Comparing Formula 1 Challenges of Race Tracks with Street Circuits

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2014

Comparing Formula 1 Challenges of Race Tracks with Street Circuits

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    There are several circuit types used in Formula One today.

    The first, and most commonly encountered type is the "proper" circuit, race track or road course. Tracks like Silverstone, Monza, the Hungaroring and the Circuit of the Americasdesigned and built for racing.

    The second is the street circuit. Monaco and Singapore are run on real public roads, designed for road cars, and are lined with unforgiving barriers.

    Montreal and Melbourne are also street circuits, but of a different breed. Both have run-off areas and a greater number of high-speed corners than their more tightly packed brothers.

    The third type is the hybrid—tracks that have characteristics of both road and street circuits. Abu Dhabi tries to be part street circuit, part road course, while the now-departed Korea circuit was also designed with a "street" sector.

    But, mostly, tracks are one or the other: road or street.

    Here we compare the challenges a driver faces driving on a street circuit to those he'll encounter on a road course.

    Though not an ideal phrase, for reasons of clarity, this article will use "road course" for the full-bodied "proper" race track. 

What Is a Street Circuit?

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    A street circuit is a collection of public roads that are closed off for the purpose of a racing event.

    Using that definition, there are five street circuits in F1 today: Monaco, Singapore, Melbourne, Montreal and Sochi.

    Each is different. Melbourne, with its variety of corners and ample run off, is so close to being a road course it might as well be considered one. Montreal is almost a hybrid, with features of a street circuit and a road course.

    Monaco is the street circuit, with barriers lining the track and very limited run-off areas. Singapore is run on real public roads, designed for real traffic, but is a little more forgiving than Monaco.

    Sochi is something else entirely. It was designed for racing and has run-off areas at key places, but the circuit is lined with barriers.

    With so much variety, things that present a problem on some circuits are not an issue elsewhere.

    The impact each challenge has on each of the five circuits is given at the top of each slide.

Run-off Areas

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    Critical at: Monaco, Singapore.

    Moderate at: Sochi, Montreal.

    Smaller problem at: Melbourne.

    The biggest visual difference between a street circuit and a road course is that one tends to have barriers and walls close to the outer limits of the track, while the other has wide expanses of run off.

    A good example, the modern road course in Bahrain, has 140,000 square metres of run off. Hitting a wall is a challenge in itself, while an error results in nothing more than a leisurely trip over a piece of tarmac before the driver rejoins the circuit.

    By contrast, a driver racing on a street circuit simply cannot make a mistakeif he does, it's into the barriers. F1 cars are not built for contact with stationary objects. Hitting a wall, even lightly, often means the end of the driver's race.

    But the walls aren't just a problem if you hit them, they cause a problem just by being there.

    On a circuit surrounded by barriers, the natural instinct would be to show greater caution. It could be strongly argued the drivers do.

    Off-track excursions at benign road courses are far more frequent than barrier tags at street circuits. If a driver knows he can get away with it, he'll take more of a risk.

    But caution is a luxury F1 drivers can't afford. More caution equals less speed, so the challenge is to minimise the amount they hold back, while also staying out of the barriers.

    It's a delicate balancing act with very little margin of error, and all too often the drivers get it wrong.


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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Critical at: Monaco, Singapore, Sochi.

    Smaller problem at: Montreal, Melbourne.

    Often underestimated, visibility is a big part of the challenge at a street circuit.

    A wide, open circuit like Silverstone, the new Nurburgring or Sepang will have the occasional blind or less-visible corner, but they are very much the exception and not the rule. Drivers have an excellent view of the world around them.

    But on a street circuit, they don't. Enclosed in a narrow world, between walls higher than the sides of his cockpit, the driver can rarely see more than one corner ahead of him. And of that one corner, he can only see the entry.

    The problem caused by this is twofold.

    First, it means street circuit racing requires a lot of driving into the unknown. The driver must put his foot down and assume there is nothing unpleasant or unexpected waiting for him halfway round the turn.

    Of course, the drivers learn to deal with this to a degree, and can place their trust in the marshals' flags to warn them of any problems.

    But they still lose the assurance their own eyes usually provide. The natural response to this would be to slow down or take more care. All drivers must learn to overcome this.

    The other problem is they often can't see the corner apexthis being the point on the inside of the corner which should be hit when taking an optimal line through the turn.

    Blind corners are tough anywhere, and the presence of barriers makes them even harder at street circuits.


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    Vincent Thian

    Critical at: Monaco.

    Moderate: Singapore, Melbourne.

    No Problem: Montreal.

    Unknown: Sochi.

    Road courses usually come equipped with lengthy straights, which provide ample opportunities for overtaking.

    These are almost universally long and wide, often with a slow corner at the end and sufficient benign run-off area to allow the attacking driver to take a risk without putting himself or his rival out of the race.

    Shanghai, Sepang, Monza and the now-departed Yeongam circuit in Korea all share these features.

    Corner exits at road courses are also frequently wide and open with plenty of kerbs and run off. It's difficult to position a car to defend every line, allowing drivers an opportunity to cut back inside and pass their rival with a better exit.

    La Source at Spa is a good example, as is Turn 4 at Bahrain and the hairpin at the new Hockenheim.

    Street circuits tend to be very different beasts. They're not designed for racing, so the straights are shorter and fewer in number and there's often nowhere to go if a move goes wrong.

    The most famous street circuit of all, Monaco, doesn't have any real "straights" at all.

    The longest full-throttle section runs through the fast right-hander in the tunnel and onto a short straight. A driver can sometimes get close enough for a dive down the inside into the seafront chicane, but it's so narrow and the walls are so close to the track that there isn't really room.

    If the defending driver closes the door, contact is almost inevitable, so no one tries to pass here unless they have very little to lose.

    At a larger street circuit like Singapore, this problem isn't as evident, but the longest straight here still is a little short by modern standards, and there isn't much run off at other potential overtaking spots around the circuit.

Corner Types

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    Vincent Thian

    Most Noticeable at: Singapore, Sochi.

    Less so: Monaco, Melbourne, Montreal.

    A standard road course features a variety of corners. Fast sweeps, hairpins, medium-speed lefts and rights and everything in between combine to produce an interesting mix of challenges for the drivers.

    Silverstone is predominantly quick, but also has a selection of slower turns. Spa has a bit of everything, as does Catalunya. All the Tilke circuits have a mix. Each corner requires a different set of responses from the driver.

    Braking zones are different lengths, and the manner in which the brakes are applied and released is different. Steering angle and harshness of the turn-in vary. Some need a bit of mid-corner throttle feathering, while others do not, and at some you can get the power down early and at others you have to wait.

    Some corners come in twos, threes, fours or even sevens. At every lap, the driver uses a wide range of skills and every corner looks and feels different.

    In addition, many corners allow the drivers to take slightly different lines and hit slightly different apexes to suit their style.

    Street circuits are different and require a different set of skills. At Marina Bay in Singapore, seven of the 23 corners are tight, near-90-degree turns requiring—braking zone length aside—essentially the same input. A further six are slightly faster near-90-degree corners.

    This gives the circuit a very stop-start, repetitive nature, and puts a greater emphasis on a smaller range of skills. Perhaps the most important is the ability of the driver to hit a very narrow, abrupt apex before getting the power down as soon as possible on the exit.

    Alternative lines aren't really possible in such corners.

    It's also rare for street circuit corners to flow into one another, with Monaco the only real exception. This means that at most street circuits, finding a pleasing rhythm can be difficult for most of the lap.


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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    Critical at: Monaco, Singapore.

    Moderate at: Melbourne, Montreal.

    Unknown: Sochi.

    Road courses are designed and laid down for racing cars to use. Many use specially selected materials to give them a grippy surface and the tarmac under the drivers is almost always perfectly smooth and clean.

    Formula One cars are designed to race on such tracks. Their ground clearance is tiny, suspension very stiff and all tyre testing is carried out on such circuits.

    Public roads, on the other hand, are designed and laid down for road cars. The materials are selected for durability and value, and construction crews rarely dig out the spirit level to check every inch is as flat as a pancake.

    Road markings are added to tell us where to go.

    Tens of thousands of normal vehicles on grubby tyres drive up and down such roads every day, depositing dirt, oil and all manner of pollutants that adhere to the surface.

    We don't really notice in our heavy, slow road cars with their soft suspension and cold, super-hard tyres.

    But put a high-performance, pure racing machine like an F1 car on such a surface, and it won't be a happy bunny.

    The accumulated dirt on the already low-grip surface means the racing slick tyres don't "bite" as well as in road circuits. Braking zones are slightly longer, corners cannot be taken as quickly and it's more difficult to get the power down on the exits.

    The bumps and lumps we cruise over without noticing? The F1 car feels every single one of them. They affect the car's balance and some, such as the one between Casino Square and Mirabeau at Monaco, are so severe that drivers have to swerve to avoid them entirely.

    And when it rains, a new problem emergesthe road markings. Painted white lines are extremely slippery when wet, so avoiding them becomes a priority.

    Pirelli tend to bring softer tyres to street circuits to help offset the problem of low grip, but it never goes away entirely.