Algarve delights banish the blues

After the downpour at Spa, Portugal’s historic festival offered the perfect finale to a busy season of racing

What a way to end the season. Sunshine, blue skies, blue sea, blue-flag beaches, and a golf course on every corner. Not to mention a paddock packed with gorgeous racing cars, glorious noise and some decent racing around a wonderful circuit. And a swimming pool in the paddock. Yes, really.

This is the Grande Festival de Classicos at Portimao on the Algarve coast of Portugal. This year there was a record number of entries, the paddock drenched in the intoxicating aroma of hot Castrol R, gallons of polish and a subtle whiff of more expensive fragrances evaporating from nicely tanned limbs. Life is not a beach, it’s Portimao after a wet weekend at Spa.

Practice day is vital for those not familiar with the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve. It’s a demanding place, quick and undulating, a long straight down to a tightish right-hander, followed by a tighter right before the climb up and over the hill. This is also a great place to watch: the track is a natural arena and much of the 4.6km lap is in sight. For the drivers it’s tricky, with blind crests and precious few obvious reference points. A gentle walk round the lap is pure joy: apices hidden over brows, and at the highest point the cars are silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. Nothing like a brace of Matra MS670s in the late afternoon sun. Approaching the final left-hander, before the downhill run to the home straight, the cars appear to be racing straight into the sky, as if on a rollercoaster.

Walking the track during F1 qualifying, I was reminded of the Osterreichring. The topography is so right. In places all you see is green grass, a racing car and blue sky beyond. Save for the dreaded wire netting, you’d have to go a long way for a better feast for the eyes. Should you fear hyperbole, or a drug-induced euphoria, just go and see for yourself. I haven’t enjoyed watching Grand Prix cars so much for a long time: the wheelspin, the power slides, the grabbing of manual gears and the sweet song of a Cosworth. To drive this track hard, in a quick car, must be almost unthinkably exhilarating if you can hold your breath for long enough.

Your correspondent is starting a campaign right here and now. Dear Mr Ecclestone, please can we have one of your F1 races at Portimao? If not the Grand Prix of Portugal, then how about the one you call the Grand Prix of Europe? The circuit is less than an hour away from the airport on a virtually empty motorway, and just 15 minutes from 5-star hotels by the sea. The paddock is vast, and there are 85,000 seats just waiting to be filled. Yours sincerely, etc.

Festival promoter Francisco Santos is upbeat, having attracted a superb collection of cars in the wake of a global recession. Where on earth do these people get their money from? A purely rhetorical question.

“Yes, we are pleased,” says Santos, “It is surprising in these difficult times but we have 286 cars here and that underlines the continuing strength of historic motor racing. The spectators love to see these famous cars and we sold 12,000 paddock tickets which is encouraging.”

Is there any fault to find? Yes, of course. Too many of the races are too long. And the classes within many of the races are too confusing. But, hey, we are here for the craic, and it’s good.

The stars of the show were Rob Hall and Leo Voyazides, both of whom spent more time on the podium than racers have any right to do. How Hall has time to prepare all those cars is beyond me. Then there’s the Minshaw clan, Roger Wills, Simon Hadfield and Gary Pearson, stalwarts all. And don’t forget Julian Bronson who finished the season on his 60th birthday. Historic racing salutes you all.

Meanwhile, on Saturday night men in FIA uniforms were paying close attention to the McLaren MP4/1B of Nathan Kinch, kneeling next to its flanks with rulers. It was like stepping back in time. This was John Watson’s car back in 1982. A few tweaks later, it was passed, and by raceday the Lanzante lads had re-painted the rear deck where it was scorched by the exhaust system. Running an MP4 is a learning process.

The focal point of the Festival was the F1 race, and rightly so, for this was to decide the FIA Historic F1 series. In the build-up to the finale, as if there wasn’t enough excitement, up in the air it was utterly electrifying. Portuguese aerobatic pilot Luis Garcao performed truly incredible feats above the pitlane in a Ford-sponsored Pitts Special, finally taking the chequered flag by streaking down the straight at head height. They are allowed to do this here, for which we can only rejoice.

After an agonising wait on the grid, poleman Andy Meyrick led away in his Arrows A5, followed by Katsu Kubota in Williams FW07 and Bobby Verdon-Roe in McLaren MP4/1. Grid order then, but not for long. Running nose to tail the top three put on a fantastic show, Kubota grabbing the lead into the hairpin early on and taking victory by less than a second.

Behind him the tussle for second was hard-fought, BV-R taking Meyrick under braking at the end of the straight, only to be put back in his place. This was exciting stuff to the end, the Arrows just having the edge on traction out of the corners, the McLaren better on the brakes. It had gone all the way to the wire and it was Peter Meyrick who took the title by two points from BV-R, this by dint of winning his class in his March 761. What made this so unfeasibly dramatic was that his son Andy had spoiled Bobby’s party by snatching second place in the ground effects class, thereby taking points from Bobby and thus helping his father. The stuff of scriptwriters’ dreams, except that’s just what this racing family, all dressed in 2010 Champion shirts at the end, managed in the Algarve.

It’s always a joy to see a Williams win a race. But if you’d told Frank and Patrick in 1981 that FW07 would still be winning in 2010 they would have put it down to the rantings of a lunatic. The final race of the historic season was hugely entertaining, there were smiles all round at the end, and a tear in the eye for those of us who were there back in the day.

Returning to my hotel my eye was drawn to a poster proclaiming that Michael Jackson was to appear ‘live’ at the Casino. Surely not. Must be the effects of that delicious vinho branca from the Douro Valley.

Transpires this is a Portuguese Michael Jackson lookalike – just one of the many and varied delights of the Grande Festival de Classicos weekend on the Algarve.

Now I’ve seen everything.