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Why Formula 1’s ‘Commuter’ Focus Is Risky

16th July 2018

Formula 1’s new management is pushing hard to expand the grand prix calendar, and most of its targets will be new street races.

As we await the first draft of the 2019 Formula 1 calendar, the biggest question mark surrounds Miami. Will the new event be on the list, marked as provisional pending circuit approval, or will it be missing, with the inaugural race postponed until 2020?

The deadline of July 1 imposed by the city on itself for the signing of a contract has already passed, but that doesn’t mean that a deal for next year can’t be concluded in the coming weeks.

Inevitably, tying everything down has proved to be a bigger task than Miami or Liberty expected it to be – as is usually the case with street races.

Miami is important for many reasons. It will be the first new race deal completed under the new F1 management, and it’s not being done with the traditional sanction-fee model, but with a risk/revenue-sharing arrangement that’s caught the attention of other promoters.

It also marks the start of a promised push to raise the profile of F1 in the USA. And it reflects Liberty’s clear desire to add more street races to the calendar.

From the start, the mantra from F1 CEO Chase Carey has been “we want to go to destination cities”, and while that doesn’t have to mean city centres – well-established races like Barcelona, Budapest’s Hungaroring and Monza come under that ‘destination’ heading – it’s clear that new events will be tend to be on temporary tracks.

Some potential new or revived races involve traditional circuits that could be updated or modified for F1, such as Buenos Aires, Zandvoort or Assen. But the days of the ‘Tilkedrome’, and governments or overly ambitious corporations spending hundreds of millions on building permanent monuments in deserts or on swamps, appear to be over.

Copenhagen and Vietnam are high on the wish list of possible street-race venues, while the idea of an event in London won’t go away. Just before the British Grand Prix, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner suggested that, fired by the success of the 2017 fan event, Liberty is still pursuing a race in the capital.

“I think that there’s a desire within Liberty to see a street race in London,” he said. “And in an ideal world we’d be fortunate enough to have both – to retain the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and to have a street race in London.

“But obviously competition on the calendar is extreme. It’s difficult to see two British Grands Prix.”

Nevertheless, Horner believes that London is a genuine possibility. “With Liberty, I think it is. As seen from their discussion with Miami, they are potentially looking at different types of models for key markets, and I think why not have a race in London one year, a race in Paris another year?

“You could come up with some great venues. Taking F1 to the people as well has proved to be extremely popular – some of the best races that we have on the calendar are street races.”

The appeal of city circuits, and races taking place just minutes from big hotels and with easy public transport options, is obvious.

The horrendous traffic jams at the recent Paul Ricard event, a leaving present to F1’s new owner from Bernie Ecclestone, demonstrated the downside of traditional tracks out in the countryside. Having said that, the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone – both just a few hundred metres from dual carriageways – show what can be done.

The problem with street events is that there are always huge challenges to be addressed, be they political, financial or logistical. In the case of the New Jersey/New York race at Port Imperial, which received the necessary approvals and earned a place on the 2014 F1 calendar, it was a question of hard cash.

The twin cities of Weehawken and West New York were happy for it to happen, but not at their expense. Promoter Leo Hindery couldn’t raise enough money, and despite the late recruitment of Long Beach founder and street race expert Chris Pook, the event foundered.

“There is great demand for a race in New Jersey and I have no doubt we’ll be racing at Port Imperial in 2015,” Ecclestone said of what was termed a postponement. “New races can take many years to get started, but there is significant momentum and we are close to realising a New York City F1 race.”

It didn’t happen, of course, because that funding couldn’t be found.

“We looked at the New York race at one point,” says Austin promoter Bobby Epstein (pictured with Ecclestone). “Bernie had us take a look. And it’s very hard to do a street race, because it’s very expensive.

“I think when they first got into the New York race, there were a lot of people with good intentions, but when they finally put pencil to paper and start adding up what it costs, it becomes a pretty daunting challenge…”

Miami won’t involve a huge sanction fee, but the city will still be committing to substantial expenditure to get the track up and running.

Few have a better idea of what it costs than circuit designer Hermann Tilke. His name may be associated with spectacular permanent venues, but he was also responsible for Valencia and Baku, and was involved in the early planning for Singapore. He also considers Sochi as a street circuit, given that he had to work with the space provided within the Winter Olympics facilities.

“It depends very much on the situation,” he says. “But let’s say the first race costs between $50million and $100m. But you never know, you have situations where you can make it cheaper than $50m, or higher than $100m.”

Tilke admits that making a street race happen is not the work of a moment.

“First of all, it’s really difficult because of the traffic impact. Depending on where you are, you can have a lot of traffic problems,” he explains.

“If you close the circuit with a circle, if there are houses inside, how to come there, and how to go out, if there is an emergency? All these things have to be solved. And there are a lot of other things that you don’t take into account at a normal circuit.

“You cannot knock down a building, the building is there, and trees and so on. You can have something like Valencia, which had a bridge, the bridge was small, it had junctions, and the only thing we could do was make the cars very slow before the bridge, so we made something like a hairpin. The drivers didn’t like it, but it had to be.”

Finalising the perfect layout is not easy and usually involves compromise. Miami is now likely to make more use of the port area on the far side of the bridge and correspondingly less of the downtown/residential area than featured on the first map that we saw a few weeks ago.

“At Sochi we were very, very restricted,” says Tilke, “because the Olympics were in the same year, and the Olympics were first and F1 was second. All the buildings were used by the Olympics, and afterwards we made it suitable for F1. We were really very restricted there in camber and so on.

“In Baku we had three different layouts at the beginning, and the final one was the most difficult one. It was about the beauty of the city, and to really show the city. The start/finish was always in the same place, but originally it went in another direction. I said, ‘OK, that is a normal city track, but this other one is outstanding, this is something special’. A lot of people told me it was not possible to race there.

“But I said, ‘Together with Charlie [Whiting], let’s make it possible’. Every city track you have a lot of details to solve, big or small. Charlie helped a lot. He was there a minimum of six times to discuss with us how to do it, details, details. For us as engineers, it’s really very challenging.”

It’s easy to underestimate the sheer scale of that challenge. There’s a reason why Baku allows three months to prepare the venue each year – a 6km circuit requires around 12km of barriers, although it’s actually a little more by the time you’ve taken escape roads into account.

“The barriers are very heavy,” says Tilke. “In Baku we have 3500 blocks, and every block is 3.5 tonnes. And in one truck we could only load three or four of the blocks, so it also causes a lot of traffic with the trucks coming in and installing it.

“In Baku we also had hundreds of manholes in the track. We had a discussion with the municipality, which manholes do they use every year? There are some that they use every five years. These ones we covered with asphalt, made a measurement where each one was so you can find it, but for every five years it’s OK. For the others we changed all the covers for bolted ones.”

At a recent presentation to Miami residents, F1 consultant Richard Cregan mentioned that three-month build-up figure, and added that much of the work would be done at night – albeit quietly. You can imagine that those who are opposed to the race were not impressed.

Miami has its own quirks. The track crosses port railway lines, as did the version used by Formula E. For that event a temporary solution was used to fill in the gaps, but for F1 grip and traction levels the rail tracks would have to be properly covered – and then dug out again.

That will also mean no freight trains getting to or from the port for several days around the race weekend. The FE organisation paid for goods to be offloaded at another station and travel the last few miles by truck, via the tunnel that leads to the port. An F1 GP weekend is much longer and the logistical challenge therefore that much greater.

Street races also beg the philosophical question of whether they are the right way to go. Given many current venues’ long contracts, not to mention the aforementioned complications, there won’t be an overnight revolution.

Still, in five or 10 years we could see many more temporary venues on the schedule. They tend to look spectacular on TV, but are they good for racing, and therefore for fans? That issue came into sharp focus after what many reckoned was a boring and processional Monaco GP.

“There are some very interesting street races,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff noted. “If you look at Baku [and] how the circuit is laid out with the long straight, that provides spectacular racing. And Monaco in the past has provided spectacular racing simply because of how close you can race, and with the climate conditions changing, safety cars etc.

“We mustn’t swing between depression and exuberance – this time it’s the depression again, next weekend we [might] have a good race and everybody is falling into mania about how great the racing is. There are just days like this.”

Austin promoter Epstein has an interesting take on how his race will compare with Miami. “They are going to be very different events,” he says. “Our track was obviously made for racing first, not for commuters first, so there’s always going to be a difference with the competition you can get on a purpose-built facility.

“That will always be the unique thing for us. It’s certainly going to have a different type of appeal for different fans – the fact that at COTA you can see eight or 10 turns from one seat is something we’re really proud of and for racing fans that’s what it’s about, it’s about the race.

“I would hope that when it’s designed for racing, it will give the fans what they’re looking for. It’s very hard on a street track to be able to see much.”

As for Tilke, once Ecclestone’s ‘go-to’ man for any new circuit, he has not been officially engaged to work on any of the potential street venues. Miami appears to be very much an in-house F1 project.

“There are a lot of cities or countries standing in a row,” he says. “Vietnam, up to now we are not involved, but nobody is involved in technical things. When they sign the contract, then somebody has to do it.

“Copenhagen, I looked at it, it’s really beautiful, it will be really special. If it happens, it would be outstanding. It’s completely different to Monaco, as Monaco is completely different to Baku. You cannot compare the one with the other.

“For sure the trend is going to the street circuits. But I don’t think it stops for other circuits, for normal circuits. We also have fantastic races on them, like in Bahrain this year, China was also good.”

But are there any traditional tracks in the pipeline – in other words, will there be another Sepang, Sakhir or Austin?

“No, at the moment not, as far as I can see,” he admits. “But it’s possible that another normal circuit will come. Why not? We will see what the future brings.”

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