As it sets to celebrate its 60th edition, the Macau Grand Prix—one constant in a time of rapid change for the Chinese territory—is showing no signs of slowing down.
Formula One legends Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel are just a few of the drivers who have braved the twisting, hilly street circuit. It is Asia’s version of the famous Monaco Formula One track, complete with the casinos, and it is recognized as one of the toughest challenges in racing.
Central Macau shuts down during grand prix weekends, with the recent edition in November meant to commemorate the 60th year since the grand prix’s humble beginnings in 1954. Roads were fenced off and barriers went up to form the 6.2-kilometer Guia circuit, mixing long, harbor-side straights, with chases up and down Macau’s steep, narrow backstreets.
“The track is a freak of nature and it’s a miracle. If God ever built a racetrack, it would be the one in Macau,” former driver and TV commentator Matthew Marsh said.
Macau, an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong, is the culmination of the Formula Three season, bringing together the best drivers from the category’s various series around the world. Senna won the inaugural Formula Three race in 1983, and Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton also went from Macau to winning the F1 world championship.
Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas are others among the 2013-season F1 drivers who have raced in Macau, testament to its enduring place in the sport.
But Macau also features, uniquely, motorcycle racing, as well as touring car and sports car series such as the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.
Bamboo (fencing) roots
The event began without fanfare in 1954 when local car enthusiasts decided to hold a treasure hunt in the Pearl River Delta territory, then controlled by Portugal. Championed by businessman and future Formula One team owner Teddy Yip, a founder of Macau’s casino and tourism industry, the event quickly blossomed as a race despite rudimentary facilities that included bamboo fencing.
Motorcycle racing was added in 1967, adding extra cachet to an event that is well known to motor sports fans the world over. The event has also retained its prestige during Macau’s transformation into the world’s biggest casino center with revenues vastly outstripping Las Vegas’s.
Although Macau’s wealthy casinos now host international golf, boxing and other sports, the historic grand prix remains one of the main events of the year.
“The grand prix actually is more important than ever because it’s almost like the only thing that isn’t gambling in Macau,” said Marsh.
Key to its success is the Guia circuit—one of the world’s few street tracks—and the sheer challenge it gives drivers used to racing in more sanitized conditions. The narrow track, surrounded by high walls and fences with few run-off areas, leaves little room for error. Marsh said he nearly “crashed every corner” when he raced there.
“It’s bloody hard and racing drivers usually love the most difficult racetrack,” he said.
Fatalities have been few but in 2012 Portuguese motorcyclist Luis Filipe de Sousa Carreira and Hong Kong touring car racer Phillip Yau died in crashes on consecutive days.