The history of the Macau Grand Prix


From rough-house road-race to Formula 3 speciality, the Macau GP has grown into one of motorsport's most prized weekends. PETER MILLS charts the growth of the street circuit showpiece 

 By Peter Mills

"We recently commented on a Macao GP...According to our information, this was in Brazil, but this, it transpires, was incorrect, the Macao concerned being the 5 square mile Portuguese colony on the banks of the Canton river in China."

AUTOSPORT's report of the first Gran Premio de Macau on October 31 1954 may have been worryingly wobbly on some fundamental details, but the race's rapid elevation in status would soon make it unthinkable that any racing enthusiast could suffer similar confusion.

The creep of homogeneity elsewhere has perhaps only served to accentuate the allure of the Macau Guia circuit.

From rough-house road-race to Formula 3 showpiece, the combination of generous "seafront" straights and demanding hilltop section has remained a constant that has enticed drivers and riders for 60 years.

All but one of the 15 cars in the inaugural Grand Prix, won by Eddie Carvalho's Triumph TR2, were from Hong Kong. Among them was newly stationed REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineer) Sergeant Douglas Steane, whose racing activities were indulgently encouraged by a far-sighted colonel, a "go-ahead guy" delighted by the ensuing newspaper publicity for his Signal Regiment.

Steane, now 83 and retired in Hereford, recalls the genesis of the event: "I had actually arrived in Hong Kong in early '54, when the people in Macau were talking about running a rally.

"A couple of chaps in Hong Kong at the Motorsport Club, of which I was a member, got to hear about this and went over to have a look. They said, 'You don't want to waste your time running a rally, you want to run a race here - you've got a natural racing circuit.'"

Doug Steane won in 1956, the year after the cobblestones were replaced

Cobblestones on the circuit's back-leg and a stretch of unmade road were replaced and surfaced for the '55 running, marking the start of continuous improvement and investment.

While the early Macau GP organisers may have been gratified by the boost to tourism by visitors from Hong Kong - 40,000 spectators watched the '56 race - local car dealers and importers soon came to recognise the value of the meeting.

"My best mate was Bob Ritchie, a sergeant in the RAF," continues Doug Steane. "He drove for FIAT, a dealer team, and Austin Healey, which was run by Austin dealers Metropolitan Cars. I drove for Walter Sulke, the Mercedes importer, and Walter also had the DKW franchise."

When Sulke's nominated driver for his Mercedes 190SL fell ill before final practice of the 1955 Grand Prix, Sulke handed driving duties to his DKW saloon car hotshot. The decision would reap rewards, as just 15 minutes later Steane recorded a remarkable pole against opposition that included an Aston Martin DB3S and Ferrari Mondial.

"Although I won in '56 [again from pole, in a more heavily tuned Mercedes] the '55 race when I had a ding-dong with Bob Ritchie was more rewarding," affirms Steane.

A late pitstop to remedy fuel starvation, during which an incredulous Steane was informed he had been leading, allowed Ritchie's Healey 100 into first place. Further confusion followed at the finish when ex-biker Ritchie stopped before the chequered flag, as was the norm at the Isle of Man TT. Alerted to his error by the crowd, Ritchie was jolted back into action and took a breathless victory by under two seconds.

The Suez crisis and an awaiting job in England prevented Doug from accepting Walter Sulke's offer to race a 300SL in 1957, but the car would win in the hands of Arthur Pateman.

The view from the press box, 1957

Soldiers posted on sentry duty along the seafront, to stop Chinese dissidents entering Macau, may have breathed easier, though, as Doug had sent some diving into the South China Sea for cover after crashing on his way to victory in '56.

The Grand Prix Trophy left the colony of Hong Kong for the first time in 1958, when Chan-Lye Choon from Singapore, then the only Chinese member of the BRDC, won in a self-prepared DB3S.

Choon would pass on the baton of crowd favourite to Albert Poon, but it would be another early Chinese competitor, the Sumatra-born Teddy Yip, who would leave the biggest mark on Macau...

Future Formula 1 team owner Yip and brother in-law Stanley Ho's STDM consortium had assumed control of Macau's highly lucrative gambling franchise. Yip now had the wherewithal to fund other entrants and become a multiple car owner.

Despite the loss of his friend 'Dodgie' Laurel in a 140mph accident in 1967, the first fatality of a competitor in the Grand Prix's history, Yip stepped up his support of the race, embarking on a journey towards being christened the godfather of the Grand Prix.

Factory participation was on the increase in the sixties. The launch of a local Renault dealership in '66 prompted La Regie to send over a Le Mans-spec Alpine 1300 for Mauro Bianchi. The Belgian dominated the event to become the first imported winner.

Of the Macau regulars, John MacDonald was rapidly earning a reputation as a master of the Guia circuit.

The Hong Kong garage owner's maiden win came in '65 after a mass pile-up at the super-tight Melco hairpin brought the race to a premature halt. In addition to a further three Grand Prix victories - a record - MacDonald became the only man to win in all disciplines by taking the laurels on two wheels in '69 and saloon car honours in '72.

Macau was left as by far the biggest event in the region following the discontinuation of the Singapore Grand Prix in 1973, where fatalities had marred the final two events at the fearsome Thomson road circuit.

John MacDonald, here following Tony Goodwin in 1965, triumphed on two and four wheels in Macau

Yip had been impressed by Aussie Vern Schuppan's exploits at the penultimate Singapore race and would step in as an important patron to the Formula Atlantic champion.

"Macau was an amazing experience," recalls Schuppan, who in the season prior to his first visit had been squeezed out of a full-time BRM Formula 1 seat by a well-heeled Niki Lauda.

"The first time I went out we had sponsorship from Rupert Keegan's dad's Trans Meridian Airlines. We sat down with no seatbelts or anything behind the flight deck of this CL44 cargo plane.

'When are we going to arrive in Hong Kong?' The pilot said, 'Oooh... we don't know, it might be a week, it might be ten days. It all depends on how much cargo we have to pick up, really.' We said, 'Christ! The race is in a week!"

On his maiden visit, Schuppan set pole by nine seconds in a demon March 722, before being denied a likely victory in the uber-Formula Libre race by a burnt clutch.

"There was certainly a massive variation in equipment from the front to the back of the grid," acknowledges Schuppan. "But you would still have guys like Graeme Lawrence in a BT28, a really good car, and John MacDonald in an earlier Brabham.

"There were also a number of competitive Japanese drivers out there who continued racing even when I was out in Japan doing sportscars in the '80s. [Masahiro] Hasemi and [Kazuyoshi] Hoshino, in particular, stood out. One year they were interviewed about how they were going to go, and whether they would win the race. One of them said, 'I will win the race or die trying.'"

Schuppan laughs, "I think they both went off after the start at the Lisboa corner."

Over a 10-year spell competing at the circuit, Schuppan would record two dominant wins and a near-miss when a timing tooth slipped, accounting for the engine. However, the Whyalla-born driver's headlines after his second Macau win in 1976 were rivalled by the performance of future world champion Alan Jones.

Driving Schuppan's old March, a delayed Jones produced a storming comeback drive, breaking the lap record by nine seconds and some three seconds faster than pole.

1979, and Tiff Needell leads Riccardo Patrese

Jones's astonished Theodore Racing entrant Yip offered HK$20,000 to the first driver who could beat Jones's lap record, with the proviso that half the money would be sent to underprivileged children..

"I probably have never said this to anyone before, but there was no question that the March and Alan Jones combination would be seconds faster than everyone," says Jones's 1976 team-mate Schuppan today.

"I sort of had control of how that car was prepared for the first three Macaus. At the beginning, it had a wide track and handled on rails. I went back and put a narrow-track suspension on it with a sportscar nose, and it was just an absolutely brilliant car. For '76 I got the Ralt [RT1 Hart Ford BDA], designed to take an F2 engine, and the car was just a real understeerer.

"I am not knocking Alan's driving. Alan was quick, there was no question about that, but at the time when I was racing F5000 cars against Alan we were about the same. It was Jonesy, but it was just as much the car - it was perfect for that circuit."

The future Le Mans winner attributes the Macau Grand Prix's growth during the seventies as chiefly down to Yip, along with word of mouth from drivers and Yip's healthy rivalry with fellow businessman Bob Harper.

"Any driver who raced at Macau came away saying, 'Wow, what a track!'" says Schuppan. "That word certainly got back to Europe.

"Also, driving for Teddy, you were sort of treated like a king. Someone would pick you up and take your passport, you wouldn't have to go through immigration and there would be a car waiting for you the other end to take you to the Hotel Lisboa.

"I won't say Teddy was running the race, but he was the most singularly important person in terms of what went on there. Teddy would just say, 'Yep, let's get so and so out here', and that would just happen. I never knew whether it was off his own account or whether the casino was paying for it. Obviously, Stanley Ho was the kingpin of the casino, but he was Teddy's brother in law."

Schumacher beat Hakkinen to the win in 1990 © LAT

For the silver jubilee in 1978, Hong Kong Ford importer Harper came up with the idea of a Race of Giants, featuring current and former grand prix and Indy legends in identical 1.6 Ford Escorts.

Stirling Moss took pole, Jacky Ickx won and Jackie Stewart reportedly rolled a camera car three times. Typically, the charismatic Yip was in the thick of the action, assisting in making the event happen and participating in the race.

The adoption of Pacific rules in the 1970s, initially, facilitated a greater strength in depth to the grid. Harper's cars represented the chief opposition to Yip's Theodore Racing team. Indeed, the American pitted a stellar line-up of Keke Rosberg, Derek Daly and Riccardo Patrese against Yip's entry of fellow future F1 star Jones in '78.

Patrese would pick up two wins, before the Harper/Yip rivalry turned, briefly, somewhat acrimonious.

In the immediate aftermath of defeat in '79, Patrese and Harper protested Theodore Racing's winner Geoff Lees' engine. The car was found to be legal and in apologising for the protest Harper announced his intention to withdraw from future events.

The race under Pacific rules would never enjoy such heights, and for '83 another direction was sought. Formula 2 rules were evaluated, but the need to fell trees at the Lisboa corner was met with strong opposition, leaving Formula 3 as the most practical alternative.

The move was an instant hit, as perhaps the only driver to make his F3 debut as a 40-year-old can attest.

"F3 was definitely the way forward," affirms Schuppan, recalling the dawn of the 30-year Formula 3/Macau success story.

"When I won, I wasn't thinking about my career; I was already in F1. The appeal of Macau for me was the atmosphere. It was so different. It had an end-of-season feel, and you were a bunch of foreign drivers all out there together, getting invited to banquets and casinos and girls and all the rest.

"It was mega, and we experienced things there that we would never have experienced anywhere else. But as time went on, Macau became a crucially important race for people's careers.

"Guys like Senna and Schumacher won there blowing everyone into the weeds, when it was much more competitive. The perception had become if you won Macau then you were certainly a driver to watch."

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