Dancing with the devil

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With corners called Devils and Snakes, it’s safe to assume that the original Singapore Grand Prix was not for the faint-hearted – so it’s just as well it wasn’t run at night
By Steve Slater

The Singapore Grand Prix is without doubt one of the most dramatic additions to the Formula 1 calendar in recent years. Its spectacular city skyline and night-time floodlighting set it apart, but what is less well known is that this year’s race is far from being the first Singapore GP.

Between 1961 and 1973, a challenging road course hosted races carrying the Grand Prix title. They were regarded among the region’s prime sporting and social occasions, and attracted drivers from both Europe and the southern hemisphere. The racing, the socialising and the track itself equally fulfilled the description ‘fast and furious’.

Singapore-based historian, author and antiquarian bookshop owner Eli Solomon has spent over a decade researching the history of the race. His book Snakes & Devils is named after two of the corners on the Upper Thomson Road course. In his introduction, Eli describes the track as, “a one-of-a-kind. Flanked by monsoon drains, lined with lamp posts and often accompanied by the wettest of weather, the narrow track was by no means intended for the faint-hearted racer”. It was a track that clearly had to be explored. The question is what would be left after 35 years of inactivity?

The island state of Singapore is, at its longest and widest points, around 20 miles by 10, about the same size as the Isle of Man. But it has a population of over 4.5 million so you might expect any surplus land to have been built on years ago. Surprisingly, once you get away from the ultra-modern, high-rise city centre, larger and larger areas of greenery appear. By the time you reach Upper Thomson Road, lush equatorial foliage prevails. The road is now a main highway leading north from the city, towards Seletar where the former RAF airfield is itself another amazing survivor, still with its veranda-fronted houses and streets named Piccadilly and Pall Mall.

The first stop was a trackside rendezvous with Solomon for a typically Singaporean breakfast of roti prata, spicy curry on a dough bread washed down with teh tarik, a sweet tea with condensed milk. Joining us was David Chan and his pristine 1959 Austin Healey Sprite. Both car and owner have direct links to the Upper Thomson Road circuit. David was presented with the car on his 18th birthday and has never been parted from it. He drove the Sprite in sprint events at the track in the early ’70s, while both his father and uncle were closely involved with the Grand Prix from its outset.

David’s father had inherited the family business Eastern Autos, one of Singapore’s first car dealers, established in 1920. From 1961, the advent of the GP led to Eastern Autos acquiring a steadily more exotic selection of Aston Martins, Lotuses and Lolas, driven by David’s uncle, Chan Lye Choon, who went on to become one of Singapore’s first home-grown heroes.

Sadly, David’s family had to cope with the tragedy as well as the triumphs of the Singapore GP. His cousin Lionel Chan made his racing debut in the 1967 motorcycle Grand Prix and rapidly made his way through the ranks of saloon car racing into single-seaters. In 1971 he took part in ‘the Main Race’ for the first time in a Brabham BT16, powered by a Lotus twin-cam engine. The next year he was back in the same car, but he crashed at the entrance to the Long Loop, the fastest part of the track. The Brabham was not fitted with seat belts and even a helicopter airlift from the track couldn’t save Lionel from his head injuries. One small consolation is that following the accident, the Singapore government made seat belts compulsory for road cars.

On that sombre note, it was time to climb aboard David’s Sprite – which I noticed was not fitted with belts – for some laps of the track. While such as the grandstands and paddock facilities were always temporary and have long gone, the track itself remains largely intact – and as daunting as ever. We join at a busy road junction known as Sembawang Hills Circus. It was effectively turn one, the Circus Hairpin at the end of the long start-finish straight. As we accelerate towards it, David says, “Welcome to the Murder Mile”. I can see his point. Even in a 948cc Sprite the track is fast and the infamous storm drains, three feet wide and two feet deep, line both sides of the road. Jump those and you’d be exploring dense jungle.

A gentle rise into a fast left-hander would have been taken in fourth gear in a Formula car, then the road sweeps right, then left, then repeats the reversals in a stupendous series of esses known as The Snakes. Already we’re dropping back downhill into a tight semi-hairpin known as Devil’s Bend. You need to brake through the final part of the Snakes to get properly set up for Devils. I can see why it had a reputation for
spills that made it a favourite with spectators. Fortunately at our speed we’re safely through, but we encounter another hazard. The track runs from Devils through two left-handed kinks, then into the right-hander of the Long Loop, all of which would have been taken at well over 100mph. Today we’re brought to a standstill – by monkeys. I guess the big fella, about the size of an Alsatian dog, is called by naturalists ‘the Alpha Male’. We call him a lot of other things as he and his extended family stage a sit-down protest in the middle of the road.

“They’re waiting for food,” says Colin. “They won’t move unless they get something and they’ve learned that we run out of patience before they do.” Fortunately another member of the troop appears, having robbed a nearby rubbish bin, and they climb onto a sign saying ‘Do not feed the monkeys’ to sort the spoils.

The Long Loop was where the TV and radio stations usually parked, with a view of the downhill left-hander at Peak Bend and the entrance to the pits. From there, another tight hairpin takes you back onto the main Upper Thomson Road highway. Today the junction is controlled by traffic lights and the main road is now dual carriageway, but Colin remembers watching the faster single-seaters deliberately “lighting up their tyres” to keep their engines on cam through the slowest corner on the track.

The final section of the 3.02-mile lap, the undulating Thomson Mile, was a flat-out blast. A few hundred yards after the Range Hairpin, the cars were already pulling hard across the start-finish line and were at maximum speed as they crested a combined brow and kink known as The Hump at which many cars became airborne. Combine Spa’s Masta Kink and the Nürburgring’s Flugplatz on a kerb-lined road and you’ll get some idea. One can only imagine the speed at which the Australian Frank Matich lost control of his McLaren M10 Chevrolet Formula 5000 car in practice for the 1970 GP. The resultant altercation with a bus stop was described as “ruining his weekend”.

Lap speeds were high from the outset and rose every year. The first lap record, set at the 1961 Orient Year Grand Prix as Chan Lye Choon’s Lola-Climax vainly chased the winning Aston Martin DB3S of Ian Barnwell, was 2min 47sec, at an average of over 65mph. The final lap record was set in 1973 by Leo Geoghegan in an Australian-built Birrana Formula 2 car at a mighty 1min 54.9sec, 94.7mph. Such were the speeds approaching the Circus Hairpin that a bus stop chicane constructed from sandbags was part of the circuit until ’69. Its supposed purpose was to prevent errant cars reaching VIPs and members of the Singapore government sitting in the adjacent grandstands. One wonders whether its removal for the final four Grands Prix was prompted by political or racing considerations.

The presence of such luminaries as the President is a sign of the status that the event commanded. From the outset, the GP weekend was one of the top events in the Far Eastern social calendar – and a massive hit with local fans who, contrary to Western perceptions, were well versed in motor racing. “The area has a history of motor sport extending back to the 1920s,” says Solomon, pointing to events held in the neighbouring Malayan state of Johore, where the ruling Sultan was a keen supporter. The first GP was held in Johore in 1940, called The War Effort Grand Prix. Even after the privations of conflict in the region, Malaya’s first post-war GP was held as soon as 1949, as the Singapore Motor Club Johore Grand Prix and Road Races.

By 1959 the Singapore Motor Club’s eclectic mix of native Singaporeans, British residents and servicemen numbered over 350 members and the club was running at least one event a month. In ’61, as part of the region’s celebration of the Year of the Orient, a GP was planned on the Upper Thomson Road track. Its date would be September 15-17, two months after the Johore event and two months ahead of the Macau GP, allowing time for drivers to prepare and transport their cars. The GP weekend was about much more than the headline event. There were nine races, four of which were for motorcycles, with additional events for vintage, saloon and touring cars, sports and GT cars. The event was a huge success, with an estimated 100,000 attendees.

“The grandstand tickets cost a hefty $9, more than a week’s wages, and general access cost $1,” says Solomon. “Yet there were so many people trying to get in that at some places the corrugated fencing around the track was forced down, and at two corners the police moved in to stop any more tickets being sold – that was an hour after the first two races had begun.”

From 1962-65 the race was called Malaysian Grand Prix to distinguish it from the Johore event. Then in September 1965, Singapore achieved its independence from Malaysia. From 1966 all subsequent races would be called the Singapore Grand Prix. “Privateers made up the entire grid of the 1961 race and prize money was negligible,” says Solomon. “By ’73 there were works motorcycle and saloon car teams from Japan, the GP winner’s prize money had burgeoned to $10,000, and a large percentage of the grid were not only invited from overseas, they were fully sponsored and paid ‘start money’ by the organisers. By then it was part of an unofficial season linking the Tasman series in Australia with events in Asia, culminating in the Macau GP. The first races were run to Formula Libre rules, which meant almost anything with four wheels and an engine could compete.”

Solomon points to the variety of cars entered for the ’61 race as a clear illustration. They included a Cooper single-seater, a Warrior-Bristol, streamlined Lola-Climax, an ex-works Lotus 11 Le Mans car, with front bodywork removed to aid cooling, a 1955 Ferrari Monza, Aston Martin DB2/4 and DB3S, and the ‘Feratus’, a Lotus 15 fitted with a four-cylinder Ferrari Mondial engine. Vern Schuppan was the winner of the final ‘old’ Singapore GP in 1973. Solomon believes, however, that the golden era of the event was during the battles of a few years earlier, between Hong Kong-based Englishman John Macdonald and the New Zealand champion Graeme Lawrence. Solomon rates Macdonald as Asia’s finest racer, the winner of 18 top-level events in the Phillipines, Malaysia, Macau and Hong Kong, on both two wheels and four. But victory in the Singapore GP would always elude him (MacD did win the 20-lap preliminary race in 1971, the year Jack Brabham was a guest).

In contrast Lawrence won the race an unprecedented three times in succession. His 1969 debut was in an F2 McLaren M4A powered by a Cosworth FVA engine. As a McLaren mechanic Lawrence had helped build the car, but it was regarded by its European drivers as an ill-handling beast. Lawrence’s painstaking development paid off when he dominated a wet race. In 1970 he returned with perhaps the most charismatic car to race in the GP, the Ferrari Dino 246T which had been used that winter by Chris Amon to win the Tasman series. It took Lawrence to his second win, ahead of Macdonald’s Brabham.

In 1971, new regulations restricted engine capacity to 1½ litres, so Lawrence entered a brand-new Brabham BT30 Twin Cam. He was third on the grid, however, after Macdonald won the qualifying race in his venerable BT10, known as ‘Costin’s Mule’ because it had originally been used to develop the Cosworth FVA engine. In the 40-lap feature race Lawrence took his third win ahead of Australian John Walker. Macdonald, heavily bandaged after a motorcycle crash in Macau, was third. He’d been foiled again, but it didn’t diminish his love of the race.

“Dangerous? In those days it was no more than expected and certainly safer by far than Macau,” Macdonald told Solomon. “Monsoon drains? Yes. Bus stops? One after that lovely curve on the straight, and a few lamp posts. But none of these things got in the way and I certainly did not go looking for them!”

Insight

The dawn of another Grand Prix

Thomson Road racer Colin Syn has strived to bring F1 to Singapore

Some 35 years have passed since the last race on the Upper Thomson Road track, but there remains a direct link between the old and new Singapore Grand Prix races. Colin Syn, one of the team who have created the modern night race, was a participant in the touring car races of the early 1970s.

Colin, who today is vice-chairman of Singapore Grand Prix Limited, made his first start in the Clubmans event at the 1970 race, and competed in the final event in 1973 at the wheel of a BMW 2002 Coupé. “In the intervening years I was one of many members of the Singapore Motor Sports Federation who lobbied long and hard to bring back the Grand Prix, but Singapore, probably rightly, had other priorities,” he says.

In the late ’80s, after positive discussions with Bernie Ecclestone, he came close to the possibility of running a GP on a permanent track. “Sadly it came to nothing, but looking back, it may be a blessing in disguise and we continued to chase our dream.” The perseverance paid off in May 2007, when the Singapore GP team completed negotiations with Formula One Management to stage the 2008 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix. “I could never have thought back in 1973 that the next drivers to race BMWs on a Singapore track would be Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica,” says Colin. “It shows you should never give up on your dreams.”

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