Updated: Wednesday, 13 November 2013 21:16 | By Agence France-Presse

Macau Grand Prix, 'God's racetrack', turns 60

It started as a motorised treasure hunt, but then grew to become one of the world's most respected races, nurturing some of Formula One's greatest champions along the way.

Macau Grand Prix, 'God's racetrack', turns 60

Formula Three cars race past spectators during a qualifying race for the 55th Macau Grand Prix on November 15, 2008

And as it celebrates its 60th edition, the Macau Grand Prix -- one constant in a time of rapid change for the Chinese territory -- is showing no signs of slowing down.

Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel are just a few of the drivers who have braved the twisting, hilly street circuit.

It is Asia's version of the famous Monaco Formula One track, complete with the casinos, and it is recognised as one of the toughest challenges in racing.

Central Macau shuts down during grand prix week, this year spread over a fortnight to commemorate the 60th race since its humble beginnings in 1954.

Roads are fenced off and barriers go up to form the 6.2-kilometre (3.9 miles) Guia circuit, mixing long, harbourside straights with chases up and down Macau's steep, narrow back streets.

"The track is a freak of nature and it's a miracle. If God ever built a racetrack, it would be the one in Macau," former driver and TV commentator Matthew Marsh told AFP.

Macau, an hour's ferry from Hong Kong, is the culmination of the Formula Three season, bringing together the best drivers from the category's various series around the world.

Brazil's Senna won the inaugural Formula Three race in 1983, and Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton also went from Macau to winning the F1 world championship.

Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas are others among the current F1 drivers who have raced in Macau, testament to its enduring place in the sport.

But Macau also features, uniquely, motorcycle racing, as well as touring car and sportscar series such as the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.

Joao Manuel Costa Antunes, coordinator of the grand prix committee, said the race had grown with the city on its journey from sleepy backwater to world-leading gambling hub.

"The Macau Grand Prix, like the city, continues to grow and develop," Antunes told AFP, adding that it remains the "place to spot the brightest talent" in motorsports.

It is "the only time the leading drivers from the various national and regional F3 championships compete against each other," he added.

Bamboo fencing

The event began without fanfare in 1954, when local car enthusiasts decided to hold a treasure hunt in the Pearl River Delta territory then controlled by Portugual.

Championed by businessman and future Formula One team owner Teddy Yip, a founder of Macau's casino and tourism industry, it quickly blossomed as a race despite rudimentary facilities including bamboo fencing.

Motorcycle racing was added in 1967, adding extra cachet to an event that is well known to motorsports fans the world over.

The event has also retained its prestige during Macau's transformation to the world's biggest casino centre with revenues vastly outstripping Las Vegas.

Although Macau's wealthy casinos now host international golf, boxing and other sports, the historic grand prix remains one of the main events of the year.

"The grand prix actually is more important than ever because it's almost like the only thing that isn't gambling in Macau," said Marsh.

Key to its success is the Guia circuit -- one of the world's few street tracks -- and the sheer challenge it gives drivers used to racing in more sanitised conditions.

The narrow track, surrounded by high walls and fences with few run-off areas, leaves little room for error. Marsh said he nearly "crashed every corner" when he raced there.

"It's bloody hard and racing drivers usually love the most difficult race track," he said.

Fatalities have been few but last year, Portuguese motorcyclist Luis Filipe de Sousa Carreira and Hong Kong touring car racer Phillip Yau died in crashes on consecutive days.

This year's programme features six days of racing culminating in the Formula Three race on Sunday.

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