Singapore GP newsletter 2008-09-16

SNAKES, DEVILS AND THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON New Singapore race revives motor sport memories from 60s and 70s The 2008 FORMULA 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix may be the island-state s first race to count towards the world s premier motor racing ...


New Singapore race revives motor sport memories from 60s and 70s

The 2008 FORMULA 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix may be the island-state s first race to count towards the world s premier motor racing category but it is not the first Grand Prix in Singapore s history.

As a recent publication1 reminds us, Singapore was one of the central venues in motor racing in south-east Asia from 1961 to 1973. The book s intriguing title, Snakes and Devils, comes from the circuit on which some of the biggest names in regional motor sport competed over a period of 13 years.

The circuit on which those racers of yesteryear thrilled large Singapore crowds is still there in outline, says author Eli Solomon, a trained historian and keen competitor in historic motor racing: It was in the north of the island in the catchment area known as Upper Thomson. The track is still essentially the same: the back straight is exactly as it was before. It was a winding circuit with hairpins, monsoon drains, bus stops, lamp-posts and if you ask [Australian driver] Frank Matich he ll tell you how he pulverized a bus stop in practice!

It was a street circuit, measuring 3.023 miles or 5.067 kilometres, which means it was roughly similar in length to the new circuit at Marina Bay, which measures 5.067km or 3.148 miles.

Upper Thomson was a circuit of the proverbial two halves: one a very fast, mile- long stretch that incorporated the Start/Finish line, the other a combination of esses Snakes and hairpins one known as Devil s Bend from which Solomon s book takes its title.

As our separate feature explains, the new street circuit is also expected to be very fast in places over 300 km/h, in fact and boasts several unique features of its own, including the famous Anderson Bridge.

The earlier races mirrored Singapore s socio-political history. Known as the Singapore Grand Prix in 1961, which was also dubbed Year of the Orient , the event changed names to the Malaysia Grand Prix until 1965, when Singapore broke away from the Malaysian Federation to become an independent city-state.

We can divide the history of the Singapore Grand Prix into two periods, says Solomon. For the first, until 1970, it was essentially a clubman series where everyone knew everyone and went out to have a bit of fun. But from 1971 it became much more professional, with the influx of large numbers of racing drivers from Australia and New Zealand, and the growth of sponsorship that tended to marginalize local competitors.

Until 1970 Singapore s Grand Prix part of a south-east Asian circuit that included venues like Shah Alam and Penang was run under the auspices of the Singapore Motor Club (SMC) to Formule Libre regulations: not quite anything goes , but as Solomon points out, a case of run what you bring .

Today s, of course, is exclusively for F1 cars with V8 engines conforming strictly to the regulations, sporting and technical, laid down and revised annually by the sport s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l Automobile (FIA).

In 1961, the first Singapore winner was Ian Barnwell in his Aston Martin DB3S, though more exotic entries included a Lola Mk 1 Climax and local identity Stanley Leong s hybrid a Lotus with a two-litre Ferrari engine that became known as the Feratus and enjoyed many years local notoriety.

Through the early 60s other local heroes emerged, like 1962 winner Yong Nam Kee, better known as Fatso , and Albert Poon, a Hong Kong police inspector who became a stalwart of the Singapore racing scene. But as the decade advanced Australian imports began to make their mark men like Elfin racecar builder Garrie Cooper, Greg Cusack and others.

But the man whose name is most indelibly linked with the Singapore Grand Prix is a New Zealander. Graeme Lawrence did the hat-trick on the island, winning the race from 1969-1971, each time in different machinery, bridging the divide between the old days and a more hard-bitten modern professional era.

Lawrence s first Singapore winner was a McLaren M4A bought from his friend, the great Kiwi racer Bruce McLaren, with whom Graeme worked in the UK. The second was a Ferrari 246 Dino, acquired with help from another great name in Kiwi racing, former Ferrari star Chris Amon; and for the third Graeme went Australian, driving a Brabham BT30 as local rules insisted on 1600cc, four- cylinder, two-valves-per-cylinder power plants that instantly leveled the field.

Lawrence, still very active in motor sport in New Zealand, has nothing but fond memories of his time among the snakes and devils. I was surprised with the track, but in saying that, it put up a huge challenge. You had to be quick and you had to be extremely precise, you couldn t afford to make a mistake at all. Round the back, through the trees, if you went off at the speeds we were going, they d never get to you and by the time they did you d probably need another shave!

There was no one favourite spot on the track it was the whole circuit, really. The atmosphere was absolutely electric: the enthusiasm, the people, all the rest it was a credit to them. I fell in love with the Asian culture and to this day I still have a great admiration for what they do, the way they work, and I still have some very good friends that I made in those early days.

Australians wrested the Singapore trophy from Graeme s hands in its last two years, with Max Stewart and sports car ace Vern Schuppan the last two winners on the Snakes and Devils circuit.

Now Singapore s street circuit is a new stop on the world s most high-profile racing itinerary or is it? Solomon quotes one of the many locals who worked on the event in those bygone days, lap-scorer Ted Hart: Whoever may think that

Singapore is a new venue for Grand Prix racing may be shocked to see the depth and wealth of its history.

It s all there now in Snakes and Devils, rich in evocative photography around 400 images, pared down from an eclectic collection of over 5000 and made both accessible and highly enjoyable by the wisdom of Solomon.


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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Bruce McLaren , Chris Amon , Vern Schuppan
Teams Ferrari , McLaren