Way before Formula 1 came to Singapore, motorsports was already a thriving trade. With a few dark periods and a national regret or two, Singapore still has what it takes to become a motorsports hub. CHERYL TAY elaborates
Without a doubt, the biggest highlight of motorsports in Singapore is the yearly Formula 1 night race affair that centres in the heart of the sunny tropical island. But while the three days of fast-paced high-speed action won the hearts of many motor racing enthusiasts, more is needed to extend the spirit of motorsports in Singapore beyond the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher.
Singapore once had a very vibrant motorsports scene: there was the Singapore Grand Prix at the old Upper Thomson Road from 1961 until it got banned in 1973 due to a multiplicity of reasons. The cessation of the Singapore Grand Prix shifted the core of motorsports in Singapore to alternatives held on vacant lands. Tarmac-surfaced, gravel-surfaced and off-road events like autocross and motocross started to become popular.
Though there was a lack of appropriate venues for such events, the Singapore Motor Sports Association (SMSA) – previously known as Singapore Motor Sports Club (SMSC) – got around it with the help of the Singapore Sports Council and organised tarmac-surfaced events like kart racing, car park rallies, sprint races and hill climbs since the 1980s in places such as Kallang car parks (fondly known as the Kallang Autodrome). Big sponsors like Caltex, Falken and Shell were regularly supporting and sponsoring these events too.
The opportunity to bring Formula 1 into Singapore and build a permanent race track surfaced sometime in the eighties too, but unfortunately the green light wasn’t given from the relevant authorities and the entire attempt was scrapped.
In 2002, SMSA decided to open up the organising of such motorsport events to private companies and took on the role of a sanctioning body instead. This resulted in a decline of racing activities and it didn’t help that companies started re-allocating their sponsorship budgets and channeling their funds elsewhere, away from motorsports.
The lights on motorsports in Singapore dimmed as the Kallang car parks closed and motor racing activities quietly faded away. A small and dedicated community continued to live their passion outside of Singapore, seeking neighbouring countries to fuel their passion, while a particular segment tried to keep a spark of motorsports going by occasionally having one-off private events.
Likewise, a handful of local racing drivers like Denis Lian and Hafiz Koh tried hard to raise sponsorship funds but until today, Singaporean companies are still generally hesitant about putting their money into racing.
Re-ignition of the motorsports spirit in Singapore could not have been done better than with F1, but the revival brought about a whole new level. Not at the grassroots community-at-large level it used to be at, motorsports is instead easily misconstrued as an elitist sport only for the affluent, or that Formula 1 is all there is to motorsports.
Of course, the burst of motorsports fireworks over the Lion City lit up a lot of light bulbs in people’s minds and a string of F1-inspired motorsports activities and facilities emerged.
What used to be the golf driving range of Arena Country Club still features driving now, but of a much faster kind – go-karting. In late 2009, Kartright Speedway took over the premises and constructed a 750-metre competition-length karting track. Currently, it is the only place in Singapore to kart at, and it hosted the national Singapore Karting Championship (SKC) last year. This year, it will be hosting the SKC again and also the OCBC Corporate Karting Challenge where teams race in rental karts. Interesting and unique initiatives have also surfaced at Kartright, such as Ladies’ Night, a monthly go-karting course for women only.
There is always the debate about whether drifting should be considered a form of motorsport, but regardless of the outcome of that argument, the modifying of cars, strong smell of fuel and heart-pumping visual action is enough for me to agree to it being classified as a modern form of motorsports. Jumping on the bandwagon of F1 and riding on the hype, Formula Drift was introduced to Singapore in 2008. Formula Drift is a professional drifting series originated and hosted in the United States. Since the Asian debut in Singapore three years ago, Formula Drift Asia has expanded to Malaysia, Thailand and will be heading to more countries in the region.
Privateer efforts are aplenty, with one-off drag races, motorsports carnivals and more. Local teams and drivers still and will continue to race in the region or internationally, as there is a long way to go before Singapore can start having a motorsports scene as vibrant like that of its direct neighbour Malaysia, let alone Japan or even Europe. Having our own F1 team may not be in pipeline anytime soon, but the reality of having our own permanent race circuit is sadly becoming somewhat darker.
Inevitably, the announcement of the authorities agreeing to bring F1 to Singapore came along with the approval to build our own race track. But where the hosting of F1 can be expedited, the plan to design, build and run a race track with private efforts and funding has turned into a thousand-step journey with no shoes.
The tender was awarded to a privateer for Changi Motorsports Hub to be completed by end of this year in time for the 2012 race season. But after episodes of internal bleeding, changing of hands at the top, investigations on suspected corruption and failure to make payments to the construction people, the future of the circuit suddenly became bleak.
F1 has contributed largely in re-awakening the nation and opening their eyes to motorsports, generated copious amounts of revenue from tourism, caused some inconvenience with road closures during the Grand Prix week, and also created a platform for budding race drivers to dream upon.
There is a lot more to motorsports in Singapore than what it actually seems and we will slowly but surely uncover all of that over the issues of Autosport Asia to follow. Meanwhile, I still have my fingers crossed for Changi Motorsports Hub to be accomplished as it is also a hub of dreams for many.
*This was first published in Autosport Asia.