Safety restrictions have made life difficult for track designers who want to create exciting and challenging racing circuits.
To make tracks worthy of the best racing series in the world designers have to strike compromises between spectacle and safety – and satisfy the conflicting demands of bike and car racing.
Drew MacDonald of Populous explained to me how they did it when designing the the new Arena section for Silverstone as well as some of their other F1 projects.
Safety requirements are among the most severe restrictions placed on circuit design – and as a result they are much talked-about by F1 fans.
Wherever a section of track is built, designers have to consider how much run-off is needed. Populous do this by looking at the speed of the previous corner. From that they can work out the speed through the new corner, which they verify using the simulator.
Those speeds are then run through their CAD programme and, using the equations supplied by the FIA, they can work out what happens when a car goes off the track and onto the run-off. It also allows them to compare between different types of run-off: asphalt, gravel and mixtures of the two.
That informs decisions about the size and shape of the run-off. But, as Drew explains, life gets even more complicated when designing for a track which will cater for the top levels of both four- and two-wheeled motor sport:
One of the limiting factors at Abbey was the BRDC farm area, where there’s a pond. We pushed the barriers back a bit but when you have more gravel the trajectories [the route a car will take when it goes off] get longer.
Sebastian Vettel will certainly be happy with the amount of run-off at Abbey after suffering a front wing failure there during practice for the race.
The bike conundrum
Car and bike racing have different needs when it comes to circuit safety. The FIA has a list of specific requirements which can be modelled using software. But catering for the FIM is more difficult:
It’s a question of finding the balance between getting enough gravel to satisfy FIM [motorcycle racing's governing body] but getting the F1 cars to stop because, obviously, their cornering speeds are much higher than a bike.
In an ideal world, those trajectory lines will touch the barrier. The FIA say they can manage impact speeds of up to 220kph, but obviously you don’t want to be doing that.
We try not to make any impact. As soon as you start having an impact you’ve got to put more expensive barriers in – either big tyre barriers or TecPro barriers. Around Singapore and Valencia you’ve got TecPro everywhere because you just don’t have enough run-off.
Over at Woodcote, the size of the new run-off is driven by what would be required for F1 – but we’ve had to use gravel which is an FIM request.
The FIM’s requirements are very much on sight, on drawings and having run-offs that are 70% gravel and 30% asphalt as a rule of thumb. But that just doesn’t work when it comes to F1. It doesn’t slow the car down as effectively. So it’s a mathematical conundrum.
It’s a case of managing the trajectories in such a way to accommodate the site and that’s kind of what drives the design of the track, especially on an upgrade. On a new track it’s slightly easier because you haven’t got the existing constraints – in the case of Silverstone you’ve got a camp site, the Stowe circuit and everything else.
It’s an interesting corner geometry at Abbey. There’s a really tight initial radius opening up to a much bigger one. That tight radius was fixed because of the pit lane. As was the one at Aintree because the FIM didn’t want a corner any closer to the bridge on the Wellington Straight. They were worried about a biker coming off and sliding into the bridge buttress.
So then the question was how do we get the spectator experience and the driving experience between those two fixed points.
Circuits designed for motorcycle racing also have to have wide verges, due to a fatal accident which happened in Moto GP seven years ago:
Another requirement for FIM is you have to have 12m wide verges on the approach to a corner, because of [Daijiro] Kato’s accident, when he was killed at Suzuka.
When a Moto GP bike goes into a corner they get a little bit of oversteer on purpose, they turn on a bit of opposite lock because it helps them to drop the bike lower. But when the back ends steps out, sometimes if they’re on the limit it gets caught on the grass.
Kato lost control of the bike and, because the verge was only two or three metres wide, he hit the tyre barrier very quickly with the bike. He flipped off it and hit an overhead gantry.
One of the outcomes of the investigation was a requirement for a 12 metre verge, minimum of six.
However it’s not always necessary to design tracks that meet the maximum safety standards for both cars and bikes. At present, only three tracks host both Formula 1 and Moto GP races: Silverstone, Catalunya in Spain and Sepang in Malaysia.
An occupational hazard of architecture is that many plans are drawn up but never built. So it was with another of Populous’s designs for a circuit in Iceland. An early version of the anti-clockwise track is shown above.
According to Drew, it had a good location in easy reach of an international airport and close to major tourist destinations. It stood to benefit from the popularity of motor sport in Iceland. But in his words the project “was a victim of the financial crisis”.
The natural contours of the land offered an opportunity to feature several elevation changes in the layout: “There was a lot of topography on this, lots of gradient change,” he adds.
Another proposal which was never built was for a circuit in Russia. Here the team were asked to create a short circuit with the potential to expand it to a much larger version.
The final design had nine different configurations including a Grand Prix-size track. You can see each of the layouts in this image (track runs clockwise).
We looked at one for a private investment company that wanted to build a category three but wanted to be able to expand to category one.
So, from a national-level Brands Hatch-like track with an extension to take it up to the right length for F1. All the run-offs were designed for F1. It was three kilometres initially with an extension to take it up to five.
It included a big, Motor City-type trade wall and grandstands that were integral to the buildings.
The track was designed to fit around a regional master plan where new roads and other buildings were being constructed.
But, like their Iceland plan, the project didn’t go ahead for reasons that were out of their hands.
Circuit design in F1 is almost monopolised by Hermann Tilke’s company. Populous are keen to take on more F1 projects in the future and have already designed one F1-specification track from scratch.
The Dubai Autodrome is yet to hold a Grand Prix but has been visited by GP2 Asia. Populous consulted former F1 champions and drew inspiration from popular corners around the world when designed the track:
The vertical profile is quite entertaining. For example, turn one is similar to Paddock Hill bend at Brands Hatch in terms of gradient change, but within FIA limits.
Probably the best corner here is turn 14, which is a double-apex left-hander based on the hairpin at Nogaro [in France].
But the difference is it starts with a pretty normal sort of camber in the track which goes from about 3% to 10% through the corner, up over a crest.
As well as getting the track configuration right, a lot of attention was paid to giving spectators the best possible view of the action:
It’s 100% asphalt run-off so it’s grade two for FIM, because there’s no gravel.
It’s got a permanent 7,000-seat grandstand from which you can see pretty much 80% of the track, which is quite cool!
There’s only a blind spot over at turn 12 which is blocked by this hill, but otherwise all the buildings in the middle are low so it’s a pretty good view from on top of there. That was a Populous-driven consideration.
One of their current major projects is designing sites for the London Olympics, the result of which will be seen on an international stage in the near future. Now they want to prove they have the experience to take on motor sport projects.
Populous are now using computer simulation more extensively than ever before to design their tracks. It allows racing drivers to sample the circuit in virtual form and suggest changes before the ground has been broken on a new project.
It’s encouraging to see some fresh thinking applied to circuit design in Formula 1 – it has long been in need of it. Comparing the modifications made at Silverstone to those at the Circuit de Catalunya, Hungaroring and Nurburgring in recent years, I think Populous’ work was easily the most successful.
Whatever new venue appears on the calendar next – be it Russia, New York or somewhere else – here’s hoping the race promoters take note.
Images courtesy of Populous