The Ben Evans column: F1 gets streetwise

Posted on | Author Ben Evans

Mario Andretti, Lotus-Cosworth, Long Beach, 1977Once again F1 looks like it’s about to dip its toes into the murky waters of the street race.

Not since 1991 has there been more than one street track on the calendar – the glamorous Monte-Carlo track, which is benchmark for every other street race in the world.

So can F1 make the formula work anywhere else?

Today street races, in Europe at least, are few and far between, with only Monaco, Pau and the Norisring in regular use. This weekend the British Formula 3 championship is making its first trip to the streets of Bucharest in Romania which promises to be quite an experience.

Champ Car World Series, Long Beach, 2006, 2In the USA street racing is very popular with a large proportion of the Champ Car calendar consisting of races around American and Canadian city centres. Most of these events are hugely popular with spectators and provide a very different kind of racing spectacle.

F1’s return to the streets is a little surprising.

In an era when Silverstone, Magny Cours and Imola are criticised for having unsuitable facilities, the decision to then add two temporary circuits to the calendar seems baffling. If Silverstone’s facilities are perceived to be poor, then how will a non-permanent pit set-up compete?

If nothing else the Valencia and Singapore races indicate that in contemporary F1 nothing talks louder than money.

Throughout the 1980s F1’s reputation was somewhat tarnished by annual visits to some rather poor street circuits in the USA. Many seemed to have been designed by a toddler with access to a pen and a city map.

The 1984 race weekend at Dallas was one of the most notorious debacles in Grand Prix racing. Held in July at the height of Texan heat, the untried surface melted and only a handful of finishers staggered to the end.

I’m not suggesting that the Valencia and Singapore races will plumb these depths. Any major problems with the facilities and track surface (and lets not forget current cars place far greater pressures on the surface than those of two decades ago) would look mighty embarrassing in front of a live global TV audience. After Indianapolis 2005 that cannot be allowed to happen again.

Keke Rosberg, Williams-Honda, Detroit, 1984Street races can be highly entertaining – the accident quotient almost invariably goes up, and adverse weather can make things very interesting. Better still, because there is no testing, the pack is more likely to be shuffled with the emphasis placed on skilled drivers and adaptive engineers.

The downside is that most street tracks are far too twisty for meaningful racing and a high-speed procession is a likely.

It will be good to see F1 taken out of its comfort zone and add something different to the mix. Anyone who sat through last Sunday’s snooze-fest from Barcelona will know that something, anything, is better than that, and street races can always produce that drama.

Let’s just hope we get some races more in line with the Durban A1GP events, and less like the Phoenix Grands Prix of 1989-91.

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Ben Evans

Contributing writer.