9tro issue #5
Text by Cheryl Tay
If you were told that your wish will come true but you have to wait two decades for it, would you still want it?
Colin Syn, deputy chairman of Singapore GP Pte Ltd and Deputy Member of the Deputy Member of FIA World Motor Sport Council, faced his greatest disappointment in 1989 when the government rejected the plans to host Formula One in Singapore at a purpose-built circuit located where Laguna Golf Course is today.
Little did he expect that 19 years later, Singapore not only hosted an F1 race, it hosted the first ever F1 night race on a street circuit temporarily built at Marina Bay. In fact, the planning and execution took less than two years after confirmation that Singapore was to host F1.
How did he feel when F1 finally came to Singapore? How did the idea of having F1 in Singapore come about?
Three successful F1 Singapore Grand Prix races later, with an extension of the contract to 2014, 9tro manages to catch Colin Syn amid his busy schedule to find out more.
9tro: When and how did your interest in motorsports first start?
My maternal grandfather was a bike racer in Kuala Lumpur. I think that was probably the only link to motorsports in the family. I always loved driving since I was a teenager and I used to kart in my younger days. Then when I was studying abroad in London in the early ‘60s, this interest blossomed as the motorsports culture there was so vibrant! I would spend my pocket money attending driving school and competing in club races at Brands Hatch or Silverstone.
9tro: Did you take this active motorsports interest back to Singapore?
Definitely! I returned home after I completed my studies in London and I was racing regularly at the Singapore Grand Prix at Old Upper Thomson Road from 1961 to 1973, as well as in sprints, hill climbs, gymkhanas and rallies. I even won the Open Class Gold prize in 1985 when I drove my 240bhp Renault 5 Turbo in the auto sprint held at the old Kallang Airport runway.
9tro: Did you ever consider a career in racing?
Racing has always been a hobby to me. I did some races in smaller races at Malaysian circuits as well. I remember my wife holding up the pit board for me too; those were the days! My last race was the 1997 90th Anniversary Peking to Paris Motor Challenge where I drove my own Porsche 356 and took 45 days to complete it. I was the first Singaporean to compete in it by the way.
9tro: How did the idea of bringing F1 to Singapore come to you?
Ong Beng Seng was my good friend and racing buddy during our schooling days in London. He has close links with Bernie Ecclestone, so when Singapore Tourism Board (STB) approached me in 1989 to draw up a proposal to host Formula One at a purpose-built circuit located where Laguna Golf Course is today, I told Ong about it and subsequently contacted the F1 race organisers in Adelaide to learn more.
9tro: What happened next?
Bernie gave us the go-ahead so all that was left was our government’s approval, which we did not get, much to my disappointment then. Racing was seen as a ‘bad boy’ thing and the government wasn’t supportive of it. So that was it; all the plans were shelved and we resumed our normal lives.
Well, we did explore the idea of bringing F1 to Malaysia but eventually the Malaysian government came to us to ask us for an introduction to Bernie – which we did. Hence we had a part to play in creating the Malaysian Grand Prix.
9tro: What revived the idea of Singapore hosting F1?
At the time when the government made the announcement about the integrated resorts, some regret was expressed about not having bringing F1 to Singapore when we had the chance to, as we need something as internationally major as F1. STB contacted me and within a year and a half, we had the government’s approval to plan a street race. It was a mad rush after that as we got down to work all the details out. Then halfway through the planning, Bernie suggested having a night race.
9tro: The inaugural F1 night race in 2008 was clearly a success, how did you feel about it?
Words cannot describe the emotions I felt when I stood in the pits and heard the F1 engines roar to life for the very first time in Singapore at our Marina Bay street circuit. I couldn’t believe it for a while actually, it all felt like a dream, a dream which I waited 19 years for it to happen.
9tro: What is the biggest challenge of organising F1?
It’s definitely a huge all-year-round plan. One challenge is getting Singaporeans to accept F1. It was hard, and still is, to get people around the track especially, to embrace F1. Because it is a street circuit, certain inconveniences like road closures are inevitable. Some shop owners in areas in or around the circuit complain about business being affected, while some general members of the public complain about the transportation changes.
However, the greatest challenge is no doubt the impetus to make the next race better than the last. There is continual pressure on us to keep making it better and re-inventing every race.
9tro: How do you think F1 has helped the local motorsports scene?
I would say F1 sparked off the move for a permanent circuit of our own at Changi.
9tro: What do you hope to see of the upcoming Changi Motorsports Hub?
Young drivers like to drive fast, so the track can be used to train them properly. A car is a weapon in the wrong hands. Upon completion of driving courses, certificates can be awarded and used as a means to reduce car insurance premiums.
9tro: F1 has certainly sparked a whole new motorsports interest in Singapore, but what about the grassroots level of motorsports in the past (hill climbs, sprints, rallies)? Do you think it can be revived?
That will be quite difficult to achieve because there is simply no location to. Urbanisation has transformed much of the land that was previously used for these events.
9tro: Are you involved in any way with the Changi Motorsports Hub? Why or why not?
Nope, I’m not involved in it in any way at the moment. When it’s up however, we can tie up with them and our volunteer marshals can be officials to their races or something.
9tro: What is one thing you hope to see for F1 in Singapore?
More female fans. Why? Because females make more ardent and passionate fans as they attach emotions to things more than men do.
Name: Colin Syn
Occupation: Director, Bandos Island
Motorsports Engagements: Deputy Chairman of Singapore GP Pte Ltd and Deputy Member of FIA World Motor Sport Council
Marital Status: Married
No. of Children: 2