Nestling on the Croatian coast in the mountains above the city of Rijeka is the Automotodrom Grobnik, once home to the stars of the motorcycling world but after being rather forgotten by international racing, it is now beginning to re-establish itself to a wider audience.
Fast and flowing, it remains the only FIA and FIM-accredited circuit in Croatia and is a popular testing facility, as well as a race venue. The anti-clockwise circuit is surrounded with mountains with stunning views all round.
Today, the major races include the FIA Central European Zone, NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, Alpe Adria and the Sidecar Grand Prix.
While racing in the Kvarner area has a long tradition, it was the decision of the FIM that the Opatija street circuit was simply too dangerous that sparked an intense rush to prepare a permanent course. The deaths of Urich Graf and Giovanni Ziggiotto plus 19 other rider injuries in 1977 proved the final straw and road racing was banned completely from World Championship the following year. If the Yugoslavian Grand Prix was to be held, a modern circuit would be required.
The local motor club stepped up to the plate and a new course was designed and, across just two months in late spring/early summer 1978, the circuit was constructed. The rapid pace of construction was aided by the use of prisoners and the army, the latter of whom was responsible for laying the track surface. Notably the asphalt used was extremely high in grip - especially in the wet - and has also proved very long lasting.
Despite many doubts, the circuit was in fact ready in time to host the Grand Prix on September 17, the last race of the season - albeit without the 500cc class taking part. Australian Gregg Hansford enjoyed the most success at the inaugural event, with pole and a win in the 350cc class, followed by a 250cc victory. In the 125cc class, Ángel Nieto took the win, while Ricardo Tormo passed the finishing line first in the 50cc race. All told, it was a remarkably successful first event.
Tragedies still mar the new circuit
Despite the more modern surroundings without the obvious hazards from the lamps, street signs, mountain walls and sheer drops that characterised the Opatija course, safety would always remain something of a concern at Rijeka. In 1981, the new circuit suffered its first fatality at a World Championship event when Michel Rougerie fell during the second lap of the 350cc race. He picked himself up off the ground but while trying to walk away from the track was struck by his team-mate Roger Sibille at full speed. Rougerie died instantly from horrific chest injuries.
Two years later Rolf Rüttimann crashed at about 160 km/h at the left-hand bend in front of the pits on the 23rd lap of the 125cc race. His helmet struck the guard-rail causing injuries from which he succumbed several days later.
Grand Prix racing continued throughout the 1980s, with English-speaking riders dominating the 500cc events which were included in 1979 and from 1981 onwards. Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner and Eddie Lawson took two wins apiece, while Kenny Roberts, Randy Mamola, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey took singleton victories. Italian Franco Uncini was the only interloper, winning for Suzuki en route to the 1981 title.
By 1990 the facilities were looking a little dated but it was the race organisation and medical care that were the biggest causes for alarm during the Grand Prix meeting. In qualifying Christian Sarron went down hard and was heaved roughly off the tarmac by track marshals, which brought complaints from riders that the race organisation was unprofessional.
The circuit's darkest hour
Things only got worse one the races themselves got underway the following day. First the 125cc race was red-flagged following a first corner collision, arguably caused by the practice of putting straw bales on the inside of the corner to mark the pit exit and stop riders shortcutting the curve. One rider clipped them, causing a domino effect behind, with machines and riders flying wildly through the air. The same issue had caused a similar pile-up in the World Sidecar Championship race the previous month, during which Eros Manferdini was killed after being hit by Reinhold Roth and six other riders were seriously injured.
The 125cc grid reformed while the wreckage was cleared - only for the race organisers to boot them back into pit lane to make way for the 500cc grid. The top class had a relatively uneventful race, save for a nasty incident when Sito Pons lost the front end of his Honda on the exit of a right turn, only for Pierfrancesco Chili to hit the fallen rider and get thrown into the air. Both riders suffered injuries which would see them sit out several races, while the overly swift way in which Pons was ushered off the course, seemingly without regard to stabilising his injuries, drew much criticism.
Much, much worse was to come in the 250cc race, however. Rain began falling two laps from the end and there was general confusion as to whether the race had been red flagged or not. Some riders, including last placed Darren Milner, believed it had and began touring back to the pits, while those at the head of the race continued on. Disaster ensured when, coming out of a fast corner, Milner was smashed into at unabated pace by an unsighted Reinhold Roth, with Alex Criville also falling at high speed in avoidance. Both Roth and Milner were severely injured, with Roth left in a coma for months and suffering brain damage as a result of being deprived of oxygen while lying injured. As ambulances and officials spilled onto the track to deal with the incident (along with a number of what appeared to be unauthorised bystanders) the red flags finally flew - but not before the field had zipped by once more at full speed. It was a very dark moment in the World Championship's history.
Wars halts proceedings before gradual revival
It's debatable how many years more Rijeka would have continued to be a host of top level racing with the various safety and organisational concerns continuing to grow. As it was, world events would conspire to put an end to racing completely for several years as Yugoslavia was plunged into civil war. The European Cup race was held in May but the Grand Prix was inevitably cancelled as the conflict took hold.
Post-war, the circuit found itself a part of the newly-sovereign Croatia and racing resumed, although the lack of money to spend on infrastructure meant that international racing largely stayed away, although the FIM World Sidecar Championship returned in 2005 and has made it a permanent stop on its calendar ever since.
Gradually, finances improved and so money could be reinvested into the ageing facilities. The track was resurfaced for the first time in 2018, although its original surface was still holding up well and was notoriously so grippy, slick tyres could even work in the wet. Those army engineers obviously knew what they were doing!
Recent years have also seen the Whelen Euro Series for NASCAR racers added to the calendar, initially as a late replacement for the Most round in 2020. It has remained on the schedule in subsequent years.
Other races hosted on the circuit are those of motorcycling championship Alpe-Adria and the Croatian championship. The track is also accessible to the public for free practice rounds for both cars and for motorcycles when not in use for testing, school events and promotional days.