Formula 1 to hit Hanoi in 2020, but will Vietnamese lap it up?

Formula 1 drivers will race on a 5.6km circuit around the streets of the Vietnamese capital’s western suburbs.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates in Mexico after winning this year's F1 championship [Andres Stapff/Reuters]
Lewis Hamilton celebrates in Mexico after winning this year's F1 championship [Andres Stapff/Reuters]

Ho Chi Minh City – Hanoi will host Vietnam’s first-ever Grand Prix in April 2020 with drivers battling it out on the streets of the capital’s western suburbs, but in a country where the sport is largely unknown, organisers will have to work hard to ensure the race’s success.

The Vietnamese Grand Prix will become the 22ndevent on the global calendar and the fourth street race, Formula 1 announced on Wednesday.

Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest private conglomerate, signed a multi-year contract with Formula 1 to act as host of the Grand Prix, although the value of the deal has not been made public.

“We are delighted to announce that Hanoi will host a Formula 1 Grand Prix,” Chase Carey, chairman and chief executive of Formula 1, who was in Hanoi for the announcement ceremony, said in a statement.

“We have talked about developing new destination cities to broaden the appeal of Formula 1 and the Vietnamese Grand Prix is a realisation of that ambition.”

Nguyen Duc Chung, Hanoi’s Chairman, added: “We are proud to be hosting the Formula 1 Vietnam Grand Prix, and showcasing the city of Hanoi to the world.”

A security guard walks past the Red Bull team’s Formula One car during an event in Hanoi this week [Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters]

Hanoi will be Formula 1’s fourth Grand Prix in Asia where races are already established in China, Japan and Singapore, which hosts a night race each September.

In 1999, Malaysia became the first country in Southeast Asia to host Formula 1, building a state-of-the-art circuit specially for the race.

But the race’s popularity began to wane, and coupled with rising costs the country decided the event no longer made financial sense. The final race was held in 2017.

‘Bang for the buck’

Alex Yoong, the only Malaysian ever to race in Formula 1 and now a motor racing pundit for Fox Sports, said Vietnam should try to learn the lessons of Malaysia’s experience.

“Was it good bang for the buck? Probably not,” he said of the event. “There are a lot of things that could’ve been done better to help support the local industry.”

But Formula 1 itself also changed in 2017 when the sport’s impresario, 88-year-old Bernie Ecclestone, sold the organisation to US-based Liberty Media.

The new owner’s plan is to expand the brand into non-traditional markets, starting with Vietnam.

But motor racing is a virtually unknown sport in Vietnam, where football is a clear fan favourite.

In February hundreds of thousands took to the streets nationwide as the country’s U-23 football team made a run to the final of a relatively obscure tournament.

Race organisers hope to tap into this energy, but will have to do so without homegrown talent.

Most of the 20 current F1 drivers are European, and none hail from Asia.

This could make the race a hard sell.

Expensive tickets

“I’m interested and waiting for it, but I’m concerned about the quality,” said Vu Cao, who works for a start-up in Ho Chi Minh City. “Formula 1 isn’t very familiar to Vietnamese people, and I don’t know how they are going to organise it.”

Vu said he was proud Vietnam had been chosen to host such a major international sporting event, but was also concerned about the cost. “The tickets will be expensive, and I’m not sure that people will like it,” he said.

Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $2,343 and while incomes are higher in the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, attending a Grand Prix is usually pricey. The most affordable tickets for the Singapore Grand Prix cost more than $250.

“Formula 1 has come to a lot of Asian countries outside of its usual support base in Europe and it’s been a bit of a smash-and-grab technique in the past by Bernie Ecclestone,” said former driver Yoong.

“Charge a lot of money, come run a race for a while and [leave] when it’s done. I can’t think of any country where it’s benefitted the local motorsport scene or helped grow it.”

Yoong said he hopes the sport’s new owners will take a different tack.

Hanoi plans to ban motorbikes by 2030 to combat congestion

“I’m hoping Liberty will have learned the lessons from Ecclestone, because if you want your model to be sustainable you need to pump some cash back into the local infrastructure as well,” he said.

While the sport has little visibility in Vietnam at the moment, the new Grand Prix won’t be the first time a Formula 1 race car has graced the streets of the country.

In May, Red Bull hosted a demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City featuring David Coulthard, a British former Grand Prix driver. At the event, Coulthard briefly showed off the power of his race car, although a concert and a collection of expensive supercars were also there to lure the crowds.

‘Racing spectacle’

Diep Nguyen, who manages a number of Airbnb properties in Ho Chi Minh City, said she would probably only follow the race if it presented business opportunities for her in the capital.

“I’m not really interested, though guys might be,” she said. “But it could be fun.”

The streets of Hanoi are known for being narrow, congested and teeming with motorbikes, but the roads in the city’s newer western suburbs are wider.

F1 is convinced the 5.6km street circuit will be the kind of event that will enthral spectators wherever they come from.

The team has “worked to enable a circuit that will not only test the drivers, but also ensure that our fans enjoy the racing spectacle”, Carey, the F1 chairman, said. “We are really looking forward to seeing Formula 1 cars speeding around the streets of this fantastic city from 2020.”

Vietnamese officials see the race as an opportunity to boost both domestic and international tourism, while Vingroup sees it as a chance to tell the world about its own car-manufacturing ambitions.

The event’s main sponsor is likely to be VinFast, Vingroup’s automotive arm, which was founded last year.

“Through the F1 racing event, we are going to proclaim the first Vietnamese car manufacturer, VinFast, to millions of audiences in the world,” Nguyen Viet Quang, CEO of Vingroup, said as the race was announced.

Source : Al Jazeera

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