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.

Thailand's Formula 1 ambitions - revving up a pipe dream?

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 26, 2012 On Sunday the Formula One World Championship made its first annual stop in Southeast Asia with the Grand Prix of Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur. A night race on the streets of Singapore will be the other race in the region later this year in September. Even though the 2012 calendar is filled to the brim with 20 races until late November, there are other venues vying to host Formula 1 in their country - Thailand is one of them:

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism and Sports Chumpol Silpa-archa has announced that Thailand has its eyes set on being host of the Formula One (F1) racing in 2014.

Following discussions with relevant parties on the possibility of Thailand hosting the Formula One race, Mr. Chumpol stated that the Thai government has confirmed its interest to host the racing tournament within three years time. He also revealed that a number of companies from the private sector, such as Red Bull, PTT and automobile manufacturers, have shown enthusiasm in co-hosting the event with the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) and the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT).

Meanwhile, Tourism and Sports Spokesperson Watchara Kannikar disclosed that , Mr. Chumpol will within this week submit Thailand's letter of intent to be a candidate to host the race to Formula One President, Mr. Bernie Ecklestone [sic!].

"Thailand eyes hosting Formula One race in 2014", National News Bureau, March 7, 2012

This is not the first time Thailand has expressed its ambitions to host a F1 race. The most recent campaign was fueled in late 2010, when Red Bull Racing (back then freshly crowned world champions for the first time) did a demo run on the streets of Bangkok. Reportedly, over 100,000 spectators were there when Australia's Mark Webber drove (a somewhat modified 2009 RB5) around Democracy Monument on Rajadamnoen Avenue.

It is not surprising that Red Bull Racing were involved in that show run, given the titular energy drink's origins in Thailand. In its original form, Krathing Daeng (Red Bull in Thai) was created by Chaleo Yoovidhya in the late 1970s and then over the next decades became world famous after a joint venture with Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, both holding a 49 percent share each.

However, it is Mateschitz who runs the company and thanks to aggressive marketing, the drink became a ubiquitous sponsor at sport events, beginning with extreme sports and more recently with the ownership of several football clubs worldwide and two Formula One teams: championship winning Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso (formerly the backmarkers known as Minardi).

Chaleo, considered to be among the richest people in Thailand, recently passed away and it is now speculated whether or not his son Chalerm, who until now holds the remaining 2 per cent of the company, will take over the shares of his father. Chalerm Yoovidhya is the founder of Siam Winery and also co-owner of Cavallino Motors, the country's only Ferrari dealer. The other half is owned by the Bhirombhakdi family of the Singha Corporation, who are reportedly close to the opposition Democrat Party - we have previously reported on Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, the Singha-'heiress', and her political ambitions.

In that regard, there's enough financial support for a potential F1 race from the private sector. And it is Mateschitz himself who apparently is working on a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, the series' commercial rights holder and promoter, to build up a potential Thai Grand Prix:

"The idea is good. We are in talks. Thailand could host a Formula One race in the next two or three years," Msteschitz said in an interview yesterday."Ecclestone agrees with the idea. We may sign an agreement soon."

Asked how long it would take for Thailand to get approval, Matesschitz said: "I don't know. That is as far as I know. I can't give you details because it is not my responsibility. All I can tell you is that a race could take place here in the next two or three years."

"Thailand receives Grand Prix boost", Bangkok Post, March 25, 2012

The other question would be where the Grand Prix would take place? The only race track in Thailand that is certified by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), F1's governing body, is Bira Circuit near Pattaya. However, the 2.41 km long track is nowhere near to the standard to host Formula One, having only been the venue to national and regional championship touring car races - a costly reconstruction is virtually unavoidable.

The other option is of course a very attractive one, albeit very challenging:

On possible circuits, Mr Chumpol said he favoured Rajdamnoen Avenue (...)

Ministry of Tourism and Sports spokesperson, Watchara Kannikar (...) added: “Initially, the budget was Bt10 billion. However, it is possible that the cost will triple.”

Although racing on city street requires a lower initial budget, there will be additional costs that could cause opposition. They include the annual closure of roads for set-up, building stadiums annually and noise prevention measures.

"Chumpol catches F1 fever", TTR Weekly, March 14, 2012

No doubt temporary street race circuits like Monaco and Singapore serve here as ideal role models, the latter being the season's only night race. However, given Bangkok's notorious traffic problems, one can hardly imagine what would happen if a substantial part of the city would be blocked for weeks.

Costs are indeed a potential problem for hosting a Grand Prix. The Singapore Grand Prix was estimated to have cost $120m with the government paying 60 per cent of it. Also, another question is whether or not Thailand has an big enough fan base for the sport that can also afford to pay the (more than often very expensive) tickets to see the event.

That's not to say that Thailand does not have any tradition with Grand Prix racing - it's just been quite a long while though. Prince Birabongse is so far the country's only Formula 1 driver, starting out in the first years of the F1 World Championship between 1950-55. Before that, he organized a race in Bangkok on a 3.22 km circuit around Sanam Luang and the Royal Palace. However, the even was supposed to take place on December 10, 1939 - and was subsequently cancelled due to the second World War.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.