Are Tilke tracks all the same? A look at modern F1 circuits

This video is sponsored by Curiosity Stream.
Get your promo code for free access after the video. These days, pretty much all of the new F1
tracks are under the design and architecture of Hermann Tilke.
There is a lot of resentment for Hermann Tilke, particularly among Formula 1 fans for what
is perceived as his samey-samey designs and boring race tracks. I thought it would be
interesting to look of the history of Hermann Tilke designed tracks in F1 and see what elements
make up the essence of a classic Tlke circuit. I won’t be looking at his street circuits
as these are whole different beasts where he has to repurpose existing road layouts
to suit single-seater racing. I’ll also be ignoring tracks that already existed but
Tilke came in and rejigged a few corners. Instead I’m focussing on the tracks where
he’s essentially had a huge say over their entire design and infrastructure: his purpose
built circuits. Let’s start at the beginning, then.
[MALAYSIA 1999] The Sepang F1 circuit looks like it was designed
to solve an overtaking problem in F1. At the time of the video being produced, we’ve
just watched the Monaco GP where everyone has come out saying the cars are too wide
and the circuit is too narrow and slow to overtake.
Well, Tilke has built the exact opposite here. Malaysia is the Anti-Monaco.
It’s so wide. So wide. People were stunned at how wide it was when we first rocked up
here. It’s twenty metres at its widest and 16 metres at its narrowest. For reference,
the widest part of Silverstone ( a not particularly narrow track) is only fifteen metres across
down the Hanger Straight. It’ll definitely open up overtaking opportunities
if you can get 10 cars side by side, right? And you know what else makes things exciting?
Really hard braking zones. And to make these all you need is a really long straight into
a really tight corner. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Nailed it. [T1, 4,
9, 15] So now let’s give the drivers something
that’ll feel challenging. What they love is a really fast, but not-quite-flat-out corner.
So here we go [T5,6,10,12,13] And as we’re modern and sophisticated, we’re
not going to make circuits feel organic as if they’ve wound their way out of the landscape
beneath them. Instead almost all our corners are going to be very precise with a lot of
fixed radii, as if each turn was pencilled in with no more than two flicks of a pair
of compasses. The interesting parts of Malaysia are the
‘snaily’ turns oue and two which work very well together as a way to get cars to
battle side by side, in and out through different lines and the incredibly hard turn fourteen
which is blind and goes from fast to tight almost imperceptibly and is crucial to get
right for the back straight it precedes. At the time it was also notable for its outrageous
architecture with the huge canopied grandstands, modern passive pit paddock and media buildings
being something the likes of which we hadn’t seen before at a race event.
This was the new benchmark. Up to this point teams and media were basically used to turning
up and working out of a greasy shed for the weekend. Not anymore.
Malaysia, now gone from the calendar, was actually well liked. It was challenging, fast
and gave opportunity for overtaking and battle. So remember this: huge straights; tight, heavy
breaking zones; long fast esses; digitally precise turns and huge, extravagant, modern
facilities. Tilke’s next full circuit was Bahrain [TITLE
CARD] Bahrain is also well liked. But Tilke didn’t
exactly break open the box of new ideas in building it.
You’ve got your long back-to-back straights into tight braking zones [T1, T4]
You’ve got a turn one, turn two switchback combo that opens on the exit but this time
more of a zigging chicane than the snail of Malaysia.
Its trickiest corner, turn 10 is a fast corner into a suddenly tight hairpin that steers
through the braking zone, like Turn 14 in Malaysia but sharper and downhill instead
of uphill. You’ve again got the fast, but not-quite-flat-out
bit to make the drivers feel challenged and a general sense, one again, of the corners
being precisely graphed in rather than carved out of the geography.
It’s also very wide and full of very modern, showy buildings and facilities.
So far, so Tilke. And actually, once again it was very well
received with drivers liking the challenge and the races proving pretty fun in general
– even more so once it moved to the cool of night.
So at this point it’s fair to say Tilke was bringing a modern flair to F1 and lifting
it very much into the 21st century with his model of cutting edge, clean decadence that
fitted the brand Bernie Ecclestone was building. 2004 also brought us to Shanghai, China.
We can kind of see China as… Malaysia – but more.
You like these back-to-back long straights? We’ve got them – but longer!
You like width? This track is twenty metres wide!
You like a snaily turn one/turn two? We’ve got it – but even snailier!
Fast esses in the middle sector? Boom – we’ve got that too.
Hard braking zones? Only the hardest for you [T6, 11, 14]
You like a big pit building? We’ve built a monster.
Let’s throw in a high speed kink from Bahrain for good measure and baddi boom badda bing,
we’re done. China is… fine. In my opinion it’s just
fine. Your feet will stay warm because no socks are getting blown off here.
The ultra squiggly turns one and two are a nice unique feature but otherwise the circuit
sort of just… is. And it’s at this point we started to realise Hermann Tilke has a
certain style. 2005 brought us Istanbul Park in Turkey.
Now, people liked Turkey. But let’s get the stock ingredients out of the way first.
Long straights, big buildings, heavy braking zones, high speed kink a la Bahrain and China,
small radius corner, small radius corner, small radius corner, small radius corner,
small radius corner, and a sweeping back and forth bit.
Of note is this “W section” at the end of the circuit – tight hairpinny turns that
fold back and forth that encourage a bit of side-by-side action as the optimal side of
the track switches back and forth. You’d often catch a battle going on down here.
But Turkey’s most iconic offering was its killer Turn Eight. And people loved it.
Turn Eight was a long, long, long fast corner that isn’t quite flat out but was super
fast and you kind of have to hold on for dear life as you navigate four apexes (or apices).
Drivers loved it for the challenge and spectators loved it for the thrill of seeings the raw,
unadulterated grip levels of an F1 car in action.
The peak G force through Turn Eight is 5G with an average lateral force of 3.5G through
the whole corner. Five G is five times the force of gravity. It’s hefty.
I hope you like Turn Eight cause you’re going to see it again. And again.
But first we head to Abu Dhabi. Yas Marina Circuit debuted in 2009 and seems to have
been designed specifically to be super dull both to drive and to watch.
But it is flashy as all hell with a colour changing hotel looming over the circuit, so
you can always look at that if the race bores you.
To be honest, until Abu Dhabi came along people weren’t super bothered about Tilke. There
was some mild disgruntlement over some of his circuit modifications but this track here
in Abu Dhabi really opened up the argument that Tilke was far more interested in creating
fancy facilities and opulent architecture and was less interested in putting thought
into the circuits themselves as his bag of tricks was becoming stale and uninspired.
So what’s the deal with Yas Marina, then? Well it’s got your back-to-back straights
as usual. Your tight corners are here. Your hard braking zones are here.
It makes a half-hearted attempt at a fast, left/right ess in sector one but it’s nothing
to write home about. Other than that it’s just kind of… turn,
turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn,
turn. Look at these corners. There’s nothing to
them at all. It’s like Hermann bought a bunch of off-the-shelf pieces and slotted
them together. And because they’re mostly slow and feed one into the other it’s very
hard to overtake. And as the circuit is built on artificial,
reclaimed land it’s as flat as a pancake and doesn’t even have any elevation change
to bring… something to its character. Weirdest of all, though: the start finish
straight is very short and is bookended by two slowish, not-very-aggressive corners to
there’s very little opportunity for action here. It’s like the track was custom built
to ward off excitement. So weird. So when people think of Tilke, this is what
they think of. Cookie cutter, lazy, uninspired design with too many dollar shifted to shiny
buildings instead of a few minutes thinking about the racing. [BUDGET SLIDER Shiny hotel
—- racing quality] Booo.
The next year we went to Korea. Deflated PacMan circuit, Korea, was fine but
bizarrely it was built in the middle of nowhere with the plan being to build a city around
it over time. Unfortunately the world’s economy collapsed around the same time so
that didn’t happen in the end. Anyway, let’s give this track our usual
once over: back-to-back long straights, harsh braking into tight corners, high speed esses,
a fast bit that tightens up, and then a tight W-section like at the end of Turkey.
Check, check, check. But there are actually some nice details in
the Korea circuit. There is a lot of elevation change and the circuit winds up down and around
various gradients. The middle part of the circuit feels like
a much more old-school natural circuit than any of his previous works.
Turns 14 to 18 are supposed to feel more like a street circuit as (eventually) these would
actually have been streets with buildings rising up around them, giving the circuit
a very hybrid feel. Also note how Tilke is fond of a medium speed
double corner, seen here in turns one and two but also in Yas Marina, Turkey and Malaysia.
It will also pop up again in his reworking of the Mexico track, which we won’t be covering
in this video. Tilke then built the Buddh International Circuit
which debuted the following year. Boom – architecture.
Boom – long straights (these two back-to-back). Tight, heavy braking zones – it’s got them.
Medium speed double corner – oh yes indeed. We’re back to the old Turn 1, turn 2 tight
corner switching back and opening up and we also see the return of a Turkey Turn 8 clone
– the endless, fast, multi apex corner popping up as turn ten here. Clearly he was happy
with how well that one was received. It’s missing the fast sweeping esses we’ve
seen at every track so far but he does throw in a terrible slow, mickey-mouse section a
la Yas Marina. What India has that is quite fun is – after
the turn one/two chicane the track rises steeply to a blind hairpin at the crest of the hill
which immediately gives you a second chance at an overtake before the long back straight.
Furthermore, the hairpin at the end of the back straight is very, very wide on entry
but narrows dramatically on exit. I mean, really it should be the other way around to
allow cars to stay side by side on alternate lines as they accelerate out and down to the
next complex but it’s an interesting bit of playing with track width that we don’t
often see. So India was a fine enough circuit with plenty
of elements that gave opportunity for racing. Here we’re seeing Tilke once again piecing
together bits that he thinks have worked in his previous tracks but thinking a little
more about how to flow on section to the next. He does play more with elevation in India
that he has previously, too. We saw a bit of this in Turkey, but this dramatic rise
to the hairpin at turn three works really well and he loved it so much he cloned it
for his very next circuit [COTA]
Circuit of the Americas’ Turn One is straight uphill into a hairpin and it’s great. Cars
can brake even later, the apex is half-blind and we often see people trying all sorts into
this corner. Looking at the circuit as a whole, we again
have long old straights (though none in pairs this time), your usual tight braking zones,
a fast kink, some of your double corners and another Turkey Turn 8 style number right here.
Now, here’s where Tilke tries something different. Instead of his usual single high
speed left/right ess (seen in Bahrain, China, Abu Dhabi and Korea), he threads a whole bunch
of esses together in an emulation of Silverstone’s Maggots/Becketts. Each corner is slightly
different in speed, radius and approach. It’s a tremendous challenge and loved by drivers
and spectators alike. People really like COTA. It’s a decent,
fun track and we often see racing and action here. Tilke got them to move the very earth
around from under the track to work in some extra elevation changes, expanding on his
toolbox of what works well. Surely we see a string of better and better tracks as he
continues to improve from here. [SOCHI]
Oh dear. OK, so Sochi is just incredibly naff and it’s
easy to see why. Even though he’s thrown in another Turkey
Turn 8 facsimile in here, the rest of the circuit is a flat and lazy Yas Marina approach.
Cookie cutter corners, lots of medium speed double-turns. His usual tight-in/fast out
opening two corners and, other than a fast kink off the pit straight, it’s just a dull
corner-into-corner-into-corner layout that gives you very little to do.
Again, it’s like he built the track from off the shelf parts rather than putting any
thought into it. It feels way too clinical and cold.
And that was the last of the original Tilke designs. For now. But coming up next year
is the Vietnam Grand Prix in Hanoi which is part street circuit and part custom track.
Looking at it I think we can see Tilke’s fingerprints all over it from its long straights,
to its Maggots/Becketts clone to its long Turn 8 style corner to its fast corners into
a tight corner to this snaily boy right here. It’s Tilke as hell.
Will it work? Maybe. I think Tilke is far better than we, the moaning spectators, give
him credit for and Abu Dhabi and Sochi unfortunately stand out as the sore thumbs among some very
healthy fingers. China is a bit meh, but the others? There’s a lot of fun to be had in
his portfolio. However – I think it’s very clear we need
more diversity in our circuit designers as his works are all very samey and have very
similar flavours. F1 could sell a ‘Build Your Own Hermann Tilke’ circuit from a box
of about five different shapes. The calendar needs a nice mix of circuit like
Spa that sweep across the rolling landscape, like Monaco that winds through tricky streets,
like Malaysia with its fast, wide challenges, like Monza with its high-power, full throttle
drag racings. The new circuits need this kind of diversity too. They need to feel unique
and have their own character. Even if Hermann Tilke is the greatest track
designer we could ask for, he’s not enough. You don’t want every painting to be a Van
Gogh or every flower to be a rose. Let’s get some new people in to try something new. This video was brought to you by Curiosity
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