Descriptions of Indonesia's Mandalika MotoGP and World Superbike-hosting track as a 'street circuit' is probably somewhat misleading; rather, this is a purpose-built race track that incorporates some existing public roads and is then handed over for normal traffic usage when not used for racing.
Nevertheless, the track is something of a unique proposition, set on the tourist destination island of Lombok and in a hugely important market for motorcycle manufacturers. The whole project is also important to the local government, which is looking to boost interest in the area and help it recover from the series of earthquakes experienced by the island in 2018.
Indonesia had been pushing for a MotoGP race for some time, with initial plans to upgrade Sentul Circuit foundering, before competing plans for a new permanent circuit designed by Hermann Tilke emerged. Located in Palembang, South Sumatra, this would have benefited from infrastructure development tied in with the 2018 Asian Games but the plans were subsequently cancelled.
Instead it was Mandalika which found favour when the project was given a boost in late 2018 when Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpaleta visited Mandalika to meet with the project's backers. An announcement followed in early 2019 that Mandalika would host not only MotoGP but also the World Superbike Championships from 2021 onwards in a five-year deal.
MRK1 Consulting, along with RoadGrip Motorsport, was appointed by the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation (IDTC) to plan, implement and also run the new circuit.
"We are very conscious that when we announced this project there was a reasonable amount of scepticism about the concept of a street circuit," Mark Hughes of MRK1 Consulting said during a presentation of the project. "We have to make very clear that the track has been designed and built to the appropriate FIM safety standards for MotoGP."
The design of the circuit, featuring a 4.32-kilometre layout with 17 corners, was approved by FIM Safety Officer Franco Uncini and while largely a ground-up design, has been influenced by some of the tourist resort's existing masterplan.
"The master plan for the resort was actually finished before we got involved. And then between Roadgrip, MRK1 and ITDC we've tweaked that track design," Hughes said.
"We knew we couldn't go in and entirely change it, there had already been too much invested in that, and with the support of Dorna and also the FIM we then made some small changes to accommodate the safety requirements for a Grade A license."
Track facilities double as community facilities
A large percentage of the infrastructure used for the circuit is removable, to allow it turn back into a road network for the resort for the rest of the year. The pit building which will double up as a conference and exhibition centre so it will have use outside of the race events. Other temporary facilities will include some of the grandstands, which in total will seat 50,000, though double that are expected to attend, so high is the local interest in bike racing.
In developing Mandalika's street circuit complex, ITDC collaborated with France's Vinci Construction Grand Projects, which also was the main investor for the project. The US$1-billion deal with Vinci was signed in August 2018 and foresees 15 years of development.
Aside from the circuit itself, Vinci plans to build supporting facilities including a shopping mall to a hospital and apartment buildings on 131 hectares of land within the special economic zone.
Eleven hotels, with around 1,900 rooms, are eventually planned adjacent to the track though neighbouring Bali is expected to provide the bulk of the accommodation. Lombok's airport is set to upgraded with longer runway, while there will also be a terminal for ferries and high speed boats, that will bring people from Bali to Lombok.
Construction hampered by pandemic
Groundbreaking began in October 2019, with the development of the foundation and underground utilities system as well as roads by IDTC, before Vinci came on board to complete the racing circuit and associated facilities.
The coronavirus pandemic slowed efforts and the original 2020 completion date spilled over into 2021, with most of the experts required to oversee construction located outside Indonesia and unable to travel during the lockdown periods. This meant that work largely had to be supervised via live drone footage and Zoom calls - a fact that would have consequences down the line.
Early on a special aggregate mix was chosen for the racing surface, using stone from a variety of different Indonesian quarries. This required particular preparation in order to produce a durable surface with good grip levels, with the stones milled to a set size and washed before mixing and paving. Unfortunately, it was this part of the quality control process that failed, as would become apparent when racing began.
The build programme was further hampered by the need for workers to quarantine, meaning that by the middles of October 2021 the circuit had only just reached 97% completion, with the project set to be finished at the end of the month, a few weeks out from the inaugural race.
In the meantime the circuit was facing pressure from another direction, with the Coalition of Indonesian Infrastructure Development Monitoring requesting the WSBK race be postponed. It came amid claims that many local and traditional Sasak communities who had been evicted from the circuit site had not received compensation from the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). The claims were refuted by the IDTC.
Further problems erupted when the first event - a round of the Asia Talent Cup - had to be postponed by a week, as the circuit could not demonstrate it had enough trained marshals to hold the event safely. It meant that, rather than a lower key inaugural event to test everything was in order, Mandalika's competition debut would be with the higher profile World Superbikes round. This was pushed back by a week to give more time to complete the circuit.
Weather gods prove temperamental on debut
With a last minute push, the circuit was ready for its inauguration on November 12, 2021, with a special ceremony attended by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. He declared the newly named Pertamina Mandalika International Street Circuit open, before taking a lap on his personal motorcycle.
Wet conditions were the order of the day when racing finally got underway, with extreme weather set to dog the weekend. Qualifying saw the rains fall, though the riders were pleased to find an exceptionally grippy surface which was only a few seconds a lap slower than the dry times. However, Saturday's race one was greeted with torrential rain and thunderstorms shortly before lights out resulted, resulting in it being postponed until Sunday.
Thankfully, Sunday's races were able to go ahead, with Jonathan Rae taking both wins for Kawasaki but it was not enough to prevent Toprak Razgatligolu from taking the title for Yamaha. Even then the second of the two races was again rain-affected, with a delay to the start due to weather conditions meaning it was run to a reduced 12 laps.
Problems are apparent when MotoGP arrives
While the World Superbike event was deemed a success despite the weather, it was perhaps the latter that disguised some of the biggest problems to come. However, when the MotoGP teams arrived in March for their pre-season test, there was no hiding the problem, as the track surface began to disintegrate. Riders complained of being shot-blasted by the gravel, while dust on the racing surface was a major secondary issue.
“Unfortunately the quality controls that should’ve been in place weren’t possible because of Covid,” Hughes admitted. "Some of the aggregate wasn’t cleaned properly, which is why the surface failed during the tests – dirty aggregate was the big problem and that’s also why there was so much dust and dirt.”
The only solution was a partial resurfacing of the worst-affected areas from Turn 5 to Turn 16, which would have to be rushed through ahead of the MotoGP race.
This in itself was no mean feat, requiring a governmental intervention to divert paving equipment from Jakarta airport and then ship 1,000 miles it to Lombok, while new aggregate was shipped in from the northern island of Sulawesi, 500 miles away.
This also proved problematic and further aggregate had to be sourced from Lombok itself, from a quarry four hours away from the circuit. Once again, washing of the stones was a challenge but nonetheless, the resurfacing was completed on schedule, though without a full period for curing, just a week before the race.
This latter point wasn't helped by the searing temperatures which greeted the race itself and which had prompted Michelin to revert to an earlier specification tyre. Riders continued to complain about the track surface and as the Sunday races wound on, it became clear that the surface was again breaking up, particularly at the final corner. Race direction elected to shorten the race distances in order to preserve the surface as far as possible.
Once again the weather gods had their part to play and a sudden downpour ahead of the MotoGP race forced an hour's delay, with a local 'rain handler' despatched to try and banish the clouds. It seemed to work as the rain relented and the grid assembled for its shortened race. KTM rider Miguel Oliveira ran out a commanding winner.
Fixing the problems once and for all
It's clear that a complete resurfacing is now required, this time using specialist equipment with the right aggregate mix. Given the importance of the race to Indonesia, this costly work is likely to be green lighted ahead of the return of the World Superbikes in November 2022. Thankfully, the Covid restrictions that so hampered the initial construction have receded, allowing better supervision of the project. Assuming the project commences on time, there should just be enough time to ensure proper curing on the new surface before racing returns,