The Macau Grand Prix: Fearsome Motorsports Competition

Macau skyline.

Macau skyline.

By Shady Hartshorne

The Italian undoubtedly has several things on his mind at this point.

He needs to keep his car close enough to the Frenchman to capitalize on any mistake, and yet far enough away to avoid even the slightest contact which would be disastrous for both drivers. We were watching the Macau Grand Prix, and no one knew what would happen yet.

On the first lap, two spectacular crashes took out one-third of the field including the English champion, their main rival.

Twisting and turning through the most challenging road course on the circuit, the 22-year old Italian knows the endless hours of practice and training have been preparing him for this moment.

For more than 50 years, the Macau Grand Prix has been one of the world’s most fearsome motorsports competitions. Each November, a 6.2-kilometer loop of downtown streets is blocked off with hurricane fencing and plywood and the metallic screaming that rises up from behind the barricades almost makes you think some kind of mythical beast is chained beneath the surface of the city.

I was lucky enough to be invited by Macau’s Tourism office to witness this spectacle firsthand as well as experience the other wonders that Macau has to offer.

Along with Formula 3, Touring Car and Motorcycle races, I was able to visit many of the downtown historic areas that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, sample some of the signature Macanese dishes that blend Portuguese and Asian styles and flavors, and tour the gigantic casino complexes that have made Macau the gambling center of the world.

Mutual Benefit

Unloading flowers from a cargo boat
Unloading flowers from a cargo boat

More than 400 years ago, Portuguese traders struck a deal with the rulers of the Ming dynasty to set up an outpost on this small peninsula in the Pearl River delta. The Portuguese got access to silk, porcelain, and other Chinese treasures.

The Chinese got protection from bands of pirates who were hiding out on the nearby islands of Taipa and Coloane, making life miserable for the local fishing population.

This relationship, founded on mutual benefit and mutual respect continued in various forms until 1999 when the Portuguese formally transferred ownership of Macau back to the Chinese government.

Under the “one government-two system” rule, the Chinese opened Macau’s gambling industry to foreign companies and the growth has been astronomical. Gambling revenue in Macau will has drastically outpaced both Nevada and Atlantic City combined.

In China, November is a lucky month for weddings.
In China, November is a lucky month for weddings.

In 2005, the Venetian opened the largest casino complex in the world featuring more than 300 stores, 35 restaurants, 550,000 square feet of gambling space and a permanent Cirque du Soleil theater as well as a 15,000-seat arena for performances and trade shows.

(November is considered a lucky month for weddings in China so we saw quite a few brides and grooms having their pictures taken in front of the Venetian’s neo-classical façade.)

Until recently, most visitors came to Macau on “day-trip” gambling excursions from Hong Kong. But more and more travelers are discovering it takes more than a day to experience Macau’s wealth of culture, history, food, and fun. In 2008, nearly 23 million visitors came to Macau compared to 7 million in 1999.

They come for the gambling, of course, but they also see the ancient temples and churches, visit museums like the Wine Museum or the Museum of Vintage Sound Machines, and attend many festivals throughout the year including the International Foods Festival, the International Fireworks Competition and, in my case, the Macau Grand Prix.

Falling Bodies

Along with three other travel writers from the US, I got an insider’s tour of the best of Macau led by our indefatigable guide, Joao Rodriguez of the Macau Government Tourist Office.

After walking through the downtown historical sites, we visited the Macau Tower where thrill-seekers can experience the world’s highest Bungee Jump. One brave member of our group took the plunge, but I was content to sit in the 360-degree rotating restaurant enjoying the view of the city (punctuated by the occasional body falling past the window.)

An umbrella girl poses on the pit lane.
An umbrella girl poses on the pit lane.

We also took a trip to the island of Coloane where the Macanese can escape the crowded city to take walks in green hills and parks.

Coloane also features the Espaco Lisboa restaurant which offers some of the finest Portuguese cuisines anywhere: Portuguese Steak (with a fried egg on top!), the baked cod dish called Bacalhau, and spicy African Chicken are just a few of the offerings you can sample, paired with a Vinho Verde, the lightly sparkling Portuguese wine.

You can sample the delicious dessert called “Serradura” or “Sawdust Pudding” (it tastes WAY better than it sounds) or you can walk across the street to Lord Stow’s Bakery, packed with local folks enjoying the famous egg tarts fresh out of the oven.

The Final Stop

Back at the track, drivers and crews prepare for the grueling World Touring Car Championship races. The WTCC has many layers of competition pitting drivers, teams and manufacturers against each other.

The Macau Grand Prix is the final stop on the circuit for these competitors and for the past five years, the overall winner for the season has been decided here.

In the pit lane, mechanics feverishly fine-tune engines while drivers pose for pictures trying to look calm and collected. It’s a car lover’s fantasy as you stroll past Ferraris, BMWs, Porsches, and countless other makes and models.

Occasionally a tightly packed throng of photographers will signal the presence of some “Umbrella Girls,” models who walk through the pit area posing in front of cars with the umbrellas they use to shield the drivers from the sun while they wait for the race to start.

Drivers and manufacturers come from around the world to test their skills against one of the most challenging road courses in the world. The “Guia Circuit” is named for the Guia Fortress and Lighthouse perched on a hilltop overlooking the city.

Using the Slipstream

Macau Tower is 1,109 feet tall and was finished in 2001.
Macau Tower is 1,109 feet tall and was finished in 2001.

Along the bottom of the route, nearer the water, there are several straight stretches punctuated with sharp turns. Drivers can use the ‘slipstream’ on these stretches to overtake their opponents.

As they reach the top of the course up in the hills, they face a harrowing array of S-turns and sharp corners culminating in the “Curva Melco” or “Melco Hairpin” named for the Macau Electric Company building that overlooks it.

Watching the cars go around this obstacle is like watching shopping carts going around a tennis ball. You can take a video test drive around the course at the Macau Grand Prix web site.

Sitting in the grandstands, you watch a lot of the race on large video monitors while announcers take turns narrating the action in Mandarin, Portuguese, and English. As the cars and bikes come around Fisherman’s Bend, the roar of the engines and the roar of the crowd are deafening. Earplugs are a definite necessity here.

There are two grandstand areas: one near the Maritime Terminal where the ferries and helicopters arrive from Hong Kong International Airport, the other near the Lisboa Hotel, the fantastical lotus-shaped casino-hotel complex built by Macau’s first gambling mogul, Stanley Ho. This 856-foot tall shimmering glass structure makes it almost impossible to get lost in the city since you can see it from practically everywhere.

The Main Events take place on Saturday and Sunday, but starting Thursday there are practices and qualifying races going on throughout the day.

The Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino
The Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino

Macau vs. Hong Kong

Along with the WTCC, F3, and Superbike competitions, there are amateur competitions, races to determine Asian champions and a special “Interport” event pitting Macanese racers against their rivals from Hong Kong.

Tickets are available online or at kiosks situated around the city. They can be very hard to come by, so it’s advisable to purchase them well in advance.

Prices for the main events are higher than they are for qualifying races but these can be just as exciting as the real deal, since the qualifying order in a tough road course can often determine the outcome of the race. Video monitors are also set up around the city for public viewing.

What makes Macau’s Grand Prix unique is the fact that both cars and motorcycles compete, and on Saturday we saw the best superbike racers in the world weaving their way through the twisting course, dipping to nearly horizontal left, right and back again.

They roar past the grandstand at speeds of more than 150 mph, fighting for position and trying to find the most efficient line that will shave precious seconds off their lap times.

Crafty Maneuvers

In the race we saw, last year’s winner, Stuart Easton had built up a six-second lead early on, setting a new lap speed record in the process.

Video monitors are set up around the city.
Video monitors are set up around the city.

But after developing some wear on his rear tire, he fell to second place until, on the final lap, he craftily maneuvered through the maze of lapped riders to regain the lead and win by less than half a second.

Another white-knuckle comeback decided the outcome of the premier event of the Macau Grand Prix on Sunday. The drivers in the Formula 3 race have a lot on the line because they know that winning in Macau can vault them into the ranks of Formula 1, the elite class.

With just a few laps to go, Edoardo Mortara was trailing his teammate Jean-Karl Vernay. Second place at Macau would certainly be an honorable finish, but these young drivers know their careers depend on winning.

Going into the dreaded Melco Hairpin, the Frenchman had been successfully keeping Mortara at bay, but in the crucial exit, when drivers need to accelerate as quickly as possible, Vernay missed a gear change – a split-second mistake which he corrected immediately – but it was too late.

Mortara saw his opportunity and took it, rocketing past the Frenchman and taking the lead. He won the race by 1.1 seconds.

Drivers wait on the grid for an accident to be cleared.
Drivers wait on the grid for an accident to be cleared.

It was a great weekend for Italy, as Gabriele Tarquini – at 47 – had become the oldest world champion in motorsports history when he clinched the championship of the WTCC the day before.

At the conclusion of the Grand Prix, fireworks fill the sky and we celebrate the Italian victories with a wonderful dinner at Antica Trattoria, which serves a wide variety of entrees and pizzas in a comfortable, family-style setting.

On Monday the ferry terminal is bustling with crews and teams making their way home, some savoring their victories, others planning strategies for next year. Around the city the fences come down, the streets are re-opened to the public, and life returns to normal.

The massive growth of the past few years has redefined Macau as one of the world’s fastest-growing tourist destinations and new construction projects will add more hotels, casinos, and other modern attractions every year.

But in the midst of all this expansion, Macau has worked hard to hold on to its history and traditions as well as the blend of eastern and western cultures that sets it apart from other gambling megaplexes.

Maintaining that balance of old and new, east and west, modern development and historic preservation is the challenge Macau faces in the coming century.

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