Ayrton Senna

Winning the Macau Grand Prix, which carries the title of the FIA Formula 3 World Cup, doesn’t just come with a great deal of prestige, it’s also a launchpad to Formula One.

Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard are all former Macau winners, while three drivers who took part in the last FIA Formula 3 World Cup in 2019 – Liam Lawson, Logan Sargeant and Yuki Tsunoda – have raced in Formula One this season. It was no different back in 1987, as Martin Donnelly recalls.

Donnelly, from Northern Ireland, took victory in Macau at his second attempt that year driving a TOM’S Toyota-powered Ralt RT31 run by the British team Intersport Engineering.

A few weeks later Donnelly was testing for what was then the Benetton F1 team at Estoril in Portugal and would start his first Formula One grand prix for Lotus in 1990.

“Winning Macau was massively important,” Donnelly says. “Back then you were the F3 world champion and you went to the FIA awards in Paris along with Senna, Mansell and everyone else to receive your trophy. The win [in Macau] brought me to the attention of Benetton and I got invited by Peter Collins to test in Estoril. It was a foggy day and I only got 10 laps, but it was a good springboard to my career as a short-term F1 driver.”

Martin Donnelly won the Macau Grand Prix in 1987 and tested an F1 car just weeks later

Prior to serious injury cutting short Donnelly’s F1 career in its infancy, the now 59-year-old had been tipped for the top. His Macau performance was instrumental to his rise up the ranks.

But his triumph on Macau’s ultra-demanding Guia Circuit 36 years ago was far from straightforward after a typhoon struck during the race weekend and meant there was limited track time.

“We went there with the six-speed Hewland gearbox,” Donnelly explains. “It was heavier, but the TOM’S engine had not the top-end grunt and I’d used the six-speed gearbox to take pole at Thruxton [a British F3 venue famous for its high speeds], so I knew it could work.

“We’d planned to come in [to the pits] and wait for the next day before putting on the new tyres because we knew the track would get quicker. But my engineer at the time, Andy Thorby, decided we should go with the new tyres and we went quickest with my six-speed gearbox, good looks and talent! Then the typhoon arrived!

“A lot of people said we got lucky, but the track was still wet in places for the race, especially out of Lisboa and up the hill. I was on slicks but I just drove within reason, trying not to throw it into the wall. You had to wait for the track to dry out and, as it did, I got quicker and quicker and pulled away and won. Not long after that I got my first F1 test.”

The late Ayrton Senna (centre) was the first Macau F3 winner in 1983

Rickard Rydell, who claimed Macau F3 gold in 1992, didn’t quite make it to Formula One but he did get close and used his success in the street race to ultimately forge a hugely successful career in touring car racing.

“Most drivers winning Macau ended up in Formula One so it was quite an important step,” the Swede says. “I did have a talk with Eddie Jordan about Formula One after that. It meant I had to bring a budget, which I didn’t have, but at least it helped my career and I was very happy to have 20 consecutive years signed up with a manufacturer after I gave up on my Formula One dream.” – www.fia.com

Archive photos: GCS

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