“When I originally suggested the notion of Grand Prix racing under lights, people thought I had gone mad.” Bernie Eccleston, Formula One CEO
The year: 2006. The question: could Singapore host the Formula One (F1) Grand Prix once again? With a spectator count of 60,000, the first Singapore Grand Prix was held in 1961. Crowds craned their necks from the stands on Upper Thomson Road to watch what would now be considered alarmingly unsafe cars career past, but the race was discontinued in 1974 as the circuit was deemed too treacherous. Would the government dare take a different view this time around?
The initiative was, in fact, applauded by Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew himself. Mr. Lee’s relentless work to ensure Singapore was a country of safety, security, efficiency and, moreover, a place to do business meant, with F1’s global following, the scent of opportunity to show a different side to the island hung in the air.
And so it happened. Not on a purpose-built track, but in the heart of the city. With the magnificent skyline of Marina Bay as the backdrop, the streets of, what is now, one of Asia’s most prestigious of Grand Prix circuits were, again, to be filled with high-octane fumes. The F1 team envisioned a high-end event of motoring and sporting prowess, concerts and entertainment in both the city and on the circuit and, audaciously, at night.
Preparation had to be seamless. Everyone was on board; from the Singapore Tourism Board to the Police and Civil Defence Forces, the Land Transport Authority to the National Parks Board, not to mention the numerous government agencies. Nothing was left to chance; the only unpredictable element was the race itself.
Gauntlet laid down, contracts signed, acts booked, roads sealed off, Singapore poised; at 8pm on September 28, 2008, the world of F1 changed forever and the Lion City roared.
The excitement was palpable as the cars surged forwards. Marina Bay might be dubbed ‘The Monaco of the East’ but it was going to be considerably faster. Although Brazilian Ferrari driver Felipe Massa took pole position, it was team Ferrari that was first to crack under the pressure of the pace. Leading in the early stages, Massa was released too early from his first stop and as the car sped down the pit lane with the refueling rig still attached, the team could only watch with open mouths. As a result, Massa incurred a double punishment of a drive-through penalty and dropping to last.
This, however, was not to be the most remarkable highlight of the race. Starting from the middle of the pack, Renault F1 driver Fernando Alonso was very vocal about his disappointment being seventh on the grid, stating, “I’m going to need a miracle”. It duly arrived, or so we thought. On the 14th lap, Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed at turn 17 meaning that the safety car would be brought out to bunch up the pack.
Alonso’s usual strategy in mid-field was to start with a full tank and pit late, but on this occasion, he had done the opposite. As he resumed the race in fifth place and had no refueling stops to make, he comfortably secured first place by three seconds.
The incident invoked fierce debate, dividing opinions of fans and sports pundits alike into the camps of ‘miracle’ and ‘mistake’. Renault F1 came under intense scrutiny over whether Piquet had deliberately crashed to allow Alonso to sit in a more favorable position behind the safety car with a full tank and subsequently win. Meanwhile the Renault team vehemently denied any sinister tactical undertakings, emphasizing the unpredictability of F1 racing. However, in 2009 the team were formally charged for conspiring to interfere with the race outcome, resulting in disqualification and a two-year race ban. It remains one of sport’s greatest scandals to date.
Fate or fixing aside, Singapore has garnered itself a reputation as the race to brace for. Some sporting clashes are known for drama, but the contest on the Singapore circuit is always ferocious and the story that unfolds, unpredictable. And there’s good reason for it. The Marina Bay street circuit is one of F1’s most challenging. It has more than 23 turns, most of them packed into the second half of the 5.067km lap. With approximately 5,000 gear changes per race, G-force surges and tight bends, the drivers are pushed to their limits. There’s no cruising, just constant racing.
Jump to 2017, and the rain. In year 10 of its involvement with F1, Singapore staged its first wet race – and made Lewis Hamilton’s day. After qualifying fifth, the Mercedes driver needed wet conditions if he stood a chance in keeping up with the super-fast Ferrari of his championship rival, Sebastian Vettel. But as the heavens opened, Hamilton defied the odds to finish first.
Yet the theater behind the race start last year owed nothing to the rain. Within seconds, the green light triggered a melee of cars. Both Ferraris and one Red Bull car converged and spectacularly crashed out in an explosion of smoke and sparks as carbon fiber and rubber flew across the track. Behind them, 17 cars hurtled through the debris while photographers hammered their shutter buttons and commentators shouted themselves hoarse at the action. It was carnage but, mercifully, there were no injuries.
If it is the race itself that sets the drama, then it is the night race aesthetics that set the mood. Cast your eyes skywards and Marina Bay’s cityscape looms high and the effect is simply dazzling; a vista that photographers from all over the world journey to for portfolio shots. Listen to the fans; from petrol-heads to concert-goers, the enthusiasm is intoxicating and gleaning through the reviews on Tripadvisor is testament to this: “Everything you could ask for and more in F1! The party is alive in Singapore!”; “The first and best F1 night race. It's stunning. The atmosphere is electric”; “We cannot wait for next year! Truly a world class event in an amazing city!”
There are few other destinations in the world where you are close enough to the race track to smell the tire fumes, where you can dine on a myriad of world class cuisine then party into the night to any one of the international headlining acts, such as Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, Maroon 5 or Calvin Harris.
Culminating in a motorsport race at its most raw and unforgiving, Singapore F1 is three days of unadulterated adrenaline rush.
Bonnie Taylor, originally from London, moved to Singapore in 2014. She graduated with a BA in English Literature, an MA in Photography and, after ten years in the business sector, picked up her camera and started exploring. When she’s not wining and dining in exotic locations, she freelances as a photographer and writer.
Photo courtesy of AhLamb / iStock