“It was lovely and fast-flowing, a wonderful and challenging circuit, and so gratifying when you manage to put it all together. You never ever thought, ‘‘Ooo’, what if I go down there?’”
Australian Vern Schuppan, the last winner of the Singapore Grand Prix, unfazed by all the hype about the treacherous monsoon drains, bus stops and concrete markers which ran along the Upper Thomson Road street circuit.
The first Singapore Grand Prix, held in 1961 on Upper Thomson and Old Upper Thomson Road, consisted of a Grand Prix for sports and racing cars and just eight support races, including a Grand Prix for motorcycles. By the last Grand Prix in 1973, the weekend featured main events for both motorcycles and single-seater race cars and 14 support races. Imagine hosting 14 support events and two Grands Prix today!
Negligible prize money was paid out in the first Grand Prix. By 1973, the first place Grand Prix winner received SGD10,000 (~£1,700), while the winner of the Motorcycle Grand Prix took home SGD7,000. Then newly-established Singapore Airlines (title sponsor for this year’s Formula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore) had forked out SGD120,000 worth of complimentary tickets for the international competitors, to the dismay of local drivers.
OVER THE YEARS
During the initial years of the Grand Prix, reliability of the race cars was a major issue for many of the entrants. The race covered over 180 punishing miles in typical high temperatures and humidity, and often in torrential rain as well. Large-engined sports cars came out tops in 1961 and 1962, with English planter Ian Barnwell winning in an Aston Martin DB3S in 1961 and Singaporean Yong Nam Kee winning in a Jaguar E-Type Roadster in 1962.
The fastest lap of the 3.023 mile (4.865km) circuit in the first Singapore Grand Prix was 2 minutes 47 seconds, set by popular and debonair car importer and racer Chan Lye Choon in his Lola Mk1 Climax FWE. The Lola was equipped with long-range fuel tanks for the lengthy race. A race of attrition, the overall winner was however Barnwell from Temerloh in Malaysia in his Aston Martin DB3S (that Chan had imported to Singapore in the mid-1950s). When the last race was run in 1973 (circuit unchanged but sans the chicane before the first hairpin), Australian Leo Geoghegan had lowered the record to just 1 minute 54.9 seconds in his Australian-made “light as a feather” Birrana 273. The Birrana would have overtaken the Lola Mk1 in 1961 on every third lap! In the course of 13 years, engine output had doubled from around 77 bhp per litre for the winning 2922cc Aston Martin in 1961 to 150 bhp per litre when Australian Vern Schuppan won in his wide-track March 722 in 1973.
The first Grand Prix race was run as Formula Libre for sports and racing cars, permitting all manner of cars. There were Cooper double-knocker Nortons, Austin and Morris Minis, E-Type Jaguars, an ERA R2A, and the local Specials such as the Ferratus and the B.B. Special. The first major rule change was implemented in 1971 when engine capacity and valve train were respectively limited to 1600cc and two valves per cylinder for the Grand Prix. Sports cars were still permitted but discouraged, and limited to a maximum of 2-litres. These rules effectively excluded the big-banger Can-Am and Formula 5000 ground-pounders. The twisty circuit was simply unsuitable for the speeds of these cars and F1 machinery. The only Formula 5000 car, a McLaren M10A Traco-Chevy, that arrived in Singapore destroyed a bus stop during practice in the 1970 Grand Prix.
The poultry was not spared during Grand Prix fever. It was a well-known phenomenon that had the farmers of Upper Thomson Road throw up their hands in despair when their chickens in the farms dotted along the circuit stopped laying eggs two weeks before each race weekend from the noise of cars and motorbikes doing their test runs before the event.
THE WORST GRAND PRIX
The popularity of sports car racing in the 1960s meant that the first five years of the Singapore Grand Prix were dominated by these cars. The exception was in 1964, where the race was aborted due to atrocious weather while a young local driver Rodney Seow was demonstrating how it would have been done in his ex-Works Merlyn Mk5/7 single-seater. It turned out to be a Grand Prix to forget.
That weekend, the popular 1961-winning Aston Martin DB3S eliminated itself in practice; a Jaguar E-Type hit a course marshal, killing him; and before the starter could unfurl his flag an hour and a half after the scheduled start, Singaporean Lee Han Seng, the favourite in a Lotus 22, had an off into the monsoon drain in his enthusiasm. Frantic jumping on bent trailing arms made little difference to the suspension on the starting grid, and the car was out cold, leaving Rodney Seow (in his Merlyn Mk5/7) to battle it out with Hong Kong Police Inspector Albert Poon’s Lotus 23 and former British Hill Climb champion Arthur Owen’s Brabham BT8 Climax.
By the fifth lap, three fast cars – John Wright’s E-Type, Bill Wyllie’s Lotus 23 and Alan Bond’s Lotus 23B – had been wrecked, all along “Murder Mile”, the infamous stretch leading to the Circus Hairpin that caused many a humbling exit from the race. The death toll amounted to two that weekend.
As horsepower to weight ratios rose, it seemed that the single-seater would rule the roost. When Albert Poon won in a Lotus 23B in 1965, it was by sheer mastery of the car and circuit. It was the last time a sports car won the Grand Prix in Singapore.
Over the 13 Grand Prix years, Lotus cars chalked up the most wins of any manufacturer with three Grand Prix victories in 1963, 1965 and 1966 by a Lotus 23, 23B and a Lotus 22 single-seater respectively. After 1966, no manufacturer won the coveted Grand Prix trophy more than once. By 1973, Lotus cars had achieved 12 overall race wins, including in the various support races. Ford-derived engines dominated the entire period, winning in all but 1961, 1962 and 1971. In all but the 1961, 1962 and 1971 races, four-cylinder engines triumphed.
Two drivers enjoyed multiple wins in the Singapore Grand Prix. Graeme Lawrence triumphed three years running, in 1969, 1970, and 1971, and may have made it four out of four had he not missed the event in 1972 due to injury. It was not a stroll in the park for the very likable triple-double (Singapore and Selangor Grands Prix) winner. Driving his McLaren M4A FVA in 1969 was, to quote the Kiwi, “like trying to dance with an octopus on a tight wire.” It was a battle with fellow Kiwi Roly Levis’ bi-winged Brabham BT23C that year, the Brabham clearly the faster car over both the Selangor and Singapore weekends. Aero-aids were the in-thing and sported by the McLaren and Brabham single-seaters. Neither the Porsche Carrera 906 Spyder nor the big-banger Lola T70 Spyder sports cars could touch the Kiwi pair. Winning the Singapore Grand Prix and Selangor Grand Prix at Shah Alam was the first of Lawrence’s consecutive triple-doubles. Gone by then was the gentleman racer and clubman atmosphere; racing had become serious business for the driver and for the country hosting the race.
Albert Poon, Hong Kong Police Inspector turned Alfa Romeo importer, won the Singapore Grand Prix twice, in 1963 and 1965. Poon also dominated the Saloon & Tourer races as well, winning on four occasions. There was serious competition, even amongst friends. Recalling his conversation with then colleague John Macdonald, one of Asia’s top racing drivers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he regaled: “Old John Mac never used to eat at the police mess. I was an instructor, so one day, I went over and asked him why. He said he was saving money. ‘What for?’ I asked. He said it was for a race car. ‘Ah, you want to race,’ I said. ‘Yes, so I can beat you,’ John Mac said.”
CARS THE STARS
Over the years, many interesting and internationally-known cars made it to Singapore for the annual Grand Prix. Many were already in the region, owned by members of the Commonwealth forces and planters: Lotus Elevens, ERAs, a Ferrari Tipo 500, a Warrior Bristol, an Aston Martin DB3S, a Jaguar D-Type, numerous XK120 Jaguars and many others. Many had prior international race history, such as Malayan planter Barry Swann’s ERA R2A, local industrialist Richard Wong’s Porsche 906, Graeme Lawrence’s Ferrari Dino 246T and John Macdonald’s Brabham BT10, known affectionately to many as “Costin’s Mule”. Others were adaptations and home-built Specials, very popular in the region throughout the 1950s.
One such adaption originated from a Lotus 15 imported from the UK. Mindful that the Lotus Elevens and Lola Mk1s were starting to dominate local racing, architect Stanley Leong abandoned his Ferrari 2-litre-engined S.L. Ferrari (an MGA-chassis 250 TR-lookalike) in favour of an early Lotus 15. In went the temperamental 2-litre 4-cylinder Ferrari Mondial engine along with the MGA gearbox. The troublesome and short-lived Lotus-Ferrari instantly transformed into the “Ferratus”.
The ex-Alan Hamilton Porsche 906 Spyder that Richard Wong imported was said to be the most expensive car on the island in 1968, and was one of the fastest when it arrived on Singapore’s shores. Albert Poon, who referred to Wong as “The Wallet”, was totally taken by the experience of driving it: “A terrific car! At that time, when you were using all these lousy Lotus, here comes a Porsche. My God, it out-corners the Lotus. It has so much power. Normally, you put your foot down…Brmmmmm seven-grand, change gear, brmmmmm seven-grand. This car, you put your foot down…zip seven-grand, zip seven-grand. Quad-cam engine. Beautiful!” Sadly, it arrived just as aerodynamics increased single-seater road holding beyond what the sports car was capable of around Upper Thomson Road.
Brabhams were also a popular choice when it came to racing in South East Asia. During the decade between the late 1960s and 1970s, Brabham race cars amassed over 20 outright Grand Prix wins in Macau, Penang, Philippines, Selangor and Singapore, a phenomenal record for a race car manufacturer. John Macdonald’s Brabham BT10, one of nearly 30 Brabhams that raced in Asia, had already been successfully campaigned by Brian Hart, Mike Costin and Chris Meek before Macdonald raced it in Singapore in 1969. “Costin’s Mule” required some fettling before it was tropicalized for the local clime. On the installation of the additional aluminium fuel tanks to the sides of the car, Macdonald shot: “Do you want to be safe or do you want to race?…When we got the car, the underbody just weighed a bloody ton and a half… How light can we get it? We’ve got to compete with Birranas and the like. So in the end, we threw the underbody away and made one up out of aluminium.” The front wings, attached by a broomstick and rubber bands, were abandoned as well.
There were Australian cars that few had heard of, like the first Birranas designed by Tony Alcock (who later worked for Graham Hill’s Embassy Formula 1 team) for Malcom Ramsay. Ramsay’s early Birranas were, according to Macdonald, “light as a feather…and we didn’t realize how much lightness was added until we saw the bullet holes in front of Malcolm’s car…The marbles, presumably kicked up by a car in front, went straight through Malcolm’s car…The car was full of holes…as if somebody had levelled a sub-machine gun against it.” Leo Geoghegan’s Birrana 273 set the course record around the Singapore Grand Prix circuit in 1973.
SUPERB ORGANISATION, BAD CONDITIONS
An icon of Asian motor sports, Albert Poon always had praise for the organisers of the local Grand Prix, despite the often gruelling conditions. “The Singapore Grand Prix, I tell you, is the best-organised race meeting in all my life. On arrival at the airport, there’s always somebody there to meet you. The organisation was superb; the conditions were appalling. We knew exactly what was going on; the races started exactly on time. The paddock was muddy, no shade whatsoever. Hot. But well-organised. No hassles from the customs. The first time I had the Lotus 23…they let me test the car on the road…I drove it around town with trade plates taped to the body. They said, ‘Why don’t you just drive the car back to the hotel?’” Graeme Lawrence had a similar story to tell of his McLaren M4A.
Fatalities were a downside to racing on street circuits such as the Upper Thomson Road Circuit. “Every year, somebody got killed…Every year! Without fail! Absolutely unbelievable! Anywhere on the circuit! One time on the straight, one time at the chicane, one time up on the hill. And this time , the Government says that if somebody gets killed, no more Grand Prix. Everybody’s been briefed not to kill ourselves,” recalled Poon with a straight face.
Dickie Arblaster, who worked for Wearnes subsidiary, Federated Motors, in Singapore, was very much part of the motor sports establishment. A keen competitor and the first to promote the Mini in competition in South East Asia, he was also heavily involved in the promotion of the sport in Singapore and one of the few who opened his workshop to the international competitors. For many years, his circuit duties during the Grand Prix involved radio and TV commentary work. Arblaster summed up his thoughts on those halcyon days of Grand Prix racing in Singapore: “We had been running a successful meeting for 13 years, so the whole organisational infrastructure was there, you just flicked the switch, everybody knew what they’ve got to do, it wasn’t like starting from scratch as it had been in 1961 when it was…a slog.” Nothing’s changed.
Words by Eli Solomon
Photos from Singapore Rare Books LLP & Rewind Media Pte Ltd