How Hermann Tilke conquered the F1 calendar, 1996-2009 (Video)

2009 F1 season

Hermann Tilke's A1 Ring was first used in 1997

Hermann Tilke’s A1 Ring was first used in 1997

Yesterday’s discussion about a potential Rome Grand Prix circuit turned into a debate about Hermann Tilke’s abilities as an F1 track designer. Daniel put forward the case for the prosecution:

Why do they still get this guy to build tracks? Every track he has designed is boring. With all the new tracks that have appeared in the last five or six years, the old ones are still the most entertaining: look at Spa and Monza.

Paul responded:

Tilke is rather limited to what he can produce by (presumably) FOM/Bernie and FIA regulations […] I really don’t see any bad track he’s produced aside from Valencia, and we only have fifty or so laps to base that upon.

Has Hermann Tilke ruined the F1 calendar? Let’s take a look at what he’s done for F1 track design in the last 14 years.

In 1997 the Austrian Grand Prix returned to the calendar on a circuit based on the popular old Osterreichring. But the new A1-Ring was a radically different affair to its predecessor: the fast, long-radio turns of the original were replaced by tight, slow corners.

This is one of the hallmarks of Tilke’s designs and by comparing the calendar of 13 years ago with today’s schedule we can see the influence it has had.

1996 F1 calendar

Melbourne, Australia
Interlagos, Brazil
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Nurburgring, Germany
Imola, San Marino
Monte-Carlo, Monaco
Circuit de Catalunya, Spain
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Canada
Magny-Cours, France
Silverstone, Great Britain
Hockenheimring, Germany
Hungaroring, Budapest
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
Monza, Italy
Estoril, Portugal
Suzuka, Japan

Since 1996 every new track that has been introduced on the calendar has been developed by Tilke GmbH. And on almost every other occasion where an existing track has been changed, the modifications were handled by Tilke’s team – with the possible exception of Indianapolis in 2000 (I’m not sure who handled that one):

1997 – A1-Ring
1999 – Sepang International Circuit
2000 – Monza (first chicane)
2002 – Hockenheimring (major re-design)
2002 – Nurburgring (new corners at start of lap)
2003 – Monte-Carlo (Rascasse reprofiling and moving of barriers)
2003 – Magny-Cours (new corners at end of lap)
2003 – Hungaroring (new corners at end of lap)
2004 – Bahrain International Circuit
2004 – Shanghai International Circuit
2005 – Istanbul Park
2007 – Catalunya (new chicane at end of lap)
2007 – Fuji (major re-design)
2007 – Spa-Francorchamps (new chicane at end of lap)
2008 – Valencia
2008 – Singapore
2009 – Abu Dhabi
2010 – Donington (major re-design)

Regardless of what you think of Tilke’s tracks, you have to ask whether only having one circuit designer is good for Formula 1. Where are the new ideas going to come from in a monopoly? How can good value for money be ensured in an industry where there is no competition?

2009 F1 calendar

The first race at Tilke's Valencia street circuit was processional

The first race at Tilke’s Valencia street circuit was processional

Here’s this year’s calendar with the tracks entirely designed by Tilke marked in bold and the tracks where he’s changed at least one corner in italics:

Melbourne, Australia
Sepang, Malaysia
Shanghai International Circuit, China
Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain

Circuit de Catalunya, Spain
Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Istanbul, Turkey
Silverstone, Great Britain
Nurburgring, Germany
Hungaroring, Budapest

Valencia, Spain
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
Monza, Italy

Marina Bay, Singapore
Suzuka, Japan
Interlagos, Brazil
Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

On top of that, the German and Japanese rounds are being rotated between two other circuits which aren’t hosting Grands Prix year, but will be on the 2010 F1 calendar.

These are the Hockenheimring, which was substantially re-designed by Tilke in 2002, and Fuji Speedway, which has also had a complete Tilke overhaul.

Culprit or scapegoat?

Tilke gets a hard time from a lot of F1 fans. His designs are derided for being unimaginative, with too many slow corners.

I think Tilke gets a bad press. As this Youtube video posted by Gabal on the forum shows, he is more of a petrol head than people give him credit for:

It’s hard to match the idea of Hermann Tilke grinning through hot laps of the Nordschleife in a Lamborghini with the man who gave us horrible Mickey Mouse bends like the final sector at Fuji Speedway. So what’s the problem?

As I’ve said before I think the regulations are partly to blame. Why should the world’s most technologically sophisticated racing cars be prevented from tackling no more than ten degrees of gradient?

I also think the safety demands placed on modern circuits saps them of their power to impress us. This is not an argument for making tracks less safe, but I think it shows why the first turn at Shanghai doesn’t impress us the same way Eau Rouge or Blanchimont does. (Also, it helps that corners on old tracks usually have proper names).

Motorland Aragon – his finest work?

Motorland Aragon (click to enlarge)

Motorland Aragon

Ironically, one of Tilke’s most promising tracks may never be used for an F1 race. Motorland Aragon in Spain includes the closest thing you can get to Laguna Seca’s fabled Corkscrew on an F1-ready track.

But with Spain already holding two Grands Prix at Catalunya and Valencia, its chances of getting on the calendar look slim. This is a great pity, as it looks like one of Tilke’s best efforts, and includes a dramatic pit building designed by Sir Norman Foster, the man behind the McLaren Technology Centre and many other exceptional pieces of architecture.

Although I’m not sure Tilke deserves all the criticism he gets, equally I’d like to see more variety in F1 track design. For example, given enough run-off space, why couldn’t F1 have high-speed circuits like the Monzas, Silverstones and Osterreichrings of old?

Do you think the Tilke track monopoly is good or bad for F1? Would Tilke produce better tracks if the rules were freer? Have your say in the comments.

Images (C) BMW ag, Red Bull / GEPA

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62 comments on How Hermann Tilke conquered the F1 calendar, 1996-2009 (Video)

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  1. Hammad said on 5th February 2009, 7:40

    I don’t like the idea of a monopoly on the F1 calendar. Looking at the calendar in this article, there are only 4 tracks untouched by him! Having too much of the same thing can never be good.

    Sure, if Tilke wasn’t under so much influence, he could produce decent tracks. Istanbul is proof of that. But I still maintain that other people should be allowed to design tracks. Wouldn’t it be amazing if another Suzuka or Nordschleife type circuit showed up?

    • If there was another track designer who regularly did work to F1 circuits, Hermann Tilke probably wouldn’t get such a bad press. Granted, some of his work hasn’t been much fun to watch, but his best work is really good. Also, competition between multiple designers encourages improvement to a greater extent than competition one designer has with himself.

      The problem is that the restrictiveness of the regulations combined with the cost of designing circuits, the risk-aversiveness that accompanies such expense and the sheer weight of Tilke’s resumé means that nobody else wants (or can) get into the game in any meaningful sense.

  2. we could discuss tilke’s worst work… I’d vote for Hockenheim, I can’t believe what he did to that circuit!
    The removal of chicanes in Monza was terrible too.

    • I’m just sick of those sea-of-tarmac tracks he keeps producing. The tracks themselves, whilst well-documented in their blandness, are also significantly less interesting because almost every track he makes is surrounded by one colour, grey.

  3. Who was the guy who redesigned Silverstone in ’91? Whoever it was came up with Maggotts/Becketts & Bridge and should be given another circuit to play with!

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th February 2009, 22:42

      Good point – I don’t know who did that actually, anyone else know?

      Worth mentioning though that although the new Becketts was kept, pretty much everything else was re-drawn within the few years after 1991: Stowe/Vale/Club, Abbe, and Luffield.

  4. I agree that monopoly is bad for F1 track designing.

    But Tilke’s doing a good job considering that his hands are tied by safety requirements. Most F1 fans who blame Tilke turn a blind eye to this fact. And honestly; safety of drivers is more important than anything else.

    Infact; the fabled Eau Rogue corner does not meet the current safety standards set by F1; on account of a very steep angle at the start. Neither does the Monaco circuit.

    About producing exciting races; I believe that the weather and safety car is more important than the design of the track. 2007: It was the Tilke tracks that produced most of the action: Shanghai, Fuji. Where as in 2008; it was the traditional tracks which did the talking: Spa, Monza, Monaco.

    The common point in all of them was weather; not Herman Tilke.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th February 2009, 22:44

      It seems odd that Eau Rouge can be kept on the calendar but designers can’t create another corner like it because of the restrictions on gradient, etc…

      Surely if Eau Rouge is sufficiently safe to race on then designers should be allowed to make new configurations of bends that are as steep or cambered or whatever.

      • Sideshow Bob said on 27th May 2010, 3:14

        I haven’t looked closely at the FIA track regulations myself, but perhaps what we should consider is a slight relaxation of track safety standards. We would pursue this in the name of excitement. After all, if there is a correlation between safe tracks and bland tracks then being too stringent in track regs may erode F1’s fan base. We already have a lot of carping by F1 fans due to the track/boring race problem, although I suspect that most of us who carp are pretty devoted fans.

        The fact is that we can’t put an infinte value on safety. If we did then the drivers would be racing foam-wrapped Tata Nanos around go-kart tracks, just so we can breathe easy that they won’t hurt themselves. In the name of good racing, and therefore F1’s sustainability as the elite form of motorsport, we need to consider the costs and benefits of what we might term “excessively safe and therefore boring” tracks.

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th May 2010, 10:57

          This really is the heart of the matter. Even at F1’s newest track drivers can still get injured – Natascha Gachnang broke her leg in a crash at Abu Dhabi when her GT1 car suffered brake failure.

          Thing is, even with a ton of run-off turn eight at Istanbul is still an exciting corner. Shanghai’s a pretty safe circuit but the race there this year was exciting – thanks, of course, to the rain.

          So I don’t think safe tracks and exciting races are mutually exclusive. But are they doing a good enough job of creating exciting races in normal conditions on new tracks? Clearly not.

  5. Robert McKay said on 5th February 2009, 9:44

    Clearly Tilke is to a certain amount hamstrung by two things – the track design regulations, which are very prescriptive, and the natural limitations of what he can do in order to create passing given the extreme aero problems the sport has created for itself – leading to the “massively long straight into hairpin” combination.

    Being fair to him he managed to come up with Turkey, which has a genuine modern day classic corner in the quadruple apex Turn 8, and also manages to incorporate a fair amount of undulation and other interesting corners. He also to a certain extent did a decent job of the new Hockenheim, in that you can actually pass there, although ironically that was one place we never had a problem with overtaking and the new track has none of the character or soul of the old one, but that’s less his fault.

    I definitely think its fair and right that we question some of the other tracks we have got from him. Malaysia to me only looks reasonable now because the later ones like Bahrain and Shanghai and Fuji are so deathly dull. And he’s being ever more hamstrung by Bernie’s desire for street tracks, which gives even less scope for interesting design. Valencia and Singapore have about as good a layout as one can expect, barring minor modifications, but that doesn’t make them suitable for racing and certainly not classic tracks.

    If Tilke was given a brief that said “go create a modern day Spa-Francorchamps” I think he’d give it a good go, but he’s not going to be asked that. If he’s going to be asked to create another Bahrain, well maybe we should have two or three track designers to alternate round and get a bit of competition and variation going.

    The annoying thing is that there are a few new tracks starting to appear that have very interesting designs – Motorland Aragon, the Portimao circuit, the Argentina one round the lake (whose name escapes me) but almost by dint of the fact that they are interesting means that they won’t appear in Formula 1.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th February 2009, 22:45

      The annoying thing is that there are a few new tracks starting to appear that have very interesting designs – Motorland Aragon, the Portimao circuit, the Argentina one round the lake (whose name escapes me) but almost by dint of the fact that they are interesting means that they won’t appear in Formula 1.

      I agree with you. And I see A1 Grand Prix is racing at Algarve this year. I wonder if they can race at Potrero de los Funes (the Argentinean track)?

  6. David said on 5th February 2009, 10:01

    I think what Mr. Tilke misses actually is a Formula 1 culture.
    He should be forced to watch dozens old F1 Tv races movies, to understand what actually an impressive track may be (old Interlagos, Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Osterreichring, Zandvoort and many others). So he would understand that you can draw a spectacular track not only chosing a “stop and go” lay out.
    I only like Istanbul, of the new ones. I detest Fuji, Hockenheim and new complex at Nurburgring, Magny Course, Monza, Catalunya.
    I agree that technical regulations led to hard managebla cars in one to one fights, but watching a single car driving eau rouge is quite exciting as an overtake attempt is…

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th February 2009, 22:46

      He should be forced to watch dozens old F1 Tv races movies, to understand what actually an impressive track may be (old Interlagos, Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Osterreichring, Zandvoort and many others). So he would understand that you can draw a spectacular track not only chosing a “stop and go” lay out.

      Thing is, watch the video and he’s eulogising about how great the Nordschleife is. And pretty much everything a track designer needs to learn about circuits is in that one track…

  7. Arthur954 said on 5th February 2009, 11:17

    Tilke is guilty of DUI – designing under the influence. Of Bernie. Who knows if on his own he could do good things. I think it is Bernie´s company vision that Tilke is implementing.
    For sure there should be several track designers, not one. I would support the teams breaking away to start a new series on historic venues, rather than continue down this path.
    What really strikes me is the misconception that Bernie has of what looks good on TV, which is what I think it is all about. Those generic tracks with slow corner after slow corner look very boring, it is much more fun to have high-speed with straights and corners with all kinds of irregular angles, like a public road. And for sure with more ups and downs. All this looks more exciting on TV.
    All kinds of beautiful historic tracks exist, and if need be these can be retouched with taste to adapt them to modern day racing specs. The problem is that the world of F1 seems to exist for the sole purpose of raising money for Bernie´s company.
    I would support a new series that raced on historic or good looking tracks – this issue of the tracks I consider even more important than car regulations. On TV you can´t see many car details, but for sure you can appreciate the track and its environment.

  8. Any monopoly is good to any activity, but 2009 will be the year to really understand what we can blame for the lack of overtaking in Formula 1, the old cars or Hermann Tilke´s work.

    Someone mentioned the Algarve International Circuit. The track was designed by its Diretor, Mr Paulo Pinheiro, an ex mechanical engineer, who do not have any expertise as Circuit Designer before the Algarve Circuit.

    I´m not Sure, Keith, but I think Paulo has designed his track without any Bernie influence, what can explain the interesting and creative design, using an interesting natural topography, instead of Tilkedrons, very, very flat…

    He gave an interesting interview to a Norwich F1 site and you can find it HERE.

    (Google can do a decent job on translation)

  9. keepF1technical said on 5th February 2009, 13:23

    surely its as much to do with location as it is the detail of the track. A big open desert or flat plain has no perspective to show off the speed or agility.

    i remember standing at the end of hanger straight just feet from the high speed cars in the braking zone and that is awesome. Liekwise seeing the cars zip round mid/high speed corners is an amazing sight of their agility. No overtaking required for this excitment, but it doesnt come accross on the TV. Hence the prescribed slow corners for lots of tv shots.

    Am i right in thinking that all the tracks and corners which people think of as great are either or on a hill.

    Keith, how about an all time top ten of great corners. It might be surprising how many are Tilke corners. (even if the rest of the associated fia prescribed tilke track doesn’t live up to its one great corner)

    • Keith, how about an all time top ten of great corners. It might be surprising how many are Tilke corners.

      What none?

    • bassfighter said on 5th February 2009, 15:34

      well I know one which tilke ruined…
      the old last double chicane at spa, but that was because it wasn’t save enough or something like that…

      I don’t like this one at all by the way

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th February 2009, 22:47

      K – like it, will do it in a day or two (already got a poll running at the moment).

  10. I think Tilke’s tracks hold more appeal if you are driving around them in an F1 car, of course most people can’t do that and so we can only watch. Tilke’s tracks are awful for TV audiences, they’re just so boring and dull and monotone on screen which is a shame as that’s the only way most people will experience them. Sighting the rules as being too restrictive just highlights a lack of imagination and creativity, innovative thinkers can and will find seemingly unthinkable solutions you just have to give them a chance.

    Tilke’s role in F1 is symbolic of the shabby way the sport is run, really the sport is run in a disgraceful manor but then what moor do you expect from Ecclestone and Mosely.

  11. Damon said on 5th February 2009, 14:28

    The clip you gave is excellent. It shows that Tilke is very competent in designing race tracks and he understands racing.
    But despite that he’s tracks are not that good.
    It seems that he applies the same formula for every track he builds. He always tries to put the most elements he can think of into the design; therefore, all the tracks are quite similar and lack identity.
    There’s always a couple of slow (~90′) corners that seem to be there only for the lap to last those 10sec longer, one fast corner (not more), and at least two 180′ corners. The “stop & go” character of the tracks gets quite annoying.
    It seems like every slow corner was made that way with the intention of offering overtaking possibilities – but having so many corners you end up having many short straights – which hinders overtaking.
    This is the bug.

    But the thing about the new tracks I hate most is the interior environment. No land marks, no trees, and too many open spaces. I just hate the open spaces.
    It feels like the whole track is inside an arena – most of the times it is indeed, just like e.g. Indianapolis. You don’t get the feeling of cars travelling somewhere. And without the trees (like in the old Hockenheim, Spa, Suzuka, Monza, and Melbourne) the speeds at which the cars travel are not visible, at all. Much of the magic is lost…

    • Conzo said on 7th April 2011, 18:37

      “But the thing about the new tracks I hate most is the interior environment. No land marks, no trees, and too many open spaces.”

      You know, that is one of the most intelligent remarks I’ve read in a long time when it comes to track design.

  12. gabal said on 5th February 2009, 14:36

    Well, I think most of the time his hands are tied and he must do the tracks with huge run-off areas and when he is given freedom he can deliver a great track like the one in Istanbul.

    However – lets take a look what he has to work with at other places. In Shanghai they gave him a swampy terrain, asked to make at least 2 straights and wanted one of them to be longest at the present calendar and also he had to make a track shaped like a chinese charachter ”shang”. With that much ”freedom” he really can’t do that much.

    Should others be given a chance to try and design a track? Sure, why not – a bit of fresh ideas won’t harm anybody…

    • David said on 5th February 2009, 16:01

      Walking in his shoes I would have draw a section reflecting the requirements (shang shape, 2 long straights and so on) and another completely different track basing on my personal taste.
      There would have taken 10 kilometers anyway :-)

      This is another interesting item: I think long tracks are much more exciting than short. But costing is costing…I understand.

    • gabal said on 5th February 2009, 21:36

      Well, there is a limit there also, cars must lap betwen in a certain window of time…

  13. bassfighter said on 5th February 2009, 15:37

    and what about the designer of portimao?

  14. the bit where the camera moves around his office speeded up (3:15 minutes into the video) reminded me of an on-board lap of the Shanghai track…

    I think some different track designers should be used, that way I might get a go. There’s several years of Scalextric on my CV.

  15. Any monopoly in anything is not favourable and especially this is especially true for competitive close racing. We see this already with Bernie and Max. I firmly believe that new track designers will interpret the safety demands on track designs more imaginatively and thus the door should be firmly closed on Tilke from now on, enough is enough…

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