MAY 19, 1997

Hiccups in Portugal

THE Portuguese Grand Prix has been canceled and the final race of the year, according to the FIA, will be a European Grand Prix at Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. The Portuguese say that they will host the final race of the year at Estoril on November 9 but it is hard to imagine that the F1 teams will agree to hold an 18th race at such short notice, most having complained bitterly about having 17 events.

The Estoril circuit has needed renovation work for some years and the local authorities have promised again and again that this will be done. This year the FIA gave them an ultimatum which meant that they had to give guarantees by the end of January that all the necessary work would be completed in time for a circuit inspection at the end of August.

It seems that the Portuguese have since tried to slide quietly out of the some of the work but last week met with a solid response from the governing body - the race was canceled.

"It is hoped that works at the Estoril circuit will be completed soon and that the Portuguese Grand Prix will re-appear on the World Championship calendar in the near future," the FIA said.

In what appears to have been a face-saving exercise on Thursday Portugal's Economy Minister Augusto Mateus 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 merely delayed two weeks.

"The definitive date for the Grand Prix has been agreed with FIA for November 9," Mateus said, adding that he had received a fax to this effect from Max Mosley, president of the FIA and that there would be a meeting to finalize details later this week.

In response to this the FIA issued another statement saying that it was "confident that the Portuguese GP will be back on the FIA Formula 1 World Championship calendar for 1998 and thereafter" but seemed to leave open the possibility of a race at the end of the year.

There are a variety of ways of reading what has been going on in recent days: the most likely is that the Portuguese were simply trying to get out of their commitments and have been slapped down by the FIA. The suggestion that there might be a November 9 race may have been a means of pacifying.

Alternatively, the whole saga could have become a convoluted attempt by Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone to get the teams to agree to 18 Grands Prix this year. If this is the case then the matter will no doubt be brought up when the teams gather in Barcelona next week for the Spanish GP.

The third possibility is that it is both the above in addition to being a way of discrediting Cesar Torres, the President of the Automovel Club de Portugal, who is currently Deputy President of the FIA. Torres faces re-election in October and the 64-year-old - who is a leftover from the old FIA regime under Jean-Marie Balestre - is expected to be pushed aside to make way for a younger Deputy President more in line with Mosley's thinking.

The cancellation of his home GP will not help Torres either at home or in the corridors of power at the FIA.