F1 circuits history part 15: 2003-2007

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Hermann Tilke has had a monopoly on circuit design work in recent years. His brief is apparently are to design safe venues for F1 racing where overtaking is possible – making tracks that are dramatic or challenging is a secondary consideration at best.

Recent examples of this include his new circuits in Bahrain, Turkey, China and Japan, all of which are covered below.

Several existing circuits have undergone revisions to bring them in line with new standards. And those that haven’t, like Silverstone and Magny-Cours, are at risk of losing their Grands Prix.

Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Further revisions to Monte-Carlo in 2003 added more run-off to a track which previously had been completely bordered by solid walls.

Barriers were moved back at La Piscine and Rascasse was made shorter and more like a conventional hairpin. Martin Brundle said of the changes: "It’s like going to climb Mount Everest, only to discover they’ve installed an escalator."

Later the pits were rebuilt to create more space for mechanics, with the result that they now overlook the harbour rather than the start/finish straight.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Monte-Carlo

Magny-Cours, France

Magny-Cours got the Hermann Tilke treatment in 2003. In a bid to improve the opportunities for overtaking the final section was revised, which included removing the awkward chicane at Lisee that preceded the final corner.

The changes started at the corner before Lisee, Chateau d’Eau, which was tightened. A curving ‘straight’ connected that to a new, sharp right-hander, before funnelling the cars through another chicane.

Unfortunately the new section seems to have done little to produce more overtaking. The notable exception was Rubens Barrichello’s daring last-lap pass on Jarno Trulli in 2004 for third position – an embarrassing move that eventually led to Trulli’s dismissal from the team.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Magny-Cours

Hungaroring, Hungary

The Hungaroring also had some changes courtesy of Tilke. The start/finish straight was extended into a tighter first turn. Further around the track the old fast chicane was removed and the course straightened, adding a new right-hander before it re-joined the additional course.

Although the changes at the first bend have gone some way towards making overtaking viable at the Hungaroring, the other revisions have not, and the track is still a notoriously difficult place for passing. Felipe Massa showed just how tough it is last year, when he started the race 14th and finished only one place higher.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting the Hungaroring

Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain

Two all-new Hermann Tilke creations in Asian countries arrived on the calendar in 2004. The first was a track in an especially unusual location – the Bahrain International Circuit was built in a desert on the former site of a camel farm.

The layout was classic Tilke – long straights, sharp corners, enormous run-off areas and immaculate facilities. But the lack of a significant motor racing following in Bahrain meant races have been poorly attended.

At the Bahrain International Circuit modern F1 cars with their enormous aerodynamic downforce can run fairly close to one another. If F1 cars remain in that configuration, expect more circuits like Bahrain to appear, and existing tracks to start looking more like it.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Bahrain International Circuit

Shanghai International Circuit, China

Hermann Tilke had a busy 2004 – this was his second all-new track. The Shanghai International Circuit was a no-expense-spared project, and the enormous central stadium and pits complex dwarfed anything seen before in F1.

A unique feature was the team huts built on a lake behind the pits. But though these looked good on paper when the teams got there they found it rather inconvenient.

The circuit itself was something of an awkward creation. The long, looping, tightening first corner, that abruptly screws back in the opposite direction, was quite unlike any other bend in F1. It caught out Michael Schumacher on his first visit to the track, the Ferrari driver spinning off on his qualifying lap.

Despite the vast sums spent on the track the 2005 race was spoiled by a design fault. Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren, unsighted, struck a drain cover that had worked loose. It ended his race and wrecked the battle for the constructors’ championship between McLaren and Renault.

In 2007 part of the stands were damaged by high winds two months before the Grand Prix. The head of the circuit Yu Zhifei has since been involved in a scandal and was arrested for corruption.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Shanghai International Circuit

Istanbul Park, Turkey

The newest circuit on the F1 calendar at the time of writing is Istanbul Park in Turkey. ‘Istanbul Park’ is something of a misnomer, as the track is some way outside the capital, and race weekend traffic can push commuting times between the two well over two hours.

Hermann Tilke’s various circuits and track revisions have attracted some criticism. His detractors say his tracks are very similar, un-dramatic, lack gradient, and that many of his attempts to create ‘overtaking opportunities’ are met with failure.

I think there’s merit to a lot of these criticisms but I would offer two thoughts in Tilke’s defence. First, the FIA circuit regulations are extremely tight and would never allow anything like the Nurburgring Nordschleife, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez or even the original Silverstone back on the calendar.

Second, look at what Tilke did with Istanbul Park. It has gradient changes, flowing bends, and one of the best corners in modern F1 – the quadruple-apex left-hander unglamorously known as ‘turn eight’.

Tilke has also got to grips with the logistical challenges that face Grands Prix: a rainstorm threatened to wash out the World Touring Car race at the track in 2006. The water was so deep in parts it was pouring over the top of the tyre barriers. But when the clouds cleared the teams were astonished at how quickly the water drained away from the near-flooded track.

Istanbul Park isn’t perfect – having visited it myself I know how poor access for spectators is. But it can put on excellent races. Lewis Hamilton’s blast through the field to take second in the 2006 GP2 sprint race was rightly hailed an instant classic.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Istanbul Park

Imola, Italy

Imola held its final Grand Prix in 2006, with one revision to the Variante Alta chicane. What had previously been a fairly quick bounce across high kerbs became a much slower chicane, in the hope that drivers might be able to overtake each other into the following corner, Rivazza.

It didn’t seem to make much difference. The circuit was dropped after that race and has since seen further substantial changes, but as yet there is no indication whether Italy will get its second Grand Prix back. With there being so much competition for F1 Grands Prix coming from outside of Europe, it seems unlikely.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola

Circuit de Catalunya, Spain

The Circuit de Catalunya has become renowned as an overtaking-free zone. Tilke’s attempt to correct this in 2004 seemed to show a fundamental failure to understand why modern F1 cars cannot race each other closely.

La Caixa, a fairly slow bend to start with, was tightened into a much sharper hairpin in 2004. This has had no discernible effect on the amount of overtaking that happens there in F1 races.

The problem is that the preceding corner, Campsa, is very quick and hence aerodynamically-sensitive F1 cars ordinarily cannot follow each other closely enough through it for overtaking at La Caixa to be viable.

The final two fast corners at the Circuit de Catalunya (unsentimentally named Europcar and New Holland after two sponsors) gave the circuit some much-needed spice. But they also made it more difficult for F1 cars to follow each other closely down the main straight and race for position.

The amount of run-off at the corners also became a concern and it was for this reason that Europcar was turned into a slow chicane in time for last year’s race. However there was no sign during the race that it made overtaking any easier.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting the Circuit de Catalunya

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium

Spa-Francorchamps’ ‘bus stop’ chicane had been widened in 2002 to make the exit safer, and was changed again two years later. This time the entry to the chicane was enlarged, and the new bend saw plenty of action in the wet 2004 race.

It was only used in this configuration twice before the race was dropped for 2006, returning in 2007 in yet another different configuration.

By then it had a substantially revised start/finish section courtesy of Hermann Tilke. The straight was widened and the old bus stop chicane eradicated completely in favour of a new right-left complex more akin to a pair of hairpins stuck together.

The revisions were not immediately popular. Tarmac run-offs around the new bends made corner-cutting very easy and after some junior formula races had exploited them artificial grass was installed in time for the F1 race.

A greater concern was the tight entry to the pit lane, which could become blocked in the event of an accident. This problem has not yet been solved.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Spa-Francorchamps

Fuji Speedway, Japan

F1 returned to Fuji after a 30 year break, the circuit having undergone a massive transformation following its purchase by Toyota. The Japanese company entered F1 in 2002 and was keen to get its circuit on the calendar as an alternative to Honda’s Suzuka.

Hermann Tilke changed the original course dramatically, swapping its long, fast bends for a succession of hairpins. But the long straight, which is near the maximum length permissible in F1, remains.

No amount of cosmetic changes could alter the local climate. The circuit was famous for the 1976 world championship finale, won by James Hunt in atrocious wet conditions. Many other major races at the circuit had been disrupted by the combination of heavy rain and mist that collect at the base of Mount Fuji.

The weather stayed true to form when F1 returned in 2007. Practice sessions were abandoned due to fog and the first half hour of the race was run behind the safety car.

Fuji remains on the calendar for 2008 but as of 2009 will share the Japanese Grand Prix with Suzuka.

Read F1 fans’ experiences of visiting Fuji Speedway

Photo: GEPA / Mathias Kniepeiss

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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10 comments on “F1 circuits history part 15: 2003-2007”

  1. Congratulations Keith on a wonderful series of Articles.
    I have enjoyed each one inmmensely, and I have no doubt that this idea will be stolen and used in a future issues of LewisHamilton Racing, (sorry, I mean F1 Racing).
    In all seriousness though, great work mate, very entertaining and informative.

  2. Keith always does a very good works :-D

  3. Great stuff Keith, I’ve read them all and it’s been a fantastic series.

  4. I can’t imagine the amount of time you spent preparing this series. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks

  5. I agree with all of the above. Awesome stuff.

  6. Thank you so much. I have spent time on Google Earth at all the major tracks, trying to figure out where the “old” circuits ran – of course in some cases (Kylami, Riverside, Las Vegas, Zandvoort) parts or all of the circuits have been built over completely and it was impossible to see. In other cases (Rouen, Clermont Ferrand, Oesterreich), it was just hard to figure out what was where. Then came your series – amazing, quite honestly. As said above, it boggles the mind how much time it must have taken. If the Autosports or PlanetF1s had articles of this quality, they would be much better motorsports sites than they are. Come to think of it, maybe you could contact Nigel Roebuck and ask him who would buy the series from you for publication. I know that Roebuck is very interested in the various tracks and has made pilgrimages to disused places like Rouen to figure out what remains.

  7. What’s so great about “Turn 8” is that it has entered the “F1’s Famous Corners” vernacular. It’s become like Loews, 130-R, Parabolica, and Eau Rouge – whenever their said, people know the track and know how great they are. Who would have thought that a corner designed by Herman Tilke at a three-year-old course in Turkey would be as famous as those!

  8. First off amazing job Keith. I can’t tell you how many books I have bought over the years covering these same subjects.

    The one thing that makes me nervous going in to future of F1 is the fact that one design of track is becoming standard. Sure they might have different names, locations, and corner variations, but almost every track since the A1 ring has had the same prototypical design of long flat straights with a hairpin, long flat straight and a hairpin, ect. Call this Herman Tilke or the over regulation of the FIA, whatever. It is something that I believe is very bad for the sport.

    As this series has shown, the tracks present as challenges as the cars themselves. There was the roller coaster like feel of Motorsports park in Canada, the tightness of Monaco, the slipstream races of Monza, the punishing marathon of the Nurburgring, and the fast corners of Spa… to name a few. One of the things that I love about motor sports (F1 in particular) is the different challenges which are faced every week and how the teams overcome and adapt.

    The challenges these tracks presented are a bigger challenge to the teams then one might think. Take the basic design of the car for example. How long do you make a wheel base knowing a short wheel base will help you on circuits like Monaco with slow tight corners or go with a longer wheel base to give you balance at places like Spa where the addition wheel base give you that extra bit stability?

    I am afraid with the Tilke-ization of Formula One tracks that these variations on design will become irreverent as teams strive to answer the same question the same way. I feat the inequity in the sport between the have and the have-not teams will only grow as there is less unknown variables to answer and less room to find that certain edge. Plus who wants to watch the same race at the same track 18-20 times a year?

    Again great job.

  9. Really glad you’ve enjoyed the series everyone, thanks for the compliments. There is actually one final instalment up today so don’t miss that:

    F1 circuits history part 16: 2008 and beyond

  10. Sam Sincuba
    2nd April 2014, 20:23

    Several years after posting, this is still a marvelous read. It’s been like a wonderful, short novel that’s brought about a mighty bout of nostalgia. The history of our sport. Thank you sir. Even if it is just a commentry of the circuits used, thank you. After the recent changes to the sport, this was precisely what the doctor ordered.

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