Hermann Tilke has faced criticism over his F1 circuit designs, but he’s often been confined by rules and budgets. And then came Abu Dhabi…
By Adam Sweeting
For the 17th and final Grand Prix of 2009, the Formula 1 teams are gearing up for the debut race in Abu Dhabi. Though drenched in dollars from oil, gas and financial services, Abu Dhabi is historically no mecca (if you will) of motor sport. To compensate, it has created a new wonder of the world with its Yas Island development. As well as the F1 circuit it encompasses shopping malls, a water park and lavish residential developments, while the Ferrari World theme park resembles a huge crimson starfish which has fallen from outer space.
Though the de luxe Abu Dhabi fixture seems more likely to appeal to Black AmEx holders with Learjets than humble workaday race fans, you’d have to be an Olympic-class curmudgeon not to marvel at the Yas Marina circuit. Its mix of straights, curves and hairpins takes cars snaking past the yacht marina and whooshing underneath the five-star Yas Hotel, and they exit the pitlane through a tunnel under the track. Allegedly, it cost a billion dollars to build.
It almost goes without saying that the circuit has been designed by Hermann Tilke, the German architect and engineer who has created every new F1 circuit over the past decade. Abu Dhabi joins a list that includes Sepang, Bahrain, Shanghai, Istanbul, Singapore and Valencia, and may be the most spectacular of the lot.
Tilke himself identifies some of the elements which give Yas Marina a unique identity.
“The marina, the impressive hotel, the cultural-related architecture all embedded into the race track design, and the implementation of various features which are very special in detail – all create a unique layout and a special atmosphere,” he says. “This can be found nowhere else.”
Tilke’s work has its detractors, but he is at pains to stress the way he has built thrill-generators for both drivers and spectators into Yas Marina. For instance, “the possibility to drive down the elevation at 190mph into the arena. This creates a special feeling for the drivers and spectators, and the track layout guarantees a lot of action. Secondly, driving alongside the marina and underneath the hotel – this too can be found nowhere else on a permanent track. Third, the start-finish line is kept tight and short which gives a special atmosphere and a good view for the spectators in the first and the last corner.”
As for the dramatic underground pitlane exit, the idea was to “enable the cars to safely thread into the traffic with almost the same continuous speed. The spectators and cameras can see and observe the cars that are driving parallel to each other for a long time, which is exciting.”
In contrast to the white-hot dazzle of Yas Island, Tilke’s headquarters in Aachen is discreet and functional. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne once built his Palatine Chapel in the ancient German city, where today’s tourists quaff Riesling at pavement cafes in the shadow of ornate Gothic monuments. But Tilke GmbH is tucked down an alleyway next to a petrol station a couple of kilometres from the town centre. On the upper floor of a renovated shirt factory, Hermann Tilke and his partner Peter Wahl oversee a company that now employs 350 engineers and architects. They operate across a spectrum of design activities encompassing sports halls, roads, hotels and office buildings, but inevitably it’s their F1 work which tends to command attention.
But while Tilke casts a giant shadow over the sport, he keeps himself largely unknown and unrecognised, and it took more than a year to persuade him to grant an interview. In person, he comes across as polite and unassuming. Dressed unpretentiously in a blue shirt and casual trousers, he sits across from me at Tilke GmbH’s long and pleasingly curved boardroom table and answers questions in mostly-fluent English, though he requests that I should tidy up any linguistic loose ends. Photos and architectural drawings of Tilke projects line the walls.
Despite his awesome tally of prestigious international commissions, Tilke insists that the wishes of his clients and the specific demands of each project are paramount. He seems shocked at the notion that there’s a particular Tilke stamp on all his work.
“Hopefully not. We try, and I hope we succeed, so that you cannot recognise this as something by Tilke. The buildings at the Shanghai circuit and the buildings in Bahrain, they’re in a completely different style. We’re working in a different culture, so we try to reflect the local architectural culture. We want to build something that can become a recognisable symbol of that circuit.” Hence the desert-pavilion motif in Bahrain, or the way the Shanghai track resembles the Chinese character ‘Shang’.
He nominates Shanghai as his toughest project. He was given a chunk of swampland to work with – “really very swampy, 300 metres deep. But together with our Chinese colleagues we found a good solution. We did everything on piles, and on the piles we put polystyrene 14 metres deep. It was very difficult to design, but it works. It emptied the entire Chinese market of polystyrene.”
In conversation, there are clearly defined no-go areas he won’t stray into. The intriguing question of how Hermann managed to find himself wielding a monopoly of circuit design is definitely not up for discussion – “errr… not to say. Next question” – but his dominance has been underwritten by his close working relationship with Bernie Ecclestone. This began around the time Tilke redesigned Austria’s
A1-Ring in time for the 1997 GP, and the progressive Tilke-isation of the world’s race tracks has been the most visible marker of Ecclestone’s determination to push F1 into ever-wealthier and more exotic markets. While the FIA focuses mostly on safety when a new circuit is developed, the perfectionist and hands-on Bernie will offer ideas on location and what makes the track interesting for spectators and challenging for drivers. What Hermann will say is that Bernie “is very good to work with, he’s very clear and reliable. He has a lot of experience and a lot of ideas, and a really young brain.”
Tilke talks freely about the redesign work his company is doing to bring the Donington circuit up to scratch as potential host of the British Grand Prix, and pauses to draw a sketch of how they’ve lengthened the straight and added a new variable-gradient loop to increase the current rather short lap time. But he won’t be lured into any discussion about the race going back to Silverstone. “It’s politics,” he says.
It certainly is, but the politics must affect his work?
“Yes, of course, but we only react to it. We don’t make the politics.”
The issue of whether all these gleaming new superdromes he’s building might be tearing up F1’s roots, since they’re springing up in places where there’s no motor sport heritage and often not many paying customers, triggers another beep from Hermann’s Hawk-Eye.
“Yes, but this is politics, and you have not to ask me that. If you want my opinion about this it is that it has done very well in the past. Singapore for instance – first motor sport is developing in these countries, and secondly it’s a big market. It’s good for the teams and good for F1, and in my opinion the locations are very well chosen.”
But there weren’t many spectators in Turkey this year, were there?
“Yes, that was a problem, and I don’t know the reason, but it was a successful race. It takes time to build up. But in Istanbul there were lots of F1-related things going on and you read about F1 everywhere.”
Indeed, the Istanbul circuit is regarded as one of Hermann’s greatest triumphs, particularly the celebrated Turn 8. It’s an exhilarating four-apex corner which reminds some old lags of Eau Rouge or parts of the original Nürburgring.
“Yes!” he enthuses, lighting up at the thought. “The idea was not only to make this a very fast turn, but also to make it in the third dimension. It has waves – first it’s up, then down, up, then down. This makes it difficult to drive. The race engineers want the cars to lay as deep as possible to achieve more downforce, but with this turn they have to lay the cars a bit higher. So it is really tricky and it influences the whole circuit.”
Sceptics claim Tilke’s safety conscious, long-straights-with-hairpins designs are squeezing the thrills out of F1. However, the glee with which he describes how he and Ecclestone scoured the Turkish landscape from a helicopter until they found a hillside location with a dramatic change of gradient suggests he’d like to build in as much excitement as possible, should rules permit. Supporters of his work argue that he does a fine job considering he has to observe FIA safety guidelines and work to a brief and a budget laid down by local authorities or race organisers.
“You mustn’t forget that he has designed some great race tracks,” says Clive Bowen of UK-based Apex Circuit Design. “Unless you know the guidelines it can be difficult to understand, but if you’ve designed something purely for F1, which is what Hermann has done for many years, then by definition those circuits will be optimised for F1 cars. Sepang is well liked by the F1 racers but not especially by other categories, but that’s because it was optimised for F1.”
A particular focus of petrol-head rage was Tilke’s reworking of the Hockenheim circuit, relaunched with the 2002 German Grand Prix. As well as introducing new and tighter curves, Tilke sawed off entirely the high-speed forest section, through which cars used to blast at over 200mph. He had made Hockenheim bland and boring, cried his detractors.
Tilke responds to this with a wistful smile. “The forest section was the old Hockenheim. For political reasons in the region, they wanted to have another circuit, a smaller one. That wasn’t my idea!” (It was in fact at the behest of the state government of Baden-Wurttemberg.)
“So we had to make things happen within a lot of restrictions, especially the fact that we only had a small piece of land to work with. Construction costs were very low. But Hockenheim is a good circuit. You have really interesting races there. We have a long straight in the form of a parabolica, and we have the hairpin where there’s a lot of overtaking action. We have these corners in front of the Mercedes grandstand which work really well – the spectators can see a lot and they have a lot of action there. And so, it’s a success!”
Equally, it’s hardly Hermann’s fault that the Valencia authorities invited him to construct a Formula 1 circuit in an unprepossessing container port. Give him room to work, as he had at the new Motorland Aragon circuit in northern Spain (currently not in contention for Formula 1 events), and he’ll create world-class results.
It would certainly be a mistake to suggest that Tilke lacks practical insights into his work, since he has raced in touring cars since the 1980s, frequently on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. A former competitor in the European Touring Car Championship, more recently he has gravitated to the ’Ring’s long-distance events – “four-hour, six-hour and of course the 24-hour race. It’s the highlight of the Nürburgring season.” He likes the fact that many Nürburgring races, from qualifying to chequered flag, can be squeezed into a Saturday, “which is good for people like me who have to work.”
He’s modest about his driving skills. “An F1 driver is not only a professional, but the highest level of the professionals. It’s far away from the talent I have. But maybe I’m able to understand better what they’re saying.”
It has to be said that nobody does it better than Hermann Tilke, though it’s equally accurate to point out that nobody else does it at all. In that respect he could be considered a victim of his own success – since he designs all the tracks, any criticism will inevitably be aimed at him.
“Of course, you have to listen very carefully to every critic,” he says, more in sorrow than in anger. “Secondly you have to consider from whom the criticism is coming. But also you have to wait because the first critic might be completely different to the critic after one or two years. Sometimes people change their minds.”