There’s never a bad time to go to Macau. But on one weekend each November, the city buzzes with an extra something. Call it sport, call it adventure; call it madness if you will. But you can say the Macau Grand Prix is an unforgettable experience.
On this particular weekend, all the attractions and entertainment that make Macau a year-round winner remain firmly open. And the town is probably even more bustling than usual. There’s just one slightly odd thing in the mix: racing cars.
And let me be clear, these manic machines aren’t standing around some exhibition centre looking pretty. Nope, these Formula 3 vehicles (they’re potent enough: think miniature Formula 1) are fired up and racing. Where? On the streets of the little enclave.
Now, if your first thought is that the winding roads of a colonial seaside city seem entirely unsuitable for motorsport, you’re not wrong. But that’s the thing about the Macau Grand Prix. It is, in two words, completely crazy.
In a world of dull, safe, purpose-built race circuits, Macau’s Guia track is like a bright tropical fish amongst sardines. Where other circuit scouts would see problems, the visionary Macanese saw an overgrown Scalextric track that could only be a lot of fun. And credit to their imagination: it’s the track itself that goes a long way to making Macau what it is.
Though the circuit is too narrow to ever think about hosting Formula 1, its sheer driving challenge arguably puts that of Monaco or Singapore into the shade.
Ask any of the racers. And ask any of their engineers. Narrower than your driveway, bumpier than a corrugated Outback track, twistier and turnier than a Game of Thrones episode and faster than a typhoon wind, it gets technical brains thinking as much as it gets spectator jaws dropping.
When motorsport people come to town (any town!),drinks will flow. When that town has the nightlife of Macau…well. Let’s just say the bars and clubs do a roaring trade over race weekend. Sunday night, when the competition is over, the champagne sprayed and the tears shed, is the time to spot a future Formula 1 World Champion doing something he shouldn’t!
Glamorous women, many representing sponsors, spas and hotels, hover around the pits and paddock all weekend, usually delighted to jump into your photo frame. Like Lion Dances on the start grid, they’re all a part of the Macau Grand Prix experience.
Keep an eye on the smaller support races, too, because you never know what the organisers will come up with each year. Sometimes the local celebrities are well worth watching – chiefly because they should never be allowed anywhere near a racing car!
The Macau Grand Prix certainly isn’t some modern gimmick. It actually dates back to the 1950s, when many of Macau’s twenty-first century attractions weren’t even thought of yet.
The Grand Prix trophy is one that every young race driver yearns to have in his cabinet. And victory in the world’s wildest street race is still something that goes right at the top of any motorsport resume.
Although Macau is like arcade-game fantasy brought to life (if you don’t believe me, scan YouTube for some of its race-day pile-ups), the Grand Prix field certainly isn’t local boy racers destined to spend their lives in the mall. Michael Schumacher? He’s your 1990 winner. Ayrton Senna? Won it in 1983. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg? This year’s Mercedes Formula 1 duo had an eventful time of it in the 2004 edition. Sebastian Vettel finished on the podium in 2005. And Formula 1’s newest sensation, Max Verstappen, raced here in 2014.
Overtaking – it happens
Street racing is supposed to be processional. Anybody who has snoozed through a dull Monaco Grand Prix will tell you that’s the drawback with tight city roads. But here’s the thing with Macau: there’s overtaking. And lots of it.
Remember we said how narrow and twisty the circuit is? Well, that’s one half of the lap. You wouldn’t dream of overtaking here. (If you did, the dream would turn to a nightmare very quickly, and you’d wake up in a cold sweat). But then there’s the other half of the Guia circuit, which is flat-out and full-throttle.
Oh, it has a couple of substantial kinks, and they’d have any sane individual grappling for any form of retardation going. But to the professionals, the long stretch after the start-line is just one great big straight.
And that long stretch means opportunity to get past the bloke in front. In particular, when they stand on the brakes for Lisboa Corner. Every lap it’s hold-your-breath time down at this end of the track. Passing moves – and more than a few that don’t go to plan – will happen with unnerving regularity.
The guys who drive around Macau in carbon-fibre chassis might be a little bit nuts, but there’s a breed of racer that trumps even them for lunacy on Grand Prix weekend.
Meet the motorcyclists. Undeterred by concrete walls, greasy surfaces or the likelihood of running into a wrecked bike halfway around a blind corner, these chaps simply thrive on the excitement of it all.
Bike racing joined the schedule on 1967, and former 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz is one of a few Grand Prix winners to have tasted success here.
In recent years, the top names in Macau have included familiar ones from British Isles road racing, such as Michael Rutter, John McGuinness and Ian Hutchinson.
Best seat in the house
Many parts of the Guia circuit, particularly the twiddly bits on the hillside, are difficult for spectators to reach.
In some places, the only way to get close enough to feel the cars rushing past the concrete walls (quite breath-taking, let me tell you) is to train up as a photographer and get a special media pass.
If you’re not up for faking a switch of career, then there’s always the fun challenge of finding your way into – or onto – a building with a view of the circuit.
There are a couple of good ones on San Francisco Hill, and – again, actors take note! – one of them is a hospital.
If you get the slightest chance to visit Melco – which is easily the world’s sharpest hairpin and somehow seems to defy geometry – grab it with both hands.
Failing all that, the grandstands opposite the pits (located right in front of the Hong Kong ferry terminal) and along the fast stretch by the shoreline are perfectly fine if you want to see the start, finish and all the ceremonial stuff. But Lisboa Corner – for reasons mentioned above – is probably the pick of them. Tickets are just a few dollars.
The Formula 3 Grand Prix is the centrepiece event of the weekend, and the Motorcycle Grand Prix is the biggest thing on two wheels. But if you prefer cars with roofs, then you’re in for a saloon treat.
Touring car racing is almost as old as single-seater action on the Guia track, and in recent years the Macau weekend has included a round of the World Touring Car Championship.
In 2015, however, it’s replaced on the programme by the similar TCR International Series.
Also new for 2015 is GT racing. The inaugural FIA GT World Cup brings big-muscle sports cars that make a whole lot of noise.
Top tips to get the most out of the Macau Grand Prix
1-Visit the Macau Grand Prix Museum on Rua Luis Gonzaga Gomes. It’s open from 10am till 8pm, but closed on Tuesdays.
2-Don’t pack an alarm clock – the wail of engines in early morning practice should be enough to wake you at the ungodly hour of seven thirty AM.
3-Get a grandstand seat at Lisboa Corner for the racing, and settle in for overtaking and mayhem.
4-Get yourself a scooter and go around the track when it opens up in the evening. Even at low speed, you’ll gain plenty of respect for what the serious racers do.
5-Bring earplugs: skyscrapers and race engines make for ear-busting noise.
The 62nd Macau Grand Prix 2015 is on from 11 to 22 November. Here is a list of top hotels and resorts in Macau and ideas on where to eat in Macau. For Grand Prix celebrations check out one of these hotspots. For more ideas on what to do in Macau see this post
Looking for a fun time after dark in Macao? Read this.
Macau has plenty of large shopping malls but if you’ll love the smaller shops too.
Parade Through Macao, Latin City is a fabulous festival to plan your trip around.