F1 Bangkok Grand Prix plans face growing local opposition

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 3, 2013

Environmental groups and local residents are voicing their disapproval over the Thai government’s ambitious plans for a Formula 1 Grand Prix in the middle of Bangkok under lights, citing various potential impacts on the neighborhood. But are these concerns valid and how far have the plans progressed?

We previously followed the government’s plans to host a round of the pinnacle of motorsport, the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, in the middle of Thai capital ever since the first rumors of a bid surfaced in early 2012 and the potential costs were first tallied (estimated to be around $40m, with the state covering 60 per cent of it).

Despite an endorsement by F1 promoter and supremo leader Bernie Ecclestone late last year and the announcement by Thai officials of a ‘done deal’ in October, there hasn’t been much movement since and no contracts have been signed. The final decision will come from the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), later this year.

Nevertheless, the project started to take some shape in late April with the revelation of the proposed track layout, showing a route that starts at the Grand Palace, passes key Bangkok landmarks such as Wat Phra Kaew, Sanam Luang, Pra Athit Road, Phan Fah Bridge, Democracy Monument and Ratchadamnoen Avenue, before closing the nearly 6km/3.7mi long loop at the Grand Palace again.

The proposed 6km inner-city track for a Bangkok Formula 1 Grand Prix passes many iconic Bangkok landmarks such as the Grand Palace and Democracy Monument. For many locals and environmental groups this project is a huge sore spot. (Click image to enlarge)

(SEE IT ON GOOGLE MAPS HERE)

Furthermore, Bangkok has been shortlisted to hold a round of the Formula E Championship in 2014, a new FIA-sanctioned open wheel racing series powered with electric engines. However, while the championship rounds are solely held on inner city courses, these tracks won’t be longer than 3 kilometers and the whole event – including practice, qualifying and race – will be held on one single day. Nevertheless, should Bangkok be selected to hold a race next year, it could be seen as a grand rehearsal for the Grand Prix in 2015.

(Side note: The Nation‘s business reporter bizarrely tweeted that Bangkok’s GP bid has failed and thus got Formula E instead. After asking him about the reason, the reporter cited “advertisement rules due to tobacco sponsors”, even though Formula 1 stopped carrying these several years ago – only then for him to admit that his tweet was based on a headline several years old but still refused to explain why he led with an outdated and highly misleading headline – read the whole conversation here.)

There are of course many questions left unanswered and a good number of these come from those that are most affected by the plans: the residents and local business owners in central Bangkok. As for most mega-projects in Thailand, this group of stakeholders is always approached last, if at all, as a recent gathering ofpeople affected by the race plans has illustrated:

Representatives from 20 communities convened on Saturday at Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus to discuss the protection of historical sites on Rattanakosin Island from the F1 event.

“So far we have heard about this project from the media and others, but we have yet to see what is in the plan of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. We have to see the proposal in detail and study the impact on historical sites and our way of life,” said Parntip Likkachai, leader of Youth Banglamphu Community , who added that the communities’ priority now is to create public awareness about the F1 race through a campaign this Saturday.

Rattanakosin residents want to see F1 race plan“, The Nation, June 3, 2013

“We didn’t know anything about it from government agencies. We only learned about it from the media and social networks,” community Theeraphol Kachachiva said on Wednesday. “We don’t oppose an F1 event in Thailand. But it should not be raced on that route. It should be held elsewhere,” Mr Theeraphol said.

F1 backers feel the heat, as communities oppose plans“, Bangkok Post, May 29, 2013

Srisakra Valibhotama, a prominent anthropologist and archaeologist, told Saturday’s forum that it is “not appropriate” to hold a street race on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, whose name means “a path where the monarch travels” in Thai.

The protesters, especially residents in the 20 communities, are also worried about the noise caused by the racing cars at night as well as the vibration that may damage old trackside buildings.

A law restricts noise levels from cars on Bangkok streets to between 80 and 90 decibels, but the F1 cars would produce more than 100 decibels, said Thammasat second-year student Kasidit Kruthangphar.

F1 race proposal riles Rattanakosin locals“,  Bangkok Post, June 2, 2013

Normally, when it comes to big government projects and policies by the current Pheu Thai Party, the opposition Democrat Party is quick to criticize (with various degrees of factual accuracy and shrillness). However, they have been pretty silent on this topic.  Perhaps their close links to the main sponsors Singha Beer and Red Bull – as we have highlighted here – has increased their enthusiasm for the project.

A lot of valid concerns have been voiced (okay, apart from the “royal road” argument – that’s ludicrous!) about the impact on the environment and local business. However, the overbearing impression is that no one actually really has an idea how all this will pan out, including the organizers themselves as they only have expressed general commitment.

Residents and fans are both questioning whether or not Thailand and its officials are capable of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix – and a city night race to boot – in Bangkok. Given the track record of issues surrounding  such big projects – as recently seen with the debacle with Bangkok Futsal Arena not being built in time for the FIFA Futsal World Cup – the fear is that instead of a world class event we’ll witness a world class embarrassment.