“We need to make Abbey quicker” – how Populous redesigned Silverstone (Part 1)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Silverstone 2011 grid

After years of rumoured development plans which never happened, Silverstone embarked on an upgrade scheme this year masterminded by architects Populous.

I spent a morning at their offices in London where their motorsport specialist Drew MacDonald explained how they went about re-drawing one of F1’s most historic venues.

One word which came up several times in our discussion is “experience”.

This is how Populous explain the different purposes of a race track – such as getting the driving experience right to create a challenging circuit where overtaking is possible. Or ensuring the spectators’ experience is as good as it can be, with views covering as much of the track as possible.

Drew explained how they tried to achieve these goals in the new ‘Arena’ section at Silverstone.

The brief

You would have been forgiven for being sceptical about the Populous plan for Silverstone when it was first revealed. It was the latest in a series of plans for the circuit. Unlike the many schemes that preceded it, this one came to fruition:

Our managing director here first looked at Silverstone in 1988 – we found an old hand-sketched scheme for it.
Drew MacDonald

Among the more outlandish proposals for the track put forward by other companies was one from 1993. It proposed using Stowe and Club corners in their original form to create one half of an oval circuit. A complete oval would be formed using a new section running from Abbey across to Becketts.

Another plan, devised after the Indianapolis road circuit was added to the calendar in 2000, was to turn Club into a banked corner. But that plan was fraught with complications:

We saw the banked scheme for Club. But if you’re going to bank to corner you’ve got to bank the run-off and everything else that goes with it.
Drew MacDonald

When Populous came on board Silverstone was preparing to add a Moto GP race to its roster of events.

Then in 2008 Bernie Ecclestone announced the British Grand Prix would be moving to Donington Park in 2010. Although that never came to be, it had consequences for the design of the track:

Our original brief was to design it for Moto GP while maintaining the original Grand Prix circuit. Then they lost the F1 so then our brief was just Moto GP and most of the changes started off as purely Moto GP.

But then, in the back of their minds, because of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, they had to be able to drive the original Grand Prix circuit. We maintained it so you could still drive the original line.

Our client was the BRDC so it had to work for cars. Throughout the whole process, even when it was just for Moto GP, it still had to work for cars and be challenging for cars.
Drew MacDonald

The challenge

In addition to the usual compromises forced upon track designers, Populous faced the additional task of re-configuring Silverstone without diminishing its appeal as one of F1’s fastest and most exciting tracks.

They began by trying to incorporate an existing straight from the ‘international’ circuit into a new layout – but quickly found that was fraught with problems:

We looked at keeping the original international straight, but every option we looked at for that was just a compromise.

After looking at everybody’s ideas and what they wanted Lee [Johnston, Senior Designer] said to me “just do what you think should be done – do what you want to do”. And that’s kind of where the whole new section started.
Drew MacDonald

The idea of mimicking famous corners from around the world had served them well in their previous work – such as the Dubai Autodrome, which will be covered in part two.

But they found that would not work well in this case:

The whole thing’s a compromise if you try to build in existing corners from parts of other tracks which drivers have said we should copy.

They only work in their locations because of what’s happening around them – the preceding corners, the following corners – that’s why those corners work. You can’t just throw them on the end of the international straight and expect them to be the same experience.
Drew MacDonald

For Silverstone they decided on a different approach to meet their goals for the track:

We wanted it to be challenging – but everyone has different ideas about what’s challenging on a race track.

We also really wanted to put some topography in there. We looked into digging down about five or six metres at Abbey. That would have given us a total gradient change up to the Wellington Straight of about ten metres.

But the water table there is very close to the surface. That would have meant lining it with gutting or pumping it – so we were looking at sticking another million on the bill just for the sake of digging a hole and keeping it dry.

And then there’s encouraging overtaking – the Holy Grail! That means allowing a differential in speeds and creating alternative lines.

Safety, obviously, is essential – we had to meet the FIA and FIM [motorcycle racing’s governing body] standards. The FIA’s are relatively easy because they’re very scientific. We are able to replicate their Circuit Safety Analysis Software which is in their regulations.

Then there’s also the spectator experience, which meant that we had to slow everything down to get them as close to Becketts as possible.
Drew MacDonald

First drafts

Silverstone - early design draft 1
Silverstone - early design draft 1

One of the first versions Populous came up with retained the original, slow Abbey – but turned it the other way around:

This is one of our earlier solutions. This did have the topography in it. We literally mirrored Abbey and turned it the other way. We ran it on a simulator at Silverstone last year and afterwards we thought “this doesn’t work, you don’t get any experience through it because it’s so slow through Abbey.”

The second part is interesting. We wanted to create a driving line experience that they were all talking about – a tightening-up line, tightening more for cars than it would be for bikes. And it worked – there was a lad who came with the simulator who could drive a perfect line through there and he was matching the calculated times.

But in the end, it wasn’t quite right, so we went back to the drawing board.
Drew MacDonald

A second version using a similar configuration at Abbey was devised, but this was discarded too:

Silverstone - early design draft 2
Silverstone - early design draft 2

We’d left Abbey slow initially and we were looking at different options for this because nobody liked the M-type thing.

We had real space restrictions – the run-off would have been much bigger and obviously it pushed the Arena further apart as well, so the viewing [for the spectators] was getting a bit long again.

But again we got more input and more ideas to take away. Afterwards we said “we need to make Abbey quicker”.
Drew MacDonald

The final version

Silverstone - final design
Silverstone - final design

Eventually they hit on the idea of making Abbey faster – leading to the creation of a new corner that would be tackled at around 180mph.

It also opened up the opportunity for drivers to take different lines through it to create an overtaking opportunity:

For example, Nico Rosberg in practice was consistently driving the line we see as the optimum line more than everybody else. Everyone else seemed to go very deep into Village.

But if you go really deep into Village and then try braking a little bit earlier it’s so much faster through the rest of the section. Which was what our maps predicted.
Drew MacDonald

The slower loop allowed this part of the circuit to be positioned closer to Becketts, giving spectators at that part of the circuit excellent viewing opportunities.

Several F1 Fanatic readers praised the view at Becketts and Populous heard some good feedback themselves:

Someone told us “I went and sat at Becketts and I didn’t know where to look!”
Drew MacDonald

There were other benefits – some of which won’t become apparent until next year, as Drew explains:

Keeping the footprint of the circuit as small as possible allows you to maximise the development opportunities for the site. One of the key things about Silverstone is we’ve released a lot of land in the middle – about 90 acres of land.

When they had the Moto GP race they let everybody into the Arena area. But for the Grand Prix you weren’t allowed on the infield unless you had an Arena grandstand ticket or paddock passes.

That was because the Formula 1 Paddock Club was just on the other side of the bridge. But next year, when the Paddock Club is in the new building, the Formula 1 spectators will all be allowed into the Arena section the way they were for Moto GP.

And there, the atmosphere in the middle was great. They had a concert stage behind the Arena grandstands for Moto GP and that created a real, central focal point of the site.
Drew MacDonald

I had the opportunity to try the 2011 version of the circuit on their simulator. This includes the new start/finish line and pit lane, from which cars re-join the circuit at Abbey, which will be turn one for next year’s race.

The team had expected average speeds of the new circuit to be higher than the old one. But when the big weekend came Sebastian Vettel’s fastest lap was 0.4kph slower than the best from 2009.

This was put down to the track being bumpier than expected on both the new and old sections. If the bumps are eased before next year’s race – which is expected to happen – lap times in 2011 could be a lot quicker.

Silverstone 2011 pit building
Silverstone 2011 pit building

The new pit building is an impressive piece of design, particularly its distinctive roof. More importantly, it will bring a badly-needed improvement in circuit facilities. It is well under construction at the moment – its skeleton was visible during the race weekend.

Cleverly, the original pits and start line are being retained, allowing the support races to be based at their original location, giving them more room as well.

An unusual feature of the new pit lane is that it isn’t parallel to the start/finish line. This means the teams at the beginning of the pit lane are slightly further away from the pit wall than those near the pit lane exit.

Among other things, this will mean fans sat at Club have a better view of the pit lane and starting grid. It’s another example of how they put the “experience” first.

In the second part of this article we’ll answer some frequently-asked questions about how safety regulations restriction on circuit design, and look at other circuits designed by Populous.

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Images courtesy of Populous