Rustavi International Motorpark (Georgian: რუსთავის ავტოდრომი) is Georgia's only permanent racing circuit and something of a hidden gem. Boasting impressive facilities set in modern buildings with interesting architecture, the circuit has been transformed in recent years through private investment.
The track was the third and (as it turned out) final road course constructed in the Soviet Union, created with high hopes that it would flourish as a centre for racing. Its location (now in Georgia) allowed for year-round activity, unlike other facilities which would become snowbound in winter. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the track fell into disrepair and disuse until its redevelopment in 2012.
Today the circuit is home to the Georgian Circuit Racing Championships, featuring classes for Formula Alfa, Legends and touring cars. A number of local racing teams also have permanent bases at the circuit.
The track's history began when construction was approved by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in the mid-1970s. A plot of land previously used for motocross events around 20km from Tbilisi was chosen for development. The circuit design was relatively unremarkable and compact; while the motocross course had used the contours of the land, the new road course used a relatively flat configuration running in parallel to the hillside, overlooked by a small grandstand which afforded views of the whole course.
The complex also included pit buildings and a racing school, while the motocross course was retained further up the hillside. Later a kart circuit would be added between the two main straights, along with a hotel that could be used by the competitors.
The new circuit officially opened in 1978, though in truth it wasn't quite ready for racing action. It wasn't until October 1979 that the first races were held, rounds of the USSR national series. The inaugural winners were Guram Dgebuadze (Formula 3), Alexander Medvedchenko (Formula "East") and Bogdan Hitsyak (Class IV).
While the USSR National Championships would return for 10 further seasons, the very location that should have ensured year-round action consigned Rustavi to a slow strangulation. With bulk of the Soviet racing scene based thousands of miles away in Moscow, Kiev and the Baltic states, motor racing in the Transcaucasian republics was slower to develop and it was hard to attract competitors. An increasingly deteriorating track surface and safety measures which failed to keep up with modern requirements did little to help.
Around three events a year were held until 1989, after which it was largely abandoned by the professional racing scene. With only occasional use as a rally stage and for amateur racing organised by the Georgian Automobile Federation, Rustavi appear designed to simply fade away forever.
New owner breathes new life into Rustavi
Salvation came in 2009, when the circuit was bought at a State Auction by Shota Abkhazava, owner of the ArtTech racing team, who had also presided over the opening of the ADM Raceway at the Miachkovo airfield in Russia. Abkhazava had grand plans to restore Rustavi and finally create the motorsports hub that has always been envisaged.
Investing around $20 million in the project, Abkhazava began construction work in 2011, with around a quarter of a million square metres of earth moved as the landscape was remodelled and the track slightly reconfigured to meet modern safety standards. A new vehicle access tunnel was added between Turn 2 and Turn 3 while a separate pedestrian tunnel was added to connect the main grandstand with the paddock. There are also two bridges to the infield, designed with traditional Georgian Svanuri towers at each end, which provide a strong visual clue as to the circuit's location.
The revised 2.560 mile/4.140 km course meets FIA Grade 2 standards and boasts HD video surveillance throughout its length and 14 electronically controlled signaling lights, and a fibre-optic network providing the PA and 5-loop timekeeping systems. The track can be split into two shorter 1.323 miles/2.140 km and 0.831 mile/1.338 km circuits which can be operated simultaneously, while the extended main straight also doubles as a drag strip.
The striking pit building and main grandstand opposite both feature roof lines reminiscent of the more famous Silverstone 'Wing' building, with the jagged effect symbolic of a rising and falling data trace. Three grandstands now cater for up to 8,500 spectators and overall the whole facility is thoroughly modern and well thought-out, with attention to detail showing everywhere. It is easily a match for anything found in Western Europe.
The renamed Rustavi International Motorpark opened in April 2012, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili lapped the course in a single seater. Since then, the circuit has gone on to host Formula Alfa and Legends races - the most popular forms of racing in the former Soviet states, both of which were founded by Abkhazava as head of the Georgian Automobile Federation. The track is also home to several newly-established national teams, as well as being the preferred testing base for the ArtTech Formula 3 car.
It shot to prominence in 2017 as host of the first round of the TCR International Series, with home hero Davit Kajaia scoring an emotional win in front of the fans in the first race.