Not only does MotoGP™ make a return to Portugal but that final round in Portimao could well be the decider if those first four incredible races are an indication. After an eight-year absence, Portugal makes a welcome return in November to continue a racing heritage that started in Spain of all places 33 years ago.
Those first two Portuguese Grands Prix did not actually take place in Portugal. The very first Grand Prix was held on the outskirts of Madrid at the Jarama circuit in September 1987. It was a crucial race and the last one of the season in Europe with the final two rounds in Brazil and Argentina. Not only was it a race that would have a bearing on the outcome of the Championship, but it earnt me an expenses paid trip to the penultimate round at Goiania in Brazil.
I will never forget those magic words from the man of few words back in the BBC Studios in London. Book your flight to Brazil was the simple message via my headphones from producer Derek Mitchell after Wayne Gardner finished fourth in the 37-lap race behind Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola and Kevin Magee. Gardner had built up a fantastic rapport with the BBC radio listeners on a Sunday afternoon with stories of his Grand Prix adventures in the season. Damaging his wrist whilst arm wrestling on the ferry to Holland and being given a suppository instead of a pain killer by a circuit doctor with disastrous results during a race to name but a few. His fourth place in Jarama gave him a massive chance to clinch the World 500cc Championship at the penultimate round in Brazil and the BBC wanted to be there. It turned into the perfect decision with Gardner winning the title two weeks later – but that is another story.
The next season Portugal continued on the Grand Prix calendar but at a new venue and again not in Portugal. Jerez staged the race won again by Eddie Lawson. We then had a 12 year wait before the next Portuguese Grand Prix but, at last, it was in Portugal at the fantastic Estoril circuit just outside Lisbon.
I knew the track, the route from the airport and the flight times like the back of my hand because I had spent so much time there in the previous six years. It was the Rothmans Williams Renault Formula One test track. We launched the team there in 1994 with Ayrton Senna and talented motorcycle racer Damon Hill and I had watched David Coulthard win his first Grand Prix. I used to tell the F1 boys they need a motorcycle Grand Prix in Estoril to show the circuit’s true potential. In 2000 at last, Estoril was ready to stage a motorcycle Grand Prix and Garry McCoy did not let us down. The Australian typically just lit up the surface to set two wheels in motion with a memorable victory in that first race on Portuguese soil.
For the next 12 years, Estoril was one of our highlights of the season. Who could forget the Pedrosa/Hayden crash in 2006 and Toni Elias’s win in the same race after Kenny Roberts celebrated victory a lap too early. The imperious Jorge Lorenzo winning three in a row while Valentino Rossi won four in a row earlier as he dominated the title chase on both Honda and Yamaha machinery. Throw in the Atlantic coast, the nightlife and restaurants of Cascais and Friday night trips to watch Benfica play football and it was just about perfect. Who could forget that final Grand Prix in 2012 won by Casey Stoner on the Honda? Portugal was on its knees financially and the organisers lowered the ticket prices resulting in a record crowd packing the 4.182km circuit for the last time.
Five years ago, I flew to the final round of the 2015 World Championship in Valencia via Lisbon. It was the year that Miguel Oliveira was really putting the frighteners on Danny Kent who had looked the odds-on Moto3™ World Champion after winning six Grands Prix before September. As Kent faltered in the Autumn, Oliveira piled on the pressure with three wins. The Portuguese rider won in Valencia but failed by just six points to prevent Kent from taking the title. The Lisbon flight on Monday morning not only included Oliveira but so many patriotic, passionate and hung-over Portuguese MotoGP™ fans. I bemoaned the loss of Estoril for these fans as their country struggled but now, they have been rewarded. Portimao looks a magnificent circuit to take over the mantle of Estoril. Oliveira’s place on a MotoGP™ podium cannot be far away and the icing on the cake, the World Championship could well be decided on the Algarve in November.