Formula One Circuit Training 19 Aug 2004
Tennis has the Centre Court at Wimbledon, baseball boasts the Yankee Stadium and football has Real Madrids Bernabau. These temples of sport stand out because of their history, location or surroundings, but the actual playing area at Wimbledon is the same shape and design as any municipal court in any town around the world. This years FIA Formula One World Championship however, will be played out against the background of 18 very different race circuits, each with its own challenges and character.
According to the sports governing body, the FIA (Federation Internationale de LAutomobile) a race circuit is a closed course, either permanent or temporary, beginning and ending at the same point, built or adapted specifically for motor car racing.
Some are fast (Monza,) some are slow (Budapest,) some have a surface as smooth as a billiard table (Magny-Cours,) while others (Sao Paolo) are almost as bumpy as a rally stage. Not only are there an unprecedented 18 circuits hosting grands prix this year, but the tracks themselves tend to change slightly from year to year, usually on safety grounds, to accommodate the ever-increasing speeds and cornering ability of the cars. Bumps are smoothed out, chicanes installed and the run-off areas increased in size. Look at pictures of races in the 1950s and 1960s and photographers, and sometimes even spectators, can be seen standing literally within arms length of the speeding cars.
Todays Formula One circuits can broadly be divided into two types: the older historic tracks in countries with a long motor racing history, most of them in Europe, although Interlagos in Brazil and Suzuka in Japan also fall into this category and the modern purpose-built facilities, often funded by governments that see the sport as a showpiece to boost their countrys presence on the world stage, in terms of business, prestige and tourism. The Sepang circuit in Malaysia is the best known example in this group, while 2004 debutants, Bahrain and Shanghai are in a similar mould. Finally, occupying a unique position in the Formula One world, is Monaco. The only true remaining street circuit on the calendar, it is the venue for the most famous motor race in the world. It survives as Formula One racings jewel in the crown, but if the Monegasque authorities were to approach the FIA today for the first time about the possibility of staging a grand prix, they would be laughed at. The Monaco Grand Prix survives because of its past and its enormous prestige and marketing value. Driving through the narrow, twisty streets of the Principality is a real challenge for man and machine racing here was once famously described as trying to ride a bicycle around your bathroom!
When Malaysia first appeared on the grand prix calendar in 1999, the Formula One teams were stunned by the facilities at the Sepang circuit. The Race Control building, media centre, team offices and pit garages were better equipped and bigger than anything seen before. The race track itself is wider than any other and spectators are catered for in a massive grandstand, whose architecture is reckoned to reflect the traditions and culture of Malaysia and affords a view of most of the track. There is ample parking for team personnel, the media, spectators and VIP guests, all within a few metres of the paddock gates and guests watch the action in air-conditioned splendour in palatial suites overlooking the pit lane.
Sepang established the benchmark for new tracks, so it is no surprise that its designer, Herman Tilke is also the driving force behind the two newest circuits in Bahrain and Shanghai. An amateur racer himself, the German architect has naturally tried to come up with plans that make for exciting racing. However, Formula One racing is big business and he and his team have to ensure that the corporate side of the sport is well catered for, ensuring that facilities for TV broadcasting, circuit advertising and guest hospitality are all integrated into the original design.
In Europe, these more recent requirements that go to make up the Grand Prix show tend to be added to the circuit wherever a few free square metres can be found. Ironically, a quick poll of the grand prix drivers usually reveals that they prefer the older more idiosyncratic circuits. The uninspiring setting of a former military airfield better known as Silverstone, home to the British Grand Prix, was the scene of the most exciting race of 2003, while the return of the Belgian Grand Prix to this years calendar has met with general approval as the drivers love the buzz of rushing up and down the hills of the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit as it follows the contours of the Ardennes forest. Equally popular is the Italian Grand Prix as no modern circuit can replicate the historic atmosphere of the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza.
Old or new, all circuits have to meet very strict standards in order to be eligible to host a Formula One race and they must undergo rigorous inspection by the FIA. The track must be a minimum of 12 metres wide, while its length should be between 3.5 and 7 kilometres. The drivers themselves, through the Grand Prix Drivers Association get involved in making recommendations regarding safety, in terms of the size and location of run-off areas. Behind the track and verges, a double layer of barriers has to extend the full length of the circuit, usually involving rows of tyres situated in front of metal rails, while catch-fencing is used to protect spectators from flying debris. There can be no denying that an element of danger is vital to the popularity of all forms of motor racing, but work on improving safety for drivers and spectators never stops, with improvements to both the cars and circuits making the sport safer with every passing year.
Race organisers must follow strict guidelines regarding other important facilities, such as the race control tower, marshals posts, the pits and paddock, as well as providing a fully equipped medical centre and roads must be kept clear for the use of emergency vehicles. Naturally, each organising body has its own take on how to go about things, which gives each circuit its unique character. In Formula One racing, variety really is the spice of life.