We need old race tracks in Formula 1.
I’ll get this out of the way early, none of us want to see drivers die chasing their passion, this isn’t’ the to be flippant and then argue risk above reward but to frame this article.
Ever run on a treadmill, bumping up the speed, faster, faster, one more notch. Then slowed everything down again, what if you never slowed down, the track beneath you encourages you to hit the brakes but in your enthusiasm, you can't match your speed. This is the antidote to an engineers pencil. F1’s blistering pace shouldn’t be just spread out over a faster track, instead, it should race, at least sometimes, where the pace is limited by the old tarmac, the sweeping curves meant for wheels that could only move at half the pace, it is here that racers find the edge, they astonish with their ability to push, push and push every grain of grip from a tyre as they ride millimetres off the surface that holds them. Old tracks are being swapped for new, shiny venues. Let's not forget where racing legends are born in our haste.
OK, so where does that leave racing. Sat in between the grey area of human achievement and unnecessary risks. F1 has long championed itself on not only speed as a spectacle but safety, but we are finding a capacity limit with the pinnacle of racing. The cars will get faster and more efficient in everything they do each and every year, but the race tracks are putting them at risk of not being able to offer up a spectacle that audiences tune in to see. Set aside those hardcore F1 fans that would watch Max Verstappen drive a Honda Jazz to the local supermarket. There is a problem emerging in the middle ground of fans, those that tune in on a Sunday after hearing about qualifying on the news, radio, or through a notification on their phone. The fans that would occasionally watch a race whilst preparing a Sunday dinner or enjoying some time in the garden with one eye on the TV are vanishing at an alarming rate. Many have blamed this on the dominance of one particular team, which would be somewhat unfair, people still turn up to watch Premier League football matches, and a third of the way through a season a champion us usually beginning to break away.
Even worse than losing current fans is not seeing a young audience turn up in the numbers needed to make this sport survive. Part of this is because children today are taught that cars with motorised engines are necessary evils that should be burnt the moment Elon Musk is able to float down from his hoverboard and sell them an electric car. The other is much more critical. The racing itself has become sanitised, overly analysed, and in many races non-existent. Monaco will always get a pass for its lack of overtaking for the same reason Range Rover’s will always have customers, it has its own gravitational pull past rhyme or reason.
New tracks have needed to fit newer regulations, these are generally much tougher on safety, spectators viewing position, and being capable of showcasing the speed of the machines that take to them. This final point is critical.
What is amazing about older tracks is that drivers are forced into a fight, cars won’t go into a corner three abreast, neither will full power be able to keep them just ahead of the next corner because the angles weren’t CAD designed to allow for the best flow. The 2020 F1 season showcased older tracks, tracks that haven’t been used before, and repeats of existing sites. Mugello will probably be remembered for the crashes, more than the karting line overtakes, dogfighting into corners, and long long straight that left drivers vulnerable to an overtake.
This isn’t to stay modern tracks have no place, but a concentrated mix, instead of chasing the money around the globe is vital for F1.
One of the best bits was that the track had to be raced from the little data the teams had, simulator practice for weeks on end with an engineer correcting a driver on two millimetres of pedal travel on a braking zone preseason. This is necessary but my gosh it’s exciting to see drivers sent out with only a few days to get their knowledge of a track secure in their mind. What gear, slip angle, tyre temperature they need is made from scant data.
Mix this in with older tracks that were designed when having a thousand horsepower in a road car was a laughable notion, and F1 may be able to tempt back in the fans they have lost and crucially attract newer ones. The Xbox/PlayStation games and Netflix special on F1 have all been celebrated as proof young blood is waiting to join the diehard fans that will make holiday plans based on its distance to a particular race track on a particular weekend. The worry is that offering tracks that can cope with the speed machines that belt around it and the fun becomes too organised. Getting rid of some of the data would be a good start, having Amazon tell me an overtake is going to happen in five laps is akin to having someone shout the end of a film whilst we dip into our popcorn.
Tracks hold the key to this, some of the golden era race tracks sit dormant whilst new gleaming ones have popped up with lots of promise and little sparkle. Yes, they are easier to access, easier to view from, and leave long run off’s in case someone makes a mistake. Offer Spa Francorchamps or a track built in the last decade and most would go and fetch their raincoat. This isn’t to stay modern tracks have no place, but a concentrated mix, instead of chasing the money around the globe is vital for F1.
Modern tracks can be exciting and I’m not suggesting they are elbowed off the calendar for somewhere in desperate need of resurfacing, but a better mix, bring back some of the tracks from yesteryear, perhaps are a rotating one off every few years would spice up racing and keep the cars honest. Engineers will also find a way to make a car work around a circuit but throwing challenges that push drivers to show us who they really are seems a better idea than a reverse grid where those lovers of the sport would watch in despair as one of the oldest names has the entire pack race past it lap after lap. We need great teams with great stories to be in this sport, just like we need tracks still weaving their introductions into the F1 fables. Let’s not forget the bedrock of the sport along the way, some of those classic tracks, now deemed unsuitable to mega machines we have today are just what we need to get a new generation wanting to leave their Sunday’s free, after all, the race is always on.