Silverstone’s architects on making F1 circuits challenging but safe (Part 2)

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Safety restrictions have made life difficult for track designers who want to create exciting and challenging racing circuits.

To make tracks worthy of the best racing series in the world designers have to strike compromises between spectacle and safety – and satisfy the conflicting demands of bike and car racing.

Drew MacDonald of Populous explained to me how they did it when designing the the new Arena section for Silverstone as well as some of their other F1 projects.


Silverstone corner trajectories

Safety requirements are among the most severe restrictions placed on circuit design – and as a result they are much talked-about by F1 fans.

Wherever a section of track is built, designers have to consider how much run-off is needed. Populous do this by looking at the speed of the previous corner. From that they can work out the speed through the new corner, which they verify using the simulator.

Those speeds are then run through their CAD programme and, using the equations supplied by the FIA, they can work out what happens when a car goes off the track and onto the run-off. It also allows them to compare between different types of run-off: asphalt, gravel and mixtures of the two.

That informs decisions about the size and shape of the run-off. But, as Drew explains, life gets even more complicated when designing for a track which will cater for the top levels of both four- and two-wheeled motor sport:

One of the limiting factors at Abbey was the BRDC farm area, where there’s a pond. We pushed the barriers back a bit but when you have more gravel the trajectories [the route a car will take when it goes off] get longer.
Drew MacDonald

Sebastian Vettel will certainly be happy with the amount of run-off at Abbey after suffering a front wing failure there during practice for the race.

The bike conundrum

Car and bike racing have different needs when it comes to circuit safety. The FIA has a list of specific requirements which can be modelled using software. But catering for the FIM is more difficult:

It’s a question of finding the balance between getting enough gravel to satisfy FIM [motorcycle racing’s governing body] but getting the F1 cars to stop because, obviously, their cornering speeds are much higher than a bike.

In an ideal world, those trajectory lines will touch the barrier. The FIA say they can manage impact speeds of up to 220kph, but obviously you don’t want to be doing that.

We try not to make any impact. As soon as you start having an impact you’ve got to put more expensive barriers in – either big tyre barriers or TecPro barriers. Around Singapore and Valencia you’ve got TecPro everywhere because you just don’t have enough run-off.

Over at Woodcote, the size of the new run-off is driven by what would be required for F1 – but we’ve had to use gravel which is an FIM request.

The FIM’s requirements are very much on sight, on drawings and having run-offs that are 70% gravel and 30% asphalt as a rule of thumb. But that just doesn’t work when it comes to F1. It doesn’t slow the car down as effectively. So it’s a mathematical conundrum.

It’s a case of managing the trajectories in such a way to accommodate the site and that’s kind of what drives the design of the track, especially on an upgrade. On a new track it’s slightly easier because you haven’t got the existing constraints – in the case of Silverstone you’ve got a camp site, the Stowe circuit and everything else.

It’s an interesting corner geometry at Abbey. There’s a really tight initial radius opening up to a much bigger one. That tight radius was fixed because of the pit lane. As was the one at Aintree because the FIM didn’t want a corner any closer to the bridge on the Wellington Straight. They were worried about a biker coming off and sliding into the bridge buttress.

So then the question was how do we get the spectator experience and the driving experience between those two fixed points.
Drew MacDonald

Circuits designed for motorcycle racing also have to have wide verges, due to a fatal accident which happened in Moto GP seven years ago:

Another requirement for FIM is you have to have 12m wide verges on the approach to a corner, because of [Daijiro] Kato’s accident, when he was killed at Suzuka.

When a Moto GP bike goes into a corner they get a little bit of oversteer on purpose, they turn on a bit of opposite lock because it helps them to drop the bike lower. But when the back ends steps out, sometimes if they’re on the limit it gets caught on the grass.

Kato lost control of the bike and, because the verge was only two or three metres wide, he hit the tyre barrier very quickly with the bike. He flipped off it and hit an overhead gantry.

One of the outcomes of the investigation was a requirement for a 12 metre verge, minimum of six.
Drew MacDonald

However it’s not always necessary to design tracks that meet the maximum safety standards for both cars and bikes. At present, only three tracks host both Formula 1 and Moto GP races: Silverstone, Catalunya in Spain and Sepang in Malaysia.

Keflavik, Iceland

Keflavik circuit design

An occupational hazard of architecture is that many plans are drawn up but never built. So it was with another of Populous’s designs for a circuit in Iceland. An early version of the anti-clockwise track is shown above.

According to Drew, it had a good location in easy reach of an international airport and close to major tourist destinations. It stood to benefit from the popularity of motor sport in Iceland. But in his words the project “was a victim of the financial crisis”.

The natural contours of the land offered an opportunity to feature several elevation changes in the layout: “There was a lot of topography on this, lots of gradient change,” he adds.

Moscow, Russia

Russian track configurations

Another proposal which was never built was for a circuit in Russia. Here the team were asked to create a short circuit with the potential to expand it to a much larger version.

The final design had nine different configurations including a Grand Prix-size track. You can see each of the layouts in this image (track runs clockwise).

We looked at one for a private investment company that wanted to build a category three but wanted to be able to expand to category one.

So, from a national-level Brands Hatch-like track with an extension to take it up to the right length for F1. All the run-offs were designed for F1. It was three kilometres initially with an extension to take it up to five.

It included a big, Motor City-type trade wall and grandstands that were integral to the buildings.
Drew MacDonald

Russian track rendering

The track was designed to fit around a regional master plan where new roads and other buildings were being constructed.

But, like their Iceland plan, the project didn’t go ahead for reasons that were out of their hands.


View Larger Map

Circuit design in F1 is almost monopolised by Hermann Tilke’s company. Populous are keen to take on more F1 projects in the future and have already designed one F1-specification track from scratch.

The Dubai Autodrome is yet to hold a Grand Prix but has been visited by GP2 Asia. Populous consulted former F1 champions and drew inspiration from popular corners around the world when designed the track:

The vertical profile is quite entertaining. For example, turn one is similar to Paddock Hill bend at Brands Hatch in terms of gradient change, but within FIA limits.

Probably the best corner here is turn 14, which is a double-apex left-hander based on the hairpin at Nogaro [in France].

But the difference is it starts with a pretty normal sort of camber in the track which goes from about 3% to 10% through the corner, up over a crest.
Drew MacDonald

As well as getting the track configuration right, a lot of attention was paid to giving spectators the best possible view of the action:

It’s 100% asphalt run-off so it’s grade two for FIM, because there’s no gravel.

It’s got a permanent 7,000-seat grandstand from which you can see pretty much 80% of the track, which is quite cool!

There’s only a blind spot over at turn 12 which is blocked by this hill, but otherwise all the buildings in the middle are low so it’s a pretty good view from on top of there. That was a Populous-driven consideration.
Drew MacDonald

One of their current major projects is designing sites for the London Olympics, the result of which will be seen on an international stage in the near future. Now they want to prove they have the experience to take on motor sport projects.

Populous are now using computer simulation more extensively than ever before to design their tracks. It allows racing drivers to sample the circuit in virtual form and suggest changes before the ground has been broken on a new project.

It’s encouraging to see some fresh thinking applied to circuit design in Formula 1 – it has long been in need of it. Comparing the modifications made at Silverstone to those at the Circuit de Catalunya, Hungaroring and Nurburgring in recent years, I think Populous’ work was easily the most successful.

Whatever new venue appears on the calendar next – be it Russia, New York or somewhere else – here’s hoping the race promoters take note.

Images courtesy of Populous

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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24 comments on “Silverstone’s architects on making F1 circuits challenging but safe (Part 2)”

  1. The best thing we can hope for, is that Populous will be involved in one or two new circuits or revamps in the next years and thereby spur Tilke to start putting some effort in it again. Nothing like a bit of competition to get him moving.

    The first chance Tilke has now is the Austin track (Korea is ready, and India is already readily designed, we can only hope they will be any good).

    1. Even better would be if the safety regulations for circuits were relaxed a bit. This way we could move away from the “draw white lines in a vacant parking lot” type of circuit.

      1. Or rather, an even better option would be to attempt to come up with newer ways to achieve the same or a better safety standard.

        I mean is the current tyre wall construction really the best option? The amount of money thrown at F1 you’d have thought something slightly more technical could be developed.

  2. Thank you F1 Fanatic for yet another very interesting read. I think these guys need to design more f1 circuits – they listen to the fans and drvers whilst still creating circuits that are safe enough for the FIA

    1. Yes, that’s definitely true.

  3. i still do think that there are no boring track layouts, just way too dry weather conditions…

  4. Why would Popolous design an F1 track? They have never designed and built any of the buildings and infrastructure that accompany a modern F1 track, like paddock hospitality, media center and so on. They simply have no chance of competing with Tilke.

    1. Populous are a pretty major sports architecture firm, designing stadiums etc all around the world for major events, like Olympic Games. There is absolutely no doubt they have the experience to design the buildings and infrastructure associated with F1 circuits.

    2. why on earth does the whole project need to be completed by one person?

      if thhe track design is good, but they know nothign of building design, then hey, get in guys to design the building. I think getting each aspect right is what’s needed, just because Tilke CAN do it all, doesn’t mean it’ll get done as well as a properly designed track and seperately designed buildings and facilities. Let tilke design the facilities, arguably he is very good at this, then don’t let him anywhere near the track layout.

    3. Agree. Clearly with F1 the actual layout is only maybe 30-40% of the task for a modern GP, with Bernie’s demands.

      Even if Populous have the experience I think there are vested interests that will keep the Tilke monopoly in action.

      Interesting article though, particularly the layouts. The Russian ones don’t look all that unlike Tilke efforts, which perhaps is a hint to how constraining designing a circuit actually is with modern regulations.

      I’d quite like to see what Populous would come up with if they had more of a free hand, i.e. not trying to get something through the FIA. Would be cool as a sort of thought experiment.

    4. I think having experience with the Olympic games might account for something. The people deciding on those also like to have good VIP opportunities (although compared to Bernie, they do seem a bit more concerned about the sporting facilities themselves, relatively).

  5. Great article Keith. It was a really interesting read, and great to know more about the process, the considerations and constraints.

  6. i would love to see gravels come back in formula1..they were the part of history..and can really add more thrill to the racing..

    1. Run-off with no risk of retirement for getting things wrong everywhere bugs me. I don’t want to kill people by putting walls up, but there must be other solutions. I prefer gravel to tarmac most of the time too.

  7. Populous designs appear to be more curved and flowing tracks where as Tilke’s are more straight and tight turn stop start style. Using a mixture of the different designers and a slight drop in FIA’s tight safety regulations could provide much more variety in circuit design.

  8. Great article..just as good as the first! Interesting to read about the compromise between the FIA and the FIM.

  9. Is it just me, or does the Dubai circuit look uncannily similar to the layout of Bahrain (from above).

  10. Excellent article. That Iceland track looks a cracker, shame it wasn’t built.

    1. i totally agree they should build that track in austin texas for USgp.Opps I forgot tilke got that one too.

  11. I really hope Populous will get more projects! He seems to know what he’s doing and Tilke is a bit of a hairpin-fanatic

  12. Lets not get ahead of ourselves here. Tilk is not good, but that doesn’t mean populous is waaaay better.

  13. I don’t understand run off areas. You shouldn’t need that much space to recover from a mistake and you shouldn’t. If someone has a problem where they cant slow down at least gravel will slow them down somewhat pavement wont do much for you. Think of buemi’s crash in China this year, if your tires are not attached or your brake fail you cant do anything but hit the wall.

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