In Review

Estoril Classics 2019 review: Portugal returns to its motor racing roots

Three high-octane events aim to put the nation back on the motorsport map

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It wasn’t all that long ago that the Portuguese fishing town of Cascais was alive with the sound of roaring engines and screeching tyres.

In the 1970s and the following two decades, fire-breathing rally machines sprinted along the mountain roads north of the town, where drivers had to contend with bumpy sections of tarmac before veering on to slippery dirt tracks. 

At around the same time, Formula 1 cars lapped at breakneck speed around the Autodromo do Estoril. The highly technical circuit hosted its first Portuguese Grand Prix in 1984, with a certain Ayrton Senna clinching his maiden victory there a year later. 

However, the country’s love affair with motorsport proved brief. The final F1 race in Portugal took place in 1996, while the rally scene moved north from Cascais to the rural roads around the city of Porto. 

But now that passion is set to be reignited by a trio of new high-octane events, headlined by the Estoril Classics at the former grand prix venue. 

The Week Portfolio headed to Cascais, the epicentre of the racing-packed weekend, to see whether Portugal can take back its spot on the map as a true motorsport nation.

Estoril Classics 

What’s likely to draw most motorsport fans to Cascais for a weekend of racing is Estoril Classics - the Goodwood Revival-esque racing event that sees competition cars from across the ages go head-to-head. 

The event, only in its second year, attracts car owners and drivers from across Europe, so fans can see an eclectic mix of rare machinery on track. 

A particular highlight of the event this year was the classic GT category. At the front of the grid was a mix of Porsche 911s from the 1970s and 80s, alongside Ford Escorts and Jaguar E-Types. A lone Abarth 500 - with its engine poking out from the back - scrapped with Germany’s Opel GT and the British-made Marcos GT further down the grid. 

Much like Chichester’s Goodwood Revival, none of the GT drivers was on the circuit to make up the numbers. They were pushing each other hard, with a classic 911 and Lotus 23 providing a thrilling battle for second place. 

The race was followed by demonstrations from rally legends Mikko Hirvonen and Ari Vatanen, who pulled off some impressive donuts in new and old rally cars for fans sitting in the main grandstand. Fans who paid for a ticket to get into the paddock also had the chance of bumping into the rally heroes, too, along with five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro and motorbike legend Giacomo Agostini. 

Some of the races were a little rough around the edges. The pre-1986 era F1 machines, for example, featured drastically different cars from the late 1970s and mid-80s, piloted by drivers of varying skill levels. It meant that one of the newer cars on the grid, a 1983 Tyrrell 012, built up a gigantic lead within a few laps, with the rest of the field spread out behind.

It didn’t really matter, though, because the sheer noise of the classic F1 grid proved how efficient - yet quiet - today’s racers are. You’ll have to bring ear defenders, or put your fingers in your ears, if you plan on sitting through the full race - and that’s by no means a bad thing.

While the event doesn’t quite have the prestige of the Goodwood Revival, there’s a lot to enjoy at Estoril Classics. The GT races are packed with rare machinery and there are few other places where you can watch historic F1 cars at full tilt.

It’s free to enter, too, so you can get in a day’s worth of racing before a relaxing evening stroll along the Cascais cliff tops.

Historic Portugal Rally

Before making your way to the Estoril circuit, you may want to head north towards the town of Sintra for a spot of rallying. 

Three decades ago, the streets were filled with the sound of turbocharged engines and exhausts backfiring as the monstrous Group B era rally machines reigned supreme. While those days are long gone, owing to a lack of safety precautions, the Historic Portugal Rally uses some of the old routes to stage time trials at the dead of night.

Despite kicking off at about 11.30pm, the rally stage was packed with spectators who’ll cheer as loudly for a small Lancia Fulvia as they do for Hirvonen’s Ford Focus. They’re daring, too. As soon as a car flies by, you’ll often see one or two spectators run across the course to see their friends on the other side. 

It’s a wonderful atmosphere, one that’s completely different to the more traditional setting of the Estoril Classics. 

Concours d’Elegance Cascais

If you fancy a break from the roaring engines and rowdy rally spectators, then the Concours d’Elegance Cascais is the place to go. Held outside the Estoril Casino, the event attracts some of the rarest and most pristine classic machinery in Europe. 

The Cascais classic car showcase features the usual mix of historic 911s and Mercedes grand tourers from the 1950s, along with some more obscure models such as a vintage fire engine and a road-going version of the mid-1980s Renault 5 Turbo. 

Unlike many concours events, the Cascais car show celebrates classic vehicles that are driven by their owners. While most of the cars on show are spotless, it’s clear that they haven’t been stored in a museum or kept in an air-tight container. 

It’s free to enter and there’s no dress code, making it one of the more accessible concours events on the motoring calendar. 

The three events certainly deliver a busy weekend full of noise, fuel and burning rubber. Portugal is, without doubt, a nation for petrolheads once again.

The Estoril Classics weekend returns next year, when it will run from 9 to 11 October.

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