Thailand’s Formula 1 ambitions – revving up a pipe dream?
Share this on

Thailand’s Formula 1 ambitions – revving up a pipe dream?

By Saksith Saiyasombut

On Sunday the Formula One World Championship made its first annual stop in Southeast Asia with the Grand Prix of Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur. A night race on the streets of Singapore will be the other race in the region later this year in September. Even though the 2012 calendar is filled to the brim with 20 races until late November, there are other venues vying to host Formula 1 in their country – Thailand is one of them:

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism and Sports Chumpol Silpa-archa has announced that Thailand has its eyes set on being host of the Formula One (F1) racing in 2014.

Following discussions with relevant parties on the possibility of Thailand hosting the Formula One race, Mr. Chumpol stated that the Thai government has confirmed its interest to host the racing tournament within three years time. He also revealed that a number of companies from the private sector, such as Red Bull, PTT and automobile manufacturers, have shown enthusiasm in co-hosting the event with the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) and the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT).

Meanwhile, Tourism and Sports Spokesperson Watchara Kannikar disclosed that , Mr. Chumpol will within this week submit Thailand’s letter of intent to be a candidate to host the race to Formula One President, Mr. Bernie Ecklestone [sic!].

Thailand eyes hosting Formula One race in 2014“, National News Bureau, March 7, 2012

This is not the first time Thailand has expressed its ambitions to host a F1 race. The most recent campaign was fueled in late 2010, when Red Bull Racing (back then freshly crowned world champions for the first time) did a demo run on the streets of Bangkok. Reportedly, over 100,000 spectators were there when Australia’s Mark Webber drove (a somewhat modified 2009 RB5) around Democracy Monument on Rajadamnoen Avenue.

It is not surprising that Red Bull Racing were involved in that show run, given the titular energy drink’s origins in Thailand. In its original form, Krathing Daeng (Red Bull in Thai) was created by Chaleo Yoovidhya in the late 1970s and then over the next decades became world famous after a joint venture with Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, both holding a 49 percent share each.

However, it is Mateschitz who runs the company and thanks to aggressive marketing, the drink became a ubiquitous sponsor at sport events, beginning with extreme sports and more recently with the ownership of several football clubs worldwide and two Formula One teams: championship winning Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso (formerly the backmarkers known as Minardi).

Chaleo, considered to be among the richest people in Thailand, recently passed away and it is now speculated whether or not his son Chalerm, who until now holds the remaining 2 per cent of the company, will take over the shares of his father. Chalerm Yoovidhya is the founder of Siam Winery and also co-owner of Cavallino Motors, the country’s only Ferrari dealer. The other half is owned by the Bhirombhakdi family of the Singha Corporation, who are reportedly close to the opposition Democrat Party – we have previously reported on Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, the Singha-‘heiress’, and her political ambitions.

In that regard, there’s enough financial support for a potential F1 race from the private sector. And it is Mateschitz himself who apparently is working on a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, the series’ commercial rights holder and promoter, to build up a potential Thai Grand Prix:

“The idea is good. We are in talks. Thailand could host a Formula One race in the next two or three years,” Msteschitz said in an interview yesterday.“Ecclestone agrees with the idea. We may sign an agreement soon.”

Asked how long it would take for Thailand to get approval, Matesschitz said: “I don’t know. That is as far as I know. I can’t give you details because it is not my responsibility. All I can tell you is that a race could take place here in the next two or three years.”

Thailand receives Grand Prix boost“, Bangkok Post, March 25, 2012

The other question would be where the Grand Prix would take place? The only race track in Thailand that is certified by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), F1’s governing body, is Bira Circuit near Pattaya. However, the 2.41 km long track is nowhere near to the standard to host Formula One, having only been the venue to national and regional championship touring car races – a costly reconstruction is virtually unavoidable.

The other option is of course a very attractive one, albeit very challenging:

On possible circuits, Mr Chumpol said he favoured Rajdamnoen Avenue (…)

Ministry of Tourism and Sports spokesperson, Watchara Kannikar (…) added: “Initially, the budget was Bt10 billion. However, it is possible that the cost will triple.”

Although racing on city street requires a lower initial budget, there will be additional costs that could cause opposition. They include the annual closure of roads for set-up, building stadiums annually and noise prevention measures.

Chumpol catches F1 fever“, TTR Weekly, March 14, 2012

No doubt temporary street race circuits like Monaco and Singapore serve here as ideal role models, the latter being the season’s only night race. However, given Bangkok’s notorious traffic problems, one can hardly imagine what would happen if a substantial part of the city would be blocked for weeks.

Costs are indeed a potential problem for hosting a Grand Prix. The Singapore Grand Prix was estimated to have cost $120m with the government paying 60 per cent of it. Also, another question is whether or not Thailand has an big enough fan base for the sport that can also afford to pay the (more than often very expensive) tickets to see the event.

That’s not to say that Thailand does not have any tradition with Grand Prix racing – it’s just been quite a long while though. Prince Birabongse is so far the country’s only Formula 1 driver, starting out in the first years of the F1 World Championship between 1950-55. Before that, he organized a race in Bangkok on a 3.22 km circuit around Sanam Luang and the Royal Palace. However, the even was supposed to take place on December 10, 1939 – and was subsequently cancelled due to the second World War.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.