Singapore Took Part in the World Cup of Motorsports. And We Crashed and Burned.

We were in the World Cup.

No, really, we were.

Four years before Goal 2010.

We even managed a few credible results.

But that was the one good thing about this venture. The team was plagued with illnesses and injuries, inexperience, infighting, and despite the above-mentioned results, were clearly inferior. Nobody paid attention, the team garnered little support and we pulled out before the competition was even finished.

Of course, we aren’t talking about football. We all know about how we crashed and burned in our attempt to reach the World Cup. But for this venture, we didn’t need to reach the World Cup. The World Cup reached out to us.

This is the story about Team Singapore in the World Cup of Motorsport, A1 Grand Prix.

Prologue: Courtship

For a little bit of background, A1 Grand Prix (the A doesn’t stand for anything, from what I know) was conceptualised by Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s royal family, in 2003. His idea for A1 Grand Prix was to start-up the motorsport equivalent of the World Cup, where drivers wouldn’t be racing for themselves or their teams, but instead for the pride of their nation.

It was an ambitious dream, but one Mr. Many Maktoums had the capacity to fund. With the inaugural season starting in mid-2005, A1GP needed nations to court and Singapore was on the list.

More specifically, he desired to host a round of his championship here. Yet we refused, stating it was too high of a risk to close busy city streets to host a brand new, unproven racing series. But just because we said no, it didn’t mean Singapore wasn’t interested in A1GP. We weren’t going to flat-out reject any old invitation. We’ll do it on our own terms. So what if we don’t want to host the World Cup? So what if we have little motorsport talent? So what if we’ve never run a racing team before?

We finally have a chance to participate in a WORLD CUP.

Chapter 1: Scouring for Local Talent

As teams in A1GP needed somewhere in the range of $10-28 million to run competently, Team Singapore needed funds quick. So what did the team do? Instead of contacting potentially interested corporations or backers, it published a desperate looking advertisement in the New Paper with the manager’s phone number for sponsors to contact.

Predictably, nobody bit the $7 million bullet to be a co-sponsor, let alone $9 million as a main sponsor. And so Team Singapore would have to miss the inaugural 2005-6 A1GP season. In the meantime, though, they got a year’s extra preparation, pretty handful given their only real hope for A1GP hadn’t raced in a full schedule for two years.

That sole hope was Denis Lian. He wasn’t that bad, winning the entry-level Formula 2000 Asian championship in 2002. The only problem was that he was already 30 when he won that title for young up-and-comers. Additionally, the SARS outbreak and sponsorship problems kept him out of a full-time drive for two years. But now he was Singapore’s only hope. With an extra year to prepare, some private Singaporean backers, sent Lian to race in a developmental racing series.

Team Singapore also wanted to foster up-and-coming racing talent to show Singapore’s motorsport future was bright. After all, Lian was cracking 34, a veteran by all means, so his career couldn’t continue for long. Singapore needed someone with youth on their side.

Hafiz Koh, at 22, was definitely young, but also inexperienced. His only experience in motorsport competition was in go-karts. He had offers to race in more advanced series, but a nasty little thing called National Service got in the way.  And now he was selected to be Singapore’s reserve driver in A1GP. And, let me get this clear, he wasn’t even qualified to race in A1GP at the time of his signing. He had to go through a license course while getting ready for the season.

But regardless of that, Singapore now had two drivers. Furthermore, they had a new team principal in Krishna Ramachandra, a lawyer by trade, but with sufficient funding to back Singapore’s A1GP effort. Also funding the team was former football legend R. Sasikumar, joining an illustrious list with Luis Figo and Ronaldo (the OG Ronaldo) of famous footballers that backed their A1GP team. They even got a racing team with a decent background in West Surrey Racing to prepare their cars. However, they had still yet to get any corporate sponsors to plaster their names on the car. So, in the public roadshow announcing the team, they got 300 members of the public to chip in $50 in exchange for plastering their name on the car.

An elaborate, black-tie event was hosted in the Shangri-La hotel ballroom to launch the team. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports was present. The car was unveiled with a red, black and gold colour scheme, clearly indicative of the success they’d love to achieve. Still no sponsors, but on the engine cover was a simplified moon-and-stars motif, with one gold ring and five smaller golden circles within. All the names pledged were stuck on the rear wing in extremely microscopic detail, but rest assured their names were there. Denis Lian and Hafiz Koh were introduced as the drivers to participate in the series. But, there was still someone else willing to drive for Team Singapore.

Then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, inspecting the vehicle.

Meet Christian Murchison. He had more success than Lian and was only three years older than Koh. In Australia, he won multiple karting and single-seater titles. He finished championship runner-up twice in Formula Holden, Australia’s premier single seater racing series, also claiming Rookie of the Year in his first season there. Despite a few years without a full-time drive, he was still head-and-shoulders above Lian and Koh in terms. So why wasn’t he signed to Team Singapore just yet?

Well, there were doubts he was actually Singaporean. Yes, he was a Singaporean citizen, born and raised here until moving to Perth at age 11. His allegiances were flipping and flopping all over the place, though. He registered as Australian for some racing series. He had a Singaporean flag on his overalls in Formula Holden. Commentators switched his ‘home’ from Western Australia one race to Singapore the next. His official website back in the day listed his nationality as Australian. And the biggest deal-breaker of all?

Murchison defaulted his National Service obligations

Still, he pledged allegiance to Singapore for A1GP, commenting he’d look to complete his NS whenever he could despite pulling a Ben Davis, up to the point that he never returned to Singapore should he risk arrest.

With the line-up settled, Team Singapore was ready to show the world what they were made of: a lack of local support, complete mis-organisation, and performing well below over-ambitious expectations.

Chapter 2: Stutter Start

After signing Murchison, Team Singapore planned to give all three drivers a shakedown test at Elvington, a disused UK airbase, having missed the championship’s official testing session launching their car. They planned the test on 21st September at that airbase before the first round at Zandvoort, Netherlands the following week.

On 20th September, Elvington was closed for a filming session for television show, Top Gear. In that session, presenter Richard Hammond infamously crashed a jet powered car, leaving him hospitalised, and the track closed. Thanks to that, they went to the first round without any practice whatsoever. Denis Lian was chosen to drive in round 1 as he had the most experience of the three and was the latest one to race competitively.

Circuit Zandvoort, Netherlands

Race 1: Zandvoort, Netherlands

Except Lian didn’t race in the first event. After practice on Friday, he fell sick. Tonsilitis, according to the TV commentators. Murchison was thus shoved into the car just in time for qualifying with no practice whatsoever.

A1GP had an unusual race format. Two races, one shorter ‘sprint race’ that helped determine the grid for the longer ‘feature race’ that paid more points. With zero track time whatsoever, Murchison was quite slow in qualifying, only ending 20th, and couldn’t make much progress in the sprint race as Team Indonesia speared into our car on the fourth lap.

Never mind, as the field lined up for the feature race, it couldn’t get worse than ending the race on lap four. Could it?

The field got away and Singapore got stuck on the grid.

Brno Circuit, Czech Republic

Race 2: Brno, Czech Republic

By the next race in Brno, Czech Republic, Denis Lian’s tonsils sprung back to life, and with that, sprung back into the driver’s seat for his first go in A1GP. So with their main driver back in the seat, how did Singapore’s second bite of the cherry go?

Not good.

Denis Lian was second last in qualifying, 8 seconds off the pace. He managed a mercifully incident-free sprint race, even overtaking another team, but was still woefully slow. As long as he kept his nose clean through the feature race, he could get a solid result.

After just three turns, Singapore was facing the wrong way, out in the grass, receiving a push start from the marshals.

Singapore would go on to finish second last, and the Straits Times wasn’t kind. The headline read “Lian blows chance to shine in Czech race”. Lian claimed the Indonesian car once again was at fault for Singapore’s spin, though video shows that Indonesia was nowhere near Singapore at the time of it’s spin. Whatever it was, for the next round held in Beijing, China, Murchison was going back in the car.

Jingkai International Street Circuit, China

Race 3: Beijing, China

Now, the round in Beijing.

It was chaos.

It was a street circuit, but you could tell nobody tested it. On the final hairpin to complete the lap, no car could u-turn tight enough to avoid the barrier. Turn one was also too dangerous for regular starts, so they had to start under safety-car conditions. Finally, manhole covers were being sucked out of the ground due to the aerodynamics of A1GP cars. It was essentially the Hunger Games for A1GP, where the key wasn’t to drive fast.

It was to survive.

And funnily, it was this race where Singapore thrived. There were punctures everywhere. Two leaders retired from the race within seconds of each other. Even Singapore imitated a record turntable for a brief three seconds.

There were so many retirements, only nine cars finished the race. All Singapore needed to do to score points was survive. And despite their 360 earlier in the race, they did. They were in eighth. Just like that, Team Singapore scored their first points in the World Cup. They were ahead of quite a few countries like Indonesia and Ireland. On-track, they survived.

Off-track, though, they were on their deathbed.

Chapter 3: The Downward Spiral

Remember when I said that Team Singapore had absolutely zero corporate sponsors upon their launch? Team principal Krishna Ramachandra tried to rope some in at the start of the season by offering at least sixty ‘blue-chip’ Singaporean corporations advertising opportunities on the car.

And all sixty turned him down. Which was bad, because by then, Team Singapore was broke. Ramachandra and his host of private backers had initially supplied the team with $1 million. This was well short of the $10 million estimate needed for a full season. Now that money was spent and major decisions had to be made.

In a later interview, Lian stated that A1GP was one of the “worst racing experiences of [his] life”. Not getting paid would be a big factor, but also playing into that was tons of infighting within the team, as he claims. This came to a head in the next round in Malaysia, where Lian and 13 other members of the team were locked out of their hospitality suite. To be fair to Ramachandra, this appears not to be of his own doing. Because by then, the team was taken over by A1 Holdings, the owners of A1GP.

Yes, the league organisers had to take ownership of the team. This was unique, as several teams past had fallen bankrupt without A1GP saving them. Remember, they were the ones that reached out to Singapore in the first place, and though the team was a dumpster fire, they felt it was worth it to fund the team for the current season.

Of course, the first thing they did was exacerbate the dumpster fire by firing several staff, including Denis Lian and Hafiz Koh, who didn’t even get a chance to do anything but pose for a few photos, without even informing them. All that was left of Team Singapore was Christian Murchison and a few people from West Surrey Racing left to operate the car.

Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia

Race 4: Sepang, Malaysia

And despite the reduced manpower and backstage issues, Team Singapore put on an absolute show in Sepang. During the feature race, after heavy rain at the start, Singapore started to climb up the field, so much so Murchison was in the points on merit rather than survival like in Beijing. However, other drivers were catching up to him, and by the end, he was hanging on for the final point ahead of Team Ireland. 

Watching back on this battle, it was breathtaking. I knew the end result of the race. I knew Team Singapore had lots of issues behind the scenes. And yet, when I saw this move from Christian Murchison:

I jumped from my seat. All throughout, I thought I’d laugh at Team Singapore and their failed venture in the World Cup of Motorsport. But this one moment made me celebrate. Team Singapore did us proud.

But that move happened with seven minutes left to go in the race. Both Ireland and Singapore continued to battle, and when it looked like Murchison could probably hold Ireland off for another point for Singapore, Ireland did THIS:

It’s one of the all-time greatest overtakes I’ve seen in motorsport, and I’m no casual. It took a monumental overtake to win that point away from Team Singapore. Despite Murchison’s hard work, Team Singapore came up empty handed.

And that was as good as it got for Singapore.

Although there were many, many cracks behind the scenes, the first ones that started to show to the public was when Team Singapore was a complete no-show in Indonesia. Murchison aggravated a pre-existing back injury in training between races, and was forced to sit out the next race. Didn’t help that A1 Holdings had fired both reserve drivers, Lian and Hafiz, the race before. Without anyone to drive, Singapore sat out.

Durban Street Circuit, South Africa

Race 5: Durban, South Africa

By this point, the golden moon-and-stars motif (or circle-and-other circles) that adorned the engine cover through the season was now gone. The only indication this was Team Singapore was the word “Singapore” on the rear wing. And the names of the public that chipped in $50 seemingly was removed a few races prior as well.

The team no longer felt Singaporean. Now it just felt like at attempt to represent Singapore like how students represent different countries in model U.N. The only real link to Singapore was Murchison, someone who couldn’t even stay in Singapore.

That round in Durban was a mess. It was probably the worst performance for the team. In qualifying, Murchison spun and couldn’t restart, ending up in the back of the grid. In the sprint race, Murchison was quick and actually overtook a few cars. However, completely on his own accord, he stuffed the car into the wall. Then in the feature race, Murchison thwacked the back of the stalled Team Italy, ending his race then and there. It couldn’t possibly get worse for Team Singapore’s next race.

And it didn’t. Because that was Team Singapore’s final race in A1GP.

Chapter 4: Closure

The official reason they ended the season early was because Murchison again aggravated his back injury in Durban. Initially ruled out for Mexico, he was still unfit for Shanghai and the finale in the UK. Sure, this problem could’ve been avoided had they not fired Lian and Hafiz, but it saved Team Singapore’s blushes from looking even more amateurish than they did in Durban. It was okay, just regroup for the next season, right?

But A1 Holdings had other ideas. They couldn’t fund their Model U.N version of Singapore no more, looking for private or corporate Singaporean backers. But their call fell on deaf ears, partially because of their lack of success, but also because of something else motorsport-wise.

Singapore had finally attracted Formula One

With such limited interest in motorsport in Singapore, all of it was channeled to F1 and not A1. With no backers, A1 Holdings dissolved Team Singapore before any plan to start the 2007-08 season was made.

And to be fair to Team Singapore, despite all the infighting and financial problems, they didn’t perform too badly. With such a small motorsports base and limited driver pool, they still scored some points. They beat four other countries. Funnily enough, the World Cup of Motorsport, A1GP, didn’t last too long after Singapore’s departure, though, folding after four seasons due to poor management in the 2008 financial crisis.

Each driver had their own story after A1GP. Christian Murchison only made a few appearances in Australian Supercars before leaving motorsport. Denis Lian managed and drove for his own team to a championship in the Asian Le Mans series (Granted, his category only had two teams, but let’s look past that). And Hafiz Koh… appeared on Channel 5 Show, Polo Boys. But the person with the most colourful story after A1GP has to be the original team manager, Krishna Ramachandra.

After A1GP, naturally he went back to his day job of being a lawyer. He still had a love for sports, though, and most recently took over Tampines Rovers in 2015. He was the chairman when they brought Jermaine Pennant to Singapore, and also pledged to open a football school here with Ronaldinho.

Ronaldinho’s football school closed down without starting a single training session. Pennant brought some hype to Tampines, but didn’t bring the impact that Ramachandra had hoped. And with Tampines in financial ruin with plenty of outstanding debts, Ramachandra left the post of Tampines chairman after just 19 months. 

Furthermore, he made an attempt to be elected as the Chairman of the Football Association of Singapore, and lost in that election as well.

They probably considered his previous attempt at leading Singapore into a World Cup.

 “You don’t want to end up pulling out of the series halfway because you don’t have enough money or the commitment. What kind of an impression will that leave on the watching world?”

Denis Lian, 8th June 2005, New Paper

Author

Luke Levy

Contributor

Sources:

STCars, Christianmurchison.com, National Archives of Singapore, AsiaOne, Channel NewsAsia , Motorsport.com, Jimoster.com, Driverdb, Meccanico, Pitpass.com, RX8 Club Forum, TODAY, iMDB, F1.COM

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Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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