Green field to green flag

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As a new circuit in Wales awaits the go-ahead, we investigate the challenges of shaping a new track
Writer Gordon Cruickshank

Dragonflies.

That’s the latest snag to get in the way of a £300m race circuit proposal for central Wales. Gwent Wildlife Trust says the site near Merthyr Tydfil is important for rare insect species, but it hasn’t stopped the backers of Circuit of Wales announcing a five-year contract to hold Britain’s MotoGP round, even though ground has yet to be broken and next year’s race will be held at Donington Park.

Arguments about employment and tourism benefits versus financial and ecological cost have already begun, amplified by Silverstone querying the legality of possible government assistance, while the planning permission hurdle still lies ahead. But the Heads of the Valley company behind the scheme, aimed at hosting every rung of motor sport short of Formula 1, now has detailed plans drawn up by a specialist motor circuit designer – and it’s not Hermann Tilke. Planning Circuit of Wales is a firm called Populous, whose work you may have seen hosting a little local fair called the London Olympics. Sport is their game, and motor racing is a significant part of it.

Mike Trice heads Populous’s motor sport division, and I spoke to him about the Wales project, and the wider field of building racetracks. Though specialised, it fits into the firm’s ethos which has sport at its core: Wembley, Arsenal’s Etihad Stadium, Russia’s Sochi Olympics and the masterplan, main stadiums and 130 temporary facilities for London’s Olympics are all Populous projects through a dozen offices around the globe. And to bring it back to our world, add the structures at Dubai Autodrome, the Velocidad track project in Spain and Silverstone’s reshaping, including the Wing.

So what can an architect bring to building a racetrack? “I became an architect to finance my motor racing. I just never got back to it,” Mike says. But while racing in Formula Ford he developed links with West Surrey Racing and now makes use of the team’s expertise, notably in testing designs on Populous’s own simulator running custom software that assesses speeds, g-forces and run-off areas.

“In my FF days WSR used to help with our car set-up; now we sponsor a car and help with branding, and in return get access to knowledge, technical time and drivers. One of their senior engineers, Drew MacDonald, is our circuit designer.”

Access to drivers is important: when reshaping Silverstone the team took a simulator to the British GP where Damon Hill and all the current F1 drivers tried the new layout, giving useful feedback. “The result,” says Mike, “was that we were able to separate the North and South circuits safely, make Abbey fast again and produce an interesting complex with increased overtaking opportunities plus good viewing.”

That’s a crucial element, says Mike. “We see live spectators as the most important; the TV audience earns the money but it’s important to maximise atmosphere and enjoyment for those who are there – and the drivers, too.”

Mike’s team also works on elements applicable to future circuits, elements such as ‘stadium bends’, where the track folds back on itself enclosed by grandstands. “That closes cars up and gives great viewing, with the noise contained by the stands,” Mike says. “Another thing we’re working on is reintroducing a banked bend, which doubles passing options – tighter and slower versus higher and faster. At Circuit of Wales we have such elevation change that we could afford run-off in the same plane. That’s just a research item at the moment, but a useful study even if it doesn’t happen.”

That run-off factor is a central concern, for which Populous developed its own modelling software. Mike brings up track plans with run-off projections; on their own they have an abstract beauty. “The software rapidly allows us to calculate run-off for both cars and bikes. It has a big impact on masterplanning as it’s expensive in site usage – it can quickly push the circuit design off the site.”

One track that they knew wouldn’t be built was for the London Grand Prix, the virtual circuit from Santander’s TV ads a couple of years back, when Jenson and Lewis appeared to blast through Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square. “It was do-able,’ says Mike. “We modelled all the run-offs and we would have got decent speeds with safety. Jenson and Lewis both ‘drove’ it – Jenson was right up for it!”

That led the team on to the idea of a kit of parts for city-centre racing. Mike shows me illustrations of demountable container-sized pit-pods slotted between trees along the Mall. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t have pits, paddock, hospitality and spectator buildings following the circus round the world.”

Though Formula E didn’t take this route, Populous tackles projects worldwide. “Dubai is an example of a complete complex. Apex designed the track but the overall plan and buildings are ours. We try to create a destination, not just a venue, to attract more than the core fans,” Mike tells me. “That’s partly to raise the gate and partly for green reasons. A sporting venue typically takes huge energy to build and is then poorly used, maybe for one Grand Prix a year. We aim to reduce build and running energy – we placed a pool under the Dubai press room for natural cooling – and to extract more usage from the facility.”

That means adding kart, bike, off-road and driver training facilities, plus spaces for functions, concerts and commerce, as well as considering potential ‘afterlife’.

“Our study for Singapore has pit garages that can convert to a shopping mall if site usage changes – much greener than demolition,” says Mike. “Also there are internal galleries to let the public see into the pits. We’d like to introduce that at other tracks.”

Views and access are high in the priorities, using software that models sightlines around the track. “In our stadiums we try to give General Access ticket-holders good views too, not just hospitality. There used to be a big division between boxes and general public; we want to offer a better gradient of choice so you can pay a bit more and get better food and environment. With WSR we’re currently trying to improve the touring car experience in this way.”

The Welsh site’s large height variations benefit both track layout and viewing. “Profile is important,” says Mike. “Part of the Silverstone plan was inserting some elevation change, and the Circuit of Wales topography gives us the opportunity to do something special.

How then did the track design take shape? On a site plan Mike explains how certain constraints led towards a solution that offers a splittable circuit plus all the ancillary kart, motocross and off-road tracks while keeping the whole compact. “In the middle there’s a flat area that works for the pit straight and garages, and we have to keep this ancient fishpond as it’s a scheduled monument, but elsewhere there’s a lot of elevation change – 49m of it. Immediately after the first corner the track plunges downhill to a tight left with good overtaking, then rises, dips and rises again around the back before dropping into the key final complex. We call this the Cauldron.”

On the graphic this looks like it should be a spectator favourite – a tight triple complex spinning cars through almost 270 degrees before spitting them into the last drag uphill, rewarding brave overtakers on entry and sheer power on the way out.

“We’ve surrounded this with grandstands, amplifying the atmosphere,” Mike tells me, “but we’ll also build spectator banks with good sightlines over the catch fencing. Similar natural mounds will offer good viewing round the track and reflect the surrounding hills and valleys.”

This is another element of the Populous approach: design cues can come from local culture, topography or from the planned purpose. Dubai’s architecture all tips forward to express speed, while the sawtooth roof form of Silverstone’s Wing reflects the throttle trace of a racing car’s telemetry.

As Mike has mentioned noise, I ask about control methods. “That can be costly. We’re currently building a new speedway venue at Belle Vue, Manchester, where noise is a big consideration, but we can model and test the acoustic breakout. The best answer is to sink the source; in Wales the contours go a long way towards that.”

Circuit of Wales expands an existing commercial site with hotel, business units and brand centres – or sales outlets. “In the middle there’s a fan-shaped plaza,” Mike says, “which gives people a clear direction of travel and takes general ticket holders into the heart of things and gives people shops and displays to look at. It could also be a concert venue.” Back to making maximum use of the site, which may help in the battle towards that first race.

According to Mike plans are now at the detail design and pricing stage, “so we’re close to being able to build, once we have planning permission. From green light to completion would be 15-18 months. But we’re still tip-toeing on affordability…”

Planning is likely to be the big struggle, and if objectors win it wouldn’t be the first circuit that stayed virtual. That would be frustrating for the Populous team, but at least there’s satisfaction in meeting all the design objectives. “We’re very lucky,” says Trice, “because we’re designing for major events where people enjoy themselves.”

If the finance can be found and local support carries the planning argument, Circuit of Wales may enable many more people to enjoy themselves – dragonflies permitting.

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