Nerves of Steel – Racing the Circuito da Boavista

There is motor racing and then there is motor racing on street circuits

Custom-built racetracks are created with safety in mind. There are gravel beds, run-off areas, and corners to overshoot. Street circuits have none of these. If you go off track, ninety percent of the time the thing that stops your car is unforgiving – such as a wall of concrete.

Motor racing began soon after the invention of the automobile, with the very first organized contests starting in the late 1880s in France. But it would be almost another 30 years before the first real racing-purpose circuit was built, the UK’s Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit.

Over the last century, more and more big street circuit races disappeared. The courses were inherently challenging, and racers suffered horrific crashes, frequently catapulting themselves and their cars into groups of spectators. Today, only a handful of circuits are left, and those feature vintage cars and follow very strict safety regulations.

Ponte da Arrábida bridge

Porto, one of the oldest cities in Europe, on the northern Atlantic Ocean coast of Portugal —with its incredible Ponte da Arrábida bridge stretching over the Rio Douro — is one of the few places where real street racing continues into this millennium.

Avenida da Boavista

The Circuito da Boavista is named after the Avenida da Boavista, a tremendously large avenue that was the circuit’s main straight. The Boavista saw its first race in the early 1930s; regular racing started in 1951. In 1958, Porto held its first Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix of 1958 entered the history books because of the chivalry demonstrated by the late racing legend, Sir Stirling Moss. The field that day was full of famous names, such Mike Hawthorn, who was Moss’ title rival. Others racing that day included Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Wolfgang von Trips, Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby, as well as Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car.

Carroll Shelby

At a critical moment in the race, Mike Hawthorn spun off the track. To get back on it, he had to push and to bump start his car himself, and then to steer against the traffic. The latter was not appreciated by the race’s stewards. They wanted to disqualify him. When Moss heard of their intention, he personally intervened and convinced the stewards to ignore this magnificent irregularity. At this moment, nobody understood how important the steward’s reversal would prove. While

Moss won the race and Hawthorn came in 2nd, Hawthorn was able to keep his 6 points from this race. And, due to the scoring system at the time, he ended up with one point more than Moss, thus winning the championship.

Mike Hawthorn

The Boavista course raced over cobble stones and tram tracks. It continued through incredibly fast straights and into hard corners and narrow, twisting neighborhood streets, lined by stone buildings on both sides. When one considers the track, the frequent oil and sometimes rain, it’s easy to understand how such a circuit could, with a single miscalculation, become a death trap. And so, like so many other street circuits, Boavista was deemed too dangerous and abandoned by the early sixties.

However, lucky for racing enthusiasts and avid motorsport viewers, the circuit was revived in 2005. Shortened to 4.8 kilometers, from its original 7+, and turned into a multiple-day, bi-yearly event, the Boavista offered fans a “Historic Grand Prix” (with starting grids from pre-war cars to big bore GTs of the ’60s) in combination with the World Touring Car Championship, which featured contemporary race cars.

Sadly, 2013 proved to be the end of Boavista for now. However, fortunately our film crew had the chance to properly record one of those races and to immortalize this event in its full glory.

Watch the documentary below and experience this thrilling race from the drivers’ seat of a Cobra and two Corvettes. Other cars featured are a Lightweight E-Type, a Lotus 11, and a Lister Chevrolet.

We also invite you to follow our GT Racer film series and experience real racing insights on some of the world’s most famous tracks and the excitement they unleash.