Porto - July

It may seem a long way to go for a race meeting, but the Grande Prémio Histórico do Porto makes a great event when combined with a bit of a holiday. The Boavista Circuit is walking distance from the beach, there’s sun (mostly!) moderated by a pleasant sea-breeze, fantastic seafood, very friendly locals and plenty of alternative distractions (no, I don’t just mean the brolly-dollies!).
Many competitors had returned to this, the 2nd Historic Festival, bringing their wives/families/mistresses/girlfriends/”friends who happened to be girls” and others. A good number took time out to play as well as race.
Judging by Thursday’s signing on and scrutineering, one could be forgiven for thinking that the organizers were on holiday too, but sooner or later everything happened (or didn’t, in the case of the evening’s entertainment).
Richard (Pilkington) maintains that drivers’ briefing was one of the best he’d heard – it even advised competitors to wear hats and avoid the midday sun – a precaution clearly aimed at mad dogs and Englishmen….although the next day we had cause to wonder. However, the organisers do need to improve their liaison with the press.
Bertie (Gilbart-Smith), sporting a peculiarly inelegant gardening hat, was dismayed to find a Portuguese photographer’s long lens trained upon him, but as he rose to confront the man, the camera moved on……to capture further fine examples of absurd English headwear! Porto flower-pots?….I don’t think so!
In spite of the laid-back event management, the race organizers had learned a few things since the 1st historic meeting two years ago, no doubt gaining much experience and better installations as a result of the recent GT Championship race.
The circuit had been improved, cutting out the dodgy village section; most of the temporary concrete barriers had been replaced by Armco; and trackside markers, marshals’ posts and rescue facilities had all been upgraded. So, while Boavista remains an unforgiving circuit (what street circuit isn’t?), it appeared a little less daunting this time around. Barry Cannell reckons that at least if you get it wrong at 170 mph, you stop within 4 feet … well, that’s one way of looking at it, Barry! Richard (P) looked at it another way, sussing out the location of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ barriers, so he knew what to aim for should the need arise (fortunately, it didn’t, though it was a close thing, as the cover-photo on the last TOPS NEWS would have shown if it were taken a split-second sooner).
Neil Twyman had yet another point of view: he confided (though he “wouldn’t normally tell me this!”) that, after their experiences two years ago “with all that concrete and seriously overworked brakes”, competitors had, “for the first time ever, adjusted their brakes properly before they came”. Well, well, not such mad dogs, after all … they’ve learnt new tricks!
One compensation for travelling so far to race is a fair amount of track-time – 30 mins practice, 30 mins qualifying and an hour or so’s race – but this can prove quite hard on the old cars (even without the intervention of Armco and anchors-on chicanes!).
n addition to the usual fettling and tinkering, many ingenious paddock repairs were achieved. Stephan Schollwoeck’s Maserati 4CM had to be comprehensively rebuilt after an altercation with a barrier (the “hard” type, I think!) – his wife, with an air of resignation, explained that he’d become over-enthusiastic chasing a Cooper Bristol for pole position in the HGPCA F1 Pre-’61 qualifying. I was particularly impressed by the Devcon Magic Bond used to repair his split fuel tank – it deserves its name!
John Guyatt, driving Norman Barr’s Stutz in the Pre-War (Legends) race, had to qualify with a slipping clutch (in other words, slowly!) and when a fruitless taxi-ride round Porto failed to furnish a replacement, a new clutch had to be couriered out next morning. Mikey Windsor-Price fitted it, and, after a last-minute panic trying to find a jack tall enough to get the Stutz off its axle-stands, John rolled out with 5 minutes to spare and a slightly misaligned gear selector. Nevertheless, with 2nd and 3rd gears only, he managed to thunder back through the field to finish a creditable 5th overall and record the 3rd fastest lap-time (not bad for probably the largest and heaviest car on rather a tight circuit). José Costa’s BMW 328 also required an overnight rebuild, but luckily he doesn’t live quite so far away. However, the experience proved equally harrowing for him, as a replacement gearbox had to be manhandled from the out-of-circuit parking area, over the footbridge and into the paddock. He assures me that at Porto 2009 better technical assistance and track access will be provided for competitors with mechanical problems – and I think he’s the sort of man who’ll make it happen!
The most remarkable story though, which incidentally illustrates the extraordinary helpfulness of the Portuguese, is that of Richard Pilkington and the Talbot T26’s broken half-shaft. No fool he, he had a spare … but … could he remove the stub from the bearing? After much struggling and futile drilling, he was getting nowhere … very slowly!
By this time, the sun was way past the yardarm and most people were either enjoying a glass of vinho underneath Chris Wilson’s awning or had drifted off for the evening. Finally, salvation arrived: in the form of the fire-crew who’d been stationed beside a nearby fuel lorry. They stomped out the bearing with their hydraulic press, and then volunteered to procure a new bearing before next day’s race. (The “press” was a hydraulic jack on to the part, lifting the fire engine about a foot before success!) It seemed unlikely, but, sure enough, at 10.30 pm that night a fireman delivered a new bearing to Richard at the Sheraton Hotel. Now, I always knew firemen were heroes, but could you imagine such a thing happening in Britain? – and for a pesky foreigner too! (Sorry Richard, I don’t mean that personally!).
There were, of course, other casualties in practice – the daftest I encountered was Chris Ball sporting a bloodied head – how? – Liz shrugged patiently, “the tail-section of his GT40 came down on his head (twice!) while he was messing about in the engine”. (Wear a hat, Chris!) As for Barry Cannell, whose Willment was responsible for half the oil on the track….had it broken in practice? “No”, he said, “it was broken before it arrived” (clearly still a mad dog!) “I can mend the car, no problem” he continued “but how am I going to mend my ego? I’m 5 seconds slower than Julian [Bronson] in his McLaren.” Evidently a big repair bill after a major off at Brands has not only dented Barry’s wallet.
While all this drama and industry prevailed in the paddock, many of the ladies partook of more leisurely pursuits. Some explored the delights of Porto’s fine old city centre, while others hit the beach or made forays into the surrounding area.
One day Richard, Trisha and co. lunched out in Amarante, a riverside town devoted to Portugal’s equivalent of St. Valentine (São Gonçalo). Those wishing that “the friends who happened to be girls” were something more should note that their wish might be granted by touching São Gonçalo’s statue (look for the worn-out stonework!). Philippa Wiltshire, accompanied by an entourage of “Pre-War” wives, arrived at the paddock late afternoon after “a morning shopping and a long lunch by the beach – salad and a bottle of wine – perfect!” At that moment, David Furnell, donning his racewear, exclaimed “I’m sure this suit’s shrunk since this morning!” – obviously the Riley gang didn’t just do salad for lunch – and next he had to squeeze himself into the Brooklands. Other ladies, notably Trisha, Sandy and Candy, stood (or rather sat) by their men – now, I would have taken Candy for a shopper, but not so – perhaps because of “that beastly Ryan Air baggage allowance” or the fact that she had brought 20 different outfits with her.
Sadly, drivers’ hospitality had been cut this year, but with many competitors catered for by their race organizers (Masters) and a variety of other refreshment options available, no one really missed it in the end.
If the days were long, the nights were longer, but as somebody said “who needs sleep when there are so many better things to do? We’ll rest when we get home!” We opted out of the organized evening functions (though I’m told the river-boat dinner was good), and instead enjoyed some superb meals with friends.
Despite VIP hospitality being reduced to pink bubbly and peanuts, an impressive gathering of Antigos Pilotos had been assembled at the track, some of who competed – Mário Araújo Cabral (taking 2nd in the Pre-War BMW) and Dickie (likes to be called Richard) Attwood campaigning a BRM P261 in the HGPCA Pre-’66 F1 race.
The HGPCA’s Pre-’61 and Pre-’66 F1 cars were lumped together for the weekend’s races, to the disappointment of the Cooper T43 and T45s entered in both. Similarly, the HGPCA and Gentlemen Drivers Sports Car races were amalgamated, obliging David Cooke to jump out of his Corvette and into the Lotus 11 at driver changeover. (Clearly, his new strategy of “doing less meeting but more races at each” was doomed, as, in addition, his Alfa failed to run in the Pre-War race.) However, there was some truly exciting racing – perhaps rather too exciting for some: Julian Majzub qualified at a cracking pace in his Chevy-engined Sadler to take pole position ahead of two Cobras (Chris Chiles and Miguel Amaral) in the Sports Car race, only to screech away from the start and seriously misjudge the first corner! “It was the first time I’d led” he explained that evening as we admired a spectacular sunset view across the Duoro amid the old-world charm of Taylor’s port-house, aperitif in hand. “I hadn’t thought about braking-points before – I’d just followed the guy in front!”. A very Sad-ler was even sadder the following morning after efficient paddock rubbish-men disposed of the mangled heap that was its fibreglass bonnet – and which Julian needed to make a mould.
Sunday, to the surprise of the locals, brought lashing rain – the southernmost tip of the weather system that wreaked so much havoc in Britain. Having completed our racing on Saturday, we took the opportunity to hire a car and head off into the countryside. I’m told that in Porto the rain cleared by lunchtime, and the organizers (on stream now!) rescheduled the races and demos to fit into the afternoon.
The end-of-race party was apparently fun (our invitations finally arrived just before we left!) – an intriguing magician circulating with drinks and canapés captivated even the most rational and least credulous guests.
Our meanderings up the Duoro were equally intriguing. Tourism in northern Portugal is not well developed, and hidden treasures (much like several roads) take some discovering. When the hotel receptionist said that the ‘N’ road we proposed following up the valley was “very wiggly”, we’d assumed that she was used to advising Americans, who find British roads convoluted. Believe me, she was not kidding! An inch on the map took hours, and sometimes it was so wiggly we were in danger of disappearing up our own exhaust pipe! A very carsick navigator struggled to ascertain whether we were still on the right road, further hampered by a lack of road-signs, directions to places unknown, turnings signposted only if you approached from the other direction, and, best of all, signs rendered illegible by prolonged use for target practice.
Those electing to chug up the Duoro by river-boat got there faster, as we discovered when we encountered Bertie and Candy (Gilbart-Smith) already ensconced in the glorious riverside Vintage House of Pinhão, one of only a handful of ‘Relais et Chateaux’ in Portugal (what’s all this about impoverished scrutineers?) After a memorable dinner proposed by the House (endless exquisite courses, each accompanied by a recommended wine – not, as we had first thought, by the glass but by the bottle!) Bertie and Candy set off for a tour of the port-wine lodges (not sure I could have coped with any port-tasting next morning!) while we roamed further inland, discovering en route an old Portugal more varied and surprising than you find on well-trodden tourist trails.
All in all, Porto provided the basis for a brilliant holiday: great racing, good touring, entertaining company, fabulous food, plenty of adventure and lots of laughs. Not to mention, not a lot of sleep – now it’s time for a rest!