Motorcyle-mad Indonesia revs up for first GP in 25 years
Indonesia hosts first motorcycle grand prix in 25 years racing begins in front of a sell-out crowd
JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia hosts its first motorcycle grand prix in 25 years on Sunday, confident that concerns surrounding the new track will be forgotten once racing begins in front of a sell-out crowd.
The archipelago nation of 270 million people is motorbike mad -- many get around on two wheels -- and there is a palpable sense of excitement at the prospect of world-class racing returning.
Even President Joko Widodo is a fan and tried out the Mandalika International Street Circuit when he officially opened it in November, having a go on a custom-made green Kawasaki bike.
Sunday’s race is the second stop on the 2022 MotoGP calendar after the opening race in Qatar two weeks ago, won by Enea Bastianini of Italy.
The new 4.3-kilometre (2.7-mile) circuit hugs white-sanded coastline on the island of Lombok, which wants to rival its better-known neighbour, Bali, as a tropical holiday destination. The track complex is part of those ambitions.
There is great anticipation, but also angst and anger -- the circuit is part of a mega-tourism infrastructure project denounced by the United Nations over the eviction of families. Some refused to leave and were still encamped at the track in November.
When the track hosted a World Superbike race that same month there were concerns about the track surface.
Riders during MotoGP testing in February made similar complaints, saying the track was dirty and breaking up dangerously, with debris and stones flying into them like bullets.
Turn one was of particular concern. World champion Fabio Quartararo reportedly called it "a total disaster".
Organisers dismissed those fears as teething problems, carried out urgent resurfacing in places and are confident the track is now in tip-top condition.
"The condition that must be improved was the peeling asphalt, which created no grip for the racers," Cahyadi Wanda, vice-president of the Mandalika Grand Prix Association, told AFP.
"This work was completed on March 9. All of that work was 100 percent complete."
Wikanto Arungbudoyo, a MotoGP fanatic, is keeping his fingers crossed.
"I am eager to know what the riders say about the resurfaced track. Will we get positive feedback from them or maybe, God forbid, the problem gets worse?
"Indonesia is very much capable of holding a grand prix here," he added.
The country hosted motorcycle grand prix in 1996 and 1997 near the capital Jakarta, but its ambitions of becoming a mainstay of the sport were torpedoed by the Asian financial crisis.
For all the track’s breathtaking scenery and the excitement, there are other controversies.
Several villages were relocated -- voluntarily or by force -- to make way for the circuit’s construction.
Deadly quake, evictions
When AFP visited in November about 40 families, along with their cattle and dogs, were still holding out in the centre of the circuit despite alleged intimidation to cede their land.
Environmentalists also question the wisdom of hosting large-scale events on an island under threat from natural disasters.
Lombok is still struggling to rebuild following an earthquake in 2018 which killed more than 500 people and caused extensive damage.
Authorities hope the circuit complex will create thousands of jobs and attract up to two million foreign visitors a year, as Indonesia attempts to reinvigorate its crucial tourism industry which has suffered badly in the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid restrictions mean there will not be many international visitors this time and tickets are too expensive for local people.
But underlining the excitement, all 63,000 tickets for Sunday’s race day have sold out and those who cannot afford a ticket will watch from a nearby hill.
Yurson Hadi, head of Lombok’s tourism agency, said that many hotels -- among them five-star ones -- were also all booked up.
"Hopefully this event will be a good start for tourism recovery in Lombok and also Indonesia," he said.
The MotoGP racers will first take to the track on Friday for two free practice sessions. On Saturday there will be a final practice session and qualifying to decide pole position for Sunday’s race, which begins at 3:00pm (0700 GMT).