Fernando Alonso, Renault, Autodromo do Algarve, 2009

Pictures: When F1 put one foot in the Algarve

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Portugal hasn’t held a round of the Formula 1 world championship since 1996, when Jacques Villeneuve dazzled Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill on his way to a victory which set up a final-round championship-decider.

Over a decade later a new circuit opened some 200 kilometres south of there. Within two months of the Autodromo do Algarve opening in October 2008, Ferrari and McLaren tested their F1 cars at the track. A larger contingent of teams followed early in the new year.

But another decade later, they still haven’t returned. This week the Algarve track announced it has been given FIA grade one certification again, allowing it to hold F1 races and tests if someone can find the money to bring them. Could a return be on the cards?

When F1 first visited the track, teams were readying for a significant change in the aerodynamic regulations. Toro Rosso were still running their 2008 car, but several teams had their new machines ready.

McLaren briefly ran an unusual hybrid of its 2009 car with a 2008 rear wing fitted. Lewis Hamilton, his first of six world titles freshly minted and the number one on his car’s nose for the only season in his career so far, was among those to sample the undulating Portuguese track.

Fernando Alonso, Flavio Briatore, Nelson Piquet Jnr, Renault, Autodromo do Algarve, 2009
The R29 went as well as it looked
Ferrari brought a pair of test drivers, including Luca Badoer, whom few would have suspected would make a return to F1 racing for the first time in a decade with the Scuderia in the upcoming season.

Williams uncovered its FW31 in a special test livery and Nico Hulkenberg, who would win the standalone GP2 race at the track in September, was first to drive it.

Fernando Alonso, Nelson Piquet Jnr and Renault team boss Flavio Briatore pulled the covers off the team’s unpretty and unsuccessful R29. During the upcoming season it transpired the team had been keeping something else under wraps as well…

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The 2008 test had been held in decent conditions, though the teams found the track lacking in grip. Heavy rain during the second test in 2009 did not help. The track was so comprehensively drenched the timing screen operators entertained bored F1 staff by lashing up the message “lifeboats on standby”.

Luca Badoer, Ferrari, Autodromo do Algarve, 2008
Algarve had much to commend it, particularly when dry
Why didn’t F1 return? They offered few criticisms of the venue itself and the circuit layout had much to commend it: More undulating and demanding than many other recent new-build tracks.

It was a victim of two factors, the first of which was its location. The Algarve track was considered too far from the nearest airports for convenience, and too close to the coast to be sheltered from the cold Atlantic air.

The second was timing. The 2008-09 off-season was held as F1 was beginning to feel the brunt of the global credit crunch. Honda had already announced its abrupt withdrawal. BMW, Toyota and Renault would follow (the latter remained as an engine supplier). F1 responded by imposing a tight limit on the number of test days.

Where once F1 teams headed to multiple venues to avoid sharing a track with rival teams, now they began to increasingly congregate around a small number of mostly Spanish tracks. Over time, and as simulators offered a increasingly viable alternative to real-world testing, team’s occasional diversions to Jerez and Valencia became a thing of the past, and in recent seasons pre-season testing has been held exclusively at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Whether Algarve may get a chance again remains to be seen, though the factors which drove F1 away in the first place remain. Unless, of course, its very remoteness suddenly becomes an attractive feature in a world where F1 has to think about racing without crowds.

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Pictures: F1 at Autodromo do Algarve, 2008-09

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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26 comments on “Pictures: When F1 put one foot in the Algarve”

  1. Calling the R29 “unpretty” is being way, way, waaaaaaaaaay too generous.

    That thing was a monster.

    1. Yet somehow, all this time afterwards, I kind of like it. A normal sized f1 car. odd nose and the awful 09-16 rear wing on this primitive car are in persective much better looking than most years afterwards imo.

      1. @peartree I still think all those 2009 cars (yes, even the Brawn) were horrible. Too fat in the middle, and too straight cut in the wings and noses. They got better over the years until the stepped noses in 2012.

        Specially the R29 and the BMW F1.09 were particularly fugly, the Renault’s livery also didn’t help. Veeeeery difficult to look at and not vomit.

        1. @fer-no65 first year of every reg cars look unrefined, especially as you pointed out the packaging, still, I like the toyota and the RB. Never liked the rear wing though that mclaren hybrid doesn’t look right either. in 2010 they got narrower front tyres and longer. imo f1 cars are just starting to look right again.

  2. I wish to officially note that I both hate and love you for the pun in the title.

    1. @klon – yeah, that made me groan and grin.

  3. Jose Lopes da Silva
    8th April 2020, 10:35

    If you went to Magny-Cours, you can reach Portimão way more easily. And the British expat community in the Algarve would be very pleased

    1. @Jose Lopes da Silva What do you mean? Magny-Cours is closer to England where seven teams are based than Portimao.

      1. Jose Lopes da Silva
        8th April 2020, 13:27

        The Faro airport is not that far and there’s a motorway linking it to Portimão.

      2. Jose Lopes da Silva
        8th April 2020, 13:30

        But, as I said before, make a F1 championship with 2 Silverstone rounds, 1 in Donington and 1 on Brands Hatch and I’ll be happy anyway. Race in Oulton Park, Snetterton and Thruxton too.

  4. Why did you force us to look at the Renault R29…are we not suffering enough with this global pandemic?!?

  5. Having attended events there several times and driven round the track I think its a terrible F1 venue. Too much altitude variation, one good straight but overtaking would be very difficult in a real race scenario.

    Unless additional facilities have been added in the last two years the fan facilities are poor, traffic flow difficult.

    It is in the middle of nowhere and the nearest real airport is in Faro 100 kms away and except for one on site hotel, the nearest good and plentiful ones are in and around Portimao and the road to that town is often in a poor state and low capacity.

    Forget it for F1 but good for some lower level racing and some bike racing (but not my field that, its what friends who are bikers have told me).

    Not happy to say this as this area was my home for quite a while and its fantastic. But this was built at the height of the borrowing boom (followed by the bust we all remember) and the commercial planning was based on optimism not hard headed calculation.

    1. Right when you said “too much altitude variation” the rest of your post lost most of its credibility. There’s no such thing, as too much of a great thing.

      1. @montreal95 I agree, altitude variation is always a great feature, and it looks good here. It is certainly one of the best new circuits and the lap looks good. It has a great backdrop too, which is certainly not important but everyone enjoys having one

        That said, I do have some different concerns about it – it still has that modern clinical feel to it. Straights that are too straight joining up fixed radius corners, and kerbs which do little to keep cars away from tarmac runoff

        Nevertheless I would welcome a race there

      2. @montreal95 are you really sure that “There’s no such thing, as too much of a great thing”?

        Drainage is something that comes to mind, as you can have a situation where too much variation in topography creates areas where you cannot properly drain the track and it becomes unusable – just remember, for example, the problems that Interlagos has had at times with preventing sections of the track becoming unusable due to drainage problems.

        Witan, the comments you make do certainly sound similar to those that were often made when the circuit was being used for GT racing in the past, as those who went there complained about poor transport links and a lack of facilities. Maybe the situation has improved now the European Le Mans Series uses that venue, but it seems that it doesn’t really seem to hold that many races per year – it seems to rely much more heavily on track days.

        I believe that some of those who attended those GT races suggested that it might not produce the best races either, at least for cars – it seems that those GT drivers suggested it was great when lapping on your own, but that the effective racing line was rather narrow and made it relatively difficult to pass another driver.

        1. @anon I’m most certainly sure. Drainage problems is a trcjnical issue that can be solved but even if it isn’t it’s not enough in the slightest to negate the advantages of having lots of altitude variation. Your very mention of Brazil, one of the greatest of the current f1 tracks actually proves my point

  6. Would love to race there this year, just for the sake of novelty and variation to the F1 calendar

  7. To partly copy-paste what I posted in the round-up: The G1 license doesn’t guarantee anything, it merely opens up opportunities, but whether Portimao ever joins the championship is another matter. Nevertheless, considering potential future venues is rather pointless right now given the situation.

  8. Miltiadis (@miltosgreekfan)
    8th April 2020, 13:59

    I would love to see some gps there, perhaps replacing Spain. The altitude differences make it a great location for every type of racing, but the circuit has some overtaking difficulties F1 wise. I’m sure the 2022 regs car will suit this circuit and i am positive in a possible entrance. Kyalami, Portimao and Igora are 3 circuits i would like to see entering the calendar, replacing Spain and Sochi ideally.

    @keithcollantine I’m one of the Niki Lauda book winners, and i have send my phone number who i forgot to add initially, but it hasn’t been seen on FB for almost a month

  9. That 2009 McLaren with the 2008 rear wing is fantastic! The post-2008 cars would have looked so much better with the 2008 rear wing…

  10. János Henkelmann
    8th April 2020, 14:13

    Love the 2008 McLaren with the old nose!

  11. This is one of my favorite non-f1 circuits.

    It has a lot of elevation change, Some tricky sections, Some fast/flowing corners & the circuit in general has a really nice flow to it. It’s such a fun circuit to drive & it’s also a great circuit to watch cars driving around.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOzyIYW8Zqg

  12. I wouldn’t call it “in the middle of nowhere”. Of course it’s not in the centre of the town but you can reach Faro International Airport in less than a hour and the access it’s by a good motorway. It’s not in a more remote area than Spa or Silverstone, for example.

  13. The last sentence made me wonder: “Unless, of course, its very remoteness suddenly becomes an attractive feature in a world where F1 has to think about racing without crowds.”

    There are many Grade 1 tracks that are suitable for F1 but don’t have the facilities and logistics to hold a Grand Prix. When F1 would host races without crowds, all of the sudden many circuits become available that would never be considered to host a race (because lack of access, lack of hotels etc).

    1. José Lopes da Silva
      9th April 2020, 12:28

      But not all of them are in Europe. And teams are considering doing races in Europe because of travelling difficulties (shutdowns) and costs.
      Unfortunately, there is only one Grade 1 track in Britain, where most of teams are. So, unlike my suggestion, no Grand Prix in Donington and Brands Hatch. No Grand Prix in Assen, too, which I think it would be cool too watch.

      But you’re right. We could have races, this season, in Imola, Mugello, Fiorano, Magny-Cours, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Jerez, Aragón and Estoril. And now in Algarve too. All of them inside the Schengen area, and aside from the scheduled ones.

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