09 December 2008

Travel: Alex in Asia - The Formula One Singapore Grand Prix

While I was back in Singapore working, Alex made his way down from Phuket, through Bangkok and KL. He arrived Thursday, giving me a day to show him around the city-state before we jumped headfirst into the traveling circus that is Formula One. The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel is just around the corner from the Stamford Hotel, Singapore's tallest. So, after the obligatory Singapore Sling, we ascended to the New Asia Bar, on the 70th floor the the Stamford, for a great view of the circuit. The safety cars were circling the track in all its illuminated glory, and we had the perfect vantage point from on high.

We headed down River Valley Road by bus around 6pm on Friday, with practice on our mind. First, a tour of Clarke Quay's finer establishments to show off Alex's Puma Ferrari shoes - Pump Room, Brewerkz, and at the end of Boat Quay, Penny Black (a genuine Victorian pub that was shipped in its entirety to the Lion City).

As we left Penny Black after the sun had set, we were greeted by the sound of 18,000 rpm touring the streets of Singapore - Grand Prix weekend had started. That was such a sweet sound - one I hadn't heard since the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the fiasco where only six cars ran the race because of problems with the other 14 cars on Michelin tires (the Bridgestones handled Formula One's highest speed corner - turn 13 in that race, Turn 1 at the 500 - where the Michelins couldn't). It was a sound Singapore has never heard, and it was beautiful.

We quickly ran to the Anderson Bridge (pictured) and into the circuit and got our Kangaroo TV sets, a hand-held system that allowed us to follow the race from the television perspective as well as several in-car views. We settled on the Esplanade Bridge, a high speed sector just before the Turn 14 into the section running along Marina Bay portion. It was great! Alas, the race organisers would close that vantage point for Saturday's qualifying and the race.

After a high-cost cab home (Singapore knows how to price differentiate), we called it a night. I introduced Alex to a traditional coffee house the next morning (kopi kosong and a kaya toast set for him), and we prepared for qualifying. We camped out on the second floor of the Singapore Flyer car park at Turn 5, which gave us great views of the cars coming around the high-speed corner. But, when it took us hours to get out (they didn't quite have the exits figured out on that side of the circuit), we decided to spend raceday elsewhere.

Sunday brought the race. The tifosi were happy to see Felipe Massa on pole, and his World Championship hopes rode high on this first night race in Formula One history. We found grandstands on the opposite side of our Friday night vantage point on the Esplanade Bridge. The race started as we had hoped, with Massa running strong out front. The cars were beautiful under the lights! It was an exciting atmosphere, truly a new experience for F1.

Then the fateful pit stop. Massa pulled away with the fuel hose still attached. You can read in the press what happened next, but it was the end of the race for the Brazilian, and it would eventually cost him dearly, as he finished a single point from winning the championship.

Alex and I migrated to the massive infield section (the Padang, usually host to Singapore Cricket Club and Singapore Sporting Club events) to watch Fernando Alonso drive his Renault to an improbable victory (or was it improbable? Alonso was fastest in qualifying until an engine failure relegated him to the middle of the grid; a crash by his Renault teammate Nelson Piquet, Jr started the series of events that allowed him to the front of the field during the race. But I'm no conspiracy theorist...). We had witnessed history, and although our driver had not won (or even scored points - and don't even ask about Kimi's late race meltdown), it was a great experience!

What a weekend! Monday was a wind-down day (frankly, I was a little down, since the buildup to the race had been so overwhelming), but we managed to see some parts of my home before we headed of to Hong Kong the next day. We were happy to have been part of the first ever Formula One night race, which by all accounts was a huge success. And I will give Singapore credit - it was a fantastic event, run in beautiful surroundings in the heart of illuminated city. This should be a great stop on the traveling circus's calendar from now on.

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