Circuit type: Temporary closed road course
A spectacular track set around a water reservoir in the volcanic hills above San Luis, Argentina, Portrero de los Funos has a history encompassing the 1970s and the traditional Carretera races and onto to the present day, with a modern rebuild securing international attention and praise.
Road racing is ingrained in Argentine sporting life – indeed, the Turismo Carretera is the world's oldest continuously running motorsport series. With a history dating back to 1937, early events began on closed public roads, with cars racing on a mixture of dirt, gravel and asphalt. By the 1960s, a move towards more permanent venues began, with local roads undergoing modifications to make them more suitable for racing.
So it was that in 1978, the series gathered at the 'Lake and Hills' circuit at Portrero de los Funos for the first time. Much of the course used the same public roads around the lake that today's circuit also embraces, although that is largely where the comparison ends. Aside from yellow-painted armco barrier around the perimeter, there were little other modifications in what was the most temporary of courses.
The races were organised by the Automobile Club of San Luis, and a temporary pits area was established after the corner which is turn eight of the modern variant. The races were a modest success, Juan María Traverso winning the final in a Ford Falcon having taken victory in two of the three heat races.
Such was the transient nature of the Carretera calendar, it wasn't until 1987 that Portrero de los Funos featured again. The returning drivers found the circuit much the same as they had left it, fast but with basic facilities. The road surface was also unchanged, leading to the cancellation of the first day of practice while running repairs took place.
When racing finally got under way the next day, there was a serious collision involving Dominic Martinez and Guillermo Rodriguez, which brought out the red flags and saw both cars badly damaged. Worse was to come in the second heat, when Juan De Benedictis and Jorge Oyhanart tangled, apparently when De Benedictis suffered transmission failure. This sent his Dodge side on into the armco barriers, flipping the car round and into the crowd, killing two spectators.
The organisers elected to continue the event despite the tragedy, though there was little enthusiasm from the drivers. In the final, further drama was to come when the Dodge of Julio Roberto Colabello suffered a violent collision, destroying the car and hospitalising its driver. This time, race organisers abandoned any further running and that, it seemed, was the end of the 'Hill and Lake' course.
Fast forward nearly 20 years, however, and plans surfaced for the circuit to be revived, as part of a bid to boost tourism in the area. The provincial government of San Luis stumped up around $19 million on road improvements and for building permanent pit and paddock facilities. These included a control tower and media centre, scrutineering bay, helipad and a modern medical centre. Two concrete grandstands with seating for 4,000 spectators were also installed opposite the pits. In total around 52,000 spectators can be accommodated around the circuit.
Construction work began in early 2008 and took 10 months to complete. A general road widening and resurfacing programme was undertaken to bring the course up to modern standards, resulting in a generous track width of 14 metres, with a three meter apron either side. Some of the more elevated sections actually required the road to be built out on platforms overhanging the hillside to accommodate the new track width!
Changes were made to the original layout, with several corners being tightened (notably the final turn before the pits) and two chicanes installed ahead of sections with limited run off. Circled by modern concrete crash barriers, the FIA accredited the new circuit to Grade 2 standards, allowing all categories below Formula One to compete there.
On November 23, 2008, the FIA GT arrived to host its championship finale, with supporting races of the local TC2000 touring car series, Formula Renault and historic GTs. The event was a huge success, with hotels sold out for miles around in all directions and the new track capturing the imagination of the drivers. "It's like a second Nordschleife," GT championship contender Fabrizio Gollin commented. "One of the most beautiful circuits in the world!"
The Saleen of Bert Longin and Anthony Kumpen took an unexpected victory in the FIA GT race, while local star José María López took the TC2000 spoils. The GT cars skipped the following year's event, which was this time headlined by the TC 2000 and Turismo Carretera, but in 2010 and 2011 returned as a round of the FIA GT1 World Series.
After the demise of GT1, the circuit reverted to hosting top level national events and has been a popular fixture on the local racing scene ever since. When the world economy recovers, there is little doubt the the track by the lake will once again attract further international attention - it is simply too good to remain unnoticed.
The Portroro de los Funes circuit is located on roads around a lake beneath the mountain town of the same name in San Luis Province, Argentina. San Luis itself is a half hour drive away, where the nearest airport (Brigadier Mayor César Raúl Ojeda Airport) is also located. This has a daily flight to Buenos Aires via San Rafael. Mendoza's Governor Francisco Gabrielli International Airport offers a larger number of flights to destinations across Argentina and Chile, but is a three hour drive to the west.
Facilities are good for a temporary circuit, although it is advisable to book ahead early for accommodation; the four star hotel by the lakeside in Portero de los Funes is almost certain to be fully booked out on well in advance of race weekends, and you may have to look further afield to San Luis, Mercedes or Mendoza.