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Exclusive: Track designer Nunes talks Hong Kong

Season 3 of Formula E has kicked off on the streets of Hong Kong. We take a look at what went on behind the build of the track with circuit designer Rodrigo Nunes.

It’s midnight and it’s raining heavily in Central Hong Kong. The streets are wet and slippery and the dazzling lights from the nearby towering buildings are reflected on the streets where Formula E cars will be racing on that weekend. Thankfully, the storm had abated into a drizzle when I arrived at the Hong Kong ePrix track to meet architect and circuit designer Rodrigo Nunes for our interview sometime close to 1am. In between the bustle of cranes, tractors, trucks and a multitude of workers working late into the night, Nunes emerges and beckons me to cross the closed pathway through a small opening in one of the fences to gain access into the track.

Later on, I got a call from Formula E asking me if I was interested in working for them to design street circuits, …

Nunes is the head of R+S Project, a construction and design company based in Portugal. His involvement with motor racing, he says, began with a call from the Mayor of Porto in Portugal, “We were asked to design a street circuit there, the Circuito da Boavista for the WTCC championship and we’ve been working on race tracks ever since 2004. Later on, I got a call from Formula E asking me if I was interested in working for them to design street circuits, so I said, sure!” Since then, Nunes has designed the Moscow, Paris, Beijing and the Berlin Tempelhof ePrix tracks with Hong Kong as the latest addition to his impressive CV.

I met Nunes on the Thursday before the race weekend. In Formula E, this day is also termed as ‘build day’ —the day when the finishing touches are laid out on the track—but, unusually for the Hong Kong ePrix, the construction work was carried out all the way into Friday as the local authorities didn’t allow for the public roads to be completely closed down until then. While much of the track had already been set up earlier in the week, the rest of the finishing touches—such as setting up the fences and safety barriers—could only be laid down after the roads were officially closed to the public after 10pm that Thursday.

“We work for eight days and the Thursday of a Formula E weekend is on the eighth day. There is a part of the road (editor’s note: near Lung Wo Road, where the 555 metre main straight between Turn 1 and Turn 2 is located) that can only be closed on Friday and we have about 400 metres to finish there.”

The track—which is approximately 2km in length with 10 turns around Hong Kong’s iconic central harbour front and is located within the vicinity of the Central Star Ferry Pier and the iconic observation wheel—is located smack-dab in Hong Kong’s busiest business hubs and is a tourist hotspot where the roads are almost always congested with high volumes of traffic. After-dark construction works will be the only way to lessen crowding and reduce the disturbance for the locals.

Ideally, Formula E had originally intended for the Hong Kong ePrix to be included way back in the season one calendar, but discussions and approval from the local authorities and the FIA took much longer than expected. According to Nunes (pictured on the right), it’s a normal obstacle they face when trying to build a street circuit in the middle of any city centre and to turn it into a temporary racing venue. “The idea for Hong Kong started in 2013, we came here for the first time then to check the site then and we tried to find a place where we could race. We found two or three locations in the beginning that might be suitable but one of it was centred around a government building, so obviously the idea was refused by the local authorities, but that’s normal.” he says with a shrug. “So, we changed the layout and did some civil works for the current track now.”

rodrigo-nunes

Of course, it takes a lot of planning, strategy, discussions and effort to convince any city council to close their roads that would obviously disrupt nearby businesses and residents to hold a massive three-day event in the middle of a bustling city centre – but it’s all part of the challenge and Nunes knows the right forms of negotiations need to be worked out to get what both parties want in the end.

“Today I woke up at midday and I sleep at 8 o’ clock in the morning, so I get about four hours of sleep on Thursday, it’s not bad.”

In between brief but constant interruptions from his team who await for his orders via walkie-talkie, Nunes modestly describe his role as the circuit designer, “Today I woke up at midday and I sleep at 8 o’ clock in the morning, so I get about four hours of sleep on Thursday, it’s not bad.” he laughs. He’s not particularly an enthusiastic fan of motor racing, he tells me (although, he does enjoy casual go-kart racing with a few close friends).

However, the inspiration for designing racetracks comes from a clear idea on how he envisions racing in the world’s most iconic cities would be like and by taking counsel from race car drivers, “I have a lot of friends who are race car drivers, so when we are designing the track, I’m always trying to get their advice. We work as a team, so I’ll have an idea and they’ll have their ideas so then I’d go back to them and check the details such as, ‘should I make the turn more sharper or more wider?'” Does he seek advice from any of the current Formula E drivers? “No, not really,” he says with a laugh, “Otherwise, they’ll have an advantage.”

So, what kind of work does he get up to on build day at this time of the night? “We make sure we finish all the mounting process, paint all the lines and make sure everything is on par with the project.” He says, making it sound incredibly simpler than the actual task at hand. “There is a clear process in the beginning, we come with an idea and we will settle and discuss the main things such as where to put the paddock, as it’s not easy to find a place like that in the middle of city centres.” He says, “Here in Hong Kong, we got a chance to build the pits in this private area, (a stretch of road within the Central Harbour Front event space that’s located away from the main road) so we’re quite lucky. But in Paris and Berlin, it wasn’t possible.”

Government support is also crucial in organising event such as this. The Hong Kong authorities gave security and emergency services support as well as carrying out necessary road works such as resurfacing and conversion of footpaths to make the circuit conform to FIA safety standards. Meanwhile, public footpaths were converted temporarily and tree transplantation and felling was also carried out. All these road works, however, aren’t mainly for the benefit of the race weekend, but will also help to improve the conditions of the roads for locals long after the race is over.

“We need the city’s support, because when me and my team arrive in a city, we don’t know much about the way traffic works here, so we also need their help to understand how and when we can close the roads. Then everything depends on the road closures. We’ll then start mounting the circuit from one side to the other and try to finish everything on time.” He explains while quietly inspecting every corner to make sure everything is going as planned and on schedule. “The biggest challenge for Hong Kong was the civil works done on the roads, because there was a part of the road with only seven metres more or less, and we usually work on about 10 metres and I asked my team to widen the roads so they made a huge effort they did a great work,” he says.

“If there was one city that I’d like to design a street race in, it would be New York.”

Which part of the track is his favourite? “For me, it’s at Turn 9 and Turn 1. The braking zone at Turn 1 for me would be the best place to see the race. It’s a huge straight and has a very strong braking zone so it’s very good for drivers to take advantage here.” Once the construction works are done and the track is ready-to-go, Nunes still doesn’t get to put his feet up, “We’re always at race control on race day in case of any problems so we can work immediately on the repairing.”

As was the case during the weekend, a last minute change was made when race officials decided to remove a part of a sausage kerb at the chicane at Turn 3/4 in between the practice and qualifying sessions. Teams were only notified of the change mere minutes before the next session was due to start, resulting in crashes and plenty of confusion on the track. It’s these unpredictable changes that make street circuit racing even more of a challenge, but also a part of the excitement of racing on existing roads and a huge part of the unpredictability that we see in Formula E.

Now that the Hong Kong ePrix is done and dusted, Nunes’ job is done – and with yet another ePrix circuit ticked off his list, what’s next? “If there was one city that I’d like to design a street race in, it would be New York. I know it won’t be easy and there are no plans yet,” he says with a smile.

Imagse courtesy of Noor Amylia Hilda. Profile photo of Rodrigo Nunes courtesy of R+S Project

About Noor Amylia Hilda
Noor Amylia Hilda is a journalist based in Kuala Lumpur with bylines in titles such as Women's Health, Esquire and ELLE. She is also a freelance motorsport journalist covering the FIA Formula E championship and Formula 1.