Atlas F1

Track Movements

by Mark Alan Jones, Australia

Formula One is facing a few problems as a category. Whenever a problem is identified, and sufficient resolve is collected then action is taken. Engines became smaller, tyres became narrower, the acquired grooves, wings became smaller, 'X wings' were banned, padded cockpit lining to act as neck restraints. The cars have been massaged into a new, dare I say, 'politically correct' shape. But all the while there has also been a gradual shift in the type of circuits Formula One uses.

There has always been a gradual shift towards safer and generally slower circuits, since the very beginning of Formula One. This traces back initially to the dreadful 1955 Le Mans 24 hours incident where the Healy of Lance Macklin, the Jaguar D-Type of 1958 World Champion Mike Hawthorn and the Mercedes Benz of Pierre Levegh had an incident, resulting in Levegh's Mercedes rolling into the crowd. The true toll from that incident has never been revealed and is now probably lost in the mists of time, but it had other effects as well.

Mercedes-Benz pulled out of motor racing at the end of that year - a self imposed exile that would last until 1987. And all over the world, the sports regional governing bodies and governments panicked. Half the remaining events on the 1955 Formula One calendar were cancelled. The Swiss government banned motor racing, as did other countries, although only in Switzerland is that ban still in force (odd when you consider that the FIA are now based in Switzerland). Circuits all over the world were closed or modified - Bremgarten the most notable.

But throughout the history of motor racing Formula One always remembered the great circuits, the challenging tracks, the ones the drivers relished, and continued to visit there. The enormous Nordschliefe in Germany continued to host the German Grand Prix (with two exceptions) all the way up to 1976, when Formula One finally decided to stop visiting after the dreadful accident to the sports greatest at the time, Niki Lauda. Similarly, the Belgian Grand Prix left the challenging and long Spa-Francorchamps in 1971. Reims, considered the traditional home of the French Grand Prix, also was left behind in the name of safety.

The original Barcelona circuit at Montjuich Park was abandoned; Mexico City, Clermont-Ferrand, Brands Hatch, Paul Ricard, Rouen-les-Essarts, Anderstorp, Nivelles, Zolder, Watkins Glen, Mosport Park, Zandvoort, Jacarepagua - all consigned to history. Of the survivors, Monza is now so full of chicanes its star has faltered and it lives of its history. At Imola, the mighty Tamburello corner is gone forever.

Spa-Francorchamps, while still loved by drivers, is now less than half the length it was. Silverstone is barely recognisable. What little character Hockenheim did have has been chicaned out of existence. Kyalami is vastly different; Buenos Aires now switches back on itself several times down one end of the original circuit; Interlagos was rebuilt using the existing track but in different directions with some corners shifted to link different straights than before; Monaco, while never a flowing track, is now practically a one-lane slot car track; the new Nurburgring seems immensely inappropriate to carry on the legacy of the old Nurburgrings (the Nordschliefe still in existence in the hills to the north of the Luxembourg Grand Prix venue, and the Sudschliefe which was bulldozed for the new track). And the Osterriechring was so brutalised it changed it's name to the A-1 Ring.

Moreover, the cars themselves are becoming recently less and less capable of passing each other on the track, with both the increasing dependence on the front wing for grip and the re-introduction of refuelling. Part of the FIA's solution to this has been a gradual shift away from the more spectacular circuits to smaller tracks with constant radius corners, short straights and switchbacks. Some drivers bemoan the lack of interesting tracksm - of current drivers, Jacques Villeneuve is the most vocal - having been reared on American circuits, such as Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen & Mosport Park. Formula One's elder statesman, Jack Brabham, seems to have adopted the phrase "I remember when sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous."

What are now considered the tracks which produce the best races? It seems now we look forward to the Hungaroring, once ridiculed as 'the Monaco with grass'. The new Nurburgring, condemned by drivers as being boring (especially when compared to its predecessor up north), is now back on the schedule and a favoured race because of the track's ability to produce close races by not being a good circuit. The A-1 Ring has produced 'great' racing on its tiny course, a truncated version of the old Osterreichring (cutting out the fast sweepers that made Osterreichring such a challenge). Buenos Aires was rebuilt in such a fashion, Indianapolis could end up that way and similar work proceeds apace at Zandvoort.

All these tracks feature tight corners and short straights. Now even new tracks are being built that way, for examples Zhuhai and Kuala Lumpur. The teams today have such performance disparities that at a track like Hockenheim the race becomes a procession and you pray for someone trying to do something interesting with pitstops. The only way to bunch the teams up is to have circuits that will do it naturally.

What will the future bring, then? It seems Formula One is keen to return to famous tracks of the past or near past - if you chicane the buggery out of it first. Does this mean we'll soon see a Silverstone that looks like it was made of Lego from the air? A Hockenheim on the short course with a chicane in the middle of the new back straight? A shift of the Australian Grand Prix to Mount Panorama on a short course that uses the bottom half of the track - a tight infield section behind the pits - and none of the mountain section that made it famous? A return of the Brazilian Grand Prix to Jacarepagua on the bits that were left over from the CART track construction?

The FIA will have to take some form of action soon, else the sight of Formula One's sweeping through Eau Rouge may be a sight soon forgotten.


Mark Alan Jones 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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