Saturday, September 22, 2012

F1 Singapore Practice

Formula 1 has returned to Singapore, the 5th year that the race has been on the calendar. It is the biggest sports weekend in the country and certainly not an event I could skip. Last year at this time I was visiting Singapore on short notice and managed to get a limited walkabout pass on the day of the race. This year though, with time to prepare, I took advantage of the fact that far too many locals buy far too many tickets and there are always decent offers available online. I prefer the walkabout tickets to a single grandstand location and bought a Friday/Sunday Premier Walkabout combination, which is not available through normal outlets.

Friday is the "cheap" day with two F1 practices, while Saturday has a third practice and the qualifying before the race on Sunday. There are three other car types as well that hold practice and qualifying throughout the weekend, along with several concerts, with Maroon 5 and Katy Perry headlining this year.

I am now working in the Marina Bay area and my office building (Millenia Tower, on the left above) is just a couple of minutes from Gate 2, so at 5:30 I bounded out of the office and crossed the street to enter the circuit. Never before had I been so conveniently located to a major sporting event! I immediately made my way to Zone 1, which is where the start/finish line, pits, and suites are all located. I arrived just as the first of two practices was getting started. My friend Sajith, who also recently moved to Singapore from Japan, joined me.

My main goal of the practice session was to figure out the best place to stand for the race on Sunday. I started next to Turn 1, which is where the cars exit the pit. That is Mercedes' driver Michael Schumacher starting his run below.

I found this area to offer the best view as the cars are decelerating into the first turn and you can see them move into Turns 2 and 3 as well. The Pit Grandstand is further down the track and it seems like all you would see is the cars zooming by or being attended to in the pit, although I can't say for sure. I prefer to be next to the turns in any case.

In order to check out the views from other areas, we moved down the track, going against the direction of cars, past the grandstands and start line to Turn 23, the last turn before the straight. Here, you are somewhat farther away from the track and it is not as interesting as being near Turn 1, and pictures are not as good.

By this time, the first practice was nearing its end, so we made our way over to zone 2. As I came down from the overpass, I saw the GP2 cars waiting to enter the track for their qualifying run. The GP2 is sort of the minor leagues for F1 and many current F1 stars participated in GP2, including Lewis Hamilton. It is rare to be so close to a race car with the driver inside and I was amazed at Nigel Melker of the Netherlands (above) whose concentration was so intense that he simply stared ahead for ten minutes, the occasional blink the only sign he was alive. Below is the car belonging to Stephane Richelmi of Monaco.

Once the GP2 cars had moved out onto the track, Sajith and I continued over to the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest ferris wheel. Those with Premier Walkabout tickets were entitled to unlimited free rides, normally a $33 value. Because the Flyer is inside the circuit, the general public is not able to get inside during the weekend. Even then, I expected long lines, but was surprised to see that few fans were taking advantage of this offer. That allowed us enough time to grab dinner at the Singapore Food Trail, an upscale hawker centre (outdoor food court) just underneath the Flyer, where 10 satay sticks will cost you $10, much cheaper than the other options scattered around the circuit.

After eating, we entered the Flyer and were quickly aboard one of the 28 capsules, along with about 20 others. The second F1 practice had yet to begin, so we were left with taking pictures of the Singapore skyline (above, with the Bay Grandstand off to the right).

It takes about 30 minutes to make one revolution, and we were back on the ground at around 9:15. With the next practice scheduled to begin in just 15 minutes, we decided to ride one more time, hoping to capture some of the action from 165 metres above the track.

We could hear the first roars of the engine as we entered the capsule and were fortunate that the second practice took place in perfect conditions, clear and dry. As the wheel takes you higher, you have a great view of the straightaway (above). Below you can see one of the Red Bull cars crossing the finish line, a possible outcome on Sunday as well. This photo also serves as a reminder that it is time to get a better camera!

On the way back down, you see the other side of the track, starting at Turn 5 and going all the way around to the Esplanade Bridge before making its way back to the Bay Grandstand, where the cars briefly disappear as they actually drive underneath the seats. Below is Heikki Kovalainen of Caterham at Turn 5.

After completing our second go-around, we made our way trackside, where I heard that Bruno Senna had crashed at Turn 19, very close to where we were. Just then we saw the track marshals bringing Senna's car off the track and they set it down right in front of us, causing a large crowd to gather. From the shot below, you can't really see the damage as he just touched the wall, but it was enough to end his evening.

That was also enough for me as there was just a few minutes of practice left, so I walked back to my office to collect my stuff and head home. Even from the office, the engines were incredibly loud and I was able to see a small portion of the track coming out of Turn 5, but not enough that it would be worth watching the race from there.

This was a great evening and a bargain at just $60. The crowd is perhaps a third of what will show up for the race, so it is easier to move around and see a variety of different attractions. It was a definitely one of the more interesting sport spectator experiences and for those who may not be racing fans, worth checking out just for the other options.


Sebastian Vettel won the race on Sunday after Lewis Hamilton suffered a gearbox failure while leading midway through.

Next Up

Lots of travel in the next month, with a few sporting events thrown in. I'll be in Hong Kong this coming week but have yet to spot anything worth attending. After spending a single day in Singapore next Saturday, I'll be off to Sri Lanka for a few matches in cricket's Twenty20 World Cup. The week following, I'll be back to Tokyo, where a ball game and a tennis tournament are possibilities, not to mention the world-famous Yamato Cup, at which I'll be helping out. Check back for updates.



Monday, September 17, 2012

Albirex Niigata 0 at Balestier Khalsa 1 (S.League) - September 16, 2012

The S.League is Singapore's soccer circuit, consisting of 14 teams that play around the island. Unlike most soccer leagues which have nearly every team playing on the same day or weekend, the S.League schedules games in a haphazard fashion, so you have to check regularly to see if there is a match worth attending in the near future. Such was the case today, when I saw that Albirex Niigata was taking on Balestier Khalsa in nearby Toa Payoh Stadium.

Singapore is a small country, but it is a big city, and many of the stadiums in the league are nearly an hour away from where I live, located in the outlying suburbs. Toa Payoh, however, is just down the street, a short bus ride away. The home team would be Balestier Khalsa, while the visitors were Albirex Niigata, a satellite squad affiliated with the J League team of the same name. All of their players are from Japan and they attract a small following of Japanese who are residing here in Singapore. Albirex lay second in the table, just two points behind defending champions Tampines Rovers but Balestier (known as the Tigers) has a strong home record. This is about as compelling as an S.League match could get, so I dutifully made my way over to Toa Payoh for the 7:45 start.

Toa Payoh Stadium

Some readers might remember when I visited the Southeast Asian Swimming Championships back in May. They took place at the Toa Payoh Swimming Complex, which is right next door to the stadium. In Singapore, many residential areas have large sports areas which include pools, gyms, and outdoor fields. Toa Payoh is one of the larger sports complexes, although the soccer stadium itself is rather small with a capacity of just 3,900.

Like all local stadiums in the league, there is little to talk about. Tickets were $5 ($4 US) and that allowed you to sit on very uncomfortable concrete blocks for the whole game (above), just like in ancient Rome. There was a "VIP" section with plastic seats but I did not meet the criteria and was shuffled off to the plebe area.

The pitch was about a mile away, separated from the seats by a track plus an extra swath of grass, and with the haze and poor lighting, visibility was not very good. There were seats on the other side of the field but few fans wanted to make the trek in the humidity.

Popcorn and cotton candy were available but not much else. The scoreboard was so small, I could barely see it and a picture wasn't even worth taking. S.League stadiums are really not professional venues; they are community-oriented facilities that have been co-opted for league use. For $5, you can't expect much more.

The Game

Both clubs give up less than a goal a game, which meant a 1-0 final was quite likely. The question was which team would score first.  After 30 forgettable minutes, Zulkiffli Hassim of Balestier committed an egregious case of handball, reaching up to stop the ball from sailing by him. Oops. Yellow card for that. Two minutes later, Hassim again lost his focus, kicking one of the Albirex players who had fallen from another tackle. That might have been a straight red, but certainly another yellow was warranted and Hassim walked off the pitch, leaving the Tigers with 10 men and nearly 60 minutes still to play.

The first half finished scoreless but I was sure that the Japanese squad would take advantage of their extra man to secure the three points in the second. However, Balestier were stronger from the restart and just missed with a shot off the crossbar 10 minutes in. Albirex should have taken heed and started to defend better, but within seconds, the home team mounted another attack and after a few bounces in the penalty area, the ball fell to Kim Minho who drilled it home for the lead just before the hour mark.

Albirex pressed late and had one chance just go over the bar (above) but they couldn't break the shutout and fell 1-0. A poor showing as they had an extra man for much of the game but couldn't make use of him.

The match was slowed by several incidents of pushing and shoving along with the typical overacting and time wasting that seems to be the norm here. I guess that it is so hot on the field that the players need more breaks, so they do what they can to get them. For me, that will be it for the S.League for a while; the games are just not very interesting and I can't suddenly start cheering for one team, not even Albirex. Before I next attend a match here, I do hope that the authorities can teach the players to stop behaving like babies, it is really juvenile and not becoming of a professional league trying to make it on the world stage.

Next Up

The Singapore F1 is being held this coming weekend and I'll be attending Friday's practice session and the race on Sunday. The following weekend will see me fly to Sri Lanka for three matches in the T20 Cricket World Cup. One week later and I'll be back in Japan, looking to watch a ballgame or two and maybe some tennis. As usual, check back for updates as the next month promises to be a busy one.



Saturday, September 15, 2012

Revisiting the Japanese Sports Scene

It has been 4 months since I left Japan and I've pretty much forgotten about everything sports-wise that was going on there. I used to populate this blog with complaints about sports in Japan, particularly the problems associated with Japanese baseball, but once I left the country, the old adage of "out of sight, out of mind" came to bear. I stopped checking the standings and ceased visiting the few Japanese sports sites that I used to enjoy, turning my focus to more international events that might prove worthy of a sports road trip.

Now I'm going back to Japan for a short business trip in early October, which happens to be the final weekend of the baseball season. Suddenly, the NPB was back on my radar so I took a look at what's going on. Sadly, not much has changed. The Yomiuri Giants are leading the Central League by 11 games while the Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp are battling it out for that third and final playoff spot, a mere 22 games off the pace. Those two play at Jingu on the weekend I am visiting, so I'll likely head over once for old time's sake. The Giants host Yokohama on both days, so the possibility of a double header is on the cards too, but it will depend on the standings; paying any money to the Giants to watch a meaningless game is not something I would enjoy. In the Pacific League, Seibu leads the Fighters by half a game with the Softbank Hawks just 4 back. Again though, all three teams make the playoffs, so the race is merely for playoff positioning, which is not that exciting. Oh, and those ties are as prevalent as ever, with 68 out of 756 games ending in sister-kissers so far.

That weekend will also see a full slate of matches in the J-League, which is in the midst of a relatively exciting campaign. With the men's national team dominating World Cup qualifying and the women's team fresh off an Olympic silver medal (that should have been Canada's), soccer in Japan is certainly looking brighter than ever and the domestic circuit seems to be taking advantage. With 24 of 34 weeks completed, Vegalta Sendai lead Sanfrecce Hiroshima by a point, with the Urawa Reds just 3 back. Six more squads are within striking distance as parity has hit the league, with the exception of woeful Sapporo, who have but 3 wins and a draw and will be back in J2 next year. There are a couple of Tokyo-area games on the weekend I am there and I hope to make it out to one of them depending on how things shape up with other plans.

Update:  The Swallows started winning and the Carp started losing as soon as I posted this. Thus there is no reason to go to the game. In other news, a friend had an extra F1 ticket for the race in Mie, so I will be attending that on Sunday.

Next Up

Before that though, I'll be checking out the F1 in Singapore next weekend, and then off to Sri Lanka for a few matches in the T20 World Championship the following weekend. I'm also traveling to Hong Kong but so far haven't found any sports to watch while I am there. There's even a remote chance I'll be in India for the F1 there at the end of October. It will be a very busy month, so keep checking back for updates.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Johor FA 0 at Singapore Lions XII 1 (Malaysia Cup) - September 1, 2012

For the first time since 1994, Singapore has fielded a team in the top Malaysian soccer league, currently known as the Super League. Although the squad has been historically dubbed the Lions (Singapore comes from the Malay word Singapura which translates to “Lion City”), the new edition added a nod to its fans (commonly called the 12th man) and is now called Lions XII. Given Singapore’s historic rivalry with Malaysia, having a team play in the Super League is a source of patriotic pride. Most of the Lions also play for the national squad and there is not a single foreigner on the roster. When you attend a Lions game in Singapore, you will see much more nationalism on display than you would witness at a Blue Jays game for example.

Although the league finished in July with the Lions taking second spot in the 14-team table, there is still soccer to be played with the Malaysia Cup rounding out the domestic year. The Malaysia Cup has been contested since 1921 and Singapore teams have won 28 titles, all of which are commemorated with banners such as those shown above.

Sixteen teams compete in the tournament, including some from the second-tier in the Malaysian soccer pyramid, which is confusingly called the Premier League. Four groups of four engage in a home-and-away round robin with the top two from each group moving on to the knockout stage.

The Lions were drawn into Group A along with two teams from the neigbouring state of Johor Bahru, as well as PKNS FC, a team from the state of Selangor, which is also the home to the Sepang race circuit. The round robin is played over three weeks, with all teams playing on each of six match days. The Lions hold their home games at venerable Jalan Besar Stadium, which recently underwent renovations that increased capacity to over 8,000. This past Saturday, Johor FA (a Premier League squad) paid a visit and I made my way over to see what was afoot. The Lions were clear favourites but the teams had fought to a scoreless draw just four days earlier, so there were no guarantees for a home win.

Tickets were S$14 for the grandstand (the covered seats) and S$8 for the uncovered gallery seats, which were nearly sold out. I arrived about 20 minutes before game time and went for the more expensive option, finding a seat near the south goal. There were nearly 5,000 fans on hand and they made a lot of noise during the introductions.

The Lions must have taken that to heart as they attacked from the opening whistle and were immediately rewarded when Baihakki Khaizan made a perfectly timed pass to Khairul Amri who beat the offside trap and snapped a quick shot off the left post just 2 minutes into the game. The play happened right in front of me and looked to be offside, but after returning home I reviewed the videotape and found the linesman had made the correct call. Below you see Amri (#10) being congratulated while the ref urge them to return to the pitch.

Johor never really was able to attack after that, gaining only two scoring chances over the remaining 88 minutes. Late in the second half they had their best opportunity, but Lions keeper Izwan Mahbud cleared the ball away before a clean shot could be taken (below).

The Lions had several opportunities to extend their lead but sent shots wide or off the crossbar. Nonetheless, the early strike held up and with the win, the Lions moved to the top of the table, tied with the other club from Johor Bahru, Johor FC.

There were two rather annoying things on display here. The first was the invisible sniper with the quickly disappearing bullets. You know who I mean, the guy who shoots players in the ankle, causing them to fall to the ground, writhing in agony while the stretcher is called out. Shortly after being carted to the sidelines, the player jumps up and runs back on the field without a limp. The bullets have disappeared! At least four Lions were victimized by this unseen assailant causing extended stoppages in play. Hey, if you are really hurt, that’s fine, then feel free to leave the game. If you are not hurt, don’t waste everybody’s time by overacting, just man up and walk it off!

The other frustrating aspect of this game was the officiating, which was laughable. The Malaysian ref handed four yellow cards to the hosts while letting his countrymen off with nary a warning. Some calls were beyond ludicrous, with Lions being whistled for clean tackles, or even while being tackled! I’ve tried to find stats detailing the number of fouls per team but can assure you that it was so one-sided as to warrant investigation had this game been held elsewhere.

Next Up

I’m off to Indonesia this weekend for more beachside activities, although I won’t be watching any sports. The F1 reaches Singapore two weeks after that, and then I'm off to Sri Lanka to watch the T20 World Championship. All-in-all, a great variety of sports on tap, so check back often for updates.