If you want to build a world-class Formula One racetrack in challenging conditions, your first call is likely to be to Bickhardt Bau AG, a 1,600-person German firm based in Kirchheim that specializes in roadway and racetracks. 

If you want to build a world-class Formula One racetrack in challenging conditions, your first call is likely to be to Bickhardt Bau AG, a 1,600-person German firm based in Kirchheim that specializes in roadway and racetracks. Bickhardt Bau is one of the most experienced Formula One firms and is especially noted for overcoming construction challenges in exotic locations. The Shanghai International Circuit, for example, where Bickhardt designed and staked the binder and wearing courses, was built in swampy conditions and required approximately 340,000 cubic meters (444,700 cubic yards) of expanded polystyrene (EPS) to stabilize top layers. Bickhardt also built the Middle East’s first Formula One track, in Bahrain. The firm’s work has powerful admirers; the vice-president of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, Norbert Haug, has said of the Bickhardt’s Hockenheimring in Baden-Württemberg, which biannually holds the Formula One, German Grand Prix, “I don’t know of any other racetrack that is as even as Hockenheim−it was created in ‘racing speed’ and is of the very highest quality.”

Yet even while the firm is comfortable with tough conditions in far-flung corners of the world, the Yas Marina Circuit, in Abu Dhabi, was unique. Start with a combination of extraordinarily high temperatures and humidity and add a lack of local roadway material, and you have a difficult project. But there was an additional factor to consider: Bickhardt was asked to complete the construction, from breaking ground to a race-ready track, in just one year. Could the firm rise to the challenge? 

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, comprising about 80 percent of the young country’s area. (The UAE was founded in 1971.) About 70 percent of Abu Dhabi is coastal desert, but since the Emirate controls huge oil reserves, it’s extraordinarily well developed−the city of Abu Dhabi boasts a Manhattan-like skyline that includes some of the world’s most spectacular modern buildings.

Temperatures are extreme, and so is humidity. The year-round average temperature is 27ºC (80.6ºF), and the coastal location pushes humidity to 80 percent. By comparison, the year-round average in Las Vegas is just 19ºC (66.2ºF) with much lower humidity. For further comparison, a typical steam sauna is about 50ºC (122ºF) and 100 percent humidity.

Heat this high seriously affects roadway construction. Staking was done only during relatively cool morning and evening time periods, and asphalt was only poured at night. During summer months, no work at all was done from noon to 3 p.m. “It takes time to acclimatize, and one has to drink plenty of water,” says Horst Walther, Bickhardt’s survey division manager. “Also, we had to learn to work slower, which is very hard for Germans!”

Bickhardt had 25 employees onsite in Abu Dhabi during the project. The survey team included survey engineer Markus Bolaender and his assistant Jürgen Heinemann, supported by Frank Straub, a dedicated staff member back in Kirchheim. All of the team members, including Project Manager Frank Dittrich, were in Abu Dhabi from July 2008 to August 2009, working six days a week. “On the seventh day they would get a good night’s rest and do washing, emailing, etc.,” says Walther, who oversaw survey operations from Kirchheim. “And they did take one sightseeing trip into the desert. But mainly, they worked.”

The Yas Marina Circuit is designed by Hermann Tilke, which is a little like having Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus design one’s golf course. Tilke is a former winning racer, and his tracks−he’s designed more than 20 from scratch−are known for long straight sections and tight hairpin curves, which he believes encourages overtaking. Yas Marina (which is built on an artificial island) is no exception; after turn seven, the track features the second-longest “straight” on the Formula One calendar. This section has recorded top speeds of up to 320 kmh (200 mph). Yas Marina is also one of the largest tracks overall, with a total length of 5.53 km (3.43 miles), 12-15 meter (40-50 feet) track widths, and 20 spectacular turns. Formula One tracks are highly engineered, and Yas Marina incorporates nearly one million tons of subbase and 200,000 tons of asphalt.

Even on a typical highway, a sudden bump or pothole can be a shock; in Formula One racing, where speeds well over 290 kmh (180 mph) are common, they’re a disaster that must be avoided at all costs. Consequently, tolerances are exceptionally tight. “At ground level, all surfaces had to be within four centimeters (1.5 inches) of design,” says Walther. “Subbase had to be within three centimeters (1.2 inches), granular subbase had to be within 2 centimeters (0.8 inches), and the final surface had to be extraordinarily flat−in any four meters (13.1 feet) of track, no more than 2 millimeters (0.08 inches) of deviation was permissible.”

Yas Marina was a perfect storm of project challenges: a remote site with an extreme climate, very tight tolerances, and an even tighter construction schedule. But it turned out to be all in a day’s−or rather, year’s−work for Bickhardt Bau AG.

At the start of the project, Caterpillar machines equipped with Trimble GCS900 Grade Control Systems ensured that the ground level met the required tolerances. 

Control was established with very long GPS observations by a Trimble 5800 GPS Receiver, and the control net was made up of concrete monuments spaced 100 meters (328 feet) apart and set deep to minimize the effect of high surface temperatures. Spirit leveling was performed to verify and tighten vertical measurements.

The Trimble 5800 was used to stake the ground level and the drainage system. Other staking was done with a Trimble 5600 Total Station and a Trimble SPS730 Universal Total Station (UTS), and the SPS730 was also used to control the Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System that guided earth movers and graders on the site.

Several strategies were used to achieve the precision needed, and for quality control. Calculations were performed by experienced staff in Germany, using CARD/1, a proprietary CAD system developed by the German firm IB&T. Data were emailed to the site each day. “This system worked very well,” Walther says. “The entire project was calculated in Germany, and the set-out data always got to us on time. The design digital terrain models allowed excellent control and formed the basis for all subsequent stakeout and machine control work. Even last-minute changes were adapted to quickly, and a centralized document management system kept all stakeholders informed of the current project status.”

Staking was only done during relatively cool parts of the day, with constant checks to multiple benchmarks. Walther says the Trimble GCS900 and SPS730 worked very well together: “The SPS730 was designed to work dynamically with very little delay, and it really performed well. It was very quick and exact with the GCS900, and we were easily within tolerance on the subbase levels−checking with the Trimble 5600 confirmed that.”

Paving was done with the “hot on hot” method, which required three Vögele paving machines to work simultaneously along with six Hamm steel rollers, all imported (with all other equipment) by a container ship assembled in Hamburg. To counter heat, all paving was done at night by the light of the largest permanent lighting system ever created for a sports venue. “With all the steel rollers operating, it looked like a race,” jokes Walther. “So who gets all the championship points?”

The track’s first “race” with steel drum rollers.

Final track layout consisted of 30 cm (11.8 inches) of crushed stone base, 20 cm (7.9 inches) of granular subbase, 8 cm (3.14 inches) of binders, and 4 cm (1.6 inches) of wearing course. Since there is little but sand to work with in Abu Dhabi, most of this material was imported from the United Kingdom and Malaysia. For example, all the gravel used on the track surface is known as “Graywacke Aggregate” and came from the Bayston Hill Quarry in Shropshire, England. (Graywacke is prized by Formula One drivers and circuit bosses for its high level of grip.) All asphalt was mixed on site in a batch plant operated by MKW, a Bickhardt subsidiary.

“Maximum precision, perfect workmanship, passion, optimum equipment and the necessary expertise were the solid foundation of the high quality we were able to achieve,” Walther says. “Add to that the team spirit of all the employees involved, including the 16 locals who joined our staff for the duration, and you know why we are able to do what we do so well.”

Built on Yas Island, the Yas Marina Circuit is the anchor of a very ambitious development. In addition to the racetrack, the island includes a theme park, water park, marina, residences, hotels and beaches. The track itself has four grandstand areas and passes by the marina and underneath the Yas Marina Hotel. It’s only the second Formula One Circuit in the Middle East, but is already a very popular and busy venue.

The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Formula One’s governing body, granted final approval to the Yas Marina Circuit on Oct. 7, 2009. Bruno Senna completed the first test lap. 

The Trimble 5600 Total Station was an important component that helped Bickhardt Bau achieve the tight track tolerances.

Since then, the track has become the home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, held in November as the last race on the Formula One calendar. In 2009, the event was the first to begin in the daytime and end at night; to ensure a smooth transition, floodlights were on from the beginning of the race. In 2010, Sebastian Vettel sealed the driver’s championship by winning his second race at Abu Dhabi.

Throughout its inaugural seasons, the circuit has won praise from drivers. “Every corner is unique,” says Nico Rosberg, and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso says that Abu Dhabi is, “… enjoyable, because there is always something to do.” Notably, there have been no complaints of unevenness in the track. 

Bickhardt’s Surveying Engineer Markus Bolaender sets the control network with a Trimble GPS 5800 Receiver.

“The complete surveying on this project was made possible by the intelligent fusion of modern components like GPS, total stations, and machine control,” Walther says. “This allowed a single survey to manage the site very effectively and comply with all tolerances.”

Civilizations are sometimes defined by their sports venues, just as Rome was defined by its Coliseum. In the Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi has created an excellent emblem of the state it has become: modern, powerful, extremely fast, and able to import the resources it needs. And, thanks to the survey team of Bickhardt Bau AG, very precise.