Southeast Asia has two international sporting events that draw in the crowds — the Singapore Grand Prix and the Hong Kong Sevens. Nick Ross, words, and Kyle Phanroy, photos, were lucky enough to go to one of them

 

I’ve never been a fan of the mainstream stars of the music scene, but as J-Lo prepares to perform in front of 60,000, the buzz is palpable. I’m not getting carried away here — it’s Jennifer Lopez after all — but I’m intrigued. For someone who sits on the judging panel of American Idol and tells others how to perform, how good is she in her own right?

 

Yet despite the buoyant outdoor music festival atmosphere, a rarity in Southeast Asia, the setting for this is still a touch bizarre. The 2014 Formula One Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix has just finished — full of incident, it was one of the most exciting races in years — and next door within the confines of the same event is a music festival. Racing and music. It seems uncanny, but it’s typical of the smart spin Singapore puts on things. Not only is it financially sound, but the concept works, too. The thrill of the festival atmosphere is infectious.

 

The Qualifiers and The Rain

 

 

We arrived in Singapore on the Friday and made it to the Grand Prix practice session. Our hosts had booked the Singapore Suite, a makeshift Grand Prix building right on the race circuit. They also put on a networking event and a stand-up buffet with champagne, excellent cocktails and entertainment. Then on Saturday we went to the qualifying session. It was divided into three sections, each one cutting off drivers until the final session, Q3, when over 12 minutes the remaining 10 cars battled it out for the key positions on the grid.

 

Within the last few minutes of Q3, six drivers passed the previous fastest lap time until at the death Mercedes’ Louis Hamilton just beat his teammate, Nico Rosberg, to pole position by 0.007s. As it happened, we held our breath, gasped, and then held it again.

 

It was sensational.

 

But then, with perennial entertainer Robbie Williams set to come to the stage, there was a setback.

 

Rain. Heavy rain, monsoon-like rain. We ran for cover.

 

And as a soaked Robbie Williams sung his heart out to a crowd drenched to the bone, there was a sense of energy about the place. J-Lo would never do that, everyone said, applauding the former Take That heartthrob not just for his act, but for his professionalism. We never got the chance to find out how J-Lo would have reacted — on Sunday it didn’t rain.

 

The Finale

 

 

As the cars head to the starting grid, we’re downstairs in the festival area, watching the drama unfold on huge screens. The crowd is thin but all the pop-up restaurant stalls and bars already have queues. As the checkered flag waves, there’s a roar from the fans.

 

45 seconds later the ground beside us rumbles as the cars fly past out of our sight. Another 1 minute and 50 seconds later it happens again, but this time as the field starts to stretch, the roar is longer. Lap 3, lap 4, lap 5, it extends even further, and then it starts to come in bursts.

 

Nothing can prepare you for the sensation of watching Formula 1 live. TV doesn’t do it justice. First is the speed. It’s phenomenal — blink and the cars are gone. Then the noise. The new V6 Turbo engines mean that the roar of previous years has been tempered — earplugs are now only an option rather than a necessity.

 

Our grandstand seats are located on a straight but we’re close to a chicane — the boompf, boompf, boompf of changing down gears greets us within a split second of each car hurtling past. From speeds of 300km/h they go down three or four notches before navigating the double bend at around 170km/h. The force on both driver and engine must be phenomenal. How these drivers manage to overtake each other at such speeds with such miniscule margins is impossible for me to contemplate.

 

Halfway through the race there’s a collision, and then right in front of where my group is sitting a fender is sucked under the wheels and pieces of carbon go flying. The crowd stands up exhilarated, scared, shocked. “Oh no!” people shout. It’s the biggest excitement of the race.

 

The safety car comes out and the cars bunch back up together. After a few laps, with the track cleared, the safety car leaves and the race is back on — but all margins between the cars are lost. The equation in the race has changed. Hamilton is in the lead, but with his gap erased he’s now using the wrong tyres. He’s on super soft and as his tyres will degrade, he needs another pitstop — it will take around 27 seconds.

 

To make it and still be in the lead, the Mercedes driver has to build up a gap of 30 seconds over his nearest rival, Vettel, who doesn’t need to change tyres. Riccardo and Alonso are close behind in 3rd and 4th. They also don’t need a change.

 

Hamilton gets 25 seconds ahead but has to come in. It’s a quick pitstop — but Vettel snags the lead. Suddenly, with nine laps to go, four cars have a chance of finishing first on the podium.

 

Two laps go by and in dramatic circumstances, Hamilton takes Vettel on the bend. The crowd booms with excitement. He stretches his regained lead with ease. But now there’s a battle on for the minor places — from 2nd to 4th and 6th to 12th. As the cars go into the last two laps, everyone is overtaking everyone else. Some drivers make a final, last gasp surge towards the front, while others lose rankings. The chequered flag is raised, we clap and cheer, and realise that with all the drama we’ve been truly on the edge of our seats.

 

Once again it’s sensational.

 

The Lopez Factor

 

 

As J-Lo prepares to come on, a crowd of 60,000 heads towards the stage. Her first costume is white and she’s there with her dancers, doing the J-Lo thing — strutting, strutting and strutting. Always from one side of the stage to the other.

 

“Put up your hands if you love a big booty!” she roars. The crowd responds in kind.

 

The lights go low, J-Lo disappears and then returns with a miniskirt that comes down just above her crotch. She parades her booty, shaking, wriggling, gyrating. Dripping with sweat, she flourishes her performance with her trademark strut. She then goes into a big, five-second booty shake. The crowd screams in appreciation and our photographer and I make to leave — we’ve got a date with the highest rooftop bar in Asia and an after-party.

 

A Taste of the Big Time

 

 

Regardless of my musical preferences, both the Grand Prix and the music festivals are huge events, the kind of shows that I crave for. Unfortunately the likes of J-Lo and Robbie Williams don’t go to off-the-beaten track Vietnam. No stadium is big enough to hold them, the gig fee is beyond promoters’ imagining, the performers’ riders are almost impossible to fulfill and ticket prices are still low — to see J-Lo the crowd paid up from S$188 (VND3.15 million) a go. It was sold out.

 

Yet that this kind of event is happening in Southeast Asia is already huge. With musical tastes here still very much focused on the mainstream, it will be a while before we get a Glastonbury, a Lollapalooza or a Bonnaroo in this region.

 

But for now the yearly Grand Prix in Singapore is definitely one to put on the bucket list. As one of my hosts said, “There are only two days in the year when all Singaporeans get together. One of them is National Day, the other is the Grand Prix.”

 

This thing is big.

 

For more information on the Singapore Grand Prix, go to singaporegp.sg. The 2015 event will take place between Sep. 18 and Sep. 20

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