I’m not a spiritual person. I don’t believe in any deity and don’t worship in any sacred location. But standing on the pit wall of the Estoril grand prix circuit watching F1 cars from the 1970s and 80s tear past I think I had a religious experience.
Seeing the unmistakable shapes and liveries of Marlboro-coloured McLarens and Benetton-sponsored Tyrells ripping down the start/finish straight accompanied by the raging scream of V8s at full chat was enough to make my jaw drop, the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my ears ring.
For me, it was easily the highlight of one of the newest events on the international historic racing calendar – the Estoril Classics.
Like other such events, the Classics gathers some of the most famous and significant racing machines on two and four wheels at an iconic motorsport location before letting them go wheel-to-wheel in front of an appreciative crowd. Think a slightly less glamorous Goodwood Revival but with guaranteed sun and temperatures in the mid-20s.
Only in its second year, the Estoril Classics is the brainchild of the Visit Cascais tourist board, working with promoters Race Ready and the Automóvel Clube de Portugal as it looks to bring the circuit back to global attention.
Once a staple on the Formula 1 calendar, Estoril – or the Autódromo Fernanda Pires da Silva, to give it its Sunday name – has fallen out of favour with F1 but is still used for local and national competition. It is hoped that by bringing internationally famous cars and drivers it will attract more visitors to both the track and the beautiful region around it.
While F1 cars from the era of Hunt, Senna, Mansell and Prost were a personal highlight, the event is a celebration of multiple motorsport disciplines, from pre-66 Formula One to GTs, club racers and motorbikes.
Across the weekend around 150 cars and bikes dating from 1950 to the mid-80s from more than 20 countries appear on track. And despite them being worth in the region of 40 million euros this isn’t just some glorified track day. The individuals and teams are here to have fun but also to compete and there are serious names in attendance. Classic Team Lotus brought two early 80s cars resplendent in their iconic JPS livery, while the pioneering McLaren MP4/1 and famed Lotus Cortinas were others among the rarified machines running wheel-to-wheel across the weekend. Ari Vatanen’s appearance in a WRC rally car wasn’t just for show and even Groupe PSA chief executive Carlos Tavares – a committed racer – was there in his 1973 Lola endurance racer.
Unlike modern motorsport events where the sticky-fingered public are kept well away from the racers, here access to the cars and bikes is phenomenal. The pits are in constant use but spectators are free to wander through and get up close to the cars as they’re prepared for the track. A brief stroll through the garages lets you revel in the sights, ear-splitting sounds and smells as everything from 1970s BMW 2002s to 1950s F1 Maseratis and mid-70s Hillman Imps are fettled and fixed.
Outside the garages, the sunlit paddock is filled with food and drink stalls plus vendors selling everything from keyrings to full race suits and while it doesn’t yet have the polish of Goodwood or the Historic Grand Prix of Monaco it exudes the same passion from fans and entrants and features many regular competitors from those events.
The focal point of the Classics is the famous circuit on the Portugeuse Riviera but the three-day event reaches far wider than that, stretching up into the Sintra mountains and down to the shimmering seaside of Estoril town.
Up in the mountains, the Historic Portugal Rally runs on some of the stages around Cascais and Sintra made famous in the 70s and 80s and proves wildly popular. Even with a start time of midnight, there’s a party atmosphere as hundreds of fans gather on the steep hillsides to watch everything from Porsche 911s to Mikko Hirvonen’s WRC Ford Focus blasting along the tarmac and dusty trails of the original Rally de Portugal stages.
Back at sea level, the Automóvel Clube de Portugal’s Concours d’Elegance is also a sight to behold, with dozens of stunning machines glinting in the sunlight on the grassy space in front of the Estoril Casino. Unlike some concourse events, the emphasis is on characterful and interesting cars. There are plenty of beautifully restored trailer queens but also some machines – such as one gloriously distressed Mercedes 300SL – that wear their age and history with pride. This year’s even featured a special category dedicated to Triumph’s varied output, from 1950s TR3s to late-70s Stags.
To link the track events with the concourse, a massive parade of classic cars runs from the circuit to the casino and, in the event’s spirit of inclusion, is free and open to anyone with anything faintly historic. That is how you end up with everything from Porsche 356s and Citroen DSs to VW campers and Ford Granadas running in convoy among the high-end boutiques of Estoril.
That variety is one of the big appeals of the Estoril Classics. In the club display area there’s everything from an immaculate Honda NSX to a ratty Datsun GX to pore over but just the other side of a chain link fence some of the most iconic racers of the last century are howling past at 150mph, leaving watching fans – this one included – literally speechless.