There have been few projects as ambitious as the £30m development for the Lake Torrent circuit but the foundations seem solid
Ireland is a land of legends and tales. Many of these relate to finding paradise, but few are actually about creating paradise. That's the goal for David Henderson, the man behind the project to take WorldSBK to Northern Ireland. Yesterday's announcement of a three year deal to host a WorldSBK has put Henderson on the clock, but having spent 15 years working on the project he's keen to get started.
“I've wanted this for a long time,” said Henderson. “I've been involved in motorcycle racing for 40 years and unfortunately some of my dearest friends were killed road racing. I always felt that there had to be a safer way to go racing in Northern Ireland. When Joey Dunlop died in 2000 I was given an extra incentive to develop this circuit.
“Road Racing is special and unique but you would look at the circuit and think what lamp post can we remove? What cats eye can we take off the road? What changes can we make to improve safety? As a civil engineer I could see all the dangers, but I also knew that you couldn't remove most of them. I wanted to build a circuit with the feel of the roads but the safety of a closed circuit.
“I started to work with the government for three years, but ultimately the Northern Ireland government is very difficult to work with and we wasted a lot of time. I walked away from the project but eventually started looking at Scotland instead. We came close to building the track over there but I always wanted to build it in Northern Ireland. We looked at 30 sites before finding the right one in Coalisland. This site will allow us to have a track that undulates and has the feel of a road circuit. I could immediately see the opportunity for tourism at this track because with two large lakes, it's beautiful.”
A short circuit with a roads feel
While the setting may be beautiful it produced some unique challenges for the team behind designing the 12 corner, 3.6km circuit. Driven International are an unheralded design firm but have been able to work with numerous circuits in the past including Silverstone for their all-new Rallycross track. Designing a circuit fit to host world class motorcycle racing is a very different challenge but one that Ramzi Darghouth, the project director, is confident has been achieved.
“I think it's right to say this was a very ambitious project,” said Darghouth. “We worked to develop a design that would work for FIA and FIM regulations. The circuit will be very challenging technically, have a lot of elevation changes and hopefully it will reproduce the feel of a road racing circuit. It won't be the fastest track, but it will have a lot of character. The landscape ensured that this would be a challenging circuit to design.
“We were given a vision by David Henderson; to create a circuit with the feel of road racing. Our job is to take that vision and mold it into what's compatible with events such as World Superbikes. Sometimes, we have to explain what is and isn't possible - and this project was ambitious - but we are very open with our clients and our goal is always to get the most out of the land available to us and, honestly, this project really gives us the chance to create something special.”
For WorldSBK the opportunity to tap into a new territory is one that couldn't be missed. With a rabid fan base, Northern Ireland is primed to offer a bumper attendance. A rich racing heritage means that over 100,000 people attend the International North West 200 each year and Dorna are keen to tap into that market.
“This is very important for Northern Ireland and WorldSBK,” said WorldSBK Director Dani Carrera. “The passion of David Henderson is really impressive. He wants this project to succeed and he was introduced to Dorna by Mark Hughes who we've worked with on numerous projects in the past. Jonathan Rea winning the championship has helped raise our profile, but motorcycle racing has been so important to the culture of Northern Ireland for so long that the support made this project was possible. We have made a three year agreement but I'm sure that will be extended in the future.
“When Dorna took control of WorldSBK, the goal was to expand the championship. We wanted to go to new countries and have new projects. New markets are important for sponsors and for manufacturers and even though this is in Europe it is a new country and the goal is to have successful rounds in Europe. Here in Northern Ireland the existing fan base means that I'm very confident in this project's long term potential. It's a challenge to come to any new circuit but the culture of road racing in Northern Ireland is being incorporated into this project. The crowd here are used to seeing certain elements in their racing and we will design the grandstand, for instance, to have a different feeling compared to other circuits.”
Carrera went on to confirm that the Northern Ireland round would be added to the calendar rather than replacing an existing round. With Donington Park's contract due to expire after this season there had been some uncertainty concerning this announcement.
Mark Hughes involvement in the project will certainly lend some extra credibility. The Englishman has experience working for a host of circuits and commented that “having worked for Brands Hatch during the era of Foggy mayhem I know what a big event looks like. I think that the Northern Irish fans really will come out in numbers and could offer a crowd like that. I'm excited about this project.”
Hughes has worked extensively with Dorna in recent years and was instrumental in bringing WorldSBK to Thailand. The Buriram International Circuit is one he feels also offers a good blueprint for Lake Torrent.
“I was introduced to this project a year ago by the circuit designers and had some conversations with David Henderson,” said Hughes. “I helped to bring the contract with Dorna together having worked with them in the past. This project actually reminds me a lot of Brands Hatch, because it's not far from a major city and has good infrastructure to within five miles of the track. The track itself will have plenty of elevation changes, lots of sweeping corners and a fantastic experience for fans because it'll offer large banks for spectators.
“Buriram is also a similar model because there is limited accommodation on the doorstep of the track. Fans will have to stay in the area rather than the actual town. That's good for Northern Ireland though, because fans will stay in Belfast or Omagh or Armagh. It will help spread out the economic impact and that can only be a positive thing. The reaction from the local community has been positive because they're all very passionate about motorcycle racing. Most of that is road racing but with Jonathan Rea winning three titles it's making WorldSBK very popular too.
“This circuit is privately funded but it is also supported by the government. Any major event needs support from the government but we won't have that in financial support; it'll be operational. We want to bring tourists to Northern Ireland so promotion will be key and that will be in conjunction with the government. We will need help with traffic management and medical facilities so that will need support. The circuit needs to be connected to the local and national infrastructure.”
Owning the means of production
The private funding for the circuit is the biggest question mark hanging over the project. With a projected cost of just £30m it is set to cost a fraction the cost of many international venues. This has set tongues wagging and the men behind the project refused to hide behind their numbers. For Henderson, a building contractor, the cost is feasible. Without having to take on the equipment costs and mark up on labor costs he feels that the budget is reasonable. While the circuit plans to have extensive use of renewable energy, the initial costs of these can be reduced and spread over a number of years to maintain a low building cost. Obviously at £30m the cost is very much bottom-line based and construction will need to run smoothly and precisely, otherwise over-runs could become a massive complication.
Henderson however is adamant that his experience in the construction sector will ensure that there will be minimal issues during the construction. “We're used to tendering for contracts and as a result you are adapting plans to suit budgets. For this project, it's 100% ours, so we can do what we feel needs to be done. It also means that we don't need get an immediate return on our investment. We're in this for the long term and not working for an immediate profit. That helps to reduce costs considerably at the outset because our profit will come down the line.
“The only reason that this project is getting off the ground is that it's privately funded and we've done all the work ourselves. The government aren't involved in the funding, and while £30m sounds like it's not enough, we can handle it. We are the building contractors for this project and we know the time frames that are needed, we know the financial resources that are needed and we know what we can do.”
The initial steps have been taken towards Northern Ireland hosting a WorldSBK round. With an estimated 18 month construction period the next focus becomes on breaking ground and beginning construction.
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