Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Street Fighting

A new circuit beckons for the F1 circus this weekend, when the teams head to Valencia for the first time. This is something of an event in itself. Since the millennium, there have been just four new race circuits appear on the F1 calendar: the wonderful Otodrom Istanbul, the opportunity missed that was the Indianapolis road course, the uninspiring Shanghai Circuit and the deathly dull castle in the sand in Bahrain.

The Valencia circuit, though, is something altogether rather different. A street circuit in the heart of one of Europe's major cities, in fact the first F1 street race than I can recall being held in Europe, and the first new street race in F1 in a very long time. Having seen footage of the recent International Open GT race there, it would appear that the drivers will have to acquaint themselves with running very close to concrete barriers for much of the lap, to a degree matched only by Monaco, where speeds are much lower. To be honest, what I've seen of the circuit has not exactly convinced me that this is a classic F1 venue in the making - it seems to lack any absolutely standout corners and overtaking, while not Monaco-impossible does not look like it will be easy.

It is, though, something different in an increasingly homogenized F1 world. Drivers appear to be more enthusiastic about the place than about the other new track on this year's calendar, over in Singapore and it perhaps has the potential to shake up the established order and allow drivers and teams who have not been having such a great year a chance to shine. It's intriguing enough that I'm looking forward to it, and I'm not alone.

Back in the 1980s, F1 used to make regular trips to street circuits for the US Grand Prix. The circuits themselves ranged from the interesting (Long Beach), through the more-or-less adequate (Detroit), to the deathly dull (the endless 90 degree turns of Phoenix and the plain silly Las Vegas circuit which was hastily put together on a disused parking lot). What made the races interesting is that, as at Monaco, these street circuits appeared to play to the strengths of different drivers, and indeed cars, than the road circuits which, then as now, make up the majority of the F1 calendar. Keke Rosberg established a particularly strong reputation as a street circuit master. It didn't seem to matter what he was driving. Whether he was in the nimble but underpowered 1983 Williams Cosworth, or the following year's more powerful but evil-handling Williams Honda, none seemed able to touch him around tracks like Detroit and Las Vegas.

Later on, when F1 went to Phoenix, where it was greeted with utter indifference by the locals, Tyrrell's new young hotshot Jean Alesi grabbed the world's attention by pushing Ayrton Senna very hard for the 1990 race, ultimately finishing second in the underpowered Tyrrell 018. The peculiar characteristics of that track, with its long straights and second gear 90 degree corners also probably helped to explain one of the most bizarre grids in the history of the sport (again at the 1990 race). An Osella in the top 10? A Eurobrun ahead of a Ferrari? How about Pierluigi Martini's Minardi on the front row, and just a few hundredths away from a shock pole position?

It is tempting to speculate who, in particular, might shine at Valencia this weekend. Mark Webber might well be one to watch, given he has always gone well at Monaco, where the walls also loom close. The Williams might also be well worth keeping an eye on - they have been disappointing of late, but they do seem to go better at tracks where mechanical grip is more important than outright aerodynamic efficiency. Of the title contenders, Lewis Hamilton must start the weekend as the favourite, given the way he ran away and hid at Monaco and was the man with the pace at Montreal, a track not unlike Valencia in some ways.

It may be that the Valencia race this weekend is something of a harbinger for the future of F1. After all, another street race will follow in Singapore in a few weeks, and Bernie Ecclestone has made no secret of his desire to have more races in or near to major population centres. Street races in Paris, and even in London have been rumoured, although the sheer logistical nightmare of putting on an F1 race in either location is such that these are likely to remain pipe dreams.

I'm more than a little ambivalent about whether this is a direction the sport should be pursuing. I've always been a fan of what the Americans call 'road circuits' and would hate to see such as Spa, Silverstone and Monza replaced with dull grid lay-out street races. It's a road that American open-wheel racing, especially Champ Car, has already gone down, and to my mind it is a travesty that there are IRL races at the tedious St Petersberg and Belle Isle street tracks, but not at such classic venues as Road America, Road Atlanta or Laguna Seca. That said, in the unlikely event that Bernie and London mayor Boris Johnson somehow contrive to put together a deal for a race around central London, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of Keke's more memorable street course performances came at a US venue not mentioned, i.e., the race in Dallas in 1984. As I recall, the track was breaking up and the conditions were very difficult, not the least because of the extreme heat. Nigel Mansell also comes to mind; his car came to a stop and he got out of the cockpit and tried to push it forward, collapsing onto the track.

4:17 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

I think that's the race I got confused in my head with Las Vegas. That place really shouldn't have hosted a Grand Prix.

It's also dawned on me that in my list of new tracks since 2000, last year's race at Fuji completely slipped my mind.

10:07 AM  

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