Formula One’s “traditional circuits” are under pressure today from the financial demands of a truly global sport — some might say greed — but remain among the premiere venues for Grand Prix racing. The modern F1 race tracks, “squirt and shoot” circuits largely designed by Hermann Tilke, have been emasculated in a quixotic effort to slow the tremendous speed of these marvelous machines. Precious few current venues retain the gut-wrenching, G-force loaded, slipstreaming furor that has long made F1 unique in the auto racing world.
During World War II, the area surrounding Spa, Belgium witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting in history while the Battle of the Bulge raged in the Ardennes forrest. The result is the appropriately named “Eau Rouge” (red water) corner at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, a plunging right-left-right kink between steep grades that has tested the bravery of F1 drivers for decades. But Eau Rouge is only one small part of this majestic, sprawling racetrack comprised of former public roads nestled in the trees and fog. The circuit, originally conceived by Liège aristocrats within a triangle between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmédy and Stavelot, has taken on a force of character that has stood the test of time. Spa may be a mere shadow of the fast and dangerous 14-kilometer long track, last raced in 1970, that famed Scotsman Jim Clark mastered while hating it — the frightening “Masta kink” is long gone and even the original Bus Stop chicane is now history — but its elevation changes, variable weather and classic La Source hairpin continue to make Spa a true test of driver mettle.
Perhaps the greatest Grand Prix here was in 1998, where Michael Schumacher in the lead, lapping 3s faster than anyone else, came up on David Coulthard in 8th — a full 2m 13s behind — to put the Scott a lap down. Just as John Watson commented on television that he hoped Coulthard “doesn’t do anything too rash to stop Michael from going by and getting those points,” Coulthard suddenly backed off to let Schumacher overtake. But Coulthard kept his car in the racing line, and blinded by the spray from Coulthard’s tires, Schumacher plowed into the back of the McLaren at full speed, ripping off the front right suspension to transform his Ferrari into a three-wheeled monster. Official Spa Site.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
The Monaco GP is widely considered one of the most glamorous and prestigious motor races in the world alongside the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Circuit de Monaco has hosted Grands Prix since 1929 on the city streets of Monte Carlo and La Condamine, which includes the famous harbor — only the Italian Grand Prix at Monza has a similarly lengthy and close relationship with a single circuit. The tight, twisty track with its famous hairpin, Casino Square, Tabac, Piscine (swimming pool), Mirabeau, Ste. Devote and La Rascasse corners is an anachronism in F1 but represents the crown jewel of the racing calendar, operating under its own, unique schedule for practice and qualifying. The circuit is one of the most demanding on the calendar with no margin for error as the Armco barriers that line the track are at some points just inches from the cars. Three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet once famously described the race as similar to “trying to bicycle round your living room.” “Whatever else one thinks about it, the Monaco Grand Prix is just special,” said five-time winner Michael Schumacher. “Even the slightest error here is punished.”
The circuit itself has remained virtually unchanged from its original, the Rascasse turn was slightly altered for the 2003 race but the major change was in 2004 when the formerly cramped pit complex was moved and replaced. Because of its tight confines and punishing nature, Monaco has often thrown up unexpected results. Surprising winners include Jarno Trulli in a Renault (2004), Olivier Panis in a Ligier (1996) and Patrick Depailler in a Tyrell (1978). But Monaco has more often seen long dominating strings of victories by some of the sport’s best drivers. For the decade from 1984 to 1993 the race was won by only Frenchman Alain Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna, the latter having hoisted the trophy from Monaco’s Prince Ranier III six times. Graham Hill earlier won five times in the 1960s, Michael Schumacher five times and Sterling Moss and Jackie Stewart three times each. Official Automobile Club de Monaco Site.
Autodromo Nazionale Monza
If there is a track in the world where the ghosts walk among the trees, it is Monza. It’s a real special place, a special race. Home of the Tifosi (fanatic Italian fans) and one of the three original 1950 circuits of Formula One — along with Monaco and Silverstone — the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is a high-speed, flat-out track that has witnessed the glory and tragedy of F1 for all but two seasons. Its infamous Curve di Lesmo and Parabolica corners remain, with just two chicanes added to slow the modern cars, and as a result Monza is still a slipstreaming monster. Drivers are on full throttle for most of the lap due to its long straights and fast corners, using very low downforce, in which F1 cars display the raw speed of which they are capable (372 kilometres per hour (231 mph) during the V10 engined formula). From Jim Clark’s legendary 1967 comeback to Ronnie Peterson’s death at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix to Michael Schumacher’s 90th victory, and 1st retirement, in 2006, Monza embodies the F1 saga.
Located in the Royal Villa of Monza park in a woodland setting north of Milan, Monza has claimed the lives of 52 drivers and 35 spectators, and is still criticised by current drivers for its lack of run-off areas, most notoriously at the first chicane, the Variante della Roggia. Its now-decaying Pista di Alta Velocità banked oval, used for just two 500-mile races in 1957 and 1958, is nonetheless immortalized in the classic 1967 movie Grand Prix. Rubens Barrichello recorded the fastest ever pole position lap at Monza in 2004 when he lapped in 1m 20.089s, 161.802 mph. But in pre-qualifying at the same race (which did not count for grid position) Juan Pablo Montoya came through in 1m 19.525s (162.949 mph), which remains the fastest lap ever recorded in an F1 car. Official Autodromo Nazionale Monza Site.
Northamptonshire, England, UK
Since its first race in 1948, Silverstone Circuit has become one of the world’s most famous motor racing venues as well as the now-permanent home of the British Grand Prix. Silverstone was opened as a World War II airfield in 1943, near the leafy village of the same name. The first ever F1 World Championship GP, held at Silverstone in 1950, was won by Guiseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo-dominated event in which the Italian constructor cruised to a 1-2-3 finish. From 1955, the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone and Aintree until 1964, when Brands Hatch took over as the alternative venue. Historic Silverstone has seen a number of other firsts, including the first entry in F1 by a turbocharged-engine (Renault in 1977), the first turbo win (Alain Prost in 1983), the first GP victory for British driver Johnny Herbert in 1995, the first win by the late Revlon cosmetic-heir Peter Revson in 1973 and the first, and only, accident in which Michael Schumacher was ever injured — breaking a leg during the 1990 British Grand Prix. The track is now owned and operated by the British Racing Drivers Club, which despite financial distress has managed to upgrade the facilities in spectacular fashion, given Silverstone’s notorious traffic jams on race day.
Silverstone is another fast circuit, boasting the fastest Grand Prix race lap of all time, although its layout has changed considerably over the past two decades. The initial track was laid out around the perimeter roads of the former RAF base, with straw bales and oil drums delineating the edge of the circuit proper. The original circuit was 4.649 km (2.888 miles) long and Formula 1 races lasted 90 laps. As modified from the 1980s on (Bridge), Silverstone was 5.141 km (3.194 miles) long and an F1 race lasted just 60 laps; with the 2010 addition of the new infield (Arena) section, the circuit is now 5.901 km (3.667 miles) long, extending lap times by another 12 seconds. Immortal corners like Beckets, Maggots, Woodcote — which Jackie Stewart called “without doubt one of the most important corners in the F1 world” — Abbey, Chappel and the long Hanger Straight have produced some majestic Grands Prix, perhaps none topping crowd-favorite Nigel Mansell’s dominating 1992 victory, surrounded by throngs of frenzied Brits, and the courtesy ride he gave Aryton Senna back to the pits a year earlier. Official Silverstone Circuit Site.
Suzuka Intl. Racing Course
Mie Prefecture, Japan
Created as a Honda test track in 1962 and Japan’s first full-fledged racing course, Suzuka is one of few circuits in the world to utilize a “figure 8″ layout, with the back straight passing over the front section by means of an overpass. Since the Japanese Grand Prix is traditionally scheduled as one of the last races of the F1 season, numerous World Championships have been decided at Suzuka, which has hosted its country’s home GP in all but three years since 1987. The circuit’s principal feature is the awesome “130R” corner, a 130-metre (427 ft.) radius turn starting past the crossover that has sometimes been compared to Spa’s Eau Rouge, which drivers take flat out at around 185mph. The sweeping “S” curves following turn 1 and the slow-speed Spoon curve are also some of the more challenging sections in Formula One racing. A huge theme park (Suzuka Circuitland) adjoins the track, including the famous Ferris wheel that dominates the Suzuka skyline.
Controversy has certainly been a feature at the circuit, with the infamous collisions involving Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, as well as Nigel Mansell’s 1987 practice crash, all making headlines. Most of these controversies result from the race’s frequent role as title-decider, with Piquet, Senna, Prost, Hill, Häkkinen and Schumacher all celebrating World Championship successes here. Suzuka is always remembered for having the most memorable first-corner incident of all time when Senna shunted Prost off off in 1990, settling the championship in his favour. So popular is the Grand Prix among the crazed Japanese F1 fans that tickets are allocated by lottery. Like all tracks, Suzuka has made subtle modifications over the years in the battle against rising speeds, although except for one chicane it remains hardly different today from the version first used for the Japanese GP in 1987. That so little of the John Hugenholtz-designed masterpiece has changed is precisely why several F1 drivers name it as their favorite track. Official Suzuka Circuit Site.
Autódromo José Carlos Pace
Interlagos, São Paulo, Brazil
Named after a Brazilian Formula One driver who died shortly following its debut, but known throughout the F1 circus simply as “Interlagos,” the Autódromo José Carlos Pace is a magnificent venue and a very challenging track. Home to the opening F1 race for more than a decade, and the site of many Formula One championship-deciding Grands Prix, Interlagos is nestled between the two man-made lakes (built in the early 20th century to supply the city of São Paulo with water and electric power) that give the circuit its colloquial name. A combination of a twisty midfield section, flat-out straights and a terrifying series of left-hand, uphill sweepers leading to the main straight — all with some of the biggest elevation changes and most reverse-camber corners in Formula One — Interlagos is a drivers’ delight. The first Brazilian F1 Grand Prix was held at Interlagos in 1973, the race won by defending World Champion and São Paulo local Emerson Fittipaldi. Fittipaldi won again the following year in bad weather and José Carlos Pace won his only race at Interlagos in 1975.
There is no denying Interlagos is one of Formula One’s most atmospheric venues. The track itself may be a bit frayed around the edges, but the circuit positively throbs with enthusiasm from throngs of ultra-passionate Brazilian F1 fans. The track is one of a small proporion of F1 road courses to go in a counter-clockwise direction. Its many low-speed corners requiring quick exits place a great strain on transmissions, leading to numerous retirements, as do the notorious downpours that seemingly appear out of nowhere. In the memorable 1993 Brazilian GP, eventual World Champion Alain Prost spun out after aquaplaning in torrential rains through downhill turns 1-2, now known as the “S do Senna,” or Senna S, in honor of the emotional winner of that race, the late three-time drivers’ champion Ayrton Senna. Perhaps the most thrilling GP race at Interlagos was the finale of the 2008 F1 season, in which Lewis Hamilton passed for 5th and, 39.09s after Felipe Massa had crossed the start-finish line as the winner (and presumptive world champion), won the Formula One World Championship in the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the year. The fastest race lap at Interlagos is a 1:11.473, set by Juan Pablo Montoya in 2004 in a Williams-BMW, a pace that current F1 cars — after a series of engine-displacement and downforce reductions — cannot quite match even in qualifying. Official Interlagos Site.
Circuit de Catalunya
Built in 1991 near Barcelona, Catalunya is an exception to the scourge of point-and-sqiurt tracks used today by Formula One, a modern circuit that nonetheless inspires drivers and produces great races, although overtaking has suffered as turbulence reduced slipstreaming in recent years. (The 2007 season saw the first of the two final sweepers replaced with a slow chicane in an effort to improve passing.) A combination of long straights and a variety of corners, this track is one F1 drivers and mechanics have been intimately familiar with as the home — until more recent rules restrictions — of much off-season testing. Its location near the coast and changing wind conditions makes Catalunya an especially hard track for car set-up.
The circuit has witnessed some memorable F1 racing moments as the home of the Spanish Grand Prix since its opening. In 1991, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell went down the entire front straight side-by-side while duelling for second place, James Hunt screaming with the excitement on British television, with Mansell eventually taking the position and ultimately the race itself — a battle Michael Schumacher calls “one of the coolest moments I’ve seen in F1.” In 1994, Michael spectacularly managed to finish in P2 despite driving more than half the race with only fifth gear. In 1996, Schumacher took his first win as a Ferrari driver, after a dominant performance during a torrential rainstorm. The 1999 race was notable as there was only one reported overtaking move during the race. In 2001, Mika Häkkinen suffered a clutch failure while leading the race on the last lap, handing the win to Schumacher. During the 2006 GP, Fernando Alonso became the first Spanish Formula One driver to win at his home country’s track. Official Catalunya Site.
Current F1 Circuits