Reflections with Richard Williams

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Bring back circuits with character

In a blur of orange, black and pink, a trio of cars headed towards Albert Park’s Turn One at 200mph, three abreast. Fernando Alonso, who had come out of the final corner at the head of the trio and was therefore denied the use of his underpowered McLaren’s DRS flap, had no chance of holding on to the position. Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault and Esteban Ocon’s Force India swept past him, fighting it out until the young Frenchman dived for the apex ahead of his German rival. 

For a moment, five laps from the end of the opening GP of 2017, the contest had flickered into life. It didn’t really matter that they were squabbling over the last championship point. Towards the end of an Australian GP whose podium positions were decided by strategy as much as speed, here were three drivers engaged in the sort of raw combat for which spectators yearn, usually in vain.

If you were to apportion blame, you would probably place the excessive influence of aerodynamics at the top of the list of problems facing Ross Brawn in his new capacity as F1’s sporting and technical director. No doubt Brawn, who spoke at length to this magazine last month, will come up with thoughtful and interesting solutions, some of which can be applied relatively quickly while others are for the medium term. But there is one important factor over which Brawn will find it harder to intervene: the circuits. “We’ve hopefully got new races on the horizon and we should be actively involved in how they are configured,” he told my colleague Mark Hughes. “Getting it right at the design stage is crucial.”

Of this year’s 20 GPs, no fewer than 16 feature tracks that joined the calendar during Bernie Ecclestone’s time as F1 ringmaster. Eight of the 16 were built from scratch, using Ecclestone’s preferred circuit designer Hermann Tilke. Others were modified under Tilke’s supervision. The four circuits that remain from the pre-Ecclestone era are Monaco, Silverstone, Spa (pictured above) and Monza. It is no coincidence that photographs taken from almost any vantage point at these circuits are instantly recognisable to the enthusiast, even where significant landmarks – Monaco’s old railway station, for example, or the Dunlop tower at Silverstone – have been swept away. The distinctive radius of Monza’s Parabolica or the climb at Spa’s Eau Rouge are equally identifiable in images captured today or half a century ago, providing a visual continuity between the sport’s history and its contemporary manifestation.

Ecclestone was occasionally forced into paying lip-service to tradition, but there were few signs that he really understood it – or at least that he thought it was anywhere near as important as the business of using GP racing to make vast amounts of money for his daughters to spent on their mansions and handbag collections. When Tilke was finally persuaded to pay attention to lessons of the past while creating the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, he cut and pasted much-loved features from other tracks. That this karaoke method of design proved successful says a great deal about the characteristics of the historic tracks and perhaps even more about the quality of Tilke’s own imagination.

On the other hand, given a stretch of desert (Bahrain), reclaimed land (Abu Dhabi), or former rice paddy (Shanghai), even Leonardo da Vinci would have a problem doing much more than spreading a carpet of asphalt and painting lines to indicate the track boundaries. In his own defence, Tilke could have claimed that he was never invited to lay out a new circuit around interesting topographical features defined by natural or historic elements: a forest, a river, a goatherd’s path across a hillside. 

Given the artificial origins of featureless modern facilities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that their corners and curves lack the kind of evocative names that decorated their predecessors: the Swallowtail and the Foxhole, Tabac and Casino Square, the Curva Grande and Serraglio. Today’s drivers, brainwashed by simulators, think solely in terms of Turns One, Two, Three and so on – a habit that tends to drain post-race interviews of a degree of colour and poetry.

Although GP cars will never again race on unprotected roads through the cornfields outside Reims or the hills above Pescara, the new owner’s desire to restore a measure of emotion to Formula 1 should involve introducing circuits with the sort of character that depends on something more than artful floodlighting. Maybe it’s time to think about designing cars for the circuits again, rather than vice versa. 

Ecclestone planned his deals with dictators and sheikhs carefully, and some of those contracts will be difficult to unpick. But if Liberty Media wants to take a holistic approach to reconfiguring F1, this is an aspect they cannot ignore. Think about 20 GP cars twisting and plunging through the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Is that really an impossible dream?

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