How Portimao finally landed the MotoGP, F1 and WorldSBK triple crown|
One racetrack located on the extreme south western fringe of mainland Europe - Autodromo Internacional do Algarve – has landed all three of the most important global car and motorcycle racing series for 2020, having already just held a successful WorldSBK race weekend. For Paulo Pinheiro, the CEO and driving force behind a triple crown of major series at Portimao this year, that new reality must have seemed unimaginable at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even just a few months ago, almost all racetracks where facing an existential threat.
It has been an amazing turnaround for Pinheiro’s circuit in such a short time, going from that external uncertainty to an ambitious ‘triple crown’.
Just over ten years ago, his dream of building a cutting edge modern circuit in the hills behind his native Portimao was eventually realised by Pinheiro, and his associates. And how - it was an instant modernist classic.
At just over 4.5km in length Portimao is generally magnificent, even if it has not been without its problems since its inception.
During the WorldSBK round that has just finished, and just before the official announcement of MotoGP being added to the 2020 calendar as well (and not just a reserve track), I spoke with Pinheiro in an office that looks out across the awesome final corner and angular modernist trackside buildings of the AIA. Or Parkalgar, or just plain old Portimao to most.
It has been a stressful period recently for Pinheiro, who must have looked track business extinction in the face even a very short time ago. And yet now he has a ‘big three’ of global motorsport events at his venue in the same bizarre year. He could not say so at the time but only two days after this interview the announcement was made of MotoGP being the season finale.
Not bad for a track suffering badly after the effects of Covid-19 bit hard. The track boss did think it could all go wrong at one stage – just like the rest of the motorsports world. “I think everyone did,” said Pinheiro.
And now they have Formula 1, even in the time of Covid. “We were talking to Liberty for three years now, since they took over,” said Pinheiro. “We wanted to be in the position to be a replacement race, like we are in MotoGP. We tried to be a (F1) preferred partner, let’s say it like that. We always tried to be on top of their minds, and tried to be the official test venue for next season.
“We tried many things and last year we requested grade one homologation for the racetrack for F1 from Charlie Whiting, and we got it. We were always trying, always pushing, but obviously the opportunity started to open the window when the Chinese GP in February was postponed at the time. Not cancelled, postponed, and we said, ‘if you need an additional GP, think about is, look at us.’ So we tried, we tried, we tried and in June – on the date that it was one year since my father died – they called me and said, ‘let’s talk about it.’ And here we are.” Having F1 is important in itself for Portimao, but it must also propel its overall prestige several levels at once, especially when the news came through that MotoGP was also coming this season. In some ways Portimao is a great undiscovered motorsport secret – maybe because you have to drive past any number of top class Spanish tracks to get there? In any case, F1 has been a game changer already and that weekend does not take place until late in the season.
Is F1 a benefit for all the events? “Including everything,” said Pinheiro. “I said this to my staff, joking, for the first time I know how a pretty woman feels. Everyone wants to date you. It is unbelievable the response that we have had because of F1. We sold all the boxes in the grandstand and almost all the boxes in the VIP tower within 24 hours. We sold 20,000 tickets in a couple of hours.”
The most noteworthy aspect of the Portimao races is that fans, to some degree, will be allowed. There were 250 fans each Saturday and Sunday allowed at the Portimao WorldSBK race, all in the same socially distanced seating area of the main grandstand, as a kind of ‘practice’ for the scaling up that will go on for the next events.
Pinheiro explained more, after some clarification of how things were in . “I think we have a very good situation. All of us did a bad job communication to the rest of Europe where we are, in terms of Covid, at a certain moment. If I told you that one person until today has died of Covid in Portimao you would say that it cannot be. But yes, only one. The numbers are really small. No matter how you see it, they are really small and they are real numbers. We test a lot.
“If Portugal is not the biggest ratio of testing it is one of the biggest. At least on the Algarve, I know it is, because I am a member of the Civil Protection Board. I am part of the team that decides what to do and what is going on. We cannot let our guard down but it is really safe.
“Everyone complies with the rules and I think that we have done a great job. If you go to the Supermarket everyone wears a mask. No matter what you do you feel that people are behaving correctly. This allowed is to go to the health authorities and say, ‘listen we are going to have an F1 race. We needed to have the public to make it a good event for all of us – to have an economic impact that is worthwhile; so we need to have it.’
“So they accepted the possibility of having public but they said it was up to us to show them that it could be done in a safe manner. We made a very comprehensive document – from arriving at the airport, arriving in the parking, moving from the parking area to the seats, how you get through the gates – all the process was described.
“If everyone complies with what we say on that document that you get when you get your ticket in the mail, it will be completely safe. We will take every part of the grandstands as an autonomous unit with their own mangers, their own marshalls and it is all going to be like that. You have to come, sit and stay. Beveridge and facilities will be in the back of each area.”
Given that Portimao is in relative terms a very modern, new racetrack, with lots of access protocols and existing lessons built into its entire facility, it has already run lots of events since it first opened. But did the whole Covid situation make Pinheiro and his team look at all things anew? “Oh, yes,” he said. “First, we all learned one thing that is very important.
All of us can do a better job if we are more focused. All of us; all the staff. We had to go into layoffs, so for three months we worked with five people… We kept doing e-mails, getting phone calls – cutting the grass. We kept living. Obviously, there was no work but at the end of the day (there was) the commercial side, the marketing side, the admin side… We were obviously working to lower levels but the five people that were working, me included. We worked a lot. But it is possible. Sometimes we must be more focused in the way that we do things. This was my first lesson.
“Paul the guy who takes care of all the grass and everything – one guy – in two months did everything. It was not ‘mint’ but it was really good! He did an incredible job. Sometimes it is better to talk less and work more, honestly! So we looked at departments, everything, in a different way. We had a lot of people in the past that we had to hire, additional people, and now we do not hire. We all do the same and it works. We have to work a little bit more, and be more focused, but this was my first personal lesson. The second is that what was always our biggest problem – having a huge facility and a huge number of seats – the fact that we were are so big it was a bad thing.
“If you had 30,000 spectators it looked empty. It was sad because we had had the second biggest number of tickets sold in the championship and it is empty. It was for sure frustrating but now it was a positive thing. Now we can put 50,000 people and have them spread out, and that is a positive thing. You can have a huge paddock, and that is a positive thing. A big press room, and that is a positive thing. All the things that were a problem, or frustrating in the past, now they were a major asset for our acceptance in F1 and other races. Because we are so big, safety here is not an issue. We do not have to worry that everyone is cramped in the media room or briefing room or grandstands, restaurant. Now, finally the fact that we are big and modern was a major thing for us.”
One aspect of Portimao’s longstanding design was its use of natural topography and a deliberate roller-coaster nature, with many changes of direction, blind corner entries and hefty undulations that see even the WorldSBK machines get airtime. It is as safe in runoff and so on as any modern track but it is wildly gnarly and physical in places. Undulations that look like ramps at times.
This factor drew comments from some at the very beginning – maybe even only privately - that it may be a bit on the edge for the lighter, more powerful MotoGP bikes. Or even F1 cars. Not so says Pinheiro. “F1 was here last time two years ago, with a top team. McLaren Mercedes were here and they loved the track. Everyone loved the track. I got e-mails from 80% of the F1 teams, because we know the guys the team managers and drivers and everyone was really excited about coming here. Last weekend Lewis Hamilton, on the grid, said he was really excited to go to Portimao. He already did some testing here in 2009 and 2008. We feel that there is a huge expectation from everyone to come here. People are really happy.”
So why did it take so long for a track in normally warm and sunny southern Europe, with all its obvious plus points of location on the Algarve and its thousands of hotels, to get to the level of GPs, in both four and two wheels as it now turns out? Most people when they come to Portimao for the first time – me included – just went wow, what a place!
“Sometimes when there is something over there, and it is covered in dust, you don’t look at it,” said Pinheiro. “You don’t think about it. When you scrape the dust away then you say wow! What an amazing thing that was here all the time! After F1, all the word starts to say, whoa, who are these guys? Up to now we have been a ‘Superbike secret’. All the people in Superbike knew us. Apart from that, and not in the wrong way – don’t get me wrong – but the second level championships, not the Champions’ League but UEFA League, they all know us, they all love us.
“If you go down the paddock or pitlane everyone is very happy to come here. And now we had Alex Rins, Albert Arenas and Aleix Espargaro in June, they were here for 15 days and did a lot of testing, on the track, on the go-karts, on the off road and they spent a lot of time here. We saw their Instagram videos etc. We got to spend some time with Alex and he said it was an unbelievable track, amazing, amazing, amazing! All this gained momentum and now it is huge the number of e-mails we got. It is really a new world that has opened. Surprising.”
Given that Portimao now has the two biggest things in motorsport, and with some recent examples of tracks gaining a MotoGP race and losing WorldSBK as a consequence, is the WorldSBK championship in a slightly difficult situation now? Can they maybe only host two big rounds per year, and those may be MotoGP and F1 now?
“Superbike is where we started, in 2004, with Miguel Praia in Superbike,” said Pinheiro. “It is our lifetime project. We spent more money on Superbike than anything else; with the team (Parkalgar in WorldSSP for years) at the races, it is our passion; Superbikes. It is in our blood. You cannot say no it is not part of me. So unless Dorna says they do not want to go to Portimao, and they are entitled to do that as it is their championship, but it if it depends on us we would always want Superbikes.
We will always put a lot of effort in Superbikes and we believe that we can make a bigger Superbike race is we have other big races. If you go to a company and say ‘I have one big race here’ then they have one opportunity. But if you do a package they have two or three opportunities to use for their customers. There are companies that like Formula 1, that like MotoGP, and there are companies that are focusing on Superbike. Sometimes you can cross sell, up sell, whatever. But that is the package.
“We have Le Mans Series, Superbikes, Classic Festival, World Karting – we have 12 races besides all the others. The more we have the better it is for you in Superbike. It is like in the UK, you have races all the weekends and this year we have to change all our business from presentations and testing and this and that to races. That was a swap of business. It is going well, so we want Superbikes – clearly.”
“Portimao already has a contract until 2022 for WorldSBK, in any case.
In Portimao, nestling in the hills above the holidaymaker friendly Algarve tourist resorts, the weather is usually kind, making it a potentially 365 day a year business - in normal times at least? Nearly… “If you have 12 races per year it means you have the racetrack used 12 times five days, so that is like 60 days of revenue,” said Paulo. “Let’s say 80 days of racing per year. So if you have 330 days of track use, it means you can have 250 days of corporate events, testing and all that. But to have the tests and the presentations and all that you have to have the races as a marketing tool.
“So, besides being a business it is also a marketing tool. If you do not have the races, you do not get this, and you cannot charge the same cost. Obviously, the perception of your client at your racetrack depends on the level of races that you have. If you have FIM CEV you cannot charge the same as if you had Superbike, or if you have MotoGP. It is natural. You do not pay the same in Silverstone as you do in Thruxton.”
Although no one is saying, it is obvious that the extreme situation of Covid has radically altered, however temporarily, the normal ‘rules’ of fees paid from tracks to organisers, and maybe other financial elements as well.
Asked directly if Dorna had waived any fee this season, Pinheiro said, “Obviously I cannot tell you that because it is a private contract, but the conditions are completely different from a normal year, obviously. We all have to compromise. Everyone has to compromise. Dorna has been very correct with us, very correct.”
With the big race weekend boxes ticked of now in 2020 where does Pinheiro see his business expanding in future years? Rock festivals, outdoor events, greater use of their own trackside hotel complexes, whatever? “We have done in the past, music festivals and all that and especially for August it is a typical product that we can do here easily,” he said. “It is something that next year we will re-engage with. We have a good partner that brought U2 to Portugal and all that.
“For our side we have in a normal year 330 days of track use, so it is very difficult to increase the additional days. There is not much you can do. It is more about getting more out of the days that we have. We have a huge potential on the corporate side. All the sponsorship. If you have big races you can attract big sponsorship. That means that you can also do corporate events with those sponsors, so that is a snowball that starts rolling in a positive way.
“If we manage to keep the upper level races, let’s put it like that, then it will help the racetrack and all the other races. The hotels here around the track are all ours, and in the summer we have a lot of normal customers who have nothing to do with the racetrack. In a Covid year it is not like that. Normal guests are down 80%, something like that. But we have to be realistic and 80% of the hotel guests are for the ractrack.”
Next up for Portimao as a facility is a complete resurface and a bump removal before F1. “We had planned to do it next year, in a normal year. With Covid we were not going to do it for obvious reasons, but having F1, we said, ‘Ok, it is not sensible to do the F1 race for the first time and not have the racetrack at its highest level.’ So, we anticipated the resurfacing, the decision is done. It is a bit more of a financial effort but I think it will be worthwhile. And it will be another 12 or 14 years until it will be replaced in a good situation.”