Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Anil Parmar (editor in chief – Formula E Diary)
Formula 1 cars may have been slower in past eras but they looked quicker, and the work that the drivers did behind the wheel was clearly beyond mere mortals like you and I. Much of the blame towards the lack of ‘spectacle’ has been levelled at the engines power units, however what everyone within the sport seems to ignore is that much of the fault lies with the circuits. The circuits are not just pieces of tarmac, but instead characters that bring Formula 1 to life. They are just as important as the drivers and the cars. A great circuit can turn a procession into something worth watching because the circuit itself leaves an impression.
And modern F1 circuits are terrible!
One of the key aspects of great F1 circuits is the ‘flow’ of the circuit. The ‘flow’ is when one corner or straight feeds into another, when each corner is partly defined by what proceeds and precedes it. There is perhaps no better example of this than the almighty Suzuka circuit, built to test racing cars to their limit.
Every corner here feeds into the next. The esses link beautifully to the Degnar corners, whilst spoon curve puts tremendous pressure on the drivers as they seek to get a perfect exit onto the back straight. The key to Suzuka’s success is that there is no wasted space; every single corner is designed to push a racing car to its limit, including the chicane and the hairpin.
Even when the races there don’t produce overtaking, the visual spectacle is something that any motorsport fan can appreciate. A perfect lap of Suzuka is something beautiful to watch.
But what about the more recent F1 tracks?
Recognise the above two circuits? Good, because China and Bahrain have been on the F1 calendar for sometime and it’s probably going to stay that way. Despite both of them having produced some great races, neither makes a Formula 1 car look spectacular. Why is that?
One of the biggest problems with modern F1 circuits is the sheer abundance of slow, technical corners, which ruin the flow of a circuit. Much of this is apparently to make overtaking easier however the verdict is still out on whether this has actually worked without ruining the visual impact of watching racing cars.
Not only do slow corners ruin the flow of a circuit, they also make Formula 1 cars look completely ordinary through them. Circuit layouts were much faster in past eras and whilst the racing was often processional (particularly in the early 00’s), the visual appeal of watching a car on the limit on such quick circuits was second to none. The cars looked alive back then. They don’t when racing around a hotel in Abu Dhabi (although I’m sure the hospitality is awesome), and they certainly don’t look exciting when going around turn 1 in China.
For all the criticism that the 2014 cars received, the looked great at tracks like Spa, Monza and Circuit de Catalunya. The latter doesn’t always produce great racing but watching the cars attack sectors 1 and 2 is very special.
DRS, Field Spread and Ctrl+C
Slow corners also created another problem, one familiar to anyone who has watched a race at Valencia, Singapore or Abu Dhabi. That problem is field spread, and it’s the single biggest problem I have with modern tracks.
When a fast corner precedes a long straight, the following driver loses some aerodynamic performance, however this is somewhat negated by the fact he reaches top speed relatively quickly and can use the slipstream effect, as well as DRS to try and make a pass. When a slow corner is used however, we have a problem, because the chasing driver is limited by when he can put his foot down. Before you know, he’s lost 20m to the driver in front. Martin Brundle refers to this as the ‘concertina effect’.
Of course, the real solution here is to cut down on aerodynamics and increase mechanical grip but that’s a topic for another time…
Because of these design choices, circuit design has become less and less exciting, with fast corners often forced together (see Korea) whilst hairpins and slow corners are placed at every opportunity. F1 has resorted to a not-so-inspirational combination of hairpins and straights to ‘facilitate overtaking’, although the success of this has been minimum at best.
In fact, looking back at the recent additions on the F1 calendar, the amount of ‘hairpin-straight-hairpin’ complexes is shocking. China, Malaysia, Valencia, India, Korea (which has two of these zones immediately after each other), Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and COTA all feature this combination of corners which, combined with DRS, has now created a designated part of each circuit where overtaking should be completed.
The only modern circuit that does not feature this mickey-mouse combination is Istanbul Park in Turkey, which features the mighty turn 8 and the ‘faux-rouge’ turn 9, both quick and challenging corners. Ironically, this is considered to be best modern Tilke circuit, although it’s not even on the calendar anymore. Go figure!
The field spread at some modern circuits is so significant that after the 2010 Abu Dhabi circuit, Jean Todt said:
‘It (overtaking) was impossible. I’m speaking as the President of the FIA. From now on, before a new circuit is approved, we will evaluate the potential for the spectacle as well as the safety’.
Instead of taking action on circuit design and cutting down on aero, we were left with DRS as a ‘fix’. By ignoring the problem and coming with an artificial solution, Formula 1 has traded visual appeal for convenience. It’s not right.
The downfall of Formula 1 circuits is made clear when we take a look at the Austrian GP, now held at the Red Bull Ring. It’s unique track layout, which features just 7 corners and a lap time of around 70 seconds, received universal acclaim from drivers and fans upon its F1 return. Jenson Button expressed his delight that ‘there are more fast corners (4) than slow corners (3) when speaking to Martin Brundle on Sky Sports.
The irony was not to be lost on this writer, who recalls how the circuit, in its guise as the A-1 Ring, was considered to be a butchered version of the incredible Osterreichring Grand Prix circuit. It’s telling that such a circuit is now loved for its fast corners when it is a much slower version of the old racetrack. The same fate awaits Mexico; the stunning original layout has been tinkered with, giving us tighter corners and a forced stadium section. When will it stop?
I firmly believe that track layout, from the tarmac itself to the run off around it, is as important to the spectacle as the cars and drivers. Tracks need to be varied, visually appealing and present a high degree of challenge; get this right and the visual appeal of watching great drivers in extraordinary machines can’t be topped. The FIA need to realise this and ease off the restrictions place on Tilke and other F1 circuit designers; the sport deserves more than forced layouts, endless run off areas and ‘overtake here’ DRS zones. Circuits are the characters of F1 and it’s time we brought them back to life.