We exchange business cards as Le Ngoc Chi, the petite but dynamic CEO of Vietnam Grand Prix Corporation [VGPC], and I sit down we down sit on a couch on Formula 1’s patio in the Singapore. Noticing my deciphering of her name, she smiles and says, “Just call me ‘Chi’.”
Formula 1 is as far from her background – in finance and legal, mergers and acquisitions, real estate and hotels – as pharma is from automobiles. But she has experience in those industries, too, and it is clear Chi is seriously enjoying the challenge of heading what is her countries biggest sporting event.
Now she is spearheading the efforts of an emerging Asian country with no established motorsport culture to join F1’s roster of elite venues. She is well placed to explain why Vietnam wants a place alongside Singapore, the USA and the rest.
“What happened was the government, the city of Hanoi and especially Mr Chung Nguyen – the chairman [mayor] of Hanoi, he’s like the father of this whole idea – want to bring Formula 1 to Vietnam for all very obvious reasons: For the benefits and all the good things that Formula 1 can bring to Vietnam,” she opens.
“Vingroup is the backer for the event in Vietnam, and VGPC is a member of the group. I have been a long-time employee of Vingroup and became the CEO of the Vietnam GP Corporation.”
Vingroup, headed by 51-year-old Pham Nhat Vuong, is valued at $14bn and employs over 43,000. Its interests in virtually every aspect of Vietnamese life including establishing the country’s first auto brand, Vinfast – based on previous generation BMW 5 Series products and launched at the 2018 Paris Motorshow – and its own mobile phone brand.
“VinGroup are not doing this just for VG’s good,’ Chi explains, ‘[but] we are doing it for the better good of our country, for the better lives of the Vietnamese people.
“We understand that Formula 1 is not just a race, it’s an entertainment and sporting event that also brings in a lot of different opportunities in terms of boosting tourism, in terms of boosting investment, in terms of boosting cooperation, and mutual cooperation activities.
“And technology especially. Formula 1 is known as the high technology industry, right, all the cars, especially VinFast. So anyway we want Vietnam to taking in all the better side of the world to us.”
The second aspect is obviously that of showcasing the city and country to the world via F1’s annual, global reach. Chi makes no secret of the fact that public perception of the country is bound up in the war of 1955-75, which claimed more than three million lives all told.
“We especially have that strong will to showcase [ourselves] because a lot of times people would come to us and say: ‘Vietnam, I don’t know which it is, is it a war?’ We want that people to understand that’s behind us.
“Right now we are a country that is on the way to developing, we are the new dragon of Asia. We have one of the highest GDP [gross domestic product] growth rates over the past years. We want to showcase Vietnam to the world, we want to showcase Hanoi to the world. Hanoi is the land for peace, Hanoi has many very unique traditions: Good food, beautiful, with people that are friendly.”
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And the third aspect?
“Pride. National pride,” Chi says. “Mr Pham Nhat Vuong, the first and the biggest billionaires in Vietnam, is a very patriotic person. He always talks about the love and the pride for our country. So, by doing this event all of us get that sense of pride and of achievement for our country.”
Every race has two distinctly audience groups: Those at the track – predominantly local or regional fans – and television. While TV ticks most of the boxes about showcasing a country, the live audience facilitates it financially. So, what is in store for them?
“We are trying to create this festive atmosphere for everyone. With all the festivals, whether that’s food or culture or entertainment. [We are] finalising on concerts, support races, and the events will not be just within the circuit.
“We hope to bring that atmosphere throughout the city. Singapore is doing a great job on that, but we want to have something that is uniquely us. So we will try to create that atmosphere for the live people who go to the event, and not just F1 fans, but also non-F1 fans, too.”
She says VGPC is targeting three markets: “Those that have great motorsport cultures and communities, because these are people who are willing to travel to see a new race, to see what we have to offer.
“Secondly tourism, tourist people. If they have planned to come to Asia, they can combine it with seeing a country that they want to visit with such a great event.
“Also we want to target the regional people too, because right now we are doing a lot of business with regional countries like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia etc, and they have great motor sport communities, too.”
Chi is mindful that Asia already has F1 three events, so adds that “It’s not that we want to be in competition with other grands prix, but I think there’s room for everyone here.”
She concedes that with a ‘top down’ approach a country needs to simultaneously establish a motorsport culture, but is confident that although the motorsport community ‘is quite small’ it is enthusiastic, with a go-kart track already established in the south. The F1 street circuit comprises a section of purpose-built track running through a park, which will double as a karting facility.
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“So with Formula 1 coming over, with the support of the government, with the motor sport community core base, we are confident that over the next few years the motorsport community is going to grow exponentially. We will be a part of that growth; we are happy to be a part of that growth.”
Lewis Hamilton recently commented that new venues should look at holding street races rather than repeating the experience of India, where the Buddh International Circuit was built at huge expenjse but used for just three races. Given that, it’s interesting to learn VGPC briefly considered but rejected plans for a permanent track.
“The area in which the circuit is situated is one of the most developed areas of Hanoi, and we want to people to see how lively the country is,” says Chia. “With all the good food around that area and all the people there who are so willing to have the track, we want to showcase Hanoi.”
The layout has 23 turns and runs to 5.607km in length, including a main straight of over onoe-and-a-half kilometres on which where F1 cars should hit 340kph. It marks the first official circuit collaboration between circuit designer Hermann Tilke’s office and F1’s motorsports division headed by Ross Brawn, and the purpose-built section includes esses and corners that borrow heavily from Japan’s Suzuka and Germany’s Nürburgring.
Chi says work on the pit garage area, an impressive three-level fixed structure spanning 300 meters in length whose design is inspired by the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long here in Hanoi, is entering the final stages of its construction.
“So, you see, it’s not just purely street. Two thirds of the circuit is existing road, so that’s where the street [part] will be, and one-third is completely newly built, and it will be within the park which will be closed. So it’s kind of also has some of the characteristics of a permanent circuit.
We have our chat at the scene of F1’s first night race, and Hanoi’s location would seem to make it ideal for another. “Yes it has [potential],” she acknowledges, “but we are not pursuing that, we are going to be a day race.
“Right now, it’s not yet determined, but probably [a start time of] around 2 to 3pm. Because we want all the people in Europe, and hopefully enough in continental America, to watch with us.”
She tells me that they are expecting a ‘footfall of 300,000 spectators over three days’, adding that all facilities and the week plans and operations procedures have been designed to accommodate such crowds. Four levels of ticket will be offered: affordable general admission, grandstands, the circuit’s own hospitality suites and the full-on Paddock Club – thus catering for all pockets.
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VGPC requested the first weekend in April for various reasons, Chi says, adding that these were mainly climatic. “We [will have] just got off spring, and the temperature is quite nice with absolutely no rain, maybe just a little bit of sprinkle.
“Humid but no rain, and probably the temperatures within the 20, and comfortable a night,” adding that next year Easter is scheduled for the following weekend and thus she hopes folk will make an extended stay of their visit.
Whenever a new venue appears on the calendar there are inevitably questions whether it will be ready on time. Recent close shaves included: Korea’s track in Mokpo received final sign-off on the Wednesday before its inaugural event. In the view of some, the Buddh circuit outside Delhi was never really completed..
Chi makes it clear she expects everything to be in place for Hanoi to host round for of the 2020 F1 calendar in seven month’s time.
“I just want to say: the first thing is that we are absolutely confident, we are on track and schedule in accordance with our plan to deliver our first grand prix on 3-5 April 2020.
“Secondly, Formula 1, all the different divisions of Formula 1, have been very helpful and have been following us very closely on every single aspect of it, whether that’s marketing, whether that’s the motorsport division or the technical side.
“So, they’ve been following us very closely, and they would not put us on the calendar if they were not confident, because this is also their reputation too.”
There are three stages left before Hanoi is ready to welcome Formula 1 for the first time.
“The first one is consumption: So in in our circuit the only thing that is permanent is the pit building – and the track, of course. So the pit building, right now if you go to Vietnam you’re going to see the building stand there, already, in shape. We are working on the inside of it right now, such as ventilation and medical [facilities]. By the end of this year we should finish with that.
“Early next year we will give the final touch with interior fit out. That’s for the pit building, and still on the construction side is the track, some of it is already existing, and one third we are building it and next month we are going to start on the asphalt [of the purpose-built section].
“The asphalt is going to be the most important thing for the track, because we want to make sure that it has the highest quality. That is the one factor that determines whether it’s successful or not, the racers are gong to know right away, so we are sure we will be able to abide by the very strict standards and requirements of the FIA in terms of the track. So that’s the construction – everything is on time.”
Traffic flow and items such as security – “we need to ensure that people are completely safe” – are currently in preparation, while the third point of Chi’s plan, namely marketing and sales campaigns, kicked off in late July.
“So, all those factors combined give us a very good momentum right now and we believe that it will continue to pick up from now until the end of March so that we reach our target of bringing people to our event.”
The challenge of bringing a new race to the calendar is not to be underestimated. The past few decades of F1 has seen no shortage of short-lived venues. But there is plenty at stake here not just for the VGPC, but the championship as well, as the Vietnam Grand Prix will be the first fully new F1 race of the Liberty Media era.
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