I remember the first year I went to Macau. It was 1998 and I was riding a Honda NSR500, so right in at the deep end! After I wildcarded at the British GP I tapped up Joe Millar as I fancied a blast around Macau, and Paul Bird, who I was riding for at the time, didn’t want to go. It was foreign and exotic and to be honest, for a young lad from Morecambe who had hardly been out of the UK before, the thought of racing in Hong Kong was exciting. But I’m not sure I looked the part – on the plane out there a couple of mechanics mistook me for a student backpacker!
A big reason for wanting to go in ’98 was that everyone said it would be the last GP as Portugal was handing Macau back to China. I’d have been gutted to miss out on riding where the likes of Haslam and Schwantz had won. Little did I know that 19 years later I’d still be racing on the same circuit.
When I arrived in Macau it was one hell of a shock. It was so hot and humid and the food, people and culture were all new. Nothing can really prepare you for it. I had a few shirts, a pair of shorts, my Vimto leathers and £100 in my pocket. And the track was, and remains, more than a bit daunting.
Macau is a street circuit and the first time I saw it I thought, ‘Jesus, what am I doing here?’ They take the new riders around in a van; people are talking to you, telling you about this and that, but you just have no idea. After the briefing you have about two or three days on the drink – that’s just what happens in Macau – and then it’s first practice. Which is a rude awakening.
You get to the circuit when it is still dark, and at 7.15am you are out on track. You let the clutch out, tired, jetlagged and still a bit hungover, and all of a sudden you have a big-time reality check. Macau is quite an unforgiving track, and very fast in sections.
After exiting the last corner in second gear you cross the start finish in fourth and the first left-hander has a fast entry where you go from barrier on peel-in to barrier on the apex to barrier on the exit! It takes some building up to and when the track is fresh and covered in dust and grease it’s very scary. Like the TT, Macau is raced on public roads, and can be sketchy for a few laps when shitty local taxis have spewed oil everywhere!
After turn one, the right-hander of Mandarin is even more intimidating. It is the scariest turn on the track – you approach it in sixth at 180mph, bang it down two, and then throw it in. Fuck, that’s a hairy corner – it’s so deep and fast and you have a massive straight leading to it, which means you have loads of time to shit yourself on the approach! Once you get around it you top out at about 190mph before braking into Lisboa, which leads to the really physical back section.
Where the start is fast, the back section is basically all taken in second gear. It is really narrow and pictures don’t do justice to how steep San Francisco Hill actually is. This whole section is really technical and overtaking is hard, so you end up just rolling the throttle and following other riders. There aren’t really many overtaking opportunities at Macau aside from a lunge at the Hairpin or Lisboa, so you need to come up with a plan on the back section. But it’s such hard work, which is why riders get frustrated and fall off at the Meico Hairpin.
The Hairpin always stinks of diesel as there is a refinery next to it and it’s dead easy to tip off – it’s so tight that if you tip in too early you run out of lock and that’s you over! But if you get good drive out of the Hairpin you can overtake going into Fisherman’s. It’s annoying that I’m much better on the twisty sections than the hard braking zones – that’s why I often get my pants pulled down at Macau.
Finally, after Fisherman’s it is R Bend, which is where old Gus Scott nearly ended up in the sea! He got a bit giddy, missed the bend and tried to take a swerve up the pitlane entrance, way too fast. He hit the barrier and ended up with waves lapping his leathers and water in his lid! One of the marshals tried to help him, fell over the sea wall and ended up on top of him. It was funny, once we knew he was OK.
Like the TT, Macau is all about linking sections together to get a good result, which is probably why I like it so much. Run-off is limited to barriers, and yes, you do end up rubbing them with your leathers, but not on purpose! Generally you turn your shoulder if you are going to kiss a barrier, so most scratches are on your back rather than your shoulder. It looks cool but is fucking scary and not exactly what you want to be doing at 140mph with no run-off...
John McGuinness, road racer