Enjoying the art of darkness in Singapore

The Singapore Grand Prix has proven popular with the Formula One fraternity as the only full night race in the calendar.

Formula One drivers power their cars at the start of Formula One's Singapore Grand Prix night race in Singapore on September 26, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN
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Some cities are not made for nocturnal activities. When darkness falls in Johannesburg, the streets take on a sinister semblance. When the sun slips below the horizon in Sao Paulo you quicken your step.

In Singapore, an Asian metropole known as much for its safety as its cleanliness, things are different. When night arrives, the city thrives.

Even on its quietest evenings Singapore bustles, but for the past four years one special sequence of seven days in September stands out and wholly encapsulates the spirit of Singapore: "Grand Prix Week."

If Monaco's race is the revered and glittering jewel in the Formula One crown, then Singapore's annual event is the expensive black gemstone embroidered into the sport's silken nightcap. Everything surrounding the event at Marina Bay Street Circuit is enchanting: nightfall, bright lights, celebrities, parties, paparazzi, excitement, street hawkers and the smell of burning rubber in the hot, humid air.

As any photographer will attest, there are few more photogenic scenes in sport than the image of a Formula One car ripping its way around the snaking, floodlit circuit, complete with skyscrapers and the Singapore Flyer twinkling bewitchingly in the background.

Although only four years old, the Garden City's grand prix has quickly developed a reputation for being one of the most atmospheric, most thrilling and, ultimately, most fun weekends on the calendar.

But it comes at a price. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) reported the event costs S$150 million (Dh426m) to stage annually; a figure that does not include the fee paid to Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights owner, for the privilege of hosting a round of the championship. It is understood Singapore's hosting fee is somewhere between US$40m (Dh146.9m) and $60m, with the contract expiring in 2013.

Norbert Haug, the vice president of Mercedes motorsport, said that, were it up to him, Singapore would become a modern-day Monaco and become an ever-present for many years.

"This race is a fantastic event and hopefully it stays forever on the calendar," he said. "It produces the most spectacular television pictures and is totally unique."

The STB report that this year's expected revenue is around S$200m, making the race one of Formula One's few profit-making events. Song Sen Wun, a regional economist with CIMB Group, a Malaysian bank operating in high-growth Asian economies, added that as well as increased tourist dollars, the grand prix "enhances Singapore, not just as a place to work in, but as a place to play in as well".

The country's government subsidises 60 per cent of the total expenditure, but were they to look at cost-cutting measures, the first question needing to be asked would surely be whether the race actually needs to be held in the evening.

Singapore is the calendar's only night race and while the temperatures can become uncomfortably hot in the afternoon, it is arguably no more humid than Malaysia in April, which is held in the middle of the day. Abu Dhabi, while finishing under floodlights, starts before nightfall.

Likewise, the time zones and how they convert to European television audiences cannot be used as a definitive argument, either, as China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia all operate on similar time zones and host their races under natural light.

In Singapore, more than 1,500 projectors are required to light the 5.073km track, with a total output of 3,000 lux - more than four times brighter than the floodlights used at football stadiums. It also takes up to four months to construct.

So is it an unnecessary expense or essential to the race itself?

"I think it makes it very cool around here," said Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion. "It's something very special and something we all look forward to. Here and obviously Abu Dhabi, [where] we start just when the sun goes down. It's exciting for us and I think it's also more exciting to watch, in a way."

When it was first announced the race would be held at night, there were concerns that limited visibility could make racing dangerous. Such apprehensions were quickly dismissed, although the contrast between light and shadow is exacerbated, which makes braking points more difficult to distinguish.

Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate at Red Bull Racing, said in his weekly column on the BBC website that the lighting is "very good, but still requires a little bit more effort than normal". He added that there are inconsistencies, with some places having more light than they would have during the day.

"Those little subtleties of light are something you really notice at 180mph," Webber said.

Vettel is less concerned by the shadows at play and said he would welcome another night race to the calendar, although he is wary of Singapore losing its most unique aspect. For now though, and hopefully for many years to come, Singapore will continue to thrive in its darkness.