Track Visit Vila Real

There were bridges, level-crossings, sheer drops and punch-ups in parc ferme. Yet everyone who raced at this Portuguese road circuit came away enamoured. Richard Heseltine recounts its story

Period photography courtesy of Adelino Dinis

Recreation photos by Ian Dawson

What's best, regards or thanks? Obrigado, Ricardo Heseltino. That ought to do it. Oh, and another one. No shoving please. Form an orderly queue. So this is what it feels like. Endless panning shots along a ribbon of greasy dual-carriageway and the junior locals waiting at the bus stop are getting lively. Another run, another chance to show off at the roundabout. That's the great thing about old Escorts. They get sideways at walking pace: even an inept hack can look like a driving god. To a bunch of 12-year olds. A few beans and round we go. Lovely stuff. Who would you like it made out to?

An obnoxious looking Mkl with a bronchial backbeat is always bound to attract attention. Yet around Vila Real nobody above shaving age pays it much attention. Some onlookers may have witnessed Antonio Peixinho claim pole here with this car for the Group Two race back in '69. If they did they're not letting on. Sitting in a petrol station just off what was the old start-finish line, there are few pointers to this having once been a classic road circuit, only a tiny concrete grandstand dwarfed by office buildings and street furniture.

As drizzle turns into rivulets, the Escort begins the slow trudge through traffic, retracing the steps of an epic circuit. From alongside the old grandstand, you (would) accelerate along the straight — now blighted with roundabouts —before a steep descent to your right. There then follow sharp left and right turns before the Timpeira stone bridge: you are officially out of the town. Now starts a free-flowing section, constantly climbing towards Mateus Palace. Then comes the hairy part: the descent. Almost all cars would reach maximum speed before braking hard for a harsh left (stone walls ahead. Naturally). Then there's a short right and another straight which leads to a left-hander and another tight right among the houses and a level-crossing. A bit of a jump and it's flat(ish) chat towards the river. Very narrow. Very tricky. You're now entering the 'metallic bridge' used from 1966 onwards. Exiting, you turn right, where on the inside used to be a shop selling sausages that lent its name to the corner. By now you're back in the centre of Vila Real, with only an uphill short straight between you and the finishing line.

There hasn't been racing here since 1991, when Pedro Carvalho's Renault Clio careened into the crowd, killing four. But for many, real racing — the good stuff — had ended decades earlier. From 1966 to '73, each July saw Vila Real swamped with native talent interspersed with jobbing foreigners roaming around Europe on the start-money trail.

One such was Willie Green: "I remember going there in '69 [for the six-hour race] with Johnny Blades in my Ford GT40. We were paid something like £400: quite a lot 37 years ago! It was a bit of a trek to Vila Real and it could be difficult getting through customs on the Spanish-Portuguese border. Some people were stopped there for days.

"It was a bit like going back in time by about 100 years. I can still remember seeing women doing their washing in a stream. But the people were nice and friendly. It was an amazing circuit. Very, very fast away from the town, but the viaduct we went over was very narrow. If you broke down there was no way another car could get past."

Bridge aside, the circuit layout had changed little since the first meeting was held on June 15 1931. The inaugural event formed part of the town's annual celebrations and was organised by a committee of citizens under the guidance of Aureliano Barrigas. With the ACP (Automóvel Club de Portugal) lending a hand, finance was raised by levying a tax on meat.

The premier Corrida de Automóveis encounter attracted a total of 10 starters. Every local business contributed something, with prizes numbering the obligatory silverware along with tins of Castrol oil and coffee mugs. With not much in the way of asphalt, contrails of dust ensured that spectators barely got a glimpse of cars come race day, as Gaspar Sameiro and Ercilio Barbosa romped home the victors in a Ford Model A. Nonetheless, the meeting was a success and became an annual fixture.

A year on, the 25-lap (this being a seven-kilometre course) race was won by Vasco Sameiro aboard an Invicta 4½-litre S-type ahead of his brother Gaspar's trusty Ford. He would repeat the feat a year on in an Alfa Romeo 8C2300. With 'cycle racing added from 1934, the Vila Real meeting took on an international edge two years later when Adler sent a works team to tackle the main sportscar feature. Rudolph Sauerwein would have to settle for third, one place ahead of team-mate Paul von Guilleaume, as Adolfo Ferreirinha stormed home to win in his Ford V8 special from Manuel de Oliveira's BMW 315. In the sister race for outright competition cars the entry was bolstered by a pair of ERAs from Douglas Briault and George Manby-Colegrave, but they retired, the omnipresent Vasco Sameiro taking the flag in his Alfa.

There would be further meetings that decade, with Casimiro de Oliveira winning the 1937 sportscar race in an SS100 Jaguar and Sameiro another victory in the Categoria Corrida (as he would a year on). The onset of hostilities naturally precluded competition, with the next event being staged in 1949. Jose Cabral won the sole race in his Allard Kl.

A year later and the entry was strengthened by an influx of Italian aces, with Piero Carini taking overall honours in his Osca, while Mille Miglia hero Giovanni Bracco took the win in '51 aboard his Ferrari 212 Export. Portuguese honour was upheld a year on as de Oliveira drove his Ferrari 225S to victory. There would be no more racing in Vila Real until '58, when Stirling Moss stormed to victory and a Maserati whitewash, taking the chequer ahead of Jean Behra. Mário de Araújo Cabral, later to become the undoubted star turn at Vila Real, won the production sportscar race in his Mercedes 300SL.

And that was it until motorsport returned in 1966, the circuit having undergone minor surgery. With the race meeting now moved to July, the event comprised four races for sportscars, saloons, F3 and motorcycles. Bearded Brit John Fenning came out on top in the single-seaters with his Brabham BT18 ahead of Jonathan Williams's de Sanctis. The trip was particularly rewarding for John Miles as he took a brace of victories in a Lotus Elan and Cortina. Twelve months on Chris Williams scored a comfortable win in the F3 race ahead of fellow Brabham driver Reine Wisell, while Mike de Udy lapped the field in the sportscar race aboard his Lola T70.

By 1968 the Vila Real meeting was attracting a wealth of international entries. And talent. Wisell made up for a year earlier by taking the F3 spoils in his Tecno, while de Udy scored another win in his Lola. But open-wheelers were dropped for '69 as the sportscar entry bloomed.

"There were a lot of British drivers competing," recalls Green. "It was very, very hot that year and I remember Alain de Cadenet's car catching fire. They sent out for the fire brigade which turned up with a vintage fire engine [it's still there...], brass helmets and all. My abiding memory of that trip was having trouble with the GT40. When they ran hot there were often problems getting them started again. I got a push and then did a racing start. I took off and after a while heard this almighty bang from the back end. I thought I'd snapped a driveshaft."

"The noise he heard was my head bouncing off the rear window!" recalls Blades. "He didn't know I was hanging on for dear life! That was one of the more vivid memories I have of Vila Real. It was quite a circuit: two level-crossings, two bridges — one with a drop of about 150ft — and 27 blind corners, taken at anything from 25 to 150mph. And all lined by houses and stone walls. We must have been mad."

Unfortunately the Green/Blades combo weren't classified among finishers, as David Piper and Chris Craft took overall honours in de Cadenet's Porsche 908. A major accident for a local Lotus 47 driver failed to end play, although a fracas later kicked off in parc fermé as drivers weren't allowed access to their cars. Attempts at mediation were met with fists and truncheons.

Even so the grid was packed again for '69 as Teddy Pilette and ‘Taf’ Gosselin took the win in their VDS Lola T70, its radiator topped with red wine because the team had forgotten to bring coolant. The big guns arrived for 1970. Against an army of Chevrons, Abarths and a 1.3-litre Ford Escort(!), local hero Cabral rocked up with David Piper's Porsche 917. "He told me I had to be very careful because factory work on the car was expensive," recalls the ever-smiling former F1 man. "I started from pole and had a fierce dice with [René] Herzog's Ferrari, which had a clear advantage uphill. Downhill it was a different matter. Mid-race we were close but then the oil-pressure light went red. Not wanting to harm Piper's bank balance, I stopped at the pits only to find that it was a short-circuit that had made the light go on. I lapped as fast as I could to catch the 512M and Jorge de Bagration's 908. Herzog was eight laps from the end but I was gaining lost ground fast, breaking the lap record a few times. I settled it at an average of 169km/h, which was 3km/h faster than my pole time. At the Mateus descent I was close to redlining in top, which was more than 320km/h. Bagration went on to win, 45 seconds ahead of me. I was happy but today I'm saddened that my only win at Vila Real was in 1958 with the 300SL."

There would be further races, with 2-litre sports-racers featuring prominently. Carlos Gaspar still holds the lap record for his winning efforts in the '73 race: he lapped his Team Bip Lola T292 9km/h faster than Cabral managed in the 917. In 1974 Portugal became swept up in a revolution and, while competition would return three years later with saloons, the glory days were over.

But the memories remain. "Racing at Vila Real was among the happiest times I've had in motorsport," claims Green. "There was a wonderful atmosphere — and some serious hangovers! Real road racing was coming to an end by then so I'm pleased that I got the chance to compete on such a circuit."

Blades concurs: "It was insane but what a track! Vila Real was a real driver's circuit and you had to be very, very brave. I'm just glad that I survived! What I liked most was the camaraderie among the entrants. Oh, and the Mateus Rosé of course. I remember one driver, whom I'd better not name, had a hidden tank in his car to carry some home! It was a different world." No kidding.

Thanks to Adelino Dinis for his help with the photo shoot and information and Luis Sousa Ribeiro for the loan of the Escort