On the drive to Bangkok from the city’s Suvarnabhumi airport, it is not long before you are met with the sight of Alexander Albon’s face plastered across a giant advertising hoarding.
“Drive Thai pride beyond limits”, it reads. The country has not had an F1 driver for nearly 75 years, when Prince Bira competed in 19 World Championship Grands Prix. Albon (or Albon Ansusinha as he is referred to in the ad) was born and raised in London but represents the country of his mother. Still, we get the idea, Thailand is proud to have a driver in F1.
Prince Bira and now Albon aside, the link between Thailand and motorsport is not historically strong. In fairness, the same goes for most sports. The men’s football team are ranked 113th in the world, below Palestine, India and Zimbabwe, although the women’s team had a significant but trying World Cup this year, being beaten 13-0 by eventual champions USA.
The association between Thailand and sport is slowly starting to change, or at least there is a concerted effort from the authorities to change this perception and to get people visiting the country for sports events, rather than just the picturesque postcard paradise of sandy beaches and green islands in the south.
The biggest effort is happening in Buriram, a province a few hours’ drive – or a short plane ride – from Bangkok. Located there is the Chang International Circuit, Thailand’s only track that can host the top level of car and motorcycle racing. Designed by Hermann Tilke – who has been the lead architect for so many of motorsport’s new tracks over the past two decades – it opened in 2014 and since 2018 has hosted the Thailand round of the Moto GP calendar, the most prestigious series in motorcycle racing.
There is hope that it will be able to host an F1 race in the coming years and with the expansion of the sport into Asia firmly established and the traditional European races under pressure to keep up, it is not the most outlandish suggestion that it may happen.
“We aim to be the venue for the F1 in the near future. People in the government have started discussing this. Our new dream is F1. We hope by the next two years that perhaps Thailand will be one of the races for F1 – in Buriram,” says Tanes Petsuwan, Deputy Governor for Marketing Communications for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Hopes of an F1 Grand Prix in Thailand are nothing new. Several years back there were advanced talks to host a race in the Rattanakosin district of Bangkok but that was stopped by the local authorities in late 2013. Back then F1 already had a street race in Asia, in Singapore, and more were clearly been appealing to both Bernie Ecclestone and new owners Liberty Media. So appealing that in 2020 F1 has its first ever Vietnamese Grand Prix, running around the streets of Hanoi.
It is easy to see the appeal of having a race in Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis of 8.5 million. It is one of Asia’s most enticing cities with something from everyone – from the high-rise five-star hotels to the more boisterous nightlife of Khao San Road; the abundant and varied street food as well as a glut of Michelin-starred restaurants of varied cuisine like Nahm, Sra Bua, Canvas, Le Normandie and Mezzaluna. City-based racing is where Formula E has succeeded and where F1 is trying to move – a race in Miami is one of Chase Carey’s pet projects, potentially joining Monaco, Singapore, Baku, Melbourne, Montreal, Budapest, Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paolo as Grands Prix held in a major city.
With the Bangkok race now not an option, Thailand’s attention has turned to securing a race in Buriram. Ultimately, though hosting a Grand Prix there is not a deal breaker, Petsuwan says. And it may be more of hindrance than a help, with so many other new races in Asia falling by the wayside – Korea and India being two. “We have been talking about F1 but it’s not easy and it’s very expensive. For the time being I think MotoGP is good enough,” he says.
What Buriram has going for it is that Chang International Circuit is a modern and forward-thinking design. Unlike the vast majority of most other tracks, the paddock and pit lane are on the outside of the circuit rather than infield, something that makes the whole show more accessible.
The main pit complex is also in the same area, accompanied by a giant grandstand which means fans can see right into the pit lane. This stand is jam-packed for much of the weekend, meaning fans are within mere metres of Marc Marquez’s passionate title celebrations with his team after winning a thrilling race to take his sixth MotoGP title. If you want to stay as close to the action as possible you can do so at the BricBox hotel. Made from converted shipping containers, it might provide the best and most comprehensive views of the track, sitting just outside turns eight and nine at one of the best spots for on-track action.
At the moment, MotoGP feels like a very good fit for Thailand. You don’t have to spend long in the country to realise why, as two wheels are a far more favourable and affordable way to navigate the city’s notoriously clogged roads. Forget normal taxis, taxi mopeds are the easiest way to get around.
Read the full article at THe Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/motogp/2019/12/25/thailand-hopes-sports-fans-can-change-face-tourism-industry/