This Is What Makes A Track Work For Formula One

Folks really do like the gravel traps
Folks really do like the gravel traps
Photo: Luca Bruno (Getty Images)

Not every race track in the world is designed for Formula One—and even some of the ones that are specifically designed to host the series fall short. There are just some elements of a track that just work for F1. And, alongside Chain Bear on YouTube, we’re going to break it down.

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There are a lot of different ways to look at track suitability for F1, but it really comes down to regulatory standards and physical capability.

When it comes to regulations, the FIA has some pretty strict standards that include things like track length and width, guardrail standards, track surface quality. Here are some examples:

  • Track width must be at least 12 m, or about 40 ft
  • There must be at least 250 m (820 ft)between the start line and the first corner
  • Maximum length for straight sections of the track is 2 km, or 1.25 miles
  • New circuits should not exceed 7 km, or 4.4 mi, and should be greater than 3.5km, or 2.2 miles
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Other “rules” exist in a pretty fuzzy middle ground of recommendations, preferences, and maybes. It’s kind of the FIA’s way of saying that, while there are a lot of rules, there are also a lot of exceptions based on local standards, terrain, or anything else. These are also the rules that let F1 run on older circuits—and street circuits—that may not meet the new permanent circuit standards.

I’ll let Chain Bear run you through the nitty-gritty. He’s much better with numbers than I am.

With all that said, though, there are certain components of a track that are more subjective. These are the elements we say make for “good” racing, like:

  • Wider tracks, which make for better battles
  • Elevation changes
  • A mixture of high, mid, and low speed corners of varying angles to both challenge drivers and to make for more exciting battles
  • Minimal asphalt run-off or other elements that provide for a minimal margin of error
  • Shorter lengths

Basically, fans want to see tracks that challenge the drivers, not the cars. The longer the track gets, the more marshals and cameras you need, and the more likely it is that cars will get spread out. The shorter the track, the more likely cars will stay bunched together and competitive. The more opportunities for overtaking, the more likely we are to see one car pass another. The more punishing a run-off area, the more likely we are to see a driver take himself out of contention with a stupid move.

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Mainly, this discussion is coming up because F1 has introduced a lot of one-off races this year at tracks we haven’t been to before or in a while: Portimao, Imola, Nürburgring, etc. You have a lot of people asking why we can’t contest these tracks more frequently, why they’re not part of the normal calendar, and why these races have often been so much more exciting than the Grands Prix you have in a normal season.

As you can tell, though, this is pretty relative. A short, variably elevated track like Monaco should theoretically bunch cars up and provide more opportunities for overtaking... but it’s also very narrow. In that case, the close walls are so punishing that a driver might avoid an overtaking maneuver he might have tried at a different track. You’ll never get one track that meets all the great criteria.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

Road Atlanta: 2.54 miles, lots of elevation changes and gravel traps, and it only takes about a minute to get around it - as Marc Gene proved.

Completely unrelated: I’m a national license F&C marshal who lives about 20 mins from the track.