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By Sebastian Tong
SINGAPORE, May 11 (Reuters) - Singapore has won a five-year deal to host a Formula One race starting next year and plans to stage the first ever night grand prix, speeding past skyscrapers, colonial-era buildings and the waterfront.
The race may be held in September or early October 2008, and the city-state has the option to extend the deal for another five years after 2012, the government said on Friday.
“Singapore could potentially stage the first-ever night race. It would be unique, different, and allow the Singapore event to reach out to television audiences in Asia, Europe and even the U.S.” S. Iswaran, Minister of State for Trade and Industry, told a press briefing.
He said the race would only be held at night if safety requirements were fully met.
Several F1 drivers have spoken against the idea of a night race, citing safety concerns.
But the sport’s supremo Bernie Ecclestone, speaking by teleconference, said he was confident that a night race would be held and that safety conditions would be met.
“It’s going to be lit as if it’s daylight,” he said.
Ecclestone is keen on a night race to boost television audiences in the sport’s European heartland.
Formula One cars do not have headlights, so the track would have to be floodlit to make it safe enough for drivers used to hitting top speeds in excess of 300 kph (190 mph).
Australian driver Mark Webber has expressed concern that rainy weather during a night race would mean poor visibility.
In March, Webber tested a 4.8 km (3-mile) Singapore street circuit, proposed by grand prix circuit designer Hermann Tilke.
The rights to the race have been won by a company controlled by Singapore property and hotels tycoon Ong Beng Seng.
Iswaran said the annual cost of staging an F1 race could be up to S$150 million ($99 million), and that the government would co-fund about 60 percent of the cost of the event.
The race is expected to generate tourism receipts of about S$100 million ($66 million) per year.
As hotels will be able to raise room rates by up to three times during the event, Singapore will impose a tax of up to 30 percent on hotel rooms for a period of about seven days around the race.
The Singapore government wants to boost tourist arrivals to 17 million people by 2015 from nearly 10 million in 2006. Keen to shake off its reputation as being staid, the Southeast Asian city-state is also building two multi-billion-dollar casinos.
Malaysia’s F1 organisers said the Singapore race move was unlikely to pose a threat to the Malaysian Grand Prix.
“Why should I worry about Singapore and Malaysia having F1? Theirs will be at the end of the year and ours will be at the beginning,” said Mokhzani Mahathir, chairman of Sepang International Circuit, which will stage its 10th race next year.
Malaysia has won an extension to host F1 by another five years beyond 2010, despite concerns about its course and Singapore’s bid.
Mokhzani said night races would be included in the contract that will extend the tenure of the Sepang F1 race.
“In the contract that we are re-signing with Bernie Ecclestone, it states there we will have to host the night race if and when he says so,” he said.
Singapore’s announcement came a day after Ecclestone revealed that Valencia had agreed to host a grand prix from 2008 on a circuit around the Spanish city’s new America’s Cup port.
That race is scheduled for late in the season on a newly designed circuit of between 4.1 and 4.3 km in length, reminiscent of Monaco’s with its harbour-side location. (Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid in Malaysia)