Guest writer Gerard Hetman looks at Portugal’s chances of returning to the F1 calendar via the brand new Algarve International Circuit and speaks exclusively to circuit director Paolo Pinheiro.
As new circuits have emerged to host Grands Prix in Asia and the Middle East, many traditional venues in Europe and elsewhere have either had their status as an F1 venue placed in jeopardy, or have been dropped from the calendar altogether.
But there are indications that a former Grand Prix host nation – Portugal – may have put together a venue that will attract an F1 return to the country in the near future: Algarve International Circuit.
A few slices of history
Portugal has not held an F1 race since the last running of the Portuguese Grand Prix, held at the Estoril circuit from 1984 to 1996. Before it’s demise, the race provided some noteworthy moments in F1 history, including Niki Lauda’s final world title win (1984), the first wins for Ayron Senna (1985) and David Coulthard (1995) as well as the infamous squeeze by Senna on Alain Prost down the start/finish straight in 1988.
Estoril also proved popular as a test spot, and the circuit played host to part of one of the biggest “What if?” scenarios in F1 history when Senna tested a Lamborghini-powered MP4-8 late in the 1993 season, before the Woking team chose to run Peugeot engines in their cars for 1994.
The Portuguese Grand Prix was the first of the European-based races to fall victim to the eastward expansion of the F1 calendar. Just three years after the last Grand Prix at Estoril, the first of a new wave of government-backed, Hermann Tilke-designed circuits would debut on the schedule in the form of Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit In the meantime, several European based venues would hold their last GPs, and a new era of F1 scheduling was underway.
Ecclestone’s latest playground?
Given this trend, many fans would think that Portugal would not be a prime candidate for a new Grand Prix. However, a development group in the country’s tourist-rich Algarve region may be in line to change that with the construction of a business and motor sports complex in the city of Portimao known as the Algarve International Circuit.
While the complex will feature professional and recreational developments relating to motor sports, the crown jewel will be the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve, a multi-purpose racing circuit that will be able to be configured to accommodate a broad range of motor sport series including, yes, Formula 1.
With construction of the circuit expected to be completed in October, the venue is currently slated to host the final round of the Superbike World Championship on the weekend of November 2, and is also booked for the penultimate round of the upcoming A1 Grand Prix season in April.
While it may be early to start thinking of hosting an F1 race, circuit developer Paulo Pinheiro, according to Reuters reports, announced in a February news conference that a Formula 1 team- unnamed as of yet- has booked the circuit for a private test in early 2009, and that more F1-related events could follow.
In its potential F1 configuration, the 4.692km clockwise-running circuit consists of 18 turns and a number of hills, dips, and elevation changes, as can be seen in this home made video taken on the unfinished circuit recently.
Aside from the racing surface, the circuit will be capable of accommodating approximately 100,000 spectators, and will feature a Sakhir-style hospitality tower in the center of the action. All of the other facility requirements of a modern F1 venue- race control, medical center, and an extensive paddock complex- will also be present.
Finally, as the circuit hopes to become a centre for F1 testing, the track will also incorporate rain simulation technology that will allow teams to test and adjust to a wide range of wet conditions on the racing surface.
While it’s easy to be excited about the racing venue, the motor park will also incorporate a number of other supporting developments. A multiple-configuration karting track with It’s own support complex will also be featured, as will a business and technological development park that the administrators hope will attract multiple motorsport-related businesses to the complex.
Finally, no big-time circuit is complete without overnight accommodations, and the Motorsports Park will include both a permanent apartment complex and a Radisson-operated five-star hotel for event participants and guests.
More pictures of the circuit layout here
Boosts and hurdles
The developers of the Algarve International Circuit have put together an incredible package. And while it may not have all the glitz and glamour of Singapore or Yas Island, the venue is located in a tourism-rich area just miles from the southern coast of Portugal – a fact that circuit staff point out before describing the circuit itself in the promotional video featured on the motor park’s website. Looking at the whole picture, the Autodromo appears to have the perfect blend of facilities, access, and location to earn a spot on the Formula One schedule.
Still, modern facilities and great location don’t always add up to a coveted stop for the F1 circus. Developers at Imola have recently spent over $10 million for a Tilke-designed revamp of the paddock and track , yet the San Marino Grand Prix appears no closer to returning in the immediate future.
The usual criteria will likely determine weather or not Algarve will be the next stop for F1 – the backing to pay the fees required by Formula One Management, the availability of space on an ever-expanding schedule, and the profitability of the event itself in terms of sponsorship and attendance.
Most F1 venues receive help from their governments – directly or indirectly – to cover the costs of hosting a Grand Prix, a significant part of which is the sanctioning fee. It would be a huge boost to the circuit if the regional or national government would get involved in paying the bill, no matter how deep Pinheiro’s pockets may be.
Portuguese deputy sports minister Laurentino Dias was quoted in the same Reuters statement as saying “The Government will do its best for Portugal to become part of the world’s main championships.” That doesn’t mean a cheque from Lisbon will magically appear at the London offices of Formula One Management, but the developers might be able to count on some support.
In terms of combining an F1 venue with a great getaway destination, Portimao may be hard to beat. It’s sunny most of the year and is already a haven for tourists. And while there are no Portuguese drivers on the F1 grid since the departure of Tiago Monteiro, a number of young drivers from the country could find their way into F1 by the time a Portuguese Grand Prix rolls around. This might include A1GP star Filipe Albuquerque (who praised the new circuit in a recent interview), GP2 contender Alvaro Parente, and British F3 hotshot Jaime Algersuari.
Plus, with Spain just across the border, the Portuguese Grand Prix would almost surely draw in thousands of the Fernando Alonso faithful as long as their star is in the sport. All in all, while the Algarve circuit would surely make plenty of money with a Grand Prix, other new calendar developments lead us to the one fly in the ointment on this subject: calendar space.
In 2009 the F1 schedule will expand to 19 races. India and South Korea are already lined up for 2010, and there is a strong possibility that the United States could also return at or around that time. As a result, given the team’s concerns over the season length, finding space for a Portuguese Grand Prix may be very difficult in an already busy calendar. In terms of Portugal carving out a niche, things would be considerable easier if Spain had not started hosting two races this season.
Ask the circuit director
Circuit director Paolo Pinheiro kindly took our questions on the circuit and its chances at getting a spot on the F1 calendar:
Q: How did you come up with the idea to build the Algarve Motor Park? How have you been involved in the design and construction?
A: I had the idea back in 2000, because of our weather which is our biggest advantage, as well as our hotels and beautiful beaches. I did the racetrack design, but not the buildings and infrastructures – just the racetrack layout.
Q: You have said recently that a Formula 1 team has booked your circuit for a private test in early 2009 – can you offer any details on this?
A: We will have the FIA inspection next week, so until then, all we can say is that many F1 teams have shown interest in testing here. But until the racetrack is homologated, we can only wait.
Q: With team bosses wanting to limit the number of races on the F1 calendar, how dose your circuit plan to campaign for a spot on an already-crowded F1 schedule?
A: It is not part of our plans to have a F1 race. If it happens one day, excellent, but it is not part of our plans, because as you stated it is very difficult to receive an F1 race.
Q: With Formula 1 now holding two races across the border in Spain, do you think the sport’s controlling figures will consider adding a race in Portugal?
A: I do not know. We have built a top level racetrack, not only per its layout, but also the buildings and the entire infrastructure, so we can only wait and see what the authorities think about our racetrack, and hope that the level of our circuit may work as a bonus for us.
Q: What are some of the unique benefits of your circuit that will make it attractive to F1 teams and fans?
A: It is a unique racetrack, very challenging for the drivers with big slopes and blind corners, and at the same time, very safe. For the public, they will be very close to the track, and also will have a very wide view, being able to view about 80% of the racetrack from all the stands. And also the Algarve itself – this is a special tourist destination that will make everyone feel great about coming and racing here.
Q: Please tell us a bit about the circuit layout in F1 configuration – what are some of the challenges it will present for Formula 1 drivers who test and/or race there?
A: As I said, the slopes – up and down around the circuit – and the fact that the track has some very fast and flowing corners, as well as 32 different track layouts, some fast, some slow, and also the fact that all the circuit can be watered. All these features will ensure us that the teams and drivers will be happy to come to the Algarve.
So what are its chances?
While they may not be putting all of their eggs in one big basket labeled “Formula 1”, Pinheiro and his staff are apparently serious about bringing F1 to their facility, even if it is just in a testing capacity for the next few seasons. While they may not be as far along in pursuing a race date as India or South Korea, their efforts- centered on a brand-new, purpose built circuit- can perhaps be viewed as more viable and realistic than projects in locations such as Mexico and Russia.
Also, while the teams may not welcome a bigger calendar, a race in Poritamo would be considerably easier in terms of logistics than another flyaway destination. And while the new circuit seeks to become a regular destination for F1 testing, it is ironic that perhaps the move that would most help it to land a GP would be banning in-season testing for teams, therefore perhaps opening up a few more calendar slots where Portugal could fit in.
A revival of the Portuguese Grand Prix may not be on the cards for the next few seasons, but don’t be surprised if you see F1 roaring into the south of Portugal sometime in the next five to ten years. The Algarve Circuit is set to become a major centre for intentional motor sport, and landing an F1 race is certainty in its crosshairs.
Special thanks to Mr. Pinheiro for taking time to answer our questions, as well as to his assistant Hugo Gomes for fielding and directing our initial inquiry.
This is a guest article by Gerard Hetman. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.
NB. The written before it was learnt that the Indian Grand Prix had been delayed until 2011 and the 2009 Canadian Grand Prix has been cancelled.