The original
Singapore Grand Prix


In the beginning
The Singapore Grand Prix, with its innovative lights, world-class concerts, and cosmopolitan Far East vibe encapsulates what a modern grand prix should be all about. In fact, it’s more cutting-edge than a surgeon’s scalpel. But what few people realise is that there’s a Singapore circuit that’s far older than the modern track, which first saw the light of day (or rather, light of night) in 2008.
Like its illustrious successor, Thomson Road was a street circuit, located close to downtown in the bustling heart of Singapore. And this 4.865-kilometre track was used for the very first Singapore Grand Prix, in 1961.
However, that wasn’t a Formula 1® race: instead it was Formula Libre – which (as the name suggests) meant that competitors could turn up driving more or less anything they liked.
The inaugural winner was Ian Barwell in an Aston Martin DB3S. If the Singapore Grand Prix goes well this year for Red Bull, there’s a chance that 55 years later, another car with an Aston Martin badge on its nose could triumph through the twisty streets, in a curious case of history repeating itself.
Although the old Thomson Road circuit wasn’t actually that twisty: certainly not compared to the 23 corners of the current layout. In fact, there were only nine turns over the course of the entire lap, which gave it a fearsome average of 152 kph by the time the all-time lap record was established in 1973.


Safety first
Understandably, that meant that there were some big concerns over safety. In many respects, the track was like a road-going Far Eastern Nordschleife: there was a very long start-finish straight called the ‘Thomson Mile’, complete with a kink halfway down it which was known as ‘The Hump’ – as the cars often got airborne if they took it flat-out.
Informally, it was also known as the ‘Murder Mile’, as seven lives were lost (including marshals as well as drivers) during the 11 years that the Singapore Grand Prix was run between 1961 and 1973. And that’s ultimately what led to the event being cancelled, after a run of two races with fatal accidents.  There were other factors too: traffic and spectators around the track were becoming increasingly difficult to manage, and the Suez oil crisis had an additional effect.
The names of the corners certainly left little to the imagination.  There was ‘Snakes Bend’ – a fast and twisty section – as well as ‘Devil’s Bend’: a V-shaped hairpin that was a massive test of skill and bravery.
The Singapore Grand Prix was open to motorbikes too, as part of a four-day event package including saloon cars and historic cars. In its last years the highlight of the programme was always an Australian Formula 2 race, with the final event in 1973 won by Vern Schuppan, driving a March-Hart. 
In second place should have been his compatriot Malcolm Ramsay in a Birrana, but the Australian was forced into retirement for highly unusual reasons after stones kicked up from Schuppan’s car punctured a fuel tank, dowsing Ramsay in petrol. As Angus Lamont, his chief mechanic, remembered: “Malcolm soldiered on until the pain of the petrol burning his balls forced him to retire…”

Unpredictability and innovation 
Since then, it’s fair to say that Singapore has had its share of unusual incidents, from detaching fuel hoses (courtesy of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari) to static electricity from a tram line causing the Red Bull of Mark Webber to go haywire. Some things have never changed, and the sheer unpredictability of Singapore’s race is one of them.
Once the Thomson Road circuit was consigned to history, a new permanent track was proposed to take its place, incorporating a sports complex as well. But this never happened, and instead Singapore would have to wait another 35 years to host a grand prix.
However, Thomson Road left an important legacy. It showed the capability and willingness of Singapore’s officials to innovate and close a large proportion of the tiny nation’s roads while managing the inevitable disruption. And most significantly of all, it showed how motorsport could help to promote the region. The initial concept for the race was part of the ‘Visit Singapore – The Orient Year’ campaign from 1961, designed to bring tourists to the area for the first time. And it's been doing that successfully ever since, also with the help of the Singapore Grand Prix in its latest spectacular incarnation.
To get a flavour of the Singapore Grand Prix as it once was, visit this link from 1966.

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