Macau GP races into the future

THE Macau Grand Prix is 45 years young next weekend and motorsport enthusiasts from the world over will again flock to the quirky little outpost of Portugal.

Next year Macau will cease to exist as we know it and follow nearby Hong Kong back to the waiting bosom of the mainland with all the accompanying pomp and pageantry.

Life has continued in Hong Kong since June 30, 1997, much as it did did under British colonial rule which is no doubt a great source of relief to the 420,000-strong population of Macau.

But what is not quite so comforting is the future of the Macau Grand Prix weekend.

The director of the Macau Government Tourist Office and chairman of the Macau Grand Prix Organising Committee, Joao Manuel Costa Antunes, paints a picture of 'business as usual' when the subject is raised.

A career public servant, Antunes is long on words and cliches but short on substance when it comes to getting a straight answer on just where the Portuguese, Macau and Chinese governments stand on the question.

'It's not for me to say . . . you are talking about another level of government here. I am only the organiser of the event,' he said.

'I fully understand the doubts people may have . . . next year there will be new administrators for Macau - that will be the correct time when people have been nominated to ask information and guidance for the future, not now.' What Atunes seems to be doing with the fuselade of words is pass the buck and leave the tough questions to others to resolve.

His approach is simple - keep on keeping on making the Macau Grand Prix bigger and better and let the rest take care of itself.

Antunes has an impressive armoury of facts and figures and an arsenal of previous success to call upon to vindicate his policy of success by honest toil.

But no amount of good old-fashioned hard work will make one new factor disappear, the presence of a Formula One-standard track a 30-minute drive away at the rapidly developing coastal centre of Zhuhai.

And to compound the situation, the Zhuhai International Circuit (ZIC) is on the 1999 FIA (international motorsport's governing body) Formula One calendar next March, the second race of the season after Australia.

Will the central Chinese government in faraway Beijing see sense in holding motor race meetings in two coastal centres only a few kilometres apart when one purpose-built complex would do the job? In fairness to Antunes, he remains confident that the Macau Grand Prix weekend will continue and remains patently possessive at the prospect of Zhuhai taking away the jewel in his crown, the Formula Three race.

Antunes and the organising committee celebrate 15 years next Sunday of hosting what is the virtual World Championship of F3 racing. The cream of the crop of every major F3 championship gather in Macau annually in a showdown that has yielded a host of now household names in F1.

The late and great Ayrton Senna won the very first Macau F3 in 1983 and since then the likes of Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher and brother Ralf plus flying Scot David Coulthard have all made their mark in the Portuguese-administered enclave.

Antunes was clearly upset by plans the ZIC discussed earlier this year to also stage an F3 race on their circuit a week after the Macau event.

Lack of sponsorship scuppered the idea this year but that's not to say ZIC won't try again in the future.

Atunes said: 'It's not a good decision to invite people to the same party one week after the other. Why have one important motorsport event one week after another - there are 52 weeks in the year.' But the precedent is there for a second race to be staged in Asia. In the early '90s, the F3 circus which descended on Macau then moved on to Japan for another race.

While Antunes is not opposed to a second F3 race in Asia, the reality is simple - motorsport is money-driven. With the bulk of F3 championships in England and Europe, the costs of freighting the cars, parts, drivers and personnel to Macau is considerable.

Director of Motor Race Consultants (MRC), an England-based international race management and insurance company which organises the Macau F3 race, Barry Bland confirmed he had spoken to ZIC officials about a race on their track.

Money talks and it is clear that in the years ahead the ZIC will have plenty of that coming their way as sponsors queue for their chance to tap into the huge mainland market.

Antunes has obviously been working hard behind the scenes to ensure a long and healthy future for a weekend of racing which has no equal in the world.

Over the two days, enthusiasts are treated to a motorcycle GP featuring 500cc World Championship machines; the Guia Touring Car Race which showcases the best in the class from England, Europe, Japan and Australia; the F3 event; and a host of support events featuring saloon cars, classic cars and motorbikes.

'Tourism today is a two-way street and we must accommodate our neighbours,' explained Antunes - alluding to Macau after the December, 1999 handover. 'I've had meetings with people in Zhuhai to develop a schedule for the region to benefit all sides.' Antunes said he was delighted that the ZIC was on the 1999 F1 calendar: 'We will benefit - there are not enough rooms and facilities in Zhuhai for all the international visitors - we have everything.' One factor which may well make or break the Macau Grand Prix event in the future will be financing.

An innovative five per cent levy system which is charged by hotels and restaurants goes direct into the Tourist Fund. It is from this fund that events like the Macau GP, which has an operating budget of in the region of $25 million, are financed.

'The Macau GP doesn't cost the public one pataca,' Antunes proudly declares.

But will the levy system remain in place after the handover? Antunes simply doesn't know or doesn't want to tell.

'I'm doing a job - but I'm seeking no assurances. I'm providing conditions for the continuation of the GP. I'm doing what I must do and that is to show the GP is important,' he said.

'We had top officials [from China] here for the GP last year and they said they would support the event in the future.' Antunes is not a man who revels in high-octane entertainment and readily admits his knowledge of motorsport is not as extensive as his predecessors.

But what the dapper, sharp-eyed chairman has done since the Macau Government Tourist Office took over the event 10 years ago is bring a level of professionalism and organisation not seen before. There is no doubting Macau is a world-class motorsport event and Antunes is understandably proud of what he and his department have achieved.

Though he won't admit it and shuns confrontation with higher authorities, Antunes will have a much larger say in the destiny of the event than he may want to concede. Maybe it is time for him to emerge from the shadows, declare an agenda and get the media working with him to get commitments from those very same 'higher authorities'.