Formula 1 recently returned to Austria and to the newly named Red Bull Ring after an 11-year hiatus. It was an exciting weekend as Williams managed to surprise everyone during qualifying by locking out the front row of the grid. But the surprise was short-lived as the Mercedes boy squeezed past the two Williams cars during the race to grab a 1-2 finish, with Rosberg extending his Championship lead over Hamilton.
When the originally named Osterreichring held its first Grand Prix in 1970, the track was slightly longer than it is today and although it is still located among the glorious Styrian mountains, the track is short and consists mainly of straights with a couple of tricky uphill turns and undulations. The circuit has signed a five-year contract with the possibility of a further five-year extension, but is it a track that would be missed if removed from the calendar again?
Following F1’s return to the Red Bull Ring it seems fitting to take a look at the rest of the circuits on the current calendar and select the five best among them. When looking at the quality of a track there are many factors to consider but the following are the three most important: the quality of racing that a track produces; the extent to which a circuit pushes drivers to the limit; and how much a track adds to the spectacle of F1.
The Singapore Grand Prix held at the Marina Bay Street Circuit has featured on the calendar since 2008 and has added an extra dynamic to F1. Other peoples’ lists may simply be filled with tracks that have been around for years like Silverstone, Suzuka or Interlagos. Although these tracks have produced some fantastic Grands Prix in the past, there is not a great deal that stands out about them. Similarly, I could have chosen an alternative modern track like the Circuit of the Americas in Texas but again, despite the fact that the drivers seem to enjoy this circuit, there is nothing revolutionary for the average spectator. I have therefore chosen Singapore for the simple reason that it has introduced something new and innovative to F1: a night race.
At this point you might argue that Bahrain held a night race this year (and what a race it was), but it wasn’t the circuit that created the spectacle. Of course this proves that you sometimes don’t need a great track for a great Grand Prix but it is often the case that a quality circuit lends itself to quality racing. For me Singapore is the best of the new tracks because, unlike the others, it does not resemble a giant car park with huge run off areas that help drivers if something goes wrong. It is a tight circuit like Monaco and therefore really tests a driver’s ability. Some drivers have complained that it is too slow but if Monaco were a new circuit then they would be saying the exact same thing.
Herein lies the problem. Singapore has been underrated because it is a new track, and new tracks can be a let down compared to the old faithfuls. But this is not the case with Singapore. Of course in terms of racing it is similar to any other street circuit and can make for a race lacking in overtaking. But the wider streets of Singapore still allow for more overtaking than those in Monaco. The Marina Bay Street Circuit definitely pushes a driver to his limits and has certainly added to the spectacle of F1.
The Italian Grand Prix was one of the inaugural races in 1950 and has been on the calendar every year since then. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza is the track with the greatest historic pedigree and is sewn into F1’s DNA. Because of their Italian connections, Monza and Ferrari go hand in hand and the passion of the Ferrari fans demonstrates that Monza is a real spectator’s Grand Prix. History and tradition aside, the track itself is a sublime display of speed and is the fastest on the calendar. The circuit consists mainly of long straights, with a couple of slow chicanes and only three proper corners. That means F1 cars are really on the limit as engines are on full throttle for nearly 80 per cent of the lap.
The final corner, the Parabolica, is one of the most challenging corners in F1. As drivers attack this long and fast right hander they are desperate to get on the throttle, leading some cars to spin off into the gravel. The most magical moment at Monza for me was Jim Clark’s stunning performance in 1967 for Lotus. Coming from last place to the front of the grid in 48 laps already cemented this track in F1 folklore. The fact a fault with his fuel pump on the final lap meant he had to settle for third only increased the drama.
From fast Monza we come to slow Monaco. Monaco is the pinnacle of street circuits and is one of the most special Grands Prix. Often called the jewel in the crown of F1, the Monaco Grand Prix is the best known race and is also one of the most popular sporting events in the world. The race itself isn’t always spectacular as there is very little room for overtaking in the tight streets of Monte Carlo, but it is the special feeling of seeing a driver stand on the top step of the podium in such a historic and magical place that puts Monaco on almost everybody’s list of favourite tracks.
Qualifying is probably the most exciting part of the weekend in terms of racing. Ayrton Senna demonstrated this in 1988 in one his most amazing laps when he qualified 1.4 seconds ahead of his own team-mate, Alain Prost. Senna also proved that the race itself can sometimes be thrilling, such as during the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. Driving for Toleman at the time (a team which should not have been challenging for podium finishes), he qualified down in 13th but on race day the rain-soaked track allowed Senna to shine. He stormed through the field and after roaring past Niki Lauda on lap 19 he was up into second position and 24 seconds behind race leader Alain Prost. The Brazilian was catching his French rival at a rate of three seconds per lap but, with the downpour getting worse, Prost appealed for the race to be stopped. Just as Senna was about to pass Prost, the race was halted and Senna was forced to settle for second on the podium.
The Canadian Grand Prix is held at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a track built on a manmade island just outside of Montreal. Because it is a cross between a permanent course and a street-circuit, the walls are very close. This means that the circuit really tests a driver. The wall at the last chicane proves the extent of the challenge – it became known as the wall of champions after Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve all crashed there in 1999. The track features fast straights, twisting corners and tight hairpins. The two main features of the race are changeable weather and a lot of overtaking and the drivers always comment on the great atmosphere in Canada because of the number of fans and the location of the track so close to Montreal.
The key thing for me about Canada is that it produces some fantastic races, the best probably being the eventful 2011 Grand Prix when Jenson Button climbed from last place and then forced Sebastian Vettel to make an error on the final lap, allowing Button to claim his greatest victory. This year we saw yet another fantastic Grand Prix when Daniel Ricciardo took his maiden victory owing to the Mercedes cars’ inability to handle the pressure that this track puts on brakes.
1. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium)
Spa: the perfect race track. Along with Silverstone, Monaco and Monza, Spa is one of the four tracks on the current calendar that featured in the first F1 season in 1950. It may only be half the length it once was but it is still the longest current track in F1 and has always been a favourite of drivers and fans alike. Spa has everything that you could want in a Grand Prix circuit: long straights; tight, high-speed bends; unpredictable weather; and of course Eau Rouge. This is the name of F1’s most challenging set of corners, situated near the start of the lap. Drivers are going flat-out at speeds of over 300 km/h as they face this daunting uphill left-right-left collection of corners. Conquering Eau Rouge requires a huge amount of skill, as Mark Webber demonstrated in 2011 when he performed what should be considered one of the greatest overtaking moves ever, bravely going wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso through Eau Rouge to successfully overtake the Spaniard. The continuous elevation changes at Spa are much more dramatic than those at the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the track is therefore much more challenging. F1 has seen some thrilling moments at Spa, for example in 1998 when Jordan claimed their first ever victory and in 2011 when Romain Grosjean’s Lotus mounted the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso at turn one. Spa is special for both drivers and spectators and for this reason it should never be removed from the calendar.
Of course this is not a definitive list, but until a newcomer matches the majesty of Monaco or the challenge of Belgium I shall not be changing my mind easily.