From Phillip Island To Coalisland: Putting Northern Ireland On The WorldSBK Map

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.”

Racing heritage

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.

Ulster Brands

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.


Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.

Total votes: 62
Total votes: 60

Back to top

Comments

Hi Steve!

Cool project eh? Most promising that Driven International is doing the design to "feel like a road course." Antithesis to the well-worn Tilke F1 snoozers. Their big multi use project in South Asia looks interesting. 40mins from Belfast? Are the roads getting in larger thoroughfares or a wee bottleneck?

3.6km (2.2 miles) in length, featuring 12 corners with a width of 12-15m and elevations of +/-30m - short! Clay ground means the underlayment better be water shedding technology, that ground might keep water at the surface.
Elevation change factor 13.6

By a lake bed? A point of reference track might be Laguna Seca. 2.24 miles (3.6 km) long, with a 180 feet (55 m) elevation change. Hour's drive from (shite hole in my view) San Jose that become 4 hrs in traffic for the event. This much elevation change is a bit extreme in 3.6km of course.
Elevation change factor 25.0

Phillip Island is about 120 feet (37 meters) elev change in 2.8 miles for another point of reference. Elevation change factor 13.2

Length of Laguna Seca with a relative altitude change of Phillip Island. To "feel somewhat like" a TT course. Attended by 100,000 rabid Northern Irish and their mates coming to town. Sounds great eh? Please care for water with tech materials under your asphalt, and be sure traffic gets in and out easily please. Looking forward to seeing the camber etc. That Caldwell jump notion got nixed right away didn't it? But the blind off camber corner to a big descent sweeper with positive camber? The world could use another waterfall sort of feature. Make us proud.

Cheers!

Total votes: 69

using the "ben spies method" i'd say the track looks like a kangaroo having a lie down.

hope it's a good omen!

Total votes: 67

to races run on Hermann Tilke designed tracks.  (No, he is not forgiven for destroying the Österreichring and Fuji Speedway.)  So happy to hear he was not involved in the design of this track.

 

 

Total votes: 67

I wish them good luck with this venture, although their budget seems tight for a project on this scale.

Let's just hope for sake of the people in the area and the company behind the circuit that it actually happens, unlike a certain proposed circuit in Wales, a project which sounded similar in some ways.

Total votes: 70

...this happens. This is the stuff of dreams for many racing fans in this part of the world. I grew up lying in hedgerows watching Joey Dunlop, Ron Hallam, Roger Marshall and believe it or not Wayne Gardner race on the roads here. I’m a lot older now and can’t say I’m a fan of racing on public roads, been to too many funerals. Since Irish GP rider and my own personal hero Tom Herron was killed at the NW200 in 1979 there have been several failed efforts to get a project like this off the ground, the one looks like it will get over the line and it can’t come soon enough, in my opinion.

To inject some realism, the NW200 is often cited as an indication of the healthy fan base road racing enjoys but it must be said this is a free race to attend and the attendance figure of 100K is a tourism agency estimation. If the cost of admission was comparable to any other European world championship event I doubt the attendance would come remotely close to that. I’ve often thought with a population of 1.8m who mostly follow football, rugby and golf that Northern Ireland simply doesn’t have enough chimney pots to sustain a circuit like this for the other 51 weekends in the year. National racing here, be it on circuits or public roads lives a hand to mouth existence and prize money is paltry at best. I’ll cheer loudly if I’m wrong though.

Total votes: 61

Interesting to hear your views, I visited Ireland and Northern Ireland once (for a week in 2009 I think) and attended the Armoy Street Races.  I was very impressed by it all but yes it was pretty low budget racing even among the names I'd heard of half a world away.

But just looking at the 1.8m people of Northern Ireland is surely a bit blinkered?  Are the divisions still so deep that those among the 6.5m people in the Republic of Ireland would not travel the short distance to attend?  That is a genuine question, I'm not being antagonistic.  We visited Derry and it was a pretty sobering experience, still felt like a war zone even then.  I asked our landlady at the B&B near Ballymoney about The Troubles and she swiftly deflected it with a "oh no, The Troubles, terrible, terrible" and changed the subject.  But overall, I did not detect the sort of horrid animosity my Father described from his time as a boy in Belfast in the 40's, other than Derry it was a very pleasant trip both in the Northern and Republic.

Regarding the proposed track, it does sound as if the organisers are a lot more grounded than the ridiculous CoW fiasco.  That thing was a scam from day one surely, hanging on serious government underwriting.  These Coalisland guys sound very realistic in comparison, not relying on anything other than some facilities from the government.  The track does not have to be all glitz and glamour, spend the coin on the actual track, and just enough to keep the teams housed and the press undercover.  Laguna Seca hosted GP's in tents for years, and Phillip Island is actually VERY basic in terms of facilities, some of the Moto3 guys are in tents for that one as well I believe.

You don't need to build a Sepang to get a round.

Total votes: 75

 You know as soon as I typed that response I realised that I’d only thought of the North and not the whole island. So yes, good prompt, you’re right it could be taken as a blinkered point of view but that’s not the message I was trying to land, in any way at all. I live in Belfast so I guess my perception comes from my own business where the two jurisdictions are quite separate in many ways but you’re right - not for fans travelling to a bike race. That and the fact that the old divisions, while thankfully almost completely non existent now for anyone with more than a few brain cells between their ears still manifest in the two very separate governing bodies that run racing North and South of the border. From my on experience as a competitor there was an obvious deficit of cooperation, even contempt between the two. Racing in the Republic of Ireland takes place on a Sunday as it does almost everywhere else in the world, whilst in the North of Ireland Sunday racing is non existent, a relic of a Presbyterian tradition of keeping the sabbath day. I can think of at least one significant sponsor from Northern Ireland, a guy who sponsored IOM TT winners, that would not permit his bikes to be ridden on a Sunday. The old religious ‘traditions’ here have a lot to answer for, and can’t be consigned to history soon enough in my opinion.

The entire population of the Island of Ireland, North and South, is 6.5 million so whilst you are quite correct to point out my mistake, I feel bike racing is still very much a niche sport here. Support is loyal but limited. Soccer, the Gaelic games of Football and Hurling, Rugby and Golf get the big, and more importantly, paying crowds. They dominate the newspaper back pages with racing only getting the occasional look-in. Road races are free to attend, with organising clubs relying heavily on financial support from local councils on the strength of the tourism they generate, along with programme sales and business sponsorship. Still they only just scrape by and prize money is poor. Circuit races aren’t that well attended and gate receipts must reflect that. Despite the positive spin put on it by government tourism agencies I don’t feel racing here is in great shape. Yes the racing is often superb but that’s more testament to the dedication of those that compete. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the 10,000 to 20,000 that might attend a road race for free, or the few thousand that pay a small sum to a circuit race in Ireland might be difficult to convert to spending a lot more to watch the same race albeit at a far superior venue. Hopefully the popularity and success of Jonathan Rea and Eugene Laverty might make the difference but what happens for the rest of the year? Like I said I’ll be very happy indeed to be proven wrong, I so hope this time it works. I Look forward to watching bikes there.

Total votes: 55

Hey mates! This project is compelling. It is going to work. The new opposite of a "no go zone" where everyone of any stripe can be a part of something great. The group is qualitatively different than what we see building tracks these days. This will be a Northern Irish track. It will be an Irish track. It will be a RIDER'S track.

The 100k attendance number is tossed off of course. But the ambition and plan there looks SO good. Just a (potentially) EPIC World Class race track. Unique.

I remember when news came that Kevin Schwantz was central to the design of COTA. I drooled at the idea of a motorcycle racing centric track. I was disillusioned and haven't had a solid good feeling about new track plans since.

Until now. I keep seeing a few favorite pieces from road racing. Fast descending sweeping bit, blind cresting rising bit, for the brave. These blokes look determined and inspired, the whole project is brave.

Total votes: 53

Colonial Piglet, Tilke-with the odd exception-is perfectly suited to the F1 environment, that being the ultimate statement of style over substance. Many are taken in, dazzled by billionaire playgrounds and the socialite snobbery slotting F1 in alongside Ascot, Wimbledon on the corporate ski slopes.

Anyway, I’ve started wandering off, what I actually wanted to say Col. is yes, you are correct mentioning those two circuits but you’ve omitted the ultimate sin which also is home to the ultimate insult. HOCKENHEIMRING and the moving of Jimmy Clarke’s memorial from the crash site to a spot inside the go-kart track that’s left. Oh, and virtually pushing the place to financial oblivion. Good old Bernie, him and Hermann will always have a ‘Reserved’ card on the most expensive table. I’ll get mi’ coat...

Total votes: 63

At least the Austrians had the decency to rename their circuit after it suffered mutilation at the hands of Tilke - their needs to be a rule about what was done at Hockenheim and Fuji to make it false advertising to keep the same name.

While it may not be world championship level FIM sanctioned, at least we still have motorcycles taking to proper tracks such as the Salzburgring, Suzuka, and Road America.

Total votes: 71

Is the best track I ever visited, right in the middle of the ‘time of titans’ 1991. Because of my age, my girlfriend (now wife) who accompanied me and many other things is was a very good time. Heck, what a dramatic place that particular ‘ring is, a deadly prospect in a beautiful setting. So dangerous, yet so gorgeous...

Total votes: 45

Sorry tried to post a video of the proposed track. Clearly I've tried posting above my skill level.

Total votes: 64

Looks great eh? Thanks for the link.
The sweeping left ascending up behind the lake looks to have a touch of positive camber...speedy. The left-right-Left approaching the straight looks fun (and neutral camber?). They got one really tight wee corner in for good measure so first gear gets a visit. One can start to get a feel for the climbing from this video, not yet the descending though. Anyone have a feel for the width and passing opportunities?

And no armco! Perhaps as you drive in to the main entrance they should stick armco and crowd a few trees and posts aside the road just to remind you. If it looks from arial view to have that much elevation change it is sure to feel it more on the bike.

Total votes: 56