Steep learning curve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am

Each November, Andre Couto left the Macau Grand Prix with a new souvenir. Some years it was a bit off the front wing, other times it was a piece broken off the back wing.

Couto, at the time young, impressionable and a budding racing driver, would go to the garages after the race and ask for whatever they didn't need - something to remember that year's race.

'A long time ago, you could be in the garage, be with the drivers and mechanics,' Couto said. 'They were quite friendly in those days [and] they would talk to me.'

Couto, the only Macanese driver to have won the Formula Three race at the Macau Grand Prix, remembers being part of the race starting from early adolescence. He was seven during the first running of the F3 race in 1983. As an 11-year old, he remembers standing atop the peak to watch the race and in 1995, when he was 18, he raced in his first Macau Grand Prix.

In 2000, he won. Like many drivers, Couto dreamed of winning the Macau Grand Prix. Unlike others, he saw an annual reminder of his dream.

Now celebrating its 25th running, the Macau Grand Prix has an illustrious winners' list - Ayrton Senna (1983), Michael Schumacher (1990), David Coulthard (1991), Ralf Schumacher (1995) and Takuma Sato (2001).

But perhaps more indicative of the race's importance is the reputation it has earned as a challenging, unforgiving circuit, a race that highlights the best young, new drivers, and an event that is prestigious, competitive and one that ranks among drivers' favourites.

The Formula Three race began in 1983, during the grand prix's 30th running, after organisers made a switch from Formula Atlantic, which was becoming obsolete in the broader racing world. The F3 was seen as increasingly important to a driver's path to Formula One.

Twenty-five drivers from 15 countries entered the first race, won by Senna, and 24 years later 31 drivers from 15 countries have been invited to this year's race. It is expected to be extremely competitive.

'I think [there's] an even better entry [than last year],' said Barry Bland, whose company Motor Race Consultants manages the Formula Three teams. 'It's very competitive; you could say there's no obvious favourite, there are several favourites. It's much tighter in depth. The quality goes way down in depth.'

Among this year's entries are F3 Euro series leader Romain Grosjean, his series rivals Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hulkenberg, and GP2 driver Bruno Senna - Ayrton Senna's nephew.

That Macau continues to change careers is undeniable. 'It minted my career in some sense, in having that credibility,' says David Brabham, the 1989 winner and youngest son of Formula One legend Jack Brabham.

The next year, Brabham moved into Formula One, before switching to touring cars in 1994 and racing both the 24 hours of Le Mans and the American Le Mans series.

In his first Macau attempt, Brabham, then 23, came into the race as the British F3 champion and at Macau, he managed to beat Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. He passed Schumacher in the second race (up until 2004, two races were run and the points calculated on aggregate) and won the race.

'The drivers who get on to the podium are an exceptional talent, so it's an event that the F1 teams and the movers in motor sport keep an eye on,' Bland says.

The questions 'Who can deal?' and 'Who can perform?' are answered in Macau.

Though he won, Brabham's race wasn't perfect. 'On the last lap I had a slight brain fade,' Brabham says. 'I started going through the victory speech and nearly hit the wall. It was a wake-up call, a very good lesson for me, but one that could have ended in tears.'

Brabham has not returned to Macau since his win. He has, however, begun working with some of the drivers going to Macau, including Sam Bird (in the F3 race) and Colin Turlington (in the WTCC race). He knows Macau has changed, but admits he doesn't remember much of Macau, other than it is special.

'Although I was looking and thinking, I was just going there and doing a job so any free time I had was really to spend with the team,' Brabham says.

Learning the circuit proved among the most difficult things. He got his first look at the circuit when the roads were still open to the public and he spent hours with his girlfriend (now wife) weaving in and around Macau on a moped trying to understand what exactly he was supposed to do. He woke up the next morning and tried to describe the circuit's layout.

'You turn right,' he says. 'No, you go left and then right,' his wife answers. His wife was correct.

The layout is one challenge, but Brabham also articulates a greater need for discipline and an awareness of other drivers. The foresight to predict incidents is also an appreciated skill.

In Brabham's year, he was fourth or fifth going into a tight corner and got a sense that something wasn't right. He moved left as everyone went right. He avoided the ensuing accident and Brabham believes that moment won him the race.

For all of the pure racing challenges of the race and the demands of the circuit, there is an allure that moves beyond the circuit.

At Macau, there is romance, glamour and what World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx calls 'a love affair' with the race.

In 24 years, Macau has shaped the careers of drivers, but the drivers have also added to the race. It is true that the greats go to Macau. It is also true that the race means something different to each. 'It's special to me and I don't care if I'm the only Macau driver to win,' Couto said. 'It was my dream since I was a child and then I won the race.'