Monday, May 04, 2009

Fantasy Formula One...

The opening rounds of the Formula 1 Championship are out of the way. After starting in Albert Park in Australia, the circus moved on to Malaysia, China and Bahrain. Three countries not known for their rich racing history, and, it has to be said, three races where large swathes of the grandstands seemed to be mostly empty.

Meanwhile, the British Grand Prix, which was a sell-out last year, and looks to be again in 2009, appears in danger of disappearing as Bernie Ecclestone continues to reiterate that he won’t do business with Silverstone and Donington appears to be in financial trouble. The French Grand Prix, an annual fixture ever since the F1 championship began in 1950, is missing from the calendar, while the vultures continue to circle over the German Grand Prix. As Joe Saward pointed out in a radio chat with the guys from Sidepodcast the other week, for all that FOM talk of how races in such far-flung places as Abu Dhabi and Malaysia, and in the future, Korea and India might help justify the ‘World’ Championship tag, can a series which has just one race in South America, and none at all in North America, really call itself a World Championship? Mark Hughes nightmare vision for his Autosport column last year of a sport in which spec-cars do battle on identikit tracks at races paid for by authoritarian regimes desperate for a bit of positive PR seems to edge ever closer…

But putting that aside for a moment, what would a proper F1 calendar look like? Where should the Grand Prix circus be going? I’ve sat down and had a think and come up with the following calendar. It pays no attention to the suitability of the facilities, or whether the infrastructure is in place or the pit garages are of the kind of standard to be found in Shanghai or Bahrain, but these are, or should be, secondary considerations. If I’m absolutely honest, a couple of the suggestions are perhaps a bit marginal in terms of circuit safety too, but I’m not suggesting that F1 goes back to the Nordschliefe – every one of these circuits has been used in recent years to host major races – and in all but a couple of cases, major single-seater races.

The South American leg

For years, the F1 Championship started in Brazil, at Jacerapagua. For some reason, when the race moved to Interlagos, it got shuffled around and has been used to host the final round in recent seasons. I rather like Interlagos. At any rate, it’s a more interesting circuit than Jacerapagua ever was, and I’d keep it on the calendar. Let’s have the F1 championship start among the passionate and partisan Brazilian fans on a circuit where cars can actually pass…

To my mind, one race in South America simply isn’t enough. Unlike many of the more far-flung places that F1 visits, there is a real history and enthusiasm for the sport in this part of the world. So let’s go on from Brazil to Mexico. Up until the early 1990s, F1 used to make an annual trip to the Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez near Mexico City. It’s a great race circuit, and it’s still in use – both Champ Car and A1GP have been there in recent years. The final corner, the Peraltada should sit alongside such legendary corners as Monza’s Parabolica and Spa Francorchamps’ Eau Rouge, and there’s a few really good passing place to boot.

Another South American country with a long racing tradition is Argentina, home of Juan Manuel Fangio. F1 last visited in the late 1990s, though I have to say that the ersatz Circuit Oscar Alfredo Galvez near Buenos Aires makes even the dullest of Hermann Tilke’s efforts seem thrilling by comparison. But how about a race around the inside of a volcano on a circuit described by those who have been there as ‘Latin America’s Spa Francorchamps’? That’s how competitors in the final round of last year’s FIA GT series described the Potrero de los Funes circuit near San Luis. It’s fast, flowing, and even if nothing else, it would look absolutely fantastic on television.

The European season begins

At one time, there were probably too many European races on the calendar. Did we really need two Grands Prix in Germany and Italy? There is no denying, though, that F1 remains a predominantly European phenomenon, and that the vast majority of its fanbase lives. It’s something FOM tacitly admits when it insists on flyaway races in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore being scheduled for the convenience of European TV viewers, even where this results in races being held in near-twilight as in Australia or at a the time of day when storms are most likely to render the circuit unusable, as happened in Malaysia. For all that I’m not hugely enthused by Barcelona as a circuit, it’s a better circuit than the Valencia street track, draws huge crowds, and given the enthusiasm for the sport in Spain right now, in the wake of Fernando Alonso’s two world titles, I’d keep it on the calendar.

Next, I’d want to go back to Portugal. The old Estoril circuit was not wildly exciting, especially once it had been butchered by chicanes in the mid-1990s, but the new Portimao circuit on the Algarve looks like a fantastic place – a real rollercoaster of a race track with some challenging blind apex corners. The last round of the A1GP series proved that passing is possible here, and it’s a track that meets F1 standards – and was used for winter testing by several teams over the winter.

Then there’s Monaco. It’s an anachronism, not much of a racing circuit. Passing is all but impossible there, and if anyone suggested holding a Grand Prix round the streets of the principality now, they would be laughed at. But it’s been a part of the sport for eighty years, and as a pure driving challenge, it is quite unlike anywhere else on the F1 calendar. Qualifying at Monte Carlo is one of the highlights of the year. Ir would be nice if the walls could be put back where they were though.

Back to North America

It is a travesty that there are now no Grands Prix in North America.. Formula 1 may not have such a high profile in the US, though the weakness of its surviving open-wheel series suggests that there’s a gap there. However, the USA remains one of the countries with the deepest racing culture in the world. Part of the reason F1 has never really caught the imagination there, I think has been that it has always gone to the wrong tracks. The uninspiring Indianapolis infield circuit and, before that, the deathly dull Phoenix and Detroit street circuits . Think of motor racing in the US and the great oval races – the Daytona 500 and Indianpolis 500, might be the first to come to mind, but the country has some great road circuits. It’s tough to choose just one – Mid Ohio, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca are amongst my favourites, but all are probably a bit too narrow for modern F1. In the end, I think it just has to be Road America. Yes, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but the fantastic 4 and a bit mile circuit in Wisconsin would finally enable the American public to see an F1 car in its natural habitat – and perhaps, to understand what all the fuss is really about.

We need a race in Canada too. I quite like Montreal, but I reckon that the rebuilt Mont Tremblant circuit, which hosted a Champ Car race a couple of years back, and was used for the Grand Prix back in the early 1970s, is by some way a more interesting race circuit, at least as long as the silly temporary chicane after the start-line is done away with.

The classic European races

Four countries which should absolutely always have a Grand Prix: France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy. France, sadly, lacks an absolutely stand-out race track these days. Magny Cours would do, I suppose, but I reckon Dijon-Prenois, which held the race back in the early 1980s and is still in use today, is marginally more interesting. Sadly I’m not sure that modern F1 cars could really pass each other there, but if it really doesn’t work, we could always go back to Magny Cours – or else wait and see what comes of the new track in Paris. Any which way, there has to be a French Grand Prix – the sport was all but born there.

Same goes for the UK. Seven of the ten teams are based here. The world champion and the current championship leader are both British, and the British Grand Prix is one of the few races on the calendar to sell out last year. Brands Hatch is a great circuit, but if F3 cars struggle to pass each other there, F1 cars wouldn’t have a chance. Donington might be great when and if it’s ever finished, but, while this might be an exercise in wishful thinking, I’m sticking to tracks which actually exist. So it has to be Silverstone – and that’s no bad thing. The Maggots/Becketts sequence of corners is one of the best in the world, and however primitive the facilities may be, the circuit is still a better place to watch an F1 car being driven on the limit than almost anywhere else on the current F1 calendar.

Germany, like France, lacks any absolute stand-out race tracks. I’d love to see F1 cars round the old Nordschliefe, but that’s not a realistic prospect. With little to choose between the new Hockenheim and the new Nurburgring, I’d alternate between the two venues. Italy, on the other hand, is easy. Imola’s been ruined by chicanes, and it simply has to be Monza. There is absolutely no reason to have a Grand Prix in Belgium, apart of course, from the fact that they happen to have the finest race track in Europe tucked away in the Ardennes. It’s the one overseas Grand Prix I’ve been to (twice now – I hitch-hiked down in 1999 and returned last year) Whether or not the race survives in reality, Spa is certainly staying on my calendar.

The best of Hermann Tilke

Hermann Tilke may be no John Hugenholtz, but for all that his name has become a byword for anonymous, cookie-cutter race tracks, he has been behind a couple of circuits which compare well with the best from the last thirty years. The first of these, the Otodrom Istanbul, in Turkey, has something seemingly absent from every new F1 track of the last 30 years, proper gradient changes. The track has the fantastic quadruple apex turn eight, several blind apex corners and is certainly more interesting than Bahrain, which joined the calendar the year before.

The other track I’d keep on the calendar is Malaysia’s Sepang circuit. It doesn’t attract much in the way of a crowd (a work colleague tells me that when he went a few years ago, it was all but deserted away from the main grandstand, even on race day) which is a shame, because it’s a circuit that is very well suited to modern Grand Prix cars. Two long straights with big stops at the end provide overtaking opportunities, while the turn 13/14 sequence of corners towards the end of the lap provide a real challenge to drivers, starting out very fast, and, as the corner tightens, forcing the driver to brake heavily and turn at the same time. It’s a corner where different drivers can be seen taking radically different lines – not something you see often.

The flyaway finale

From Tilke, to Hugenholtz, and from Malaysia to what I would say is John Hugenholtz’s finest piece of work, the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit in Japan. It may not be the easiest track for F1 cars to pass each other in (though it’s not impossible – remember Raikkonen’s run from the back of the grid to win in 2005 – perhaps the finest drive of the Finn’s career.) As with Sepang, it also features some very difficult corners that separate the great from the merely good, particularly the sequence of bends from the first corner all the way up to underpass. For years, it was the place where the world title was decided, and as the penultimate circuit on my fantasy F1 season calendar, there’s a fair chance it may do so again.

The final race? I’d give the Australians that one. The Australian Grand Prix has always taken place on street circuits – first in the supposedly sleepy city of Adelaide, and more recently in Albert Park in Melbourne. As street circuits go, they’re alright, but neither is a real classic. Unlike Mount Panorama circuit that plays host to Australia’s most famous touring car race, the Bathurst 1000. Of all the circuits on my list, it’s probably the one which is most marginal in its suitability for F1 cars – perhaps too bumpy and maybe too dangerous (ialong with Potrero De Los Funes, it's one of two circuits on my list which have not, to my knowledge, hosted a major single-seater series in recent years). It is an absolutely classic, challenging race circuit though. The twisting run up and down the mountain would test car and driver, and the long blast down to the finish-straight would provide excellent slipstreaming possibilities. All in all, it would be a wonderful place to bring down the curtain on a year of Fantasy Formula One...

The Calendar in Full

Round 1 - Interlagos - Brazil

Round 2 - Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez - Mexico

Round 3 - Potrero De Los Funes - Argentina

Round 4 - Barcelona - Spain

Round 5 - Portimao - Portugal

Round 6 - Monte Carlo - Monaco

Round 7 - Road America - Wisconsin, USA

Round 8 - Mont Tremblant - Canada

Round 9 - Dijon Prenois - France

Round 10 - Silverstone - UK

Round 11 - Alternate between Hockenheim and Nurburgring - Germany

Round 12 - Monza - Italy

Round 13 - Spa Francorchamps - Belgium

Round 14 - Istanbul Park - Turkey

Round 15 - Sepang - Malaysia

Round 16 - Suzuka - Japan

Round 17 - Mount Panorama, Bathurst - Australia

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

I think we should go back to the Nordschliefe. And let the trees grow properly so that there's plenty of restricted lines of sight.

Grand Prix racing shouldn't be safe.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree Gordon.
Gran Prix racing is a gladiatorial sport, however Bathurst is marginal even for the Tin tops and carnage would result.
Lets go back to Adelaide, its a classic. I live in Melbourne, but I want Adelaide back. The V8 race there is always a cracker.
Peter B

7:27 PM  

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