Hermann Tilke has had a monopoly on circuit design work in recent years. His brief is apparently are to design safe venues for F1 racing where overtaking is possible – making tracks that are dramatic or challenging is a secondary consideration at best.
Recent examples of this include his new circuits in Bahrain, Turkey, China and Japan, all of which are covered below.
Several existing circuits have undergone revisions to bring them in line with new standards. And those that haven’t, like Silverstone and Magny-Cours, are at risk of losing their Grands Prix.
Further revisions to Monte-Carlo in 2003 added more run-off to a track which previously had been completely bordered by solid walls.
Barriers were moved back at La Piscine and Rascasse was made shorter and more like a conventional hairpin. Martin Brundle said of the changes: ”It’s like going to climb Mount Everest, only to discover they’ve installed an escalator.”
Later the pits were rebuilt to create more space for mechanics, with the result that they now overlook the harbour rather than the start/finish straight.
Magny-Cours got the Hermann Tilke treatment in 2003. In a bid to improve the opportunities for overtaking the final section was revised, which included removing the awkward chicane at Lisee that preceded the final corner.
The changes started at the corner before Lisee, Chateau d’Eau, which was tightened. A curving ‘straight’ connected that to a new, sharp right-hander, before funnelling the cars through another chicane.
Unfortunately the new section seems to have done little to produce more overtaking. The notable exception was Rubens Barrichello’s daring last-lap pass on Jarno Trulli in 2004 for third position – an embarrassing move that eventually led to Trulli’s dismissal from the team.
The Hungaroring also had some changes courtesy of Tilke. The start/finish straight was extended into a tighter first turn. Further around the track the old fast chicane was removed and the course straightened, adding a new right-hander before it re-joined the additional course.
Although the changes at the first bend have gone some way towards making overtaking viable at the Hungaroring, the other revisions have not, and the track is still a notoriously difficult place for passing. Felipe Massa showed just how tough it is last year, when he started the race 14th and finished only one place higher.
Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain
Two all-new Hermann Tilke creations in Asian countries arrived on the calendar in 2004. The first was a track in an especially unusual location – the Bahrain International Circuit was built in a desert on the former site of a camel farm.
The layout was classic Tilke – long straights, sharp corners, enormous run-off areas and immaculate facilities. But the lack of a significant motor racing following in Bahrain meant races have been poorly attended.
At the Bahrain International Circuit modern F1 cars with their enormous aerodynamic downforce can run fairly close to one another. If F1 cars remain in that configuration, expect more circuits like Bahrain to appear, and existing tracks to start looking more like it.
Shanghai International Circuit, China
Hermann Tilke had a busy 2004 – this was his second all-new track. The Shanghai International Circuit was a no-expense-spared project, and the enormous central stadium and pits complex dwarfed anything seen before in F1.
A unique feature was the team huts built on a lake behind the pits. But though these looked good on paper when the teams got there they found it rather inconvenient.
The circuit itself was something of an awkward creation. The long, looping, tightening first corner, that abruptly screws back in the opposite direction, was quite unlike any other bend in F1. It caught out Michael Schumacher on his first visit to the track, the Ferrari driver spinning off on his qualifying lap.
Despite the vast sums spent on the track the 2005 race was spoiled by a design fault. Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren, unsighted, struck a drain cover that had worked loose. It ended his race and wrecked the battle for the constructors’ championship between McLaren and Renault.
In 2007 part of the stands were damaged by high winds two months before the Grand Prix. The head of the circuit Yu Zhifei has since been involved in a scandal and was arrested for corruption.
Istanbul Park, Turkey
The newest circuit on the F1 calendar at the time of writing is Istanbul Park in Turkey. ‘Istanbul Park’ is something of a misnomer, as the track is some way outside the capital, and race weekend traffic can push commuting times between the two well over two hours.
Hermann Tilke’s various circuits and track revisions have attracted some criticism. His detractors say his tracks are very similar, un-dramatic, lack gradient, and that many of his attempts to create ‘overtaking opportunities’ are met with failure.
I think there’s merit to a lot of these criticisms but I would offer two thoughts in Tilke’s defence. First, the FIA circuit regulations are extremely tight and would never allow anything like the Nurburgring Nordschleife, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez or even the original Silverstone back on the calendar.
Second, look at what Tilke did with Istanbul Park. It has gradient changes, flowing bends, and one of the best corners in modern F1 – the quadruple-apex left-hander unglamorously known as ‘turn eight’.
Tilke has also got to grips with the logistical challenges that face Grands Prix: a rainstorm threatened to wash out the World Touring Car race at the track in 2006. The water was so deep in parts it was pouring over the top of the tyre barriers. But when the clouds cleared the teams were astonished at how quickly the water drained away from the near-flooded track.
Istanbul Park isn’t perfect – having visited it myself I know how poor access for spectators is. But it can put on excellent races. Lewis Hamilton’s blast through the field to take second in the 2006 GP2 sprint race was rightly hailed an instant classic.
Imola held its final Grand Prix in 2006, with one revision to the Variante Alta chicane. What had previously been a fairly quick bounce across high kerbs became a much slower chicane, in the hope that drivers might be able to overtake each other into the following corner, Rivazza.
It didn’t seem to make much difference. The circuit was dropped after that race and has since seen further substantial changes, but as yet there is no indication whether Italy will get its second Grand Prix back. With there being so much competition for F1 Grands Prix coming from outside of Europe, it seems unlikely.
Circuit de Catalunya, Spain
The Circuit de Catalunya has become renowned as an overtaking-free zone. Tilke’s attempt to correct this in 2004 seemed to show a fundamental failure to understand why modern F1 cars cannot race each other closely.
La Caixa, a fairly slow bend to start with, was tightened into a much sharper hairpin in 2004. This has had no discernible effect on the amount of overtaking that happens there in F1 races.
The problem is that the preceding corner, Campsa, is very quick and hence aerodynamically-sensitive F1 cars ordinarily cannot follow each other closely enough through it for overtaking at La Caixa to be viable.
The final two fast corners at the Circuit de Catalunya (unsentimentally named Europcar and New Holland after two sponsors) gave the circuit some much-needed spice. But they also made it more difficult for F1 cars to follow each other closely down the main straight and race for position.
The amount of run-off at the corners also became a concern and it was for this reason that Europcar was turned into a slow chicane in time for last year’s race. However there was no sign during the race that it made overtaking any easier.
Spa-Francorchamps’ ‘bus stop’ chicane had been widened in 2002 to make the exit safer, and was changed again two years later. This time the entry to the chicane was enlarged, and the new bend saw plenty of action in the wet 2004 race.
It was only used in this configuration twice before the race was dropped for 2006, returning in 2007 in yet another different configuration.
By then it had a substantially revised start/finish section courtesy of Hermann Tilke. The straight was widened and the old bus stop chicane eradicated completely in favour of a new right-left complex more akin to a pair of hairpins stuck together.
The revisions were not immediately popular. Tarmac run-offs around the new bends made corner-cutting very easy and after some junior formula races had exploited them artificial grass was installed in time for the F1 race.
A greater concern was the tight entry to the pit lane, which could become blocked in the event of an accident. This problem has not yet been solved.
Fuji Speedway, Japan
F1 returned to Fuji after a 30 year break, the circuit having undergone a massive transformation following its purchase by Toyota. The Japanese company entered F1 in 2002 and was keen to get its circuit on the calendar as an alternative to Honda’s Suzuka.
Hermann Tilke changed the original course dramatically, swapping its long, fast bends for a succession of hairpins. But the long straight, which is near the maximum length permissible in F1, remains.
No amount of cosmetic changes could alter the local climate. The circuit was famous for the 1976 world championship finale, won by James Hunt in atrocious wet conditions. Many other major races at the circuit had been disrupted by the combination of heavy rain and mist that collect at the base of Mount Fuji.
The weather stayed true to form when F1 returned in 2007. Practice sessions were abandoned due to fog and the first half hour of the race was run behind the safety car.
Fuji remains on the calendar for 2008 but as of 2009 will share the Japanese Grand Prix with Suzuka.
Photo: GEPA / Mathias Kniepeiss