Macau Grand Prix: The final exam for racers
With less than a week to go until the checkered flag comes down on the first race of the 60th Macau Grand Prix, China’s gambling enclave is already showing all the fevered activity of a pit crew slamming a fresh set of tires on an F3 racer.
The rat-run of streets that makes up the 6.12 kilometers (3.8-mile) Guia Circuit track -- at some points a bare 7 meters (22 feet) wide -- are already hemmed in by 20-foot-high cyclone fencing reinforced with one-inch thick cables to protect the estimated 200,000 spectators expected to flock to Macau for the six-day event.
Workers are lighting up the night with the blue flash of arc welders as crews work around the clock on crash barriers, stands and the new control tower that will form part of the landmark diamond jubilee year of the Macau Grand Prix.
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Hub of calm amid chaos
For Macau Grand Prix coordinator Joao Manuel Costa Antunes -- whose office sits like a silent hub amid the controlled chaos of the construction work -- transforming the world’s most densely populated city into a racetrack is a logistical work of art.
“This year we’re looking at 13 races over two weekends with 350 cars coming for the event from around the world -- to organize this in such a small city, the logistics are not easy,” says Costa Antunes.
Urban thoroughfares will be cleared between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to allow F3 racers to reach speeds in excess of 275 kmh (170 mph) along streets normally choked with minibuses and motor scooters.
To achieve this, Costa Antunes calls on a small army of 2,000 professionals to provide safety, security and medical care.
Some 58 doctors, 80 paramedics, ambulances and the fire brigade are on standby throughout the event. Organizers have commissioned an "extrication vehicle" -- the grim title for a van carrying a specialist squad trained in separating drivers from burning race cars.
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The Macau Grand Prix is the only race in the world that stages motorcycle, twin-seat cars and F3 single-seat races at the same event. Costa Antunes says the dangers of the motorcycle race in particular -- racers regularly cut corners so closely that their shoulders scrape crash barriers -- means medical crews have to be on high alert.
“This circuit is technically very difficult -- it’s what’s known as mixed meaning -- part of the track is very fast with straight track and part of it is very detailed with tight curves,” says Costa Antunes. “It means you have to be a very good driver. You cannot fail.
“Drivers need to handle the course with full control. We’re talking about a track where taking a corner at 10 centimeters or 20 centimeters can make all the difference.”
A race that forges reputations
Macau’s streets are too narrow and its World Heritage buildings too valuable for the former Portuguese colony to widen its circuit to accommodate Formula 1 races, but Costa Antunes says that the smaller F3 race is no less important on the race calendar.
“The year I arrived in Macau, in 1983, the famous Ayrton Senna won the F3 and many other F3 podium drivers in Macau were immediately promoted to F1,” says Costa Antunes, who originally hails from Lisbon, Portugal. “Macau has become a testing ground -- we have had Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen.
“Among the old F1 drivers, around 15 or 16 drivers drove in Macau. This place is really like their final examination before moving into the big league.”
For these race veterans, Macau represents something of a car racing frat house -- a time when drivers were young, reputations were forged and brat packs formed.
“When Michael Schumacher won in Macau in 1990, we were not immediately aware that we were living in an historic moment for Macau -- he was just one driver -- but one year later when he won the F1 in Monaco at the press conference he mentioned Macau in the same breath as Monaco," says Costa Antunes.
“Many, many drivers keep Macau in their hearts because it’s part of their youth -- a time when crazy things happened and life was fun."
More than a few of these veterans are expected to be back in Macau to celebrate the Grand Prix’s diamond jubilee and casino clubs such as the Galaxy Macau’s China Rouge are hosting lavish parties for pit pass holders, celebrities and racing legends.
Felix da Costa attempts repeat performance
At the business end of the racing, Portuguese ace Antonio Felix da Costa will return this year to defend his title.
If he's successful, he'll become only the second driver to win the Macau Grand Prix twice since it became an F3 race in 1983.
Italian Edoardo Mortara remains the only driver to hold consecutive victory honors, with Macau victories in 2010 and 2011.
“I know the level in Macau will be really high with so many good drivers racing in F3 and others from really competitive championships,” Da Costa told local media.
As for the rest of Macau, while the race still has its detractors -- those who complain that the city goes into Grand Prix lockdown for a fortnight -- Costa Antunes says surveys show 80% of Macau residents love the race.
“It’s about the excitement and the memories; it’s an unforgettable two weeks not just for Macau but for many people from around the world,” he says. “We have more than 30,000 hotel rooms in Macau and not one of them will be empty during the Grand Prix.”
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