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For one weekend in September each year, Singapore sparkles a little brighter.

Metal fences and bright fluorescent lamps line the island-state’s city centre, adding more flavour to our skyline — an eclectic blend of majestic skyscrapers, colonial landscapes and Chinese shophouses. If you haven’t already know, it’s all for the annual Formula One night race this weekend that will electrify the country once more.

Sebastian Vettel, September 14. Vettel currently trails Hamilton by a total of 30 points – but has the highest number of Singapore poles; 4 to Hamilton’s 3. Will this be the year Hamilton equals the score, or will Vettel put some distance between the drivers and possibly cement that legacy?

This year, the installation silently enters its teenage years — its 11th since the inaugural race in 2008. For all events and good things, as the saying goes, they come to an end. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for this one-of-a-kind night race.

It was a close shave as uncertainty loomed in 2017, when the Formula One contract was slated to expire. But a renewal of the deal seemed to have reinvigorated the event, pushing it to greater heights.

Glory Days

The Singapore Grand Prix has come a long way.

Its inception in 2008 drew the likes of both local and international audience alike. Inviting well-known singers and acts has helped gained traction for the little island, said Michael Roche, the executive director of Singapore GP Pte Ltd.

Over the years, the event has sported big names including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Maroon 5, who have played twice — in 2012 and 2015.

“I think we have one of the biggest music festivals, comparable to many of the great festivals in terms of the names we are bringing in,” said Roche, who is in charge of bringing in the acts. “But I’m not trying to be a music festival. I’m trying to be a motorsports event with entertainment.”

The inaugural Grand Prix blew all of us away. It packed about 300,000 spectators — including those down in the stands and by the track, and the concertgoers rooting for their favourite superstars on the other stages. Drivers had to adapt to humid, hot conditions under the harsh glare of the lights, in a street circuit packed tight with unforgiving turns. The races some years delivered nail-biting turns in the standings, and ample levity through snafus in others.

But the race soon found that it was unable to sustain its initial glory.

Decennial Crossroad

Viewership the next year plummeted by 21 percent to 237,000. And as the novelty of the event slowly wears off, the number of total audience plateaued at about 250,000 viewers each year from the 2011 to 2015 period.

Two years ago, in 2016, the event took its worst hit, recording only 219,000 attendees across three days.

Two years ago, in 2016, the event took its worst hit, recording only 219,000 attendees across three days.

The number of volunteers keen on participating as track marshals has appeared to shrink over the years, observed William Heng, a Formula One fan who has been volunteering for the past five years. “The number of sign ups (for) marshaling are falling as the allure of being a part of Grand Prix fades for the ordinary Singaporean, and quite a few withdrew after close to a decade at it,” he said.

A spokesperson for the company later clarified that the volunteer numbers were in fact healthy. “In reality, our retention rate for this year is higher than last year. For 2018, we had a much higher retention rate of over 90% when on average, it (has been) between 85-88% for the past 5 years,” wrote the spokesperson. “The number of new applicants is about the same as it has been every year.”

Toward the end of the race’s five-year deal in 2017, the wealthy city-state had to decide if the event was still relevant and if it was bringing in new benefits.

Former chief executive of the Formula One Group Bernie Ecclestone had, during that time, urged Singapore to extend the deal. “Look at what we have done for Singapore. Yes, the Grand Prix has cost Singapore a lot of money, but we’ve also given them a lot of money,” the British magnate told local media.

The race costs around S$150 million each year, according to local media, but the government helps fund about 60 percent of the costs. This also means that taxpayers’ money are being pumped into this annual night race — and makes it particularly important to weight the benefits. Singapore’s tourism board had estimated that the race — one of the country’s marquee events — will receive incremental tourism receipts from the race weekend, hitting some S$150 million annually.

Toro Rosso’s New Zealand driver Brendon Hartley drives at the Marina Bay Street Circuit during the second practice session ahead of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix in Singapore on September 14, 2018. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

That aside, about 400 million international viewers tune in to the live broadcast coverage of the race. Even though this is a 33% drop from 600 million viewers in 2008, it still places Singapore on the map, showcasing Singapore’s vibrant skyline, including the famed Marina Bay Sands, Gardens By The Bay and Esplanade.

Putting this loosely into perspective, this means having a Crazy Rich Asians filmed in Singapore every year. Yes, the race is giving our country considerable exposure.

Putting this loosely into perspective, this means having a Crazy Rich Asians filmed in Singapore every year.

There are, for example, tourists who were inspired to visit Singapore after watching the night race’s annual broadcast.

Yoga Mahardika is one such fan. “I am a big fan of F1 and I’ve been watching the race since I was a kid,” said the Jakarta resident, who came for the F1 installations in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Mahardika added that he spends about S$500 on flight and accommodation each time he comes for the race, and the money is well spent.

“The F1 in Singapore is one of the better races in the world as it is a night race,” he said. He added that the race also puts Southeast Asia on the map, and signals to the world that a country like Singapore is capable of hosting an international event as big as the Formula One. With the controversial Trump-Kim summit having just convened and with Crazy Rich Asians still rolling in dough at the cinemas, the international profile of the country could have been raised manifold in recent months.

Second Wind

After entities in Singapore renewed the contract with Formula One, ticket sales spiked again. The total number of attendees surged 19 percent from the 219,000 low to 260,400 last year.  This year’s event is projected to have a reach of 780 million viewers, according to Formula One. 

Besides improved viewership, concertgoers can also expect an upswing in the calibre and scale of the performances. This year, we can expect to see fans going crazy over Mandarin popstar Jay Chou as well as acts including Dua Lipa, The Killers, and Martin Garrix. Executive director Roche also expects a “duo performance”.

“I don’t know if Liam’s going to get up and sing with The Killers. I’m not sure if Dua Lipa will get up and sing with Martin Garrix,” he teased. “The top DJ in the world and most downloaded girl in the world — we could have a bit of magic there.”

Roche added that he is already hard at work, gathering a list of acts to appear for next year’s installation. “I am at it for 14 months trying to nail those acts,” he said. “But it’s not all about the music. It is the whole that people buy a ticket for.”

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 14: Overview of the street circuit during practice night. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Phyllicia Gan, who has been religiously attending the races over the past 10 years, said the race and stellar performances, make the Singapore Formula One race an event to look forward to each year. “There is good music and interactive activities each year and they only get better,” she said. “This year will be no different.”

Will the trifecta effect of international events and a rousing roster of top-tier artistes ring the till enough to stave off talk of discontinuation? We’ll have to keep our fingers on that pulse.

UPDATE: 263,000 attended the 2018 festivities and races, beating last year’s figures by a few thousand and marking the second-highest year of attendance, the first being the 2008 inaugural race.

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