Vintage Porto

McLarens, BRMs and GT40s raced amid memories of Porto’s 1960s grands prix as racing heroes of yesteryear looked on 

By Rob Widdows

The sky is blue, not a cloud. The sun is slowly baking the city. The Atlantic ocean is rolling lazily ashore in a light breeze. Squawking seagulls swoop down in search of discarded picnics. The gentlemen, and some racers, are in town for the Grande Prémio Histórico do Porto. A ripple of excited chatter moves through the grandstand. Even the crane driver, perhaps sensing imminent wreckage, puts down his newspaper.

Then suddenly, wham, wump, a blue Ford GT40 roars into sight between the concrete walls, turning sharp left onto the Avenida da Boavista. A deft stroke of opposite lock as the power comes in and the car is away, growling smartly up through the gears, over the crest of a hill and on towards the city centre, flat chat. 

That was Ray Bellm, more racer than gentleman, at the Castello de Queijo corners, on his way to pole for the Sports Racing Masters race, a contest he won with ease.

Call me old fashioned, but it’s nice to hear a manual gearbox, to see a powerful car sliding round the truncated Circuito da Boavista. Now a two-and-a-half-mile dash between concrete and guardrail, this once majestic road circuit staged grands prix in 1958 and 1960.

There are treasured memories for those who were there, Stirling Moss beating Mike Hawthorn by five minutes in ’58, the Vanwall and the Ferrari Dino the only two cars not lapped at the finish. Two years later Jack Brabham led home a Cooper 1-2 , beating team-mate Bruce McLaren by nearly a minute, with Jim Clark almost another minute down the road in third with his Lotus 18. That year John Surtees, teamed with Clark at Lotus in his first year of car racing, started from pole. He led for 24 laps, and took fastest lap, but he too was bitten by the Boavista.

“I had the edge on everybody that day in Porto,” Surtees recalls, “and I had a big lead by half-distance. Then I made a mistake where I needed to be very smooth with that Lotus 18. Stirling Moss had just come out of the pits, I pulled out to pass him, got a wheel in the tram lines, lost it, clipped a kerb and that was that.”

Gone is the long, fast left-hander that led onto the main straight, away from the ocean and up into the tree-lined avenues and narrow streets of this beautiful old city in northern Portugal. Many a great driver has tripped up on the tram lines, slid wide on the cobbles, as the cars scrabbled for grip around a seven-kilometre lap. Tony Brooks was there in August 1958, the Vanwall not ideally suited to the environment.

“You had to be very precise with the Vanwall,” he recalls, half a century later, “especially as the road was still wet at the start of that race. It was a very challenging track, very fast in places, with trees and lamp posts everywhere. You had to make sure you crossed the tram lines at an angle or they would have taken you all the way to the tram depot. You could take a breather on the long straight, check the oil and water temperatures, and just keep the car in a straight line. My only fear was finding oil on the road round a blind corner, otherwise I stayed within what I knew was my natural ability. It was a great occasion, with a very passionate crowd, though sadly I retired that year when a tram line caught me out. Hawthorn did the same but he got going again because he was on a downhill section and the marshals pushed him. That was all a bit controversial, I remember.” Brooks returned to Porto in 1960 with Cooper and finished fifth, just ahead of Innes Ireland for Lotus. There was controversy that year, too, when Moss was disqualified from fifth place after driving the wrong way round the circuit following a spin.

In the 1960s Derek Bell made the trek with his little Formula 3 team. “Yes, it was a fantastic experience,” he grins. “We drove down from Sussex, across all those dusty Spanish plains, with the car on a trailer. And we couldn’t believe the circuit, all these narrow streets and it was miles round. Some of it was absolutely flat out, not that interesting in an F3 car, but the twisty bits grabbed your attention and it was very bumpy, much worse than it is now. It was a great adventure – we didn’t go to many places away from the usual European circuits so we had a lot of fun. Now I’m back here as an old pilot.”

Bell was standing by to drive a Formula 1 Tecno this year, as one of the invited ‘anciens pilotes’ – yes, I know, it doesn’t seem possible. But when the rains came on the Sunday it was decided that, with only slick tyres available, this might not be such a great plan. 

Former works BRM driver Richard Attwood, another of the old pilots, was racing his beautiful P261 in the HGPCA race for pre-66 Grand Prix cars. “You must not get off-line, it’s narrow and there’s a lot of concrete,” he says, “and we want to keep the car in one piece. But once I learnt the circuit I was fine, just like anywhere else. I’m not as brave as I was on a track like this but it’s fun and we’ll all be wanting the same piece of road as it’s very slippery away from the proper line.”

Downtown Porto is, broadly speaking, not unlike Macau, or Long Beach, a blend of commercial harbour and tourist beaches. The circuit, too, in its truncated form, compares with the vaguely claustrophobic feel of Macau and, like Pau, has its fair share of blind corners and unsettling cambers. The run-off areas are vertical and constructed from concrete. Martin Stretton, racing a Jaguar E-type, did not seem to have taken this on board, raising a cheer with some glorious power slides and hanging the Jag’s tail out to within a whisker of the barriers.

Those brave enough to venture forth in a Formula 1 car contested the Grand Prix Masters, Bobby Verdon-Roe standing out from the rest and taking pole in his McLaren M26. Steve Allen in his Fittipaldi F5A gave it everything in pursuit of BV-R while Rodrigo Gallego in a March 761 chased them hard all the way. The Schryver family came away with trophies and smiles, father Michael and son William keeping Rod Jolley on his toes in two exciting HGPCA races for pre-61 and pre-66 Grand Prix cars. Schryver Senior won both races with Jolley second in one and William Schryver second in the other. Portuguese pride was given a lift by Rodrigo Gallego and the Albuquerque clan who typify the passion for motor racing that exists in the northern part of their country. Football, of course, remains the favourite sport but promoter Francisco ‘Chico’ Santos, a Ford works rally driver and touring car champion, says there’s a big future for historic events in Portugal.

“When I was rallying the fans came to the forests in the night, thousands of them, to watch the cars and now we have another huge crowd here this weekend. Pedro Lamy is still a national hero, there’s Tiago Monteiro, and now Filipe Albuquerque is winning in the Renault World Series. Now, with support from the mayor of Porto Rui Rio, we are able to stage international meetings which bring tourism and income to these places. The future is very exciting.”

If you are looking for an excuse to visit this beautiful part of Portugal then the Grande Prémio Histórico do Porto is the perfect solution. Sitting by the ocean, watching the cars hurtle down the Avenida da Boavista, you find yourself slipping back in time. Here comes Brabham, sideways on the cobbled streets, followed by McLaren, then into sight comes Clark, and von Trips in the Ferrari. They raced, between the houses and across the tram lines, for over two hours in the August heat, the smallest mistake spelling disaster. Now that must have been something.

Rolling back the years

A distinguished group of anciens pilotes gathered at Porto

Celebrating their club’s 45th anniversary at the Grande Prémio Histórico do Porto, an illustrious gang of anciens pilotes including Maria Teresa de Filippis, Derek Bell, Richard Attwood, Jochen Mass, Nino Vaccarella, Tim Schenken, Howden Ganley and David Piper took a close interest. The old masters were taken on a leisurely trip up the River Douro which flows through the hills above the old city of Porto. Wine from the planalto vineyards was in abundant supply so steps were taken to ensure that they all returned safely. “An ambulance followed us on the coach journey,” laughs Liz Piper, wife of veteran racer David, “and on the riverboat they had all the kit including an electric shock machine for heart attacks. You have to consider the combined ages of the pilotes comes to 1116. The oldest is 87 and the youngest is 60.” Nobody wanted to admit to being the oldest, but Mass was happy to be the youngest.