Vila Real is the true heart of motor racing in Portugal, with its epic street race through the hillside roads proving remarkably resilient to change. First run in 1931, when such races were commonplace, the circuit has weathered world wars, economic and political turmoil and a loss of its international status in the 1970s, through to recovery, revival and world attention once more as Portugal's round of the World Touring Car Championship.
While the modern iteration doesn't have all of the flair of the original, cutting out around a third of the lap, including the section over the metal bridge, it still is a fast and demanding circuit which can easily catch out the unwary.
The fever for motor racing runs deep through this small town in the wine-making north of the country, perched on a hillside and straddling the Rio Corbo river. Time and again circumstances have called a halt to proceedings, yet somehow the locals always manage to bring back competitive action to their streets. The events have always proved popular with the fans, with thousands turning out to line the track at each race.
And what a track! Sweeping through the hills, it was fast and furious and in its original form featured two perilous bridges over sheer drops to the river below, as well as a pair of level crossings where the course was bisected by a narrow-gauge railway. Add in sections through the town complete with houses, lampposts and any number of other obstacles for the wayward racer to hit and its was certainly memorable!
Unusual funding source enables first races
Racing first began when a group of local enthusiasts, who had earlier organised concours events and car shows in the town and wanted to capitalise on the interest shown. In 1930, the local politicians gave their financial backing, in the slightly unusual fashion of raising a tax on meat purchases within the town. By the following year, preparations were complete and on June 15 the first 'Circuito Automóvel de Vila Real' took place on a 7.150km course. Gaspar Sameiro and Ercílio Barbosa won in a Ford Model A, though the crowd may have been forgiven for missing out on the finer details of the race, as the un-tarred road surface threw up huge dust clouds which obscured much of the on-track action.
The following year, it was Vasco Sameiro (Gaspar's brother) who took the spoils in an Invicta and followed this up with victory for Alfa Romeo in 1933. The 1934 event was taken by the Bugatti of Antonio Heredia but the 1935 event was cancelled because of tension in the lead up to the Spanish Civil War. When racing resumed in 1936 (by now on a fully asphalted course) a period of dominance for Vasco Samerio began, the great Portuguese driver taking a trio of wins before the onset of World War Two precluded further events.
Racing returned in 1949, with José Cabral taking victory in his Allard in the sole race run that year. The following year saw the first entries arrive from Italy, with victory taken by Pietro Carini in an OSCA. That year's race saw an enforced change of course, as the Ponte Metallica was undergoing refurbishment and the race was routed through some very narrow streets to an earlier stone bridge to get across the river.
The original course was restored in 1951 once the bridge repairs were complete and Ferrari sent a trio of cars, duly recording an emphatic 1-2-3 finish, led by Giovanni Bracco. The following year saw the entry of aces Eugenio Castelotti and Felice Bonetto in the sportscar event, but Casimero de Oliveria took the race in a Ferrari 225S.
International stars arrive on revised course
There would be no further races until 1958, when a bumper crop of international drivers including David Piper, Sir Stirling Moss, Jean Behra and Maria Teresa de Filippis turned out to race on a mildly revised course. This saw a new start/finish position along Avenida 1º de Maio, with a roadside pit area perched on the edge with the Ponte Metallica as a backdrop below. The changes brought with it a tricky new corner, quickly dubbed 'Curva da Salsicharia' ('Sausage Corner') thanks to the shop selling such products overlooking it. Effectively a hairpin bend, it was made trickier by its uphill approach which saw the cars arrive across the Ponte Metallica in bright sunlight, only to plunge into the darkness between the houses and shops, negotiating a slight kink while at the same time braking and downshifting at the same time. Emerging back into the sunlight, a good exit was vital as the long sweeping section past the pits and up to Timparia followed.
The 1958 race was won race by Stirling Moss, with Jean Behra coming home in second place to score a Maserati 1-2. Despite the revived race being deemed an all round success, the townsfolk would have to wait another eight years before racing would return. Arguably, it was worth the wait, as Vila Real's finest period was about to begin.
Formula 3 was now the main draw alongside sportscars and for the revival race of 1966, some of the major stars of the category were tempted to Vila Real, despite a date clash with another important event in Rheims. John Fenning won from pole in his Brabham, ahead of a field which included Jonathan Williams, Reine Wisell, Picko Troberg, John Miles and local driver Carlos Santos.
By 1968, further improvements were made to the course, with the construction of permanent grandstands and another relocation of the start/finish line some 300 metres further along the course. This allowed the creation of a more permanent pit lane, separated from the main track by Armco barrier for the first time. Reine Wisell won the F3 race, separated by just 0.37s from fellow Tecno runner Manfred Mohr, with the winning average speed topping 100mph for the first time.
Sportscars to the fore
But it was the sportscars which would come to dominate the event, with single seater races quietly dropped the following year after overtures to host an F2 race fell on deaf ears. Event organisers had hoped to attract the World Championship for Makes, but when that did not materialise plumped for a six hour endurance event instead. The race was won by the Porsche 908 of Chris Craft and David Piper as the light began to fade, a fact that might have contributed to an enormous accident on the metal bridge which saw a locally-entered Lotus 47 totally destroyed as it ping-ponged between the parapets. The driver was fortunate to walk away unscathed.
With six hours proving a challenge too far, the event was scaled back to 500kms for 1970, though still attracted a strong entry. Alain De Cadent had a fearsome crash after understandably being distracted when his car caught fire; he hopped out with a smouldering race suit but was otherwise unscathed, less than could be said for the car which burned to a cinder while the race continued on. Teddy Pilette eventually took the win in a Lola T70.
The 1971 race will be remembered for the entry of David Piper's fearsome Porsche 917, driven by local ace Mário de Araújo Cabral. Starting from pole, Cabral battled with the Ferrari of René Herzog, only to pit when a faulty sensor indicated erroneously dropping oil pressure. Rejoining, Cabral broke the lap record numerous times, but could do nothing to catch the Porsche 908 of Prince Jorge de Bargration of Spain, who won by 45 seconds.
A shorter 242kms distance meant a reduced number of international in the following years, but a Portuguese winner was once again crowned in 1973, when Carlos Gaspar, in his second year back racing following national service, recovered from a terrible start to take victory in a Lola T292. Thereafter the track lost its international licence and, with the oil crisis and Portugal undergoing a revolution in 1974, it seemed the Vila Real event was history.
The Vila Real Automobile Club had other ideas and in 1979 was able to revive the race, albeit only for national level racing. Soon, Group A touring car races became the headline events and the circuit thrived once again during the 1980s. Safety, though, was an ever-present concern and things came to a head in tragic circumstances in 1991, when the Renault Clio of Pedro Carvalho careered into a group of spectators during a support race, killing four people. Once again, the authorities put a stop to racing.
Modern revival proves a success
And for nearly 20 years, that seemed to be that. However, Vila Real's capacity to rise Phoenix-like from the flames remained undiminished, and in 2007 a revival event was held, among the attendees being Sir Stirling Moss. A shortened course was created, which cut out both of the river crossings but still featured the fast sweepers to and from the Mateus Palace. The railway crossings were also eliminated, though this had in fact become academic as the railway line itself had been removed when the line was closed in the late 1990s.
Further events were held in 2008, 2009 and 2010, including rounds of the Portuguese Touring Car Championship, before Portugal's deteriorating economy took its tool on the number of entrants and the finances of the organisers. The roads fell silent once more but in 2014 a new association was formed to promote racing at the street circuit and national racing once again returned. Ambitions were wider, however, and negotiations soon began with promoters of the World Touring Car Championship. With a return to the streets of Porto no longer feasible, a deal was soon struck for Vila Real to host the 2015 Race of Portugal. It meant that Vila Real would finally host its first true World Championship event, some 84 years after it first roared to the noise of racing engines.
The first event was dominated by the Citroën cars of José María López and Ma Qing Ha but the race confirmed Vila Real as a popular addition to the calendar. The following year's race saw an extremely popular win for the Honda of local hero Tiago Monteiro, a feat he would repeat in 2019.
The WTCC morphed into the WTCR from 2018 onwards but Vila Real retained its place on the calendar, becoming an annual fixture until the coronavirus-related cancellation in 2020. The race is scheduled to return once again in 2022.