Sports

No, the Tour de France is still NOT coming to Thailand!

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 25, 2014 The Tour de France, the world's long-running, most prestigious (and somewhat plagued) cycling race, will start its 2016 edition from Manche in Normandy, France, with the rest of the route to be revealed on December 9. I might be going on a limb here, but I'm pretty sure that the last stage will be again on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Now, why would I write something like this on this blog here? Regular readers may remember this:

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is in talks with Paris-based Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) for the possibility of staging the world’s biggest cycling race, the Tour de France, in Thailand in 2015, the year when the entire Southeast Asian region will integrate under the ASEAN Economic Community framework. (…)

[TAT Governor Mr. Thawatchai Arunyik] added, “By playing host to a world famous cycling race as the Tour de France, we are saying that Thailand is ready to host any international sporting events of all types and sizes. (…)”

Tour de France to be held in Thailand next year“, TAT press release, October 2, 2014

The TAT jumped the starting gun on this one, issuing the press release after just one meeting with the Tour organizers (we reported). While it is nothing new for the first stage of the event to be held in countries other than France - there have been many starting locations, including this year in Utrecht, Netherlands - moving to an entirely different continent is quite a big stretch, which made the TAT announcement - which has vanished from its website - far more unbelievable.

Almost naturally - after a sufficient amount of buzz and ridicule - there was this unsurprising statement by the Tour de France organizers ASO:

ASO, however, believes something was lost in translation.

"There are talks indeed but not to bring the Tour to Thailand," a spokesman told Reuters upon hearing about the claims from the TAT. "There are discussions to settle in Thailand via a criterium, just like we did in Japan with the 'Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France'." A criterium is a one-day race held on a circuit or though a city which often attracts the Tour de France winner but has little sporting value.

"Thailand off course on Tour hosting plans - ASO", Reuters, October 2, 2014

It's not the first time Thailand has attempted to attract a world-class sporting event, and its not the first time it has run into problems: the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2012 became a fiasco when Bangkok failed to build the main arena in time, and an ambitious bid to host a Formula 1 race on the streets of Bangkok ultimately came to a screeching halt when the city rejected the inner-city circuit. Both incidents were examples of unhealthy, unrealistic ambitions and dodgy dealings by the Thai authorities - which would normally be perfectly acceptable in the world of sports.

It still doesn't excuse the outlandish announcement by the TAT. The Ministry of Tourism and Sports (a very popular portfolio for would-be ministers for political and financial reasons), which the TAT is attached to, could for example attempt to better promote and support regional and local sporting events like the "Tour of Thailand" instead of thinking too big.

So, in case there are any doubts: NO, the Tour de France is still not coming to Thailand!

Thailand F1 plans hit major speed bump as Bangkok bans car racing

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 8, 2013 Thailand's plans for a nighttime Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bangkok in 2015 are in serious doubt after it emerged that Bangkok's Metropolitan Authority has banned car racing in the area the the race was planned for.

We have looked at the Thai government's plans to host a Grand Prix several times in the past, with a proposed track running through downtown Bangkok passing major landmarks such as the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Sanam Luang and Democracy Monument.

Earlier this week we reported that these plans have been drawn up without the input of a particular group, which has now thrown a spanner in the works. Local residents and environmental groups have also voiced their opposition to the proposed Grand Prix, since the authorities have left them in the dark about the plans and the potential impact on the neighborhood.

We have raised a lot of questions regarding the ambitious plans by the government to bring Formula 1 to town. How would the already notoriously congested city cope with the shutdown of some of the capital's busiest roads? Is it really going to cost no more than $40m to host the race, with big local sponsors like Singha Beer and Red Bull reportedly willing to flip some of it? Is Thailand aready and capable of putting on a world-class sporting event or is it going to be similar to the FIFA Futsal World Cup disaster last year?

Well, we may not need to worry about these questions anymore:

But Bangkok's Metropolitan Authority has stymied the proposal with a law banning "car racing" from the zone.

"The law came into effect on May 16 prohibiting car racing in inner Bangkok because that area is a conservation for culture and arts," Kriangphon Pattanarat, director general of City Planning Department told AFP.

The law has been under discussion for two or three years, he said, adding it was not specifically targeted at F1.

"Motor Racing: Formula One stalls in Bangkok as law bans car racing", AFP, June 7, 2013

Thai federal officials like Minister of Tourism and Sports Somsak Phurisisak tried not to appear caught off guard by the apparent legislation effectively outlawing and killing the Bangkok F1 Grand Prix project, going on record stating they would not fight the ruling.

Furthermore, Somsak said that that the organizers are looking for alternative locations in Bangkok like the far Northern districts Muang Thong Thani and Chaeng Wattana, or elsewhere in the country like Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen and Phuket - all of which seem to be less attractive options.

Interestingly, no one has mentioned a racing circuit that is being currently built in Buriramdesigned by Formula 1-track designer Herman Tilke, the newest brainchild of Newin Chidchob. The former (but very likely still influential) politician is now the man behind his football club Buriram United, which almost instantly became a national powerhouse within a few years. However, the 4.7km purpose-built road course will have a Category 2 rating from the motorsport governing body Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). That means, it is not eligible to host Formula 1 races and would have to be modified and upgraded for that. But then again, the likelihood of a Pheu Thai Party-led government doing any business with Newin is very slim anyways due to their bitter political rivalry.

But with that the dream of bringing Formula 1 to Thailand at all seems to be over at this point, since anything other than Bangkok would be far from satisfactory for the organizers who are now scrambling to make a graceful exit from this. While skepticism was always lurking behind these plans, this whole campaign might have been the best shot Thailand had to realize its dream of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix - a dream it almost realized in 1939, but on that occasion it was canceled because of World War II.

F1 Bangkok Grand Prix plans face growing local opposition

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 3, 2013 Environmental groups and local residents are voicing their disapproval over the Thai government's ambitious plans for a Formula 1 Grand Prix in the middle of Bangkok under lights, citing various potential impacts on the neighborhood. But are these concerns valid and how far have the plans progressed?

We previously followed the government's plans to host a round of the pinnacle of motorsport, the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, in the middle of Thai capital ever since the first rumors of a bid surfaced in early 2012 and the potential costs were first tallied (estimated to be around $40m, with the state covering 60 per cent of it).

Despite an endorsement by F1 promoter and supremo leader Bernie Ecclestone late last year and the announcement by Thai officials of a 'done deal' in October, there hasn't been much movement since and no contracts have been signed. The final decision will come from the sport's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), later this year.

Nevertheless, the project started to take some shape in late April with the revelation of the proposed track layout, showing a route that starts at the Grand Palace, passes key Bangkok landmarks such as Wat Phra Kaew, Sanam Luang, Pra Athit Road, Phan Fah Bridge, Democracy Monument and Ratchadamnoen Avenue, before closing the nearly 6km/3.7mi long loop at the Grand Palace again.

(SEE IT ON GOOGLE MAPS HERE)

Furthermore, Bangkok has been shortlisted to hold a round of the Formula E Championship in 2014, a new FIA-sanctioned open wheel racing series powered with electric engines. However, while the championship rounds are solely held on inner city courses, these tracks won't be longer than 3 kilometers and the whole event - including practice, qualifying and race - will be held on one single day. Nevertheless, should Bangkok be selected to hold a race next year, it could be seen as a grand rehearsal for the Grand Prix in 2015.

(Side note: The Nation's business reporter bizarrely tweeted that Bangkok's GP bid has failed and thus got Formula E instead. After asking him about the reason, the reporter cited "advertisement rules due to tobacco sponsors", even though Formula 1 stopped carrying these several years ago - only then for him to admit that his tweet was based on a headline several years old but still refused to explain why he led with an outdated and highly misleading headline - read the whole conversation here.)

There are of course many questions left unanswered and a good number of these come from those that are most affected by the plans: the residents and local business owners in central Bangkok. As for most mega-projects in Thailand, this group of stakeholders is always approached last, if at all, as a recent gathering ofpeople affected by the race plans has illustrated:

Representatives from 20 communities convened on Saturday at Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus to discuss the protection of historical sites on Rattanakosin Island from the F1 event.

"So far we have heard about this project from the media and others, but we have yet to see what is in the plan of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. We have to see the proposal in detail and study the impact on historical sites and our way of life," said Parntip Likkachai, leader of Youth Banglamphu Community , who added that the communities' priority now is to create public awareness about the F1 race through a campaign this Saturday.

"Rattanakosin residents want to see F1 race plan", The Nation, June 3, 2013

"We didn't know anything about it from government agencies. We only learned about it from the media and social networks," community Theeraphol Kachachiva said on Wednesday. "We don't oppose an F1 event in Thailand. But it should not be raced on that route. It should be held elsewhere," Mr Theeraphol said.

"F1 backers feel the heat, as communities oppose plans", Bangkok Post, May 29, 2013

Srisakra Valibhotama, a prominent anthropologist and archaeologist, told Saturday's forum that it is "not appropriate" to hold a street race on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, whose name means "a path where the monarch travels" in Thai.

The protesters, especially residents in the 20 communities, are also worried about the noise caused by the racing cars at night as well as the vibration that may damage old trackside buildings.

A law restricts noise levels from cars on Bangkok streets to between 80 and 90 decibels, but the F1 cars would produce more than 100 decibels, said Thammasat second-year student Kasidit Kruthangphar.

"F1 race proposal riles Rattanakosin locals",  Bangkok Post, June 2, 2013

Normally, when it comes to big government projects and policies by the current Pheu Thai Party, the opposition Democrat Party is quick to criticize (with various degrees of factual accuracy and shrillness). However, they have been pretty silent on this topic.  Perhaps their close links to the main sponsors Singha Beer and Red Bull - as we have highlighted here - has increased their enthusiasm for the project.

A lot of valid concerns have been voiced (okay, apart from the "royal road" argument - that's ludicrous!) about the impact on the environment and local business. However, the overbearing impression is that no one actually really has an idea how all this will pan out, including the organizers themselves as they only have expressed general commitment.

Residents and fans are both questioning whether or not Thailand and its officials are capable of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix - and a city night race to boot - in Bangkok. Given the track record of issues surrounding  such big projects - as recently seen with the debacle with Bangkok Futsal Arena not being built in time for the FIFA Futsal World Cup - the fear is that instead of a world class event we'll witness a world class embarrassment.

Ecclestone gives Bangkok Formula 1 GP the green light

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 19, 2012 The much-rumored and highly anticipated Thailand Formula 1 Grand Prix has made a big step forward with the championship's promoter and Formula One Management (FOM) president Bernie Ecclestone giving the project his blessing, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Formula One Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone revealed that the 2015 Grand Prix calendar will feature a night race on the streets of Bangkok. (...) Ecclestone said that the location has now been chosen, and specified that the race would come a year later. "They say 2014 and I say 2015. It is serious and it is good," he added.

"F1 Adds Bangkok Race to 2015 Schedule", Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2012

This comes after weeks of silence and months of campaigning by the Thai side, as government officials (potentially prematurely) announced the race as a done deal in October. Normally, Ecclestone and the FOM are not very keen on future hosts jumping the gun, but this seemed to have no effect on the negotiations.

Thailand's Formula 1 ambitions go back as far as late 2010 when Red Bull Racing, whose parent company that makes the energy drinks is rooted in Thailand and is now co-owned by Chalerm Yoovidhya with a 51 per cent majority, did one of their popular demo runs in a Red Bull Formula 1 car around Democracy Monument on Rajadamnoen Avenue, watched, reportedly, by over 100,000 onlookers.

And it was Red Bull's influence that eventually will bring Grand Prix racing to Bangkok, as first concrete rumors surfaced earlier this year and hardened over the summer that the race could take place as early as 2014.

A lot of work lies ahead for the organizers of the race, if it actually takes place on the streets of Bangkok during the night as proposed. They already need to think about how they will close off the roads for weeks before and after the Grand Prix without causing a total traffic disaster in a city that already has chronic traffic problems.

It would be the third race in Southeast Asia, with Sepang in Malaysia and Singapore being the other two. Singapore is currently also the host of the only night race on the calendar.

Then there's the issue of financing: as reported here and elsewhere, the Thai government will foot 60 per cent of the costs to host a Formula 1 race, which is at least $27m per year or, by the Thai authorities estimations, almost $40m, which will rise by 10 per cent annually. The rest will be paid by large Thai corporations like Singha Beer and Red Bull.

And finally, there needs to be a lot of promotion: last weekend's Race of Champions (think of it as the motorsports equivalent of All-Star Weekend) went without any problems, but was not very well attended. Sources familiar with the matter have expressed their disappointment with the very low-key promotion campaign in Bangkok, on billboards and in local media alike.

So, there is a lot to be done between now and 2015 if the dream of Formula 1 cars in Bangkok can be finally realized. This dream goes as far back as 1939, when a scheduled non-championship race around Grand Palace had to be cancelled because of World War 2.

Bangkok's Formula 1 Grand Prix a done deal?

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 19, 2012 We have been following the attempts by the Sports Authority of Thailand to bring the Formula 1 World Championship to Thailand  in 2014 and even possibly to the streets of the capital Bangkok. From the first concrete declaration to bid for a race in March and the estimated costs in July and motorsports' exhibition equivalent to All-Star Weekend, the Race of Champions, taking place later this December, we have heard a lot from the Thai organizers revving up their efforts, as much as now calling it numerous times a 'done deal'. Ironically, this early call could potentially throw a speed bump into Thailand's F1 ambitions. But first things first...

Rumors about a potential Formula 1 race in Thailand's capital Bangkok have gained considerable traction this week with the Thai organizers going to press to say this:

Thailand's government sports authority says it has struck an in-principle deal to host a Formula One race in Bangkok in 2014, with negotiations ongoing about the hosting fee, according to a report in The Nation newspaper.

Kanokphand Chulakasem, governor of the Sports Authority of Thailand, was quoted as saying "Formula One has decided to include Thailand in its 2014 season calendar" with a race slated for November. (...)

"Once the negotiations are complete, we will bring this before the cabinet for discussion and approval," Kanokphand was quoted as saying. "We will sign a deal only after we get the nod from the government."

"Thailand government claims to have struck deal to host Bangkok Grand Prix in 2014", Associated Press, October 18, 2012

First off, that report from The Nation is nowhere to be found! Most likely, AP has confused it for this article from the Bangkok Post, which we will get to later.

Secondly, we are used to Thai politicians and officials saying things that could be premature. Numerous international news outlets have picked up on this non-existant The Nation article and also on Kanokphand's confident words that this deal is as good as done. However, there's at least one important person who wouldn't like that - both the words and especially the timing: Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Formula One Management (FOM) and effectively F1's promoter for decades, is not a friend when the other party of a deal does something not OK'ed by him. Seasoned Formula 1 journalist Joe Saward had this to say:

Bernie Ecclestone likes race promoters who do not talk a lot and deliver deals – before they go public. Thus he cannot be overly impressed with the Thailand’s government’s sports authority, which has been putting out stories for some weeks that it will be hosting a Formula 1 race in Bangkok in 2014. If a contract has been signed, numbers agreed and guaranteed by the government then it is a good moment to make a noise, but Kanokphand Chulakasem, the man in charge of the Sports Authority, admits that the negotiations are not yet completed and the project has not been signed off by the Thai government.

"A lot of talk in Thailand…", by Joe Saward, October 14, 2012

Then there's also the financial aspect to this. Various reports have quoted Kanokphand's estimation that the hosting fee will be 1.2 billion baht ($39.2 million) per year and "not more expensive than Singapore". 60 per cent will be paid by the government and the rest will come from wealthy sponsors such as Red Bull and Singha. However the bill could get bigger - a lot bigger:

It would be a surprise if the Formula One group would be willing to accept such a deal. One can understand that the total may have dropped from the high-spending days in the early 2000s, when deals up to $50 million a year were agreed. All the F1 contracts are believed to include a 10 percent increase per year, which means that a $40 million a year race fee with a normal 10 percent annual hike means that over a seven-year contract a promoter must find around $380 million, without including the money needed to either build a track or assemble and disassemble a street circuit each year. This will add around $200 million to the bill.

Thus the government must be willing to guarantee funds of around $600 million if a deal is to go ahead. If private partners are going to kick in 40 percent that is fine, but the guarantee is likely to be at government level only.

"A lot of talk in Thailand…", by Joe Saward, October 14, 2012

And finally, there's the question about the venue of that potential Thailand Grand Prix. Many possible places have been named, from an upgrade of the nation's only internationally certified Bira Circuit near Pattaya to a new purpose-built circuit in Chiang Mai, it looks like the organizers have zeroed in on the most obvious, but also potentially most complicated, solutions to where the F1 cars will run:

It is likely to be a night race and could be staged at Ratchadamnoen Avenue or Muang Thong Thani, the governor said. "We have been working closely with F1 officials to look for the best site," Mr Kanokphand said. Such a big project must be approved by the government and a public hearing may be needed, he said.

"Formula 1 venues in Thailand", Bangkok Post, October 17, 2012

The idea of a night race is an obvious attempt to rival the championship's only night race so far at Singapore's Marina Bay. However, closing off the area of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a large boulevard not far from the Democracy Monument but also from the back-packer district of Kao San Road, for weeks before and after race to construct and dismantle all the barriers, catch-fences, etc. would be a daunting task for literally everybody involved, especially the traffic that would be diverted.

As much as I'm personally a fan of Formula 1 and motorsports in general and have been since my childhood, a Thailand Grand Prix and much less a Bangkok city race still would not create enough excitement to care about. Maybe it's the fact that this country doesn't have a large enough fan base for the sport.

But maybe it is also be due to the fact of how of things work in Thailand, especially if politicians are involved in the organization of large-scale international events - or not, as the fiasco of the still unfinished Futsal stadium shows, while the FIFA Futsal World Cup is just two weeks away from now. We will have to wait and see if the Formula 1 grid will ever race on Thai soil or even through the streets of Bangkok. However, if the deal suddenly does not materialize, we may know why.