F1’s Modern Wonder: Under the lights, Singapore shines brightly

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Since the last Formula 1 grand prix in Italy, the news that has dominated the headlines is that advanced radio communications that look to improve a driver’s performance behind the wheel have been outlawed. From this weekend’s race onwards, they will largely be left alone in the car to deal with issues that would otherwise be resolved through instructions on the pit wall.

For many, this move comes at a bad time, given that we are halfway through a season that marked the greatest technical overhaul of the regulations in decades. However, others have praised the move as it takes the sport back to its roots: the onus is truly on the driver once again.

It’s the argument of old versus new. Do you like to cling onto the past and reminisce of ‘better times’, or do you prefer to look into the future?

For the latter, no single event better epitomizes modern day Formula 1 than the spectacular Singapore Grand Prix.

The idea of a night race had been toyed with for many years by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, but it did not come to fruition until 2008 when Marina Bay was lit up by thousands of floodlights. That year’s race has since gone down with great notoriety, given that it was fixed by Renault. Nelson Piquet Jr. was ordered to crash and bring out a safety car to allow teammate Fernando Alonso to win the race; the plan worked, but the truth came out when Piquet was sacked and decided to get his own back.

From the word go though, Singapore has been a revelation in F1. There is something mouthwatering about the cars racing under the lights, shimmering as they dart through the city streets. The circuit itself is not the most inspiring layout, yet it does make for some thoroughly entertaining racing.

Further to this, we have the sheer physical and mental challenge of the race, which cannot be underestimated. As it is a night race, drivers must adjust to the timings so that they are at the peak of their powers well into the evening. As a result, the entire F1 paddock opts to stay on European time (the race is timed accordingly). Ordinarily, one will go to bed at 6am before getting up in the middle of the afternoon, with the earliest session starting at 6pm local time (FP1 on Friday). Throw in a sprinkling of jet lag, and you’re quickly struggling to stay awake. Kimi Raikkonen was yawning and rubbing his eyes through much of today’s press conference.

Out on track, the challenge does not stop there. Singapore’s climate is traditionally hot and humid, with rain showers possible (even if we are yet to sample a wet night race). In the car, drivers are pushing for almost two hours, making the final stages of the grand prix very difficult indeed. Hydration is key for any race, but perhaps more paramount here.

F1 races that are held in or near major cities are always special, and Singapore is no exception. Just as Melbourne, Montreal and Austin become dominated by the sport when it rolls into town, Singapore lives and breathes F1 for its week in the spotlight.

Last year, when in a taxi travelling from the airport to my hotel, I got talking to the driver and asked him whether the race was good for Singapore. He immediately started laughing and grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh yes!” he said in broken English. “For one week, the world looks at us. It is wonderful.”

And right there, you have why F1’s expansionist policy for grands prix is a good thing. It takes the sport to markets that are lucrative and can be made to work, even in smaller nations such as Singapore.

So why does Singapore succeed where India and Korea failed? The taxi driver’s comment goes a long way to providing the answer: everyone wants the race in Singapore. The government is more than happy to subsidize the race and provide some investment as it knows it will get it back through the influx of the F1 paddock and tourists. Korea and India did not enjoy the same kind of support, and could never work as investment opportunities given their location and all of the red tape surrounding the events. Singapore just gets on with things; it works so, so well.

After a stretch of races at what one might call ‘classic’ circuits – your Silverstones, your Hockenheims, your Spa and Monzas – it is refreshing to see Singapore come up next. Many dubbed it a gimmick when it joined the calendar back in 2008, but it has since become a mainstay on the schedule and, for many, one of the highlights of the year.

It has now formed a triumvirate of glamor events in F1. Before, we just had Monaco. Now, we have Singapore and Abu Dhabi to go alongside it. Abu Dhabi’s facility is far more impressive, but grossly so; it lacks the charm that Singapore has in abundance. One may even say that the lavish facade of Monaco is second to Singapore’s charm.

The stars will come out on Sunday for the sport’s second blue-chip event, but none can shine so brightly to detract from the on-track action. For the drivers, a race is a race: they’re all worth the same (except Abu Dhabi, thanks to double points). Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will both claim that this one means just as much as any other victory, but deep down, the champagne may just taste a little sweeter on the top step of the podium.

Whether you’re a racing fan or not, Singapore has that special something that makes it a must-watch for any sports enthusiast.

You can watch the Singapore Grand Prix live on NBCSN this Sunday from 7.30am ET.