A Tilke F1 track designer explains why FIA rules mean no more Suzukas

Interview

Christian Epp, Circuit of the Americas, 2013Recreating great F1 corners like Eau Rouge and popular tracks like Suzuka is practically impossible due to the FIA’s rules on circuit design, according to the man who designed the newest track on the calendar.

Christian Epp, a director at Tilke Gmbh who created the finished design for the Circuit of the Americas, explained how regulations have stifled creativity in circuit design.

Speaking to F1 Fanatic at COTA last week Epp said FIA track regulations made it impossible to recreate corners like Eau Rouge.

“Definitely from the compression that you would have, from the driving dynamics basically that you would generate on a car you could… they would not be approved by FIA,” he said. “So the FIA has certain regulations in place today that we would not be able to develop.”

In the case of COTA, race organiser Tavo Hellmund originally approached Tilke with a list of classic corners from other circuits to draw inspiration from. Epp recalls the conversation being: “OK Christian, we want elements like Eau Rouge, we want the corkscrew, we want like Suzuka, we want Maggotts/Beckets section…”

But fitting in many such corners was not achievable. “Some of them – for example Eau Rouge – if you take Eau Rouge in Formula One you need to drive it with 300 kilometres an hour,” explained Epp. “So to set up a turn of 300 kilometres an hour you need a straight of almost a kilometre to reach that speed.”

“So it’s not that easy. Once you want to incorporate one of these features you’re very limited. You can do maybe three or four of these features but for sure not ten. It would be, really, it would be 30 or 40 miles long track if you would try to incorporate them.”

Run-off and safety

COTA 2012Former F1 driver Anthony Davidson recently criticised modern track design, telling The Guardian “on some modern circuits it’s pathetic when you see drivers going off the track and nothing happens” due to the vast expanses of run-off.

Ahead of last week’s race in Japan Jenson Button said he especially enjoyed the Suzuka track because the limited run-off made it “unforgiving”.

Epp admitted a degree of frustration that modern tracks were compared unfavourably with older circuits which were built to less exacting standards but said: “on the other hand… people want the safety”.

“So when [Ayrton] Senna died, for example, or when any of these Formula One idols die people question a lot, and they say ‘what happened, what went wrong, what can we do better?’ So they worked on the car and we worked on the track so that’s what happened the last 20 years, really a track evolution and making it much safer for the drivers.”

‘Playing with topography’

In order to create dramatic corners designers need suitable land to work with in the first place. “Eau Rouge is Eau Rouge only because of the change of elevation,” says Epp.

At COTA, they had that. “On this particular track we were lucky enough to be involved in selection of the piece of land,” said Epp. “So really being able to choose a piece of land that provides this elevation change.”

The opening sequence of fast corners at COTA, which won praise from drivers during its inaugural race last year, “basically plays with the topography”.

Start, Circuit of the Americas, 2012“We do not get that every time so other race tracks we come and it’s a flat piece of land and we have to live with that land and have to create the best thing we can do. I think we were fortunate enough here to play with it, it’s much easier for us, gives us more opportunity to create an exciting race track.”

But beyond just creating the layout of the track Tilke have other objectives to fulfil. “We at Tilke do much more than than only the track and the track safety and the features,” said Epp.

“We really develop a turn-key venue so that all of these different players can come and use the venue from day one. It’s media, it’s drivers, it’s teams, it’s FIA, it’s the spectators, all of these different type of groups.

“For example on race day you have 120,000 people that one day one need to experience this venue. And they all will give you the feedback on what it is. For sure the driver is the one that we care a lot because we want to have a great track and it’s about the track. But also every spectator has an important opinion on the work that we do.”

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125 comments on A Tilke F1 track designer explains why FIA rules mean no more Suzukas

  1. GT Racer (@gt-racer) said on 22nd October 2013, 16:33

    Just a comment on the Run-Off.
    Think its important to remember that it was the GPDA which began the big safety push for more run-off & it was also the GPDA which began pushing for Tarmac run-off.

    I know a lot of fans would love to see gravel return but thats never going to happen because tarmac is at the end of the day a lot safer than gravel.
    Also consider that circuits cater for more than just F1, Motorcycle’s for example where the consensus is that tarmac is far safer than gravel which is why circuits where F1 doesn’t race but bikes do are also moving to tarmac run-off’s.

    Coming back to F1 we have seen examples in the past where gravel has made situations worse with cars flipping or simply skipping over the gravel without losing much speed.

    I see the argument above that there could be a bit of tarmac followed by gravel in the run-off, However at a high-ish speed the height difference between the surfaces would have a higher probability of flipping the car. Plus again that layout is probably more dangerous for bikes as well.

    I also think there’s an element of some younger fans not knowing or simply not remembering the push-back after Imola 1994 which began the big proactive safety campaign that were still in.
    After Imola ’94 F1 was getting hammered in the media for not been proactive with regards to safety, Its a part of why Max Mosley went so aggressive with safety, He as head of the FIA was having criticism hurled at him from all directions for allowing 2 drivers to die in front of a live worldwide TV audience.
    As Max says in the new documentary ’1′ (Which I saw while in the US last week since its on the US itunes store), The discussion in the media was never why did they crash, It was all why did they die, why were they allowed to die & why wasn’t anything done to prevent it.

    • bull mello (@bullmello) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:16

      Great points @gt-racer . So many times people were dissecting what happened at Imola and how could this happen? And, rightfully so. As an F1 observer from the days of Jim Clark I am extremely grateful for the ever continuing safety measures in all forms of racing. I think you are correct about a generation gap of sorts. Even though I grew up in the era of people standing right next to the track and many other things that would be labeled just plain crazy today, I am still amazed when watching older F1 races. YouTube is a wealth of information of how things used to be and why we do have all the safety built in today. Thank goodness.

  2. Brian (@bealzbob) said on 22nd October 2013, 16:38

    Perhaps it’s the way that article is edited but the headline and the justification are for 2 different things.

    On one hand he is saying that you couldn’t have Eau Rouge because FIA rules on things like compression wouldn’t allow it. Then he says the discussion for COTA involved replicating a selection of corners that included Eau Rouge and the logic was not that they couldn’t do it but that they couldn’t do all of them. Which is fair enough in itself.

    I’m no clearer now on how restrictive or otherwise the FIA are on track design or whether it’s simply a logistical issue regarding classic corner requiring the preceding bits of track that make them what they are and the elevation too.

    It does at least hint at the fact that Tilke themselves are not the sole problem when it comes to modern tracks. Firstly COTA shows that. But knowing Bernie and how tightly controlled everything around Formula One is, it would be naïve (and now we can see it would be inaccurate) to assume that Tilke were fully responsible for designing the terrible tracks that they were producing not so long ago. They had at least one hand tied behind their backs all along.

  3. Strontium (@strontium) said on 22nd October 2013, 16:54

    I don’t see why everybody hates the circuits so much. Okay, they aren’t Suzuka, no, but they are not supposed to be.

    I like most of his circuits that he has done (the only one I dislike is China). The racing is good, and the flow is not bad either. India is one of my favourites. Brilliant flow through sector 2 and 3.

    As for the run off area — it is excessive but it means that the drivers push more on track, rather than tip-toeing around scared that they will beach themselves. If a driver makes a mistake then it means they aren’t out of the race. Maybe they should be a touch more punishing (a grass strip before the tarmac acre would do nicely), but overall they are not too bad. They maybe shouldn’t be as big as they are, but it doesn’t matter too much, and it is in the interest of safety after all.

  4. dennis (@dennis) said on 22nd October 2013, 16:55

    TIL

    La Source to Eau Rouge is 1 km… … … …

  5. bull mello (@bullmello) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:02

    Very informative article @keithcollantine . Glad to see an article including the frequently absent designer POV. We hear a lot from all the other points of view, but rarely any explanations from the designers. Having a say so in the land selection makes sense. People can complain about having a flat track with no elevation changes, but obviously that may be all the designer had to work with. Doubtful that fans, drivers, spectators, teams and all other interested parties will ever be completely satisfied with any particular track because of all the many compromises involved and just plain differences of opinion from one observer to the next.

    Anyways, I’m quite envious that you got to drive the track at COTA. What fun! COTA is a worthy addition to the world of F1 and it was nice to gain some informative insights on how it came to be.

  6. Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:23

    I get the safety limitations, and the problems some designs might have…

    But from a man that’s part of a team that started with a blank sheet of paper in the shape of a desserted island like Yas Marinas, I’d not consider much of what he says.

    What they did to Yas Marinas was appalling. Even with the logical limitations, a pencil over a piece of paper can create infinite shapes. Drawing long straights followed by harpins or chicanes goes against imagination and creativity and only shows lack of interest or lack of skill, or they put too much focus on making tracks overtaking-friendly, while failing at that most of the time.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 22nd October 2013, 21:03

      @fer-no65, I totally agree and would also suggest that in order to make those, chicanes, hairpins and right angle corners useful as overtaking points there has to be a sector of interesting turns where the car/drivers gain or lose ground, otherwise all we see is a bunch of drag races and brake tests.

    • bebilou (@bebilou) said on 23rd October 2013, 7:49

      100% agree: Tilke should be ashamed of Yas Marina’s layout. Having so much money, so much space, and ending with with something like this… It hurts.

  7. Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:27

    I think the problem with good circuit design is that everyone tries to break it down into a simple mathematical equation that, when applied correctly, will always produce the same desired result.

    But I think the secret lies in a more holistic approach. Legendary corners do not exist in isolation – they have some impact on every other corner on the circuit, just as every other corner influences the approach to it.

    A perfect example of this lies in Turns 9 and 10 of Bahrain. These corners require technical driving skills to master: braking and turning simultaneously. But Turn 8 is a slow hairpin, which removes a lot of the challenge. How would that turn change if it was preceded by Spoon Curve, or Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel?

    Corners should compliment one another, rather than compete with one another. When done properly, the end result is an Istanbul or a Sepang. When it is nor done properly, you get a Korea or an Abu Dhabi.

    When I was a kid, I used to dream up all sorts of racing circuits. The margins of my school books were filled with doodles and designs (and I don’t think my teachers ever quite worked out what they were). And the one thing I worked out was this: I came up with the best designs in two minutes. The circuits really designed themselves; I just put pen to paper. Any longer than two minutes, and the end result was never very good.

    • Nick (@npf1) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:37

      I still have notes laying around with track designs and the more I adjust them, the worse they become.

      Speaking of circuit design, someone should probably post in the Track Design Contest..

    • Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 22nd October 2013, 18:13

      @prisoner-monkeys not just that, there’s a concept in Tilkedromes that circuits just give opportunities to overtake.

      It’s like they start with that: let’s make a track in which cars can overtake each other, and the only solution is a huuuuuge straight with a tight harpin at the end of it.

      But Suzuka was not designed with overtakings in mind, it was designed to be challenging for the cars and drivers. Putting too much effort on aiding overtaking makes all tracks look the same, and worst of all, they don’t produce the end result…

    • Tomsk (@tomsk) said on 22nd October 2013, 20:38

      Well said – it’s like the famous old corners – Woodcote, Club or Curva Grande – that have become just somewhere to accelerate away from a slow corner. They tried to re-create the multi-apex monster from Turkey in India and Texas, with varied success – neither looks quite fast enough to me.

      The trouble with Eau Rouge (and Blanchimont, 130R and others) is an F1 car can take it at 300 Ks. The cars have outgrown these corners; the drivers say they’re easily flat. The rule-makers should lose a load of downforce, so these corners are a challenge again. It follows that the new circuits will become a challenge too in their fast sweeping sections (notice how they all have one, in an attempt to be all things to all men – the worst new tracks are a mess that tries to be a bit fast, a bit technical and a bit of street circuit, all in one.)

  8. Nick (@npf1) said on 22nd October 2013, 17:34

    “We do not get that every time so other race tracks we come and it’s a flat piece of land and we have to live with that land and have to create the best thing we can do. I think we were fortunate enough here to play with it, it’s much easier for us, gives us more opportunity to create an exciting race track.”

    I do think this is the main reason most modern circuits lack flow, interesting corners and atmosphere. Hockenheim and Spa were both run in woods, but the tracks were nothing alike. Zandvoort was in the dunes near the sea, the Nordschleife in the Eifel, each track representing a different kind of challenge for circuit builders (and racers).

    The problem started with tracks like Magny-Cours imo. Built in the middle of nowhere, flat and without any redeeming qualities of the surrounding area. If you look at the old Spa layout, or the Nordschleife, what often happens is; public roads are used to make a track or formed into a track. These roads would often be using the natural form of the land (even though today public roads are also quite boring, since they modify the lands for the roads).

    I think countries who want to organize F1 tracks need to do three things before applying for a race:
    1.Analyze the circuit location; can it be built into something interesting? Will it be beneficial to the area (as opposed to the Korean International Circuit) and will the circuit or area create something unique (the only thing Valencia got right).
    2.Get some feedback on the built or simulated track. Get the WEC or even a Historic Grand Prix, find out what the drivers say. Kerbs too high? Lower them. Run offs too wide? Move the tyre barrier 5 meters closer. Put some actual grass there.
    3.Learn from others’ mistakes. Don’t build the track in a wrong location (Korea/Turkey or historically, Zandvoort) or mess up on the preparations (the death stairs of the 2010 Korean Grand Prix would have been a much larger problem with more spectators) and make sure you get a good marketing plan (as opposed to Korea, India, Turkey, Valencia, etc.) and try to establish racing on a regular basis on your track.

    Sadly, I’m not drunk on my own money, not overly concerned about my income stream or completely lost on what that reasoning thing was, so I need not apply these ideas to any current F1 stakeholder.

  9. David not Coulthard (@) said on 22nd October 2013, 20:07

    Now, I know that gravel run-offs are a bad idea, and why it is so, but what about grass run-offs, or perhaps ashpalt run-offs painted green or beige, with abrasive material included once hard tyres return to F1?

  10. FernanDino said on 22nd October 2013, 21:09

    Interesting point from Christian Epp. But I am hardly surprised. I like the Austin track and the whole event there was fantastic. Not like boring events in China, Bahrain and Korea with empty grand stands everywhere.
    I just would like around here: Before the Texan race there was much hype about the first corner buth I was left wanting, as they say in America. After a few laps it looked like nothing very speacial to me. Does anyone agree?

    Let’s forget for a while about Anthony Davidson’s remarks that “it’s a joke with all these big run-off areas” and that, in effect, the drivers don’t risk their lives at every corner like 40 years ago!

    • Kazihno (@kazinho) said on 23rd October 2013, 2:15

      If you rewatch any Chinese GP over the last few years you won’t find a lack of support in the stands.

      Don’t automatically apply poor attendance at 2 Asian races to others in the region.

  11. Corrado (@corrado-dub) said on 22nd October 2013, 21:46

    Guys, I may be wrong, but I remember that (1 of) the decision(s) behind the replacement of gravel with tarmac was related to safety and DNFs. More exactly, on gravel the car is pretty much stuck and the driver cannot do anything but wait for the impact, while the tarmac offers the grip and possibility to steer to avoid the impact totally or partially (partially = not a head-on impact). Plus, we’ve seen many retirements in the past decades just because the car remained stuck in the gravel. I think that was too much for a such mistake.

  12. Alesici (@alesici) said on 22nd October 2013, 22:44

    Regarding the ability to build another Eau Rouge, please refer to a comment I made 8 months ago – it’s the last comment in link below – which indicates that I might possibly have played a small part in a relaxing of the overly restrictive rule governing abrupt changes in elevation, as a couple of years ago I informed Ross Brawn about it he didn’t know about the rule up till then, and 8 months later it was relaxed. Thanks of course to Keith for pointing us in the direction the rule in the first place. :)

  13. IMHO some body must stop this cloning process now, there has to be other brains involved, I saw more interesting proposals in this thread than what Tilke has done so far, except for may be COTA and 1 or 2 other tracks (being generous), so open the contest to more designers and then give the winner to Tilke to build (if there is no other choice), but enough already, if the rules are givig the same result, change the rules, keep safety as #1 priority but let the rest pose a different challenge to the racing approach, other wise you can use a vast flat surface somewhere and just draw a different circuit each race and teams don’t even have to travel to any other country to complete the season. that will help keep costs down, I am sorry for ranting but whoever is approving this circuits is not thinking racing, its only thinking revenues. as an example, amusement parks are all safe and yet all different, even international airports meet this criteria, so please.

  14. LifeW12 (@lifew12) said on 23rd October 2013, 10:23

    Yes there are rules defining what tracks can’t have, but I think a lot of the new tracks are way too conservative. COTA finally pushed the limits of the rules and look what they produced, something worthy of a race.

  15. Jason (@jmwalley) said on 23rd October 2013, 14:47

    This is a really valuable article. Great to hear from a Tilke designer and get some realistic perspective from someone who is confronted by the boundaries we constantly complain about.

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