Brought to you by tj13 Courtroom Reporter & Crime Analyst: James Parker
In 2010, Red Bull Racing sent Mark Webber to Thailand for a promotional demonstration run through the capital city Bangkok. This was done as part of the birthday celebrations for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and since then Red Bull has been very supportive of the idea of a night race in the capital.
The recent approval by the government’s Sports Authority of a street-circuit-layout for a 2015 Grand Prix has turned everyone’s attention to the proposal with many conflicting arguments, either for or against another street circuit. Is this a done deal though? We know how quickly things change in Formula1 so let us consider the facts.
The 2015 Proposal
As was reported in the Bangkok Post, the proposed 5.995 km circuit will start and finish at the Royal Thai Naval Dockyard (Rat Woradit Pier), and would go along Maha That Road, Na Phra Lan Road, Na Phra That Road, Chakrabongse Road, Phra Sumen Road, Ratchadamnoen Avenue, Maha Chai Road, and Thai Wang Road. The circuit will feature 12 corners, if you include the roundabout the drivers have to negotiate.
Funding for the construction of the circuit will be provided by the government, which pledges around 60% of the hosting fee, with Red Bull and Singha Beer International, making up the other 40%. However, some additional tens of millions of dollars will be required to first improve the poor road surfaces and then set up the temporary barriers and floodlights.
The project will not be without its challenges, though. Firstly, some residents of the city will be affected by the proposed circuit. Kanokphand Chulakasem, head of Thailand’s Sporting Authority said, “Only a small group of residents would be affected by the proposed route.”
However small the number of residents affected, it is not unreasonable that residents may feel that their leaders are indifferent to their plight, and that it is a case of ‘Thank you for your tax money, now pack your bags and get out of your house’?
Secondly, and perhaps more significant, is the congestion problems in the city. Ten years ago, the government pledged to change the transport system around the capital. In order to ease traffic worries, the new plan included improvements to the road infrastructure and a brand-new Skyrail (Bangkok Mass Transit System, commonly known as the BTS Skytrain).
However, while this may help to ease some of the gridlock, with the country facing a revolution in terms of car ownership (considered a status symbol), the problem has only increased. Some reports even suggest there are commuters that spend between four and six hours in traffic on a daily basis. Closing off a large portion of the city for over 4 days would surely multiply the problem tenfold?
Thirdly, how popular will Formula 1 racing really be in Thailand? When Mark performed his demonstration run in 2010 he entertained a crowd of approximately 100,000. That sounds reasonable. However, if you consider that it was part of the King’s birthday celebrations, were they there because of the King, because of Mark burning rubber?
Judging by low attendance of the The Race of Champions event in Bangkok last year, (compared to most European venues) motorsport has yet to make an impression on the Thai public.
In his home country, Newin Chidchob is a rather controversial politician. His impressive resume boasts vote buying, for which he obtained a six-month suspended jail sentence in 1998. In 2004, as deputy minister of agriculture, he was involved in a rubber sapling project that proposed the expansion of rubber plantation fields by one million rai (1.6 billion m2) to and help raise the income of rubber farmers.
For his efforts in the latter project, Chidchob enjoyed the attention of the law, due to complaints from officials as regards collusion and bid-rigging from Chidchob’s allies. He was acquitted of any wrongdoing in 2009.
Our political friend is never far from controversy, though. He served a 5-year political ban, starting in 2007, for being an executive of the then-disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party. Despite the ban, he was still active in politics, famously engineering a coalition government with his group and the Democrat Party.
Now, Mr Chidchob has aspirations for a Bt2 billion ($67m) purpose-built motorsport racing circuit – so much so, that he has contacted Hermann Tilke about designing the international-standard, FIA-certified racetrack, one that would be able to stage a full F1 Grand Prix event.
Tilke is reportedly being paid $3m to design the country’s first international-grade circuit, sporting a rather unique feature: the 4 kilometre long circuit will have a grandstand that will allow fans a view over the entire track. Will this be a grandstand on a hill, with the circuit running down the hill and climb back up again?
According to project director, Danaisiri Charnwittayarom, the Buriram International Circuit will become the most complete racing circuit in Thailand.
“The Buriram Circuit will be the only circuit in Thailand to receive FIA Category 2 certification, which means that it will be able to host F3, GT1, GT2 and GT3 events. It is also expected to be approved by the FIM for staging Moto GP or Superbike World Championship events.”
This circuit is supposed to be built in the city of Buriram, in the eponymous Buriram Province. The city is located 400 km north of Bangkok, and to get there you can either drive, take a bus or train (1 hour by train), or fly – do we hear echoes of South Korea?
When asked about the circuit, Chidchob stated:
“The investment is targeted at turning Buriram into the country’s top 5 tourist and sports destinations […] able to attract both local and foreign tourists. Important racing events will be staged at the circuit, and Buriram – as well as Thailand – is expected to get a considerable boost within the first five years.”
Chidchob went on to say that as many as one million people are expected to visit and use the Buriram circuit.
“This will bring about as much as 300 per cent GDP growth for Buriram.”
Considering the fact that he has been leading a project that aims at marketing the city as a commercial rival to the capital Bangkok, you would think he would know a thing or two about the potential benefits. After all, he has some experience in building large venues, constructing Thailand’s only FIFA-endorsed Stadium, the I Mobile Stadium (home to the team that Newin currently owns – Buriram United).
It appears that the Buriram International Circuit is the next step in developing the city’s infrastructure and tourism potential.
At first glance, this may seem a fair assessment on what you want an international-grade circuit to bring to the country. However, when we dig a bit deeper, and considering the man we are dealing with, is there a political motive alongside the commercial benefits that Chidchob has stated?
Thailand could have two Formula1 circuits?
The Buriram International Circuit, according to Chidchob, will not just be a motorsport facility but will also cater to automobile testing.
“If I build only the circuit, it will cater only to motorsports. But Thailand is known as the ‘Detroit of Asia’ and is the centre for automobile as well as auto-parts production in this region. I can visualise the opportunity of building a testing centre along with this circuit,”
This sounds really good, but what about Formula1? It seems Mr. Chidchob is not interested in hosting Formula 1 races, as “it is not worthwhile”.
He is quoted as saying: “Although I think that when we do something we should go the fullest and even though I am crazy about F1, I am not stupid enough to organise the race because it is not worth the investment. I must also bear in mind my partners.
For me, F1 is just something that Thais would want to see once in their lifetime. Another thing is that these days Formula 1 is adopting more and more street circuits, and large circuits are no longer required. So I will not invest in something that is not worth the investment.”
So is he saying that the government, Red Bull, and Singha beer are stupid for getting the 2015 Thailand GP to come to Bangkok? What about all the riches Mr. E. is promising? Surely, the best way of putting a place on the map is having a Formula 1 race there. Don’t we all know about the hundreds of millions of international investments that the wonderful city of Yeongnam has attracted since the inception of the Korean GP?
Is this a political astute move by a politician? Thailand’s political scene is very much a popularity contest. If the government spends taxpayer money to fund the Bangkok race, disrupt people’s lives and the city’s infrastructure cannot cope with the race, will this be an opportunity for Chidchob to step in and save the day?
His purpose-built circuit may then appear the better option. Perhaps, Chidcob has bigger aspirations than just moving Detroit to Thailand. Is the big prize him becoming the next Prime Minister of Thailand? Will people pardon the corruption and controversy that surround him and hail him as a hero?
Regardless, his comment that organizers of other events have approached him [with interest in] using the circuit must be a worrying development for the organizers of the proposed 2015 Thailand GP in Bangkok. We all know Bernie can change his mind very quickly, and if he thinks he can get more money from Buriram International circuit, we may just have a race there.
One is also left to wonder if either Red Bull or Singha Beer want to be associated with a project that disrupts people’s lives. Interestingly, the founding partner of Red Bull, Chaleo Yoovidhya (who passed away last year), sat on health committees that advise the government on health matters. Is there a Red Bull connection with the current government or perhaps even with Chidchob?
Whatever happens, should F1 decide to pitch its tents in Thailand for one weekend a year, the local entertainment may be something quite different from what F1 folk experience from their other hosts. There has been much discussion in F1 about sex discrimination in recent weeks, and it could be that Thailand redresses a wrong that up to now has seen only women recruited to hold the drivers’ boards on the grid.
The ladyboys of Bangkok.