The history of the Singapore Grand Prix

F1PPOver the past ten years, the Singapore Grand Prix has been a highlight on the Formula One Calendar. A race held under lights and around the bustling streets of Singapore, the race is a challenge – mentally, physically and technically – and one that tests every single member of the Formula One fraternity. But the current Singapore Grand Prix is not the first time that cars have raced to glory on the streets of Singapore.

The first ever Grand Prix in Singapore was held in 1961 at a street circuit called the ‘Thomson Road Circuit’. It was organised by the Singapore Motor Club and was created in partnership with the Singapore Government’s Ministry of Culture, part of a series of events called “Visit Singapore – The Orient Year”.  The campaign was devised to attract companies to Singapore and focus attention on the small island that offered plenty.

The circuit was proposed using existing roads, as the expense of creating a bespoke circuit in Singapore was deemed too high. So the route was chosen to minimise the impact to residents, whilst maximising the racing action. Thomson Road, Whitley Road, Dunearn Road and Adam Road were selected, narrowed down from a long list of potential locations with Thomson Road winning out. A circuit that would mix the best of long straights, tight hairpins and twisty winding sections through the trees. Although the location was preferred, the roads were less than ideal, so the authorities of the day greenlit an upgrade program, resurfacing and widening the roads to accommodate the racing.

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The layout for the Thomson Road Circuit. (Pic: Google Maps)

After months of preparation, in mid-September 1961 the first weekend of racing began. There was huge excitement for competitors and spectators, both local and foreign with two days of racing action in a carnival like atmosphere. In typical Grand Prix fashion, Saturday was a ‘warm up’ day for the main event, with motorcycles, vintage cars and saloons taking part in support races. There was also the chance for the main event competitors to explore the circuit, either by car or motorcycle – as many chose to do.

On Sunday two competitive races were held, one for motorcycle racers, the other for cars. There was quite a variety of competitors as Volvo, Lotus, Lola, Saab and Cooper chassis lined up on the grid, driven by famous Singaporean and Malayan racers of the day such as Rodney Seow, Chan Lye Choon, Peter Cowling, Saw Kim Thiat and Yong Nam Kee. Visiting drivers from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Hong Kong completed the entourage.

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Racing – Singapore Style. (Pic: National Archives of Singapore)

As the chequered flag dropped, the cars raced away along the Thomson Road –  a 4.8km-long circuit that had several challenging bends with nicknames such as Circus Hairpin, The Snakes, Long Loop and the Devil’s Bend – located near the entrance to the Upper Peirce Reservoir. Shaped like the letter V, the chicane tested the skills and reactions of the competitors over a series of 60 laps – a distance of approximately 286 km.

The first inaugural winner was Ian Barnwell from the United Kingdom, driving an Aston Martin DB3S.

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Ian Barnwell in his DB3S, winning the 1961 Grand Prix.

The races continued through the years and by the early seventies, the races were broadcast live on television with commentary, across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The increasing exposure, along with the challenging nature of the race began to attract  professional racers from all over the globe, with Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Britain, The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand participating together with the local drivers from the region.

The list of winners are listed as such:

1961 – Ian Barnwell, Britain (Aston Martin DB3S)
1962  – Yong Nam Kee, Singapore (Jaguar E-Type)
1963  – Albert Poon, Hong Kong (Lotus 23)
1964 – race cancelled after 5 laps due to downpours
1965  – Albert Poon, Hong Kong (Lotus 23)
1966  – Lee Han Seng, Singapore (Lotus 22)
1967  – Rodney Seow, Singapore (Merlyn F2)
1968  – Garrie Cooper, Australia (Elfin-Ford)
1969  – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (McLaren-Cosworth F2)
1970  – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (Ferrari V5)
1971  – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (Brabham BT30)
1972  – Max Stewart, Australia (Mildren)
1973  – Vern Schuppan, Australia (March 722)

At the end of the 1973 event, Singapore called time on their race citing safety as the main reason. Despite their best efforts, several high profile fatal accidents occurred with as many as seven drivers being killed between 1963 and 1973. In reality, the cars had outgrown the tight and twisty circuit and with several sections needing expensive updating, the decision was made to shelve the event.

The Singapore Grand Prix did not make a comeback in Singapore until 35 years later.

It is worth noting that whilst the Grand Prix was held in Singapore, it wasn’t officially called the Singapore Grand Prix for some time. The race was initially known as the Orient Year Grand Prix, the following year it was renamed the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, after Singapore attained its independence in 1965, the race at the was officially renamed the Singapore Grand Prix.

Enjoy this documentary of the 1966 race – with some rather interesting music and newsreel voiceover:

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