Analysis: Can the fast and furious Singapore GP possibly go virtual?

The news of the cancellation of Formula One (F1) Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix (GP) 2020 was announced a week ago. Hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the race event promoter said it had to cancel this year's event because it wasn't able to commence building and construction work of the circuit, which normally commences in May.

Besides Singapore, the Azerbaijan and Japan Grand Prix have also decided to cancel their races for the 2020 season as well. In response to its postponed races earlier in the season, F1 launched its "F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix" series in March, which was to be run in place of postponed Grand Prix in 2020. According to F1, the series was created to enable fans to continue watching F1 races virtually, despite the ongoing COVID-19 situation that has affected this season’s race calendar.  F1 has since held seven virtual races, namely the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix,  the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, the Chinese Grand Prix, the Spanish Grand Prix, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the Canadian Grand Prix. The virtual race concluded in June 2020.

While Singapore GP made the decision to cancel the racing event, event companies agree that the event could have gone virtual, given virtual is here to stay for the long-haul. Speaking to Marketing, Sharon Lewis, strategy and marketing director, Rebel and Soul, said complete cancellation of the race is a huge missed opportunity to give value back to a loyal audience. Southeast Asia’s consumer expectations on brand communications has shifted during the pandemic and digital consumption has increased, with some of the biggest spikes in consumption being gaming, online streaming and social media. Lewis said:

From haptic technology through to augmented reality and holographics, there are so many ways to bring your brand story to life through digital.

Lewis explained that the concerts which usually excite most audiences during the Singapore GP could have embraced as live-streaming. These virtual experiences can also be dialled up through recent technologies such as 8D audio, haptic technology and other wearable tech, which will enable audience to have a more immersive experience. She brought up the example of One Wave, an interactive virtual experience concert held in April 2020 which featured artistes such as John Legend, Tinashe, and Galanti appearing as digital avatars.  

Using hologram to include real F1 drivers into the events via mixed reality technology would also "make the event more inclusive and life-like", she added.

Cheryl Hew, chief creative officer of experiential marketing company amc asia!, also said having a virtual race during this period has its benefits, as  a virtual race can aid Singapore GP in complementing real-life races in time to come. Taking an event virtual can also enable drivers to engage more with their fans both locally and globally, and thus expanding its fan base. Singapore GP could have utilitised technology such as augmented reality and location-based websites to amp up its virtual experience.

Challenges to consider

On the other hand, Oscar Cerezales, global executive vice president, corporate division, at MCI Group, is of the view that the race experience will not be able to fully translate in its experience virtually. Creating virtual components of the race may be possible, but a full experience might be difficult.

Although it is possible to turn the iconic race online, the conversion will come with its own set of challenges. "[Creating a virtual event] looks easy, but it is not when you think in audience engagement," Cerezales said, adding that the challenge would lie in the design of the experience instead of the tech or content used to make the event possible.

Time and quality are important factors as well, according to Anna Patterson, vice president and managing director, George P. Johnson Singapore. Given that the scheduled race is in September, there is a short time frame for organisers to turn the event virtual. Preparations for a virtual event would have already needed to start as organisers always have to ensure the virtual event will be of good quality to meet audiences' expectations and level against gaming content that people currently watch and play. But, she added, with increased digital and technology, given online viewerships are being recorded at 6.6 billion hours in 2019, taking events into the virtual space is something businesses can venture into in 2020 and beyond. 

Meanwhile, amc asia!'s Hew also highlighted the need for detailed planning as it will have to be launched in phases, and organisers will have to manage expectations of consumers and stakeholders, as well as align the expected return on investment (ROI) needed for the event. "There are a lot of factors involved in cancelling the race. Being the only night race and street race in Asia, we can take the time to see how we can transform and enhance the experience further after more than 10 years," she added. 

Remaining top of mind despite cancellation

Although the F1 Singapore GP race has been cancelled, a spokesperson from Singapore GP told Marketing previously that as in past racing seasons, it will continue to launch its campaign to engage the local and regional community throughout the year. The campaign includes roving exhibitions featuring F1 simulators, school visits, public screenings, behind the scene tours and educational talks. The spokesperson added that at the moment, it is also looking at how it can expand and enhance this programme to ensure that F1 remains top of mind, in spite of the cancellation of the race.

To this, Lewis also suggested reaching out to the art community in Singapore with initiatives such as a digital art competition to design the wrap for the next live F1 race car. This would help organisers maximise the reach of potential audience for the event. 

Separately, with the cancellation of physical events such as F1 Singapore GP, Lynette Pang, assistant chief executive, marketing group, Singapore Tourism Board, told Marketing that it intends to rethink its audience engagement when it comes to its marketing efforts, while prioritising safety and remaining agile and dynamic to ensure relevance. The Board has been increasing efforts to reach out to potential travellers virtually and enable them to experience Singapore from a safe distance. Some of these initiatives include its virtual clubbing event Zouk Phuturescapes, curating videos of animal residents at its tourism attractions under the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, and launching a digital version of Sentosa on popular Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing.

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