Europe’s newest permanent circuit, Balaton Park, staged its first race meeting in October 2023 with the F4 Central European Zone finale. Formula Scout was there to find out more about the track and its future plans
The 4.115 kilometre-long Balaton Park circuit in Hungary is part of a leisure facility developed by Chanoch Nissany, one-time Formula 1 free practice participant and father of Formula 2 racer Roy, and is located near Lake Balaton which is 85km south of Budapest and is Central Europe’s largest lake.
Fifteen years after the idea was first raised, the circuit was opened to much fanfare last May, with ex-F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella taking some of the 90 invited media representatives, including 20 flown in from abroad, for a spin around the track.
The media presence for the opening race weekend was somewhat reduced; in fact, Formula Scout was the only independent written media to be in attendance for Balaton Park’s first public event.
As the circuit’s operational manager Adrienn Walterne Dancso explained, it had been a race to get everything ready in time.
“We had several smaller events and corporate events and small test days for [both] normal road cars and racing cars. This is the first racing weekend, and we are super happy that it could happen. It’s very difficult but also a little bit to be proud of because we have a local team as well,” she said.
Staffing the event required a significant investment in training, with many of the personnel being hired locally. In a country with little opportunity to gain circuit racing experience, this posed some challenges.
While the team could draw on marshals and other personnel who had worked at the Hungaroring, most were sourced locally.
“From the neighbourhood, around Balaton and in Veszprem. We have been training them since the very beginning. They are mainly working in rallies, [which is] very popular in this area. And from rally they are starting with circuit racing.”
The initial experience seems to have been positive as “they are super excited and looking forward to the next season”.
Balaton Park proudly claims that it will be able to accommodate 120,000 spectators in permanent and temporary grandstands. However, at present the sole grandstand opposite the pits can provide viewing to 9,000 fans. Or, at least, it will be able to once it’s open and accessible. For the opening event, public viewing was limited to the balcony of the circuit’s restaurant overlooking the pit garages.
“The grandstand is not ready,” Walterne Dancso said at the time. “We still need to do some work on that and it’s not [yet] 100% safe.”
However, the necessary safety inspections are in progress “so for spring, of course we will [have it open for spectators]”.
Access to the infield grandstand will be via a tunnel under the pit exit, “but it’s also the plan to have a bridge from next to the media centre [above the pits] and also a bridge for the other side of the track”.
Driving into the circuit, the grandstand is instantly visible above the sweetcorn growing in the surrounding fields. The circuit has something of the air of Snetterton, flat and windy, albeit with the most modern facilities including Tecpro barriers, MyLapsX2 for data tracking and LED signalling panels.
The initial impressions of the F4 CEZ drivers were positive, although some commented that the track could benefit from some elevation changes. Unsurprisingly for a new venue, the track offered very little grip at first and that tested the drivers.
Run-off is old-school gravel, which caught out many of the single-seater rookies, and the 16 corners mean it is twisty, but with “a very good rhythm” according to Walterne Dansco who is herself a racing driver.
“I had the possibility to test a little bit,” she adds. “And it’s really fun to drive with a lot of strong braking points, with some tricky corners which can be interesting, and long straights, [which provide] a nice high-speed test.”
The plan is to add a karting track, driving centre and “more grandstands on the outer side within two to three years” as a “step-by-step” approach is taken to develop the venue in its first years of operation.
Balaton Park applied initially for a FIA Grade 2 licence, although talk at the ceremonial opening was of being able to stage F1 events. But with the Hungaroring having extended its contract to stage the Hungarian Grand Prix until 2032, the idea is now off the table. At least for the next decade.
“The track itself is capable to host it [F1 races], but it’s not our target. Hungaroring is the home for that. We are a small country, so we won’t have both of course, but anyhow, if we will have a request like that, the track itself could host F1 as well,” Walterne Dansco says.
In reality, the circuit, its infrastructure, access roads and facilities would require a huge financial investment to reach the level required to stage an F1 round.
This year its main event will be a round of the Superbike World Championship in August, a few years ahead of the original plan, putting the pressure on the team to get everything ready in time. F4 CEZ will visit again, this time for its season opener in April, while the Hungaroring remains off limits due to reconstruction work.
Otherwise, the circuit is open to offers to hosting more, says Walterne Dansco: “We are on the on the market and are already providing some offers for different kinds of series. They are more than welcome.”
“The Ferrari Challenge will certainly be situated here and also we have several smaller series which would like to join some of the events, so we are making to collect them and do a common racing event for them.”
And since she’s an endurance racing fan: “A 24-hour race would be my dream. The European Le Mans Series? Why not?”
Beyond that, the circuit will focus on corporate events, with Porsche planning to return after the success of the marque’s 75th anniversary event this summer.
The location itself is a vibrant tourist destination, offering plenty of “hotels and every possibility for some wine tasting, dinners, sailing and so on” which may not be the first activites on the minds of spectators and guests of racing events but appeals to the event organisers, teams and sponsors who want to attract and entertain them.
Balaton Park will one day boast its own 145-room hotel, with a commanding view of the whole circuit. The plan was for it to open this June, but Walterne Dansco hopes that will be “a little bit sooner” to cater for another large Porsche event in May.
“They are very interested in renting the whole facilities and they would like to be in this hotel, so I hope they will hurry a little bit,” she says. “The transportation is also good because we are next to the highway so actually for the trucks and teams it’s really easy to get to us. The location is perfect.”
For the enthusiastic organisers, the first race weekend was an opportunity to learn and plan improvements. “We are walking in with open eyes so everything we see which needs to be changed, repaired or just made better for . Of course, the facility is new so there are some [things] that we didn’t think about.”
In fact “there are some changes which the FIA wanted to have from us” and those are being addressed this winter. One of the changes is “an extension of the asphalted area” of the track layout. And as other circuits have discovered, catering to both bikes and cars “is really not easy”. Walterne Dansco and her team ask the FIA and its two-wheeled counterpart FIM “to talk to each other and decide how to find a good solution” that meets both of their requirements, although in some matters each has fixed views that differ from each other such as corner distance boards [pictured below, with some surprise spectators].
For tracks like Balaton Park there are limited opportunities to run contemporary junior single-seater championships, so it is to be hoped that as F4 CEZ grows it can make the Hungarian venue a regular part of its calendar.
Recent additions to Europe’s list of permanent circuits such as Motorland Aragon and Navarra in Spain have established themselves on the Spanish F4 schedule, as well as adding Eurocup-3 for the next tier on the junior ladder.
And, if nothing else, any circuit which provides four espresso machines and a constant flow of croissants in the media centre deserves to succeed!
Europe’s newest permanent circuits
|Most recent junior single-seater event
|CEZ Circuit Racing Cup
|2023: F4 CEZ
|Motorland Aragon (ESP)
|ELMS, Eurocup-3, Spanish F4
|2023: Eurocup-3, Spanish F4
|Smolensk Ring (RUS)
|2019: F4 SMP
|2023: Spanish F4
|2019: F4 SMP
|Kazan Ring (RUS)
|2019: F4 SMP
|Moscow Raceway (RUS)
|2019: F4 SMP, 2014: FR3.5, FR2.0 Eurocup
|2021: F1, F2, FIA F3
|Fort Grozny (RUS)
|2016: F4 NEZ
|Transilvania Motor Ring (ROM)
|Romanian Endurance Series
|2021: FAcademy Finland
|Igora Drive (RUS)
|Balaton Park (HUN)
|F4 CEZ (2023)
Key: Russian Circuit Racing Series (RCRS), FR (Formula Renault), F4 NEZ (F4 North European Zone)