The first Formula Three Macau Grand Prix helped build the legends of Ayrton Senna and the race itself. By Marcus Simmons
Even 22 years on, the sound of a fist banging on a table may well be echoing around leafy Surrey. Dismayed by the red tape of motorsport’s governing body and the intransigence of some of its officials, Barry Bland’s dream of turning the Macau Grand Prix from an end-of-year jolly into a showcase for the world’s leading up-and-coming stars was on the verge of being shattered.
Bland, whose Motor Race Consultants company also ran the Formula Two Association, had led the fight to switch the Macau street race from Formula Atlantic rules to F2 for its 1983 running. But, just two months after his plan was rejected, he showed up in Portugal’s Far Eastern enclave with a glittering array of the year’s finest Formula Three teams and driving talent. F3 was Bland’s reluctant fallback option; a year later, when F2 died in Europe and made way for Formula 3000, he must have breathed a sigh of relief that things had turned out that way. “In retrospect F3 was the much more sensible thing to do,” he admits.
This ‘sensible thing’ meant that the Macau Grand Prix became the single most important junior single-seater race in the world. The first running to F3 rules resulted in a startling win for Ayrton Senna in his final race before stepping up to Formula One. The legends of both Macau and Senna had moved from embryonic to reality.
But what was wrong with Formula Atlantic and how did Bland and MRC assume this power? For starters, Atlantic was the F3-level category for cars powered by 1.6-litre racing engines, born in America (as Formula B) before being introduced to the UK for 1971. Apart from its heyday in ’73-75, Atlantic had never really gained a secure foothold in British motorsport and was pretty much dead in Europe by ’82. But it had gone from strength to strength in North America and also had thriving scenes in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
By the early ’80s Atlantic grids were falling everywhere. Just as bad, the category had three different names! Down Under it was known as Formula Pacific and then, when FISA (then the sporting arm of the FIA) attempted to introduce a world championship for the class for ’83, they renamed it Formula Mondial. This series was to be one of the whitest elephants in single-seater history, and lasted just one year.
Macau, which was traditionally fought out by the ‘superteams’ assembled by locally-based entrepreneurs Teddy Yip and Bob Harper, had run to Atlantic (or Pacific, or whatever) rules since 1974. But race coordinator Bland, who still assembles the entries for this race and the other international F3 events, felt it was time for a change. He’d only been involved with Macau for a couple of years, but was getting increasingly frustrated. “My secretary at the time was a friend of Teddy Yip’s,” he recalls. “She’d go out every year to the Macau Grand Prix to look after his guests. She’d come back with a resume of the race and we’d forward the information to the press. Then in ’81 they had a very poor race and we made a pitch direct to the Macau government to run F2.
“At the time we ran the F2 Association. We spoke for all the teams and had a direct link to FISA, and they left it pretty much to myself and a guy who represented the circuit owners. They liked that, because it meant F2 was a no-hassle formula for them — we sorted the dates, the prize money, the travel fund, the sporting regs…
“Atlantic was sliding downhill very rapidly, but FISA was persuaded by Ron Frost (the head of New Zealand’s governing body) to do a global series and they came up with a championship which ended with Macau. All the drivers were totally unknown, so why would organisers pay vast sums in shipping them around the world? We went back to Macau in ’82, where they had a dreadful race and we went to the Mayor of Macau, Roger Santos, who was a lovely guy. We said we could guarantee 26 F2 cars for the following year and we could virtually guarantee that 20 would finish.”
To be fair the ’82 race was eventful, but you could see Bland’s point. There were just 18 cars, with the top 10 qualifiers covered by 6.48sec… Ensign Formula One driver Roberto Guerrero, racing a Ralt RT4 for Yip’s Theodore team, threw away the race with three laps to go when he hit a backmarker. Tiff Needell should have inherited the lead, but had creamed his March into a 200-year-old piece of trackside scenery and damaged the suspension when the car jumped out of gear. Roberto Moreno, who had crunched his Theodore Ralt into Japan’s Masahiro Hasemi at the first corner and pitted to repair his RT4’s deranged nose, took the lead to take a last-gasp win by 26sec from Irishman Alo Lawler. After 32 laps just eight cars finished, and four of them were lapped.
Bland, working in conjunction with the Hong Kong AA’s Phil Taylor, attempted to bring the top F2 contenders from Europe and Japan together, but that would mean cars that were much faster than Atlantics racing around a very tricky, very fast 3.8-mile track. “Ron Frost went absolutely bonkers,” says Bland. “He was a senior representative at FISA and said, ‘No way will we give the circuit a licence for F2.’ He was probably right…”
Macau had spent $1.3 million on circuit upgrades for F2, but the big problem was the approach to the first real corner, Statue (now Lisboa), which came at the end of a mile-long flat-out blast through the kinks at Reservoir Bend and Yacht Club Bend (now Mandarin) and past the start-finish line. Statue needed a wider entrance, but that involved removing some ‘sacred’ trees and reclaiming land from the sea. This couldn’t be done, so FISA rejected the F2 plan. “We went back with a proposal for F3,” continues Bland. “FISA couldn’t reject that because the power output was lower than Atlantic, which they’d already said it was safe for.”
In a short time Bland assembled a superb entry of the best F3 runners in Europe which, combined with assorted ‘guests’, totalled 25 cars. Running under the Theodore banner would be British champion Senna in his West Surrey Racing Ralt RT3, as well as his title rival Martin Brundle and Guerrero (who had driven for Theodore in F1 in 1983) with Eddie Jordan Racing Ralts. European champion Pierluigi Martini was there with his Pavesi Ralt, along with some of his season-long opponents, including Gerhard Berger (Trivellato Ralt) and Tommy Byrne (leading the quintet of Gary Anderson-designed Ansons). From Japan came the Hayashi of Swede Eje Elgh, while ex-grand prix drivers Needell and Vern Schuppan, Macau stalwarts both, were also entered.
Macau has been developed hugely since those days, but back then everything was basic. “The pit conditions were pretty grotty,” says WSR chief Dick Bennetts. Needell adds: “It was the best — but so third world. One year we had six Atlantic cars in a Nissen hut and next door there were 300 Vietnamese refugees — what a contrast to the decadence of motor racing! It was a real adventure and made you feel like a pioneer.”
Theodore team-mates they may have been, but Senna/WSR had no intention of letting up in their fight with Brundle/EJR. “We ran our car as WSR and they ran theirs as EJR,” laughs Bennetts. “We’d been at them all year in the British championship and had to continue it on.”
Senna, Guerrero and Martini all arrived late, the night before qualifying began, because they’d been testing for the Brabham F1 team at Paul Ricard. “That made it a bit more difficult,” says Bennetts. “Ayrton never even had the opportunity to walk the circuit.” For Guerrero it wasn’t so bad: he already knew the track, and he claims that he never felt jetlag while in the car. “When you have time to feel jetlag you do, and when you don’t you don’t,” he says. “I was surprised at how little effect it had on me.”
A late arrival he may have been, yet Senna took pole. In just three flying laps, before smacking the wall, he was third on the first day behind Guerrero and Brundle. But the Brazilian pipped the Colombian and the Englishman on day two.
With qualifying over and a day off on Saturday before the two 15-lap heats on Sunday, Senna fell victim to Macau’s festival atmosphere. In his new book (see Reviews, page 23), Jo Ramírez, who was working for Theodore at the time, says: “Ayrton confessed to me that he’d been at a party the night before and had stayed a little too late and had consumed perhaps a little too much vodka.” Ramírez believes this was Saturday night, but Bennetts reckons it was Friday. “What I was told was that a few drivers had spiked his drink,” he says. “I had arranged a qualifying debrief for Saturday lunchtime, and I waited and waited. It got to six o’clock and I thought, ‘That’s not like him’, so I did the changes anyway. He finally turned up at seven.”
Whichever night the escapade happened, Senna was feeling rough for the first race, though not as bad as Martini, who slept through the eight o’clock warm-up session! Groggy he may have been but, after losing the start to Guerrero, Senna pulled off a sublime move on the EJR Ralt in the short chute between Statue and San Francisco Bend.
Guerrero takes up the story: “I was so disappointed from the year before. I was running away with that race and, oh my God, it was such a heartbreaker, so I was really hoping to do well the next year. I loved Macau — I always liked street circuits but that one in particular was fantastic, going up and downhill, a really good combination of corners. “I jumped Ayrton at the start and coming out of Statue he came past me so fast I didn’t know whether I was standing still. I was blown away. It was good that I led for at least one corner or something, but that was it! Especially the place he did it. It was, ‘My God, where did he come from?’ Obviously he was an unbelievable talent and it was actually cool to be able to be so close to him.”
Not for long though. By the end of lap one Senna was already 2.8sec in front, and he beat Guerrero to win the first 15-lap heat by 6.0sec. Bennetts still has Senna’s times, and their stunning consistency shows what a special talent he already was. His pole was a 2min 22.0sec, and his 14 flying laps in the race read: 22.5, 22.4, 22.2, 22.8, 23.1, 22.0, 21.6, 22.9, 24.0 (possibly delayed by a yellow flag), 22.1, 22.4, 23.0, 22.3, 21.5.
After that, Senna went back to his hotel room to sleep off his alcohol overdose before returning to clean up heat two. With Brundle no longer a factor, thanks to an over-optimistic move by Martini, Bennetts told Ayrton all he had to do was finish just in front of Guerrero to win on aggregate. Even so, Senna drove hard until rolling off the pace over the final three laps. His 14 flying laps for heat two read: 23.3, 22.1, 22.2, 22.2, 22.5, 22.1, 22.2, 22.5, 22.4, 22.0, 22.8, 24.1, 24.2, 27.4. Particularly amazing are those nine consecutive laps within 0.5sec over such a long and challenging circuit, but they didn’t surprise Bennetts: “When he won the first nine races of 1983 I stopped being amazed. What was really good was that we didn’t do anything trick. We were all on the same Yokohama control tyres, so we just had to work harder on the dampers and on downforce. He arrived midnight Wednesday, had never seen the track and wasn’t feeling well, but he just got stuck in. He did a storming job.”
The whole event had been a resounding success. While Bennetts, Senna and WSR celebrated on the way home — “I had a mate at BA who was a first officer,” says Bennetts, “so he allowed us to bring the trophy on the plane and keep filling it with champagne” — Bland was basking in the glow of an event that was already taking over from Monaco, thanks in part to its field-levelling control-tyre formula, as the most important F3 race in the world. In contrast to ’82, the top 10 this time had qualified within 2.5sec, and on aggregate just over two minutes covered the top 10 finishers at the end of 30 laps of racing. “Having done the first year, word spread pretty quickly,” he says. “It was well organised and people enjoyed it, and it continued the season so teams were able to keep their mechanics on.” Logistically it was a success too: the cars had all arrived intact, with the exception of one crushed airbox, and the biggest problem was suffered by the Anson runners, who couldn’t get round the ultra-tight Melco Hairpin in first practice!
But the Macau experience did leave Guerrero with a lasting concern about Chinese food. “It was really quite an experience,” he chuckles. “Westernised Chinese food is always something that people enjoy, but then after going to Teddy Yip’s private parties, where they had real Chinese food, it kind of turned me off it. They had a pig that they would put on a turning table with little red balls in the eye sockets, and have the chickens also going round with their heads and feet still on. Now whenever I eat Chinese food I always have something in the back of my mind because of that, but I guess that was part of Macau!”