Modern Times

There is a telling irony about the annual juxtaposition on the Formula One calendar of Hungary and Belgium. Budapest is one of Europe’s most engaging cities, to which I always It-turn with delight, even lithe Danube has never seemed to be any other colour but brown. Liege and Verviers put me in mind of Merthyr Tydfil on a wet Sunday afternoon, and that’s being unjust to our Welsh readers. But when it comes to the racing the Hungaroring routinely produces unappetising fare, the unacceptable face of modem F1. This year’s race was completely devoid of significant overtaking manoeuvres after the first corner. So we always turn to Spa with a sense of relief. It is unquestionably the most heroic circuit of the season, and I never seem to leave the place without taking home some more memories of real motor racing.

I hate to sound reactionary about this, but I can’t help feeling it’s about heritage. The Hungaroring the very name is artificial was hastily constructed in the mid-1980s with the laudable aim of bringing Formula One to Eastern Europe for the first time. By contrast, there has been racing round a triangle of public roads in the Ardennes forests since 1922.

Look in Jean-Paul Delsaux’s wonderful two-volume history of the Spa track and you’ll find a murky 1925 shot of Antonio Ascari’s works P2 Alfa, slithering out of the same La Source in a cloud of dust towards an admittedly somewhat different Eau Rouge. You’ll see the start of the rain-lashed 1939 Grand Prix with Nuvolari, Lang, Caracciola and the doomed Seaman, their Auto Union and Mercedes monsters enveloped in plumes of spray, rushing down to Eau Rouge past that little stone house which is still there in what now serves as the Formula 3000 paddock. In 1950 the 158 Alfas of Fangio and Farina are leading Villoresi’s Ferrari into a La Source which is still a country road between dense woods but the trace of the road is just as it is today. And a dozen years later, Jimmy Clark is scoring the first of four consecutive Belgian Grand Prix wins on a circuit he avowedly disliked, but which was the perfect theatre for his towering talent

Of Monaco, they always say that if the track didn’t already exist, no one would ever be able to create it in today’s F1 climate. It’s only able to continue because the race’s commercial merry-go-round has become so rich that to stop it now would be to lighten too many important pockets. But Spa’s achievement in being a living F1 venue today is far greater. After the 1970 race, the Belgian GP forsook Spa for reasons of local politics and of safety: the full 8.7-mile road circuit, through Bumenville, the Masta kink and Stavelot, was now frighteningly rapid for 3-litre F1 cars. Chris Amon holds the Fl lap record for all time in the cumbersome March 701 at a very brave 152.077 mph (and the same year the immortal Pedro Rodriguez averaged over 160 mph in his Porsche 917, almost beyond belief on a track which included a 30mph hairpin!). There followed two attempts to run the race at the dismal Nivelles track south of Brussels before it found a permanent home at Zolder, a half: decent 1960s circuit which had been sullied by chicanes on the most interesting sections.

Spa seemed gone for ever, yet in 1978 the circuit was rebuilt and, uniquely, the new version retained the character and the challenge of the old while meeting the needs of modem cars and safety standards. From the bottom of the hill up to Blanchimont, through La Source and the wonderful sweep of Eau Rouge and up to Les Combes, the original track remained. And the new downhill link incorporated several demanding fourth-gear comers, with not a chicane to be seen. So in 1983 the Belgian Grand Prix returned to its spiritual home, even surviving the embarrassment of 1985 when most un-Ardennes-like hot weather melted the surface after Friday qualifying and caused the race to be postponed for 15 weeks.

So that is Belgium’s achievement retaining their track’s wonderfully demanding character while radically updating the place to make it relevant for today’s Formula One racing. For the Nurburgring the same challenge proved insurmountable, and the new circuit has retained not one iota of the Eifel magic of the old. Austria’s AlRing, built in the 1990s on the site of the wonderful Osterreichring, is another regrettable example of how to take a truly great race track and, responding to the need to make it safer, turn it into something dull.

And dull tracks please no one. Ask any current driver which of those three tracks they prefer — or indeed, which is their favourite in the whole season. Almost every one puts Spa, with the daunting blind sweep, near-flat, up Eau Rouge, and the seventh-gear flat left at Blanchimont, at the top of the list Great drivers need challenges like that to show their greatness, as Jacques Villeneuve will constantly remind you. When a new track is laid out, without a previous character to emulate, the challenge is more elusive. Of the recently-built tracks Montreal, its trace defined by the Ile Notre Dame, is one of the best Suzuka, expensively created in the 1960s as a test track is first rate. But financial or planning considerations may mean the amount of land is not large enough to allow the new circuit — with the run-off areas and spectator facilities demanded today — to stretch itself. The natural bowl in which the Hungaroring was built makes an ideal amphitheatre, but a more generous view of the space Fl cars need to fight their battles might have avoided squashing 2.4 tight, twisting miles into such a small area and condemning us to an annual August Sunday afternoon of boredom.

Actually, it’s something of a departure for me to blame a circuit for lack of overtaking. My overriding stance remains that each different track is the challenge that is set the teams and drivers, and whether it’s Monaco or Monza, it’s their job to meet it It is the rules governing the specification of the cars that are to blame for processional racing, and that remains my view: rather than changing the tracks, change the cars. And I’m relieved to say that at last there seems to be a quiet measure of agreement with this view among the teams, and a prospect of constructive changes in the not too distant future. As I’ve often preached on these pages, to a non-technical wight like me, it all seems so simple: drastically reduce those advertising hoardings they call wings, give us back big sticky tyres, and you’ll have more mechanical grip, less aerodynamic grip, and if a driver is fast enough to catch up the man in front, he should be able to overtake him, too.

The wonderful move on Schumacher that gave Hakkinen back the Belgian Grand Prix lead at the end of a 205mph straight, braking for a wide entry third-gear 90 mph corner, was Fl at its best. It almost made up for the disappointment of that dismal decision — on a road that was wet but certainly not awash as it was in 1997 — to start the race behind the safety car and rob us of the excitement of the first corner. But with the cars as they are today, Mika’s move couldn’t have happened in Hungary. (And I haven’t forgotten about Nigel Mansell using a backmarker to pass Ayrton Senna in Hungary in 1989 — Fl cars had far more mechanical grip then.) In recent races the McLaren has worked much better than the Ferrari: even so, if Mika hadn’t led Michael into the first corner in Hungary, he would have needed careful use of pitstops to pass him, because he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it on track.

These thoughts of circuits are relevant as we look forward to the season’s new challenge: Indianapolis. By the time you read this we’ll have been to Monza, where even those wretched chicanes cannot dim the magic of the place. There have been great Italian Grands Prix around that wooded park north of Milan for almost 80 years. Like I said, it’s all about heritage.

But Indianapolis will be perhaps the first brand new F1 circuit which comes with its own heritage, albeit from a different culture of racing. There have been 84 Indy 500s since the Marmon of Ray Harroun took 6hr 42min to complete the distance in 1911. This year Juan Pablo Montoya took less than three hours for his 500 miles, and qualified at 223mph. Of course, the surface has improved a bit since the original bricks were laid in 1909: but the spirit of the place has changed surprisingly little down the years, and to taste the Indy 500 atmosphere ranks as one of the great motor-racing experiences.

Formula One has had a pretty unhappy record in the USA since the demise of the wild and woolly, but much missed, Watkins Glen circuit in 1980. There have been some good stieet races at Long Bearh and Detroit, some less good ones in Las Vegas and Dallas and, most recently three in Phoenix from 1989-91 which produced scarcely a ripple on the general American consciousness.

Long-term, F1 in the USA has a big job to do against CART and the brilliantly promoted NASCAR if it is to establish real public support and rise above its status this year as a wellhyped novelty. And having no greater national driver interest than a French-Canadian CART champion of six yews ago is not a help.

But the first United States GP at a permanent circuit for two decades has already, it’s claimed, attracted a sellout crowd of 400,000. If the mix of the home straight and the new infield circuit does provide good overtaking opportunities, and if the down-home Hoosier atmosphere of the Brickyard can combine with some vintage F1 racing, then Bernie Ecclestone’s aim to get a proper F1 foothold in the USA will perhaps be achieved. And that’ll be good news for all of us.