From track to tee: Building excitement around motor racing in the Algarve
The Algarve may be a golfing Mecca, but it is also fast becoming a world-class motor racing destination. Since its inauguration in 2008, the Algarve International Racetrack (AIA) in Portimão has hosted dozens of high-profile races, and will continue to do so increasingly.
Although the return of F1 may not be on the cards yet, there is plenty to get excited about in 2023. And that is what the United Autosports race team wanted to get across with a quirky event they took part in last October at the Penina Hotel & Golf Resort.
As teams were revving up for the 4 Hours of Portimão race (part of the Le Mans Series), racing drivers Tom Gamble, Phil Hanson, and Duncan Tappy traded in their wheels for golf clubs for a few hours. On the first tee of the Sir Henry Cotton Championship Course, they battled to see who could hit the longest drive, whilst still in their full race suits and helmets.
The motorsports team organised the event in collaboration with Penina to promote the return of the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) to the Algarve, as well as many other world-class events due to take place at the racetrack over the coming months. For United Autosports CEO Richard Dean, Portimão’s racetrack is a world-class venue, and he highlights some world-class races here: “ELMS, SuperBike, MotoGP, F1, and next year you’ve got a round of the World Endurance Championships. It is an FIA world championship race.
That’s status in itself.” A status that has been confirmed, as the 4 Hours of Portimão will continue to be the season finale of the European Le Mans Series until the end of the 2025 season.
But that is not all. The World Endurance Championship 2023 (WEC) will also feature a race in Portimão. The centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will include the first-ever 6 Hours of Portimão at the AIA on April 16. It will be the second time that WEC has run at the track, which previously held the 8 Hours of Portimão in 2021.
On the tee at Penina, winners of the 2021 4 Hours of Portimão, Tom Gamble and Phil Hanson, gave golf their best shot. Despite not being fans of the sport, they admitted to having had a go before. Tom, 20, says he sometimes heads down to the driving range to hit balls with friends, “just having a laugh, but never too seriously”. Whilst Phil, 23, shares a similar relationship with golf. He played when he was younger, trying out different sports. “But I have to be honest, it isn’t really my sport,” he insisted.
Such is not the case for Duncan Tappy, 38, who is an avid golfer. “My two passions coming together was odd. I never thought I would be hitting a golf ball with my crash helmet on, and, believe it or not, it hinders the swing quite a lot. And you get quite warm,” he confessed. Duncan is also a fan of the Algarve, a holiday destination he says he visits many times a year with his family. “It is my favourite place to come as a holiday venue and, as a golf trip, it is a golfing heaven, so for me, it is the perfect place.”
As for his take on what it is like to race at the Algarve International Racetrack, Duncan stressed how demanding the Portimão circuit is on drivers. “Physically, it is a challenge for a driver, which is something I like. I like to train hard. I like to have the edge on drivers physically, so it is a good challenge.”
For Phil, the AIA is one of the more unique racetracks he has visited. “The undulations are what it is known for. It is quite often referred to as a roller coaster of a circuit because a lot of the corners are blind, so it invokes really good racing,” he explains. “Undulations tend to be synonymous with very fun tracks. It is somewhat unique! I cannot say I have driven a track that is similar to this. It is very much in its own class,” he added. Tom agrees: “It is quite a busy track. You have to be focused throughout the whole lap, which makes it unique to some of the other tracks, which are a bit more relaxed and wider, and a lot easier to race in.”
It has also been described as having an “old-school feel” to it. “In many of the more modern circuits – and the AIA is still quite a recent addition – it is rare for them to have an old-school feel,” says Richard Dean. “When I say ‘old-school’, I am referring to famous tracks like Spa-Francorchamps [Belgium], Brands Hatch [UK], and Laguna [USA]. All of those tracks have got character, undulation, and challenging corners. Drivers find real challenge there,” he states, adding that “this circuit has got it all”.
The Algarve certainly has the ideal conditions for hosting world-class motorsport events. But, it also has excellent conditions outside the circuit, “which helps convince sponsors and partners to maintain their support to the team”, concedes Dean. “It is absolutely imperative that they come and enjoy their weekend and give feedback to the sponsors that they have had a great event and want to do it again because if they do, sponsors will stay with us. These people want to stay in a nice hotel, eat at a nice restaurant, and see some sights, and here in the Algarve, we can host a varied range of events”, including the promotional stunt on the first tee at Penina.