Home Featured The political point-scoring aiming to revive Portuguese racing history

The political point-scoring aiming to revive Portuguese racing history

by Ida Wood
A local election taking place in the north of Portugal has one candidate with an eye-catching policy: to try to bring back an almost-forgotten street circuit. This is the old, but ungoing, story of Circuito de Vila do Conde

The hosting of major sporting events is a long-used two-way tact in politics. In one obvious way it draws attention and trade to a single area to show off its vibrance and friendliness to business, with wider investment often following, but it also deflects attention away from things that are going wrong or are making political parties in particular unpopular. The Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup and Formula 1 races are obvious examples, but it occurs on a smaller scale too.

There are nationwide local elections in Portugal later this year, and obviously a generation shaped by one financial crisis and now being hit by a second one induced by the COVID-19 pandemic have a lot on their minds on what issues they will be voting on.

In Vila do Conde, a small city on the western coast and one of the oldest known settlements in northern Portugal, one political candidate is aiming to get elected by bringing motorsport to the streets.

Pedro Soares, representing the Social Democratic Party (PSD), last week met with Ni Amorim, president of Portugal’s motorsport federation FPAK. They discussed Soares’ intention to use the coastal roads as the basis of a street circuit that will hold races starting from 2022, and according to his local party branch he “received enthusiastic support and willingness to cooperate to make this goal a reality” from FPAK. And as residents well know, street racing in the area is no new idea.

Vila do Conde first hosted motorsport in 1931, the same year as future Portuguese Grand Prix venue Porto and current World Touring Car Championship track Vila Real, with strong support chiefly from the local mayor and tourism commission that enabled several race weekends to take place.

Despite a popular first year there was no 1932 return, and a crackdown on street racing, an economic downturn and a world war meant the area wasn’t used again for motorsport until 1951.

The circuit used had a pit straight close to a kilometre long and led into a 90-degree right-hander that after a short straight headed towards another right-hander. The following straight joined onto the riverside Avenida Julio Graca via the high-speed Rio right-hander, with a flatout kink coming halfway down that road before cars slowed down on the very tip of the Portuguese coastline to turn back onto the pit straight as Castle corner.

Local politics were key to Vila do Conde’s annual presence on the racing calendar, with tourism becoming an increasing part of the area’s economy – particularly in summer. So popular did it get that there were plans to hold endurance races too.

Being in sight of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean took its toll on the track surface, particularly Avenida Julio Graca and the pit straight where there was only a few poles and wooden structures between the track and the sea, and in 1966 the races were hit by a typical coastal storm that made the inclusion of motorcycle races in particular difficult to run and led to many wall-destroying accidents. That was also the first year junior single-seaters took to the streets, with races for Formula Vee.

In 1968 there was a memorable incident where the temporary barrier system prevented a driver from flying off track and straight into a major body of water, but the next level of defence behind wires and barriers was, unfortunately, a spectator area.

Circuit renovations in 1970 included relaying the weather-worn asphalt and shortening the pit straight to avoid a cobbled section after turn one, with the corner after that now a chicane and a right-hander. The safety improvements were popular but not totally effective, and Formula Ford and FVee made their last appearance in 1972 before further safety changes came.

Racing stopped entirely soon after anyway with political turmoil after turmoil as Portugal fought to retain its colonies, then got hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis and topped everything off by overthrowing its authoritarian republic in 1974.

And that is where the modern-day revival bid for racing at Vila do Conde kind of begins.

The circuit was back in use by the 1980s once the country transitioned to democracy, and held races all the way through to 2003 with further route changes including a second chicane before Avenida Julio Graca to lower the entry speeds there and then a tight chicane where the flatout Seca kink used to be. [A modern version of the track is pictured above]

Single-seaters even returned for the circuit’s first ever international event in 1999, when alongside Spanish GT there was a visit by the Portuguese Formula BMW championship (later known as the FBMW Iberia Junior Cup), but faster modern cars added complications that meant the first corner had to be reworked to lower speeds, and the evolving landscape of the area from urban regeneration made it less and less suitable for racing.

But back to the Carnation Revolution.

A fortnight after the peaceful military and civilian coup that brought down the Estado Novo regime in April 1974, the PSD was created and became a mainstay of Portuguese politics that has been in and out of government multiple times since 1979.

In 2002, the PSD’s vice-president Rui Rio became mayor of Portugal’s second largest city Porto. His first year in office was mired by his opposition to the construction of the FC Porto football club’s new stadium, which some believed was going to come in at a cost of €90 million to the region. At one point he did get construction to pause, but then required a police escort as he became an unpopular figure, and eventually the stadium was finished. Porto really didn’t think Rio liked their sport.

But fast forward two years and Rio was pushing for a sporting celebration by bringing back Porto’s Boavista street circuit, last used in the 1960 F1 season, for a revival race meeting in 2005. He was re-elected that year, and then in December 2006 dipped into the public purse to bring the WTCC to Porto on a bi-annual basis at an estimated €3,705,000 cost per event and with the removal of tram lines from the streets to be used for racing.

Porto in 1958

Rio won a third term in office in 2009, and towards the end of that spell in 2013 said: “I will experience this edition of the Circuito da Boavista exactly the same way and I hope my successors won’t waste the investment we have made with the aim of strengthening an internationally renowned mark of this city. It meant hard work, risk-taking and it was not a simple task. However, I believe it’s worth all of it.”

When it came to running the next scheduled race in 2015, his successors at Porto City Council promptly said no. Portugal’s tourism board had slashed its event investment, the council wanted to give people their trams back and work on other developments in the area was already taking place. And Rio had left office just as the political picture was being upheaved.

In an attempt to increase government efficiency, Portugal embarked on a nationwide gerrymandering in 2013 that by changing or aggregating the borders of constituencies led to larger and far fewer electing parishes. In Porto the number of parishes was slashed by 36.55%, and by 30% in the Vila do Conde county that lies within the district. With less parishes, it makes each battleground more important in electoral terms, and PSD’s political fortunes began to tumble.

It won the 2015 general election in a coalition, but the government it formed lasted only 11 days before being thrown out, and it lost many seats in the 2017 local elections. In Vila do Conde its vote share went from 34.86% to 15.49% between 2013 and 2017, and the results were so bad that it triggered a leadership contest. The new man elected to lead the party would be Rio.

But things didn’t improve. Rio had to fend off a leadership challenge within his first 12 months, then following the PSD’s worst ever national election result and then its second worst ever general election he started 2020 with another no-confidence motion. The political gains the party have made have been controversial ones, and the party needs good press.

Reviving Circuito de Vila do Conde may be a small answer to PSD’s large problem, but it’s a card that it has played (quite possibly in desperation) before. When contesting the 2017 local elections, PSD’s Vila do Conde candidate also met Amorim.

Their electoral promise was to bring back the circuit, and they presented a detailed logistical plan of how that would be possible. FPAK said it would “make every effort to make this project feasible, which we believe to be of the greatest interest to national motorsport but also to all villagers”. Unfortunately for motorsport fans, PSD lost its election battle in the area.

Preliminary investigating had already taken place on the feasibility of a return of racing there, given the seafront area had been developed and the width of some of the circuit roads had changed entirely. But the WTCC’s late move to Vila Real’s streets for 2015 had got motorsport fans encouraged by the possibility that anything could happen in a country that had spent four years being bailed out during the global financial crisis and where anti-austerity was the hottest political take.

This time around it could be an idea that goes somewhere if PSD does win, especially as Portugal is riding a new wave of motorsport enthusiasm with the return of F1, a Formula E champion in Antonio Felix da Costa and its first MotoGP winner.

Rio’s knowledge of what it takes to clear the administrative hurdles to hold a street circuit event means he can lend personal support and well as the support of the national party to the plans in Viola do Conde, and he had a good relationship with FPAK when he was Porto mayor. Of course the PSD being in opposition in the national assembly means he can’t access public funds as before, but in the same way the relocation of the United Kingdom’s World Rally Championship rally has become a point of parliamentary debate he could get greater interest in the circuit proposal just by raising it in the assembly chamber.

And the organising team at FPAK knows how to make street circuits safe for single-seaters too, having brought International Formula Master to Porto in 2007, and then Historic F1 and Portuguese FFord.

FIA Formula 3 engineer Pedro Matos raced in one of those FFord meetings in Porto, and it’s that championship – which confusingly rebranded itself as Single Seater Series last year – that would be one of the more likely visitors to Vila do Conde if PSD gets elected and the 2022 racing weekend goes ahead. Formula Scout understands Spanish-organised single-seater series are uninterested in involving themselves in the logistics of the event, leaving FFord as an obvious candidate series.

Matos’ motorsport interest was actually sparked by watching races on the 2.78km Vila do Conde track, as his father (pictured above) raced there during the final years of the circuit’s use.

“I was very little at the time, I think I was eight last time I went, but it used to [attract] so many people,” says Matos.

“People from the north of Portugal are very fond of racing also a lot because of Vila do Conde. My first memories of racing are from there, from watching my dad in Castelo corner in his yellow Opel Manta.”

While safety advancements reduced how close spectators got to the action, the racing was spectacular to watch from any point due to the track’s high-speed layout that rewarded absolute bravery. Cars that carried too much speed into corners, particularly the final chicane, would slide laterally on the tyres and that wasn’t helped by the track often having sand being blown onto it from the coast. That made turn one particularly exciting as the rear could step as soon as drivers hit the brakes, and spectators were on the edge of their seats when there were side-by-side battles through the final Castle corner where understeer could turn into snap oversteer, particularly if a dab of the brakes was needed. A circuit very much about what you do with the weight of the car rather than what you do with the steering wheel. Those who got it wrong sometimes rolled.

It wasn’t just the grandstands that were filled, as you would often see garden chairs sat on the top of nearby houses as 1000s flocked to the bay to watch the action. Even parades of classic road and racing cars in recent years have been popular.

Portugal will again host an F1 race this year at the very spacious and isolated Algarve circuit, but Vila Real is on the World Touring Car Cup calendar once again in June and will be only the second attempt at street circuit racing in Europe with a multi-series meeting since before the global pandemic.

This is a significant landmark as even FE has only managed to run on European streets once in the last 12 months – last weekend’s Rome E-Prixs – and currently plans to do so only once more in 2021 with the Monaco E-Prix.

FE’s race meetings currently run without support series, and Monaco organiser Automobile Club de Monaco will use its E-Prix to warm itself up for the challenges of hosting F1, Formula 2 and the Porsche Supercup together later in the month.

Nobody knows how long the pandemic will truly last, but a return of motorsport to Vila do Conde could well be one of the first highlights of a post-pandemic world in summer 2022.

More on junior single-seaters’ street classics

Despite continuing political pressure for a final and definitive cancellation of the event, the Pau Grand Prix is on track to be run in 2022 and is highly likely to feature on the Euroformula calendar again as it famously did in 2019.

The championship still intends to visit Macau, with a final decision by the Chinese special administrative region’s local sporting department yet to made on whether to use the Dallara 320 car or FIA Formula 3’s Dallara F3 2019 machine, but Chinese Formula 4 has already announced it will repeat its 2020 visit and will also return to the Wuhan street circuit.

In the Eurasian region, Formula 2 is headed to Baku and Sochi this year and there is very little that will stop those events going ahead unless the number of COVID-19 cases exponentially climb.

Indy Lights is headed to Toronto and returning to Detroit for the first time since 2012, and will be racing on the streets of St. Petersburg in two weeks’ time along with Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000.