Macau: the Las Vegas of the East. One of the two Special Administrative Regions of China, among the largest gaming centers in the world, and a surprising mix between China and Europe due to its history as a Portuguese colony and its more recent, deliberate architectural choices. And to a motorsport fan? The home of the legendary Macau GP.
It all began on October 30, 1954, when a club for local motoring enthusiasts organized a small treasure hunt race. Location: Guia Circuit, Macau. A challenging track that at the time presented considerable sections of dirt and loose sand. Fernando Macedo Pinto, one of the organizers, later recalled saying: “This is the first and last race we set up, they’ll never allow another event such as this” (Macau Antigo, 2010). As it turns out, he was wrong.
Year after year, the event kept going stronger. In 1955, the back section of the circuit was completely rebuilt with asphalt. In 1960, the GP was subject to FIA regulations and officially became part of the international racing calendar. In 1967 the first Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix took place, and by 1973 the entries were so many that an "Organizer's Trophy Race'' was added to allow non-qualifiers to compete.
Winners of the Motorcycle GP over the years include Ron Haslam, Scottish sports hero Steve Hislop, Michael Rutter a.k.a. “The Blade”, Hideo Kanaya, and John MacDonald. MacDonald is a true legend of the circuit, being the only person to have won all three international races in Macau: the Motorcycle GP, the Macau GP (four times!), and the Guia Race on its launch in 1972.
In 1983, the circuit was nominated for the FIA Formula 3 World Cup. The event was made even more special by the 23-year-old Brazilian driver who won that race: Ayrton Senna da Silva, a name that needs no introduction. And speaking about drivers who need not be introduced, the 1990 GP finish has been made into one of the most memorable by a last-lap collision between none other than Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher.
With such an extraordinary history, it is not surprising that the Macau GP would be so loved by drivers, riders, and fans alike. But this would not be the case without its true protagonist: the Guia Circuit. The layout of the 6.2 km track, which has never been modified since 1954, presents a maximum width of 14m right at the start and a minimum of 7m at the so-called “Melco Hairpin”. Unlike other street circuits, it also has an altitude variation of 30m, and this, combined with both twisty and sharp turns, qualifies it as one of the most challenging circuits in the world.
The arduous nature of the circuit was experienced first-hand by Sir Jackie Stewart. In 1978, he was in Macau to watch the Race of Giants organized to celebrate the GP 25th anniversary with legends such as Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, HRH Prince Bira of Siam, and Bobby Unser. Stewart did not participate since he had promised, with his retirement, not to race again. However, he could not resist the temptation to try the track. But once he reached the “R” bend he lost control of the car which turned over and spun before coming to a stop. Stewart was miraculously unscathed, and when asked what had gone wrong said laughing: “I made a mistake” (Duke Video 2019, min 1:19).
On the Guia circuit, sometimes one mistake is all it takes. The issue of the safety of the circuit was brought back to light by the fatal incident of motorcycle rider Daniel Hegarty in 2017 (BBC Sport 2017) and again in 2018, when German driver Sophia Floersch’s Formula 3 car became airborne after a contact (Telegraph sport 2018). Floersch suffered a spinal injury but thankfully recovered relatively soon. These accidents renewed the debate on the possibility of either modifying the track or even moving it to a different location altogether.
Kindly collaborating with us by answering some questions, former Marketing Manager of SK Group Macau Tessa Rothe, who worked for years in the Macau GP, had this to say on the matter: “There have been some talks about moving the track to Taipa, yes, but I believe it is very unlikely this will ever actually happen. And it would be very hard to modify the existing track.” This view has been upheld by the organizers of the GP repeatedly. “There is too much history and affection for the current circuit to imagine such a change”, said Rothe.
Even the drivers involved in accidents agree. “I met Sophia after her crash and she was just happy to be back to race in Macau”, said Rothe about Sophia Floersch, who herself stated: “For me, it was always clear that I wanted to go back because the event is mega, the racetrack is incredible, especially with the new car, it’s ultra-nice to be driving through the streets of Macau again” (Benyon, 2019).
Over the years, new safety precautions have been introduced, with the last upgrades including new buffer zones, impact protection foam, and barriers in the most dangerous points (Reservoir, Mandarin Oriental Bend, Lisboa Bend, and “R” Bend) in response to the FIA suggestions after the 2018 incident (Dagys 2019). “With Motorcycle racing in particular the GP works through invitation and the riders are experts who know how to be smart on the track,” says Rothe. “And you need to factor in the security measures which have been implemented over the years, such as “airbags” in the riders’ suits – plus F3 and GT drivers have an even higher level of safety thanks to the systems built into the cars”.
It is undeniable that drivers and riders adore racing in Macau. “Oh, a very unique circuit […] it could surely be one of the best in the world!” said Jackie Stewart in the 70s (Duke Video 2019, min. 1:43), hoping for a modernization of the track, which at the time still lacked safety measures and a neat surface. Today, after 50 years of improvements, many wholeheartedly believe this prediction to have become true. Not only is Macau the only street circuit where both cars and motorcycles compete, but the petite size of the city, made even more evident by how it has developed around the track, makes it truly unique in the international motorsport scene. “It is a mixture between Nurburgring and Monte Carlo” Stewart had affirmed, “and really you couldn’t ask for better credentials than that” (Duke Video 2019, min. 2:15).
Not only the circuit but also the whole event of the Macau GP is exceptional. As with most things in the city, this as well revolves around the casinos, both logistically through sponsorships and in the parties and events which take place during the racing weekend. Naturally, these establishments get a huge increase in customers and revenues during the event.
However, one of the trends of the last few years is an effort on the part of the city to distance itself from the narrow narrative of an Asian Las Vegas, embracing a more refined image. “All casinos now have exhibitions and similar features”, said Rothe about this topic “and this effort also reflects on the GP. For example, to combine motorsports with social responsibility, MGM sponsors brought Chinese people with disabilities to assist drivers on stage – kind of like the former “umbrella girls”. It was an important initiative especially considering the stigma that people with disabilities still face nowadays in China”.
In 2020, due to the pandemic, the Macau GP was held in a much smaller fashion than usual, with only nationals participating. But 2021 should see a full comeback of the event as we all know it, and the whole motorsport world awaits. After all, racing in Macau equals experiencing the thrill of one of the most challenging tracks in the world, the history of one of the oldest Asian circuits, all within one of the most glamorous cities in the Far East. You really cannot ask for better credentials than that.
Giulia Alessandra Foti is an Italian law student in love with her country, proud to be European, and passionate about anything related to China. She has a degree in Music and will spend hours talking about history and outer space. Huge fan of football and Formula 1. You can find her as Giulia Alessandra Foti on LinkedIn and Facebook or as @giuli_andra on Instagram and Twitter.
The author would like to express her gratitude to Tessa Roth for her invaluable contribution.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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BBC Sport 2017, Daniel Hegarty: English rider dies after crash at the Macau Grand Prix, viewed 25 April 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/amp/northern-ireland/42037086
Duke Video 2019, The 1978 ‘Race of Giants’ – Macau – Jackie Stewart – Stirling Moss, online video, viewed 25 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NExJa9k6_i4
Jack Benyon 2019, ‘Floersch to make Macau return with HWA’, Motorsport.com, viewed 25 April 2021, https://www.motorsport.com/f3/news/sophia-floersch-macau-return-hwa/4590524/
John Dagys 2019, ‘Safety-related circuit upgrades announced for Macau’, sportscar 365, viewed 25 April 2021, https://sportscar365.com/other-series/gt-world-cup/safety-related-circuit-upgrades-announced-for-macau/
Macau Antigo 2010, Morreu Fernando Macedo Pinto, um dos fundados do Grande Prémio de Macau, web log post,13 May, viewed 25 April 2021, http://macauantigo.blogspot.com/2010/05/morreu-fernando-macedo-pinto-um-dos.html
Macau Grand Prix, Decades of history, viewed 25 April 2021, https://www.macau.grandprix.gov.mo/en/about-us/history?year=1950
Telegraph Sport 2018, Five injured in Macau Grand Prix horror crash that leaves driver Sophia Floersch with ‘spinal fracture’, viewed 25 April 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/2018/11/18/five-injured-macau-grand-prix-horror-crash-leaves-driver-sophia/