SEPTEMBER 16, 1996
Where are we going this week?
THE Estoril motor racing circuit is located a few miles to the west of Portugal's capital city Lisbon, up in the barren, rocky scrub land behind the seaside resorts of Estoril. This was once a famous stopping-off point for Europe's rich and aristocratic and boasts some fine old hotels and a casino. In recent years, however, Estoril has catered for mass-market tourism and the town has grown dramatically, swallowing up the quaint fishing port of Cascais.
The racing circuit pre-dates the boom, built in 1972 in an effort to publicize Estoril as a tourist destination. The opening of the track was badly timed, coinciding with the 1973 oil crisis and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. It was, therefore, not until 1975 that international motor racing paid its first visit to the track. The event was the opening round of the European Formula 2 Championship - grandly named the Grande Premio do Estoril. It was won by a young Jacques Laffite in a Martini-BMW MK16. F2 racing returned in 1976 and 1977, and the Martini company continued to dominate with wins from Rene╩Arnoux in 1976 and Didier Pironi in 1977. That year there was also a "Grande Premio Costa del Sol" event, a low-key sportscar race which was completely dominated by the Alfa Romeo factory cars of Arturo Merzario and Vittorio Brambilla, who finished in formation three laps ahead of their nearest rival.
With financial problems in Portugal, the race track slid into obscurity in the late 1970s, and it was not until the mid-1980s that the track returned to the spotlight. This was largely thanks to the efforts of Cesar Torres, head of the Automobile Club of Portugal. To begin with, Estoril was used as a special stage on the Portuguese Rally, but then the F1 teams began to use the track for winter testing - unable to visit South Africa because of the political troubles.
The track was renovated in 1984 and Torres bid for a Portuguese GP. The first race took place that October and it was a promoter's dream - the World Championship being decided between Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, with Prost winning the race, but Lauda second, winning the title by just half a point.
A few months later - with the event moved to April - F1 returned and in pouring rain Ayrton Senna won his first F1 victory. Estoril would remain one of Senna's favorite tracks and today the curling final corner is named after the great Brazilian.
In 1987 Gerhard Berger looked about to win the race for Ferrari, but under pressure from Alain Prost he spun out with two laps to go and Prost won his 28th Grand Prix victory - breaking Jackie Stewart's long-standing record of career wins. Prost won for McLaren again in 1988, but he lost out to Berger's Ferrari in 1989. There followed another Ferrari victory - for Nigel Mansell - in 1990, but then came a pair of Williams wins from Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell. There might have been a third Williams win in 1993 but Michael Schumacher was able to hold off a charging Prost in the final laps in his Benetton.
Since then it has been Williams all the way with a 1-2 in 1994, Damon Hill leading home David Coulthard. Coulthard turned the tables on Hill last year to win his first Grand Prix victory at Estoril.
With four wins in the last five races Williams is the hot favorite to win this year.
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