Saturday, November 29, 2008

How to design a classic motor racing circuit

Hermann Tilke is, I'm sure, a pleasant, compassionate human being, who loves his wife, dotes on his children, and is nice to his mum. And, if Hermann Tilke had become, say, a tax inspector rather than a Formula 1 circuit designer, then I'm sure that someone else, just like Hermann, would also have introduced a collection of bland, insipid, unimaginative, life-force draining circuits into Grand Prix racing. The trend in Formula 1 circuit design is determined by the economic logic of modern Formula 1, rather than the predilections of one particular German architect.

The revenue streams which drive modern Formula 1, are dependent upon maximising the exposure of mass television audiences to international brand-names. Such exposure requires: (i) ultra-safe circuits, in order that the sensitive modern audience will not be exposed to death or injury, and in order that those precious brand-values will not be damaged by association with death and injury; (ii) circuits which, from the perspective of television camera angles, maxmise the period of time over which a stable image is presented of the brand-names on cars and trackside banners; and (iii) circuits which minimise initial construction costs, given that the financial structure of modern Formula 1 entails that the individual circuits hosting Grands Prix struggle to make a profit.

There are only two types of classic motor racing circuit: those shaped by the topography of the natural landscape, and those shaped by the connectivity of a cityscape which has grown organically, rather than by means of urban planning. Classic circuits need gradient, camber, restricted fields of view, overhanging trees, irregular surfaces, and a variety of corner radii. And, crucially, classic cirucits need challenging corners. That means corners which penalise a driving error with a serious crash, not merely a trip across a tarmac apron.

None of which is of any concern to Hermann Tilke. One of Hermann's first tasks was to butcher the awe-inspiring natural curves of the Osterreichring, in Austria's Styrian mountains, into a flat, slow-corner dirge. Since then, he has presented us with abominations such as Bahrain and Shanghai, but was, I must acknowledge, lauded when the new Istanbul circuit contained a challenging fast, triple-apex left-hander...with a run-off area the size of Luxembourg.

Last week, the FIA GT championship raced in Argentina on a mountain circuit, Petrero de Los Funes (pictured), shaped by the lake in a volcanic caldera. The GT series organiser, Stephane Ratel, described the circuit in Autosport as "the Bathurst of South America," and explained: "From the beginning the idea was to have a very fast circuit. The legendary circuits are usually very fast, very challenging, natural circuits not designed by computers."

Not designed by computer: Imagine! Surely any serious person understands that the priority should be to maximise safety and revenue, and to design by means of the computer. Anything else is simply irresponsible.


Patrick said...

I hadn't heard of St Luis circuit until I saw the pictures in Autosport this week. It does look *very* impressive. Doubtless the FIA wouldn't let F1 anywhere near it, which is a shame because, as you say, it's about the best new racing circuit there's been since the new Spa opened.

(as an aside, credit where credit is due, this week's Autosport was actually pretty good. A decent-length piece on Paul Di Resta, an interesting interview with Steve Hallam, a piece on where the World Rally Championship has been going wrong these past few years. If it hadn't been for the awful 'fact box' based Coulthard article I might have written to them to congratulate them)

Gordon McCabe said...

Indeed, although note that the St Luis circuit appears to be a modified version of a circuit previously used in 1987, so it doesn't quite qualify as a brand-new track.

I think the World Rally Championship deserves a post all of its own. The day we return to 30-mile stages, 50-stage rallies, 5-day marathons, and legs which go through the night before reaching rest halts, is the day the World Rally Championship re-discovers its reason for existing.