The Balatonring was a failed project to revive the short-lived Hungarian motorcycle Grand Prix after two decades. This is the story of the track that was left behind, unfinished. [UPDATED]
[image source - Box Repsol]
I am marching through dirt and mud on the edge of a forest in the middle of nowhere. Tiny frogs scatter from my footsteps into small puddles. I have been walking up and down in the fields in search of a huge real estate. Suddenly the dirt path turns into an asphalt road and oil wells pop up in the distance as I reach the end of the woods.
I found it.
A huge lot of groundworks with crushed stones laid down, twisting around in a loop. The place where Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo and the rest of the MotoGP field should have been racing every mid-September instead of Motorland Aragón in Spain.
Hungary’s motorsport heritage is relatively small and was mostly put on the map for the whole world to see with the building of the Hungaroring in 1986 and the reintroduction of the Hungarian Grand Prix after 50 years. Before that, most of the local sport activities in motoring happened on rally stages and on two wheels. The Formula One race at the Hungaroring was followed by World Superbikes in the late 80s and finally the motorcycle Grand Prix in 1990 that returned in 1992 for the second and - yet - final time.
[image source - MotoGP.com]
In 2007, Gábor Talmácsi won the 125cc World Championship, becoming the first ever - and so far only - Hungarian road racing world champion on two or four wheels. His ventures into motorcycle Grand Prix racing spurred an even larger local interest in the sport, which - consequently - reignited the discussions about bringing MotoGP back to Hungary. At the time, the Hungaroring proved to be unsuitable for motorcycle racing, therefore the idea of building another purpose-built track was born - perhaps somewhat unwisely.
[image source - Wikipedia]
Similarly to how the Hungaroring had originally been intended to be built, the new circuit was planned in the neighbourhood of a lake, too. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and has been a popular holiday destination for many German people during and since the times of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ever since the turn of the millennium, though, tourism had been in somewhat of a decline in the region, hence the idea of moving the track to said area was conceived. The project was then aptly named ‘Balatonring’.
[image source - Wikipedia]
An international consortium of investors was then assembled - largely consisting of various companies owned by the state of Hungary and building and management firms from Spain. Most of the know-how was brought in by Valencia-based Worldwide Circuit Management that has partly been managed and owned by four-time motorcycle World Champion and team owner Jorge Martinez “Aspar” and by Sedesa Investment Group, one of the sponsors of Gábor Talmácsi’s former racing team. To this day, WCM is responsible for the organisation of the season-closing Valencia Grand Prix motorcycle race and formerly they were the masterminds and executives behind the Formula One European Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia.
[image source - Wikipedia]
The location of the new motorcycle track (South West of Lake Balaton, not far from the annual off-road festival) was chosen due to its relative proximity to Austria, Slovenia and Croatia - to encourage the presence of an even more international audience (all countries lacking a MotoGP race at the time) in order to generate a revenue as high as possible in the first few years to compensate for the multi-decade-long stretching loan issued by the state of Hungary. Building a second purpose-built racetrack in such a small country was proving to be a risky undertaking financially.
The layout of the 4232 metre-long track was created with the latest safety standards in mind with some influx from Gábor Talmácsi and Valentino Rossi (among other experts). The area where the circuit was about to be established featured very few elevation changes, making the design of run-off areas easier.
[image source - Wikipedia]
Steve “Stavros” Parrish, former Grand Prix, TT and Superbike racer, commentator and pundit to various motorsports events, notes: “The layout that I have seen looks very interesting and perfect for motorcycles. I like the long turn 2 that gives opportunity for passing early on and the exit from 5 to 6, slip streaming can work very well. It also looks very safe with the large run-off areas.”
Freddie Spencer, three-time Grand Prix motorcycle World Champion says: “When I came to Europe to race at Grands Prix, what struck me the most was the size of the circuits. I really liked Spa because it followed the terrain. Because of all the safety concerns [tracks] lost a little bit of drama [over the time], therefore they try to trick them up. They make circuits a little stop-and-go these days, so they lack flow, e.g. when they added chicanes to Oulton Park. They also miss the grass, which was replaced by big runoffs. [The Balatonring] is a big circuit and it seems to me they were trying to use up the space available. Turns 1 and 2 seem pretty straightforward. Turn 13 is really interesting, though. It would be a proper turn on a MotoGP bike and only a kink on other bikes.” On the subject whether winglets (that are to be banned from 2017) could have come in the wake of newer tracks and whether they could have made any difference to the handling of MotoGP bikes at this track, he adds: “I don’t think winglets came as a result of track development. It’s more psychological than anything. Valentino said he couldn’t feel the difference. We tried them back in the day, they didn’t work.”
Mike ‘Spike’ Edwards, veteran road racer, Macau Grand Prix and North West 200 winner: “As a motorcycle racier, I like the feel of a circuit that has some ‘features’ that fit in to the layout, these can be inclines, humps, dips that can be either natural or fabricated. Obviously, these are personal things and each rider may want something different. The car drivers may like completely different things as cars tend to like more stop/start corners to create overtaking opportunities. I went to the Slovakiaring this year for the first time and found it fabulous to ride. However, looking at the layout on paper it doesn’t portray how good it actually was to ride. If it was 100% flat, it might not have the same impact but they use tunnels to get into the infield access road but the tunnels are on the surface making the track go over the top creating a hump or rise. [The Balatonring] has plenty of corners - some running in to other corners - so it’s not just straight/corner, straight/corner and as a result ‘boring’ - good for cars but not for bikes. If you have a blanc canvas to start from it would be easy to create a circuit that can cater for both types of sport without restricting any particular type. Many circuits in the UK have been ‘altered’ to make the car drivers safer/happier, but as a result the circuits then have lost a great deal of the nice feel and features that make motorcycle riding what it is. I hope the circuit gets built and to ride it one day.”
The project started in 2007 with a budget of 22 billion HUF (€72 million in today’s currency) where the state would finance 70% of the development. MotoGP was slated to first run from 2009 that was postponed to 2010. The calendar date was set to mid to late September on the slot, being the final European race before the far-Eastern and Australian fly-away ones. The global financial crisis broke out in the middle of the execution of the project, causing the first and then the second (indefinite) postponement in the completion of the track with the withdrawal of Worldwide Circuit Management. This ultimately lead to the bankruptcy of the project in 2012, leaving the track unfinished and the event being dropped for good.
The Hungarian Grand Prix was then replaced by the Aragón Grand Prix in 2010 that was established at the very same time. The Grand Prix on Spanish soil stayed and the track owner and management of the circuit recently signed a contract to keep it on the MotoGP calendar until 2021.
Steve Parrish adds: “It’s very disappointing that the [Balatonring] was never built. I loved racing in Hungary with my truck racing career. I hope the situation changes and we can all come and enjoy the Hungarian hospitality and enthusiasm.”
The talks about hosting a motorcycle Grand Prix in Hungary haven’t stopped despite the mishaps. With the recent revamp of the Hungaroring and future cevelopments on its facilities, MotoGP could return to its former home in Hungary as early as 2018 - alongside Formula One that has a running contract until 2026 - according to Hungaroring CEO, Zsolt Gyulay. Gyulay claims that negotiations about bringing the biggest motorsport circus on two wheels back have already started. Based on the respective 2016 calendars, the Hungaroring would then join the ranks of being one of the only six tracks in the world hosting F1 and MotoGP in the same year - alongside the Circuit of Americas in the USA, the Circuit of Catalunya in Spain, the Red Bull Ring in Austria, the Silverstone Circuit in the UK and the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia.
[image source - Deviantart]
Such has been the fate of an abandoned circuit where the bulk of the groundwork was finished and the basis of the track was laid down. As I am standing on the start/finish line of the Balatonring at the weekend of the Austrian Grand Prix, I am imagining Ducatis, Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis trailing each other around me with a speed exceeding well over 200mph, winglets cutting through the air, exhaust pipes spitting flames, the tens of thousands of people cheering, the grandstands covered in yellow flags and haze. Rock ‘n’ roll has never come to town. All there is are the rocks, the grass, the oil wells, the occasional deer and me. All it is good for now is rally raid time trials, perhaps.
But maybe, just maybe, we can get the rock stars back one day.