Singapore, approximately 9000 miles away from the UK where many of the drivers, teams and mechanics started their journey only a few days earlier. Being the only night race on the calendar, Singapore certainly throws almost everything into a whole new perspective when it comes to staying on European time. Everything is turned almost upside down as breakfast is served at lunchtime, dinner happens at 3am and lunch? I’m not even sure when lunch happens, at dinner time? Either way, things here are a world apart from other races and it is vital that not only the drivers, but the whole team can adapt to the race schedule and remain on top form.
Today I met one such man who aims to do just this. Heinrich Grafe is the General Manager of the Conrad Centennial Singapore Hotel (part of Hilton Worldwide), set in the heart of the Marina Bay street circuit. Heinrich has spent the last 14 years managing the hotel and his passion for Formula One shines through when you ask him what he thought when he found out 5 years ago that Singapore would be hosting the sport.
“It’s fantastic. Singapore needed something and this is it. What a fantastic sport, right here in the heart of Marina Bay!”
The Conrad Centennial Singapore is the hotel of choice for the entire Vodafone Mercedes McLaren Formula One Team, from Ron Dennis to Lewis and Jenson to the mechanics to the hospitality managers. That’s a lot of people. And a lot of people to keep on European time whilst also ensuring that anyone else staying in the hotel who isn’t part of the F1 crowd enjoys their stay in Singaporean time. With 507 rooms and each one occupied this is no walk in the park.
When asked if other teams stay in the hotel, Heinrich says “You can only dance at one wedding. In order to do a fantastic job and give the ultimate support, we cater for one team. This doesn’t mean we don’t find other team drivers, bosses and mechanics having catch ups or meetings in our 24 hour restaurant at 4am! Everyone is welcome to use our facilities here and as we are the only hotel in the bay to ‘stay open’ 24 hours a day, many do. We know it is vital that the teams stay on European time so we manage the race weekend in a shift pattern, ensuring that chefs and catering staff are working around the clock to provide food and refreshments whenever it is required. With a driver tending to get up at 2pm, we need to make sure that breakfast is still available and with them coming back to the hotel at anything up to 5 or 6am, that good cooked food is on hand.”
One thing I’m still getting used to is saying “good morning” at three in the afternoon. This must be even more confusing for Heinrich who I have witnessed spends most of his time in the lobby greeting guests. Does the man ever sleep?
“Yes, I sleep Wednesday to Thursday”, laughs Heinrich. “The weekend I am too busy with ensuring the hotel is running smoothly for all guests, all time zones and as a fan of the sport myself, getting caught up in the magic of the race weekend. There is a time and place for sitting at computers. When asked where my office is, I say ‘here, this is my office, the front of the hotel, seeing my guests’, visibility is key in ensuring guests feel welcome and can feedback to me personally, I take it very seriously.”
Joining Heinrich in the lobby currently is a covered limited Singapore edition McLaren MP4-12C, of which there are only 3 produced and that will be unveiled later this evening to guests and other interested locals in Marina Bay.
“Did you see us trying to get that in yesterday? We had to take the mirrors off and in the end, the doors of the hotel off! We like to get involved in the sport, the hotel is a hive of activity, excitement and anticipation for the motorsport weekend and we try to join in as much as we can.”
Heinrich mentions the Hilton HHonors loyalty programme, the reason I am out here in Singapore and how many people have got to Marina Bay this weekend through its points scheme.
“Fifty percent of our guests at any time are members and we are often happy to upgrade them here. With fantastic initiatives like the Double Dip, some people have actually got to Singapore this race weekend using their points with airline companies, it’s fantastic. That and being able to stay for free with the reward points too, all you need to buy is your race ticket!”
There are many hotels dotted around the marina but when asked about competition, Heinrich has a wonderful response.
“Our biggest competition, is not the hotels around us that you see, our biggest competition, is your home. If we can’t make you feel at home here then we’ve failed. Many of the McLaren team staff spend days, weeks and often months away from home, the least we can do is try to match it. The hotel itself is the hardware, what we provide here is the software. We want you to feel as comfortable as you would in your own castle.”
What wonderful insight from a man that works so hard to keep McLaren on race-ready time. I leave Heinrich in the hotel lobby which at this point is a sea of McLaren shirts and before I know it he’s shaking hands with a new guest.