By Rob Widdows
“Hello”. Big smile. “You here for race? You like the play casino, have night with me?” She is very good looking, designed in a wind tunnel, alluring in that Oriental way so many Europeans find distracting. “No, thank you,” I reply, also with a smile. She is not happy. So I explain that I do like a game of poker but, as a general rule, I do not, on a whim, spend the night with total strangers. Quite early in this explanation she disappears.
Welcome to Macau.
“Hello Rob Widdows, you will write something nice about us. I trust,” says Teddy Yip, firmly shaking my hand and sliding a glass of champagne from a silver tray into the other.
“Come, let me show you the fantastic view from my house,” adds the founder of Theodore Racing, leading me briskly through a crowd of chaffering guests.
Welcome to Macau.
Later that night in November 1990 I wandered through the myriad gaming rooms of the Lisboa Hotel. I fancied a wager on Mika Hakkinen winning the ‘Grand Prix’ on Sunday afternoon. What I found was room after room of frenzied gambling, the staccato sounds of mah jong, roulette and dominoes making any conversation impossible. I swear I could have gone there dressed as a penguin and nobody would have lifted their eyes from the tables. The Chinese just love to gamble. An elderly man in a dark corner offered me odds on a fight between two stick insects. I declined.
The ‘Grand Prix’, a race for Formula 3 cars on the sensational and steamy Guia street track, is itself something of a lottery. And never more so than in 1990. What a year to be there, what a moment to savour. The air was thick with anticipation. Reigning British F3 champion Hakkinen was back in town, for one last F3 baffle, but a young German chap called Michael Schumacher was out to spoil the party. And boy, that is exactly what he did, as so often he would in years to come. The Finn with the lop-sided grin was clear favourite, well worth a wager in this exotic yet slightly tawdry territory on the Pearl River Delta.
On the grid for race two, surrounded by scantily clad young ladies advertising things like steel and tobacco, Mr Yip shook hands with the racers, sensing a big day in the history of his fiefdom. I began to walk the circuit, climbing to the top of the town, and around they came, startlingly close.
Overtaking at Macau is for the very brave. But what was this? You had to look twice. Schumacher led Hakkinen, winner of race one. OK, second for Mika would net him overall victory, and that’s how it was looking until the very last lap when, guess what, they collided. On the straight.
Had Schumacher brake-tested Hakkinen? He’d blocked and the cars had touched, Mika sliding into the wall. The Finn climbed out and stood there, head in hands. The favourite was out, all bets were off and the winner crossed the line with a deranged rear wing. Later in the paddock Mika was inconsolable, but this would not be the last time their paths crossed. Before the end of the following season, both were in Formula 1.
They were cabbage and caviar, two such different men who between them won nine World Championships and 111 Grands Prix. They shared a craving for the fix known as winning. Hakkinen’s sweetest victory came almost exactly eight years later, when he crossed the line at Suzuka to clinch his first World Championship. Schumacher was already showered and changed, having retired with a shredded tyre after starting from the back of the grid.
A great many reputations have been made in Macau over the years and a new book by Philip Newsome entitled Teddy Yip, From Macau to the World and Back traces the history. Yip died in 2003, but the Grand Prix weekend at Guia remains one of the sport’s most thrilling spectacles.