Mention the ‘Singapore Grand Prix’ and thoughts of night racing, bright lights …and, of course, Nelson Piquet Jr instantly come to mind.
Although the 2008 Grand of Singapore was the nation’s first step into Formula 1, it was not the first time the Great Prize was contested there.
At a time when Singapore was still part of Malaysia, a Grand Prix was put into plan by the Singapore Motor Club.
Yet Singapore did not have a permanent circuit, and thus a temporary layout was was carved out near the Nature Reserve at the heart of the island.
The scale of the event was such that the Motor Club had no choice but to seek the assistance of the Ministry of Social Affairs to help in running the event. Being a temporary street circuit, measures were needed to ensure public life and safety would be disrupted as little as possible.
Running around the Old Upper Thomson Road, the track consisted of a mile-long start / finish kink, two tight hairpins, several fast sweeps and a brilliantly named tight right-hander called “Devil’s Bend.” The mixture of high speed and hard braking meant that riveting racing on the nine-turn, 3 mile circuit would be a near certainty.
The Grand Prix weekend would play host to many formulae and forms of racing, including both cars and motorbikes. While the motorbike races accepted makes with varying ranges of power output, the car support races often included short runs from production saloons, vintage cars and high powered sports cars.
However, it was the Grand Prix itself that held the attention of crowds.
Débuting during the Easter of 1961 to Formula Libre and Australian Formula 2 rules, the Orient Year Grand Prix ran to 60 laps in its early years, until 1969.
From then until 1971, the event would be run as two separate heats – a 20 lap ‘sprint race’ followed by the main event thereafter. From 1972 to ’73, the Grand Prix became a single 50 lap run.
The first Grand Prix on the island was won by Ian Barnwell in an Aston Martin DB3S and a good turn out and positive press saw the event return a year later; only this time called the Malaysian Grand Prix. So popular was the race that it quickly established itself as one of the main flyaway races of the off-season.
Alongside meetings in Macau, Japan and southerly excursions to Australia and New Zealand, the Malaysian Grand Prix would finally gain status as part of the World Racing Calendar in 1963.
It wasn’t all smooth running though. When the Grand Prix returned in 1964, the organisers found themselves struck by a Singapore monsoon wash-out (not unlike the one that red flagged the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix).
In treacherous conditions , the race was delayed for over 90 minutes before the green flag was finally dropped. It was probably not the wisest of moves by the organisers for within five laps, the Grand Prix was halted following several serious accidents – the event would be annulled and no winner declared.
In August 1965 the island finally gained independence from Malaysia and the event officially became known as the Singapore Grand Prix the following year. Now shy of a recognised race, the Malaysian organised a Grand Prix of their own for various formulae, running at the Shah Alam Circuit from 1968 until 1982 and then a once-off race in 1995.
Now under home rule, the island of Singapore embraced the truly international race and such was the popularity of the event that by the mid-60’s, crowds at the event had already surpassed 100,000 people on race day alone.
Local racing heroes, such as Yong Nam Kee, Lee Han Seng and Rodney Seow were all successful at the track as was Hong Kong native Albert Poon, but it was Tasman Series Champion, Graeme Lawrence that garnered the most plaudits, with three victories during the sprint race years.
As the years ticked by, the event grew substantially – in 1972, a record 430 entrants gained spots in the Grand Prix’ fifteen events, with participants from all over the world (146 motorbike entries along with 284 cars for the various formulae).
The final running of the race was taken by part-time Formula 1 driver, Vern Schuppan in a March-Ford – it would be one of several non-Championship races that the Australian would take during the period.
In fact, Schuppan also managed to notch up two victories at the Macau Grand Prix following his Singapore success.
But while Macau lives on, the days of the Grand Prix on Thomson Road were numbered.
The circuit layout brought many complaints from drivers, with much dissent aimed squarely at the lack of run off area anywhere around the track. Often slick, the circuit’s fast sweeps and Devil’s Bend were frequent accident spots – in fact the latter corner would claim three lives over the course of Grand Prix’ existence.
Following the 1973 running, motor racing was banned from Singapore and the race disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared, with the government claiming that the Grand Prix promoted dangerous driving amongst civilians.
They would also acknowledge that it was next to impossible to implement adequate safety measures for the circuit layout.
Over time, these feelings eased and with the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang growing in stature, the ban on motor racing was reconsidered, before finally being dropped in late 2005. The road was now clear for Grand Prix racing to return to the island of Singapore, but this time as part of the World Championship, circling the Marina Bay area.
With several years of preparation behind them, the first Singapore Grand Prix in 35 years ran in September 2008 and – with a little help from Nelson Piquet Jr – it became possibly one of the most famous and controversial Grand Prix of all time.