The Singapore Grand Prix was a typical South-East Asian cocktail of single-seaters, sports and saloons on a challenging road circuit. Eli Solomon looks back
Common myth has it that before the Sepang Formula One grand prix in Malaysia, there was nothing in South-East Asia to call a proper race. The roulette player had the Macau casino, Suzie Wong was the girl in the next bar and a-go-go was the rage in music. But behind the corrugated iron there existed a world of Castrol R and acetone, colour and noise, snakes and devils — and racing.
Motor racing in Singapore took off in a big way with the first grand prix in 1961. Called the Orient Year Grand Prix, it was held on a stretch of Upper Thomson Road. In ’62 the race was renamed the Malaysian GP, until Singapore gained independence in ’65. The new country ran its own event from ’66 while Malaysia held two events, one timed around the Singapore race near Easter and called the Malaysian GP, and another in September labelled the Selangor GP. So the racing season in Asia would begin at Macau in November, move to Australia and New Zealand with the Tasman Cup, and return to South East Asia with back-to-back races in Singapore, Johore, Selangor and Penang, followed by Japan.
The inaugural Orient Year GP was held over the weekend of September 15-17 1961 and an overenthusiastic crowd meant that ticket sales were halted by the police an hour after the races had begun. The main event, for sports and racing cars, had a mixed grid of everything from a Cooper single-seater to a Warrior Bristol — the race also pitted the strengths of a new streamlined Lola-Climax with long-range tanks, a 1955 Ferrari 500 Spider, a Lotus 15 with the ex-Jan Bussell Ferrari Mondial engine shoehorned into it, an Aston Martin DB3S and a Lotus Le Mans works car.
The 60-lap Grand Prix was won by Ian Barnwell in the Aston (which had also won in Macau in 1958). Saw Kim Thiat (who had last raced in the ’53 Johore Grand Prix!) had led for most of the race in the ex-Peter Heath Lotus-Climax 11 but suffered overheating problems. Saw, however, set fastest lap at 2mins 47secs, a lap time that would be bettered each year until it fell below the two-minute mark 10 years later.
The event was renamed the First Malaysian Grand Prix the following April. Motorbikes dominated the event with 83 entries, and the track had been widened by a few feet and completely resurfaced with ‘Barbergreen’. The 1962 event also saw the first Formula Junior appearance: Chan Lye Choon’s Lotus 22 received a lot of attention, but it was a Jaguar E-type that would dominate in the hands of local boy Yong Nam Kee (known affectionately to friends as Fatso Yong).
It was from 1963 that the GP in Singapore really featured in the world motor racing programme. Jaguar’s dominance was being eroded and there were 12 Lotus cars compared to seven E-types. While those battles raged all weekend, the Japanese quietly slipped into the country with their ‘works’ entries — 10 600cc Mitsubishi cars for the saloon and tourer race.
Hong Kong’s Albert Poon won the event in his Team Harper-backed Lotus 23, with Yong Nam Kee second in his lightened E-type after a thrilling duel between the two for over half the race. Arthur Owen, the British Hillclimb champion, had gearbox troubles but still finished fifth in his Cooper-Climax. Owen would have a 1980cc Brabham-Climax BT8A for the 1964 running.
That ’64 event featured the largest entry to date of foreign competitors in the East, but tragedy struck. By the third lap, three of the fastest cars had been wrecked and a course marshal killed, and the race was rained out after seven laps. But Asia was now seen as a stopover between Australia and the European racing season, the grid increasingly becoming the domain of the single-seater.
For 1965, however, the only overseas competitors were Hong Kong drivers Albert Poon and Steve Holland, both racing under Richard Wong Wai Hong’s Racing Organisation. The press speculated that the drop in foreign entries was due to the Singapore government’s waning interest in holding such high-publicity events in light of the confrontation with Indonesia (which ended in ’66 after the overthrow of Sukarno).
Richard Wong had not just sponsored Poon and Holland with the latest Lotus 23, but had brought in some of the most exotic machinery ever seen in Asia, including the ex-Hamilton Porsche 906 Carrera Spyder, which would run in 1968. Poon, who referred to Wong as ‘The Wallet’, had also been planning to do the TAR Circuit race in Selangor, with Wong proposing that if Poon “can make it, my team will import the latest Lotus — the V8 35 — for him to drive.” The Lotus V8 never did materialise, but Poon did race with his Lotus 23B.
From 1966 to ’73 the Singapore Grand Prix in the newly independent state became the main racing event on the local calendar each Easter. The 3.023-mile street circuit was a challenge — its narrow 24ft width offered little run-off area in a sport that was increasingly seeing faster speeds.
Australian Vern Schuppan and British-born Hong Kong man Joint Macdonald both loved it. Never one to mince his words, Macdonald describes the track: “Flowing? In places, but hairpins were not exactly flowing. Dangerous? In those days no more so than expected and certainly safer by far than Macau. Monsoon drains? Yes. Bus stops? One after that lovely curve on the straight, and a few lamp posts. None of these things got in the way and I did not go looking for them!”
Singapore’s first International Grand Prix saw Lee Han Seng back in the Lotus 22, Rodney Seow in an ex-1962 works FJunior Merlyn Mk7, with 1.5-litre Cosworth power, four fuel tanks and a shark nose, and Macdonald in the ex-Hegbourne Cooper FJ. Favourite to win was Australian Greg Cusack in a Brabham BT6 FJ, but the locals were ahead of the game with larger tanks for the 60-lap race, something Cusack had not prepared for.
Lee Han Seng won the race in record time followed by Seow’s Merlyn and Tony Goodwin’s Lotus 20B. Cusack set the lap record, but on lap 42 his Brabham spun into an embankment and was damaged. A total of eight track marshals aided in extricating the car out of the ditch at Long Loop and Cusack managed to struggle on. Another competitor commented that Cusack “had turned up and just made a mincemeat of absolutely everything, then lost it in the biggest way and went home.”
There was nothing Formula Junior about the Grand Prix any more and in 1967 Seow won in his new Merlyn Mk10 with a Cosworth 1600 Twin Cam. Seow also made his mark by winning the sports and GT race with an Elva-BMW Nerus.
It was not until 1968 that Australian constructors started to venture to South-East Asia. Garrie Cooper of Elfin Cars won the Grand Prix that year in his Elfin 600C with a Ford Twin Cam. “Nobody had ever heard of Elfins,” said Aussie racer/constructor Frank Matich in Legends of Speed by Bill Woods. “I remember his mechanics sent Ron Tauranac [of Brabham] a telegram of the result. Ron sent a telegram back which read, ‘What’s an Elfin?’ They sent another telegram saying, ‘A quick pixie!’.
Cooper had also suggested that the Singapore GP be confined to racing cars, for qualifying times to limit the number of entrants and for a reduction in the number of laps from 60 to 50. Someone must have listened, as subsequent years saw the main race run as two heats of 20 and 40 laps over different days.
Local racers were increasingly sidelined by foreigners, who were backed by the big sponsors, and 1967 would be the last year a local won the GP. In ’69 Kiwi Graeme Lawrence won in his McLaren-FVA M4A amid some very powerful machinery. Cooper raced his Elfin-Repco V8 600C, which the locals thought was an F1 car, while Roly Levis had a Brabham-FVA BT23C and Macdonald was in what was called a ‘new’ Brabham-FVA BT10, “new to everyone but built in 1964,” according to Macdonald. This was the ex-Mike Costin Cosworth FVA mule.
For the 1970 Singapore GP Matich arrived in Rothmans team livery with his McLaren-Chevy M10 F5000 that had recently won the NZ GP, while the Australian Alec Mildren juggernaut consisted of Kevin Bartlett in the ‘Yellow Submarine’ (the Alfa V8-powered Mildren-Waggott which had won the ’69 Macau GP), Max Stewart with the 2-litre Rennmax Mildren-Waggott, and Malcolm Ramsay, now with the ex-Cooper Elfin 600. Mildren was there to supervise, as was Merv Waggott, designer of the Waggott engine. Not to be outdone, Poon had the ex-Piers Courage Brabham-FVA BT30. While Manch wrecked his M10 in practice doing 160mph on the Thomson Straight, Lawrence went on to take his first win in Singapore in the ex-Amon Ferrari Dino 246T.
Lawrence made it two out of two in 1971 with his Brabham-FVC BT29 against formidable competition. The big change was that the single-seaters now had to follow Australian F2/Formula B rules, so FVAs and BDAs were out. This allowed Bob Birrell to run a Hawke DL2A Formula Ford that Birrell says “understeered like a pig on wet grass, never using the same bit of grass twice”. The car finished seventh and Birrell was the first Singapore resident to finish.
The new rules meant that single-seater racing would become the domain of the professional and semi-professional. Stewart arrived in the Mildren-Waggott in 1972 — not only would it be the first time he finished a race in Asia, he would win it as well.
There was a good cast that year, with Bartlett, Schuppan and Macdonald, who had the ex=Graham Hill Brabham BT36 with a Rondel nose. Sonny Rajah “had struck up a partnership with the ex-Ronnie Peterson March 712M” that he had recently acquired. Rajah was the local hero and looked the part with his long hair and Zapata moustache. But to gain admittance into a country where long hair was associated with drugs, he had resorted to using a short-hair wig! A fellow competitor once remarked: “He had brilliant car control but someone other than bullshit artists had to take him in hand! Natural talent and character to boot.”
Singapore’s last GP was held in 1973 and was won by Schuppan in a March-Ford 722. Schuppan vividly remembers the monsoon drains on the circuit: “It was a fast, flowing circuit — a lovely race track. No one talked about lack of run-off area because we were so young then.” Of Schuppan, Macdonald said: “Vern, of course, got to the top but probably never reached the absolute top because he’s too darned straightforward, nice, honest and all those other good things that come up all too rarely.”
Macdonald was another favourite and had a brand new Brabham BT40 delivered to him in Singapore ahead of the race. Macdonald said the BT40 was a “magic car with a big ‘hue…” The team had a terrible time of it with fuel pick-up problems. A letter to Bernie Ecclestone, who by that time owned Brabham, resulted in a PR reply to say he was behind them all the way! Once sorted, the car was a prolific winner in Asia.
In the race Schuppan was leading Malcolm Ramsay’s Birrana when the March kicked up some rocks, resulting in a punctured fuel tank for the Birrana. Angus Lamont, who assisted Macdonald, remembers this incident very well: “Malcolm soldiered on until the pain of the petrol burning his balls forced him to retire.” In reference to how lightweight the Birrana was built, Macdonald said: “The car was full of holes — it was as if somebody had levelled a machine gun against it.” Fittingly, Leo Geoghegan’s Birrana 273-007, the works car, set the final lap record for the circuit.
The demise of racing in Singapore was somewhat sudden given the level of publicity and government backing. The social and economic issues (the oil shock and terrifyingly rapid infrastructure growth) that the country was facing may have contributed to this, although a permanent track had been proposed which would have included an all-sports complex too. This never did materialise. The Macau Grand Prix, of course, would thrive, but after 13 years this was the end for Singapore’s big race.