How did the Portimao circuit become cool again?

F1, WEC, MotoGP: the Portuguese track is once again attracting major competitions after a silent period in the mid-2010s.

Published on 11/06/2021 à 10:02

Medhi Casaurang

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How did the Portimao circuit become cool again?

The Algarve International Autodrome has hosted F1 teams since the winter of 2008-09. © Jean-Francois Galeron/WRI2

In recent months, the Portimao slide (Portugal) has been the scene of the most important motor sports competitions: the MotoGP in April, followed by Formula 1 in May and a month later, the World Endurance Championship (WEC). In all three cases, the repercussions of the coronavirus have allowed the Algarve International Autodrome to (re)gain a prominent place in the calendars. Because in fact, Portimao had already experienced a period of strong attractiveness, around ten years ago.

Launched in 2002, the project to establish an automobile complex near the town of Portimao, in the south of Portugal fizzled before the local authorities joined forces with the English group Parkalgar to modify a 323 hectare site.

Built in just seven months for a total of 195 million euros, the Portimao circuit immediately impresses with the modernity of its infrastructure. The bikers of the World Superbike Championship (World SBK) inaugurated the 4,592 km long track on November 2, 2008 and were surprised by the elevation changes offered. We are very far from the sanitized enclosures of Hermann Tilke, and for good reason: his office was not consulted during the studies of the route.

Old-school with its abundant climbs and descents, the Portimao circuit gives confidence to bikers, then to pilots, thanks to the width of the tarmac (14 meters!). The quality of the work was awarded a Grade 1-T by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in the fall of 2008. Enough to allow the teams to set up there during private tests, which McLaren and Honda carried out in December 2008.

Other teams are directly presenting their mounts for the 2009 season, like Renault ou Toyota. The time is no longer for grandiose ceremonies but rather for modest meetings in the pit lane; The economic crisis linked to the Wall Street crash affected manufacturers like Honda and BMW who packed up in the off-season.

In this gloomy context, Portimao manages to create a place for itself in international calendars. In 2010, two FIA World Championships visited Portugal, the GT1 and the WTCC. Even the GP2 Series makes a splash there outside of Formula 1 Grand Prix weekends!



The President of the FIA, the late Max Mosley, even went so far as to announce in April 2009 that F1 could officially make its return to the Lusitanian region as long as a commercial agreement with Formula One Management (FOM) was found. This is promising.

Alas, the beautiful story will go sideways. The Parkalgar company accumulates debts, reaching 160 million euros! Creditors are putting pressure. Siemens, Ensul Meci and SPIE (responsible for the electrification of the complex) file for insolvency because the hotel and apartment project is at a standstill. F1 also loses 4 million euros in the organization of the GP2 round.

In 2013, faced with the loss of speed at the Portimao circuit, the Portuguese state resolved to take the matter in hand, as it had already done with Estoril in 1998. The luxury hotel, the apartments and a restaurant can be completed, but it will be longer before the top competitions venture to travel to the Algarve.

The trough ends when the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) and Superbike are returning in 2017. F1 is not looking towards Portimao. In the meantime, the calendars have opened up to American (United States, Mexico) and Eastern (Azerbaijan, Russia) countries. Austria and France are exceptions to this global expansion, far from the European roots of the sport.


The ELMS returns to Portimao in 2017. © João Filipe / DPPI

However, in 2020, Covid-19 will change the cards. It is no longer a question of seeking the profit promised by new promoters, but of saving a season in bad shape. F1 will focus on the regions of the Old Continent to overcome the headache of border closures across the globe. Portugal jumped at the opportunity and lobbying, reinforced by the role of the State in the management of the circuit, was crowned with success. That's good, the Portimao circuit won Grade 1 (without the T) on April 8, 2020, mandatory measure to qualify to organize a GP.

The 25 October 2020, Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) becomes the first Portuguese Grand Prix winner since Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) and surpasses the record of 91 successes previously held by Michael Schumacher. This historic day and the quality of the environment convinced Liberty Media, the owners of F1, to return the following spring.



This weekend, the WEC chose for the first time to establish itself in the south of Portugal, in order to compensate for the cancellation of the 1 Miles of Sebring (Florida). This shows that the role of reservist (or emergency solution to put it openly) should never be underestimated!

Medhi Casaurang

Passionate about the history of motorsport across all disciplines, I learned to read thanks to AUTOhebdo. At least that's what my parents tell everyone when they see my name inside!

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