"If it wasn't for the Dutch TT race, I would have to close my business." Those were the words of the taxi driver who took me from Assen train station to the circuit, for a presentation on the plans for major upgrades to their spectator facilities over the next three years and beyond.
It offered an insight into the importance of the MotoGP race at Assen, and by extension, the importance of circuits and MotoGP events around the world. My taxi driver explained that over the week surrounding the Assen race, he was kept so busy that the money he made during that period was the difference between ending the year with a profit and the ability to invest in the future of the business, or just about breaking even.
Chatting to an official of the provincial government, who had grown up in the city and worked in bars there during his college years, he confirmed that experience. The bars back then were so busy during the race weekend that it was the difference between survival and failure. The same is true for many businesses and hotels around the region, as anyone who has ever tried to book accommodation in the weeks before the race can attest.
The economics of racing
The economic impact of a MotoGP race is huge. A 2012 research paper by Maria Luisa Martí Selva and Rosa Puertas Medina, published in the Spanish Estudios de Economia Applicada, calculated the economic benefit of the final MotoGP round of 2010 at Valencia. The 80,774 fans who officially attended the race (about 30,000 less than attended this year's race) paid just over €5 million in tickets, and spent nearly €14,5 million in the region on accommodation, food, transport, entertainment, and merchandising. Over €8 million of that went on accommodation, food, and entertainment.
The Valencia race alone generates 0.24% of the GDP of the Valencia Autonomous Community, a region which contains some of the most popular tourist destinations in Eastern Spain. That explains why so many regions are prepared to invest in circuits, and in many cases, financially subsidize the sanctioning fee for the event.
The Dutch TT at Assen does not receive direct subsidy for the race, the circuit pays the sanctioning fee entirely out of its own pocket. But, circuit president Arjan Bos told us, they had reached agreement with the Province of Drenthe (which is home to the circuit) to invest in upgrading the spectator facilities at the circuit. In the period through 2021, facilities are to be improved around the track, with new grandstands being built, more catering options added, entertainment areas created, and roads inside the car parking areas and track paved. All of the changes will benefit spectators, with the track remaining unchanged.
Improving Turn 1
The operation is to take place in two stages. The first phase, already started and due to last until 2019, will see the grandstands at the Haarbocht (Turn 1), Stekkenwal (Turn 8), De Bult (Turn 9), and Winterdijk (the section between the Ramshoek and final GT Chicane) replaced, as well as paving interior roads and creating entertainment areas. The total cost of the first phase is €8 million, with the Province of Drenthe contributing half of that.
The first and most significant upgrade will be the new grandstand being built at the Haarbocht. Currently, the seating there consists of plastic bucket seats on an earth bank. The new grandstand will have approximately the same capacity, of 9700 spectators. But the seating will be more comfortable and more spacious, and raised up higher on a steel and concrete custom-made grandstand. Lifts and stairs will provide access to the grandstand, and there will be catering spaces underneath it, serving both at the front and the rear, so fans can buy food and drinks while bikes are on track without missing out on the action.
The good news for fans is that despite the new grandstand being a major upgrade in terms of comfort, prices for seats there will not be raised to cover the costs. "This is all about customer loyalty,"circuit director Peter Oosterbaan told me. "I want to make sure that the fans have such a great day out that they will want to come back again the following year. I have a waiting list for the main grandstands and the GT grandstand. I want a waiting list for this grandstand too," he said.
Improving the view
The Haarbocht grandstand will not be covered, but the top deck will house a special VIP area, where companies can entertain guests. The top deck offers a fantastic view, as I experienced when handed a VR headset provided by LG Architects, the firm who are building the grandstand. From the top deck, fans can see all of Assen's North Loop, from the front straight, around the Haarbocht to the Strubben, and out onto the Veenslang. Fans sitting in the grandstand will have a similar view, with more visible the higher up they sit.
The increased height of the grandstand will also help reduce noise from the circuit. The architects have modeled the effect of the grandstand on noise, and because the new grandstand is taller, more noise is directed upwards, rather than north towards residential estates near Assen. The reduction is small, of course, but with noise around circuits such a sensitive subject, even small reductions are a welcome effect.
Work on the grandstand had already started when I visited on 6th December, and the aim is to have the grandstand finished by the start of June, in time for the MotoGP race on 25th June. Fans attending the WorldSBK round on 30th April are likely to have to wait another year.
Once the Haarbocht grandstand is finished, work will start on the next grandstands, at Winterdijk, De Bult, and Stekkenwal. These projects will take place in 2018 and 2019, but the design and planning work has not yet started. That will commence some time in 2017, with designs being based on the Haarbocht.
Another part of the project is the creation of entertainment areas behind the grandstands. The idea is to give fans something extra to do when the riders are not on track. There are already a few sections like that at Assen, but this is to be expanded and greatly improved. This, along with all of the other changes, is aimed at improving the visitor experience at the track.
Traditionalists may fear that all these changes will detract from the traditional character of the circuit. Assen's grass banks are a fundamental part of the experience, and a great place to view the action from. Circuit director Peter Oosterbaan insisted they won't be removed. "I always used to sit on the grass banks when I came as a fan many years ago," he told me. They are part of the history of Assen, and will remain so.
All of these changes were only made possible due to the long-term commitment which the Assen circuit has from Dorna. At this year's MotoGP race, Dorna and the TT Circuit announced an extension of the contract through 2026. The importance of the race cannot be overstated. "The board always have one primary objective," circuit president Arjan Bos told us, "to keep the MotoGP race in Assen." But the event is just as important for Dorna, as it is the circuit to have appeared uninterrupted on the calendar since the start of the championship in 1949. "They tell us that for the sake of history, this Grand Prix can never disappear from the calendar."
Below are a selection of design sketches of the new grandstand, from the architects.
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