Lost Grand Prix circuit: Circuito de Monsanto, Lisbon

The quest for success in sport is relentless. Top athletes in all disciplines seek to push themselves further and further, doing exactly the same thing in different locations across the globe. The places in which they achieve their greatest feats become synonymous with their success – Gothenburg for Jonathan Edwards, Lisbon for Glasgow Celtic, the Congo for Mohammed Ali. This never-ending circus leaves in its wake a physical legacy, buildings and structures erected with great thought and expense for the purpose of an event lasting only a matter of minutes, hours or weeks. Once the circus has moved on to the next location, these buildings are left behind to quietly crumble into anonymity. They are, if you like, memories of a once-imagined future.

I find such locations fascinating. I think a lot of the attraction is to do with anachronism, like the Olympic Stadium in south Amsterdam used for amateur football, or the chairlifts running up and down the side of the massive ski jump in Sapporo that nowadays merely give sightseers a view of the city. But I believe it also has to do with the contrast between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ – the empty grandstands, the boarded up ticket offices, the dug-up pitch.

For this reason, I often seek out such locations when I travel – and if it is a location related to motor sport, all the better. When the chance to travel to Lisbon for a business trip arose, I was therefore delighted to discover the city has its own secret motor sport history. This is a history limited to just one race over fifty years ago in which nothing of any real consequence happened. Information on the Monsanto Park Circuit, located in the west of the Portuguese capital, is limited to just a few videos on YouTube and some vague screenshots of satellite maps showing the track’s approximate location. There are no memorials, no ‘famous corners’ like Flinders in Adelaide and no ghostly pit buildings crumbing at the roadside.

The record books note that Sir Stirling Moss won the 1959 Portuguese Grand Prix, the only round of the Formula One World Championship that Monsanto Park ever hosted (there were also two non-championship races in earlier years). At that time, Lisbon shared the Portuguese Grand Prix with Porto, the two cities taking it in turns to host the race. The previous year’s event in Porto had been a much more significant affair, ultimately costing Moss his closest shot at a world title. Moss won the Portuguese round on that occasion as well, but felt a penalty issued to compatriot and rival Mike Hawthorn was unjust and protested post-race. Moss’ challenge was upheld, his fellow competitor reinstated, and Hawthorn went on to pip Moss to the 1958 title by a slender margin.

There was no such controversy in 1959. Sir Stirling won from Americans Masten Gregory and Dan Gurney, but it would be Australian Jack Brabham who would win that year’s world series. Thereafter, Formula One racing in Portugal returned to Porto for one more race in 1960 then decamped to the purpose-built Estoril circuit in the countryside west of Lisbon, before disappearing from the calendar altogether in the late 1990s.

Former Lake Hairpin at Circuito de Monsanto, Lisbon

Former Lake Hairpin at Circuito de Monsanto, Lisbon

Unfortunately, with two full days of work occupying my schedule, the only opportunity I would have to look at the Monsanto Park track would be at the crack of dawn. If all went to plan, I could jump on a bus from Marquis of Pombal Square, head out west into the vast, forested expanse of Monsanto, have half an hour or so to explore the track, and then get back to the hotel in time for breakfast. The available daylight was going to be the killer, though. From a series of field trials the previous day (involving the highly scientific approach of setting the alarm at half-hour intervals and peering out through the gap in the curtains to gauge how light it was), I calculated it would be bright enough to venture out at around 7am. When the alarms kicked in at 6am, I shot out of bed, made my way through the morning bathroom procedures at record speed, stuffed the bus timetables and camera into my bag, and ripped open the curtains to discover it was still pitch black. The next twenty minutes – during which I could have been still in bed – were spent mindlessly surfing the internet and slurping coffee until the light reached an acceptable level.

With the sky changing colour from dark purple to battleship grey, I exited the hotel at 6.53am and crossed the road. The 711 bus drew in right on time and spirited me away to the west of Lisbon. Before long we were motoring along a main road, the engine at full revs and the first rays of sunlight slicing through the windows. Our destination? The undulating deep green mound into which all of the many road bridges crossing a wide valley were feeding. This leafy hill range was Monsanto Park itself, the green lungs of an already luscious city. Stretching over dozens of square kilometers, the park is loosely forested with a range of deciduous and coniferous trees, and offers a number of recreational activities. Think Hyde Park, but with more topography and vegetation.

Still keeping to time, the bus came off the trunk road, deposited me at the edge of a small roundabout, and disappeared into the woods. I noted the time of the return bus and crossed the bridge over the main highway. To traverse the next roundabout at the other end of the bridge, I had to walk over what used to be the back straight of the Lisbon circuit. One would hope that the likes of Gurney, Moss and Brabham were a little more attuned to the presence of obstacles on the racing line than the Portuguese taxis charging across the zebra crossing were.

The morning sun rises over Estrado do Alvito, formerly the back straight of the Monsanto circuit.

The morning sun rises over Estrado do Alvito, formerly the back straight of the Monsanto circuit.

Despite being a parkland circuit, and this being the crack of dawn, there was no eerie silence in which to imagine how this stretch of road might have felt on a balmy August evening in 1959. The main A5 road leading to the centre of Lisbon is visible through the expanse of trees, cars and buses thundering past as they carry the earliest commuters into the city centre. The park road itself is not exactly quiet either, the dawn birdsong regularly punctuated with the hiss and rumble of vehicles making their way through the publicly open roads. I wonder how many of them think about the racing that used to take place there as they head to work in their little Fiats and Opels – or even if they know there was once a Grand Prix here.

I followed a muddy path down the inside of the back straight, which slowly curves round to the right. My plan, time permitting, was to walk as far as the lake hairpin, about seven hundred metres away. The road has clearly been resurfaced a few times since the fifties, but the drainage channels at the edge of the road made of old cobbles remain. Kind of like Rouen, little bits of the circuit are still visible when the tarmac breaks. Some formidable stone bollards nestling in the undergrowth on the outside of the bend would certainly have sharpened the mind as one hurtled down towards the hairpin.

As part of my homework before coming to Lisbon, I watched some video footage of the 1959 race, which started with a view not dissimilar to the landscape one would have seen nowadays from the top of the hotel I was staying in. In deference to the stifling summer heat, the Lisbon race was started in late afternoon and ran on till early evening. Proving that big manufacturers struggling to hit the ground running is not a new phenomenon, the fledgling Aston Martin team – better known at that time for their successes in endurance racing at Le Mans – continued to struggle in the Portuguese sun. Scotsman and fellow former Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club member Ron Flockhart was among those taking part, finishing seventh in a BRM. Many of the big names of the time were wiped out over the course of the race, Graham and Phil Hill colliding early on in proceedings and Brabham crashing out in spectacular fashion. Sir Stirling bossed the entire weekend, starting from pole, clocking the fastest race lap and lapping the entire field on his way to victory.

Entry to the Lake Hairpin - note the main road continuing straight on

Entry to the Lake Hairpin – note the main road continuing straight on

In 1959, Moss posted a pole time of a little over two minutes in his Climax-engined Cooper. Although Monsanto is comparable in length to a modern F1 circuit, measuring in at 5.4 km, it features only nine corners, most of which are medium- to high-speed. Bearing in mind the absence of chicanes and the fifteen tight turns modern track designers tend to cram in, I reckon Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull would probably be able to lap Monsanto in a whisker over a minute. With a steep drop on the outside of the bends and stone walls on the inside, though, he wouldn’t be in a hurry to pull any of his overtaking off the track stunts.

After a good five minutes of walking, I finally reached the end of the long right-hander and arrived at the site of the Lake Hairpin. I say ‘hairpin’, but for the ordinary traffic making its way to work on a weekday morning, it’s just another side road going towards the middle of the park. This is the point at which the biggest road running through this section of the park and the grand prix track go their separate ways – the main road going back towards the city, and the side road heading deeper into the woods. A mirror-image side road about fifty metres further away also shoots off the main route, the two side roads meeting to create a big green triangle covered with grass and exotic trees. At the end of the triangle, the two smaller roads merge into one and head off up the hill and into the forest. When the Grand Prix was running, the hairpin would have been created by blocking off the main road and the other side road with straw bales, the racing cars in effect taking the shortest possible route between the previous curve and the uphill road.

Even if you wanted to follow the race circuit round into the heart of the park, you couldn’t – bollards have been laid across the road at the end of the grass triangle. As such, the side roads are in effect dead ends, making this the perfect place to step down off the path and get a closer look at the road itself. Although the surface has more than likely changed since 1959, it’s easy to understand why this was considered a challenging track to drive. The drainage channel on the inside of the bend is constructed out of rough cobbles, with manhole covers occasionally rising above the level of the ditch. The road itself is cambered inwards, and a line of mean-looking bright red fire hydrants await the unwary on the outside of the bend. And as I discovered when I tried to run back over to the path and ended up on my backside, the road surface offers virtually no grip at all.

Circuit continues down Estrada de Montes Claros

Circuit continues down Estrada de Montes Claros

Having ascertained that my tail bone wasn’t cracked, I realised my shoe sole malfunction also gave me an impromptu opportunity to view the corner from a driver’s viewpoint. For whilst I was trying to pick myself up in a careful and controlled manner without ripping my good new trousers, my head was about a metre off the ground – roughly the same height as an old Formula One car. And if one were flying through the bend at 60mph with only a pair of goggles and a flimsy helmet for protection, this would be a truly terrifying view. Only a narrow strip of grey, slippery asphalt is holding you away from the steep bank and a low wall on the inside, and the stern line of trees on the outside. There are none of the tarmac run-off areas you find at the brand-new F1 circuit –this is more akin to a rally stage, get it wrong and you’re in the trees. My mind started to wander, thinking about how dangerous motor racing was in the past and how long someone with a more modern driving style would last. Then I remembered I was crouching in the middle of the road round a blind bend and could get run over any second. I stood up sharpish and scrambled back up the banking.

The sun slowly rising in the sky, the road got busier and busier as time ticked by, an incessant roar now coming from the rush-hour motorway behind the trees. During a small gap in the traffic on the quieter road, I noticed the sunlight reflecting back off a pool of oil in the middle of the tarmac. I briefly toyed with the idea of the oil having been dumped overnight by some kind of Scooby Doo-esque ghost race car, but before I had the chance to work this idea up into a spooky little vignette I came across the source of the liquid: a bus waiting at the stop round the corner. And in many ways that kind of sums the Monsanto Park circuit today up: nothing out of the ordinary at all, nothing – at least nothing that I saw – to suggest that some of the greatest racing drivers ever once jousted for glory here. But then again, in a city that has been leveled by an earthquake, served as a portal between two continents and played a pivotal role in the charting of the world as we know it today, a two-hour car race really is of very little consequence.

 

n.b. The video below that I found on YouTube gives some indication of what Circuito de Monsanto was like back in the day.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Lost Grand Prix circuit: Circuito de Monsanto, Lisbon

  1. A wonderful piece of research! In 1960, I was in Lisbon with my parents, having driven there all the way from North London in their Ford Prefect. We found the circuit quite easily, thanks to a report of the 1959 F1 race which showed a map, and drove around for a while, noticing how bumpy the roads were. By the way, the Portugese F1 GP did return to Oporto in 1960. I hope to try and find both circuits this summer, 54 years on when we visit, this time by train! Once by car is enough!

  2. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment – and also for the great little story about finding the circuit, which brightened up my evening! The Monsanto Circuit is very easy to find, just take the 711 bus out from Marquis de Pombal Square, get off at the top of the slipway when it leaves the motorway in Monsanto Park, cross the bridge over the motorway to your left and you’re at the track, roughly where Autostrada transitions into Estrado do Alvito. The outline of the track still transposes very neatly onto the Google Satellite Map of modern-day Monsanto, so I’d imagine it’s possible to walk a good bit if not all of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go to Oporto on my travels so can’t vouch for how easy the track there is to find today – thanks also for pointing out my error regarding the return to Oporto in 1960, I’ll update the post accordingly (the beauty of online publishing!) Hope your trip this summer goes well!

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