MANILA, OCTOBER 11, 2008 (STAR)  By Noel Silverio Dela Merced - So near, yet so far,Ē I kept thinking on my Singapore Airlines flight as I counted the hours till the event I had dreamed of watching for months. The pilot announced our landing finally. Yes, let the games begin! There was only one thing on my mind: the first-ever F1 Grand Prix race in Singapore. No, this was no ordinary race. This was the first race in the newly constructed in-city racetrack reported to have cost over $150 million to build. Whatís so great about it? Itís the first fully lit racetrack in the world, and the Singapore Grand Prix on the Marina Bay Circuit was the first-ever night race in F1 history. The circuit length is 3.148 miles and can accommodate over 100,000 spectators. Driving at 300 km/hr at night? Are they insane? So, they had to install 1,600 high-wattage lights that needed 3,180,000 watts of power, and 108,000 meters of cabling, 10 meters above the track. It was designed to give a near-daylight effect, four times brighter than any sports stadium in the world. There were also a total of 1,500 projectors lights installed along the circuit and the most sophisticated F1 pit with 36 garages that took 10 months to build costing $40 million. Talk about making a statement! Hear the Lion City roar!

And roar it did with an astounding 40,000 eager tourists trekking to Singapore from all over the world to witness the two-hour, 61-lap historical race. And I was one of them.

Obviously, Iím not just an ordinary racing enthusiast: Iím an F1 addict. Saturday and Sunday nights during racing season are sacred to me. Thereís absolutely nothing that can make me miss a race. For two hours, Iím glued to the tube. For years, Iíve been collecting car models, driversí autographed items, F1 books, and luckily, Iíve managed to get a couple of photos with the worldís best drivers like Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikonnen, and Felipe Massa. (I still dream of the day I get to meet Michael Schumacher, though.)

Why do I love F1 so much? Itís not just the cars, although thatís great. And itís not just about the gorgeous babes around the track, although thatís great, too. Itís about how man and machine perfectly merge to tackle highly technical curves and turns at alarmingly dangerous speeds. No sport can be more exhilarating, death defying, and highly technical than this.

Also, F1 is all about unpredictability as the Singapore Grand Prix clearly showed. Definitely one of the most heart-stopping races of the year! But more on that later.

While race fever filled the air, the Singaporean Tourism Board also had other great sights and sounds for us to witness while in Singapore to complete the great Singapore experience.

Whatís a trip to Singapore without great food, right? A special event of the Singapore Grand Prix season was the exclusive showcase of Michelin Chef Laurent Peugeot at the Hilton Harbour Grill and Oyster Bar. Combining both French and Japanese culinary styles, we sampled exquisite dishes that included duckling from challans, yuzu kochio, udon and sesame foie gras, rhubarb crŤme brulee, acacia honey and veal.

From the gourmet to the gastronomical, we rolled up our sleeves and explored the huge alfresco hawker centers serving ó wow! ó barbequed seafood and grilled meat on skewers. Now, thatís what I call great Singaporean grub!

After the eating, what next? The partying, of course! And do these Singaporeans know how to par-tay! There were countless outdoor parties set up by the various clubs in the area, whether at the iconic Club Zouk or Ministry of Sound where people danced the night away.

The Chivas Regal Live Party at the River Valley was also quite an experience. The line stretched a kilometer long to get into the main event held at an old public swimming pool turned dance floor.

Another highlight was the inaugural Singapore River Festival with the dance Legenda Singapura, the Clarke Quay River Festival. This Singapore River Festival featured a series of concerts and dance happenings.

We were also treated to the musical spectacle at the new jazz bar Bellini Grande. The place featured sassy jazz singing and dancing performances accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra.

After all that, it was very nice to just walk through the rows of restaurants and chill spots by the Quay area. Boat and Clarke Quay make for a very pleasant downtime experience, a fitting end to an action-packed evening.

The next day I got my first glimpse of the racetrackÖ from way above, 165 meters above to be exact. The Singapore Flyer is a waterfront attraction that sits right smack in front of future developments in the Marina Bay Area. It is unobstructed in all directions, giving visitors a dynamic view of the Singapore cityscape. There are a total of 28 capsules that can accommodate 28 people and the duration of the ride is around 30 minutes. Opening only last April, it has given over a million people a breathtaking view of this marvelous, bustling metropolis.

From air to sea, we then took a river cruise around the city. The cruise tells the tale of Singapore ó her rising fortunes from fishing village to a busy trading port. Amid the ultra-modern, cosmopolitan background, itís really interesting to see (and ride) the vintage-looking wooden boats that were used to ferry cargo in Singaporeís historic trading port.

After a bit of history, it was time for a bit of culture. We stopped by Singaporeís Biennaleís indoor and outdoor exhibitions held at various locations including the historic city hall, South Beach Development (a cluster of Art Deco colonial buildings) and the Marina Bay Area. Biennale is a premier international contemporary visual arts event featuring 137 art works by 66 artists and art collections from over 36 countries.

A visit to the Singapore Zoo was up next. A great animal lover myself, I couldnít help but marvel the beautiful animals housed in this zoo. A moat separated me from the white tigers, polar bears, hippos, rhinos, alligators, crocodiles and, of course, lions. But the best thing about this place is instead of caging the animals, they are free to roam in an attempt to make the environment as natural as their normal habitat would be.

From the animal zoo, we moved on to a shopping safari. Singapore has always been known for great shopping. We visited the Paragon Shopping Center Atrium and strolled along the row of boutiques on Orchard Road.

We also visited two exotically interesting places: Chinatown and Little India.

There is no better way to come and celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival than in Chinatown. Chinatown was transformed into Chang Erís Magical Garden as the streets were lit up in a mesmerizing mix of flowers, lights and lanterns. There were cultural performances on the streets. Me? I think I had one too many moon cakes while watching all the shows.

If Chinatown has its Mid-Autumn Festival, Little India, on the other hand, has the Deepavali Festival. Deepavali is a festival of lights and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. It is the most important festival in the Hindu calendar. Outside the temples are bazaars of Indian outfits, jewelry and Indian delicacies.

Yet another festival was Hari Raya. Hari Raya Aidilfitri marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and is an occasion celebrated with great importance.

But as I enjoy all of these experiences, there is one festival that, for me, is the festival of all festivals: the F1 festival!

It was finally time. Saturday, qualifying round: the powerful lights were on, roads had been resurfaced, safety fences erected. There I was in the middle of all the action struggling to get a clear view. The drivers rolled out one by one, waving to the crowd. A point separated McLarenís Lewis Hamilton and Ferrariís Felipe Massa for the driver championship win. Grabbing poll position for this race meant everything to both of them.

I bit my nails until all three quarters finished, and Singapore couldnít have asked for a better and more exciting starting grid: it was 1) Massa, 2) Hamilton and 3) Raikonnen.

Sunday, race day. The stands were absolutely jam-packed. We were like sardines in a can! It was steaming hot, shrieking loud, and unbelievably crowded. And I absolutely loved it!

Three, two, oneÖ the engines revved up. Go! And the race began! Ooooh, oh yeah, uh-ohÖ oh, noÖ oh, my. This race was really one for the books. It had drama. It had comedy. Raikonnen wiped out. Massa had major bad luck as his gas hose got stuck in his car. Hamilton got ruthlessly overtaken. So, would you believe, from 15th place in the grid, former world champion Fernando Alonso of ING-Renault managed to speed through and grab the first place from nowhere! Now, thatís an historical performance for such an historical race.

So, as the race finished, parties and fun Singapore party life awoke once again. Whether on the streets, bars or clubs, it was play-hard time, the perfect end to an awesome Singapore experience.

I left the following day seeing Singapore in a totally different light, as millions of F1 spectators around the world who watched the race would agree. Singapore just went full speed ahead!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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