Autosport 70: Why Portimao is the right home for the Portuguese GP
As the Portuguese Grand Prix returns to the F1 world championship, we take a look at how the superb Algarve circuit came about - and why it's taken so long for F1 to race there - in an article originally published in Autosport magazine on 26 August 2010
Think of a modern Formula 1 circuit being hoisted and dropped over a 'super-G' skiing course. The result would be close in character to the spectacular, undulating Autodromo Internacional Algarve.
Nestled between the bustling Portuguese resort of Portimao and the small mountain town of Monchique, the blend of corners and gradients has created a circuit with blind apexes for some 80% of its lap. The turnstiles to this bastion of old-school motor racing opened at the tail-end of 2008, and as a new European track has few contemporaries.
Unlike the United States in the late 1990s, where a surge in the growth of NASCAR and a booming economy fuelled the construction of a spate of speedways, or the more recent track-building efforts in the Middle East, the continent has had little demand for new racing circuits.
For Portimao's Autodromo to be realised, an inspirational driving force was required. Step forward Paulo Pinheiro, a mechanical engineer and former kart racer and Superbike rider. It was Pinheiro's vision to provide the Algarve with a state-of-the-art racing facility. His background in real estate and construction provided the experience and savvy crucial for dealing with Portugal's complex planning regulations and persevere through a long gestation period.
"The initial idea was mine back in 2000, and then I had to convince people - basically the banks - to get the finance," says Pinheiro. "It was a long, hard process. As you can imagine, Portugal is a rather complicated country. It took eight years to get the planning permission, and then we did everything in 10 months.
"For the five years from the start in 2000 to 2005, Portugal had five different governments. So we had to reapply for planning permission each year. It was a difficult time, but from March 2005 everything started to go smoother. We got the final planning permission in 2007, work started in 2008 and we finished in November 2008 for the first race."
A key ally was found in Maurizio Flammini, the creator of the World Superbike Championship and in the headlines of late for his desire to stage a Formula 1 race in Rome. Pinheiro cites Flammini's faith as instrumental in seeing the project through its tough times.
"The first contact we ever did was for World Superbikes," says Pinheiro. "Back in 2000 I had a meeting in Rome with Mr Flammini. I just had a plan on a sheet of A4. I said to him, 'This is the layout of the circuit we want to build, and I would like to know if we do it, would you like to hold a race there?'
"He said, 'OK, if you do it, you have my word that you will have a race'. For a long time it was the only thing that we had. He was the first person to believe in us and that's why he is such a special person for us."
"It's really easy to compare it to some of the best circuits in the world. I rate it as one of the top ones. I think it's a very nice circuit with lots of ups and downs. It's not like some of the other new circuits like Abu Dhabi, where everything has been built from zero with no [natural] conditions at all" Filipe Albuquerque
Today, the tight-knit relationship continues. Superbikes remain the circuit's biggest draw, with even amateur two-wheel racer Michael Schumacher showing up on the grid for the circuit's inauguration. As part of its promotional activities, Pinheiro's Parkalgar company sponsored local rider Miguel Praia in the 2004 WSBK series, before its own team, Parkalgar Racing was founded. Sadly, Parkalgar-supported Supersport rider Craig Jones was killed at Brands Hatch in 2008, and a corner at Pinheiro's circuit has been named in his honour.
Alongside Flammini, significant support was lent by the local municipality, the Portimao Camara, which donated land. On viewing architect Ricardo Pina's finished pit buildings, and the grandstands that line Pinheiro's layout, it is surprising to learn that little choice was offered regarding the location of the plot they received.
"We started with 42 hectares of land that was owned by the municipality," says Pinheiro. "Then we needed to buy more, and we ended up with 300 hectares. Part was bought by us, part by the municipality. To be honest, we had this land and we just had to get the best we could out of it. When I saw all the slopes and hills, though, I thought we could do quite a good job."
The result of their labours has proved an instant hit. In less than two years of operation, the majority of Europe's top championships, including FIA GTs, World Touring Cars, the Le Mans Series, A1GP, Formula Renault 3.5 and British F3 have visited its accentuated slopes.
"We have been running for two years and are trying to understand which championships work better," says Pinheiro. "I think we've managed to have a good pool of races up to now. Some are better than we expected, some worse. FIA GT and A1GP went very well, and this year we also had a bit of a surprise with the WTCC.
"Last year we had a very good race with the Le Mans Series, but maybe we need to change the date because in the peak of the summer it's too hot. It was difficult to convince people to leave the beach to come to the track. It's a wonderful spectacle - perhaps we have to adjust some things and look at moving the race to September."
Audi Italia GT racer and former Red Bull Junior driver Filipe Albuquerque is well placed to shed light on the track's secrets. In addition to his experience competing at the venue in A1GP and Superstars, when his schedule allows Albuquerque joins Portugal's top drivers Pedro Lamy, Pedro Couceiro and Tiago Monteiro as an instructor at Portimao's race school.
"It's really easy to compare it to some of the best circuits in the world," says Albuquerque. "I rate it as one of the top ones. I think it's a very nice circuit with lots of ups and downs. It's not like some of the other new circuits like Abu Dhabi, where everything has been built from zero with no [natural] conditions at all.
"There are many, many blind corners. A high-level professional driver would do well [to learn them] in one hour. There are small tricks because of these blind corners that require a little bit more knowledge than a normal track. Like the Nurburgring - the long one - it is quite tricky because 80% of the track is blind, so you really need to know them.
"For example, the last corner onto the main straight is very hard. I think, besides in formula cars, you need to release just a little gas, and then you need to position the car very precisely. And it is blind. You go around it at more or less 200km/h [120mph]. It is quite hard to do that with the gravity of the car going up, and channelling it onto the main straight. It really requires some laps and some experience of the track."
As an ambassador for Algarve, Albuquerque's rave review is no great surprise. But BMW Sauber F1 driver Pedro de la Rosa, a consultant with rival venue Motorland Aragon, also enthuses over Portimao's qualities. The patriotic Catalan is unable to be swayed, however, into rating Algarve above his home circuit of Montmelo as a test venue, despite the Autodromo boasting four configurations for F1 testing and a high-tech sprinkler system.
"For me, Portimao is a fantastic race track," says de la Rosa. "You can overtake on the long straight and, because of the gradient changes and the amount of blind corners, it's interesting for the driver and fantastic for the spectators.
"From a testing perspective, I still rank Barcelona as the number one and Jerez as the number two. The reason is because in Portimao there are not enough long, third- or fourth-gear consistent-radius corners. That's where it's easy to get data.
"That's what makes Barcelona so strong for testing. It's funny, but even in the simulator when I was working with McLaren, Barcelona was our favourite. But Portimao is very nice. For testing it's a lot better than some of the other circuits we go to, like Valencia. I'm just comparing it against the best. Portimao has the capacity, it is safe, spectacular and good for racing."
"We have to be realistic with the way our economics are nowadays. Maybe, with our proximity to the south of Spain, the way to do it would be to hold an Iberian GP. If we held one, I think it would be a smashing race, but we can only do what we can do" Paulo Manuel Costa
Algarve has been dealt no favours in its efforts to establish itself as a testing destination. Just two months after the track was completed, a predictably 'green' track surface awaited F1 teams for their visit in December 2008. Unseasonably heavy rainfall threatened to wash out January's following test, and the F1 teams have yet to return.
The current meagre F1 testing allowance explains why Algarve has yet to enjoy the same level of winter track activity as in the heyday of Estoril, the former home of the Portuguese Grand Prix. Pinheiro denies that the regulations have adversely affected the business model of his 150million euro project. He concedes, however, that an easing of F1's mileage restrictions would be welcome for 2011.
"Obviously, it is better to have F1 than anything else," says Pinheiro. "It is a pity that the rules changed. We held tests in 2008 and 2009 and we hope to have them again in 2011. The restrictions that they have nowadays make it a little more difficult to bring tests here, but I think we will do it in 2011."
There was a move to woo F1's powerbrokers with the staging of last year's standalone GP2 finale. The undertaking may yet prove shrewd, but local observers believe prohibitive costs mean the experience is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
"Oh, yeah, you bet!" says Autosport's man in Portugal, Paulo Manuel Costa. "They had the Secretary of Sports bailing them out at the last minute in 2009; the word is the GP2 trucks were waiting outside for confirmation to get inside. But there were no free cookies this year, so GP2 dropped them from the calendar."
Pinheiro confirms the thinking behind holding the event, which shared the billing with the FIA GT championship: "The idea was to have access to F1. With GP2, the organisation involved is the same as F1. So it's a good way to show whether or not you are able to stage an F1 race.
"I think all the comments made by the race director, the drivers and everyone were very, very positive. So, I think we have proven we are able to stage an F1 race. But, as you know, nowadays for a country like Portugal to hold a grand prix is little more than a dream.
"We have to be realistic with the way our economics are nowadays. Maybe, with our proximity to the south of Spain, the way to do it would be to hold an Iberian GP. If we held one, I think it would be a smashing race, but we can only do what we can do."
For the time being Pinheiro is occupied with more achievable matters. A hotel and apartment complex is scheduled to be completed next March, while the kart track successfully staged a recent round of the WSK. And Mauro Sipsz's N.Technology company has signed a letter of intent to move into the Technology Park; the Italian team behind the Porsche Panamera Superstars project would move into what was intended to be the A1GP factory.
"The technological side is very important for us," says Pinheiro. "It creates the critical mass that is needed in the project. So, slowly, things are coming our way. Even in difficult times we have been managing to move forward, which is the main goal for any company."
The circuit continued to expand after our 2010 piece, with an off-road track being opened in June 2011. A wide range of driving experiences remain available and the circuit continues to host some significant events, including the WSBK, European Le Mans Series and the Algarve Classic Festival.
In terms of top-level four-wheeled competition, however, it hasn't hosted many events since the first few years. Ever-tighter testing restrictions has meant F1 has not yet returned and some locals feel it has become something of a white elephant.
But its quality as a challenging and interesting circuit has never been in doubt. The circumstances that have brought F1 to the Algarve track could not have been predicted and no one would have wished for, but the first Portuguese GP since 1996 could underline what a superb venue the world championship has been missing.
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