Hermann Tilke takes some credit for eight of the current F1 tracks – but are they actually any good asks Ben Evans.
Looking at this year’s Grand Prix calendar there are few races that will provoke a diary clearance and the search for a secluded TV within reaching distance of a beer-stocked fridge. Spa and Monaco are obviously top of the list – no surprise, really, as the most dramatic races of 2004 were there. Then Silverstone, Interlagos and Imola all have their strengths. The former has character and a gripping succession of high-speed corners. Brazil is always spectacular, whilst the elevation change at Imola allows a rare appreciation of the awesome speeds and the input from the drivers.
Of the ‘classic’ circuits I feel it necessary to omit Monza and Suzuka from this list. Monza occasionally produces great action, but this usually follows an opening lap accident that shakes up the field. When it is dry and the pack doesn’t implode at the first chicane, processional races are the norm. Likewise I’ve never understood the appeal of Suzuka, whilst the drivers love it, and it has a unique configuration, I cannot remember the last great ‘race’ at the track. Sure 1989 and 1990 were memorable, but recent years have been dull, livened only by the fact the circuit is frequently the championship decider. If Suzuka were the fourth or fifth round nobody would care.
However, even these tracks are a dying breed, omitted in favour of Herman Tilke autodromes, commissioned in countries where cigarette advertising is encouraged by governments with bottomless pockets. I have never seen the appeal of Tilke’s circuits, they seem forced, technical and everything a racing circuit should not be. Where is the gradient? Where is the edge-of-the-seat feeling you get at a circuit like Spa? Where are the epic corners? There is little scope for spontaneity or daring from the drivers in the way that Silverstone promotes.
Doubtless Shanghai is a superb facility but the track itself does little to set the pulse racing. Long straights leading into tight hairpins may, according to computer generations, be genetically engineered to promote overtaking, but it is hardly exciting. Without putting too fine a point on it, when people wish for passing manoeuvres they want to see bold ’round the outside’ moves, not into a hairpin using a slipstream and power advantage. Although Shanghai produced a lot of midfield overtaking, can you honestly remember any of the passes? Furthermore Tilke’s circuits lack character. For example Indianapolis is the USA, but in contrast the ‘new’ Hockenheim could be in Heidelburg or Hemel Hempstead. Surely part of the reason for F1’s declining popularity is that very few of the circuits are distinctive from each other, instantly identifiable to the casual viewer.
This debate is, naturally, nothing new. Tracks that by current standards are relatively ‘exciting’ such as the Nurburgring or, dare I say it, Magny Cours, were treated as the epitome of Mickey Mouse upon their introduction to the Grand Prix fraternity. Likewise the ‘golden’ years of F1 saw the unspeakable horrors of Caesar’s Palace and Dallas on the schedule. To blame the paucity of the racing in recent seasons on the tracks is perhaps unfair, but evidently much of the current F1 calendar is not conducive to wheel to wheel racing. Before Bernie signs another contract with the next country that allows him to advertise Marlboros in primary schools, he should take a look at what attracted people to F1 in the first place, and part of that is the circuits. People want to see Eau Rouge, Bridge and the Parabolica, not Catalyuna or what now passes as Hockenheim.