until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Single Seater/Open Wheel

The racing purist's antidote to F1's Vegas gaudiness

by Jack Cozens
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

There was a rumble from Faraway Hill. Then Gabriele Minì burst into sight, only to disappear out of it just as quickly as he darted over the crown in the road at Police Bend with convincingly the most precision of all.

The impression was absolute: it was great to be back in Macau.

Macau GP, F3

That feeling was only strengthened as familiarity soon returned following four years away: the sheer enormity up close of the Grand Lisboa, the first recognisable structure as the skyline emerged from the haze on the taxi ride over from Hong Kong; the alarm call of the Motorcycle Grand Prix competitors at 7.45am; the taste of that first Super Bock at Fernando's restaurant over on Coloane; and, of course, the spectacle of the world's best drivers and riders in their four categories trying to master the Guia circuit.

Some of those are sensations you undoubtedly get elsewhere. But there's something intangibly different about experiencing them in Macau. Even the acrid waft from the sea on the daily pedestrian commute past the outer harbour ferry terminal to and from the circuit has a certain charm to it.

The event, of course, did not stop just because we weren’t there from 2020-22.

Macau contained the pandemic effectively and spectators were able to attend - albeit doing so in lower numbers (76,000 in 2022 compared to 145,000 for this year’s 70th anniversary edition, albeit over two fewer days) - but that containment meant the descent upon the place from afar was basically non-existent for the three-day 2020 and 2021 editions.

Getting Formula 3 back on the bill was still a step too far last year even as the programme expanded back to four days and some international competitors returned for the GT and bike races.

But as Formula 1 was grappling with its Las Vegas GP backlash (even before the event had begun) last weekend, here was a reminder of what a special street track - surely the premier street track - this is.

That's in everything from the visible stuff - the elevation, including the climb out of San Francisco that the cameras never really do justice to, or the skyline, or the scrapes and marks that graffiti the walls as the weekend goes on.

To the smaller details - even having proper corner names that instantaneously evoke memories puts this a cut above most street circuits.

Vegas, it turned out, was a great spectacle come raceday. But the contrast between the two events was never more stark than when, at the same time as the Vegas Thursday practice farce was unfolding, Friday's Macau track action was in full swing - and offering those among us fortunate enough to head trackside plenty of unadulterated joy.

Those are, unsurprisingly, emotions shared by those at the centre of attention. There's a purity about the way drivers' and riders' faces light up when they're asked to speak about this most demanding of driving challenges.

"Probably you also have this feeling: in some places, you go there and you feel something special inside," said Norbert Michelisz, who clinched the TCR World Tour title on Sunday, when asked by The Race what it was about the event that made him so effusive in expressing his love of being here.

Norbert Michelisz, Macau

"I remember in 2010 [that] although everyone was telling me that it's a very difficult circuit, I was hugely confident from the first moment I was running on the track. I cannot explain this feeling.

"I just love being here. Arriving here always feels like [it did] the first time. I cannot explain it in a better way."

And that extended to the Macau GP rookies who stole the show in the F3 headliner.

Williams F1 junior Luke Browning, who bossed qualifying and survived the red flags, the restarts, and everything else the Macau GP can throw at you to win the qualifying race, then the grand prix proper (pictured above), said "this place is an animal" and that doing "close to 1000 laps on the simulator at home" in preparation was basically irrelevant for what was to come.

"There’s something special about this place," said Browning. "It’s like Monaco on steroids. You’re flying past these barriers at incredible speeds, and I was incredibly excited out there."

Factory BMW driver Sheldon van der Linde, still raw from losing a GT World Cup podium to a puncture on his debut, nevertheless said the week was a "fantastic experience" and that the circuit was "immediately one of my absolute favourites", while Nestor Girolami - runner-up to Michelisz in the tin-top race - called his return to Macau a "dream".

"You cannot compare this track to any track in the world. Even the Nordschleife is not like this," he added. "This is zero, zero, zero room for mistakes."

That's not to say everything is seamless. For one thing, the endless loop of KT Tunstall tracks that back in the day used to greet you in the paddock on Thursday and was still going come the close of play on Sunday has gone.

On a more serious note, friction does arise between Macau itself and the FIA. Describe the headline event as the FIA Formula 3 World Cup to someone from the first of those parties, or as the Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix to someone from the other, and the eyeroll you're likely to be met with will go some way to illustrating the frustration that can build up.

But perhaps more pertinent is the question of whether these cars are suitable for this race. There's a common concern that the single-make 380bhp Dallara-Mecachrome F3 cars are too powerful, too fast, too heavy for the Guia circuit (which the FIA upgraded from Grade 3 to Grade 1 to accommodate the current car in 2019).

Browning's fastest lap in this year's race, a 2m06.647s, recorded an average speed of 108.057mph - up more than 7mph from Dan Ticktum's best lap in the 2018 edition in a Dallara F317 chassis - while the race itself was interrupted by a number of hefty shunts, most notably Paul Aron's at the Paiol left-hander that caused a long red flag.

This year’s F4 race - staged the previous weekend as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations - was well-received, but the 270bhp Formula Regional offering would probably be in the right ballpark if it's determined that the current F3 car, or the next one, isn't right.

But unlike the skyline that sets its backdrop, refreshed each year with towers as the land-reclamation process continues apace, for now there's no suggestion of any change to the race.

The one reservation heading out this year was whether any of the charm would have been lost in the intervening years. Whether the debauchery and gimmicks that Macau, like Las Vegas, has in abundance might have taken over.

The answer was an emphatic no - the Macau Grand Prix is as incredible as ever.

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