F1 at 70: The best grand prix circuits - by those who know

F1

What makes a great Formula 1 circuit and which is the greatest of all-time? Our panel of experts have driven them, engineered cars for them, photographed them and designed tracks

1966 Monaco GP

Lorenzo Bandini and Graham Hill racing around Monaco in 1966

Grand Prix Photo

In the 70 years of the Formula 1 world championship, drivers have visited a total of 71 circuits, and many of the names have become legendary, even if the tracks themselves are pale imitations of their former selves. Others (Caesar’s Palace and Valencia) are best forgotten.

But which is the greatest of them all? We’ve spoken to those who have raced on historic and modern tracks, as well as those who have designed, photographed and set cars up at circuits around the world.

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could name a single winner, but the choices and the reasoning of our expert panel offer a fascinating insight into what makes a great circuit, from the combination of corners to the atmosphere of the crowd.

 

John Watson

Former F1 driver

A great circuit should be sufficiently challenging, where you always feel there is a little more time left to exploit.

I would say Watkins Glen, up in New York State, was a favourite of mine. It was a number of factors, but first of all the layout of the circuit. To me, it combined elements which tested the driver, tested the car and there were a couple of sections on the circuit, the uphill esses, which in ideal circumstances was just about flat, but it was always a challenge.

If you got it right you got the benefit of that long back straight which then ended in a long downhill opening out on the exit of the corner. A great corner, one you could build yourself into getting on the throttle sooner and harder.

John Watson, Watkins Glen, 1976

John Watson at the wheel of his Penske-Ford at Watkins Glen in 1976

Grand Prix Photo

My second visit was in ’74 and that was in the Hexagon Brabham BT44. It was the amalgamation again of a super car, really fantastic race car and a great race track. You put those two elements together with the feedback that you get, the self fulfilment, self satisfaction – this is what being a Grand Prix driver is about.

The other thing I loved about Watkins Glen was its location, upper new New York state, the race was held in autumn, in what they call the fall. It’s a remarkably beautiful part of North America. But the third thing which made it an amazing event [was that it was], I suppose, the nearest thing motorsports ever had to Woodstock.

There was an atmosphere unlike any other grand prix I’ve ever been to and it was wild frankly. What ended up happening was, you’d get people coming up for the weekend, in RVs, sleeping in tents, sleeping bags out in the open, it was mad. A lot of the visitors I would say were basically shit-faced from the minute they arrived to the minute they left.

Related article

Nürburgring and Spa: a load of cliches! I know it’s got 100 and whatever corners. In fact, many of those corners you could make into one big corner rather than having three little bits. I felt to some degree that it was a bit of a party trick.

Another circuit which is a favourite of mine is Montjuich Park in Barcelona. It’s what might be loosely described as an old-fashioned street circuit. It was much bigger than Monaco – it climbed and fell, the highest point was just after the start finish line and the lowest point was probably 45 metres below that.

There was a point where the cars got airborne. I’ve got a photograph of me in ’75 in the Surtees airborne, there’s a foot of air between the car and the ground.

The challenge was to find the rhythm of the circuit and run the barriers as close as you could on the entry and the exit without making contact. That takes some skill.

Considering what it was, it was quick in our cars. It was a place you bonded with, an instant love affair. I would say today it’s still the best street track that I’ve ever raced on. It felt like this is what a racing driver should be doing.

 

Martin Brundle

Former F1 driver, Le Mans winner, broadcaster

For an F1 driver, the great circuits are the ones where you always feel there’s more time left, maybe the circuit you’ll never quite conquer.

One that scares you a little bit with some high speed corners, so that you feel challenged by it because it’s so satisfying when you get it right. Eau-Rouge (Spa-Francorchamps) as it used to be or the Stowe – Club combo (Silverstone), 130R (Suzuka) before they eased it up a bit – there are some corners you approach with subconscious trepidation or even conscious trepidation.

It was challenging you. If you got it wrong, you might smash the car up or hurt yourself. Not that you anticipated or wanted to do that, but there’s no doubt about it, the fear factor, the challenges, it was why we loved the old-school circuits.

As a driver, there are circuits you always felt slightly more confident on. I love street circuits: Monaco; Montreal to an extent is a street circuit; I love Adelaide. Those circuits, the hustle of them.

Martin Brundle, Monaco 1994

Martin Brundle at Monaco in 1994

Getty Images

Fighting an F1 car at Monaco, especially back in the turbo days, it doesn’t get much better than that. On qualifying boost around the streets of Monaco, in a handful of a car, with 1300 – 1400 horsepower, that was quite thrilling, to say the least. I always default then to Suzukia Monza, Silverstone, Spa, Monaco, I loved going to those tracks to drive on them and I love walking down the side of them now when I visit.

I actually completely fell in love with the Nürburgring after racing there recently. Prior to that, I’d done one lap in Hertz rental car once with my Tyrrell mechanic back in the 80s. It was a big box to tick and I couldn’t wait to do the next lap. I absolutely adore the place and it’s the extreme example of a circuit you’ll never quite ace.

From the commentator’s point of view, a great circuit is, in a way, similar: like at Suzuka, [where the track is] a bit narrower, old school, and there’s a higher price for a mistake.

And then inevitably, there are certain tracks that just seem to throw up surprises like Interlagos or Spa – Silverstone can be that way too. Usually its weather-driven, or some bizarre things can happen. With the race start, you wonder “What’s going surprise me today?”

Interlagos is a very short lap and it’s very narrow. It shouldn’t ought to generate great races, but it does.

 

Rob Smedley

Former F1 engineer for Ferrari and Williams

From an engineer’s point of view, the best circuits are the ones which are difficult to set the car up for, where you’ve got a real dichotomy between making the car go fast in a straight line, and then understanding the nuances of making it stick around the corners.

They’re two very opposing attributes in a Formula 1 car. So I really like them – and if you can twin that with some really, really good high speed corners, which are massively challenging for the drivers, then those type of circuits are great.

Places like Spa-Francorchamps, we’ve got Sector 1 and Sector 3, which are all about straight line speed.

And then you’ve got Sector 2, which is just about downforce. You’re always playing that card between putting downforce on or off, there’s lots of different ways you can chop that off, there is no one single right answer – it’s just about trying to get it right on the day.

Kimi Raikkonen, Belgian GP 2017

Kimi Raikkonen tackles Eau Rouge

Getty Images

The other great thing about Spa is that there’s two really big braking zones as well – very low speed corners. Usually getting the car set up for low speed corners is something not quite the same as getting the car set up for the high speed ones. So for the engineer, there’s a lot of beauty about Spa, in the way that you try to set-up the car. Those circuits I really like.

Related article

Silverstone I love, it’s much more high speed, there’s hardly any low speed there whatsoever. It’s just such a massive challenge for the cars and the drivers, especially this generation.

I think this is the generation of cars that suits that track, better than than any other. It’s so incredibly fast now, especially in the Becketts complex. When we first went to this generation of cars in 2017 and put all the downforce on them, it took the drivers until the Sunday to get used to it.

I remember chatting to our drivers and then other drivers in the paddock on the Friday, they said, “You’ve got no idea how fast Becketts is now”. Going through the complex at that speed and trying to extract lap time as well, at the same time, it takes you some getting used to, even for a Formula 1 driver.

Suzuka is another great circuit which has a really special mix of high-speed and then some very low-speed corners. If you can get the car right for Suzuka as an engineer and driver combination, I think you can get it right anywhere.

 

Paul-Henri Cahier

F1 photographer

What makes a great F1 circuit? Elevation, proximity to the cars and action, challenging corners and atmosphere.

If you look at all the circuits, except Monza, they all have a drop factor. They all go up and down. That’s really important because it’s great for spectators, it’s great for photographers, and I think it’s great for drivers. They love it.

Alain Prost at Brands Hatch

Alain Prost through Paddock Hill bend in 1985

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

I always loved Brands Hatch because it’s so spectacular. You take Paddock Bend, then all of a sudden the track goes downhill – it’s so beautiful and colourful. I always loved that shot from from the top of Paddock Bend, looking down.

At Brands Hatch I did what is probably my most famous picture, of Alain Prost and Niki Lauda on the grid after the race was stopped in 1984. So of course that brings me a strong memory.

Very unique, there’s no other place like it.

Alain Prost and Niki Lauda on the grid after a red flag stopped the 1984 British Grand Prix

Prost and Lauda on the Brands Hatch grid in 1984

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The old Österrichring was super fast and again had a beautiful backdrop with the rolling hills in the fields. It had great photographic opportunities and of course drivers love Österrichring.

I think the exit of the Bosch Kurve was definitely a magical corner. In those days (’70s/’80s) you basically had a small guardrail (at the corner). You could stand on the exit of the corner, on the edge of the guardrail, and cars would come almost brushing by it. Gilles Villeneuve famously brushed the barrier there, ripping off some advertising banners that were on the track side of the it.

James Hunt in the air at the Nurburgring in 1976

James Hunt takes off at the Nürburgring in 1976

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The Nürburgring was so incredibly spectacular. Cars jumping in the air and the famous Karussell. Something that also needs to be stressed is the atmosphere element. The spectators were close to the cars, they had a great view.

It goes back to older days when drivers were more visible. They were not buried inside their car. They were more outside, so to speak. I think that created a proximity with between the public and the driver.

 

Jarno Zaffelli

F1 Circuit Designer, who worked on upgrading Zandvoort

Suzuka, that’s my favourite! Now, I’m starting to think Zandvoort can be at a very similar level to Suzuka, looking at the feedback from drivers who drove there. Of course, Suzuka’s older.

What makes me think this (about Zandvoort) is that it is very tiny, I almost define it as cosy in some way. It has two corners, particularly T3, that is something that is unique in all the calendar.

Talking about what makes the historic circuits great, they are great not only for the history but because this history was created thanks to the lack of perfection. This is the difference, new tracks are often built thinking of…let’s say a highway!

Kimi Raikkonen, Japanese GP, 2013

130R at Suzuka is regarded as one of the best corners still on the F1 calendar

Grand Prix Photo

Previously, tracks were narrow, they were tight, they were organic, and then new circuits became like highways: wider, longer, straighter.

With Monaco, it’s not a great design, it’s a great track, you know the difference? It has a lot of history, it’s unique, something different, but it’s 3km, you know? It’s very tight, it’s twisty, it’s not extracting everything from the cars, you can see a lot of speed, but only because it is very tight and narrow.

The first time I went to Suzuka was in 2009, I saw it, I recognised it, I remember perfectly that the track was telling me something and I tried to put this into in all my following designs. It was not only this circuit that told me something, but Suzuka was the F1 track along with Imola that taught me the most and Spa also. I learned a lot from those tracks what was possible with circuit design.