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How Safety Has Killed Great Racetrack Design

October 1, 2012
Steven Cole Smith

They couldn’t be more different, these two tracks that are bringing Formula 1 racing back to the United States. The 3.4-mile Circuit of the Americas, under construction outside Austin, Texas, is carved into rolling hills previously occupied by scrubby mesquite trees and big rattlesnakes. It is set to host its inaugural Grand Prix in November. If all goes according to plan, next year’s Formula 1 schedule could add a second U.S. stop. The Port Imperial Street Circuit winds along existing commercial and residential streets in New Jersey, including the Port Imperial ferry terminal and West New York. Most of the track includes a clear view of a background that Bernie Ecclestone, the 81-year-old head of Formula 1, has been craving for decades: the Manhattan skyline.

Despite all their contrasts, one thing binds these two tracks together: Tilke Engineers & Architects, a German company helmed by Hermann Tilke, 57. Circuits designed by the 350- employee firm account for more than half of the F1 schedule, and both the Texas and New Jersey tracks bear the Tilke stamp. But you’d be mistaken in thinking that brilliant design and unparalleled popularity have driven Tilke’s omnipotence. Tom Cotter, president of the New ​Jersey Grand Prix, says Tilke’s company is the go-to outfit because it “knows all the design and construction details of what it takes to host a Formula 1 race.” Those details, however, allow for very little deviation, and Tilke and company find themselves in the crosshairs of a global group of critics.

Detractors dislike Tilke’s “stop and start” passing-zone design—long straights funneling down to tight turns—and claim that the tracks borrow too much from each other. They say Tilke is dumbing down F1 racing with boring new tracks and tepid updates of aging—and often classic—facilities. “There is no doubt Tilke is limited by the rules, but there is still no excuse for some of the circuits he has produced. Valencia, for example, is an absolute shambles,” writes Formula 1 columnist Jack Sargeant. “And the less said about his circuits in Malaysia, China, Fuji, and Bahrain the better.” Sir Stirling Moss places the blame with F1 and the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), though, telling ESPN: “You have to remember that he has to create them within very strict safety regulations . . . In my mind, with the brief that he must honor, the circuits he has built are probably as good as one could hope for.” 

Track designers tiptoe around safety in part because the FIA itself does. While the sanctioning body publishes design guidelines and requires that each individual curve’s necessary run-off area be calculated, many regulations are surprisingly general. The FIA and F1 perceive that if they dictated every aspect regarding safety, their liability might be greater in the event of a tragedy.

And so we see the sort of repetition of approved corners and track characteristics that now clutters the racing calendar. Tilke’s director of the Americas, Christian Epp, tells us that the Austin track incorporates a few sections that might feel familiar to ​drivers and fans. Between Turns 12 and 16 is a stretch he says is similar to the stadium section at Hockenheim. (While Tilke redesigned Hockenheim in 2002, the company did not alter that section.) And, he says, “Turns 16, 17, and 18 are basically something similar to Istanbul’s Turn 8,” Istanbul being another ground-up Tilke project.

Alan Wilson—whose wife, Desiré, briefly competed in F1 in the early ’80s—is America’s Tilke of sorts, having designed more than 30 tracks. He agrees that safety is a major priority but not for liability reasons. “The key is to recognize that the superstars come once a year,” he says, while a successful track has to be open year-round (weather permitting). Wilson points out that the “typical user is not the pro, who, if he wrecks a car, just walks over to the spare and climbs in. It’s the guy with a Porsche or a Corvette or a BMW or a motorcycle who can’t afford to wreck his vehicle. I try to make tracks that are safe because if a guy spins his Porsche and hits a barrier, his wife is going to say, ‘Forget racing. We’re going to Hawaii.’” 


Surprisingly, many FIA track safety standards are of the "we'll know 'em when we see 'em" variety. That means it's important that designers pledge strict allegiance to the handful of rules that are clearly spelled out.

"In curves, the banking (downwards from the outside to the inside of the track) should not exceed 10 percent. An adverse incline [off-camber turn] is not generally acceptable unless dictated by special circumstances, in which case the entry speed should not exceed 125 km/h [78 mph]."

"The width of the starting grid should be at least 15 meters [49.2 feet]; this width must be maintained through to the exit of the first corner (as indicated by the racing line)." 

"The maximum permitted length for straight sections of track is two kilometers [1.2 miles]. It is recommended that the length of any new circuit should not exceed seven kilometers [4.3 miles]." 

"There should preferably be at least 250 meters [820 feet] between the start line and the first corner. By corner, in these cases only, is understood a change of direction of at least 45 degrees, with a radius of less than 300 meters [984 feet]." 

"When planning new permanent circuits, the track width foreseen should be at least 12 meters [39.4 feet]. Where the track width changes, the transition should be made as gradually as possible, at a rate not greater than 1 meter in 20 meters [3.3 feet in 66 feet]." 

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