By the standards of past circuits, the Formula One tracks of the 21st century are a homogeneous bunch. With the creeping Tilkisation of the calendar, racetracks increasingly resemble each other in length, corner numbers and character.
Of F1’s current venues, all but Monaco and Spa are between 4.3km and 5.9km long. Almost all of them have between 15 and 20 corners, minimal elevation change, similar average speeds, and almost entirely made up of slow corners.
But it was not always this way. For the first few decades of the world championship, before the FIA’s notion of maximum circuit length had been born, Grand Prix’s regularly took place on circuits far longer than we see today.
Given the costs involved in building long racetracks, and the difficulties of properly managing them, it is perhaps understandable that the FIA now recommends new circuits to be no longer than 7km. And it also means that the following ten circuits are unlikely to be surpassed as the longest in F1 history.
1. Pescara, Italy
Temporary road course: 25.579km (1957)
Pescara track map
Before anyone thought to build tracks to race cars on, grand prix racing originally took place on public roads. Some of these courses were monsters measuring in excess of 100 kilometres taking in several towns.
As the world championship began in 1950, closed road tracks were increasingly bring replaced by shorter, permanent venues such as Monza, Silverstone and Indianapolis. But the early years of the world championship continued to feature scaled-down versions of the old super-tracks.
The Pescara circuit on Italy’s Adriatic coast was one such venue: three-and-a-half times the size of the longest track on the calendar today, Spa-Francorchamps. The circuit took in the undulating Italian countryside in a triangle between the towns of Pescara, Cappelle and Montesilvano. It was split roughly into two sections – a long, twisty first half followed by two six-kilometre straights to complete the lap.
Pescara first staged races in 1924 and held its sole world championship grand prix in 1957, documented in Richard Williams’ superb book The Last Road Race. That the fastest lap, set by race winner Stirling Moss, was almost ten minutes long shows what a colossal track this was.
2. Nurburgring Nordschleife, Germany
Permanent road course: 22.835km (1967-76 version)
Considered the greatest and most challenging circuit ever devised, the original Nurburgring – infamously nicknamed the “Green Hell” by Jackie Stewart – was a 160-turn behemoth that wound its way through the Eiffel Mountains of western Germany.
Built under the Weimar government of the 1920s (not, as is often falsely recorded, the subsequent era of Nazi rule), it regularly held grands prix into the world championship era. However the Nurburgring became a target for the Grand Prix Drivers Association’s demands for safer circuits.
In 1970 the GPDA flexed its muscles and refused to race at the Nurburgring until a substantial barrier-building programme had been undertaken. This was completed and the Nurburgring regained its place as Germany’s world championship venue from 1971.
However the difficulties of providing adequate marshalling for such a long track remained a problem, and ahead of the 1976 race the drivers were determined not to return to the track again. Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in the subsequent race, which almost cost him his life, served to underline that point.
Seven years later the World Endurance Championship also said farewell to the ‘Ring. This was the last world championship event at the track until the World Touring Car Championship visited this year for a pair of three-lap races. In 2007, F1 made a brief return when Nick Heidfeld piloted a BMW Sauber for three exhibition laps of the track.
Nurburgring Nordschleife track map
3. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
Temporary road course: 14.120km (1950-56 version)
Spa-Francorchamps is over a kilometre longer than any other track on the current F1 calendar, yet the original layout dwarfs the current one at over twice the size.
Spa held its first race 90 years and like most circuits of the era it was laid out on public roads. It followed roughly the same route as the modern circuit until Les Combes, a which point the road would branch off to the left and snake through the Ardennes countryside, reconnecting at Blanchimont. While the Nordschleife was an unending sequence of tortuous curves, Spa challenged drivers with a series of high-speed bends with zero margin for error.
The dangers of the circuit were spelled clear in 1960, when Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey were killed in separate accidents during the race, and Stirling Moss was badly hurt during practice. Jackie Stewart endured a terrifying experience in 1966, trapped inside his damaged car while fuel spilled from its tank.
That inspired him to spearhead the GPDA’s driver for safer tracks which, three years later, led to a driver boycott of the track. After a final visit in 1970, F1 did not return to Spa until the modern circuit had been constructed 13 years later.
Spa-Francorchamps track map
4. Monza, Italy
Permanent road course: 10km (1955-61)
For a short time in the 1950s and 60s, the Monza circuit near Milan used a layout that combined both the traditional blast through the forests and the steeply banked oval into one giant lap.
The result was a terrifying, flat out, 10-kilometre figure of eight circuit. It was used on only four occasions and for the third of those, in 1960, several British teams boycotted the race on the grounds that the track was too dangerous.
Twelve months later the extended layout was used again. This time Wolfgang von Trips, who was vying for the title with Ferrari team mate Phil Hill, crashed into the crowd at the Parabolica. He was killed along with 14 spectators, and the banking was never used again for F1.
Monza track map
5. Sebring, USA
Permanent road course: 8.369km, 1959
While the Indianapolis 500 counted towards the world championship until 1960, Sebring was the first true host of F1 in North America. The Florida circuit hosted the 1959 season finale, which crowned Jack Brabham as champion for the first time, in its one and only F1 appearance.
The circuit bore some resemblance to its modern day successor which continues to host American sports car races, but was substantially longer. Like many of its contemporaries of the era, it was built on a former air field in 1950, with wide, flat straights laid out along vast concrete runways.
Sebring track map
6. Reims, France
Temporary road course: 8.347km (1953 version)
The original home of the French Grand Prix, Reims was another of the great circuits of the era laid out on public roads. Like Pescara, it followed a rough triangle shape between local villages, and consisted mainly of long straights with only two tight corners.
The circuit was altered twice in its first few seasons on the calendar. In 1953 it had reached its full extent of 8.3km, and Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn caused a stir by leading the Maseratis of Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez to the flag, the trio separated by 1.4 seconds.
The lap record was set 13 years later by Lorenzo Bandini, at an average speed of almost 230kph. Reims last hosted a grand prix in 1966, and the roads have long since ceased to be use for racing. However, some of the structures used in its heyday, such as pit garages and main grandstand, remain standing, monuments to a bygone era of motorsport.
Reims track map
7. AVUS, Germany
Temporary road course: 8.3km (1959)
Few circuits have been shortened for such pressing reasons as AVUS: having measured almost 20 kilometres before World War Two, it was trimmed after hostilities ceased as part of the track now lay in the sector of Berlin which had fallen under Soviet control.
The Automobil Verkehrs und Ubungsstrasse was a true freak of a circuit, as it comprised little more than the opposite sides of a dual carriageway connected by two hairpins, one of which featured a staggering 43-degree banking. Around four times steeper than the Indianapolis banking and lacking a barrier, this was something to make even the bravest of drivers question their career choice.
A truncated eight-kilometre version of the circuit held the German Grand Prix in 1959 which, due to concerns about tyre life, was uniquely run as two heats. The event was marred by the death of F1 driver Jean Behra in a support race. After F1 left further shortened versions of the track remained in use until the late nineties, but in many ways it’s a surprise this strange and dangerous configuration remained in use that long.
AVUS track map
8. Clemont-Ferrand, France
Temporary road course: 8.055km (1965-72)
The Charade circuit near Clermont Ferrand was eight kilometres of almost incessant twists and turns. The winding, undulating course through the hills of central France only featured one proper straight, and was something of a Gallic Nuburgring.
The circuit hosted the French Grand Prix on only four occasions between 1965 and 1972, before, once again, safety concerns contributed to its demise as an F1 venue. The rock strewn surface was a particular problem, and in 1972 Helmut Marko lost his sight in one eye when he was struck by a stone thrown up by another car.
Clermont-Ferrand track map
9. Interlagos, Brazil
Permanent road course: 7.96km (1973-77 version)
This weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos will take place on the shortest permanent circuit on the calendar, but in its original iteration the track measured almost twice as long.
Unlike many truncated circuits like Hockenheim or Spa, the new Interlagos is based on almost entirely the same site as its forerunner. This is because the original track was niftily coiled up on the same small patch of hillside. Much of the now unused sections of the layout are still visible around the course- keep an eye out for them during the race coverage.
Despite its twisty nature, the original Interlagos was a spectacular circuit. It was a huge physical challenge, with seven consecutive left hand corners around the perimeter – 540 degrees of rotation – testing the drivers’ necks as well as their bravery and skill. Among its distinctive corners was the long right-hander Curva do Sol, so-called because drivers rounded it while squinting into the light, which is now the third turn of the course and is tackled in the opposite direction.
Interlagos track map
10. Ain-Diab, Morocco
Temporary road course: 7.618km (1958)
Another one-off championship venue of the fifties. Morocco held a non-championship race in 1957 as a prelude to its sole appearance on the world championship calendar the following year. Sadly the race, which saw Hawthorn crowned championship, was overshadowed by the crash which claimed the life of Stewart Lewis-Evans.
The track, located to the west of Casablanca, was fast and its proximity to the sea presented drivers with additional challenges: windy conditions, dusty air and the occasional mist blowing in.
Ain-Diab track map
Over to you
Which of these ten circuits do you remember most fondly? Do you think F1 ought to include more long distance circuits on the calendar?
Have your say in the comments.
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