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F1 talent spotters keep an eye on Macau

November 13, 2003 17:13 IST

Ralph Firman will never forget clambering to the top of the Macau podium as a crowd of rugby-loving expats belted out 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' in celebration.

There is sure to be a party mood again this weekend when the Formula One driver returns to the former Portuguese colony, and not just because England play France in their World Cup semi-final in Sydney on Sunday.

This time the Briton will be showing off a rather more powerful chariot than the one he steered to victory in the 1996 Formula Three Grand Prix.

As part of the event's 50th anniversary celebrations, Firman will be doing demonstration runs around the tight and twisty Guia street circuit in his Jordan F1 car.

Jordan are billing the appearance as a first, the first time a modern grand prix car has run in China -- leaving aside Minardi's demonstration of a two-seater in Beijing last December.

And Firman, who has swum with sharks and ridden a car clamped to a rollercoaster already this year, is up for it.

"I've got very fond memories of Macau, it's one of the best races I ever won and one of the best podiums of my career," he told Reuters before flying east. "There were thousands of people there all singing 'Swing Low' at the end of the race, a real rugby atmosphere.

"It's a unique place, one of the few circuits in the world that hasn't changed at all. Even Monaco has changed but Macau is still there just the same as ever."


The Formula One talent spotters will be active as well at a race that has a reputation for weeding out the stars of the future.

Brazilian Ayrton Senna won comfortably enough in 1983 with the late Teddy Yip's Theodore Racing Team while more recent winners include Michael and Ralf Schumacher as well as David Coulthard.

Michael Schumacher beat Mika Hakkinen in 1990, the year before both entered Formula One, and the circumstances of that defeat rankled with the Finn throughout his career. Coulthard won in 1991 and Ralf in 1995.

Japan's Takuma Sato, who has replaced Canadian Jacques Villeneuve at BAR, won in 2001 while Firman competed against Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, Italian Jarno Trulli and Germany's Nick Heidfeld in 1996.

Damon Hill, Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine and Giancarlo Fisichella all passed through on their way up the motor racing ladder. Jenson Button was runner-up in 1999.

"It's one of the most challenging circuits I have ever driven, there's really just one long straight and then its all corners," said Firman.

"You can't stop concentrating at all and it's one of the bumpiest surfaces as well. The ride height is always set at least 10 mils (millimetres) higher than at any race in Europe.

"It's going to be a real challenge to drive it in a Formula One car, I'm going to have to keep my wits about me. I should be doing around 320 kph at the end of the straight."


Formula One race director Charlie Whiting presides over the weekend while two surnames stand out among the young hopefuls preparing for battle between the concrete walls on Sunday.

Brazilian Nelson Piquet junior, son of the three times world champion, makes his Macau debut along with Finland's Nico Rosberg, son of 1982 F1 champion Keke. Williams will be keeping a close eye on both.

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India's Narain Karthikeyan, who tested with Jordan and Jaguar in 2001 after a nightmare in Macau the year before when he set the lap record in qualifying before crashing out, will also be back.

"I'll never forget that crash for the rest of my life," he said last year. "If I had stayed in the lead and won that race, I might have been a Formula One driver by now."

Others to watch include Britain's Lewis Hamilton, a long-time McLaren protege and British Formula Renault champion, and Australia's Ryan Briscoe and James Courtney.

Both have tested F1 cars, Briscoe for Toyota and Japanese Formula Three champion Courtney with Jaguar. All will be hoping that Formula One takes notice.

Alan Baldwin
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