Autódromo Internacional do Algarve

Building a F1 circuit is not for the faint of heart

Check out the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve aboard GT Racer’s band of race cars as they spend a beautiful fall weekend racing a track that is not for the faint-hearted. Watch Now

Most tracks featured in the GT Racer “circuit series” have played a significant role in motorsport history. There is a reason for that: new, top-shelf racetracks rarely come online, especially in Europe, and the few that do seldom get everything exactly right. This comes as no surprise when one considers the technology and safety precautions required and the environmental regulations that must be met to run a major Formula 1 event in 2020. Add to this all the other elements that need to be in sync to make the whole system work – from grandstands and parking for one hundred thousand spectators, to the racing track and paddocks, to five-star hotel accommodations and apartment complex, to the technology park, go-kart track, off-road park, and sports complex – and it’s easy to see the complexity involved in the quarter-billion-dollar construction project.

Ayrton Senna. Photo: Getty.

The Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, located on the southern coast of Portugal, near the town of Portimão, is such a mega-project. This stretch of Atlantic coast is among the very finest found in Europe. It’s no wonder that the great Ayrton Senna chose it as his European base.

Plans for the circuit were finalized in 2002, but the developer Parkalgar Serviços had major challenges getting the project off the ground. The company struggled for several years until, at last, the Portuguese Ministry of the Economy and the Ministry of the Environment declared its support for the ambitious plan. Betting that the Autódromo do Algarve would give the region an economic boost by bringing new jobs and attracting tourists to Portimão, similar to the way Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum had done for Bilbao in Spain, these agencies offered a generous tax break and low annual rent. Once the deal was closed events accelerated.

In February 2008, the final circuit plans were presented and by October 2008, construction was finished. Also, in October, only two days after construction, the circuit was homologated by both FIM and FIA. Right away in November, the first major event at Portimão took place – the Superbike World Championship. That December McLaren set up shop for winter training and in February 2009, Toyota followed.

Autódromo Internacional do Algarve. Photo: Getty.

Everything appeared to be perfect. The Autódromo offered a fantastic location with ideal weather and beautiful natural light. Racers, teams, organizers, all loved coming down. As for the track itself, architect Ricardo Pina did a brilliant job incorporating the natural features of the terrain and specifically its considerable elevation. Pina created a very modern circuit with a mixed-speed layout over sixteen turns that exceeded all the FIM and FIA standards.  Its dramatic and long sweeping roller-coaster effect lets racers enjoy any vehicle with four or two wheels, from vintage Grand Prix cars or 1960s GTs to modern GTs, Touring Cars, Super Bikes, or full-out F1 cars. Because of the track’s undulations, in places it resembles Spa-Francorchamps or the old Nürburgring. At the same time, the circuit’s liberal width over its full length of close to three miles offers plenty of opportunity for overtaking. The very first proper season, 2009, saw a A1GP championship, Le Mans Series, FIA GT, more World Superbikes, and Masters Vintage Racing. In 2010 WTCC and GP2 followed.

Unfortunately, behind the scenes in the 2010s, things were far from perfect. Portimão wasn’t able to attract F1 straight out of the box, as the planners had hoped. And while the calendar seemed full, fewer fans passed through the gates than expected. The financial picture went from bad to worse – $200 million in debt accumulated on top of the original $250 million price tag.

Autódromo Internacional do Algarve F1. Photo: Getty.

The financial situation led to several projects, such as the technology park, being put on hold, while construction on the hotel and apartment complex was suspended. Several major creditors, such as Siemens, suggested insolvency.  But Parkalgar soldiered on and, by 2013, they were able to sell out to Portugal Capital Ventures, thus guaranteeing a future for the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve under state management. With solid financial footing, the track was allowed to complete all of the unfinished projects, including the seventy-five-room Resort Hotel, several fine restaurants, office space, and apartments that offer incredible views.

Ironically, it took the global COVID crisis to turn things fully around for the track. Due to forced changes in racing schedules, F1’s last race of 2020 was moved to Portimão, finally bringing proper Grand Prix racing to the Algarve – and Lewis Hamilton his ninety-second win. For the same scheduling reasons, the thrilling Portuguese Motorcycle Grand Prix also held its season-closer in Portimão, making it a double win for the Autódromo.

Grandstand at Autódromo Internacional do Algarve. Photo: Ricardo Pina Architects.

The weather, the country, the people, the track’s safety, and latest cutting-edge technology combined with challenging elevations, corners, and fast straights turned out to be a big hit with racers of all breeds. After years of struggle and dedication, it looks like the Algarve is finally on track to become a circuit of major importance.

Check out the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve aboard GT Racer’s band of racers as they spend a beautiful fall weekend racing a track that is not for the faint-hearted.