Indonesia wins with return of the motorcycle Grand Prix – Nikkei Asia
MANDALIKA, Indonesia — Twenty-five years is a long time in between races.
That’s how long Indonesia, a motorbike-crazy nation with some 112 million units in use according to Statista, had to wait for the return of the MotoGP, the premier class of international motorbike road racing.
There are 19 MotoGP events every season, each held in different parts of the world. Indonesia has hosted events in the past, back in 1996 and 1997 at the Sentul International Circuit in Bogor, West Java.
But after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis saw Indonesia’s government collapse and violent race riots engulfed the country the following year, it was no longer considered a suitable host nation.
Seen in this historical context and arriving after 22 years of democracy and at the tail end of two years of punishing COVID-19 outbreaks and restrictions, the return of the MotoGP series offered a much-needed breath of fresh air for Indonesia and the economy of the wider region.
A brand-new racetrack was built for the event — the Mandalika International Circuit on the island of Lombok, Bali’s stunning and long-neglected neighbor. Set on a dreamlike bay edged by palm trees and backdropped by lush green mountains, there is no denying the photogenic allure of Mandalika and the fantastic aerial footage the raceway provides.
But the seaside project has been mired in controversy. The centerpiece of the Mandalika Special Economic Zone, a $3 billion integrated tourism project with five-star hotels, convention spaces, glimmering mosques, retail precincts and parks, it took 15 years to construct.
The project began in 2007 when Indonesia sold Mandalika to the Dubai Development Authority for $240 million. But when the global financial crisis hit in 2009, Dubai was forced to sell Mandalika back to Indonesia at a 50% discount and the project stalled.
In 2011 it was resuscitated by the opening of an international airport in Lombok and the appointment of a new developer — the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation, the same group that turned the Nusa Dua land reclamation project in Bali into a world-class leisure and convention destination.
In 2019, the United Nations accused authorities on Lombok of human rights abuse over widespread allegations of land grabs and forced evictions of subsistence farmers and fisherpeople who lived on the site. The Indonesians brushed off the allegations, saying residents with land titles were compensated for their land.
Mandalika’s two largest investors, Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and French group VINCI Construction Grands Projets, took them more seriously and recruited independent consultants to investigate. But they found everything had been above board despite scores of media reports that corroborated the UN’s findings.
And only a month before the event, there was talk of it being pushed back to the end of the year after riders testing the circuit raised serious safety issues over the state of the circuit’s surface. Current MotoGP world champion Fabio Quartararo of France said he was hit in the throat by loose gravel during a test run. But local contractors swooped into action, resurfacing more than half the circuit in an eleventh-hour push to get the all-clear.
“The way things improved from one day to the next was incredible,” said Frine Velilla, media manager for Dorna Sports, the Spanish company that runs the MotoGP series worldwide. “We came here for a test a month ago and since then they have built new grandstands and roads.”
The infrastructure was put to the test in March when up to 65,000 ticket holders descended upon the seaside circuit. They were mostly middle-class people from Indonesia’s most populated island of Java, and Bali, who traveled either by air, road and ferry to Lombok.
Indonesia had lifted quarantine two weeks earlier but attendance by foreigners was limited to a few hundred people because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Yet the die-hard MotoGP fans from abroad who made the effort to come were not disappointed.
“I wanted to see a MotoGP being held on a brand-new track and I just wanted to get the hell out of the country after two years of lockdowns,” said Ian Godwin of Australia, who was attending his sixth MotoGP with his wife Miriam.
“Once we got past the pinch-points and traffic in the smaller villages and got into the VIP area, it was very well organized, with all the necessary temperature checks and QR codes for contact tracing,” he said. “There is room for improvement in the general admission area, there are lots of muddy paths, and around the circuit, it still looks like a construction site. But that’s Indonesia for you.”
The risk of riders coming off at dangerously high speeds was more pronounced at Mandalika because of the newness of the track, which has 17 turns including some very fast corners.
Spaniard Marc Marquez, the third most successful MotoGP racer of all time, came off his motorbike twice during the first two days of the event. Marquez suffered a concussion during a warm-up lap on day three after he came off a third time and somersaulted 5 m into the air before crashing onto the track, writing off a multimillion motorbike in the process.
Held at the tail end of Indonesia’s monsoon season, torrential downpour hit an hour before the start of the final heat on the afternoon of Day 3. Crowds refused to abandon the grandstands as the rain bucketed down and racing was delayed.
As the clock ticked on, organizers were just about to call it a day when the rain stopped as suddenly it had begun. The riders soon emerged from the pit and assumed their spots on the starting line.
Minutes later, the sounds of 23 supercharged motorcycles thundering down the straight at Mandalika at speeds of up to 300 km/hour rang through the air, driving the crowd into a frenzy.
The race was reduced to 20 laps from 27 because of safety concerns before Portuguese racer Miguel Oliveria crossed the finish line 2.205 seconds ahead of Quartararo, the race favorite who started from pole position. Then, within minutes, it started raining again. But there was no dampening the enthusiasm of the crowd, scores of which sought out racers and race organizers for souvenir group selfies.
“Indonesia is the country where we have the most MotoGP fans by far. Gasoline runs through their veins,” said Velilla. “They treat us like rock stars, they know everyone who works in our organization, even backstage people like me. They are super happy we have come back and we are super happy to be here.”