Saturday, October 5, 2013

Formula E race in Hong Kong can open streets to other sporting events

The Formula E race in 2014 may change attitudes to international sporting events in the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
At last, motor-racing fans in Hong Kong will get a crumb of comfort with Formula E confirmed to take to the streets of Central next year. It is easy to see the singular attractiveness of the electric car racing series, which will begin in smog-ridden Beijing before arriving here - high-speed action without the pollution.
Minimal noise and environmentally efficient engines that rely on the relatively clean energy of electricity were huge plus points for the Hong Kong Automobile Association, which has been tirelessly exploring the prospects of a race in Central for the past two years. Now that the initial obstacles have been overcome - HKAA president Lawrence Yu Kam-kee said "efforts" to convince the government "it's doable" had paid off - we can all look forward to an exciting day on November 8, 2014, when 10 teams compete in the third leg of a 10-race calendar ending in London.
In today's motor-racing world, staging a cost-efficient, pollution-free race is a winner all the way. And we should all get behind this initiative, which will put Hong Kong on the International Automobile Federation (FIA) radar for the first time.
Our neighbour Macau, which next month celebrates the 60th anniversary of its world-famous Formula Three Grand Prix, has stolen the thunder in this region for a long time. Now we can grab a little bit of the limelight, too.
The Macau Grand Prix has been the nursery where many famous names in motor racing cut their teeth. Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, to name a few, all began illustrious careers on the tight Guia circuit. Today, the FIA pays homage to the tiny city by having its season-ending finale of the World Touring Car Championship there. Its motorcycling grand prix has made legends of Ron Haslam and Michael Rutter.
Perhaps in the future, Hong Kong can say the same of Formula E champions - "We saw him first in Central".
For the organisers, the cost of putting on a race on the streets of Hong Kong will be minimal compared to what Singapore splashes out to stage the Formula One night race. And this is a huge factor in these times. It costs Singapore around US$125 million to put on the night race around the Marina Bay area, with almost 60 per cent of the funds provided by the government. While it is still unclear how much the Formula E race will cost Hong Kong, by no stretch of the imagination will it cost as much. According to Yu, the total costs for the FIA for putting on the 10-race series will be around €4 million (HK$42 million). Organisers said this was the cost of bringing the 10 teams to each city.
The HKAA will still incur costs, but it will be a fraction of what Singapore outlays to put on the real thing. Yet, this is a start. According to former HKAA president Wesley Wan Wai-hei, getting Formula E to Hong Kong "is a foot in the door".
Wan has ambitions for this city to host a Formula One race. He points to the fact that when Red Bull exhibited their F1 car in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, more than 40,000 people turned up to watch.
But unlike in Singapore, where the government recognises the benefits of hosting major sports events, and actively backs them, in Hong Kong the first reaction is, "No, we can't".
Any number of reasons is trotted out, from being unable to close the roads to inconveniencing the public. Thankfully, those hurdles have been overcome by Formula E, with Yu and company having convinced the government that "it is doable".
Yet, there is no harm in having big dreams and hoping that one day Hong Kong motor-racing fans might be able to hear the full-throated sounds of a Formula One engine revving on the streets of Central.
But before we can run, we have to take baby steps and Formula E is just that. Next year, it will show the people who run Hong Kong for the first time the thrills of having a world-class motor-racing event here. It ticks all the boxes - environmentally friendly, noise-free, minimal cost - and hopefully it will break open long-held prejudices that the streets of this city are sacrosanct and forbidden to sporting events.
Once the initial breakthrough is made, who knows what will follow.