First Singapore grand prix

Singapore Infopedia


The first Singapore Grand Prix was held from 16 to 17 September 1961. It was one of a series of sporting events held in support of the government-sponsored “Visit Singapore – The Orient Year” tourism campaign.1 Organised by the Singapore Motor Club (SMC) with sponsorship from the Ministry of Culture, the event was held at a temporary street circuit along the old and new Upper Thomson Roads.2 Subsequent editions from 1962 to 1965 were renamed Malaysia Grand Prix,3 before reverting to Singapore Grand Prix from 1966 following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia.4 The annual racing event was discontinued in 1974 after 13 editions, with the official reason being safety concerns after a number of fatal crashes.5 Singapore’s motor-racing tradition was revived when it hosted the inaugural Formula One Singtel Singapore Grand Prix on 28 September 2008.6

Visit Singapore – The Orient Year campaign
In May 1960, then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam proclaimed 1961 as “Visit Singapore – The Orient Year” in keeping with a planned regional tourism publicity campaign called “Visit the Orient Year” to encourage tourists to visit countries in the region.7 Besides Singapore, other countries that pledged support for the campaign included Indonesia, Malaya, Vietnam, Formosa (now known as Taiwan) and South Korea.

In October 1960, the Ministry of Culture gathered representatives from various government departments, cultural, sports and business groups into a general committee to plan activities for the tourism campaign.9 The draft programme, unveiled in November 1960, included an international air show, a television and radio exhibition, a motor show, a photography exhibition and a cultural festival.10 In addition, the Orient Year sports sub-committee proposed various sporting events, including a grand prix, to attract tourists.11

Organising the first grand prix
The SMC, which had successfully organised the Johor Grand Prix in February 1960,12 was given the responsibility for organising the Singapore Grand Prix. In early 1961, a working committee comprising different government agencies and chaired by then SMC president Freddie Pope was formed to plan the racing event.13 The grand prix was initially scheduled to be held in August, but was moved to the weekend of September 16 to 17 to give the SMC sufficient time to prepare after its involvement with the Johor Grand Prix in June 1960.14

The first major challenge that the committee faced was in finding a suitable race circuit. As building a permanent track was out of the question, a temporary street circuit had to be created using public roads that could be closed off without causing major traffic disruptions. Furthermore, the roads chosen had to be suitable for holding mass races involving both cars and motorcycles.15

The committee initially planned for a circuit that ran through Thomson, Whitley, Dunearn and Adam Roads, but this option was abandoned as the road closures would affect too many residents. Other circuits, including the route used for the Gap Hill Climb motoring races along South Buona Vista Road, were considered. Eventually, a circuit along the old and new Upper Thomson Roads was selected.16

The circuit was three miles (4.8 km) long and started with a mile-long stretch along Upper Thomson Road known as the Thomson Mile. Halfway down the stretch was a right turn, known as The Hump, which caused cars to lift off the ground when taken at high speeds. Next was the sandbagged Bus Stop Chicane that forced drivers to slow down as they passed the VIP stands and approached the Circus Hairpin bend at Sembawang Circus. This treacherous stretch of track later became known as Murder Mile due to the many racing accidents that occurred there.17

The next section was a perilous climb up Old Upper Thomson Road along a series of corners. The first of these consisted of four bends called the Snakes. This was followed by Devil’s Bend, a right-handed V-bend that was the most dangerous segment of the circuit. Drivers would emerge from the bend to face the Long Loop, which was an extended right turn designed to test the power of their engines. The climb ended with a left turn at Peak’s Bend, which was where the television and radio crews were usually stationed. Drivers would then speed downhill past the race pits before making a sharp right turn into Range Hairpin and past the Signal Pits. The lap ended at the start-finish line along Upper Thomson Road.18

Utilising its wide network of contacts, the SMC invited renowned racecar drivers and motorcycle racers from Asia and Europe to ensure that the grand prix would be a top-class international event. A worldwide publicity campaign was launched to draw in tourists, and a top prize of M$1,000 and a trophy offered for both the motorcar and motorcycle events to attract world-class participants.19

The Singapore Grand Prix was the first worldwide grand prix to have races for both cars and motorcycles, and over 200 entries were eventually received, with participants coming from Australia, Britain, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaya and Singapore.20

The first Singapore Grand Prix
After months of planning, the first Singapore Grand Prix began on 16 September 1961 with the first race flagging off at 9 am. The two-day weekend event saw a total of nine races. Seven races were held on the first day: three for motorcycles and two for cars of different engine capacities, one for vintage and post-vintage cars as well as one for saloons and tour cars. The main motorcycle and car races were held on the second day.21

Royal Air Force technician Chris “Prof” Proffitt-White won the motorcycle event riding a Honda, while Ian Barnwell, a rubber planter from Pahang, took the car event in his Aston Martin DB3S.22

Notable drivers who competed in the various car races included local ace “Fatso” Yong Nam Kee in a Volvo;23 then emerging racing star Rodney Seow, also in a Volvo;24 and Lim Peng Han, son of Lim Boon Keng, in a Saab.25 Other racers from Singapore and Malaya included local veteran Chan Lye Choon, winner of the 1958 Macau Grand Prix, in a Lola;26 Johor planter Peter Cowling, Chan’s fierce rival, in a Cooper;27 and Saw Kim Thiat, the racing ace from Kuala Lumpur, in a Lotus.28

The motorcycle events saw top international riders such as Japanese ace Giichi Suzuki on a Honda; his compatriots Seiichi Suzuki, Kazuo Kubo and Isamu Morishita on Suzuki motorcycles; and Dutchman Jan Grashius, the Indonesian champion, on a Norton.29 Notable local riders who took part included Cheng Teck Meng, in his first outing riding for Suzuki, and veterans Soh Guan Bee and K. C. Wong on Norton motorcycles.30

Tickets to the event were priced at M$9 for grandstand seats and M$1 for general enclosures around the tracks.31 An estimated 100,000 spectators turned up on the second day, exceeding the previous day’s crowd five times over. Demand for tickets for the second day’s event was overwhelming and the police had to halt ticket sales at the main entrances an hour after the first race had begun.32 The success of the inaugural grand prix helped turn 1961 into a record year for tourism in Singapore.33 Over 100,000 tourists visited Singapore that year, up from 90,000 in 1960, spending an estimated M$79.5 million.34

The grand prix through merger and independence
In 1962, the Singapore Grand Prix was renamed Malaysia Grand Prix in anticipation of the upcoming merger with Malaya. The event was moved to April to coincide with the Easter holidays and subsequent editions followed suit.35 Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the 1966 edition reverted to its former name, Singapore Grand Prix. Overall responsibility for organising the 1966 edition was moved from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Social Affairs under Othman Wok, with the SMC continuing to be responsible for race arrangements.36

In 1966, the grand prix’s main car race received an official international listing in the world motor-racing calendar for the first time, although it was still not considered part of the world championship.37 On the contrary, the motorcycle event had been listed internationally since the 1963 edition.38

Later editions
The Singapore Grand Prix continued for seven more years, gaining in prominence with each successive staging. The 1972 edition was shown as a half-hour film in colour on televisions across Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and West Germany.39 The following year, the race was telecast across Asia, Australia and New Zealand with live commentary and reports.40 By 1973, the top prize for the car race had doubled to S$10,000 from the S$5,000 offered in 1966.41 The top prize for the motorcycle race had also increased to S$7,000.42

Plans for a permanent circuit
By 1970, the growth of the grand prix had led to talk of a permanent racing circuit to stage the event.43 This plan was given the go-ahead by the government in 1971.44 In 1972, an ad-hoc committee was formed to oversee the building of a new circuit.45 However, the project still remained at the planning stage in 1973, despite the government acknowledging that there was “an established need” for it.46 As late as May 1973, there were still calls from the public for a new circuit to be built.47

The end of a racing era
In October 1973, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC; now known as Sport Singapore) suddenly informed race organiser, the Singapore Motor Sports Club (SMSC), of their decision to stop running the annual Singapore Grand Prix. The official reason given was safety concerns, with the grand prix claiming seven lives over the span of 11 years.48 The two most recent deaths occurred in the last two editions. In the 1972 event, local racing ace Lionel Chan, nephew of racing legend Chan Lye Choon, died after crashing into a ravine.49 In the 1973 edition, Swiss racer Joe Huber died after crashing his car into a cable pole.50

The local racing community also speculated about other possible reasons for the cancellation of the event. These included rising oil prices, a shift in government priorities, rising costs, alternative tourist attractions, and a desire to discourage illegal motor racing in Singapore.51 Following the SSC’s decision to end the grand prix, the SMSC continued to push for its revival without success.52

The new era of Formula One
On 12 May 2007, it was announced that Singapore had obtained hosting rights for one leg of the Formula One racing series. The estimated S$150 million cost for staging the event was to be borne by the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore GP Pte Ltd, a company set up by local businessman Ong Beng Seng.53

The event, held on a street circuit in the Marina Bay area, was the first Formula One night race.54 Flagged off on 28 September 2008, the inaugural Formula One Singtel Singapore Grand Prix was won by Spanish driver Fernando Alonso.55 The Singapore leg of Formula One has been a regular fixture on the calendar since the inaugural race and remains the only night race.56

1. Now 1961 Proclaimed as ‘Visit Singapore’ Year,” Straits Times, 9 May 1960, 2; “Biggest-Ever Grand Prix,” Straits Times, 10 August 1961, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
2. G. Subhas, “At Last: A Grand Prix That’s All Our Own,” Singapore Free Press, 15 September 1961, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Ian De Cotta, The Singapore Grand Prix: 50 Years in the Making (Singapore: MediaCorp, 2008), viii–ix, 11–12. (Call no. RSING 796.72095957 DEC)
3. Mok Sin Pin, “Strong Overseas Interest in 1st Malaysia G.P,” Straits Times, 4 March 1962, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “$166,000 for S'pore Grandest Prix,” Straits Times, 20 January 1966, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “GP Shock: 1974 Meet Is Off,” Straits Times, 12 October 1973, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Leonard Thomas, “As Good As It Gets,” Today, 28 September 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Now 1961 Proclaimed as 'Visit Singapore' Year,” Straits Times, 9 May 1960, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 11.
9. “Meeting to Plan ‘Visit the Orient Year’,” Straits Times, 26 October 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “They’ll Finalise ‘Visit the Orient Year’ Plans Today,” Singapore Free Press, 10 November 1960, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Jeffrey James, “Sport Will Draw the Tourists Here,” Singapore Free Press, 23 November 1960, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Grand Prix Is Back,” Singapore Free Press, 18 February 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
13. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 12.
14. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 18.
15. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 18.
16. “Prohibited Roads during Gap Hill Climb,” Singapore Free Press, 19 October 1961, 19 (From NewspaperSG); Subhas, “Grand Prix That’s All Our Own.”
17. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, viii–ix; Subhas, “Grand Prix That’s All Our Own.”
18. Subhas, “Grand Prix That’s All Our Own”; De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, viii–ix.
19. “Biggest-Ever Grand Prix,” Straits Times, 10 August 1961, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
20. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 21;Record Entries for Grand Prix: 210 Will Compete,” Singapore Free Press, 31 August 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “The Full Programme For,” Singapore Free Press, 15 September 1961, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Mok Sin Pin, “Grand Prix Triumph for Planter Ian Barnwell,” Straits Times, 18 September 1961, 15; “Planter Wins Singapore First Grand Prix,” Straits Times, 18 September 1961, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Eli Solomon, Snakes & Devils (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008), 18, 79. (Call no. RSING 796.72095957 SOL)
24. Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 18, 146.
25. Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 18, 21.
26. Mok, “Grand Prix Triumph”;   Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 32.
27. P. Seneviratne, “Grand Prix Will Be an Open Affair Says Peter Cowling,” Singapore Free Press, 14 September 1961, 22 (From NewspaperSG); Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 32.
28. “Saw Is Fastest,” Straits Times, 15 April 1963, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 32.
29. “Japanese Star to Race at Spore G.P,” Straits Times, 6 September 1961, 14; Mok Sin Pin, “It Will Be a Hard Fight This Time,” Straits Times, 13 September 1961, 11; Joe Dorai, “Top Rider Grashius Is a Late Entry,” Straits Times, 6 September 1967, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Mok, “Hard Fight This Time”; G. Subhas, “Singapore Grand Prix: Keep Your Eyes Open for Those Little Things...,” Singapore Free Press, 16 September 1961, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Solomon, Snakes & Devils, 21.
31. “$1 Tickets Won't Get You a Seat,” Straits Times, 13 September 1961, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Racing Thrills for 100,000,” Straits Times, 18 September 1961, 4; G. Subhas, “Grand Prix Was Such a Grand Success,” Singapore Free Press, 18 September 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Tourism – a Success Story,” Singapore Free Press, 9 October 1961, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Singapore Tourist Association, Annual Report, 1964 (Singapore: Tourist Association, 1965), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 338.479104 STAAR)
35. Mok Sin Pin, “Strong Overseas Interest in 1st Malaysia G.P.,” Straits Times, 4 March 1962, 22 (From NewspaperSG); De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 33–34.
36. “$166,000 for S'pore Grandest Prix.”
37. Ernest Frida, mj“Singapore Grand Prix Gets World Listing,” Straits Times, 6 April 1966, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Teoh Eng Tatt, “The Malaysia Grand Prix Comes of Age,” Straits Times, 12 April 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
39. “S'pore GP Becomes a World TV Event,” Straits Times, 26 March 1972, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “S'pore GP Will Be Telecast Throughout Asia,” Straits Times, 17 April 1973, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Joe Dorai, “Only 15 to Be Invited to Singapore GP,” Straits Times, 6 January 1973, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
42. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 2.
43. Ernest Frida and Joe Dorai, “Wok: Govt Is Looking for New GP Site,” Straits Times, 31 March 1970, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Ernest Frida, “Wok: Go Ahead for GP Track,” Straits Times, 24 March 1971, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Albert Johnson, “Permanent Circuit Chairman Named,” Straits Times, 29 March 1972, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Search Still on for a Permanent Circuit,” Straits Times, 15 April 1973, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Anne Wong, “Time for a Better Grand Prix Circuit,” Straits Times, 6 May 1973, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
48. “1974 Meet Is Off.”
49. “Speed King Lionel Dies after 47-Hour Battle for Life,” Straits Times, 5 April 1972, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
50. “Huber Dies 6 Days after the GP Crash,” Straits Times, 28 April 1973, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
51. De Cotta, Singapore Grand Prix, 246–7.
52. “SMSC Keen on Reviving Singapore GP,” Straits Times, 29 November 1974, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
53. Loh Chee Kong, “The Beng Seng, Bernie Show,” Today, 12 May 2007, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Loh, “Beng Seng, Bernie Show.” 
55. Leonard Thomas, “Agony to Ecstasy,” Today, 29 September 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
56. K. F. Loke, “Singapore GP Not a ‘$25-Chicken-Rice’ Race: Organisers,” Channel NewsAsia, 14 September 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

The information in this article is valid as of 13 October 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

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