01 November 2009

Formula One in Asia

I was fortunate this year to attend both Formula One races in southeast Asia. These bookend a large portion of the season, with the Malaysian Grand Prix being the second race of the year in April, and the Singapore GP being near the end in September (only three races followed it). Living where I do in Singapore, I may have the most convenient location for attending both races.

The Malaysian GP is run at the Sepang Circuit, which is a mile or so away from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The city of KL is 40 or so kilometres from the airport, so it is actually easier to fly in the day of the race, rather than go up early and stay in the city. The race was scheduled to start at 5pm, so I took an early afternoon flight and arrived around 2. After catching the shuttle bus and buying my ticket at the box office, I was in the circuit before 3. This gave me a couple of hours to look around the facility, but all I really wanted to do was get under the shade in my seat.

It was ridiculously hot and humid. Malaysia is never temperate, but it is really bad in April. It was raining when we landed, but it had cleared by the time I was at the track, and it felt like a sauna on steroids. My ticket was on the start/finish straight, under the canopy that covers the iconic stands lining the track and its 180-degree turn. So, I settled in, knowing that the weather forecast was for more rain.

The race started normally, with pole-sitter Jenson Button of the newly-formed Brawn team getting out to the lead. My seats had a great view of the start finish line and then a very fast down hill left-hand turn into a long curve that gave the drivers an opportunity to stay on the gas. The elevation change really make for good viewing. The cars the disappeared for a minute before rounding the slow 180-degree final turn that takes them down the start/finish straight. From these seats, you get a lot of viewing time per lap, which is great. Plus, I was high enough up (first row, but in the second deck) that I could hear what was being said on my hand-held Kangaroo TV set.

A few minutes into the race, we got welcome relief from the heat with a cool breeze. That (and the gathering dark clouds) signaled an impending storm, and the rain came a few minutes later. I had recently read a novel set in Malaysia, and the rain that day came as the author had described the daily downpours, as "violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets." It doesn't drizzle in Malaysia.

One thing about Formula One that separates it from other motorsport series is that they continue to race in the rain. The teams switch to wet tires, and off they go. That is, if the rain doesn't made racing too hazardous. Which it did that day. The fast downhill turn I described above became a slow maneuver in the rain, with rooster tail plumes flowing high and far behind each car. From my Kangaroo TV set, I could hear the drivers telling their crews of the terrible conditions. It was so bad that about halfway through the race, they stopped it. Eventually, they would abandon the race, the first time such action was taken since the 1991 Australian GP was halted because of heavy rain. Because the race was not finished, the top 8 drivers received only half points (Button got 5 instead of 10).

I waited to see the podium, which was still celebratory, and then trudged with the rest of the dripping masses out of the circuit. A 15 minute walk got me to the buses, and another 15 minute wait got me on a bus. From there, it was only a few minutes before I was back through security and on my way to Singapore. I was back home around 11pm, just about 12 hours after I had left that morning. A pretty good day, even with the rain.

Nearly six months later, the Formula One circus came to Singapore for the second instalment of the Singapore GP, the first night race in F1's history. Last year's race had been a wild success, but the 2009 edition was clouded by revelations that Renault driver Nelson Piquet, Jr., had crashed his car deliberately during the race last year, which allowed his teammate Fernando Alonso to pass several cars during the subsequent caution and claim victory in the race. The economic downturn had also dampened excitement for the race, and when I found I couldn't get walk-about tickets (which Alex and I had last year), I decided not to go.

Then, two days before the race, a friend at work gave me a ticket. In the Pit Grandstand. Right across from the Brawn pits. Probably 200 metres from the start/finish line. The seats were incredible. So, on race day, I headed out about 3pm to go to the circuit. From my front door, I was inside the gates within 13 minutes. Walk down the hill, get on the MRT, ride two stops, up the escalator, and out the door and through the gates. It was amazing! Of course, I then had to walk more than 20 minutes in the heat to get to my seats, which were on the very opposite side of the circuit.

The organizers did another great job this year. The food and beverage area near my seats featured all kinds of good food, including a re-creation of Emerald Hill, my neighborhood, complete with the shophouses and local bars. It was great to see Ice Cold Beer and Number 5 Emerald Hill right there, as if I hadn't even left home.

The cars look fantastic under the lights. After the excitement of the start, however, I found the seats to be less enjoyable than the walk-about tickets we had last year. Formula One cars are awesome machines, but you tend to sit in your seat for 90 seconds watching the big video screens for every 15 seconds of the cars screaming by. Kangaroo TV provides good coverage, but it is hard to hear when you are so close to the track (I was fourth row). All in all, a good experience, but I learned a lesson on where to view the action for next year.

My last four Grands Prix have been quite historic - the 2005 USGP, when only six cars raced because of problems with the Michelin tires on the remaining 14 cars, the 2008 and 2009 Singapore GPs, the first night races, and the 2009 Malaysian GP, the first race to be abandoned in 18 years and only the fourth in history where half points were awarded. I guess it's a case of being in the right place at the right time.