Columns - The Man in the Pub

These new-fangled circuits


It used to be the case that I'd walk into my son's room and find him playing a Formula 1 game on the Playstation and I, like a true anorak, would look at the screen and instantly know not only on which track he was playing, but also which corner he was at. Sad, but true. Nowadays, however, unless there is a big clue (lots of sand means Bahrain) I have to admit that I am struggling.

Last month The Man in the Pub was bemoaning how confusing the sport has become. This month the talk at the beer pumps is about racing circuits and, specifically, the "new-fangled modern ones" and how "they all look the same".

Once again, the chaps propping up the bar seem to have a point.

I think its fair to say that if you asked the average, casual viewer of F1 to name as many tracks on the F1 calendar as he (or indeed she) can, then they would start to struggle at around four. And if you don't believe me try it out next time you are down the pub, the bar, the saloon, the taverna or the bodega, ask around. It won't be difficult to guess what they would name either: Monaco, Monza, Spa, Silverstone, uh, um. Nurburgring, maybe. Ask them about Sakhir and you'll probably be told that it goes best with boiled rice.

Why is this?

The circuits that get mentioned are all old, historic tracks and should be well known, but surely it is no coincidence that these tracks are also the ones that provide the bulk of the best races, and are the ones that the drivers themselves look forward to - unless you are Jacques Villeneuve, of course, in which case you probably aren't looking forward to any in 2005. To that vaunted list you can add a couple of other old tracks that inspire and entertain, Suzuka and even dingy old Interlagos are worth of a mention in dispatches.

I remember a few years ago, the aforementioned Villeneuve saying how much he loved racing at Spa and that it "felt as if you were actually going somewhere" while Martin Brundle once said that as soon as he finished the Belgian Grand Prix he would happily do it again, immediately. Hard to imagine drivers saying the same about the Hungaroring.

Modern, purpose-built track seem always to be constructed on nice flat parcels of featureless real estate. Hills? Rivers? Trees? Forget it! Bulldoze them, drain them, chop them down. In the sterilised world of 2005, the FIA circuit inspectors would laugh if someone asked them to look at a new circuit along the same lines as Monaco. No, this building would have to come down, that bit of harbour would have to be filled in. And the tree-huggers would get rid of plans to build a Spa-lookalike or a new Monza. And, no doubt, a Silverstone clone would be doomed because it would be too noisy, too expensive, too much traffic and we must preserve the old airfield and the newt colony, which no doubt could be found if one looked hard enough.

What F1 really needs are more tracks that excite and give a sense of danger. Today tracks are built to order and they all seem to come from the same template. A long main straight, a sharp first corner, some twiddly bits around the back, lots of run-off areas, a really way-out looking main grandstand and, hidden away at the back, the Ritz-quality garages and paddock for the teams.

It seems that the man who has an exclusive deal to build everything is one Hermann Tilke, who this year gives us the likes of Sepang, Bahrain, Shanghai, (the new) new Nurburgring and Istanbul. Oh, and he has also chopped the old Hockenheim into the go-kart track it is today so there can be no more early morning blasts through the misty German forests.

Granted, this year's race in Bahrain was rather a good one, but most of that came from a "never-say-die" attitude of Pedro de la Rosa and Mark Webber's sturdy defence. We will have to reserve judgement on the Istanbul Otodrom. It does look rather like another of the Tilke Tracks, the revamped A1 Ring, which was about as exciting as the mobile telephone company it was named after.

Due to the immense investment made by the various owners, we are going to be looking at the Tilke Tracks for a long, long time to come. Perhaps the answer lies in more street races. Overtaking problems or not, can anybody recall a dull Monaco GP? It's hard, isn't it? There was talk last year about a London event, although Mayor Ken Livingstone seems to have lost interest in that now, turning his attention instead to running a stage of the 2007 Tour de France (much cheaper and more eco-voter-friendly). This month's new story is that there will be a race around the skyscrapers of Singapore. I'll believe that one when I see it!

In the meantime Silverstone is coming up for a session under the knife. Please, Mr Tilke, just for once, give this one a miss. You can build a grandstand that looks like a Yorkshire Pudding but please leave the track alone.

Rob Sinfield also runs