The forgotten Singapore Grands Prix


There were clues in its corner names: The Snakes, Devil’s Bend and The Murder Mile. Singapore’s Thomson Road circuit was not for the faint of heart.

Using sections of the new and old Upper Thomson Road that connected the city to its northern suburbs, it packed a lot into its three miles.

And much of that length was fringed by verdant equatorial forest.

The only thing between the competitors and those trees were concrete culverts of a capacity designed to cope with monsoons – plus some food vendors’ stalls and several marshals’ parked cars.

“It was the most dangerous circuit that I had driven on by that stage of my career,” says New Zealand’s Graeme Lawrence. “But that was part of its challenge.

“I was honoured – and in fact I’m still proud – to have been invited to race there by the Singapore Government, and we just got down to doing the job in the right way.”

Lawrence’s career was at a crossroads when he scored the first win of a Singapore Grand Prix hat trick in the wet of 1969. A frustrating and partial European Formula 2 campaign in a McLaren M4A entered by The Chequered Flag had been a serious knock to his aspirations.

“We were running on a shoestring and the car was not well-developed because McLaren, understandably, was concentrating on its Formula 1 car [and Can-Am],” he says. “But we bought and built another at the factory and made some modifications; I was a bit wiser by then.”

Graeme Lawrence (right) at Zolder racing in F2 in 1968

After a consistent 1969 Tasman Series campaign in January and February, during which Lawrence scored points at New Zealand’s Pukekohe and Levin, the McLaren was shipped to Asia for the Singapore and Selangor double-header.

(The latter GP was held at Malaysia’s brand new Shah Alam facility, aka Batu Tiga.)

“I was delighted to see Singapore in its original state,” says Lawrence. “I went with an open mind and fell in love with the Asian people and their culture.

“The race organisation was quite incredible, the crowd huge and the fans so enthusiastic; they respected you and appreciated you for coming from what they considered to be so far away.”

Winning both GPs no doubt helped his mood, too.

Lawrence’s presence in Singapore was indicative of the increasing ambition and international reach of a race meeting first run in September 1961.

(Subsequent iterations were rescheduled for the Easter weekend.)

Designed to promote an area in a state of flux, the maiden Orient Year GP included races for cars and bikes, and its big winners were Ian Barnwell and Chris Proffitt-White: a rubber planter from Pahang, Malaysia and an RAF technician in Aston Martin DB3S and on Honda respectively.

By 1966, however, go-ahead Singapore had split from Malayasia and reclaimed the race; it had been called the Malaysian GP from 1962-64.

Australasian influence was felt immediately when Greg Cusack led in his Brabham BT6. The local aces, however, had fitted long-range tanks for this 60-lapper and assumed the lead when the man from Queanbeyan – of subsequent Mark Webber fame – refuelled.

Cusack eventually spun out while attempting to regain the lead on a track resurfaced at a cost of $75,000 but made slippery by rain, and the win went to the Lotus 22 of Lee Han Seng.

The first Australian win wasn’t secured until 1968 – by Elfin founder Garrie Cooper – but already the presence of Tasman racers had increased the race’s professionalism and competitiveness. Although it retained Formule Libre status, mixing single-seaters with sports cars and even Lotus Cortinas was now passé.

In 1970 Lawrence brought the most exotic racing car yet seen at the peninsula’s tip: the Ferrari 246T with which he and Chris Amon had won Tasman titles.

“The track was very smooth but had a lot going on – fast corners, hairpins, etc – and luckily that Ferrari was pretty nimble,” he says.

“I was battling with my good friend Kevin Bartlett in ‘Yellow Submarine’ [an Alfa Romeo V8-powered single-seater designed and built in England for Alec Mildren’s team by Len Bailey and Alan Mann] when I ran wide at a hairpin and he slipped by.

“He led for a few laps but then his engine exploded.

“All my Singapore wins are right up there in my career – but 1971 is my favourite.

“To even things up cars had been limited to 1600cc [and two valves per cylinder] and there was a big grid as a result.

“I had a problem with the wing on my little Brabham BT29 and dropped down the field, to fourth or fifth, I think, and had to work my way back through.”

Injury denied Lawrence his attempt at making it four in a row, but he returned in 1973 and put his Surtees TS15-Ford Twin Cam on pole.

Alongside him was the March 722 of Vern Schuppan.

The latter had finished runner-up to Max Stewart’s Mildren-Waggott the year before.

”I had crashed in qualifying when something broke in the rear suspension – the car was absolutely brand new,” says Schuppan. “Luckily I hadn’t hit anything too solid and so we were able to cobble something together and I started from the back.

“I was chuffed with that result.”

Schuppan, from Booleroo Centre in South Australia, was hot property at the time, having won Britain’s inaugural Yellow Pages Formula Atlantic title of 1971 at the wheel of a works Palliser and been signed as BRM’s ‘F1 junior’ – he was 29 – for 1972.

Oddly his “fun” outing in Singapore was the first time that he had competed against his Down Under peers. A karting champion in Australia, he had defied his father and left – with new wife Jennifer and a Ford Thames van – for the UK in 1969 to chase his dream of racing cars.

Schuppan: “But they were all good guys and had read about my success in the UK and they treated me as one of their own.”

He had been particularly keen to meet Jack Brabham, present as an official guest, for it had been the future three-time world champion’s 1955 Australian GP win at Port Wakefield that had fired the schoolboy Schuppan’s imagination.

Ready to hang onto Jack’s every word, Vern was left hanging by his notoriously reticent hero.

And when finally it came… it was a ribald observation about a waitress’s physical assets.

By the time of his next Singapore visit Schuppan was coping with becoming BRM’s reserve.

Although he had finished fourth and fifth on his two F1 outings of 1972 – May’s Oulton Park Gold Cup and October’s Victory Race at Brands Hatch – and signed a contract to drive alongside Clay Regazzoni in 1973, the hiring of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and lure of Niki Lauda’s schillings had sidelined him.

“I knew that I had to be in F1 with a good team by the time I was 30 – and so I thought I’d cracked it. But when I arrived back in Australia for Christmas and picked up a Daily Express at the airport, there it was: Lauda Signs for BRM.

“I attended races with the team and did a lot of testing, something I always enjoyed – but it was a disappointment.”

In March he subbed for Regazzoni, injured at the South African GP, and qualified third behind Beltoise and Lauda for the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Unfortunately, he crashed out 13 laps from the end when running third.

He fulfilled the same role at Silverstone’s International Trophy in April and finished ninth in a car with a broken shock absorber.

These were to be his only F1 races of the season.

But that’s not to say he wasn’t busy.

Aware that he might be at a loose end at weekends he had signed with Gulf Racing as a replacement for John Watson, injured at the Race of Champions, to drive its Mirage M6 in the World Championship of Makes.

By the end of April he had already contested three rounds as co-driver to Mike Hailwood – Vallelunga, Dijon and Monza – and somehow squeezed the Singapore GP in, too.

“I got sponsorship from Singapore Airlines and they flew me and the car there and generally looked after us,” he says.

“I liked the circuit. Sure, there were lots of things you didn’t want to hit – but that’s no different from Macau or Monaco.

“What I remember most about that race is that it was very hot and humid.

“Oh, and afterwards I received a call of congratulations from a doctor friend and had to keep telling him that I couldn’t hear. My ears were buzzing.

“I took his advice and wore earplugs from that race on.”

Schuppan’s wide-nose March – it had been modified by Canadian aerodynamicist Brian Falconer – was one of three cars to lead the 50-lap race. Leo Geoghegan’s Birrana 273 dominated the early stages but had to pit and fix an electrical short – after which it set a new lap record – and Schuppan swept past Lawrence when the Surtees’ mechanical fuel pump croaked.

Schuppan had his own problem – his airbox was working loose – but held on to win by 38 seconds.

And that was that.

Though there was talk of building a permanent circuit, it was announced in October 1973 that there would be no more Singapore GPs. Safety and financial reasons were cited.

But the incredible enthusiasm for motor sport that these races had generated and fostered could not be denied forever…

Although there is day-and-night difference between then and now, Lawrence is right to point out with a chuckle that Fernando Alonso was not the first to win the Singapore GP twice.

And nor was Sebastian Vettel the first to score a hat trick, Graeme.

PS Some would say that Alonso has won it only once.

PPS Vettel was the first to win it four times.

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