Controversy has surrounded Mandalika pretty much ever since the circuit was first proposed as a MotoGP venue a few years ago. Why build a GP track on an island in the middle of nowhere? Will the circuit ever be completed? And why is the surface falling apart after a few days of MotoGP testing?
Mandalika was constructed on the southern coast of the little-known island of Lombok, next door to famed tourist destination Bali. It is the first stage of a 25-year government programme by the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation to transform Lombok into the next Bali. Whether you think that a good idea or not is up to you.
The circuit was built last year, at the height of the Covid pandemic, when most of the experts required to oversee construction were outside Indonesia and not allowed in. They therefore supervised the works via live drone footage and Zoom calls.
“The quality controls that should’ve been in place weren’t possible because of Covid”
Mandalika’s first race took place last November, when World Superbike arrived for its season finale, during which some riders already complained that the surface was deteriorating. When MotoGP arrived last month, following the first pre-season tests at Sepang, Malaysia, the track really began falling apart.
Why was this? In the early stages of the project a variety of different aggregates (the stones within the asphalt mix) were sent to Ulster University to be tested by experts, who created a mix from different Indonesian quarries.
However, while finding good aggregate in Indonesia is easy enough, preparing it in the correct way is less so.
“Unfortunately the quality controls that should’ve been in place weren’t possible because of Covid,” says Mark Hughes, of RoadGrip Motorsport Indonesia, which is contracted by the Mandalika Grand Prix Association, which in turn is part of the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation. “You need to find the right aggregate, which needs to be crushed into the right size and shape, then it needs to prepared. But some of the aggregate wasn’t cleaned properly, which is why the surface failed during the tests – dirty aggregate was the big problem and that’s also why there was so much dust and dirt.”
“We had a video conference with Dorna on the last night of the tests and we said that the only solution was to repave part of the circuit to create a surface that will be fine for the MotoGP weekend and then look at repaving the whole circuit for World Superbike [November 11/12/13].”
The partial repaving from Turn 16 to Turn 5 required a huge effort. With just five weeks to go before the GP the government had to remove paving equipment from a job at Jakarta airport, drive it under police escort to Jakarta port and ship everything the 1000 miles to Mandalika, while new aggregate was shipped in from the northern island of Sulawesi, 500 miles away.
“When the aggregate turned up it wasn’t what we were expecting, so we had to go to plan B, which was finding material on Lombok,” adds Hughes. “This passed all the abrasion tests, but there aren’t any facilities on the island to clean the material, so were looking at hose pipes! Then it was a juggling act to clean the material, make the asphalt and get it to Mandalika, which is a four-hour drive from the quarry, using big trucks on tiny roads. It was a big challenge.”
Hughes’ business partner Nick Morley hopes that this time around the job will be easier, now that the pandemic is less of a problem.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” says Morley. “But now there are no big Covid issues, so hopefully we can prepare everything properly, although you can’t do that without investing in good equipment. The idea is that it’s worth it because if we do the surface properly we won’t need to touch it for another ten years or so. The sooner we do it the better, because we’ve got Superbikes in November and ideally a brand-new surface needs 45 days of curing before racing!”
A thrilling, rain-lashed Indonesian GP followed two difficult days of dry practice, when Michelin’s special, super-stiff rear slick caused lots of problems for the MotoGP grid
Mandalika’s first MotoGP weekend mostly went well, despite the hottest week since the project started, with track temperatures between 65 and 67 degrees Celsius, and then a tropical downpour that delayed Sunday’s MotoGP race.
Some riders did complain of getting pinged by loose aggregate – suffering bruised necks and arms – but the full resurface should fix those issues.
Obviously MotoGP and World Superbike won’t be only major championships to race at Mandalika. The Endurance World Championship may visit in the next few years and the FIM Asian Road Racing Championship is almost certainly to include the circuit in upcoming calendars.
Four wheels too: the GT World Challenge Asia series (the Asian leg of the touring car championship contested by Valentino Rossi) is another likelihood and conversations have already been had with Formula 1, although a circuit extension would be required for F1, plus the building of several five-star hotels.