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Macau Grand Prix quenches thirst for speed, danger

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain enters the team garage after arriving at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain enters the team garage after arriving at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas

By Mark Dreyer

MACAU (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton calls it the world's "coolest street circuit" and some of the greatest names in motorsport such as Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher have savored its super-fast straights and treacherous corners, but for many the Macau Grand Prix is all about the danger.

Each year fans flock to the southern Chinese territory to see motorcycles and cars flirt with barriers at breakneck speeds as they hurtle around the 6.2-kilometre Guia street circuit.

The racing festival marked its diamond jubilee this month, with 13 races spread out over two weekends, and while there were plenty of spectacular spills on both two wheels and four, there were no fatalities.

It was a different story last year, however.

Hong Kong driver Phillip Yau crashed and died on the frighteningly fast Mandarin Bend, and Portuguese motorcycle rider Luis Filipe de Sousa Carreira was killed when he smashed into a wall at high speed during qualifying.

Adderly Fong, who clinched the 2013 Audi R8 LMS Cup title this year, was good friends with Yau.

"I was speaking to him on the Monday, told him I was going to go see him on Thursday, then decided to not go and watched from the hotel instead," the 23-year-old told Reuters.

"It happened right underneath the hotel."

Fong said thinking about the danger would hold drivers back.

"It's like stepping into a coliseum with walls and grandstands. It's a gamble each time, like walking into a casino - you're taking chances and you don't know what the consequences will be.

"When you step into a racing car everyone should be prepared for the worst, but you have to put it in the back of your mind, because death is the only thing that causes fear and when you have fear, you can't drive fast."

Fong's father said his son's fate was out of his hands.

"God gave us our son and God will decide when to take him away," he said.

Prior to last year, the last two fatalities on the track were in 1994 and 2005, while a spectator died in 2000 after a car left the track, prompting the installation of more safety fences, a far cry from the bamboo barriers used in the early days.

Macau Grand Prix race coordinator Joao Manuel Costa Antunes said the safety of drivers, riders and fans was paramount and that last year's incidents could have happened anywhere.

"We cannot say the accidents happened because of the track or because of the safety of the track," he said in a news conference ahead of the festival.

"The two accidents could happen either in Macau or anywhere in the world," he said, adding that safety "is always our first priority."

BROKEN NECK

Since its humble beginnings as a motorized treasure hunt in 1954, the festival has attracted some of the sport's biggest names, with Formula 1 champions Senna, Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button among those drawn to the race.

Racers talk about the importance of track knowledge on the challenging circuit, with its unique undulations, narrow, twisting turns and high-speed straights.

Carreira and Yau did not lack for experience, however.

Portuguese rider Carreira was taking part in his seventh race in Macau, while Yau had previously notched two wins on the track.

Even drivers used to Formula 1 speeds struggle on the circuit. Malaysian Alex Yoong hit the wall hard in qualifying this year and a video of his dramatic crash went viral.

For those on two wheels, the barriers come uncomfortably close.

British rider Dean Harrison's bike and body sustained damage when he highsided during the Motorcycle Grand Prix. Harrison said he had experienced far worse.

"I broke my neck at Brands (Hatch) last year. I rode the next day. I didn't know I'd done it until the Monday," he told Reuters.

When he was finally diagnosed with a cracked C7 vertebra, his time on the sidelines lasted just three weeks before he was racing once again.

German driver Maro Engel, who was leading this year's GT Cup race until a puncture from debris on the track forced his retirement, said there was no question what made the race so appealing.

"The danger absolutely makes it more exciting. That's why we're here," he said. "It's the greatest track in the world."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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