It beats the beach

Better known as a holiday destination, Portugal’s Algarve region is now home to a circuit that has caught F1’s attention.
By Joe Saward

For years it has seemed that motor sport in Europe is fading. France has lost its Grand Prix, while plans to build a new circuit are tied up in bureaucratic wrangling. The Belgian GP is struggling to attract spectators. The Germans say that they cannot afford a race every year. The future of the British Grand Prix is clouded. At the same time the Middle East and Asia are on the up. More and more Formula 1 races have shifted to places where there is no racing tradition and no crowds, but where governments are willing to invest in order to promote their countries.

But there is a glint of hope for Europe. Down in Portugal, the Autódromo International Algarve has big ambitions.

The astonishing thing about the £200 million project at Portimao is that the money has come entirely from private investors.

“Developing a suitable business plan took several years,” says Paulo Pinheiro, the man who dreamed up the idea. “But the circuit should break even in seven to 10 years.”

One cannot accuse anyone who can raise £200m of being a dreamer, but Pinheiro admits that the idea of a race circuit was a dream from his teenage years.

“I grew up in the Algarve and raced karts,” he says. “There were no circuits here and I had to travel with my father right across Portugal to go racing. I would often wish there was a circuit near my home. It was the same when he moved on to motorcycles."

For Pinheiro it just made sense. The Algarve has been a popular tourist destination since the 1960s when cheaper flights brought Portugal to the attention of northern Europeans. The climate was mild, with 300 days of sunshine each year, and the beaches were beautiful.

In the 1970s a lot of golf courses were built and gradually luxury real estate development took off, notably at Quinta do Lago, near Faro. In the late ’80s this became the European home of Ayrton Senna. Since then many other international sports personalities have bought property in the area.

Development accelerated after Portugal became a member of the European Union in 1986 and the Algarve underwent a property boom. Today, it is an international community with English being spoken throughout the region. The one thing missing, at least for Pinheiro, was motor racing. The Autódromo do Estoril, near Lisbon, enjoyed success in the ’80s, but by 1996 it had lost the Portuguese GP and was fading from the international scene.

“In 2000 I was looking at new projects and I thought that a race track would be a very interesting idea,” says Pinheiro. “It makes sense because of the climate and because we have lots of hotels. Finding money was not easy in Portugal; then we needed the land and all the necessary permissions. It took a lot of time, but while doing the paperwork I spent 18 months looking at different circuits around the world to see what would make the best possible racing facility.”

The process was completed in the autumn of ’07. By that time the project was much bigger, as new ideas were added to help generate more revenue: a luxury hotel, residential development, sports complex, multi-circuit international kart facility, off-road circuit and a technology park.

The main circuit Pinheiro designed himself, although he left the buildings and infrastructure to professionals.

“It is a unique track,” says Pinheiro, with no small amount of pride. “It’s very challenging for the drivers, with steep gradients and blind brows, but at the same time very safe. The track has some fast, flowing corners, but there are slower corners as well. There are 32 different possible track layouts. And we have an automatic watering system to simulate rain.

“The public is able to get close to the track,” he adds. “They can see 80 per cent of the track from the grandstands. We are still working to finish all the construction, and we need time to let the trees grow, but we think we will have a great track in a great region. Opening the facility in an economic downturn did not help us, but there wasn’t really a choice. We are very proud of what we have achieved and of the praise we’ve received for the circuit. We were a bit worried that the track might be a little too radical, but now we have heard the reactions we’re not worried.”

Getting the circuit finished was a mad rush. The first event was the final round of the 2008 World Superbike Championship last October.

“When we started building that year I told people we would be finished in October,” he recalls. “They all said ‘October 2009?’ They could not understand that it would all be built in just 10 months. Getting it done involved 2000 people, working shifts, 18 hours a day. Sometimes more.

“The biggest problem was the access road from the motorway. Finally the local government gave us the land, we built the road, then gave it back to the government. It was a rush, but we did it.”

The Superbike event was a success. There were some serious traffic jams because things weren’t totally ready, but there were also 90,000 spectators – and some good lessons learned.

“It proved that there was an audience for the right kind of events,” says Pinheiro. The Superbike riders were bowled over by what they saw. Troy Corser said he loved the track and Yamaha team boss Massimo Meregalli spoke in glowing terms. “It is an unbelievable track,” he said. “One of the most beautiful circuits in the world. They did a great job here – and all in 10 months.”

A few weeks later the first Formula 1 test teams rolled into Portimao, led by McLaren and Ferrari. “It’s a fantastic track,” said McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa. “It looks like a roller-coaster. It is really enjoyable, especially for a test driver who is used to running on the same two or three tracks.”

Fellow McLaren tester Gary Paffett was also enthusiastic. “It is a constant challenge,” he said. “You go up, you go down, and it’s hard to find the best lines and braking points.”

Ferrari test driver Marc Gené said that it was “brilliant”. Later that winter, Williams appeared at the track and test driver Nico Hulkenberg had his first taste of Portimao. “It’s a great track,” he said, “very safe, but it offers challenging ups and downs, fast and tight bends.”

It was the same story when the A1GP circus arrived in April. “It really feels like a roller-coaster,” said New Zealand’s Earl Bamber.

“I enjoyed it. It has a lot of blind corners – character-building corners.”

Most recently Portimao has hosted the Le Mans Series. The race was carefully timed to start in the cool of the evening. It began just after seven and lasted for six hours, so that the cars were running in both daylight and darkness. The problem was that there wasn’t much of a crowd for A1GP or the LMS. Pinheiro accepts that Portugal does not have a ready-made audience and that it may take time to build up interest.

“There’s no real tradition of the sport in the region,” he says. “I hope the circuit will help to introduce new generations to motor racing. This is going to be a mid-term project. Regardless of the size of the crowds we are going to continue building the audience. Since the departure of Tiago Monteiro there have been no Portuguese drivers in F1, but there are a number of good guys like Alvaro Parente and Filipe Albuquerque on the way up.”

Building the audience is not just about racing, he adds. “It is about attracting people and giving them a good experience. It’s about making sure they enjoy their visit and want to do it again. The circuit is open every day. People can come and look around and watch whatever action is going on. We have cars running most days and once a month we have a track day when anyone can come and try out the track in their own car. They can also lap the track as a passenger of a professional racing driver or take part in a racing school course. We also have a defensive driving course.”

His aim is to build a racing community. The karting circuit and off-road centre will bring in visitors all year round. Pinheiro has done a deal with the local hotels so that they don’t hike their prices when the races are on. The goal is to make sure that the fans keep coming back.

Part of the development is a Radisson hotel. There are also 160 apartments, luxuriously furnished and with access to a swimming pool, tennis courts and a solarium. They are carefully screened from the track. The target audience is the racing community with some money to invest. Buy one and you are guaranteed a seven per cent return for three years, as they are rented out when you are not using them.

The circuit has tried hard to be friendly to everyone, particularly the top-end customer. There’s an impressive VIP tower in the centre of the circuit. This features 48 spacious hospitality areas with terrific views of the track, plus a large open area in the centre where exhibitions can be presented. It has direct underground access to the vast paddock area.

The kart circuit is nearly complete and the technology park is under construction. The aim is for teams to set up testing bases in Portugal. The F1 test ban has not helped, but A1GP might house its operations centre at the track – if it continues (see p23). “We have a contract,” says Pinheiro. “The ball is now in their court.”

The plan is for regular GP2 and World Touring Car Championship races, but what about a Grand Prix?

“It was not part of our plans to have an F1 race,” he says. “But we’d like one. If it happens one day, that would be great. We’ve built a top-level racing facility, so that will obviously help us. Now it’s up to the government. They would have to cover the cost of the sanctioning fees. It would be a huge boost to the circuit if they did that. They say they will do their best…”

*****

Report

Track passes Masters test

Sir Stirling Moss and Jackie Oliver were among the Masters racers to give Portimao the thumbs up on their first visit there

Time to put down the golf clubs and go racing. As the Masters teed off at Vilamoura, so the motor racing Masters battled it out along the coast at Portimao on a hot weekend in southern Portugal.

In October the Algarve Historic Festival made its debut at the new Autodromo Internacional Algarve on the eve of its first anniversary. And a wonderful track it is, a real drivers’ circuit.

No historic event would be complete without Sir Stirling Moss, whose connections with racing in Portugal go back more than half a century. Before the days of Grands Prix in Lisbon and Oporto, Moss drove a Humber Snipe from Oslo to the Algarve in 89 hours, in return for a little financial reward. Last month he was back, racing his beautiful little Osca. This time it was in return for having his car fettled by Puxar Lustro, purveyor of a polish called ‘Zymol’ in the region.

“I tell you boy,” said Stirling after qualifying, “this is a great track, difficult to learn, and I’ve had to keep an eye on the mirrors.” This after he had studied his onboard camera on a laptop computer, and after he had sat high in the VIP tower, studying the lines for the corners. Such is the commitment of the man at 80 years old.

Moss was not the only Master to be impressed. Jackie Oliver, racing his BMW touring car, and Bobby Rahal in Chevron and Lola, were equally enthusiastic. “Great drivers’ track,” said Rahal, while Oliver, qualifying at the front, said: “Nice track, a bit of a challenge, but if they want a GP they’ll need better run-offs and they might want to lower the crests.” And they will have to find the money for Mr Ecclestone.

There was some good racing. Hall and Hall, Rick and Rob, fought side by side for victory in their Matra-Simcas, Rick taking the lead on the last lap after a backmarker came between them. The big blue French cars looked and sounded wonderful as they demolished the field.

The Tony Awards were presented as usual, Smith and Dron in fine form. The Bearded One easily won both his races in his gorgeous Ferrari Dino V12, while the Very Tall One nearly got Smith’s Maserati 300S into the top three despite the engine refusing to start after a fuel stop.

The Algarve Festival looks set to become a popular date in the calendar. The sun shines, the track is magnificent. Might even tempt the locals away from all those golf courses.
Rob Widdows