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.

*Paywall link

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54 comments on The strange snobbery about short tracks

  1. timi (@timi) said on 26th June 2014, 14:25

    “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.”

    No truer words have ever been spoken @keithcollantine. Great article.
    The problem is Tilke’s stranglehold on track design. His firm just don’t cut it anymore, we need a new front-runner in track design, and we need one ASAP

  2. Hairs (@hairs) said on 26th June 2014, 14:25

    The * for a Times F1 link should be a footnote which reads “Lazy journalism warning”.

  3. WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 26th June 2014, 14:28

    I would cite the case of DTM, where in spite of having F1-style 22 car grids of late, at the 1.4 mi Norisring, the 1.198 mi Brands Hatch Indy Circuit, the 1.115 mi Moscow Raceway Sprint and the 2.688 mi Red Bull Ring. The theory is a shorter track put cars closer together and ensures races don’t become disjointed by the field spread: it works, and DTM racing at all of the aforementioned circuits is consistently enthralling.

    Inversely, how many excellent races did we have in Korea? Or in Abu Dhabi? Or at Singapore Yes, F1 cars perhaps need more room to stretch their legs than DTM-style touring cars, and a short version of Spa or Monza would be utterly sacrilegious, but the great races we’ve at Monaco, Hungary and Austria over the years categorically prove that its the quality of the layout not the quantity of the tarmac that matters.

  4. Michael Brown said on 26th June 2014, 14:38

    I’d also like to point out that e Red Bull Ring has 4 ideal overtaking spots: Turns 1, 2, 3, and the 4-5 complex. Most tracks on the calendar have more corners and yet less overtaking spots. The ratio of overtaking spots to corners is very high for the Red Bull Ring.

  5. TMF (@tmf42) said on 26th June 2014, 14:40

    I couldn’t agree more with all that’s said in this one – also if a race can draw such an immense crowd in such a short time – it’s a keeper. I can only speak for myself but I find more entertainment in watching races where the grandstands are full and people enjoy the show.

  6. Tifoso1989 (@tifoso1989) said on 26th June 2014, 14:42

    Apart the fantastic job done by Red Bull to modernize the old A1 Ring which can now host a F1 GP and the great atmosphere provided by the Austrian fans, the track itself is a beauty (typical European track which Bernie Ecclestone hates BTW) unlike many other typical circuits with long straights and a succession of boring 90° corners in the middle of nowhere. Too short ? I think racing in general has never been about the length of the tracks, it’s all about corners that can push the drivers to use all their skills just to remain within the track. I never heard of anyone complaining about the Nurburgring even if it’s too long (22 Km) or Lemans (13 Km). I remember Mark Webber saying in the 2012 in season Mugello test that driving 10 laps around the Mugello is more satisfying than driving 100 laps in Abu Dhabi. RB Ring proved to be a challenging circuit because a clean lap when a driver can get all the sectors right was hard to achieve, and as for people who criticize this track for being too short (i respect their opinion BTW) i just want to know what will be their thoughts when the Azerbaijan GP will come.

  7. hobo (@hobo) said on 26th June 2014, 14:42

    I, too, was blissfully unaware of criticism of the A-1/Red Bull. I think it is very well-suited for F1 and for spectators. The length of the circuit, fairly compact layout, and elevation changes means that spectators can generally see more than one corner.

    And for those who have Gran Turismo 6, which added the RBRing just prior to the GP weekend, it is a blast to race on in all sorts of cars. It looks simple but the off-camber turns (T5, T8) and the elevation changes at T2 and T3 can catch you out and are satisfying to get right.

    Who should we talk to about getting Imola back?

  8. JohnBt (@johnbt) said on 26th June 2014, 14:48

    Short circuits has the advantage of cars racing closer which I like as there’s a level of rush through each corner with more edge hence any minor mistake can throw drivers off as Lewis was affected during quail. Yes, we get to see the cars more often than longer circuits. Austria, Monaco and Brazil rapid laps can throw surprises at times and leaders lapping even faster teams becomes apparent. Remember Alonso’s last position at Monaco in 2012 and he finished 5th is just an example, quite a feat for a tight circuit. The balance of 2014 circuits is not too bad though. Throw in a few more non-Tilke circuits the next couple of seasons will be most welcomed.

  9. wsrgo (@wsrgo) said on 26th June 2014, 14:48

    One problem of short circuits is traffic, which is an issue in qualifying.

  10. OmarR-Pepper (@omarr-pepper) said on 26th June 2014, 14:51

    I still remember Austria 2001 and 2002, maybe not the best examples (for the team The same this year. And call me crazy, but COTA (another track praised by the different elevation levels) is in my opinion a start-to -finish processional race.
    But well, it’s a combinaton of factors what makes a race interesting or boring. Barhain has had snoring races but also great ones (in the same configuration I mean) and the same happened in Spa, a highly regarded track packed with emotions most of the time, but not last year.
    It’s quite a difficult answer to the question “What does it take to make a race fantastic?

  11. OmarR-Pepper (@omarr-pepper) said on 26th June 2014, 14:52

    I still remember Austria 2001 and 2002, maybe not the best examples (for the team orders I mean). The same this year. It was quite dull. And call me crazy, but COTA (another track praised by the different elevation levels) is in my opinion a start-to -finish processional race.
    But well, it’s a combinaton of factors what makes a race interesting or boring. Barhain has had snoring races but also great ones (in the same configuration I mean) and the same happened in Spa, a highly regarded track packed with emotions most of the time, but not last year.
    It’s quite a difficult answer to the question “What does it take to make a race fantastic?
    (Sorry for the previous comment that got cut by my misterious mouse)

  12. Strontium (@strontium) said on 26th June 2014, 15:00

    Every point you make here is spot on. Variety is needed, and short is good too.

    Having just driven the Red Bull Ring on Grid 2 several times, I can say what an enjoyable layout it has.

    One of the things I loved about the Austrian Grand Prix this year is just how little fuss was made over the layout. There was no changing every corner for more fake dramatic action, or needless safety improvements which do absolutely nothing. It was just a contract to race at the track, and go.

    Also, the rules that Tilke has to stick to simply NEED to be relaxed. F1 can survive at old school tracks that don’t meet new design regulations, so why on earth can it not survive at new tracks built in this way?

  13. Sven (@crammond) said on 26th June 2014, 15:24

    The perfect length of a racetrack is 26km. Yes, call me blasphemic if you like, but I do like including the GP-track to the Nordschleife. However, everything that has slow and fast corners, straights (plural) and elevation changes is better than flat tracks with slow- and mid-speed corners only and only one (or two consecutive) straights. And I do like the Österreichring.

    @whoever talked about NASCAR: It´s funny how the term of “cookie-cutter tracks) is much older there, and it´s a derogative term describing ovals of intermediate length: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oval_track_racing#Intermediate_tracks
    That´s the races not to watch, both the short-tracks (less than one mile) and the superspeedways (more than two miles) produce more action.

  14. ANDREW (@johnson102) said on 26th June 2014, 15:37

    Whenever a new circuit is announced I get excited, until I learn that its length is 5 and a bit kilometres and there will be fifty something laps. Then I realise that while it will be new and I’ll enjoy the getting used to it part, if the racing is the same then what’s the point.
    I remember as a kid watching the Australian Grand Prix from Adelaide, and while I acknowledge the rose tinted glance into the past I have yet to experience the same from Albert Park. More laps with good overtaking zones means more chances and more drama.
    For that alone I was excited when Austria was announced. A new circuit, a different circuit. With places to overtake and DRS is not the ultimate decider of an overtake. The racing may not have been amazing but it was still something different and I loved every second.

  15. I just want an oval to add to the diversity.

    • minnis (@minnis) said on 26th June 2014, 16:33

      I’d love to see a return to the old monza circuit. An oval would be good (its about the only type of road circuit not on the F1 calendar) but the old monza would be better as its a bit more interesting.

      In addition to this, I’d like to see different lengths of races as well as different lengths of circuits. A bit like the WEC with the 24hr le mans race. Who could say no to a four hour Monaco endurance race? Or a one hour sprint race?

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