Making a dream come true

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Colin Syn can afford a wry little laugh when he thinks back to his time as a student in London of the 1960s. In those far-off days, the self-confessed motorsport fanatic would spend all his spare change paying for the chance to drive himself around the historic racetrack at Brands Hatch, dreaming of life as a professional racer and of the falling chequered flags that might one day cement his own legend among the greats of the sport.

Who knew, back then, that Syn's dreams of becoming involved in the sport at the highest level would one day come true, just not quite in the manner that was first imagined.

Forty-odd years after his school days had been consigned to history, Syn found himself helping his home nation create a piece of its own, thanks to his role alongside hotelier Ong Beng Seng as one of the driving forces behind the Singapore GP group and its efforts to bring Formula One racing to the streets of the Lion City.

'My hair still stands up on end when I think about it,' the 65-year-old says of September 28, 2008 - the date when Singapore hosted the first-ever night grand prix.

'It was like a dream come true when those engines started, for me and, much more importantly, for Singapore.' As the city prepares for the fifth staging (from September 21 to 23) of what has become the centrepiece of its year - both sporting and social - Syn is taking the time to reflect on how this story came about, in the face of all the doubters and an incredible race against time that forced the first event to be organised - from start to finish - in just 17 months.

'I've been involved in motorsports since the 1960s,' says Syn. 'We first made a bid for F1 in the 1980s. I went to London to see Bernie Ecclestone with our proposal and we got the franchise, subject to government support. At first we were looking at using a big circuit on the land that is today a golf course out near Changi Airport, but things just didn't work out then - the timing was all wrong.'

But Singapore has since those days been a city very much on the move and when the concept came back to light in 2007, the landscape had started to change significantly.

'From the time that decision was made to the time the first race started was only 17 months - an incredible effort involved when you consider also that no one had ever hosted a race at night before and that we planned to use the city's streets as the track,' Syn said.

The biggest surprise - looking in from the outside at least - was just how smoothly that first race went and how quickly the drivers and the fans responded to the totally new way of racing that the Singapore event introduced to the Formula One circuit.

There's an old adage in sport that the best events bring out the very best in athletes and the results in Singapore over the past four editions tend to support that claim. The roll of honour features four drivers who have also been able to call themselves world champions - Fernando Alonso (2008 and 2010), Lewis Hamilton (2009), and Sebastian Vettel (2011).

For the drivers, part of the attraction is the Singapore street circuit, the weather conditions and the event under lights 'changes the routine'.

And for the spectators - both the 83,300 ticket-holders gathered in the city and the estimated television audience of around 500 million who tune in to F1 each season - there is nothing on the planet quite like the Marina Bay Street Circuit as it winds its way over 5.073 kilometres and through 23 turns, beneath the watch of Singapore's stunning mix of modern and historic architecture.

'With the whole renaissance of the marina district, and with the quality of the hotels and entertainment now available, we realised we didn't have the land for a large purpose-built circuit but we had something we think is better - we had our city,' says Michael Roche, executive director of Singapore GP.

'The new buildings are all interspersed with the colonial buildings and the civic green and it just makes a beautiful backdrop for TV. Tarmac, track and grandstands mean you could really be anywhere. With our race, you are in Singapore and you most definitely know you are.'

That's another reason the Singaporean government was so eager to throw its weight behind the grand prix, to the tune of 60 per cent of the estimated S$150 million (HK$918 million) it costs to run each year. It has proved the perfect showcase for everything the city has to offer.

'It was an incredibly brave move from Singapore as a whole when you consider the logistics of what happens,' says Roche. 'There are a lot of other cities or governments who would have said 'You have got to be joking'. But in Singapore it became a cause celebre to deliver the very best event it could possibly be. Once committed to it, all the partners stepped up and just went for it.'

That has been among the joys for Syn, too, as both the deputy chairman of Singapore GP and as a race fan - seeing Singapore create something special out of nothing.

'When we first started nobody had ever raced a grand prix under lights,' he says. 'People were worried about power failure, about what would happen then and about how things would work at night. It was untouched territory but Ecclestone had faith in us and we have shown the world what can be done. There is nothing on earth like it.'

60%

Amount the Singaporean government is estimated to contribute to the S$150 million ($HK918 million) hosting costs

 

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