Since 1983, when the late, great Ayrton Senna took the first victory in a Formula 3 car on the Macau Guia Circuit, the F3 Macau Grand Prix has lived up to its reputation as a king maker. As the city prepares to welcome the arrival of the latest generation of F3 cars this November, we take a look back over the evolution of one of motorsport’s most influential single seater categories, and some of the truly remarkable cars which have graced Macau’s challenging street circuit.
When the Macau Grand Prix switched to Formula 3 rules in 1983, the Ralt RT3 dominated the grid. Nineteen of the 25 cars in the entry had come out of the Surrey, England factory of Ralt founder and former Brabham F1 designer Ron Tauranac. The RT3 was the first F3 ‘wing car’—using the ground-effect principles pioneered in Formula 1—to achieve great customer sales.
From uncertain beginnings in 1979, it had become a winner in 1980 and would begin saturating the worldwide market over the next couple of years, with minor revisions made by Tauranac each season. The Formula Atlantic version of the car—the RT4—had even won the last Macau Grand Prix run for that category in 1982, with Roberto Moreno at the wheel.
The 1983 Macau Grand Prix ended with a Ralt lockout of the podium, with Ayrton Senna heading home Roberto Guerrero and Gerhard Berger. Its domination was even more complete in 1984, when 24 of the 31 cars in Macao were RT3s, and John Nielsen led a top-seven clean-sweep for the car ahead of Stefan Johansson and Mike Thackwell. When Formula 3 switched to flat-bottom rules for 1985 – effectively banning ground-effect – the RT3 became obsolete as Tauranac produced its follow-up: the RT30.
Those flat-bottom rules had coincided with the entrance to Formula 3 of Adrian Reynard as a constructor. Unlike Ralt, which at the time stuck with an aluminium monocoque, Reynard’s first car – the 853 – was a carbon-fibre machine. The 853 concept was refined over 1986 (with the 863) and 1987 (873), with Andy Wallace taking his Madgwick Motorsport-run 863 to victory in the 1986 Macau Grand Prix. But it is the Reynard 903 from 1990 we are focusing on here. This was far from Reynard’s most successful Formula 3 car, but it famously took Michael Schumacher to victory in Macao that year with the WTS Motorsport team of his manager Willi Weber and engineer Klaus Trella, after a frantic battle with Mika Häkkinen.
The design of the 903 was very much influenced by Reynard’s 1989 championship-winning Formula 3000 car, and Schumacher had used it to good effect to win the German F3 title in 1990 before arriving in Macao. But it was temperamental. With each of the national F3 championships having their own control-tyre deals, the Reynard worked in some countries, but not in others. In the prestigious UK market, it was such a flop that it cost Reynard all its customers for 1991.
Toyota factory squad TOM’S is well-regarded as the most successful team in Japanese Formula 3 history, but ironically its early F3 chassis were the product of a team in England.
Based at the company’s TOM’S GB offshoot in Norfolk, England, designer Andy Thorby started sketching what became the 031F of 1991 “as a hobby” while he was waiting for a Group C sportscar project to begin.
Run by the TOM’S GB concern of Glenn Waters – who as chief of Intersport Racing had run Martin Donnelly to 1987 Macau Grand Prix glory – the car raced in Britain in 1991 with Rickard Rydell. Meanwhile, TOM’S Japan carried Paulo Carcasci to the Japanese title, before signing Rydell for 1992 to partner Jacques Villeneuve in the updated 032F. While neither won the crown, Rydell was confident for Macao: he’d taken pole in 1991 in the British-run 031F, and sure enough drove the 032F to win the F3 Macau Grand Prix title in 1992after a hectic battle with the Reynard of Pedro Lamy, with Villeneuve third.
Those early TOM’S cars provided a big advance on downforce and cornering speeds in Formula 3, and would be the foundation for a long period of domination for the team in the Japanese championship before it followed the hordes and switched to Dallara.
This car totally changed the course of Formula 3 history. In the 1992 Macau Grand Prix, just four of the 30 cars had come out of the Dallara factory in Parma, Italy. By 1993, that figure had exploded to 23 out of 29.
Dallara’s team of designers spent an estimated 1200 hours in the wind-tunnel working on the F393, and the car – which featured monoshock front suspension as opposed to the old twin-shock format – had what was reckoned to be a 15% increase in aerodynamic efficiency. It dominated in the Italian, German and French Formula 3 championships, and also cracked the British market; previously loyal to home constructors Ralt and Reynard, the British defected en masse mid-season to the F393.
German F3 championship front-runner Jörg Müller dominated the 1993 Macau Grand Prix with the RSM Marko team of future Red Bull Junior ‘headmaster’ Dr Helmut Marko, and 13 of the 14 classified finishers were at the wheel of F393s.
The F393 also coincided with the introduction of multi-year homologation cycles by the FIA for F3 chassis – in this case two years – to cut costs. In 1994, all but two of the 28 Macau Grand Prix starters were at the wheel of F393s or its F394 spinoff.
Jörg Müller and Sascha Maassen battle it out in the 1993 F3 Macau Grand Prix Dallara F312
The Dallara F308 was a superb car that raced from 2008-11 under a four-year homologation cycle. The F312 that followed was not quite so svelte, built as it was to more stringent FIA safety standards, but is notable because of its sheer longevity.
The FIA also extended its homologation, meaning the F312-generation Dallara competed in every Macau Grand Prix from 2012-18, via new, more powerful engine regulations in 2014, plus an aero and safety update in 2017. Although many teams replaced their Dallaras with newer cars, some original F312 chassis continued racing in Macao all the way through to 2018 – in particular, two chassis run by the British Carlin team contested all seven Macau Grands Prix in this period, which must be a record. The first of these trusty warhorses was raced in Macao by Carlos Sainz Jr, Jordan King (twice), Callum Ilott, António Félix da Costa (who drove it to victory in 2016), Sacha Fenestraz and Yoshiaki Katayama. The other – F312/010 – was campaigned by Daniel Abt, Harry Tincknell, Tom Blomqvist, Yu Kanamaru, Lando Norris, Devlin DeFrancesco and Jehan Daruvala.
António Félix da Costa en route to Macao glory in 2016
This year will see the 2019 FIA F3 makes its debut in Macao and, for the first time, the entire Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix-FIA F3 World Cup field will compete in the same spec car. With a Dallara-built carbon monocoque, the car is powered by a bespoke, 6-cylinder Mecachrome 3.4 litre naturally-aspirated engine capable of delivering 380bhp at 8,000rpm. For the first time, the new Halo driver protection safety feature will be seen on the Guia Circuit, and the cars are also equipped with an F1-type Virtual Safety Car system as well as a Drag Reduction System (DRS).
Thirty-six years since Ayrton Senna stood victorious on the first Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix podium, who will follow in his footsteps as Macao begins a new chapter in its storied history in 2019?
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