The Estoril racing circuit is not far from Lisbon, on the northern coast of the estuary of the River Tagus. It can be found in the hills behind the once-glamorous resort town of Estoril - which has grand hotels reminiscent of the French Riviera and a huge casino - and the small fishing port of Cascais.
Built on a rocky plateau, the track was opened in June 1972 but its early development was handicapped by the oil crisis of 1973 and by the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. The result of this was that the circuit did not host a major international event until the Formula 2 Championship arrived in 1975. It was won by a rising star called Jacques Laffite who dominated the event in his Martini-BMW MK16. The series returned to Estoril in 1976 and 1977 with Rene Arnoux winning the first and Didier Pironi the second. In 1977 the track also hosted a poorly-attended World Sportscar Championship event, which had the rather grand title of the Grande Premio Costa del Sol. It was dominated by the factory Alfa Romeo T33s of Arturo Merzario and Vittorio Brambilla which finished three laps ahead of their rivals.
After the races in 1977 the track faded away and it was not until 1980 that it began to re-emerge from obscurity after Cesar Torres became the head of the Automovel Club de Portugal. He saw the circuit as a way of boosting the local tourist industry and began campaigning for a Grand Prix. The track hosted a special spectator stage during the Portuguese Rally. With South Africa having fallen into political problems, Estoril had the chance to become a major venue for testing and, after a major renovation problem was completed, the F1 teams quickly adopted the circuit. In 1984 the track was given the final round of the Formula 1 World Championship. This was perfect as McLaren team mates Alain Prost and Niki Lauda arrived in Estoril to settle the title between them and while Prost drove and won a marvelous race the canny Lauda was happy to finish second and by doing so took the Drivers' crown by just half a point - the smallest margin of victory in World Championship history.
The 1985 calendar listed Portugal as the second race and so a few months later the F1 teams were back again and, in pouring conditions, Ayrton Senna took his JPS Lotus Renault to victory. It was the Brazilian's first F1 victory and a remarkable drive. Nigel Mansell won in dominant fashion in 1986 but the 1987 race produced a big surprise with Ferrari's Gerhard Berger dominant until the closing laps when Prost closed in. With two laps to go Berger cracked under pressure and spun off. Prost won the race and by doing so scored his 28th Grand Prix victory, to beat Jackie Stewart's record of World Championship victories.
The 1989 event produced another exciting race with Nigel Mansell ignoring a black flag and then colliding with World Championship rival Ayrton Senna. The move led to Berger picking up the pieces to win the race for Ferrari while Mansell was banned from the following Grand Prix in Jerez. Mansell won in 1990 but was disqualified from the 1991 race and so victory went to his Williams team mate Riccardo Patrese. The following year Mansell won again but Patrese was the luckiest man at the track, walking away unhurt after flipping at high speed on the main straight after his car ran over the back of Berger's slowing McLaren.
In 1993 Michael Schumacher beat Alain Prost to the line by less than a second but in 1994 he did not appear as he was serving a three-race ban and so Damon Hill took a dominant victory. Williams then proceeded to win the 1995 and 1996 races with David Coulthard and Jacques Villeneuve respectively.
The race was a favorite for the F1 circus. It was usually held at the end of the season and gave everyone the chance of a few days holiday. The track tended to promote close racing and the weather was usually good although as Estoril is only a few miles from the westernmost point of Europe it tended to be affected by stiff breezes and rain storms coming off the Atlantic Ocean. A bigger problem, however, was the local attitude towards the circuit. The FIA asked time and again for the track's facilities to be improved but nothing was done. In 1997 the governing body called Portugal's bluff. Promised renovation work was not done and so the race was canceled. Portugal's Economy Minister Augusto Mateus immediately announced that the government was going to provide the $6m necessary for the work and that the race was not going to be canceled but he was wrong.
That winter Torres died of cancer and the ACP lost most of its political power within the FIA.
In an effort to speed up the work the Portuguese government bought a controlling interest in the company that owned the track. The Portuguese GP was listed on the 1998 calendar but was canceled when the upgrading work could not be completed in time. The rebuilding work dragged on through 1999 and it was not until February 2000 that the revised circuit was finally granted a testing license for Formula 1 cars.
The Portuguese government wanted to bid for a Grand Prix but the increasing pressure on races in Europe meant that no bid was successful and Estoril is used only occasionally by F1 teams for testing.