Racing drivers don't agree on much, but ask them which event scares them most and you can bet many (if not most) will cite the Macau Grand Prix. Winning there, on a tight and twisting city circuit, is considered as great an achievement in some circles as winning the Monaco GP. Lewis Hamilton said it's even better. Macau has been a spotlight-casting event for the careers of several high profile drivers, Ayrton Senna, Andy Wallace and Michael Schumacher among them. This weekend, dozens of hopefuls will line up again for the crowning event of their 2018 season. But what is it that makes this faraway and ever-so-daunting GP so special?
"Macau is just such an incredibly difficult circuit to master," explains former world touring car champ, Britain's Rob Huff, a nine-times winner of the event and top qualifier for this weekend's WTCC race. "There are concrete walls, no run-off and absolutely zero margin for error." Huff knows his way around Macau, obviously - his record speaks to his love for the street circuit. But even a veteran cannot take the 3.8-mile layout - which has sections so narrow that two cars can barely squeeze through without repainting the walls - for granted.
"The fastest corner, Mandarin [a right kink], you approach it at 160mph and you go through it at about 150mph," he explains. "But every time you go through there the surface is different. Some laps you understeer, others you oversteer. Mandarin is a corner you spend the whole 900-metre-long straight before thinking about. It's a corner you begin to fear."
The challenge isn't specific to touring cars. The GT cars and even thoroughbred single seaters, in this case Formula 3 cars, require needle-like precision to be wrestled around the course - as Ferrari-backed GP3 star and favourite for this year's F3 Macau race, Callum Ilott, explains. "The string of corners from Lisboa [a 90-degree right] to Melco [a hairpin about half of the circuit later] make the most challenging part of Macau," he says. "It's basically a big rollercoaster where it's flowing up to the top, with corners so challenging that you have to take it fairly easy until qualifying. From then on, you're driving on the edge."
Like Formula 1 cars, F3 racers don't like making contact with anything other than the asphalt - or at Macau, tarmac - but such is the commitment required by the category's young drivers, they regularly bang and scrape circuit furniture. "You can come in with broken rims and damage like that from being too close," says 20-year-old Ilott, who qualified second behind Daniel Ticktum (another Brit in with a chance) on Friday. "It means that you have to approach the weekend differently and build up your speed, making sure you don't go over the top."
Macau is arguably even less forgiving than the Nurburgring, where there's at least a carpet of grass between you and the wall beyond. In Macau, out-brake yourself and expect to be rewarded with an immediate and painful shunt into something very hard and immovable. Huff and Ilott know all about that. But all this danger and fear does at least mean Macau is "extremely rewarding", as Huff puts it. It's a place only the most talented drivers can succeed, although nobody can win there without a bit of luck. "It's the sort of circuit where you just never know where you're going to end up," says Ilott.
"Two years ago I got really good start and got into the lead, but by Lisboa [turn three], I was down in fourth," he adds. "It's difficult to overtake in parts because there's so little space, but the circuit's long straights mean in F3 you can get into the slipstream and do the job before the corner. Last year, I overtook three cars on one straight, which was impressive!"
Macau's narrow sections don't always allow for such a clean run up, which is why so many drivers end up losing out when attempting to pass. Ilott explains how experience can help prevent such an incident: "If you go into Lisboa [the 90-degree right after a straight] side-by-side, it's a question of who's got the biggest balls. If you're on the outside, you have to brake a lot later than the person on the inside. But you've got to be cautious, because if you both brake too late, you'll run out of room. You have to know your limits."
The layout of Macau is tough enough, but throw in a surface that is constantly evolving as it gets increasingly rubbered in - it gets four to five seconds faster between practice and the final race, Ilott reckons - and the challenge of taming Macau becomes clear. Little wonder the world's top drivers are lured to the GP each year to prove their mettle, even if they're not competing in the full season of their category. In that regard it has more than a few similarities with Le Mans, although the way a driver is forced to approach a sprint race on a daunting circuit like this means it could barely offer more of a contrast to the world's most famous 24 hours.
Is it worth all the stress? Yes, of course it is, as Huff explains: "It's the last race of the year, and you're only as good as your last race. If you win, there's the Sunday night party to look forward to - and they say Macau is the Vegas of Asia! But in all seriousness, getting onto that plane on a Monday morning with a really big and impressive, gold Macau trophy, it just makes life so sweet for the winter break."
For Ilott, securing the top spot at Macau's headline race would no doubt be a very substantial boost to his already impressive racing CV. For him, and Huff - and many others like them - this is the biggest weekend of the year. For us, it's one not to be missed.