AFTER a rather busy Sunday — and three pints — I checked my messages at 3 am on Monday and found two from the BBC World News. They requested through Whatsapp and email if I could be in their studio for their 7 am news segment to talk about the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix.
That meant barely two hours of sleep and I was not really keen. But it had to be something important and I scoured for news online on what this was all about.
And then it popped out.
Quoting German publication Auto Motor Und Sport, Motorsport.com reported that Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said he believed Singapore was not going to extend its race deal beyond 2017.
That’s incredible news. It did not sound like the Ecclestone I’ve come to know over the course of meetings and interviews I’ve had with him over the years, including an extensive one at his London office.
When it comes to the Singapore Grand Prix he has carefully nurtured relationships, at least in public and with the press.
The most jarring of his quotes are: “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. Singapore was suddenly more than just an airport to fly to or from somewhere. Now they believe they have reached their goal and they do not want a grand prix anymore.”
It was unfortunate that apart from the Straits Times and The New Paper, other local media, including socio-political sites, ran only with these quotes, which on their own were out of context with what Ecclestone was actually saying.
They missed the point of the story.
I needed to give my take on whether Singapore would indeed end its F1 contract and went in for the BBC World News 9 am slot instead.
What Ecclestone was lamenting about is the state of Formula 1 racing today, which has become a monotonous, one-team Mercedes show. Fans have been turned off and proof is the falling television viewership.
And the result of this, he said, that “It could happen to us that Mercedes and Ferrari run away. But honestly, if the races get better, this may not be such a terrible vision. We have to expect the manufacturers to leave us anyway. Mercedes will retire on the day when it suits them and it’s something we had before – look at Honda, BMW and Toyota. They go when Formula 1 has done the job for them. There is no gratitude.”
And then he went on to say race organisers could pull out as well and pointed to Singapore as an example, along with the quotes on what F1 has done for the country.
What’s missing in most Singapore media stories is the context with which Ecclestone said this: “But honestly, if the races get better, this may not be such a terrible vision.”
So if races or the show improve, the departure of teams and venue organisers may not come to pass at all. But why highlight a likely Singapore exit? The only possible reason is that he fears if F1 does not show any improvement in its entertainment value in the 2017 season, the city-state’s organisers, Singapore GP and the Government, may not be compelled to continue.
And the danger for F1 is that other venues paying similar hefty rights fees may reach the same conclusion when their contracts expire.
What Ecclestone did was to fire a warning shot across the bows of teams and the FIA that F1’s stock will plunge if they fail to address falling crowd attendances and global TV audience. The show needs fixing and it needs to be fixed fast.
There is no question Singapore wants to continue hosting F1. Neither are there doubts Ecclestone clamours an extension.
Teams, drivers and fans have also heaped praises on the Singapore Grand Prix since its 2008 debut. Chase Carey, chairman of F1 new owners Liberty Media, went as far as saying the Marina Bay street race should be the template for other races in the calendar.
Singapore and F1 give much to each other and the relationship has gone beyond just money. There are not ‘buts’ to this. What’s left, then, is an equitable partnership that must be hammered out within the next 10 months. I am pretty sure they’ll get it done.