Commentary

Night racing in Singapore: cool for fans, a challenge for drivers

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? Apparently they do in Singapore, where body clocks are all out of whack as Formula One prepares for its first night race Sunday.

Updated: September 25, 2008, 5:55 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Singapore Formula One Grand PrixAP Photo/Vincent ThianYou can't miss the Singapore Flyer, the world's tallest ferris wheel, on the Marina Bay City Circuit.

SINGAPORE -- Lewis Hamilton eats breakfast in the afternoon.

Nico Rosberg works out in the hotel gym at 2:30 in the morning.

Robert Kubica will hold a news conference at 1 in the morning.

Felipe Massa walked around the track at 3 in the morning.

David Coulthard attended a team public relations function at midnight and walked the streets at 3 a.m., looking for an open restaurant so he could have supper.

Night racing is old hat for NASCAR, IRL, Sprint Cars and NHRA and at countless bullrings around the United States. But it's a new experience for Formula One as Singapore hosts the first F1 night race Sunday.

F1 normally adheres to a pretty rigid schedule with qualifying, and the races usually start at 2 p.m., no matter where they are in the world.

But qualifying for the Singapore Grand Prix will be at 10 p.m. local time Saturday, and the race will start at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Normally, when members of the F1 teams arrive in various countries around the world, they try to adjust to the local time zone as quickly as possible. But that is not the case for the race weekend in Singapore, where the teams are trying to stay on European time so as to be fresh for the late-night schedule.

"Our doctor has prepared a very precise schedule for the drivers to stick to because all the sessions are so late in the day," Hamilton said. "Essentially, we must not acclimatize to the local time, which is totally different to how we normally operate.

"Our training programs ensure that over a race weekend, we are at peak performance during the afternoons, and as a result, we are going to be staying in European time so this doesn't get disrupted."

[+] EnlargeSingapore Grand Prix
AP Photo/Vincent ThianDrivers Sebastian Vettel, left, and Mark Webber check out the local seafood scene Wednesday in Singapore.

Singapore is six hours ahead of European time, so 8 p.m. in Singapore is 2 p.m. in Europe.

"Apparently not acclimatizing is much harder than adapting, because your body naturally wants to change," Hamilton said. "For the drivers, our meal, waking and sleeping rhythms will all be in European time. We will get up early afternoon for breakfast, have supper at 1 a.m. and go to bed at around 3 a.m. It will be very different preparation to any other race, but we'll try and do the best job we can."

And that is why Rosberg was working out in the hotel gym at 2:30 a.m.

"Cleaning ladies looked at me as if I was from outer space," he told The Straits Times.

Some teams are taking the "sticking to the normal schedule" idea to the extreme. If they normally have their drivers available for news conferences two hours after qualifying -- say, about 5 p.m. at most races -- they are doing the same in Singapore.

And that is why Kubica will meet with the media from 12:45 a.m. to 1:05 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning.

Fernando Alonso has news conferences scheduled at the track for 1 a.m., as do other drivers.

Massa walked the track at 3 a.m. because he didn't want to go to bed until about 5 a.m., which is 11 p.m. the night before in Europe.

"I try to sleep to about 1 in the afternoon," he said.

To ensure their crews get uninterrupted sleep during the day, some teams have booked entire floors of hotels so housekeeping will not be cleaning rooms, banging doors or making other loud noises. Blackout curtains ward off the bright, tropical sunlight.

"If you just offset the engineer meeting schedules and things [from European time], it means that we will be finishing at 5 o'clock on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so it is quite a big change," Williams technical director Sam Michael said.

"You could look at it and say, 'Well, everyone's in Europe normally, so they should be on that time zone [in Singapore],' but it's quite difficult to go back to the hotel and sleep during the day, especially when you've got people walking around tidying it up.

"So one of the other things [the Williams teams] have done is to make sure that they can have one floor in the hotel that's only got team members on it and not have people knocking on your door at 9 o'clock in the morning, saying, 'Shall I come and clean the room up?'"

After practice ends Friday night, most crews won't go back to the hotel until all the car preparation for the next day has been completed.

"Inevitably, ensuring all the team personnel have the opportunity to get enough sleep will be the main challenge over the course of the weekend," McLaren's F1 CEO Martin Whitmarsh said. "For example, the mechanics won't be going to bed until 4-5 a.m., because we finish running late in the evening and there is a program of work to complete prior to the next day.

"There is a clear plan, because we know the timings of the sessions and how much work needs to take place after each of the sessions. The reality is, it will be hard work for the mechanics, engineers, support crew, marketing operation, and we will take measures to support this.

"But I don't believe it will have a massive impact on the cars and the drivers, with the program for Lewis and Heikki [Kovalainen] being very carefully planned and monitored."

Kovalainen says he looks at his watch, which is set on European time, rather than out the window, where it might be day or night, to know what his timetable is.

"We stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, although there is not much to do at 4 a.m.," said Hamilton, Kovalainen's McLaren Mercedes teammate. "We're not partying, just watching films and playing computer games."

Nelson Piquet has been working with his physiotherapist to make sure his body clock does not adjust to Singapore time.

We stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, although there is not much to do at 4 a.m. We're not partying, just watching films and playing computer games.

-- Lewis Hamilton

"I will have clearly defined hours of sleep, some techniques aimed at reducing the impact of daylight on my body," the Renault driver said, "and a different meal regime with a large breakfast, followed by several light meals."

Despite all these preparations, it is going to be difficult for the drivers and crews to keep their bodies from inevitably adjusting to Singapore time.

"How do you keep people working through the night?" asked Pat Symonds, Renault's executive director of engineering. "What sort of time zone is their body going to be in?

"We know what it's like to go to Japan and move eight hours, but this is a different situation again. It's one where possibly at the beginning of the week, we've got people working during the day and sleeping at night, and then transitioning to sleeping during the day and working at night. And some of those aspects are really quite tricky."

One driver who won't have trouble sleeping is Kimi Raikkonen. If he doesn't have to get up, he often sleeps past noon, so the Ferrari ace is doing just that in Singapore.

"I guess Kimi should be on form -- he's used to performing when it's dark!" Red Bull's chief technical officer Adrian Newey quipped, alluding to Raikkonen's ability to party late into the night.

The timetable suits Nick Heidfeld as well.

"I'm more of a night person," he said. "I like to go to bed late, but I am not a great early riser. For that reason, the rhythm of this weekend should suit me. It's a question of adjustment. It's important to eat and sleep at the right times in order to ensure you're really on the button when you need to be."

When it comes to driving an F1 car at night, it is a new experience for all the drivers. However, Sebastien Bourdais and Timo Glock raced in Champ Car night races, and others like Mark Webber and David Coulthard have raced through the dark at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Not that there will be anything dark about the Singapore track. The system of 1,500 lighting units on 240 pylons will throw out more than 3 million watts on the 3.148-mile, 23-turn temporary street circuit.

"The floodlights should ensure it is actually as bright as during the day," Heidfeld said, "but nobody has yet experienced how these light conditions will feel at F1 speeds. I would have welcomed the chance to test on the track, especially in the rain. Rain combined with the artificial light is the great unknown for me with this race."

Glock isn't sure if every nook and cranny of the track will be brightly lit.

"They will give us as much light as possible, but as it is a night race, I don't expect it will be like daylight in every corner," he said. "That is fine, though. Driving at night is a fun experience, and it is definitely a really good show for the fans -- that is the most important thing."

While the ambient temperatures cool off at night from the upper 90s in the day, the energy-sapping humidity remains high day and night.

Rain, especially in the early evening, is almost a given.

"If it rains, there is the unknown of whether there will be a problem with glare or the sparkle of light from droplets of rain [on the drivers' helmet visors] that is greater than you would ordinarily get," Whitmarsh said. "To manage this potential, we are using coatings for the visors that won't allow droplets to collect."

Although it will be almost as bright as day, the corner workers will not use the usual set of flags to warn the drivers of various conditions around the track. Instead, light panels will display the yellow, green, blue and red colors of the flags.

Set among modern skyscrapers, old colonial buildings, lush tropical plants and trees, the harbor and the world's largest Ferris wheel, the brand-new Singapore street circuit definitely has an exotic backdrop.

F1's first night race certainly will be a memorable occasion. And with the crazy schedules the teams are trying to keep, it is no wonder some are dubbing the event "Sleepless in Singapore."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.