Why petrol-heads should head to Portugal where you can drive £146k race cars

THE engine roars, tires grab the tarmac and I’m thrown back in my racing seat as I take off for the second time today.

A few hours ago I was speeding down the runway at Stansted Airport.

It's an unexpected and charming twist on a trip that showed me that the Algarve has much more to offer than its stunning beaches

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It’s an unexpected and charming twist on a trip that showed me that the Algarve has much more to offer than its stunning beachesPhoto credit: Getty
The more adventurous can ride in super fast cars to feel the dizzying rush

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The more adventurous can ride in super fast cars to feel the dizzying rush
The temple of torque at this 72,000-seat autodrome has hosted some of the biggest names in racing

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The temple of torque at this 72,000-seat autodrome has hosted some of the biggest names in racing

Now I’m in the passenger seat of a £146,000 510hp Mercedes AMG GT sports car, speeding across a deserted race track at breakneck speed.

I’m beginning to understand my driver’s nickname for his engine: the “torque monster”.

I’m at the Algarve International Circuit, a 2.9 mile professional circuit nestled in the hills above the city of Portimao on the southern coast of Portugal.

Here, thrill-seekers can ride super-fast cars to feel the dizzying rush – first your instructor drives you around the track with you as your passenger, then you swap seats and YOU take the wheel.

The temple of torque at this 72,000-seat autodrome has hosted some of the biggest names in racing.

In May 2021, Lewis Hamilton beat Max Verstappen here to win the Portuguese Formula 1 Grand Prix.

But today the grandstands are empty and only one racing car is whizzing across the track – and now I’m gripping the steering wheel nervously.

Like Lewis Hamilton, I take to the track in a Mercedes, but that’s where the similarities end.

Although I feel like piloting the Millennium Falcon, the post-race on-board diagnostics show that I only exceeded the speed limit once on the Portuguese motorway on my first lap.

However, that was 76 km/h – my top speed was a dizzying 196 km/h.

It’s exciting to drive such a strong car.

Keeping it on the road is no easy feat and by the end of our two laps I’m impressed with my rider’s ability with the pedals.

He does not rate my driving skills as highly: “Seven out of ten – with a lot of room for improvement.” Ouch!

The Algarve International Circuit is my first stop on a long winter weekend in the city of Portimao.

About 40 miles west of the Algarve’s capital, Faro, I’m here to explore what the popular off-season holiday town has to offer – and the Pestana D. João II Beach and Golf Resort puts me in a prime location to do it all to see .

Right on Alvor’s sandy beach, the hotel has two saltwater pools, a Turkish bath, and sauna, but more importantly, it’s just a 10-minute drive from central Portimao, a region famous for its heritage and seafood.

The streets are full of enticing restaurants, but Faina, a small boutique that’s an extension of Portimao’s museum complex, is a must.

Prehistoric Inhabitants

But not before you’ve explored the museum’s exhibits.

The hotel has two saltwater pools, a Turkish bath, and a sauna, but more importantly, it's only a 10-minute drive from Portimao

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The hotel has two saltwater pools, a Turkish bath, and a sauna, but more importantly, it’s only a 10-minute drive from PortimaoCredit: _ Jerónimo Heitor Coelho
The Pestana D. João II Beach and Golf Resort puts me in a prime location to see it all

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The Pestana D. João II Beach and Golf Resort puts me in a prime location to see it allCredit: _ Jerónimo Heitor Coelho

The museum is housed in a former fish cannery on the harbor where around 300 locals worked in the early 19th century.

Some of these workers are still alive today and are happy to come back to the site to show their grandchildren what life was like.

It was hard work.

In photographs lining the museum walls, gnarled and sinewy men toss the day’s catch from boats moored in the harbor onto the quay.

Back then, a chain hoist system transported thousands of fish to the factory every day, where they were cleaned, gutted, packaged and shipped to customers around the world.

Today, the museum houses exhibitions about the factory and the history of the region, from its first prehistoric inhabitants, through Roman, then Moorish occupation, to its rise as one of Portugal’s most important fisheries in the 19th century.

The maritime competence of the region is also evident in the adjoining restaurant.

Tuna tartare and black squid risotto washed down with regional wines from Portimão’s three local vineyards – delicious.

The next day I wandered the quiet streets of downtown.

In summer this area was packed with tourists staying in the many high-rise hotels and apartments that line the seafront at Praia da Rocha – one of the Algarve’s most popular beaches – but today I pretty much have it to myself.

Down a cobbled side street is Taberna De Portimao, a cozy restaurant with Portuguese antiques hanging on the walls.

It offers an all Algarve experience, from the food to the wines, which owner Joao Monteiro proudly tells me means “zero kilometer waste”.

Local razor clams, squid, cod, calamari, sautéed garlic squid, sautéed chicken livers, broad beans – from my table on this quaint cobbled street, my taste buds have explored every corner of the Algarve.

But Joao has another surprise in store for me.

It turns out the restaurant only houses a small selection of his incredible collection of antiques.

Stepping into his home is like stepping into a small museum or the set of a particularly swanky TV drama.

In the study, muskets hang on the walls, in the living room a hand-operated record player blares Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, and in the dining room, a huge glass and wood case hides china embossed with the royal seal of Portugal.

The only thing in the house that looks like it belongs in 2022 is the huge flat screen TV in the bedroom.

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Joao tells me he hopes to one day rent out the space for luxury private dinners with a historical twist.

It’s an unexpected and charming twist on a trip that showed me that the Algarve has a lot more to offer than its stunning beaches – if you can pull yourself out of the sand to check.

https://www.the-sun.com/travel/7135864/portugal-drive-expensive-race-cars/ Why petrol-heads should head to Portugal where you can drive £146k race cars

Emma James

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