There’s a small handful of motorsport events that sit right up in the top echelons of our sport. For a variety of reasons – history, difficulty, atmosphere, level of competition – they’re the one’s that every driver wants to win. You can’t set out to create these types of legendary events; many have tried and failed. The best ones evolve naturally – Le Mans, Daytona 500, Rally Monte Carlo, the Isle of Man TT and the Goodwood Revival. Even just to spectate from the sidelines at these crowning events is to experience something special. To experience history in motion.
An equally legendary but lesser known event is the Macau Grand Prix, held annually since 1954 in the tiny Chinese Special Administrative Region. Macau is just an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong, and falls broadly under the same ‘one country, two systems’ method of government as its nearby cousin. The cities are both territories of China, but rather than communism they have their own forms of capitalist government with (in theory) a kind of democracy.
The Guia Circuit is a street circuit in the truest sense of the term and has not changed since the fifties. The city around it has evolved beyond recognition but the width, layout, runoff areas (or lack thereof) and character of the track remains.
The 6.12km, 19 turn circuit is very similar in concept to Monaco, in fact it was this comparison that led to the first proper race. In the Spring of 1954 a group of three local residents met to discuss holding a ‘motorised treasure hunt’ or even a regularity event, and asked the Hong Kong Motorsports Club for advice. Upon viewing their planned circuit and noticing the resemblance to Monaco, they suggested holding a Grand Prix instead. The idea found great traction with the government, and a few months later in October, the first race was held.
All on public roads (the pit building and pit lane are a permanent monument to the race), the circuit initially follows the flats along the waterfront. Well, it used to follow the waterfront. Such is the rampant pace of development in Macau that land reclamation means the straights now run through the heart of the casino district instead, leaving just a small section along the water remaining.
The first section of track is a pure and simple cannonball run through the city, an ultra long straight with two sweeping bends that allows the faster cars to reach speeds in excess of 260km/h. A lot of drafting and slip streaming occurs, and these straights have witnessed some monumentally huge accidents over the years.
At the end of the straight sits a sharp 90deg right hander, the Lisboa bend, turning onto a significantly narrower piece of road. The braking zone here is one of the only true passing spots, and after another short straight the circuit turns right again at the Grand Lisboa casino. It’s impossible to see any racing on the section after the Lisboa bend, so I had to check it out after racing had finished one evening. In this picture the circuit runs right to left – you can see part of the armco behind that scooter and the tire barrier at the bottom of the frame.
The circuit now climbs steeply as it enters the mountain section; the elevation difference between the highest part and the start line is some 30 meters. This section must be intoxicating to drive – bend after bend, all narrow and nicely cambered, all flowing into each other as the track runs up and down hill, following the natural topography of the mountain.
There are few, if any, passing opportunities on the mountain section but that doesn’t reduce its importance or competitiveness. It’s all about staying right on the tail of the car in front, enabling you to make the most of a rare chance you might get later in the lap. Loose distance here, and you’ve wasted a chance to pass when you get back down on the flats.
The secret to a quick lap of the Guia Circuit is commitment, and how close to the wall you’re game to go. Competition is so intense that drivers need to be right on the limit, and car placement needs to be millimeter perfect. But just a fraction too fast could mean a brush with a wall, and it’s all over.
The F3’s were particularly interesting to watch as, forgetting speed, they require perfect technique and an exact line to even make it around. The risk of running wide on exit in one of these is a great one, too. A fraction misplaced and you could clip off a spoiler end-plate on the front wing, robbing you of vital downforce on the straights.
Sebastian Loeb, now racing for the Citroen World Touring Car Championship team, attempted the hairpin rally-style once in practice. I saw this in person, and was standing just below frame of this video. It was pretty spectacular to see, but he only did it once so I’m guessing it wasn’t any faster.
The straight ends with a fast right hander onto the reservoir section of the track. This is a vitally important corner, because not only does a fast exit give you more speed down the long straight that follows, but it is the first passing opportunity for several kilometers. It’s fascinating to watch racing here – do you take a tight line and defend your position, potentially sacrificing speed down the straight, or do you take a fast line and hope you can win the drag race?
The circuit finishes with a run around a large reservoir. You can’t access this section of track when racing is on, so here’s a picture of a bus clearly taking the wrong line around the final bend. The last corner is a spectacular place. The ocean meets the road and is filled with barges and diggers reclaiming more land in the distance, and above the circuit is the freeway interchange that leads to the long bridge to the nearby island of Taipa.
String it together, and it looks like this. You’re riding in the Citroën C-Elysée of 2014 WTCC champion and Macau race 1 winner, José María “Pechito” López.
A side benefit of having a circuit right in the heart of a thriving Asian city is that there are restaurants everywhere, even trackside. In between sessions you can quickly stop in and get yourself some… uh… I still don’t know what this was. Some kind of jerky I think. You just point at stuff and order it, and you’re never quite sure what you’ll end up with. Sometimes it’s best not to know, but it’s usually tasty though!
Land is scarce in Macau which makes finding a pit area big enough a real challenge. Formula 3 is the title category, so they have the pit lane garages. The World Touring Car Championship cars are next, and have a row of garages in the paddock area behind the pits.
The pits and start/finish straight are located right next to the international ferry terminal. This photo was taken at the taxi rank, and those yellow buildings are the backs of the control tower and corporate areas. What do you have at any major travel hub? Car parks.
Bringing good lighting is the key because there is hardly any of it provided. Car park lighting is typically designed to help you find your car, not to rebuild a gearbox or perform extensive servicing under. A few teams had poor lighting, and they suffered.
As much of an awesome space as it was, it was quite uncomfortable. It gets very hot and muggy down there, and there’s zero airflow. The fumes from cars and welding and painting and everything else just hangs around, and the noise from revving cars echoes and booms. It’s not sound, it’s just noise. It was fun to be down there for a little while, but this would be an awful paddock to work in for five days.
The Macau GP is the only major sanctioned international meet to have both cars and bikes on the program, and the bike race is world renowned. It’s like an end of season finale for the best of the motorcycle racing world. Champion road and circuit racers from the world are invited to compete, and the entry list included the likes of Ian Hutchinson (8 Isle of Man TT wins), Michael Rutter (4 TT wins, 5 Macau wins, British Superbike champion) and John McGuinness (21 TT wins and the fastest man ever to lap the Isle of Man).
The racing at Macau is excellent across the board, but the bikes really stood out. Their race was something special, with multiple position changes for the lead every lap and dicing around the full circuit.
Macau is probably best known these days for its Formula 3 race, and whilst not part of any championship, winning at Macau is an instant boost into a Formula One test or drive and is seen as a golden ticket to a successful career. Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Vern Schuppan, Riccardo Patrese, David Brabham, David Coulthard, Rickard Rydell, Ralf Schumacher, Takuma Sato and Lucas di Grassi are all past winners of the title race, and of the 22 drivers on the 2014 Formula One grid, some 15 of them have raced Formula 3 at Macau.
Like the bikes, entry to the F3 race is strictly invitational. Most of the field comes from the European F3 championship, with outstanding competitors from other F3 series included. One driver, Max Verstappen, already has a Formula One drive for next year, but it was interesting to look over the rest of the 31 driver field and wonder who will end up in F1 over the next few years. Many will.
As you’d expect at such a circuit and with so much pressure on their shoulders, racing was intense. Apart from a first lap accident that blocked the track and caused a red flag, the racing was largely clean but very close. You can see just why Formula 3 is the feeder category to Formula 1, and why a win at Macau highlights an up and coming talent.
Other support categories included the Macau GT Cup for FIA GT3 spec cars. Introduced in 2008, this has largely been a category for wealthy businessmen but that is slowly changing. This year there were factory teams from Mercedes AMG (SLS AMG GT3) who took the win, and Audi with their R8 LMS, both with a suite of factory drivers.
Typically the GT race is a bit of a crash-fest but this year the race was incident free. Unfortunately that meant racing wasn’t that good – the factory drivers streaked to the front, and the businessmen strung themselves out in order of talent. But just listening to those race prepared V8’s, V10’s and V12’s echoing off the concrete canyon’s was more than enough.
The Macau Road Sport Challenge was one of the most interesting categories, featuring mostly tuned and boosted Japanese machinery with a sprinkling of Lotus at the back of the field. Evo’s and WRX’s made up most of the grid, joined by the odd S2000, RX7, RX8 and GTR for good luck. The racing was of a high standard, as was the talent of the drivers. These guys raced clean and hard; not easy given the power of these machines. I guess it’s down to how highly tuned these cars were, but there were some spectacular engine failures during qualifying and the race.
The Macau Touring Car Cup was for small turbocharged hot hatches. About half the field was made of Peugeot RCZ’s, with the last half split equally between the Mini Cooper S and Ford Fiesta RS. These machines are the friendliest way to race at Macau, and they looked like great fun. They have launch control, proper dog boxes with sequential paddle shifters, big AP Racing brakes and what certainly sounded like antilag.
There was a big first lap accident that completely blocked the track. The resulting red flag sent the field back to the start line at which point the teams rushed out and started repairing the cars on the grid. I guess the officials couldn’t really do anything – almost half the field had damage, so they gave them 15 minutes to make repairs before restarting the race.
Macau was one of the most challenging races I’ve ever attempted to take photos at. Earlier on my trip the shutter mechanism of my DSLR collapsed and jammed the mirror up. After four years of constant use creating Any Given Reason that camera has done a lot of work, so I understand the failure, but it left me without a proper camera for Macau. All I had was a little Nikon J1 compact mirrorless, a good quality point-and-shoot, but with hardly any zoom. It’s a great little camera for taking photos at your cousins wedding, but terrible for motorsport. It was a real challenge to come up with anything even remotely usable.
The Macau circuit is utterly infuriating to spectate at. The only legitimate areas to buy a ticket and see the race from are three grandstands – two on the start/finish straight and one at the Lisboa corner. Everywhere else is officially off limits. With one of the most incredible street circuits just up on the hill, are you really going to limit yourself to a boring straight just like you can see anywhere?
The city doesn’t shut down for the race, so access for local residents is vital. It’s a little surreal to be watching the best F3 drivers in the world next to some builders refitting a shopfront, seemingly oblivious to the race. This means that you can walk alongside over half of the circuit. The organisers do a good job of covering it all up, but there are the inevitable gaps that you can sneak a view through. However, both sides of the track are lined with police officers who keep people moving and stop them from looking or taking photos.
To get these photos from this spot I had to hide behind a building corner out of sight, waiting until the police officer was looking the other way and some cars were coming. As I was waiting I composed the image in my head, and set the camera up to what I thought would be the right settings. Then I dashed out, got six shots in before the Police saw me. I kept shooting as he was blowing his whistle, then when he tapped me on the back I smiled and kept walking. Arguably, the smaller amateur camera enabled me to play the dumb tourist a little easier so it might have worked in my favor.
It’s not at all relaxing because you have to keep moving every few minutes, but you can string together a reasonable view and you do sometimes get lucky. For two days I walked past the Melco Hairpin several times and had a whistle blown at me as soon as I thought about stopping, but one morning another Australian and I watched two entire half-hour qualifying sessions right up at the catch fence. The Police officer was happy to turn a blind eye, and it wasn’t until another Officer walked up that he blew the whistle at us. We gave him a smile and a thumbs up as we left.
The best kept secret of Macau is to watch from the car park of the Maternity Hospital. Instead of kicking people out, the hospital security guards were uniformly friendly and welcoming and had even marked out a small viewing area for us. Other than the main straight down on the flats, this is the only spot you can spectate from without being hassled by the Police.
The view was good – a fast right hander with mid corner bumps into a braking zone and a tightening left hander. It got me thinking that I gladly would have paid for a ticket to watch from here, and there were at least four or five other areas of the mountain section where a small grandstand could easily be erected. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would have happily paid a decent amount of money to watch the GP from up here either.
As a place to visit, Macau is excellent. It’s just Asian enough to remind you that you’re a long way from home, but also just Western enough that you can get by without too much stress. The flashy lights and the casino’s are Macau’s big drawcard (it is said that Macau’s casino’s turn over more money in a month than the Las Vegas strip does in a year), but I found them to be largely tacky and soulless. The track runs through the casino area, so after the racing is done you really need to make an effort to escape to the other parts of the city.
The old city is less than ten minutes walk from the track, but it feels worlds away. Macau was a Portuguese Colony from the mid 16th Century until 1999, and there are parts of it that feel totally European.
It’s a genuinely odd place in race week. Within ten minutes walk of this photo, taken from the ruins of an ancient Catholic church, you can be in a relaxed European old city, in the hustle and bustle of a modern Asian city, in a replica of Las Vegas or walking the pits of an international car race. Like the circuit and the event itself, Macau is unique.
They call Macau the Monaco or Las Vegas of the East, and I kind of expected all the pomp and pageantry that goes with that title. But outside of the casino district the city is humble and down-to-earth. People are friendly, good food is cheap and there’s always something interesting to do or explore.
The collection even includes famous cars that have done parade laps, and this Porsche 930 Turbo fire tender is complete with removed rear window for easy access to extinguisher racks. I’m not so certain that a 930 Turbo would make the best emergency vehicle… 930 Turbo’s, with their snap oversteer and lots of boosted power, are usually the ones that require help from emergency vehicles themselves.
The cars are undoubtedly faster and the cityscape has changed beyond recognition, but the Guia Circuit is still the Guia Circuit, uncorrupted by safety features like gravel traps or widening or improvements for spectator friendliness.
It’s a circuit that produces first class racing, snaking through a city so unique it is a worthy destination of its own. If you’re into travel, cars, motor racing or a combination of the three, there’s hardly a better place to be than Macau in Grand Prix week. Just be prepared for some friendly encounters with the Police…
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