So, the clocks have officially gone back to full-on "Seasonal Affective Disorder time" and there's still around 200 days to go for road racing "adrenaline junkies" to count down until the annual Isle of Man TT "fix." But no need to descend into terminal decline just yet. There's still one "jewel" in the international road racing calendar left to run because this is the time of year that heralds the arrival of one of the most exciting and unique motorcycle races in the world - the Macau GP.
Every November, a stellar line-up of some of the world's finest road racers and teams heads east to the former Portuguese colony of Macau, located on the edge of the South China Sea about 60km from Hong Kong, to compete in a staggeringly fast and dangerous street race amidst the humidity, mayhem and cacophony of the gambling mecca now known as the 'Las Vegas of the East.'
The Macau GP's a world class event and widely regarded as the fourth international road race of the year along with the North West 200, (May) the Isle of Man TT (June) and the Ulster GP (August). It's unique as it's the only major race in the world that schedules cars and motorcycles over one weekend on the same circuit. It's also the only street circuit in the world for motorcycles. Whilst it has gained the prestige of carrying "grand prix" in its title, it has never actually held Formula 1 or Federation Internationale de Motorcyclismo (FIM) motorcycle status. The main car race has gained status over many years as a Formula 3 stepping stone for drivers striving to make it into F1. Legendary names like Senna, Schumacher and Coulthard have all tasted victory at Macau en route to F1 fame and fortune. It's also for many years up until 2014 been on the calendar as a world championship round for the World Touring Car Series - going back to before it was restructured in 2005 - and hosts a GT World Cup race of GT-3 spec cars.
Motorcycle Racing at Macau
Motorbike racing started in 1967 - thirteen years after the first car race. In the late 60s and 70s, Japanese and Far Eastern riders (in particular, Indonesia and Hong Kong) were dominant. But word began to slowly spread westwards of an exciting and unique street racing festival and the best of British / Irish riders started heading east. They've dominated the event ever since - indeed, in the past 50 years of motorbike racing, British riders have won 35 times. The last non Brit to win was American legend Kevin Schwantz on his Pepsi RGV500 GP bike in 1988 so there's been almost thirty uninterupted years of British winners - legendary names like Carl Fogarty, Ron Haslam, Mick Grant, Steve Hislop, John McGuinness, Phillip McCallen and Robert Dunlop.
So, what's the special allure of the far eastern street race that makes bike racers and their teams pack all their gear and commit to the near 12,000 mile round trip?
World's Fastest Street Circuit
Riders and teams like racing at Macau. It's the last race of the season and a strong performance sets the riders up for the following year and the possibility of a good team signing. There's a festival atmosphere to the place and the culture is visually interesting and very different. Even the riders' helmets and bike liveries are sometimes specially prepared "one-offs" for the event. Many also take advantage of grabbing a short holiday in neighbouring Thailand or Hong Kong after the race - and stories have become legendary of some riders who have taken full advantage of the "diverse" range of "entertainment" that's available. They definitely don't do it for the prize money - it's minimal - but this doesn't get in the way of total commitment and the desire to win.
But more than anything else, it's about the racing and the nature and challenge of the 3.8 mile Guia street circuit. It's a unique place and the only race of its kind for motorbikes. Whilst the Isle of Man TT is mostly run on country roads with scary, immovable "road furniture" and objects like stone walls, telegraph poles, trees, lamp posts, pavements (plus the odd small village!) to negotiate, Macau is raced through the city's streets similar to the Monaco GP with the circuit surrounded by skyscrapers, hotels and casinos. It's very tight, fast and dusty and it's highly dangerous. In places, it's only seven metres wide - in other parts, like the main straights, it broadens out to nearly twenty metres. It's lined by yellow and black metal armco barriers and concrete walls with hardly any run-off - so there's absolutely no margin for error.
Conor Cummins: exiting Lisboa corner 2016
The circuit basically hasn't altered in 50 years and has essentially two sections: a very technical, slower back section with significant changes in elevation which is taken mainly in second gear and where passing is limited - and a fast wider section with main straights and super fast sweeping corners where riders hit speeds of up to 190 mph.
Racers are so committed in some corners that their shoulders and heads occasionally make glancing contact with the barriers and walls. The paint marks and scrapes on the sides of riders' helmets and the occasional "pulls" on their leathers from barrier bolts are testament to that. The track can become greasy and dusty with motor oil dropped by race cars and ordinary traffic. It's a challenging and very unforgiving place - a supreme test of concentration and skill.
Austrian road racer and world endurance rider Horst Saiger is a regular at Macau as well as the other three international road races during the year. This on-board video filmed from his Kawasaki ZX10-R gives a good impression of how fast the circuit is and the close proximity of the armco barriers and concrete walls!
On board footage of Horst Saiger (Kawasaki ZX-10R)
A number of leading road racers have been quoted as saying that nothing could have prepared them for that first Macau experience. Twenty-three times TT winner and roads legend John McGuinness first raced at Macau in 1998. He won it on his fourth attempt and has raced at Macau every year since - so he knows a thing or two about the place. This year will be the first time that he hasn't raced there in 19 years following injuries sustained at the North West 200 in May of this year. Writing in Performance Bikes in January 2017 he summed up the annual Macau excursion in his own inimitable way: "Macau's a street circuit and the first time I saw it I thought - Jesus, what am I doing here?"
John McGuinness: Moorish Hill 2016
He describes it as an "unforgiving" track and very fast in sections. Some of the corners, like the first left hander after the start / finish line have a fast entry where the bike travels from barrier on peel-in, to another barrier at the apex - followed by another barrier at the exit! When the surface of the circuit is greasy and dusty it's particularly scary. But according to McGuinness, the scariest turn on the circuit is Mandarin which is approached along a wide straight in sixth gear at around 180 mph. Riders then drop down a couple of cogs before peeling in. He describes it as a "hairy corner" and, just to emphasise the degree of fear involved, mentions that there's loads of time "to sh** yourself" on the approach because of the long straight leading up to it! It's always reassuring to know that.
Front runners for 2017
Around twenty-eight riders will line up on the starting grid for this year's 12 lap race. In addition to the British / Irish contingent, there are eight from overseas: Horst Saiger from Austria, Davo Johnson (Australia), Didier Grams (Germany), Alessandro Polita (Italy), Marek Cerveny (Czech Republic), Andre Pires (Potugal), Allan-Jon Venter (South Africa) and Xavier Denis (France).
All will be absolutely committed to posting their best finish but, in particular, the spotlight will be focused on a handful of riders who are most likely to be the front runners on the day. As winner in both 2015 and 2016, Peter Hickman will be going for a hat-trick of successive wins to join an elite handful of racers who have achieved three, or more, back-to-back victories. Also riding a BMW S1000RR for Robin Croft's SMT Racing / Bathams by MGM Macau team alongside Hickman will be eight times winner and "Macau Meister" - Michael Rutter. He has racked up an incredible seventeen podium finishes at Macau and has had a highly successful 2017 with wins at the North West 200, Isle of Man TT and third place finish in the British Superstock Championship.
Two other men who are expected to be pushing at the front are last year's third place finisher Martin Jessopp who has been runner-up on three occasions and Glen Irwin on the Be Wiser Ducati. The Ulsterman who enthralled the North West 200 crowds this year with his Superbike victory had a tremendous debut ride at Macau last year until mechanical failure ended his race at the beginning of the final lap. The rest of the field is packed with talent and includes Lee Johnston riding the carbon fibre BMW HP4 Race, Conor Cummins (Padgetts Racing), Dean Harrison (Silicone Engineering Kawasaki), Gary Johnson, Dan Kneen (Penz13 BMW Motorrad) - who also a tremendous performance at this year's TT, Ivan Linton, Derek Sheils, Michael Sweeney and Davy Morgan.
The 51st Macau motorcycle GP is on Saturday 18th November with a scheduled local start time of 15.40 hrs. Live streaming should be available here: https://livestream.com/accounts/22305197/macau-gp-2017
Photography: Peter Faragher (www.wpfotos.co.uk)