The hotly-anticipated Circuit of Wales project is gathering momentum with work due to commence on the first phase of the £280m, 830 acre site in February 2014 and a view to having the circuit and its facilities completed in time for homologation and testing by June 2015. This could allow the British round of the MotoGP to take place later the same year which is the ambition according to the Circuit's bosses.
Highlights of the facility include:
Bike Social recently spent the afternoon with Peter Thomas, CEO of Insight in Infrastructure Ltd - the major delivery unit for Heads of the Valleys Development Ltd, the company established to design, build, finance and operate the Circuit of Wales. Mr Thomas gave us an insight into the vast scale of this operation including the hi-tech, low-carbon approach, the plans to improve the local surroundings and infrastructure, history behind the programme and creating a spectator experience that is second-to-none.
The Decision Process
Having already crossed paths in their professional lives prior to the Circuit of Wales project, the three main players responsible for driving the idea are Chris Herring (of Honda Racing fame), Michael Carrick (founder of Aventa Capital Partners who are putting the funding package together) and the aforementioned Peter Thomas, who said that the three had "come together to look at which industries needed investment as part of their infrastructure.”
He continued “We established the vision for the project based on what the UK needed in terms of a new infrastructure, new opportunities and a showcase for what Britain has in terms of motorsport and in particular motorcycle racing.
“We see motorsport as an industry not just as a sport, look at what it delivers to the UK economy: it contributes over £6bn, employs well over 36,000 engineering people in high-end jobs, it has high-quality opportunities so as an industry it spends more as a percentage of its income on research and development than the pharmaceutical industry which everyone regards as the benchmark, so we looked at it from that point of view."
A long-term goal was reached of combining the regeneration of a particular area of the UK with a revitalisation of the UK's motorsport facilities - something that hasn't been attempted in this country for over twenty years, since Rockingham. Once this goal had been established the highly-skilled project team carried out the relevant analysis about the industry and what was required. With his track record in terms of infrastructure projects, the responsibility of such analysis fell to Michael Carrick which resulted in the team exploring two areas in the UK where the project would be most suitable in terms of its infrastructure element and regeneration programme; the North East and Wales.
“Having looked at the two proposed areas, we chose Blanau Gwent in Wales because it’s one of the most deprived areas of the UK, something like 26% of households don’t have anyone in employment and there are an awful lot of people who have three generations who have never experienced employment. So, this is about infrastructure for the motorsport industry and about employment and regeneration for the area.”
The team approached the local authority first, primarily to establish if the land was available and if the deal likely to happen. Then it was on to involve the Welsh Government and get their support. “They have been involved financially but the amount of private investment going into this far outweighs what the Government have put into it. It’s important to have Government support because when you want to bring major events in, the organisers and owners want to see it supported by a local Government”, said Mr Thomas.
He added, “We chose Blanau Gwent because it has fantastic road links, it delivered in terms of what we wanted in terms of the land and topography because what we didn’t want to build is another flat circuit. So we had some interesting conversations with the council when we first started, they said “look we can’t find a site with flat land” so I laughed and said “that’s the last thing we want!””
The Surrounding Area
The total site is about 830 acres but not all of it is being developed. Approximately 200-250 acres to the north of the site will be used for mitigation plus a further area that’s outside of the site boundary will be used to create an upland nature reserve of around 500 acres. One of the other main reasons behind choosing this area is the transport links; a new dual carriageway is being built ensuring that the connections from whichever direction you approach from - Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff or London – will all be dual carriageway, which in turn means that the Circuit of Wales will be within 2.5 hours of 40% of the UK’s population.
The Circuit (anti-clockwise)
The wider project has spectator experiences in mind as well as additional elements above and beyond racing, the anti-clockwise circuit design and positioning was of paramount importance to the ultimate popularity and drivability of the venue, Mr Thomas explained, “We didn’t want a flat circuit and so used the natural topography of the land and what we’ve ended up with is a track with 48 metres of change between the top and the bottom. There’s lots of undulation, it’s challenging and it delivers what we wanted from a rider, driver and spectator experience. The point is that we can give spectators large areas of viewing; the way in which the architects have designed it we can deliver the sort of close experience that spectators love and still deliver a safe environment from both them and the riders.
We’ve worked very closely with DORNA and various riders like Liam Haslam, Chaz Davies and Lois Capirossi, who is on the safety committee with DORNA. We’ve designed it from the point-of-view that it works for motorcycles, the benefit is that it also works for cars too. If you design it for cars, then it doesn’t always work for motorcycles.”
Mr Thomas continued, “We’ve done the research on the weather and during the core season we have less rain days than the Midlands. We’ve spent a lot of time during the design stage looking at making the drainage work, that’s the key part of it. From day one, Chris Herring has said "drainage, drainage, drainage. It’s not the rain that causes problems to riders, it’s the standing water." When you design and engineer something from scratch, it means that you can build all the things into it that you need to in order to create a safe environment and let’s face it, drainage is one of the key components.”
But where will all of that water go? Well, how about this for a clever design trick which is currently being investigated, and a world first too if it comes off; under-circuit heating. The idea is that rain water will drain into ground source heat pumps which are dug into pits beneath the circuit which then allows the circuits' operators to do two things: keep the temperature up in the winter and allows them to control how the track dries making for a safer environment for racing during rainy periods.
The Circuit of Wales project team have also spent time researching what works and what doesn’t at other circuits, not only in the UK, but also the newer developments particularly in Spain where four new circuits have been introduced in the past 20 years. The team have been utilising feedback on spectator’s opinions on viewpoints, for example.
Mr Thomas continued with the detail around spectator areas, “We’re putting in large banking so we can create those areas like an amphitheatre so spectators can see much more of the circuit. We’ve looked at great corners from other circuits around the world and seen what we can learn from them. We’ve tried to use the natural topography of the land as much as possible, because it’s loses the amount of ‘cut-and-fill’ that we have to do during the build process and it fits into its environment which gives you a much more exciting experience.”
And in reference to the tyre issues that besieged MotoGP and Moto2 at the Australian Grand Prix in Philip Island in October, Mr Thomas added, “We have to learn the lessons from Philip Island to make sure we’ve had running time on the track, bedding-in the circuit. We’ll need to go through the homologation process and be ready at least three months prior to MotoGP. Whether we run any actual events or whether it’s just a case of running tests constantly I’m not sure. There’s nothing else planned prior to MotoGP.”
The construction programme is expected to begin in February 2014 and in Michael Carrick’s words “at the end of the day it’s not a complex project, it’s 5.1km of road joined together at one end”. The more complicated part is ensuring that the infrastructure is in place first – the water, heating, electricity, drainage and getting the cabling in so the bandwidth allows visitors to make calls, send message and scour the internet at super-speed; a problem which can be experienced at many UK circuits.
Mr Thomas went on to explain what makes this project ‘the first hi-tech, low carbon motor racing facility’; “we’re making sure that all the materials that are used are sourced from an environmental point of view, that the manufacturing process is as carbon neutral as it can be, that you reduce the impact from sourcing the materials that don’t have high emissions. There’ll be 30 acres of solar park on site and we’re looking at solar panels on buildings, using glass that can be used to generate electricity. We’ve mentioned the ground source heat pumps too (to be confirmed). It’s about motor racing understanding the impact of climate change and we’re positive that we can deliver that. When we run electric events such as Formula E, we can ensure that the electricity being used isn’t coming from generators. We have to take into account those concerns when building a project like this.”
An electronics partner in the venture, set to be announced in the coming weeks, are delivering timing and security systems that utilise th every latest High Definition cameras each with four lenses and face-recognition technology. Not only are these ideal for catching crooks but the cameras which are positioned around the circuit can in theory be used on Track Day's so those attending can order an HD DVD of their laps - just like television coverage!
The wider development, transport links and facilities have greased the wheels for the project team to woo engineering companies, motorsport teams, car/bike/tyre manufacturers as well as high-end retailers and food chains. The ‘brand centre’ area aims to be the commercial hub of the project and further promotes the 7-day operational side to the site, not just a place to visit once per week for eight months of the year when there's racing on. Couple these plans with hotels, camping facilities, covered areas, parking facilities, shuttle buses, children’s play areas and high-definition screens from every angle and you soon become convinced that the Circuit of Wales team have spent a lot of time, energy and money on developing a first class facility and ‘spectator experience’ for the whole family.
|November 2011||Initial plans unveiled|
|January 2013||DORNA site visit|
|February 2013||Planning application submitted|
|July 2013||Outline planning approved|
|February 2014||Construction begins: 'break the ground'|
|June 2015 (latest)||Circuit testing begins|
|September 2015||First International race series|
As one would expect with a project of this magnitude, the team have faced several hurdles along the way – some more difficult to conquer than others.
Peter Thomas explained, “The challenges that we've faced come from two areas; firstly the environmental lobby – that’s probably the area that had the biggest impact in terms of the holding notice because of the objections that had come in from Open Spaces, the Brecon Beacons National Park and so on. And it's one that we addressed by investing in a 500 acre upland reserve – we’re improving the grazing, introducing rare breed cattle (sheep and cattle graze differently, apparently) which will improve the quality of the biodiversity allowing wild flowers and ground-nesting birds etc. We’re also landscaping in terms of planting trees which will be done in such a way allow it all to blend naturally into the surrounding landscape.
“The other negativity comes in terms of ‘we can’t make money, how can they make money’, well not only do we have the different offerings on-site but then there’s the industrial research and development, technology buildings that are going to part of phase 2 that give it the sense of balance in terms of income not just from motorsport. The quality of the experience will bring people back time and time again. A lot of people think we’re just building a track and nothing else whilst others think that Wales is in the middle of nowhere and that people won’t go there.” explained Mr Thomas.
The other side of the fence is represented by Jonathan Palmer, owner of the MSV Group (Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Cadwell Park, Oulton Park and the Bedford Autodrome) and also Chairman of the Association of Motor Racing Circuit Owners (AMRCO) who has expressed concern about the unfair competition. Dr Palmer said, “Wales can bid for MotoGP against Silverstone - one will have government subsidies, the other will not. It looks to us as though a circuit deep in Wales will struggle to survive. The figures produced for visitor numbers and jobs created seem astronomical given the realities of a business in which there is already overcapacity”.
Only time will tell if Dr Palmer’s opinion stands up but given that MSV own the commercial rights to the British Superbike series, it’ll be interesting to see if the Circuit of Wales makes it onto the calendar in 2016.
We’ve mentioned it before but the general consensus that Messer's Crutchlow, Smith, Redding and co. will be racing their MotoGP machinery around the Circuit of Wales in 2015 is quickly becoming a reality.
DORNA’s Chief Executive, Carmelo Ezpeleta, visited the site in January of this year, hosted by former Labour Leader Neil Kinnock and Cardiff Council, and explained, “I think this is a very important programme for MotoGP and for motorsport in general. It is good news for the area and good for the people behind it will have all our help and whatever they need for the programme. We have been working with them and will continue with that. We are more than happy with this programme.”
And whilst there is no formal agreement with DORNA in place yet, Peter Thomas underlined that should the pinnacle of motorcycle racing come to the Circuit of Wales, then “our programme allows us to be ready for September 2015” and it would very much be the circuit's signature event. The ambition here is realistic. When questioned about including World Superbikes and British Superbikes to the roster, he added “I think we have to have a comprehensive events package, yes. British Superbikes is a great series, look at World Superbikes and the number of British riders in it. It should be one of our core attractions.”
It’s Donington Park who have recently signed a ‘multi-year’ deal (Bike Social understands this to mean 3-years) but that deal is for the Leicestershire circuit to host the British round of the WSBK Championships so this doesn’t necessarily stop the Circuit of Wales being host of a European Round in 2016.
Mr Thomas finished by comparing what Spain, even with its recent uncertain financial situation, has achieved, “they’ve built 4 new circuits in the last 20 years and yet it doesn’t have the motorsport heritage that we’ve got in terms of the number of people involved in the industry or who go to track days yet Spain have done that and made a success of it. Up until this year they had two F1 races and four MotoGP’s. Spain has had so many successful riders because of the academies and the facilities at the circuits.”
Bike Social’s opinion
The emphasis here is on providing a vastly hi-tech facility not only for all types of motorsport but a venue that will offer the whole family plenty to do on their day out. The project team are experienced, talented professionals who are clearly capable of delivering a state-of-the-art venture nothing like which we have seen before in this country, let alone Europe. We’ve seen incredible feats of engineering, circuit design and facilities in the Middle and Far East as well as North and South America and if everything promised by the Heads of the Valleys Development Company is delivered then there’s no reason why the Circuit of Wales could be the very best of its type in the world.
Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it might not be located in the most salubrious area and yes, it might not hold the history or charm of Brands, Donington or Silverstone but the long-term investment, dedication to regenerating the area and proposed offerings in terms of promoting British engineering and driver/rider development should lead to huge support for this project. Even without the array of facilities and hi-tech goodies, the circuit looks fantastic and we can’t wait to try it.
Did someone say Bike Social Track Day?