Thursday, November 23, 2006

Go East, Young Man

Back in the not so distant past, before Sheikh Maktoum and his cronies gave the world the mixed blessing that is A1GP, the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix used to signal the end of the single seater racing calendar each year. In years past, Macau was a decidedly odd place to stage a race - a small down at heel Portuguese colony on China's East coast which must have felt like it was on the edge of the world. Certainly it was far from Formula 3's natural home of western Europe. Nonetheless, along with the sadly defunct Monaco GP F3 race and the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort, it has long been one of the big races to win. A sure-fire way for an ambitious young driver to draw attention to himself.

Perhaps its the fact that it comes right at the end of the season. Thus, for many drivers, it is one last chance to make an impression on the movers and shakers in motorsport, particularly after a bad season. Equally, it is a chance to underline a year of remarkable achievement - to go out on a high. The list of previous winners doesn't do the event any harm either. Ayrton Senna won the event in 1983 and he was followed seven years later, and in typically controversial circumstances, by one Michael Schumacher. David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Martin Donnelly and Takuma Sato weren't bad either, come to that, and if you include drivers who finished second, you can add Jenson Button, Robert Kubica and Jacques Villeneuve to the list of famous names who found success at Macau.

The track itself plays a part. Imagine Monaco with a long flat out section thrown in, just to confuse everyone and make car set up a nightmare. The place is very unforgiving, but the area between Fisherman's Bend and Lisbon corner is so quick that, unlike Monaco, a low-downforce set-up is a must. Thus drivers must quickly master an unfamiliar, and in places very narrow street circuit and get used to driving the slow stuff with far less grip than they would have available at, say Pau. Just to make their lives more difficult, the unique format of the weekend means that to win, they must survive a qualification race before they even get to the start of the Final. Which means that to win, one has to get round the ultra-tight first corner twice in a weekend. This time, all three of the front-runners from the first race failed to do this, after Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta screwed up his braking and eliminated himself, the inexplicably rapid Kobayashi and the similarly surprisingly fast Marko Asmer in one fell swoop. All of which handed British F3 champion, Mike Conway what he needed to come back from a rather unpromising 11th slot on the grid for the qualifier to win the event. For a full report on this year's race, check out Stella Thomas' report on, Stewart Bell at Pitpass or Qwerty at Motor Racing Journal.

Strangely though, as motor racing has spread east, with Grands Prix in China and Malaysia, an A1GP race in Indonesia and talk of a race in India in the near future, the significance of the annual Macau race seems to have declined. All the more odd for the fact that where once Macau looked and felt like a forgotten, down at heel little place, surviving only as a place where the Chinese could go to gamble, these days the place seems to be booming (though the seedy feel hasn't entirely vanished - someone who was out there for the race this year remarked that the local Spas really ought to be labelled as either "brothel" or "not brothel" to save embarrassment for non-locals). Strange it may be, but it seems no less true for that. Kubica may have helped make a name for himself there last year, but the same can hardly be said of Lucas DiGrassi. A look through the list of recent winners scans like a list of almost-wases and nearly-rans - Alexandre Premat, Tristan Gommendy, Nicolas LaPierre, Darren Manning, Peter Dumbreck and Soheil Ayari, to name but a few. The really big F3 names seem to have taken to giving the race a miss of late. Last year, Lewis Hamilton dominated utterly the Euroseries, but feeling he had nothing further to prove, skipped the Macau race. Alvaro Parente, the British Champion had more straightforward budget problems and was also a no-show.

This year, though, had the strongest line up for some years. Perhaps because none of the major F3 champions yet have GP2 seats sorted out, even they felt that the race provided them with an opportunity to impress team bosses and potential backers. So Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta and much-feted runner up Sebastien Vettel were there. British series winner Mike Conway and runner up Oliver Jarvis were there, as was Japanese F3 champion and Euroseries refugee Adrian Sutil. Even Asian F3 champion Jamie Winslow put in an appearance. About the only significant absences were British F3 frontrunner Bruno Senna and Esteban Guerreri from over in the Euroseries. While Di Resta's appearance in the final was rather brief, Mike Conway's win just might help ease his path into GP2 next year. Kobayashi is probably thought of a lot more highly than he was at the beginning of the weekend too.

As Richard Asher points out in this week's Autosport though, what is really needed is a really serious international F3 race in Europe. The Monaco GP race has disappeared, and the fact that the Zandvoort Marlboro Masters runs on Kumho rubber puts non-Euroseries runners at a distinct disadvantage. What is needed is a race on neutral tyres to allow the best from Britain, the Euroseries, and the fast improving Spanish and German series to come together on equal terms. Somewhere a little closer to home and less expensive than Macau, fine race though it may be.

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