The Magic of Macau: What does it take to master motorsport’s ultimate challenge?

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Throughout motorsport, there are circuits and races that command high esteem and respect from drivers as a result of their significance and the magnitude of the challenge at hand.

If you asked drivers to name the events at the top of their career hit list, the same races are likely to come up time and time again. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans are probably the biggest three, making it only right that they should form racing’s Triple Crown, an honor only Graham Hill has won.

For juniors making their way up the motorsport ladder, winning such prestigious and historic races at an early point in their careers is unrealistic. However, they are able to check off another – and, arguably, even more testing – race before graduating to the upper echelons of motorsport: the Macau Grand Prix.

Taking place on the streets of Macau, a peninsula off mainland China and the most densely populated region in the world, drivers blast around the tight course that has it all: fast corners, slow corners, elevation changes, heat, humidity; you name it.

The race originated as a sportscar challenge back in the 1950s before growing into a single-seater event, eventually being run under Formula 3 rules from 1983. Ayrton Senna was the first winner of the Macau F3 event, the victory acting as an important step on his route to Formula 1. Legends may be made around the streets of Monaco and in the dark of Le Mans, but the first signs of greatness are sown at Macau.

Besides Senna, the likes of Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Takuma Sato, Lucas di Grassi, Mike Conway and Antonio Felix da Costa have all won at Macau, while in recent years, Max Verstappen, Jean-Eric Vergne, Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Nasr have also entered the race.

No driver has won the F3 race three years straight, but that could be set to change this weekend. Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist has spent the majority of his career in F3, winning the FIA title in 2015 as well as taking a second Macau win that year. Despite moving into Formula E and spending time in Indy Lights in 2016, when the chance came about to return to Macau with Prema Powerteam, Rosenqvist couldn’t say no.

“Already from the beginning of the year I was quite clear that I was interested in doing it if the opportunity came,” Rosenqvist explains. “Then when Lance [Stroll] wasn’t doing it, I think I was first on the list to take the seat. I think also to go with Prema, I had such a good memory with them last year. It’s just one of the things you can’t say no to.”

Alongside the F3 event at Macau, the GT Cup for GT3 cars, the TCR International Series for touring cars and a motorcycle grand prix will run. Both the F3 and GT Cup events enjoy world cup status, a first for the former, while the latter features another driver chasing a ‘three-peat’: Maro Engel.

Engel raced in the F3 event back in 2006 before making the career shift to touring cars, and is a Mercedes factory driver, as well as racing for Venturi in Formula E. The German won the Nürburgring 24 back in May, and has won the previous two GT Cup races at Macau. Although he would not be the first driver to score a GT hat-trick at Macau, it would still be a huge achievement.

2015 FIA GT World Cup - Practice Circuit de Guia, Macau, China 18th - 22nd November 2015 Maro ENGEL, Mercedes AMG Driving Academy © XPB Images/LAT Photographic
2015 FIA GT World Cup – Practice, Circuit de Guia, Macau, China, 18th – 22nd November 2015, Maro ENGEL, Mercedes AMG Driving Academy © XPB Images/LAT Photographic

“Going there the aim is clearly to defend the titles. I think the pressure is no different than going there last two years where the aim was to try and win the race,” Engel says.

“It would certainly be something special to make it three in a row. We’ll push hard and come as prepared as we can, but obviously our opponents are probably going to push as hard as they can too.

“I think just approach it with the same we approached it the past two years, try and get the best out of myself and out of the car, and the team, and then we’ll see where we are on Sunday afternoon. Certainly we feel confident going there.”

Despite standing on the brink of history, Rosenqvist also doesn’t feel under any pressure. Instead, he’s relishing the chance for another opportunity to tackle Macau.

“Obviously many people look at it like I have everything to lose. I think already winning twice is already something really rare, but as I said, that’s not really the focus for me,” says the Swede.

“It’s more about having fun. I actually don’t really feel any pressure at all to be honest. Even if I wouldn’t win, I would be just happy to be there. I think anyways I have the best chance to win and be with a team that won last year and I won last year as well.

“I don’t see any reason why I would not be up to speed in F3. Obviously everyone would expect me to win, so let’s see.”

2015 Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix Circuit de Guia, Macau, China 18th - 22nd November 2015 Winner Felix Rosenqvist (SWE) SJM Theodore Racing by Prema Powerteam Dallara Mercedes © XPB Images/LAT Photographic
2015 Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix, Circuit de Guia, Macau, China, 18th – 22nd November 2015, Winner Felix Rosenqvist (SWE) SJM Theodore Racing by Prema Powerteam Dallara Mercedes © XPB Images/LAT Photographic

Both Rosenqvist and Engel are rookies in Formula E this year, with the all-electric series’ calendar featuring nothing but street circuits, designed to bring racing to the world’s biggest cities. By cutting their teeth on Macau, making the transfer to Formula E’s comparatively tame layouts will become much, much easier.

“The experience of street tracks is going to help as Formula E is only on street tracks,” Engel says. “The format I have to say is not too dissimilar in GTs because you don’t get a lot of running time in Macau. You get two 30-minute sessions and then you need to be there, which is quite similar to what we have in Formula E. So I think it’s definitely good practice.

“But then obviously in GT3, it’s a different beast to a Formula E car. Both great cars but obviously completely different, so in that respect maybe Felix has a bit more to draw on, because I think Formula E is a lot closer to a Formula 3 car.”

Rosenqvist has proven himself to be a street course specialist throughout his career, as evidenced by his victories at St. Petersburg and Toronto in Indy Lights earlier this year. However, nothing can prepare him for what Macau offers.

“This year I gained experience with some new street circuits in America in St. Petersburg and Toronto, which was very challenging but in a very different way,” Rosenqvist says.

“It didn’t really require bravery, it was more technical in terms of being very bumpy. I think it’s a bit more similar to what you have here in Formula E. Macau itself, it’s not so bumpy, it just requires so much commitment and bravery. When you really go for that qualy lap, it’s like the walls close in and go by so quick.

“You need balls,” he adds with a smirk. “It’s also technical for sure but not in the same way as something like this.”

So where does Macau stack up against other tracks? Is it the toughest street course in the world?

“Yes,” is the immediate response from Engel.

By a long way?

“For myself anyway,” he replies. “I’ve raced quite a few. I’ve raced at Pau and in the V8s in Australia, but Macau is just something else.

“There is a reason why all the drivers say Macau is the ultimate challenge. It just combines so many factors into one track. It’s probably the longest street track by a long way, with lots of up and down variations, speed variants from Melco hairpin, which is probably the slowest corner in motorsport, to Mandarin corner which is one of the quickest in motorsports. There’s everything there.”

Despite neither the F3 or GT3 races forming part of a world championship, victory at Macau ranks highly in both the careers of Rosenqvist and Engel.

“Maybe winning the F3 title was more important, but from my point of view, Macau is the one I’m most proud of, especially winning two times,” Rosenqvist says. “I would really put that on top of my list.”

Engel concurs: “I think winning the Nurburgring 24 Hours this year was extremely special and the way in which we did it, but winning Macau is just indescribable.

“For me it’s definitely the highlight of my career. Being able to go and win it twice is very, very special.”

As the ultimate challenge in motorsport, Macau is a race that all the drivers want to win. Engel and Rosenqvist have enjoyed successful seasons thus far, but to cap 2016 off with a third victory around the famed streets would surely see both reach a new high in their racing careers.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”