Indy Lite?

Atlas F1

Indy Lite?

by Robert W. Butsch, U.S.A.

Formula One is at last on its way back to the U.S. after a nearly one decade absence. Sometime in 2000 we will see a Grand Prix on a road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Some of us were hoping for Laguna Seca or Road Atlanta or, miracle of miracles, Watkins Glen. But IMS took the prize, so we will have to make the best of it.

Atlas F1 recently published an informative article by Ewan Tytler on what to look for when the Brickyard GP rolls around ("The Return of the Yankee GP", December 9th, 1998). Readers could peruse a layout of the new course and learn why some other popular proposed venues didn't make the cut. As good as the article was, one still must question Tytler's enthusiasm for the design of the new course. The analogies with Monza may be superficially applicable, but this does not make the track anything other than board flat with half of its length shoe-horned into the infield. If it is indeed a sort of Monza in miniature, then it appears to be from the same 'Honey I Shrunk the Track' school that produced that unworthy successor to Zeltweg - the A1 Ring.

The relatively impressive predicted lap average of 125 mph may turn out to be correct, but most of that speed would come from the oval part of the course. Any proposed road course at Indy faced significant handicaps from the outset. The lack of elevation change limits the course's potential. Everyone knew the course would have to be small. The designers should have accepted these difficulties and strove to make virtue of necessity. Instead they put 13 curves inside four kilometers in a transparent effort to extract as much distance as possible out of a paucity of acreage. It looks like the only reason that there are not more corners is because the designers ran out of room for gravel traps.

With Bernie Ecclestone and Tony George involved, the Brickyard GP will be a natural target for charges of placing commercial before sporting interests. This situation will not be helped by slapping down a make-it-fit course in the middle of one of the two or three most famous racing circuits ever just to turn out something that can be called a Formula One event.

Tytler's article finds imitations of Parabolica and Curva Grande and even, at turn 9, La Source in the Indy course. I ran my eye along the track map from turn 9 looking, in vain as it turned out, for an Eau Rouge. La Source is what it is only because it is an anticipation of the run downhill past the old Spa pits and up through Eau Rouge. A track is about more than just the shape of its corners - it is about how those corners are fitted together to make a whole. The Indy course does not appear to fit together.

Tytler draws a comparison between the Indy course and Hockenheim. Hockenheim represents a fascinating contrast between fast and sweeping and slow and twisty which provides an interesting setup challenge for the teams. But that contrast only works because the slow and twisty is such a small proportion of the total track length. It does not intrude on the main theme, it complements it. The twisty part of the Indy course, 10 of its 13 turns, comprises about 50% of the track, making the thing schizophrenic, not complementary.

I was taught not to criticize unless I had something constructive to contribute. In that spirit, herewith are a couple suggestions for improvement:

Why not play off the theme of the course's main attraction, the run through the short chute between the oval's turns 1 and 2, turn 1 itself and the front straight? The theme is fast and open. Also, why not try for a course that attempts to answer one of the criticisms of F1 most commonly heard in the U.S. - no passing? The course as presently constituted appears to contain no locations offering overtaking opportunities for today's F1 machines. These two considerations demand a smoother layout with one or two corners set up as optimally as possible for outbraking. Such a course would be shorter even than the current one. Maybe the race would be a hundred laps. Big deal. What's wrong with a short course if it is a good one?

First, remove or significantly straighten the turn 2/turn 3 chicane in the interest of creating a less abrupt transition from the oval part of the course to the infield part. This might have the added benefit of reducing the tendency toward first lap contretemps that has plagued F1. If 1 is left as the only significant obstacle the drivers face at the end of the oval portion, then it could also represent an outbraking opportunity.

Second, study turn 8. After the oval section this is the most interesting looking part of the course. But it is completely ruined by the two tight corners that follow it. In order to make something of turn 8, close up turns 6 and 7 so that the back stretch starts earlier producing a longer run up to 8. Remove turns 9 and 10, thereby allowing turn 8 to realize its full potential as part of a critical complex (along with 11 and 12) for getting onto the oval in good shape. Minus the distractions created by 9 and 10, turn 8 looks to be a prime place for outbraking. If it is not, close it up or open up a little, as necessary.

Most American road racing fans are probably delighted simply to see F1 in the U.S. again. But if the race is going to be at Indy, have it measure up to Indy. The NASCAR people have managed this. Surely Formula One can as well.

Robert W. Butsch 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Bob Butsch in a a Contributing Editor for "Grand Prix History". He has been following Formula one, almost entirely via the media, from Texas since 1961.