The inaugural Singapore Grand Prix took place in 2008, quickly becoming a fan favourite due to the spectacular night-time racing under the lights of the unique Marina Bay Street Circuit. Janette Tan has been working with the Grand Prix for many years and was instrumental in the creation of the Race Operations department, becoming the Senior Manager. I spoke to her about her start in volunteering, working in F1 and the honour of being the first recipient of the Charlie Whiting Award.
Although she wasn’t interested in racing as a child, in her mid-teens Janette became a fan, inspired by some of the sport’s greats such as Ayrton Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio. “I have been watching Formula One since I was 15 years old. I do watch a little of the English Premier League, but I’ve lost touch ever since I started working at the Singapore GP,” she said. Her start in motorsport was quite unexpected, with her in fact never intending to go on to work in the industry at all. After signing up as a volunteer at a race, she went on to climb the ladder, working on larger events. “I never thought of making a career in sports until the opportunity came up in 2008. I was content being a volunteer for local motorsport events,” Janette explained.
Her volunteering began after she joined a car club in 2004 following the purchase of her first car. “I got to know some friends who were involved in organising Sprint and Gymkhana events. I answered the call to be a timekeeper one weekend and was appointed Chief Timekeeper in my first event. It was nerve-wracking,” she told me. Janette started working as a volunteer at many motorsport events, going on to become the Volunteer Manager at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. From here, she moved to the Singapore Sports Council doing a similar role. “Back then, it was important to set up a volunteer management structure and to create training materials, so that was my core job scope,” she said. Following the Singapore Sports Council’s contract ending with the Grand Prix, Janette and many of her colleagues returned to working for the Singapore Grand Prix directly, setting up the Race Operations department.
Following the creation of the department in 2010, Janette became the Senior Manager for Race Operations. Encompassing many areas, her role is extremely varied. “I oversee the Race Operations department so anything related to the racing aspect of the event comes under my department. Volunteer management still takes up a large part of my job. My department retains, recruits and trains about 900 race officials every year in preparation for the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. I head the training committee; I’m also the Deputy Chair of the Race Organising Committee and I am the main liaison to the Formula One Race Director. Part of my job also requires me to work very closely with the other departments like Security and Technical (circuit building), to ensure the smooth execution of the event,” she said.
When it comes to the race weekend itself, her main role is as the Deputy Clerk of the Course. “On top of all the coordination work, I am also involved in overseeing the support races and running of the Formula One sessions,” Janette described.
Having worked with the GP since the first F1 Grand Prix was held at the Marina Bay Street Circuit in 2008, Janette has seen the race become a staple on the Formula One calendar. Speaking of this, she said: “the staff and volunteers work very hard every year to present a world class Grand Prix, so to be classified as a staple on the F1 calendar with the likes of Monaco is something we are very proud of.” What sets the Singapore Grand Prix apart from others is that the race is held in the dark. It was the inaugural night race held by Formula One, with there now being another two (Bahrain and Abu Dhabi) on the calendar. Although the Singapore Grand Prix has always been held at night, and so there haven’t been any extra complications in terms of moving from day to night, the conditions do present unique difficulties. “While the challenges are definitely different from a permanent circuit, seeing the cars running under the dazzling lights makes all our efforts worthwhile,” the Race Operations Senior Manager said.
Janette’s career success was marked earlier this year when the FIA announced that she would be the inaugural recipient of the newly created Charlie Whiting Award. To honour the late F1 Race Director, who was one of the most admired, respected and influential people in the sport, the governing body created the award, and in February 2020, Whiting’s children and FIA President Jean Todt presented Janette with the accolade. “I was very happy and very, very honoured,” she told me. “I had the privilege to work with Charlie and Herbie (Blash) since the beginning of the Singapore Grand Prix and both of them have been instrumental in helping us in getting to where we are today. Although I was very surprised when President Todt called my name at the award ceremony, I feel very happy to win a prize in Charlie’s name, although I also feel a certain pressure to perform well now!” As the Deputy Clerk of the Course, the award has even led some to speculate that she may one day become a Race Director herself. However, Janette was keen to say that none of this would’ve been possible without the help and nomination from the Motorsports Singapore President, Mr. Lee Lung Nien, and General Secretary, Mr. Nick Syn.
Winning the Charlie Whiting Award is undoubtedly her career highlight, however others that rank highly include being the Clerk of the Course for a TCR race, in which she also became one of the first females to be named in this role. Speaking of other memorable moments, she explained: “we took over the entire race operations in 2009 and made the event happen given our limited experience. In 2010, we took a different approach to our recovery operations and decided to put volunteers in the cranes instead, with many weekends of training, the system worked out very well. In recent years, there have been many challenges that we have overcome, but running a short 12 lap TCR race with two safety cars and recovering six cars as the Clerk of the Course was not easy for sure.”
With the highs come the lows, and so throughout Janette’s career she has experienced difficulties, though often some of the biggest challenges have led to career highlights, such as being named Clerk of the Course. “Being a woman in motorsport definitely has its challenges but I have been blessed to work with very understanding and supportive colleagues, volunteers and officials. The first few years of the Grand Prix were also not easy given our limited experience so getting the race operations off the ground in two years was the greatest challenge thus far,” she told me.
Having played a key role in the progression of the Singapore Grand Prix and the development of its Race Operations department, Janette Tan has seen it grow from being the inaugural F1 night race to becoming a staple on the Formula One calendar. Her advice for anyone wanting to work in the motorsport industry is all about working hard, something which she and her team have had to do to produce one of the most exciting Grands Prix in F1. “Work hard,” Janette advised. “Don’t be afraid to put in long hours because hard work can reward you beyond your imagination.”
(Heading photo credit: FIA)