone who has watched the Grand Prix on television will know about the constant drone of engines: it is the backing soundtrack to the two hours of racing. It puts off a lot of people - my mother, for example, cannot bear to watch it just because of the awful noise.

The TV does not even begin to convey the true effect.

We were sitting at a restaurant by the bay, having a beer and stripping some frogs' legs of the meagre meat they had (I should have just bought chicken), when the roar started. Friday is a practice session for the drivers, getting the cars and their heads around the circuit. Our restaurant was outside, but not especially close to the track, but there was no doubt about the roar. Like an angry, approaching menace, the sound of a million engines firing up: everyone around took notice. It was electrifying and oddly intimidating, the sheer howl, as though hearing a pack of wolves cry at the moon. The restaurant owner grinned and turned on the TV, and we could watch the cars go round, enjoying the live soundtrack.

And then it stops.

Practice sessions last about an hour, and all cars stop within about a minute or so of each other, giving a sudden peace. The following night, the night of the Grand Prix Qualifying, we were again on the SkyPark on the Marina Bay Sands (this time paying a S$20 entry fee as visitors, rather than enjoying the guest treatment), with the night circuit outlined for us in yellow. People made a ring around the edges of the overhanging ledge, faces pressed against the glass, waiting. Waiting for the roar, and for small distant cars to appear. They don't look like they're going so fast when seen from hundreds of metres away. But they still roar. And not just roaring, the engines cough, splutter and bang: finely-honed premium monsters making sounds like a banger backfiring. From here, sounds could be associated with individual cars - a car going decelerating to go round a sharp corner would emit a series of pops and crackles that would be heard by us distant spectators a couple of seconds later. And always the roar. It was loud even from here, from close up I could only imagine. Roaring, then over the period of a minute or two, calming as the cars stopped one by one, until the final engine stopped and the night sighed in relief.

The day of the actual race, Burness and I arrived a few hours before the main event. A race between a bunch of fancy Porsches was already taking place, warming the crowd up as the sun was setting. Our ticket was walkabout, which as the names suggests meant we had plenty of walking opportunities and far fewer for sitting. Access to the seating areas was denied for us, so like most of the hordes, we had to find whatever spot we could that might allow a view of the cars. This we managed, quite successfully, by finding a stand near the sharp bend of turn 13 that we hoped would provide a bit more action than simply watching cars flash by on a straight.

After the Porsche racing came the driver's parade, in which all the F1 racers are driven around the track in a fancy vintage car, waving to the applauding crowds. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button seemed to get extra applause, but the biggest was reserved for one of the last cars, simply driven by an old man without a Formula 1 passenger. I'm not sure if this happens in every Grand Prix, but I thought it was a nice touch. Burness was not sure. "It's a bit gay," he said.

Not that there's anything wrong with that
There was then an hour of silence, as the clock neared the 8pm race start. An hour of slowly rising tension as the crowds - by now settling into their chosen spot - anticipated the roar, but also an hour to appreciate the night lights of Singapore, which were now shining proudly. Our position, near the Fullerton Hotel and the merlion statue with water spouting from its mouth into the bay, had the Marina Bay Sands facing us square on. Huge spotlights reached into the sky, the belly of the park was lit up in chequered squares, the three towers were dotted with the lights of hotel rooms, and at the base the huge glass shopping centres were glowing in primary colours. It looked magnificent. Even Burness, who had been unsure of the Marina Bay Sands initially, said "You know what, it is pretty impressive. It's not a Wonder, but it definitely deserves to be on your list." Like all the best structures, the Marina Bay Sands isn't just about first impact, it's about maintaining a hold on your interest over time, and building on it. This I can certainly say it does. And if it to have a place in Singapore's heart and hopes to become an icon, its association with the remarkable night race of the Singapore Grand Prix will surely be integral.

The remainder of Singapore's high rise skyline also shone and glittered, some buildings dancing in different colours, and others balconies and rooftops filling up with high-paying guests with some of the best views of the race. The air was hot but a bay breeze refreshed, the city was beaming with a million lights, the crowds of people were buzzing with nerves and excitement, and the national anthem of Singapore ended. A hush descended; ear plugs went in. The Singapore Grand Prix was to begin.

The roar was immediate as twenty-four engines fired up simultaneously, but our vantage was point was about two-thirds of the way round the circuit. Therefore, the roar was still a couple of kilometres away - but approaching. It was hugely exciting, hearing this unholy, angry din grow closer and closer, waiting for the moment the first car would nose its way round the corner in front of me.

We heard it before we saw it. A deep scream hit us and Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull-Renault slid by and motored off in a blink, followed by twenty-three other screaming machines. Like standing in front of a speaker at a music festival, a slab of bass noise went right through us, roaring and chuckling as it did so, waves of crackling, spluttering power being felt in the pits of our stomachs. It was an awesome display. And then it faded, from this moment of intensity, as the cars disappeared into the distance as their lap continued.

This first corner was surely the highlight of the race, as all the tension was resolved in a few moments of fury, but all forty minutes standing by this corner were entertaining, as a minute would go by without action then a blast of noise from a string of cars thundered by. There were certain individual moments standing out from the general roar, such as a car overshooting the corner and stopping against the barrier before roaring on, a deftly done overtaking manoeuvre between two cars, and one car, after the main procession had gone by, appearing much later, limping round with a muted roar and obvious problem, and being mocked by the baying crowds.

Forty minutes in one position was enough - there is only a certain amount of times you can watch cars drive round the same corner - so for the remaining hour-and-twenty-minutes we wandered to a few other select locations. This involved seeing cars appear from round corners, disappear around corners, or simply drive by very fast indeed. In the end, for the last fifteen minutes, we watched Vettel win with ease while positioned with a large crowd of people gathered round a giant TV screen.

That's because although Formula 1 is an amazing spectacle to behold, it's not much of a spectator sport. The circuit is so big, and the cars go so fast, that unless you're watching TV it is very difficult to figure out what's going on. Without the TV telling me, I don't think I'd even have known who won. It's noisy, confusing, exciting, boring and absolutely exhausting. After Vettel crossed the line, and the remainder of the drivers concluded their laps, and the final monster roared by, the relief after two hours of aural assault was immense. Hours of standing in the sticky heat of Singapore with tens of thousands of other people with an unrelenting din in our ears is a tiring experience. I barely managed a beer upon getting back to hostel, and despite the loud music of the neighbouring club, I slept very soundly that night.

Would I do it again? Definitely, should I be in the vicinity of Singapore? On a different circuit? Maybe. The magic of Singapore's Grand Prix is in its astounding setting - it's really quite magical. On a professional race track in day time, for a non-fanatic like myself, it might be more exhausting than exciting.

Nonetheless, I would strongly recommend the Singapore Grand Prix as an experience, which is more than I would do with my hostel. I had thought that the Funkhouse in Sydney might take the mantle for worst accommodation, but I realise how naive I was. The Tresor Tavern in Singapore wasn't up to much, I'm afraid. I could forgive the twelve-man rooms, the pounding dance music played at breakfast, the tiny shower rooms, and the tiny, wafer-like blanket given that was grossly insufficient for when the air-con kicked in at night, but I can't forgive it for being next to a nightclub that each day of the week was blasting from midnight till 3am. I never managed a good night's sleep there, and am glad to be leaving.

It didn't tarnish my impression of Singapore however, which I have been pleasantly surprised by. Perhaps I've been lucky to have stayed in two different areas - Chinatown and near Little India - which have been a little rougher round the edges than the swish metropolis Singapore wants to be. With cheap food markets, outdoor bars and cafes, and the sense of Asian-style chaos, these parts of Singapore were eminently charming. The rest of the city, that I saw, was much slicker, with large chunks of the city in underground malls, all air-conditioned and polished. It looked lovely, but a little soulless. The shopping opportunities were magnificent I don't doubt, and a rich girl could buy endless amounts of handbags and shoes to fill the chasm in her life, but for a non-shopping visitor the majority of Singapore's flash lifestyle doesn't offer much. I've had a good week here, with the Grand Prix a wonderful backdrop to it all, but it's time to move to somewhere far less efficient and with far more character.

On a final note, speaking to two different guides at the Marina Bay Gallery, both have said that next year's street race may be the last, as it is intended to build a purpose-built circuit outside of the city. This strikes me as a deep shame, if true (a newspaper report about the contract being up next year didn't refer to it, and I couldn't find anything on a casual internet search), as I think street races are the way to go. I know it would be hugely impractical and will never happen, but imagine a world with a London, Paris, New York or Rio de Janeiro Grand Prix? Imagine the excitement of the roar of Formula 1 backdropped with the Wonders of the World? It would be fantastic. Mr Eccleston, when you read this (I know he does from time to time), please see what you can do.

Actually, as an absolutely final note, Burness tried for about ten minutes to get a photo of me with a F1 car driving in the background, and must have taken over thirty photos without success. Only now, going through them, I realise his efforts were fruitful after all.

Look very carefully - it's there.

1 comment:

  1. I watched the race and have walked the same streets, and it's the juxtaposition of the screaming engines with the new/old city that makes this race. They'd be crazy to play with it too much; Singapore has already almost equalled Monaco as the visual jewel in the crown of F1. I'd be stunned if it was allowed to move.

    Your experience of the race was very similar to mine at Silverstone: loud, confusing, primal. I'd also do it again but at a different circuit as (as rightly pointed out by yourself) F1 doesn't fully work as a spectator sport so the overall experience/location is part of it.

    Enjoy Indonesia. I was supposed to go there for work whilst I was in KL once, but a specific terrorist threat (not specific enough to name me but specific enough to mention Westerners in Jakarta) stopped the trip the day before. I'll be interested to hear what the atmosphere is like there, as Indonesia (or at least certain regions of it) seem to be getting more fundamentalist by the month.