The strange snobbery about short tracks

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Felipe Massa, Williams, Red Bull Ring, 2014Formula One’s return to Austria following an absence of more than a decade got a largely positive reaction.

Fears were raised over traffic congestion on Thursday but that proved not to be a major dampener on the rest of the weekend. It could even be construed as a symptom of what was a nice problem for the organisers to have – namely that the race attracted a sell-out crowd.

The Red Bull Ring itself was in fundamentally the same configuration as it had been back when it was called the A1-Ring. During its last seven-year spell on the calendar it gained a reputation for producing unpredictable races.

Much of the 1997 grand prix was led, to widespread surprise, by Jarno Trulli’s Prost. The following year Michael Schumacher went off while pursuing Mika Hakkinen, and in 1999 Eddie Irvine snuck a win after the two McLarens tangled on the first lap.

This year the grand prix was memorable more for the qualifying session than the race, as the deceptively simple track caught out Lewis Hamilton and several others, allowing Felipe Massa in to lead a popular front row lock-out for Williams.

But despite the track’s qualities one line of criticism popped up rather too often. The Times*, for example, judged that “at 2.7 miles, it is, well, miles too short and has too few corners”.

The pedantic response to this would be to point out that the FIA’s minimum length requirement for grand prix circuits is 3.5km, so the 4.3km Red Bull Ring is in full compliance. As is Brazil’s Interlagos, despite being 17m shorter than the Austrian track.

And if we’re going to start kicking out tracks for being too short we’ll have to start with the 3.3km Circuit de Monaco. But of course that is exempt ‘because it’s Monaco’.

A more convincing response to the charge that the Red Bull Ring is too short for F1 is that the current world championship calendar is badly in need of variety.

Shorter tracks have advantages of their own even when, as in the case of the Red Bull Ring, they have the fewest number of corners (officially nine to Monza’s eleven) and the shortest lap duration. For example, the spectators at the track get to see more of the action for their money as the cars come by more often.

On a short track with few corners the performance differences between cars counts for less but the potential cost of a driver error is higher. A point reflected by the fact that Mercedes’ occupation of the front row of the grid was ended in Austria and not due to the random factor of a rain-hit qualifying session.

For the same reason the field doesn’t spread out as quickly once the race begins. Was anyone complaining that as late as lap 26 the top five were still covered by less than 2.9 seconds?

Takuma Sato, Foyt, Long Beach, IndyCar, 2013The fact that grids of 22 or more F1 cars have raced happily on the streets of Monaco for years suggests the FIA’s minimum length for F1 circuits is higher than it needs to be.

When F1 was rumoured to be considering a return to former venue Long Beach it was noted that the circuit would have to be extended from its current 3.1km configuration to meet the FIA’s needs. This is baffling as IndyCar grids, with more entrants than current F1 fields, have raced on that layout for years. The clue is in the name: Long Beach is not too short.

The simplistic view that longer is better for racing circuits was what led F1 to use the extended version of the Bahrain International Circuit in 2010. This succeeding only in doing what many thought impossible: making Bahrain an even less appealing venue for a race.

(Incidentally, asked later which of Bahrain’s four track configurations should Formula One use, what did F1 Fanatic readers prefer? Yes, the shortest one.)

Of course this is not to say the all short tracks are great and all long tracks are rubbish. What the F1 calendar needs isn’t circuits of a fixed optimum length, width or configuration of corners, but venues with variety.

Not every layout must be hewn from the same five-and-a-half kilometre, 90-second lap time cookie cutter. Let’s have short tracks, long tracks and intermediate-length tracks. Roads that wind through hills and twist through streets. Stop-start brake-killers and high-speed rollercoasters. Indeed – as Jenson Button pointed out – one of the refreshing things about the Red Bull Ring was that drivers spent more time in the quick corners than the slow ones.

The Red Bull Ring will never be held up as the finest example of track design as long as it appears from above as an abbreviation of the once-mighty Osterreichring. But compared to some of the horribly uninspiring venues F1 has raced at since it has a unique appeal, plenty of gradient and fabulous scenery. A good thing in a small package.

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54 comments on The strange snobbery about short tracks

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  1. PhilEReid (@philereid) said on 26th June 2014, 12:19

    I’ve never understood the criticism. It adds to the variety of F1 tracks visited. The only thing to complain about would be if there were multiple tracks of the same type… Which unfortunately there are as pointed out as the ‘ five-and-a-half kilometre, 90-second lap time cookie cutter’ tracks. They don’t seem to be complained about by the worlds media, even though they are un-inspiring just because they are the ‘right’ length.

    As you rightly say, more variety, more short, more long, less of the cookie cutter, but still have some. Make every track feel different. There have been far too many recently that feel too similar. The dropping of India and Korea helps shake it up, and the addition of Austria has helped. It remains to be seen what the Russian GP will be like.

    Variety is what is needed. This is variety… and the criticism’s are wildly off base.

    • Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 26th June 2014, 14:41

      Variation is essential. A night race is only special if it’s the only one in the calendar. If all the races are held at night, what’s special about it?

      Essentially, critics criticize what’s not needed to criticize, instead of shouting about the real issue here. The A1 felt so special because it punished mistakes. A slightly wide line had a terrible effect in laptime and it could cost a DNF… you had gravel traps, people pushing too hard at turn 3, 5, 6 and 9 went off track and couldn’t keep their foot down like in most modern tracks.

      It’s the same at Canada or Monaco. A mistake = wall, or a serious loss of time. We need more of that.

    • Iestyn Davies (@fastiesty) said on 27th June 2014, 15:32

      I really miss the old Hockenheim. That added more variety! I imagine we could have had a Mercedes 1-8 there…

      Paul Ricard could add some variety with its long back straight and flat out corner. Not to mention its safety facilities. But it’s very close to Monaco, which could be considered the king of variety..

  2. Jarnooo (@jarnooo) said on 26th June 2014, 12:20

    Totally agree with this. Too many new and uninspired race circuits have been introduced in the recent past. We can only hope that more former Grand Prix circuits are re-introduced to the calender in the future. Or at least that Tilke changes it up a little bit. Not sure which is more likely…

  3. mrjlr93 (@mrjlr93) said on 26th June 2014, 12:24

    There is also the Adelaide Street Circuit which was only 3.780 km (2.349 mi) which drivers enjoyed very much when it was raced at.

  4. ogamii (@ogamii) said on 26th June 2014, 12:44

    I thought the Redbull/A1 ring looked great, and I like the elevation changes etc but the racing was dull.

    I have no problem with track length though, a mix of short and long tracks through the season is a good thing.

    • Ncedi said on 26th June 2014, 14:43

      Agreed, I have no problem with the length of the circuit but damn that race was boring as hell.

  5. I think the track is fabulous. All tracks had their boring races and their exciting races, often due to factors not quite related to the track itself, so I am not going to judge the RB Ring by the latest race. But even at moments when no action was happening there, one could just relax and soak in the sight of colourful cars winding their way amids thickets of trees, between gently rolling hills, with wonderful mountains behind. If was a perfect bland of high technology and soothing nature.

  6. F1Fan said on 26th June 2014, 13:04

    Unique challenges abound at this track, so the compromises required of driver and engineers makes it special.
    It occurred to me during quali that the time spread over the field is similar to Spa, the longest track F1 visits. Amazing to me that the first 15 are covered by less than 1.5 sec at that huge track and we end up with the same competitive spread at one of the shortest on the series.
    Keep A1 on the schedule.

  7. Daniel (@collettdumbletonhall) said on 26th June 2014, 13:11

    I completely agree. I’m getting a bit fed up (like everyone else) with most of the new circuits being 1:40 laps and 5.5km. We need more variety. Some long circuits, some very short ones.

  8. Keith Campbell (@keithedin) said on 26th June 2014, 13:14

    Ah, the drivers are only saying they like it cause short tracks are easy to learn. It’s like actors only having a few lines to learn, drivers can just learn the 8 corners then spend the rest of their time hanging their proverbials in the pool. Right?

  9. Ricardo Ferreira (@yes-master) said on 26th June 2014, 13:26

    There are critics everywhere, about everything. But, in this case, there’s no valid reason. The Red Bull Ring is a great circuit. It has few corners, and except one I believe, they all turn to right. But, it’s a fast circuit and it requires full attention from the pilots to never miss their trajectory. As a result, in the past weekend, three pilots were faster then the rest, in each sector (sector 1 – Massa, sector 2 – Perez, sector 3 – Rosberg), which makes this circuit very good imo.

  10. Robbie (@robbie) said on 26th June 2014, 13:29

    I must say I didn’t even realize there had been a percentage of critics concerned over this, so @keithcollantine you have certainly sold me. My goodness what must they think of 1/4 mile ovals in NASCAR?

    It seems ridiculous to me to knock the concept of a variety of tracks when the technical regs have been all about trying to instill variety of strategies with the tires (not quite as much this year as recent ones though), DRS to shake up the order of things and prevent processions, as well as double points in the end which could see us with a WDC that only won because of them and a second place guy that got robbed. Not to mention the potential variety from some having to conserve fuel, tires, brakes etc and therefore being handcuffed from racing and being overtaken instead. Let alone changing up the rules drastically with one big side-effect to stop the same team and driver winning over and over again for 4 straight years.

    Then there’s the variety many want from more cars on the grid, and from the lesser teams being able to afford F1 more easily and be more competitive, again, for a shaking up of the usual order of things, and a closer field for more exciting racing.

    Having teams having to adapt to different tracks over the racing season might as well, and should, be part of the game, and can only add to the buildup ahead of a race weekend. In fact, Keith makes a case for more tracks like this that tighten up the field and penalize a driver more for a mistake.

    • JerseyF1 (@jerseyf1) said on 26th June 2014, 16:01

      @robbie Surely there are no 1/4 mile ovals, that would be absurd for anything bigger than a go-kart?

      I know that they have a 1/2 mile oval at Bristol and that lap-times are around 15 seconds which is ridiculous enough (especially with a 40 car+ grid!). A car pitting from the lead can find itself lapped!

      • skylab (@skylab) said on 26th June 2014, 23:48

        A car pitting from the lead on a 2.5 mile superspeedway oval will find itself lapped before it’s made it’s pitbox! (They even have two pitlanes at Bristol – one on each straight (I should say straightaway, shouldn’t I!?)

  11. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 26th June 2014, 13:37

    “Not every layout must be hewn from the same five-and-a-half kilometre, 90-second lap time cookie cutter. Let’s have short tracks, long tracks and intermediate-length tracks. Roads that wind through hills and twist through streets. Stop-start brake-killers and high-speed rollercoasters.”

    Amen! Variety is the spice of motor racing. We have plenty of 5.5km “long-straight-hairpin-long-straight-left-right-left-right-oh-what-fun-a-90-degree-corner” tracks on the calendar, let’s get some variety in there. Part of the reason I was so looking forward to the Austrian GP was because the Red Bull Ring is so atypical nowadays. Same goes for Monza, they are unique tracks that spice things up a bit, that is to be praised, not ridiculed or done away with.

  12. craig-o (@craig-o) said on 26th June 2014, 13:46

    What is wrong with a short circuit? What is wrong with a circuit with a single digit in number of corners? Absolutely none, and I feel that F1 needs a wider range of circuits rather than new tracks which resemble circuits already on the calendar. Apart from COTA, which is supposed to resemble sections of other circuits, the other new circuits to join the calendar in recent years (say the past 10 years or so) generally lacked unique features. Take Shanghai for example, I can barely differentiate between that and Malaysia except Malaysia has warmer temperatures and faster corners. The two are practically identical in length and in lap time too and are usually slap bang next to each other on the calendar.

    The great thing about a short circuit, or one with so few corners is that one mistake can be hugely punishing, as we saw in qualifying for the weekend just gone. We saw Champions fall in the second part of qualifying and Hamilton making not one but two catastrophic errors which really punished him. With fewer corners, there’s less opportunity to make time up. I really enjoyed the Austrian Grand Prix weekend, and it was helped massively by Gran Turismo having the circuit and its shorter form both uploaded onto the game prior to the weekend which was nice, and I remembered just how tough it is. We saw top drivers make errors too, Ricciardo in T1, Hamilton into T2, numerous drivers into T3, Bottas into T5 and so many drivers getting it wrong at T8 and T9 too.

    One of the great things about IndyCar at the moment is the variety in circuits that they go to, they have tight street circuits, fast sweeping street circuits, very different road courses, and different types of oval too, and that is hugely appealing to me, and F1 should take a similar stance and try to make every circuit that we go to unique, not fall into the trap of having every circuit at just between 5-6km with between 15 and 20 corners and one massive straight with tight hairpins at either end.

    It’s a cliché I know, but it is quality rather than quantity. I’d rather have a dozen unique races in a calendar rather than 19 where half of them are on circuits that resemble each other.

  13. dutchtreat (@dutchtreat) said on 26th June 2014, 13:57

    That is for David Hobbs to decide.

  14. montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 26th June 2014, 14:03

    Great piece Keith! If anything the criticism should be that most modern tracks have too many corners, most of them pathetic. Even a great modern track like Austin has a painfully slow and boring section after the big straight which should’ve been avoided. The track would be 5.1km instead of 5.5 and 17 corners instead of 20 but it would be so much better for it

    Red Bull Ring is a great track(quality always beats quantity), at a great place with enthusiastic sell-out crowd. It should be a model for F1 how to do stuff to increase crowd interest again

  15. beneboy (@beneboy) said on 26th June 2014, 14:09

    I don’t really mind how long or short a track is*, I’d just like to see a bit more difference between them but sadly FIA regulations have effectively outlawed any serious changes in gradient, camber and elevation on new tracks which is the main reson we keep getting new circuits that all look the same. It saddens me that we’re never going to see modern F1 cars attacking corners like The Carousel at the old Nurburgring or the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
    In an ideal world I’d love to see some of the great old circuits upgraded to modern safety standards so we could see F1 race on them again but as this isn’t a realistic option I’d like to see changes to circuit design regulations to encouage those building new circuits to try something a bit different from the standard cookie-cutter layout we get so often these days, regardless of the length of the track.
    With the huge areas of run-off we get at modern circuits there’s no reason some of them couldn’t have sections that are much more challenging, all they’d need to do is look at some of the tracks that have been butchered or dropped due to a lack of run-off – think along the lines of the pre-chicane Lesmo at Monza, Tamburello at Imola or the Carousel and imagine how much better the average Tilkedrome would be if they had sections like that rather than a load of long straights, hairpins and medium speed corners.

    *Even if deep down I long for a return of much longer circuits like the old Nurburgring.

    • Cocaine-Mackeine said on 26th June 2014, 23:43

      The old Nurburgring would be amazing to watch with the current gen of cars. But unfortunely, imagine the things that the FIA would put to the circuit (in case they approve to race there). Hundreds of ambulances, millions of marshalls, tyre walls, and obviously the DRS zone on the largest straight.
      Laguna Seca on the other hand I say it’s too small for the whole grid of F1 cars. The circuit doesn’t have too much overtaking opportunities. The circuit is not very wide for racing, in fact I think Abu Dhabi is wider. Also if someone tries an overtake in the Corkscrew the driver would possibly end up crashing into the other driver.
      The unique circuit that I think it deserves an F1 visit is Dubai Autodrome. Change Abu Dhabi and put that track and you’ll see the difference.

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