American novelist Ernest Hemingway famously rated motor racing as one of the three real sports alongside mountaineering and bullfighting, deeming the rest merely ‘games’. If he was right, then the Macau Grand Prix offers a unique blend of the three as drivers speed up and down the hills of Macau mounted on wild bikes.
For many, the Macau Motorbike Grand Prix is a hard to understand event. Twenty or so riders put their lives at risk for prize money of HK$32,000 – that is what the race winner gets – and a big cup. But there is much more to it than that as nothing really compares to the buzz of racing at 200kph along a narrow road between walls.
Unfortunately, every time a tragedy hits Macau – as happened last year when British rider Daniel Hegarty was fatally injured in an accident at Fishermen’s Bend on lap six of the race – plenty of voices rise up against the continuation of the motorbike race on Macau Grand Prix weekend.
Prior to last year, the last three fatalities in the motorbike race were in 1994, 2005 and 2012; a number far less ‘impressive’ compared to other well known road racing events. Even so, British rider Glenn Irwin, winner of last year’s Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix, says he won’t return to race due to safety concerns.
Pun Weng Kun, president of the Sports Bureau (ID) and co-ordinator of the Macau Grand Prix Organising Committee, confirmed in July’s Macau Grand Prix Press Conference that the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) Asia had inspected the city’s Guia Circuit earlier this year, giving it a “very positive feedback” and describing it as a “very good street circuit”.
The Macau Grand Prix is the only street circuit meeting in the world to feature both four and two-wheel races on the same weekend, making this special race all the more unique. At the same time, it presents big challenges for the organisers. The FIA, the FIM and Macau organisers have worked together to ensure that the 6.2km (3.8mile) high-speed street circuit meets the intense demands of the world-class competition in various categories.
The safety of the riders has always been taken into account considering the track conditions each season amid the limitations of articulating the sporting event with the daily reality of the city and the financial availability that these changes require.
Over the last 52 years circuit safety has been improved dramatically from the simple solutions, using sandbags as protection barriers, to the pavement replacement from cement to asphalt, or the introduction of tyre barriers, and later cushions over the metallic barriers. Other relevant measures include the deployment of cement powder to dry spilled oil, bamboo bags inside tyre piles, and the addition of movable gates to quickly open the circuit and allow easier access.
To further enhance safety measures, highly protective mesh has been installed at some high-speed areas to ensure the safety of pedestrians and residents in the event of an incident. Almost the whole circuit has safety fences in order to obey the parameters established by the FIA for street circuits.
Safety improvements have been made to several kerbs and debris fences with the introduction of newly formatted Tecpro barriers. The improvements have all been a necessary part of ensuring the race meeting is capable of delivering despite the immense pressures brought to bear by such an ambitious programme.
The Macau Motorbike Grand Prix was introduced to the event programme in 1967, with riders’ safety getting special relevance from 1994. That year, the race was marred by seven crashes, including one which proved fatal to Tokyo-born Katsuhiro Tottori. Tottori, making his debut at Macao, who apparently died instantly when he was thrown over a concrete barrier on a straightaway near the finish line. Three other riders were hospitalised and the race was shortened from 30 to 20 laps. Since then, three other riders have lost their lives – Frenchman Bruno Bonhuil at Mandarin Corner in 2005, Portuguese Luís Carreira at Fisherman’s Corner in 2015, and Hegarty.
The circuit is about the same from the very beginning but the speeds have increased drastically. In the first running of the Macau Grand Prix, Japan’s Hasegawa completed 30 laps of the Guia Circuit on his Yamaha RD56 in a time of 1hr 53m34s, while Suzuki’s Ken Araoka set the first sub three-minute lap in 1974.
After initially being run over a single 30-lap race, the Grand Prix was held over two 15-lap legs from 1979 until 1995 when it reverted to a single race format albeit only 15 laps. It is now held over just 12 laps. Two years ago, the 12-lap race was completed in the considerably shorter time of 29m15.590s. David Jefferies’ fastest lap time in 2000 (2m29.295s) was more than six seconds slower than last year’s lap record of Glenn Irwin (2m23.081s). In seventeen years the average fastest lap time has gone from 146.67kph to 153.98kph.
2009 was the last year that Superbikes and Supersport ran together. The decision to ban the Supersports came due to the lack of speed of these bikes compared to the Superbikes. In 2012, the grid was reduced to 32 entries and from 2017 only 28 riders are authorised to line up on Saturday’s afternoon race.
Changing the starting grid format was another way devised by the organisers to increase the safety standards of riders in view of the technical development of the motorcycles. The very compact ‘5-4-5’ grid format was replaced by a ‘4-4-4’ format in 2003 and in 2012 the current ‘3-3-3’ was introduced, adhering the latest FIM safety regulations.
In 2015, the usual Saturday morning ‘Warm-Up’ session was moved closer to the time of the race as riders and teams used the track time available to ensure their bikes were set up ready for the race itself. Using a later slot in the day helps riders feel the track conditions much closer to what they will experience in the actual race.
Updates for 2018
At first glance you might miss it, but Guia Circuit safety standards have been improved for this year’s edition.
Fisherman’s Bend will be equipped with safeguard barriers in front of the metallic barriers with a firm outer section designed to absorb initial impact inertia. With FIM homologation, the safeguard barriers have a multi layered polyurethane foam construction providing a firm but resilient barrier for bike and car impact.
Foam rings will be placed on the Fisherman’s Bend and the Mandarin Oriental Corner fence pillars to protect riders in case of collision. Simultaneously, extra cushions will be installed on the right side of Turn 1, and right after the start line as the bikes exit that corner at very high speed and very close to the metallic barriers.
Another novelty can be found in the Sporting Regulations. The red flag protocol has been slightly changed. Shown waved in each marshal post and at the finish line, it indicates that the race or practice is being interrupted. Riders may have to stop on the circuit before returning slowly to the pit lane. At the same time, a white flag has been introduced. Shown motionless in combination with a red flag indicates a hazard in the sector ahead, with all riders required to stop.
Not for everyone
Not everyone who can ride a bike at high speed can enter the Macau Grand Prix. You need considerable skills and a curriculum vitae. Usually, riders are observant and conscientious about details relating to themselves, their bike and the track. Road racing requires a high level of courage, too, and a greater ability to shut out of one’s mind the potential for disaster than almost any other sport. While mental strength and self-belief are clearly key components of a biker’s make-up, that is not enough to take you to the grid.
Since 2012, invited riders have to meet the set of requirements established by the organisers. Rider selection is based upon a criteria set by the organiser considering their experience in races regarded as being of similar status and challenge as the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix in the previous two years. At the same time they are only eligible if they have maintained racing activity in a similar capacity class – Superbike or Superstock 1000.
The word dangerous is vastly considered in the paddock as too extreme to categorise the Circuito da Guia. Ultimately, though, given the nature of the sport, road racing will always be just that. There’s no margin for error when you’re racing on a street circuit and this is as valid for motorbikes as it is for cars.
The Guia Circuit is certainly a challenging and demanding circuit due to its layout with long straights and blind corners, combined with ever-changing road conditions, and tricky weather, which can be cold in the morning and really hot and humid in the afternoon, or vice-versa. A rider who disregards the circuit takes the risk of seeing bad luck knocking at his door.
Macau’s Guia Circuit doesn’t facilitate the minutes of full-throttle abuse and 250kph kinks of the traditional TT race. On top of that, throughout the day, with conditions changing, riders are updated via messages on circuit screens and, on some occasions, the Race Direction for a briefing calls them before they hit the track.
Like a drug
Those who choose this unique discipline of motorcycle racing are driven by a high-octane passion for the sport and do not back off easily. Macau’s Guia Circuit’s greatest dangers do not stop with familiarity.
Former Honda and Norton race team boss Barry Symmons emphasises the point: “I brought Ron Haslam, Joe Dunlop and Robert Dunlop amongst others here to the Guia Circuit. They looked forward to it all year and you must ask the organiser just how many he has to turn away.”
But why do they keep coming to one of the world’s most notoriously difficult street circuits in numbers and quality?
“As a team manager of some 35 years, like most of you I wonder what these gladiators of Road Racing see in it. I could never imagine racing inches from a steel barrier, a curbstone or a brick wall and seeing just how close I could shave it by. Apparently, to these special men – and, yes, ladies too – there is no finer adrenaline rush in the entire world. It is like a drug and they and their followers are completely hooked”, Symmons asserts.
While public appreciation of this unique racing discipline is on the increase all over the world, the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix still raises a few eyebrows in town. To these sceptics, Symmons firmly reminds that “the Guia circuit ranks alongside the Isle of Man TT and the Ulster Grand Prix as one of the ultimate challenges. Admire them, enjoy them, and just imagine that feeling you get when you hit that perfect shot off the tee times a 100!!!”
Facts & Figures
– The most successful manufacturer in the race is Yamaha with 22 wins followed by Honda (15), Ducati, Suzuki, Kawasaki (4) and BMW (2).
– England have the most wins (26) followed by Japan (10), Scotland (7), Northern Ireland (3) and Hong Kong, Indonesia, USA, Belgium and Switzerland (1).
– Michael Rutter has the most wins with 8 followed by Ron Haslam (6), Stuart Easton (4), Sadao Asami and Steve Hislop (3) and Hiroshi Hasegawa, Mick Grant, Steve Plater and Peter Hickman (2).
– Michael Rutter also has the most podiums (17) followed by John McGuinness (8), Sadao Asami, Ron Haslam and Phillip McCallen (6).
– Michael Rutter will be the most experienced rider on the grid with 2018 being his 24th visit to Macau.
– Hong Kong’s John MacDonald is the only man ever to have won both the Macau Grand Prix for cars (1965) and the Motorcycle Grand Prix (1969).