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Unlocking the mysteries of Termas de Rio Hondo: An Interview with Jarno Zaffelli

3.56K   //    24 Apr 2014, 21:29 IST

The MotoGP circus is now treading unknown waters as it makes its way to Argentina, home to the tango, the incredible works of Jorge Luis Borges, and football maestros Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. The riders are on their way to fast-flowing and enigmatic Autodromo Termas de Rio Hondo, created by circuit designer Jarno Zaffelli. 

Jarno Zaffelli Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli / (editorial use only)

Jarno Zaffelli Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli /

Zaffelli was named after Jarno Saarinen and has been a petrolhead for as long as he can remember. He started studying racetracks so that he could build one in his town. “But there were no real rules, no manual…,” he says. He started travelling the world learning from other racetracks and then in 2008 designed the circuit at Motorcity Verona. Zaffelli soon found himself working on Pontedera, Misano, Imola, Mugello and many other circuits. The Argentinian circuit will be his first full design to host MotoGP. Riding Fast and Flying Low caught up with him to demystify the circuit:

About Circuito Termas de Rio Hondo

Autodromo Termas de Rio Hondo Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli / (editorial use only)

Autodromo Termas de Rio Hondo Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli /

“Circuito Termas de Rio Hondo in Argentina was born in 2007. The governor of the province of Santiago del Estero (where the circuit is) Gerardo Zamora is a real petrolhead and wanted a racetrack in his city. The circuit was built with the support of Hector Farina, former Turismo Carretera Champion.

“In 2011, the racetrack was declared as suitable to host MotoGP, but with ‘a couple of mods’. These modifications meant destroying and rebuilding the circuit completely. There was also my design for the circuit, which was for both cars and bikes. The aim was for it to be fast… really fast, challenging and safe.

“The circuit is 4,806 metres, with an expected average speed that would be, if not the fastest, the second fastest in the MotoGP World Championship.”

Demystifying DroCAS™, the software used to design safe circuits

“DroCAS™, the software used to design the circuit in Argentina, was invented in 2004. I initially created it because of a lack of written racetrack design best practices, other than the FIA Internal Guidelines and some thumb rules I found around the world. I started travelling to international racetracks to understand how they were designed, built and operated. I studied, interviewed and reverse engineered the tracks.


“Then, in 2008 DroCAS™ became a software, which incorporated performance simulators. After 2010, it began to include crash tests results, experiences and statistics. Today it contains data on more than 30,000 crashes, in every category of motorsport. It has been certified by DEKRA to be the tool to design racetracks and proving grounds. DroCAS™ was applied on all MotoGP racetracks and on 865 riders’ crashes last season. It was able to predict 100% of all predictable crashes, and 98% of unpredictables as well.”

Making DroCAS™ work for Termas de Rio Hondo

“DroCAS™ was seamlessly integrated into the process of designing Termas, which was designed for cars and bikes, and depending on tyre behaviours and the space needed by a falling rider.

“For instance, T10 was conceived because DroCAS™ pointed out that there was the potential to have cold tyres once in T13, and that’s ‘the last chance’ to win. It was not safe. All run-offs and debris fences are designed depending on DroCAS™ results where the riders and their bikes would likely stop once fallen. Gravel, tarmac and grass are positioned where needed to reduce costs, maintenance and operations. But it’s not only about design. Medical staff for the event, for instance, has been deployed depending on where DroCAS™ pointed out that 90% of accidents was likely happen to riders.

“In the case of existing circuits, like Imola and Mugello, DroCAS™ helped us understand the real risks objectively. We were then able to make choices within the budget that we had to reduce mistakes. So Mugello has just updated its Turn 12 run-off, and Imola solved issues on Turn 1 that has been plaguing it for over 20 years, because of a tricky corner transition.”

On the unique features of Termas de Rio Hondo

“Termas has been designed keeping the riders and the fans in mind. It contains all kind of corners, a long straight, several overtaking points and everything is extremely visible, because the grandstands’ layout is mainly outside. Turn 2/Turn 3 will be highly spectacular. Those corners are two of the eight in Termas that have no other comparison in the World Championship. Turn 7 and Turn 8 have a false apex, while Turn 9 and Turn 10 are totally blind, but key for laptime. Fans will see close racing in Turn 12/Turn 13, because it has been designed with a unique shape. The track is also unusually very wide, and this will be another factor of misperception by the riders.”

Overtaking points and track services map. Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli / (editorial use only)

Overtaking points and track services map. Image courtesy Jarno Zaffelli /

On the most challenging section for the riders

“The most challenging section for the riders will be from Turn 9 to Turn 11. The entry is blind; going uphill, they have then to go down while changing direction with very low force on the front wheel, while trying to approach T11 as fast as possible. Many riders will find it difficult, as the reference points are not so straightforward. It will be a joy for the fans.”

Overcoming challenges while working on Termas de Rio Hondo

“The biggest challenge of working on Termas lay in gaining Hector Farina’s trust. He treated the racetrack as his child, and with good reason, I can say. The problem is that I realized immediately that we needed to do a tremendous amount of work refining the track. I had to gain his trust and not hurt him in the process of reworking the track. I didn’t gain his trust, until he ran on the new track. After that he was really smiling.”

SBK race at Imola 2013. Image courtesy WSBK

SBK race at Imola 2013. Image courtesy WSBK

Making historical racetracks safe, while preserving them

“Working on historical racetracks has its own set of issues. Run-off is constrained and track characteristics should be preserved as much as possible. DroCAS™ helps a lot in such instances. Often you recognize non-existing risks, and while doing calculations, you can determine quite accurately where you need space or not.

“In Imola, I have just finished building a new run-off internally to Turn 18, specifically for World Superbikes, but for cars as well. It was a tricky situation. The fastest point of the track was sloping downwards with cars and bikes often crossing the run-off due to the high speed, before joining the track again. This was not safe. It was proposed that we do a debris fence crossing the run-off, but it was not safe for cars. Other options were explored.

“In the end, after two months of calculations and simulations, we ran into the actual solution. We changed the aggregates with a lightweight type, so as to increase the stopping power. First crashes demonstrated that our calculations were proper, with 30% less space needed to stop the riders, and bikes not bouncing less than half as before. Cars stop as well into it. It is perhaps not the perfect solution. But it is an improvement. In our ongoing research into safety balance, it is a real improvement, while keeping the track as challenging.”

Experience one lap on the Termas de Rio Hondo for yourself. Check out the video of Franco Uncini as he takes to the track on a Yamaha R1 below:


Length 4,806m

Width 16

Constructed 2007

Rebuilt 2012

Right Corners 9

Left Corners 5

Longest Straight 1,060m

Pole Position Left

Twist Index 0.952

Simulated MotoGP Ideal Laptime (3D) 1’34.302

{All images, except WSBK 2013 race at Imola, courtesy Jarno Zaffelli /}

Interview also published on Riding Fast and Flying Low