Macau madness: The 2008 Grand Prix

This is where the big boys play rough, and Yokohama is in every team\'s arsenal.
by Paulo Rafael Subido | Apr 24, 2009

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It is a historic place. Macau is dubbed the ‘Las Vegas of Asia,\' and for good reason. Upon arriving, one will instantly feel the electricity in the air. Massive casino hotels dot the area, and the buildings that date back to when the Portuguese first colonized the western side of the Pearl River Delta, are a stark contrast to the highly modernized infrastructure. Macau is the melting pot of new and old, wild and classy--the Sin City of the Orient. Gambling is legal here, and where there are high rollers, there are beautiful women and, more importantly (at least in our case), fast and exotic cars. The women will have to wait.

Ah, the cars and the races. The spirit of Macau is in its 6.2-kilometer street circuit. It is said to be one of the most demanding road courses in the world, with uncompromising crash barriers on each side. Young Formula 3 drivers come from around the world to test their mettle on the streets of Macau. If you want to dig deeper into the allure of the Macau Grand Prix, your first stop should be the museum dedicated to it.

The Grand Prix Museum documents the great moments in the race\'s history. There, you can learn about the beginnings of popular F1 drivers like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Takuma Sato and David Coulthard. All took part in the event early on in their careers--and dominated it. Memorabilia, including the actual cars that they used, are even on display. It is a gearhead\'s paradise, and you can even smell the motor oil. Seriously.

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But even without visiting the museum, I already knew about the Macau Grand Prix, and that one day I had to visit it somehow. The race is synonymous with our own Filipino racing legend, Dodjie Laurel. A shrine is dedicated to him within the halls of that hallowed place. Laurel was the first back-to-back winner who conquered the treacherous circuit in 1962 and 1963. A hero and a legend, he lost his life on November 19, 1967, while attempting to win the Grand Prix a third time. Eyewitnesses say he tried to avoid hitting some spectators by driving his car into the sea wall. The crash caused his car to burst into flames. Laurel was the first casualty of the Macau Grand Prix, dead at 35.

Visiting the museum is very emotional, especially for a hardcore Filipino motorsports fan like me. One can\'t help but feel pride, though, and as I step out of the museum\'s doors, I am greeted by the screams of high-horsepower Formula 3 engines as they rip through the track during qualifying. I can\'t see them from where I am standing, but I\'m sure the wails echo through the entire city. The race beckons. My pilgrimage is soon to be complete. The Macau Grand Prix has been held since 1954 as a street race, and I am to witness its 55th anniversary.

Bong Romero--marketing, logistics and original equipment manager of Yokohama Tire Sales Philippines--brings Yokohama dealers to the Macau Grand Prix every year as a special treat. \"They love Macau,\" he says. \"The cars, the gambling, the girls.\" A good time is had by all, of course, but I think that the main reason for the excursion is to showcase how involved Yokohama is in one of the most anticipated and popular races in Asia.

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Yokohama has been the official tire supplier since the Formula 3 race was introduced to the track in 1983. For 26 consecutive years, the brand has been directly involved in the race. I manage to meet Yokohama Motor Sports Director Hirotsugue Matsuoka in the pits, and we chat about how important Macau is to them. \"The Macau Grand Prix is our biggest motorsport event in Asia,\" he tells me. \"We are the one-make tire supplier. We are very lucky that we supply the World Touring Car Championship and Formula 3. It is the event for Yokohama! And up until now, we have no complaints from the drivers.\"

For a little bit of trivia, Yokohama supplies 900 tires for the Formula 3 race, and 1,300 dry and wet tires for WTCC during the race weekend alone. That is plenty of burnt rubber, but environmentalists need not fret as we get privy to some of Yokohama\'s future plans. \"We have already begun working on an eco-friendly tire in Japan,\" says Matsuoka. \"It is made of 100-percent natural rubber, with no petroleum. The eco-rubber tire is already available in the Japanese domestic market, and if the teams agree and tire development is there, we will try those tires in motorsports events in the future.\"

So much happens during the final race day, and we have the best seats in the house courtesy of Yokohama. Perched above the pits, we have an excellent view of the start/finish straight, as well as the paddock. A round of the Formula BMW Pacific series takes place in the morning, and Filipino hopeful Marlon Stockinger runs but isn\'t one of the top finishers. The adrenaline-pumping WTCC race happens afterwards. In fact, I manage to meet the legendary Alex Zanardi before his race and we get to talk a bit. For those who don\'t know, he lost both of his legs below the knee in a horrific crash during a CART race a few years back. He now drives a specially outfitted BMW.

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But the main event is the Formula 3 race, and to say that it is exciting would be an understatement. There are a number of crashes, of course, and the winner on this occasion is the young Japanese driver Keisuke Kunimoto. Expect to hear about this kid in the future as Macau is the gateway to Formula 1.

Perhaps something that I will remember the most is how energized and excited the crowd is. The grandstands are filled to capacity, and it\'s surreal to finally be in an environment wherein everybody is into the spirit. The Macau Government Tourist Office tallied 342,779 visitors who arrived to be part of the race weekend alone. Those who say that racing has no tourism potential don\'t know what they\'re saying. If only things in the Philippines were different. With the reopening of the Subic International Raceway, maybe things will be.

For now, the best way to get the feel of the most significant race in Asia--yes, even more so than the Singapore F1 night race--is to fly out to Macau in November. Get a taste of what real street racing is all about. You\'ll even get a whiff of burnt Yokohama tires as a bonus.

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