Few, if any other, street circuits around the world can claim a 60-year history using virtually the same layout, but that is precisely what Macau's Guia circuit has achieved. Since 1954, drivers have threaded their way through its precarious twists and turns but while the circuit may have remained familiar, everything else in the former Portuguese enclave has evolved year-on-year; racers from the pioneering years would today find the surrounding area barely recognisable.
Home to the Macau Grand Prix, the circuit hosts long standing Formula 3, GT and touring car races and is perhaps unusual in also hosting events for motorbikes alongside the four wheeled action, making it one of only a handful of true street races still hosting powerful superbikes.
Danger is therefore never too far away, with the close walls and high speed sections often leading to drama and, occasionally, tragedy. Still, it remains fiercely popular as a true test of driver, rider and machine.
The original idea for the event came from a trio of local sportscar enthusiasts – Fernando Macedo Pinto, Carlos Silva and Paulo Antas – who hatched a plan for a motorised treasure hunt over coffee one morning in the Riviera Hotel. The event was to be purely for fun and small in scale – at the time Macau had fewer than 300 vehicles – but the group of friends realised they needed additional expertise to organise the event. They looked a short distance across the water to Hong Kong, where the local Motor Sports Club was more than happy to help.
Once they saw the planned route, the Hong Kong Club suggested it bore a striking resemblance to another famous street circuit, Monaco, and would make an ideal venue for a Grand Prix. When the Macau authorities were immediately supportive of the plan, the race began to take shape. The course was laid out along public roads, starting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and following the harbour road down to the Lisboa Hotel, from there rushing madly between the houses and cliff-sides of the old town before returning back past a reservoir to the modern seafront.
The first Macau Grand Prix was held on October 30th and 31st, 1954, with Eddie Carvalho driving a Triumph TR2 taking the inaugural victory. The circuit left much to be desired however, and the official stewards report noted the "back of the circuit is very bad - mostly dirt and loose sand." As a result, the spring and early summer of 1955, saw the entire back section of the circuit closed to traffic so that its old cobbles could be dug up and replaced with asphalt. The following year saw a permanent concrete pit and paddock building constructed opposite the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which incorporated 10 pits and seating for 300, while in 1958 the Melco hairpin was modified, reducing the lap distance slightly to 3.8 miles.
The early years saw Macau remain an amateur affair, through nevertheless was established as the jewel in the crown of the pacific racing scene. By the mid-1960s the event had grown and began attracting wider attention from drivers in Europe.
In 1966, the Grand Prix began its transformation into an event for motorsport professionals when 'imported' ace Mauro Bianchi entered his works Alpine Renault sportscar, which he had taken to ninth place at Le Mans earlier in the year. In winning the Grand Prix that year, Bianchi became the first driver to lap the Guia Circuit in less than three minutes.
The tide had been turned and the Grand Prix would became increasingly professional, with the circuit needing to keep pace with safety upgrades as a result. The end of innocence was really emphasised the following year, when Arsenio "Dodjie" Laurel was killed when he lost control and elected to drive into the harbour wall rather than plough into a group of spectators. The son of the Philippines President, Laurel became the first double winner thanks to consecutive victories in the 1962 and 1963 Grands Prix. A corner of the Macau Grand Prix Museum is dedicated in his memory, with his race winning Lotus 22 on proud display.
"The place is extraordinary. It is a magnificent race track, which I still think of like Monaco at the beginning followed by Silverstone, as you go around the Reservoir section, because that is a bit like the old Stowe and Club scenario. I loved the bit through the streets. I would like to go back and do it actually!"
The same year saw a happier first, with the debut of the Motorcycle Grand Prix. Local bike aces had pestered the organisers ever since the first race for a chance to compete and were finally granted their wish, making Macau unique among street races in holding two and four-wheeled competition on the same bill. The bike race was dominated by 33-year-old Yamaha works rider Hiroshi Hasegawa, who powered his RD56 to victory at an average speed of just over 60mph.
After a period of domination by Japanese riders, it was riders from the UK who would become the overwhelming favourites as the race developed. First Chas Mortimer and Mick Grant won in 1975 and 1976 respectively, then "Rocket" Ron Haslam began a run of six consecutive wins in 1981. TT ace Robert Dunlop won in 1989, before Steve Hislop secured the first of his three victories in 1990 and Superbike legend Carl Fogarty boosted the event's overall profile with a win in 1992. British dominance was assured thanks to the eight wins for Michael Rutter, who remains the all-time victories leader, the most recent coming in 2012.
Macau's third headline act joined the part in 1972, with the debut of the Guia touring car race. John MacDonald won the first race in a Mini Cooper to pick up a unique slice of history as the only man to win the Grand Prix on both two and four wheels as well as the touring car event. As the event's status grew in the 1980s, it began attracting the crème of the touring car crop; works entries from BMW, Jaguar, Ford, Nissan and Volvo all appeared. Through Group A, Class One and then the Super Touring era it continued to prosper before becoming the final round of the World Touring Car Championship since 2005.
The Grand Prix itself would develop into a race for single-seaters (Formula Libre rules had previously allowed all manner of machinery) with the arrival of Formula Pacific/Atlantic cars from 1974. By the end of the decade it began to attract some of the discipline's leading drivers, including future F1 stars Alan Jones and Riccardo Patrese. It was the switch to Formula Three regulations from 1983 onwards which really propelled the Grand Prix to world significance, however. The best up-and-coming talent saw it as a must-win event on the route to F1 stardom and Macau quickly overtook Monaco as the most prestigious F3 race of all.
"To me, Macau certainly is one of the very special events in the global race calendar, that's why I see its role as more than supportive for races in the Asian region. All drivers loved to go there, as it was a real challenge to drive. The Macau GP clearly helped to increase the popularity for races in Asia, and still does."
The roster of winners in the F3 era backs up the perception; a young Ayrton Senna took the spoils in 1983, since when the likes of Mauricio Gugelmin, Martin Donnelly, David Brabham, Michael and Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard, Ralph Firman and Takuma Sato have all tasted victory here en route to F1. Additional races, including an increasingly-popular GT race, make up the under card in what is an end-of-season festival for Asian motorsport.
Macau's organisers have kept pace over the years with improvements to the circuit infrastructure in line with its prestige. Armco barriers now surround the course, while it became almost unique in street racing terms for featuring a gravel trap for many years at R. Bend. This disappeared in 1993 when, as part of the 40th Grand Prix celebrations, the event moved into its first permanent, purpose-built home, today's Grand Prix Building. This featured a new pit and paddock complex, built on reclaimed land opposite the jetfoil terminal, and an imposing new race control tower.
With the huge number of entries for the various races and space in Macau at a premium, the complex features a multi-level underground garage area which, when not in use for the Grand Prix is used for parking. Only the F3, Motorcycle and WTCC crews get to use the ground level garages, meaning the mechanics for teams in the supporting races never actually get to see the light of day...
This remained a familiar landmark for the next 20 years, while massive changes came to the surrounding areas as new hotels, condos and other buildings sprang up as the enclave (reunified with China since 1999) continued its expansion. Soon, there was very little of the circuit left on the seafront – now only the run from Fisherman's Bend to the final corner is not completely enclosed by buildings. One small reminder of the race's history remains as the original 1960s race control building still overlooks the course at Mandarin Oriental Corner, though now neatly integrated with the hotel building now behind it.
A brand new race control tower debuted in 2013 as it celebrated the 60th running of the Grand Prix, part of a major drive to modernise the permanent facilities once more. Phase two of the development will see the construction of a new Grand Prix Building with all the facilities required to accommodate media, staff and sponsors, plus new pit garages. Once again, the complex has been designed to maximise its year-round usage, with conferencing and office facilities expanded and the ground-level garage area able to accommodate larger tourist vehicles when not in use at the Grand Prix.