Street Fighter too predictable

August 26, 2008

Mika Salo, Tyrrell 025 Ford, Monaco GP 1997

Mika Salo, Tyrrell 025 Ford, Monaco GP 1997

People with a keen eye will no doubt have noticed that this year’s European Grand Prix was held on a street circuit in Valencia. It’s part of something of a renaissance for the street circuit in Formula 1, with Singapore’s night race also entering the calendar in a month’s time and a hybrid street-permanent circuit being used for the South Korean Grand Prix from 2010. The 2008 calendar features three genuine street courses, the most there have been since the 1991 season. With more on the horizon, it’s an exciting time.

The street race had fallen from favour recently, with Monaco often only being the only round the houses trip of the season. It’s a terrible pity – street races can be exciting and unpredictable in ways no permanent road course’s race could ever be. Failing that, even in a dull race (like Valencia’s was, a consequence of Formula 1 drivers these days having too much skill, itself a consequence of smaller entry lists) they look pretty and the aesthetic splendour of an F1 car stuck into an everyday environment is very much more enjoyable than a similar boring event on a ‘proper’ track. The race after the Monaco Grand Prix, I always felt, has a thankless task. After the magnificent and crazy background to the action by the harbourside, whatever follows it tends to look like a barren schmeer of browning grass, dust and gravel surrounding a uninspiring ribbon of tarmac. To celebrate F1 coming to its senses, then, I thought I’d take a look at its association with the street circuit, and all the fun they’ve had.

To date, there have been 18 different street circuits used in the Formula 1 World Championship since its inception in 1950; Singapore will be the 19th. Other notable street circuits, of course, have missed out on hosting a Championship race but are nevertheless still major parts of the Grand Prix racing story. Indeed, the first race to ever have the title “Grand Prix” was held, in 1901, at Pau in South-Western France. A Formula Libre race, it was won by France’s Maurice Farman in a Panhard 24CV at a dazzling average of 47 mph. The race has run, in various formulas and formats, since 1933, it’s current inception since 2007 has been as a double-headed World Touring Car Championship event. This year’s was shared bewteen Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus, whilst the lap record is still held by Lewis Hamilton, winner of the 2005 double-headed Formula Three event. Other circuits who miss out but are, nevertheless, worthy of mention here the insane, brilliant Macau race at the Guia Circuit – a traditional proving ground of future Formula 1 drivers through its Formula 3 Grand Prix, previous winners including Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, as well as David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Takuma Sato – and the Circuit Sarthe in Le Mans, whose one World Championship event in 1967 was hosted on the timid Bugatti circuit, a permanent road course sited near its big brother’s pit complex.

Providing us with the highest proportion of these eighteen courses is the United States. Ironically for a country which is home to brilliant permanent tracks like Road America, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, the US Grand Prix has – but for an occasional welcome thrash around Watkins Glen in upstate New York – largely been a mainstay of street tracks and ratty old airfields. Whether or not this has any bearing on why Formula 1 has never quite displaced IndyCar or NASCAR in the American affections, who can say, but I have my suspicions. Nevertheless, of the five, one is pretty fondly remembered. Long Beach in California provided F1 with a memorable venue between 1975 and 1983, with the picture of the cars burbling down the steep hill of Linden Avenue after the pit straight being one of Grand Prix racing’s most enduring snapshots. The races, too, provided interest. The layout of the track provided the drivers opportunities to overtake and crash in equal measure, leading to some exciting results. The last GP in 1983 was particularly memorable, John Watson winning for McLaren from a gentleman’s 23rd place on the starting grid. This after Keke Rosberg achieved a full 360 degree pirouette trying to relieve Riccardo Patrese of his first place going into the first corner, without so much as losing his own second position. Watson was, in fact, repeating a feat he’d mastered the previous year at a less-fondly thought of venue, a harbourside track in Detroit (1982-1988). Here he won from 17th place, in one lap alone moving from 6th to 2nd place. The other three tracks in America are remembered, but not always for anything anybody had intended. The sole race in Dallas, at the State Fair Park in 1984, was littered with crashes and bad accidents, a legacy of the extreme heat melting the racing surface. Martin Brundle, in his first season of Grand Prix racing and having just finished a flying second at the previous race in Detroit, smashed his ankles to pieces in practice, whilst Nigel Mansell, having bounced off everyone and everything on his way to pole position, passed out whilst trying to push his fuel-starved Lotus Renault across the line on the final lap.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix lasted for 2 events, on an E-shaped track marked out around the car park of the Caesar’s Palace hotel. In a happenstance quite undeserved by its uninspiring nature, Caesar’s played host to the World Championship decider on both occasions, Nelson Piquet prevailing over Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite in 1981 and Keke Rosberg doing the same over John Watson in 1982. To complete this rather neat summary, the other US street circuit managed three Grands Prix. An angular affair in Phoenix, this track is best remembered for Jean Alesi’s heroics in a Tyrrell at the season-opening 1990 event. Going into an early lead, he was passed by Ayrton Senna’s McLaren on lap 34, only for Alesi to hang fire and slip back past Senna into the next bend. After the 1991 event – won, as in 1990, by Senna – the city hosted an Ostrich race which gained a significantly higher attendance than the F1 cars had, at which point Grand Prix racing quietly slipped away until it’s loud and not always successful rebirth for the noughties at Indianapolis.

Ostrich racing and car parks aside, the US doesn’t have the monopoly on street race insanity. Putting aside for a moment the folly of nearly 60 years of continual World Championship competition in Monte Carlo, tracks like Pescara in Italy, Avus in Germany and Oporto in Portugal also deserve respect for their application of silliness. Pescara and AVUS both only hosted one Championship race, in 1957 and 1959 respectively. Pescara holds, as it likely will for all time, the record for being the longest circuit to ever host a World Championship Grand Prix, at 16.032 miles it even dwarfed the Nürburgring Nördschliefe. Other than that, though, it was a very picturesque and classic round-the-houses street course. The AVUSring, however, was much, much less sane. It was – and is – an autobahn just outside Berlin joined together by hairpins at either end. Even by Germany’s rather high standards of madness in motor racing circuit design – the Norisring in Nuremburg being a favourite of mine – AVUS was special. The old Nordkurve featured banking at a stupefying 43 degrees and was called, unsurprisingly, The Wall of Death. Meanwhile, the straights both clocked in at just under 6 miles long each. Fortunately, sense – or, at least, World War II – intervened and, by 1959, they had been cut in half thanks to new boundaries meaning the old Sudkurve was in Soviet-controlled territory. It was still lethal, though. On the day before the race, Jean Behra was killed after he was thrown out of his Porsche sportscar, hitting a tree. On the day of the Grand Prix itself, Hans Hermann enjoyed a miraculous escape from an accident under braking for one of the (two) corners, thrown clear of his barrel-rolling BRM but suffering no injury worth the name. Oporto‘s claim to fame is much less spectacular, but none less remarkable. On a track riddled with tramlines, World Champion Jack Brabham managed to hook his Cooper’s wheels into the groove in the 1960 event, finding himself with no other option but to follow them back to the tram depot before becoming disentangled.

Many other venues are remembered for their qualities rather than their foibles. France’s two contributions – Reims and Rouen – were both magnificent circuits, making use of some fabulously fast public roads. The latter in particular had some spectacular curves and a picturesque cobblestoned hairpin at one end, but it was sadly immasculated in the name of safety and progress in 1972.

In a similar vein but still going strong, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium used to be an 8-mile hack around the Ardennes forests near the German border. Taken off the calendar in 1970, it returned in 1983, a shortened circuit which managed to retain much of the character of its grandpappy. Up until the late 1990s, the road from Stavelot right the way up to Kemmel at the top of the hill was also still in public use – although the Bus Stop chicane was, contrary to legend – not an actual fare stage for public transportation. Shorter tracks like Adelaide (home to two of the classic F1 final race title deciders, in 1986 and 1994) and Montjuich Park near Barcelona are also much missed by many in the Formula 1 firmament.

The sad thing about them is that they are all, in the most part, still there. Many have – as public roads – managed to escape the butchery of the designer to become shorter, safer or “better”, though some have been afflicted by the similarly-alienated pen of the town planners. They provide a unique and taxing challenge for the drivers, too often cosseted away in their air-conditioned motorhomes parked in a large anonymous paddock which could more or less be anywhere. It makes the sport look dashing, interesting, spectacular. Worldly yet other-worldly at the same moment. Whilst, equally, something would be lost in removing permanent courses from the calendar, what I hope Formula 1 is now moving back towards is a better balance of circuits.

A WORD ABOUT DRIVERS

I couldn’t go to all these lengths without debunking a myth. Many times in reviews of contemporary events, you will hear people talk about Nigel Mansell as the great street fighter, the street circuit specialist. Now, he was undeniably very quick on the streets wherever he went, but his sole win on a street course was at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 1993 – his first race in an IndyCar. Jim Clark was similarly stymied with bad luck when there were houses in close proximity, his luck in Monte Carlo, time and again when leading, was monstrous. No, there really are only one or two genuine street racing specialists, that blend of speed and – vitally – accuracy along with a helping of luck. In Clark’s era it was Stirling Moss – winner of three Monaco Grands Prix as well as races at Monsanto, Oporto, Pescara and Ain-Daib, Morocco. In recent generations, nobody could touch Ayrton Senna. Six wins in Monte Carlo, plus multiple triumphs at Detroit, Adelaide and Phoenix made him perhaps the sport’s all-time outstanding street racer.

FACT CORNER

For your records, the full list of Formula 1 street courses is as follows:

Adelaide (AUS) (1985-1995); Ain-Daib (MAR) (1958); AVUS (D) (1959); Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas (USA) (1981-1982); Dallas Fair Park (USA) (1984); Detroit (USA) (1982-1988); Long Beach (USA) (1975-1983); Monsanto (P) (1959); Monte Carlo (MC) (1950, 1955-present); Montjuich Park (E) (1969, 1971, 1973, 1975); Oporto (P) (1958, 1960); Pedrables (E) (1951, 1954); Pescara (I) (1957); Phoenix (USA) (1989-1991); Reims (F) (1950-1951, 1953-1956, 1958-1961, 1963, 1966); Rouen-les-Essarts (F) (1952, 1957, 1962, 1964, 1968); Spa-Francorchamps (B) (1950-1956, 1958-1970); Valencia (E) (2008-)

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