…and the corners weren’t much better either. While we like to celebrate the great race tracks in history, some haven’t always met with universal approval. Adam Cooper recalls the stinkers
A few months ago I was heading along the Brussels ring road when an exit sign caught my attention. It bore a name with special historical significance, and it wasn’t Waterloo. No, this was the way to Nivelles, home to the Belgian Grand Prix in 1972 and ’74, and a place forever associated with all-round mediocrity.
Editor Frankel has taken us to such as Spa, Zandvoort, Rouen and Reims in recent months, but what about the F1 venues that, like Nivelles, nobody looks back on with misty eyes? So began a quest to determine the worst or most forgettable circuits of the World Championship era the places which should never have hosted an F1 race.
Some might suggest that the 1998 calendar would fill the list, so to make the task harder we excluded venues currently in use. A few names jumped out immediately, but the job proved more difficult than anticipated. A poll of some top names helped to shape the list, but most agreed that they’d been spoiled compared to the drivers of the 1990s.
“The good news about the ’50s was that most races were on roads,” says Stirling Moss, “they were all pretty good, and usually in nice towns.”
“My generation of drivers was very lucky in that we raced on some great tracks,” says john Watson. “I think there are more circuits today that come into this category than there are from the 1960s and ’70s.”
Even the least popular circuits of a particular era had some sort of redeeming factor, in terms of location or ambience, if not the challenge of the track itself If the circus visited diem for a few years they inevitably developed some sort of character; 70s ‘autodromes’ such as Dijon, Anderstorp and Jarama fall into his category.
The names on our final list invariably hosted just one or two (in one case three) Grands Prix before they were consigned to history. Oddly, in several cases the tracks have had a long and successful life hosting other events. But the key factor is that at the time F1 raced there, they were regarded as dismal failures by the drivers who took part.
In 1959 the Nürburgring lost the German GP to Berlin’s Avus or as it was properly known, the Automobil Verkehrs und Ubungs-Strasse. Built by Russian POWs during WW1, Avus hosted the first ever German GP in 1926, before the new ‘Ring became its permanent home. It consisted largely of a blast up and down either side of a dual carriageway, with curves at either end, one of which was banked in 1937. When the race returned to Avus 33 years later the straights had been cut in half, because the original track ran into Soviet held territory!
It was the height of the Cold War, and Berlin was a grim and austere place. Drivers used to the unmatched challenge of the ‘Ring did not enjoy the boring straights or the highly dangerous banking, and the death of Jean Behra in a supporting sportscar event did not help. The organisation was chaotic, and because of concerns over tyre Failures, the GP was split into two heats for the first and only time in F1 history. Although the first heat provided some entertaining slipstreaming, the pace told and Tony Brooks led a depleted field of just seven runners at the end of Heat 2.
It was a really boring circuit,” says Moss, who also hated the Monza banked course, “with absolutely no challenge whatsoever. There was one corner, a slight left hander, which made you pay a bit of attention but overall Berlin was very drab…”
The notorious banking was demolished in 1968, but Avus survived until this year as a venue for local touring cars.
Located in an uninspiring part of central Florida, Sebring was already well known as a sportscar venue (the 12 Hours was first run in 1952) when it was chosen as the site of the first United States Grand Prix, held in December 1959. But it was far too bumpy for F1 machinery, and the little Coopers seemed lost on the open concrete runways. However, by chance the race played host to an intriguing championship showdown between Jack Brabham, Moss and outsider Tony Brooks. Moss retired early and Brabham had clinched the title before he famously pushed his out-of-fuel car home in fourth place.
“It was a foot in the door of America,” recalls Moss, “so from that point of view it was quite important. But it was an absolutely ridiculous circuit, lousy hotel – everything about it was bad.”
The following year F1 went to Riverside, before establishing a more permanent home at Watkins Glen. Shabby Sebring has barely changed in the past 39 years, and the 12 Hours survives as a classic in its own right
The Austrian GP is now held at a place called the A1 -Ring, just happens to be on the site of a once legendary circuit called the Österreichring. Purists may mourn for the majestic old track, but at least what we have now is a bit better than the county’s first attempt. The inaugural Austrian GP was held at the nearby Zeltweg airfield, which consisted of two blasts up and down a runway linked by a hairpin at one end and a right/right/left `complex’ at the other.
After a non-championship event in 1963, won by Jack Brabham, the race surprisingly gained championship status in 1964. It wasn’t the lack of challenge that frustrated the drivers as much as the horrendous bumps, which shook cars to pieces. Suspensions and gearboxes fell apart, and Lorenzo Bandini survived a race of such great attrition that privateer Bob Anderson took third after starting 14th.
“Everyone was rather disillusioned by the whole thing,” recalls John Surtees, “and they were a bit worried about the bumps, especially some of the British kit cars and such like. There was a lot of damage done because it was so rough. I was leading the damn race, and we had the rarity of a Ferrari suspension breakage. That would have made the championship far more conclusive, as it would have given me nine more points. At least my team-mate won…”
The race was dropped from the calendar but an Austrian GP for sportscars was held at the site until 1968, when the magnificent Österreichring was opened a few minutes away. These days the F1 jetsetters park their private planes at Zeltweg airfield…
1967 Le Mans Bugatti
In the 1960s the French GP flitted around the country as rival circuits staked their claims. In 1964-’66 it moved from Reims to Rouen to Clermont-Ferrand in successive years, although nobody complained about the three spectacular road courses. Then in 1967 the race went to Le Mans – not to the 24 Hours course, but the short ‘Bugatti’ track, built two years earlier mainly for use by the local racing school.
Utilising only the pit straight and the Dunlop Curve section of the main circuit, it weaved its way through a series of hairpins built in the car park behind the paddock. Its twisty nature was at least 10 years ahead of its time. A cars didn’t look right in the shadow of the famous grandstands and pit complex, and the fact that the GP was held just three weeks after a star-studded 24 Hours – won for Ford by AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney – meant that public interest was minimal. Those who turned up had just 15 cars to watch. The new Lotus 49s of Clark and Hill both had spells in the lead, but eventually team-mates Brabham and Hulme scored a one-two, ahead of Jackie Stewart.
“It wasn’t what the other tracks had been,” says Stewart. “I didn’t think it was that much of a disaster, but it was a bit characterless. Some tracks have got no soul at all.”
1972, ’74 Nivelles
After the original Spa-Francorchamps had been abandoned by F1 in 1970, the Belgian GP disappeared from the calendar for a season. When it returned in 72 it was on a track whose character was about as far removed from its illustrious predecessor as it was possible to be.
Opened in September 1971, Nivelles was handily placed just 20 miles south of Brussels. It had modern facilities, and was as safe as any track yet built; the massive run-off areas were totally without precedent. But as a Grand Prix track, it was a total failure. Flat, sterile and featureless, it did little to excite drivers who’d been at Spa two years previously, despite the first part of the lap consisting of some sweeping, fast corners. The first race was won by Emerson Fittipaldi, after Clay Regazzoni led the early laps.
In 1973 the circus moved an hour west to Zolder, political considerations ensuring that the Flemish part of the country had its turn. The track broke up and the race was a disaster, but over the years the place developed some character. After one more try at Nivelles in 1974, again won by Fittipaldi, Zolder became the Belgian GP’s home until the new Spa was ready in 1983.
“It was a rather non-descript circuit, with no character at all,” recalls Watson. It was one of the first to show signs of the blandness to come.”
Bankrupted, Nivelles staggered on until closing in 1980, and the track was later absorbed by an industrial estate.
1981-82 Las Vegas
American temporary tracks are not always unpopular. Long Beach (1976-’83) is much missed by F1 regulars, while despite an ugly downtown location Detroit (1982-’88) had found a niche before it too became an Indycar venue. However, three of Bernie Ecclestone’s shorter-lived attempts to spread the gospel were utter failures…
In use for just two years, Las Vegas was an experiment the like of which has not been seen before or since. Not a street circuit, it was built on a huge car park and some unused land adjacent to the Caesar’s Palace casino and hotel complex. Totally flat, it consisted almost entirely of hairpins lined by high concrete walls. And as for the unique location… F1l people either loved or hated it. Alan Jones won the first race in 1981 as Nelson Piquet stole the title from Carlos Reutemann, while a year later Michele Alboreto was a surprise victor for Tyrrell.
“It was totally contrived,” says Watson. “You were running next to concrete barriers all the time. It was a bit like some modern circuits where you never really get going. But strangely I did get to like it by the second year.”
Subsequently a CART race survived on the site for two years. In 1994 I bumped into Stefan Johansson in a glitzy shopping mall adjacent to Caesar’s Palace. Where had the old F1 track been, I asked? He pointed at the floor. “Right here…”
Dallas proved to be of the biggest fiascos F1 has ever seen, and, Ecclestone paid the price for the extraordinary decision to hold a race in Texas in the heat of July. Laid out on a typical American fairground, the track had a more interesting design than many temporary tracks, but the intense heat caused the surface to break up. Drivers were forced to race on a gravel-strewn surface which had the properties of ice, and many big names hit the unyielding concrete. Somehow Keke Rosberg survived the carnage to win at a humble 80.2mph.
“We went there when the soap opera Dallas was the biggest news,” recalls Martin Brundle, who has more reason than most to dislike the place. “The track was a typical American parkland circuit. After Monaco and Detroit, Stefan Bellof and myself were revelling in it — not having a turbo didn’t matter. I was going to be on pole by so far they just weren’t going to believe it. And I went into a chicane, lost it, and hit the wall. On the last impact my feet were the front-most part of the car. They got my feet caught in the catch fencing as they tried to get me in the ambulance, which hadn’t got any air conditioning, so I passed out. The hospital was near enough that I could hear the race, but I couldn’t see it…”
F1 did not return, but Dallas survived for a while as a TransArn venue in various guises.
1989, ’90, ’91 Phoenix
After Detroit, Bernie Ecclestone moved the United States Grand Prix to Phoenix, in the middle of sunbaked Arizona. A nearby oval, opened in 1964, hosted both lndycar and NASCAR events, and used to dazzling speeds, the locals were distinctly unimpressed by F1 cars on the tight downtown street course.
The city was dull, the track was perhaps the least inspiring the circus had visited Stateside, and a lack of spectator interest contributed to a flat atmosphere, despite the GP being switched to prestigious season-opener status in its second year. Alain Prost won the first race in 1989, and Ayrton Senna won for the next two years, having overcome a famous challenge from Jean Alesi in ’90.
“Phoenix was a pretty horrible one,” says Johnny Herbert. “It was always hot, and for me it was a very uninspiring track. I think every corner was 90 degrees! And there was nobody there.”
“We were just a nuisance in Phoenix,” adds Brundle. “They hated the site of us! Adelaide was the exact opposite…”
Formula One did not return to Arizona after ’91, and Ecclestone has yet to find a new US home. While a few sections of crash barrier can still be seen in Detroit, downtown Phoenix contains no clues that an F1 race was ever held there.
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