Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What makes a race track great?

It being rather a slow motorsport news week, I'm going to turn my attention to the subject of race tracks. Specifically, what makes a great track great?

To be fair I should say off the bat that I'm going to ignore oval tracks - anyone who's been here before will know that we just don't do that kind of racing here - there's plenty of other excellent blogs that do.

Most people who follow motor racing will agree on those tracks that represent true greatness: Spa, the old Nurburgring, Brands Hatch GP circuit, Bathurst, Monza, Le Mans, Laguna Seca, Monaco and Suzuka to name a few.

What do these tracks share in common?

History: For a track to be one of the greats it must have history. It could be argued that Laguna Seca loses out here, but when we talk history we're talking quality not quantity. Yes, a track like Snetterton has been around longer than Laguna, but the Californian track has played host to the classic Can-Am battles of the early 70s, the epic 500cc GP bikes in the 80s and early 90s, and all manner of top flight sportscars and motorcycles more recently. Among the greats who have had success at Laguna are Rick Mears, Mark Donohue, Wayne Rainey, Klaus Ludwig, Bobby Rahal, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Allan McNish. That's a lot of history right there. At any track you can't fail to think of all the legendary drivers and riders who have raced there in the past. Graham Hill IS Monaco, Monza sings of Fangio, and the spirit of Daijiro Kato is ever-present at Suzuka.

Exceptional track features: I've never been to Spa, but I know that Eau Rouge is probably on e of the top 10 corners on a racetrack anywhere in the world. The Nurburgring has all manner of exceptional features, but its 14 mile length and 155 corners are remarkable enough already. Brands Hatch has a couple of crazy corners, most notably the scary downhill, off-camber Paddock Hill bend and equally scary Dingle Dell descent and rise. Anyone who's spent any time on Gran Turismo will vouch for Suzuka's remarkable 180R corner. Is it flat in 5th? Do I lift just a little? These are questions that in real life are matters of life or death. And don't get me started on Bathurst's Dipper or Laguna's Corkscrew.

Trees: Call me weird, but the presence of trees indicate the passing of time, and therefore age, history and all that goes with it. Think about the sterile new F1 tracks like Sepang, Shanghai or Bahrain. There are no trees because any that were there before were removed during construction. This is why the ongoing construction at Le Mans will change the atmosphere of the place because it involves some tree removal. The other thing that trees will do is diffuse the sounds of racing, which heightens the thrill of being there. Spectators on rallies are well aware of this fact. With no trees, the sounds of all engines in a race meld into one background drone. Trees will keep out that drone sound so that you only hear the cars or bikes that are in the immediate vicinity.

The big events: Regardless of their past, important tracks host important events. Each of these tracks has one event each year that stands above all others, and is held in high regard amongst racing enthusiasts the world over. Consider the Le Mans 24 Hours, Suzuka 1000km, Brands Hatch World Superbike, Bathurst 1000, United States MotoGP, Nurburgring 24 Hours, Spa 1000km and the Italian F1 Grand Prix.

Danger: The world's safest tracks are generally the most boring. The inverse is also true. Brands Hatch, Bathurst, the Nurburgring and Suzuka are still considered to be pretty dangerous. Before the intervention of draconian promoters and governing bodies, the same was true of Monza, Spa and Laguna Seca. They still retain a greater element of risk than most contemporary tracks. A venue yet to be mentioned scores VERY highly in this area, the Isle of Man TT Mountain course.

Gradient: Although not all these tracks have significant gradient changes, a hilly track will always be more interesting than a flat one. Brands Hatch, Bathurst, the Nurburgring, Spa and Laguna all have some of the biggest hills in racing, so it's no coincidence that they are considered amongst the best circuits in the world. Others that are exceptional in this regard include Sears Point, Cadwell Park, Dijon, Imola and Sugo.

So there you have it - some thoughts about what make a race circuit great. Perhaps a top 25 list in order next...

1 comment:

Qwerty said...

Monza is still a great circuit. However, the modifications done to the two Lesmos means that it has some of its spark. They have slowed it down a lot and I still remember the days when it was fourth or fifth through the two turns. It seems that fast corners seem to be out of fashion these days.

Interesting point about the trees and I fully agree with you. As you correctly point out, it reminds us all of better times.

Try TOCA 3 for Bathurst and other great British circuits like Oulton Park and Castle Combe. Somehow the Brits got it right with circuits. Generally fast in nature. Tree-lined, of course, bumpy here and there but with cambers and gradient changes that really test both car and driver.