Exclusive! Latest developments at the Circuit of Wales

Stunning new Circuit of Wales, ready in mid-2016

All the recent British MotoGP talk has been around DORNA’s five year agreement with the Circuit of Wales (CoW) from 2015 and the subsequent one-year loan deal to Donington Park for 2015 because the CoW won’t be ready until 2016.

We caught up with Chris Herring, one of the three bosses in charge of the CoW. Herring is a former motorcycle journalist before he worked in the World Superbike and MotoGP paddocks. Here are the interview highlights:

  • Construction to begin in December, scheduled to finish by July 2016
  • MotoGP date in September 2016 being discussed
  • Academy offers quick route to Spanish Championship
  • Focus on creating future British Champions
  • BT Sport working on a documentary
  • ACU or MSA event will be the first race at the CoW
  • BSB and WSBK interested in racing at CoW
  • Will be the most technically advanced circuit in the world
  • 49m between highest and lowest point of 3.5mile track
  • Uphill into first corner, a right-hander

How does it feel  now the DORNA deal signed and announced, you must be delighted?

I suppose it does, it’s a means to an end but we should have been ready now. When we embarked on this project five years ago we planned to be ready in the middle of ’14 to race in ’15, so the overlap was pretty good for DORNA as well with the five-year Silverstone agreement coming to an end.

We’ve obviously continued with the DORNA negotiations and it turned out that we needed to find a home for 2015 and Donington’s been chosen. I’m looking forward to it.

 Are you disappointed with the delay to the original plans?

With the exception of Michael Carrick, none of us have any great experience in infrastructure i.e. the time it takes to build and so on, but I suppose we’ve lost about a year and a half with general planning issues, local authority linked issues, mitigation for ecology, items that you would never think about when you embark on a project. Along the way, prices start to go up a bit; when we started on this project the recession had hit and there wasn’t a lot of building going on and now we’ve come out the other side and suddenly there’s confidence in the construction trade so that’s hurt us a little bit but it’s these things you’ve just got to deal with and get on with it. You know, you’ve got to cut your cloth accordingly with the designs and what it’s going to cost you.

We’ve spent a lot of time learning and being educated over the past five years, we’ve had quite a journey. There are environmental groups sitting in offices around the UK and planning applications pop up on their radar every day of the week and if they feel it’s something they have to object to then it becomes a statutory process for them.

Without dismissing any of the issues we have to deal with or mitigate for, you have to balance out at some point the regeneration of the area that desperately needs regeneration with the issues that are preventing you getting on the job. When you look at the level of tourism, employment that it brings to the area and opportunities for youth that we’re doing with the academies, it starts to gently outweigh and politically outweigh any issues that may stand in the way. We’ve got loads of hurdles to get over yet before we can turn the key and open the place.

 You have you application in for the deregistration of the common land in at the moment, what’s the process there, how long is it likely to take?

It should be a statutory 28 days. To de-register common land first of all we need an agreement with the land owner to purchase the land, otherwise it’s not ours to de-register so everything is on condition of this and that, there’s a process to follow.

The agreement with the land owner was obviously done quite a while ago but those who have access to the land or who live near it and perhaps have animals that graze on that land will need compensating and most importantly, from an environmental point of view, that to de-register land you have to find a replacement to put back into the common, 800 acres in this case. It’s owned by the Duke of Beaufort.

What are the next steps? When will construction begin?

After the deregistration we’ll be closing the elements that are needed to arrive at financial close which will lead us onto construction. The elements for financial close are Planning Permission (which we’ve got), a Major Events Agreement (which we’ve got), a Construction Agreement (which we’ve got, with FCC and Alan Griffiths), the finance and the land. The finance is there but there’s just this formality (hopefully) with the land.

We’re hoping for December (to break the ground).  People might look at winter weather but the new dual carriageway that runs by the site that’s being built right now started in September last year and by February/March this year they were three months ahead of schedule. You can’t stop for weather, you have to allow for it. DORNA pointed out very early on that during 2011 there was rain at some point during every Grand Prix weekend, event Qatar!

At the moment it’s just moorland, there’s nothing there but to see it gives you an idea of the undulation, terrain, the area that it’s in and the need, again, for regeneration.

Overhead view of the pits, paddock and uphill first corner, a right hander

According to your schedule, when will the first lap of the circuit take place?

Phase one is to be complete summer 2016, July. We’re looking at September dates for the Grand Prix. Again, until we get stuck into the ground we’re just hopeful that the problems we find will be nice and easy to deal with but you just don’t know. We have to take the advice of construction experts along the way, we won’t cut any corners because we’re not just looking at one race, we have to think about the next 10-15 years.

The time between scheduled completion and MotoGP is tight, how does the homologation process work and will Michelin want to perform a tyre test?

It’s normally 60 days that are needed to complete that but the FIM and DORNA have been involved with this project for over three years now.

We spoke a little bit with Bridgestone but I’m sure Michelin will come and do what they need to do. I’m not saying that tarmac’s tarmac. You never know, they might roll Colin Edwards out!

Are you confident you’ll meet the deadline to host the 2016 British MotoGP? If not, is there a second term for Donington in the agreement?

We made the agreement and the announcement of the agreement with DORNA with both parties knowing full well that we wouldn’t be ready in 2015. We didn’t address where the event would be held until the agreement was signed.

The project doesn’t just focus on one race in Britain per year on a 3.5 mile stretch of tarmac, it’s about the future of the circuit, the academy, education, the youth and everything else.

Who knows? If something happens that we’re not in control of, we might not be ready for 2017 or 2018! Anything can happen.

What else will the project offer for the future of British motorcycling?

The academy, road-racing wise, is a little bit based on what DORNA are doing in Spain that produced the likes of Scott Redding, Bradley Smith, Kev Coughlan, Danny Webb in addition to the lots of other French, Japanese and Spanish riders – markets that DORNA are targeting. The academy is going to be structured so once they’re finished in Wales and head straight to Spain with a base there and run in the CEV Championship before they’re hopefully ready and competitive enough to compete in MotoGP and we’ve got people ready to move on that in terms of helping us such as ex-racers and team structures and so on. And we’re looking to replicate that with partners for enduro, trials, off-road, motocross, karting teams, anywhere we can get a partner to ensure the careers of these youngsters follow a correct path.

When I first started with all of this what I wanted is to tick the box on the academy side. I worked in media during the Fogarty days, I watched what enthusiasm for a British rider who is challenging for a world title brings. Back then the Sky broadcasting with Huewen and Ryder and so on, it all snowballed.

We have to produce not one but twenty characters, regularly; Carl Fogarty style characters and a couple of Valentino Rossi’s, we have to offer the opportunities. At all of the local consultations we had to realise what motorsport and motorcycle sport can do for an area and that’s something that Carmelo Ezpeleta picked up on. Look at Aragon, ten years ago there was nothing, now there are hotels being built and there’s a real buzz about the place. To anyone who is sceptical or objects to what we’re doing to the local area, I’ll gladly take them around our site today and then again in five years’ time and show them what a difference it will make. Even during the time we’ve been working on this project, I’ve seen these towns and villages deteriorate, in terms of the number of shops that are open.

The Circuit of Wales' Chris Herring points out the spectator banking to Bike Social's Michael Mann

With Redding and Crutchlow on competitive Honda’s next year, do you think we could have more British mainstream media interest in the sport by the time we’re racing in Wales?

And hopefully there’ll be another couple of Scott Redding’s coming through the ranks and at least a couple of Championship contenders in Moto2 and Moto3, and across the board in World Superbike and World Supersport too.

We want to create that feel good factor that specifically motorcycling hasn’t had since the 70’s with Barry Sheene. Back then every single British newspaper had a staff man for motorcycle sport who went to every Grand Prix. It’s hard to think of now but that’s what you had you had when you had a British winner with a bit of charisma in the mainstream , living in Tramps nightclub and doing aftershave adverts with the world boxing champion.

You’re up against a lot of other sports now but when people are exposed to motorcycle sport for the first time, they just can’t believe it.

How do you assess the low BT Sport audience figures compared to BBC’s last year? Is it a concern for the amount of exposure MotoGP will provide the Circuit of Wales?

In my opinion it’s like when Sky bought the World Superbike rights from Eurosport twenty years ago – the numbers were similar. The production team behind it were exceptional but the audience figures weren’t. A large percentage of the population struggled to get their heads around having to pay more to watch the television and what helped Sky with its figures was the success of Carl Fogarty.

I think BT Sport know that’s what they need. But it is what it is. DORNA have agreed a deal with us to host the race, some people don’t like it. They’ve also done a deal with BT Sport to show the races, some people don’t like that either but that’s life.

You could have Scott Redding winning every Grand Prix race in a year but there’ll still be some people who say, ‘well, three of the circuits he didn’t break the lap record’. There’s plenty of glass half-empty people out there!

BT Sport are working with us and we’ve got the same goal to create world championship contenders.

Start line, pits, paddock and viewing platform

In terms of expectations from DORNA, are you expected to run particular events, size wise, before MotoGP turns up?

Yes, we will. We’ll have to go through a dry-run for trouble shooting and that could be under an ACU or MSA permit, a local permit to make sure everything’s right. I heard some horror stories about Abu Dhabi and the first F1 race there. Nobody deserves to be put through that stress.

Even the Olympics in London, people were very sceptical when it was awarded, ‘stadiums will never get built in time, it’ll cost a fortune, train links will never be established etc, etc.’ but eventually it all seemed to run smoothly.

Can you see World Superbikes and British Superbikes heading to the Circuit of Wales too? Have you started the discussions?

Yes, a tiny bit. We’ve spoken to Stuart Higgs (Series Director, BSB) who’s been extremely helpful, anytime we’ve needed a bit of advice over the past three years. MSV are a slick operation. World Superbike likewise, British Touring Cars likewise; all the discussions have been had and they’ve gone as far as they can for now. Alan Gow from British Touring Cars has said, “Get it built, we’ll be there”. Everything apart from Formula One has been a target from the off and hopefully they’ll all come. Everyone’s geared up!

Last year Peter Thomas spoke to us about all sorts of trick bits like under circuit heating, a 30 acre solar park, HD cameras, drainage solutions – will this be the most technically advanced circuit and facility in the world?

Yes, by virtue of the face that it’s being built now takes into account all of the new technology. Take Formula One where they have electronic boards to show yellow flags for example, that’s the norm now so we’ve looked at a blank piece of paper and anything that’s been used elsewhere on racetracks around the world then we’ve tried to pick up what’s good and what doesn’t work.

Specifically we’re looking to have everything ready in two months because we have to nail down the construction agreement. The circuit is more or less set in stone – it might move a couple of metres here and there. You can’t predict what the guys encounter along the way, if they find some particularly hard rock for example.

In terms of track design, Chaz Davies, Leon & Ron Haslam, Steve Parrish, Keith Heuwen, Lois Capirossi, Franco Uncini – quite a lot of people have had a say. We’ve also had a few of the leading TV directors to advise on camera points, so it’ll be bang up to date in terms of being modern but we also have to future proof. Geoff Dixon, Paddock Manager from MotoGP, has places the current paddock into the space in our paddock to make sure everything fits including TV compounds, DORNA offices and so on.

How did it all begin?

It started when Peter Thomas, who I’d known for a few years, approached me because he had a chap wanting to run a new Superbike series in the UK. Having worked in MotoGP and World Superbike, I said I think we should just focus on FIM circuits at the time; Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington Park. That all fizzled out but what was clear was that I felt there was a need for a new circuit in Britain. We spoke about it and Peter went off looking for a cooperative local authority who understood, or required, something to generate employment, tourism, regeneration of an area. He went to the East of England and all over the place. Anyway because of his rugby background he was speaking at Ebbw Vale Rugby Club and met some councillors from Blanau Gwent Council and that’s how that conversation started.

It was clear that we were going to need quite a lot of private investment which is where Michael Carrick came in. We visited Blanau Gwent every week for a nine month period, in speculative fashion to begin with, and that’s how it all started.

It’s stunningly beautiful down there, I can just imagine the Italian and Spanish teams saying ‘why haven’t we been here before?’. In principle, we shouldn’t have any problem with access of accommodation; there’ll be dual carriageway all the way from London and Birmingham plus at least a couple of hotels on the site.

We’re using the same architects who designed the Silverstone Wing. It’s got 42 garages and we’ve engaged the likes of Helios, the Operations guy from DORNA, just to make sure we’re doing the simple things well. Hospitality areas on the 1st and 2nd floor above the garages as well as the media centre, clerk of the course’s office and everything else required.

There’ll be 49 metre of undulation between the highest and lowest point of the circuit, from the start it heads up hill into the first corner, which is handy because it drags speed off, then drops downhill passed the secondary pits and paddocks, then climbs and climbs up the hill up to the highest point about half way round the track then drops significantly downhill with the end of the lap being uphill through an Assen-like final kink and a blind rise over the start/finish line.

What do you think of the circuit design? 

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