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Tinkering with Tilke's circuits // What affects F1 overtaking and whether the tracks can be tweaked

Published by David Chubb

Many F1 fans have many things to say about Tilke's circuits with the general consensus being that they are boring and don’t promote exciting racing. This is possibly correct with the majority of his company's designs; they have given us places like Valencia and Bahrain. So why are they boring? Generally the problem is that his circuits either don't create enough of a challenge or don't provide any easy places to overtake on. There are many roots to these elusive qualities, so what are they?

F1 racing on the beach
F1 racing on the beachCredit: LAT Photographic

Lets start with the factors in overtaking:

  • How fast the cars can travel round corners - this can bring on whether a corner is tight enough to provide a large enough breaking zone
  • What's the corner beforehand - Deciding how close the cars will be
  • How long is the straight directly beforehand - DRS now takes a massive part in this
  • How tight is the corner - Decides whether two cars can travel side by side through the corner
  • What's on the track side - Deciding whether a driver can run wide or push wide

The first one is the only variable in this situation and over the years some corners have been made redundant because they can now be taken quickly. Especially when ground-effect arrived suddenly corners became redundant and driven through as if they weren't there. For Tilke this is a problem and whilst talking to F1 Racing in their February 2012 issue he explained that it is very tough to decide whether a corner will be slow enough for the regulations. Here sympathy can be given.

Before and after

However not when you look at the second and third factor - the corner and straight before. If you look at the circuit design at all the circuits that have common overtaking zones there is a common theme amongst them. The corner before is mid to highspeed corner leading onto a longish straight. This is or was the case at Adelaide, Spa, Monza, Silverstone, Indianapolis, Montreal, Shanghai, Malaysia, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Japan, Sao Paulo, Portugal etc. Looking at the amount of circuits that have this you'd think that overtaking was more common place however getting this sort of layout can generally only be fitted once in a circuit plan. But why does this work?

Tilke does have the long straights but very rarely has he used the fast corner before

This track layout works because of the spring effect. In slow corners cars bunch up but stretch out when leaving the corner. This doesn't provide a chance for overtaking because the driver can't gain the gap lost in time for the next corner. However in a mid-high speed corner this spring effect is not as dramatic allowing the driver behind can stay close behind onto the next straight where they will get enough of a tow to pull up alongside. Now the straight doesn't have to be particularly long because if the cars are running high enough downforce then there will be enough time to pull alongside. Tilke does have the long straights but very rarely has he used the fast corner before. When he has it has led to some fantastic overtakes in Turkey, Malaysia and China. India was the biggest disappointment as many expected there to be overtaking but this isn't the case as the corners before its long straights are both hairpins, which suffer from the spring effect most.

The tightness of the corner is paramount. At Silverstone Brooklands is a bad example of an overtaking corner. It is too open and too fast for a car to gain an advantage through braking but it does provide a chance of cars travelling side by side. Generally a good overtaking corner has a large braking zone like in Monza and Spa. Hairpins are especially good for this as they have a large braking zone. However, they have another trick up their sleeve – they allow for a cutback if the overtaker runs wide. Tilke understands this and most of his overtaking corners are hairpins or tight corners.

But cutbacks are not possible when there is a wall on the outside of a corner. This is why street tracks are hard to overtake on. Generally a circuit isn’t wide enough for two cars to travel through a corner. This means having space to run wide or cut tight means that a driver is more likely to battle for position. Not only this but if a driver can see the exit they can decide where they will have to position the car on the exit but at places like Valencia, Singapore etc. a driver has to guess at how much space they will have left for the opposition on the exit.

Aiming for perfection

So through a combination of track width and surroundings, straight length, prior corners and driver confidence the perfect overtaking corner can be achieved. Simple you may think. However, you’ll be wrong; the car set up, the tyre type and many other factors affect overtaking. However it can be seen why Valencia in particular is not very good for overtaking. Before any overtaking corner the straight isn’t long enough and because they aren’t strictly straight meaning a driver can’t pull up alongside, walls line the side and the exit of the corners are generally tight and not wide preventing cars from driving side by side at any point.

So what makes a track exciting? Well again with the change in cars difficult corners vary even on tracks like Silverstone and Spa. India’s circuit is a very exciting circuit with fast corners and corners that challenge the drivers. Here India follows Tilke’s other successes like Turkey. There is a common feature on all exciting tracks and that is undulation. Undulations in the circuit add character and change how a corner is tackled. Spa, Nurburgring, Turkey, Sao Paulo, Brands Hatch are prime examples of this. Here Tilke has a problem as quite often he gets given a very flat piece of land to work with and unless (like in India) they have a large budget to shift lots of land this won’t happen.

So really there are so many factors that impact a circuit Tilke gets it more right than many others. Historic tracks became good through years of testing and evolving. They’ve been ‘naturally selected’ and no matter how hard anyone tries it’s very hard to create an exciting Grand Prix circuit. Personally I think Tilke comes short with overtaking but with circuit design and infrastructure he is the best in the business and so in conclusion he is unfairly criticised for what his company churns out, even if Valencia is one of the single most boring circuits ever to host an F1 race.




  • I think personally they should make the brakes on the cars "less good" therefore increasing braking zones and more mistakes etc...

  • One think I do love about Tilke circuits are the high-speed zones we see at tracks like Sepang (turns 5-6-7-8) and Bahrain (9-10). All in all, his tracks are good, but when they ask him to build one in a place like Valencia or Singapore, I guess there's nothing to do in order to make it interesting.

    The Abu Dhabi one is his worst creation. The best thing of it is just next to the asphalt, but the track itself is a shame.

    Nice article David! :)

  • I've a few Ideas that could be used.

    A full 360 or 540 degree bend that climbs overitself.

    A curve huge S (think Monza's curva grande *2) the camber of the curve is off on the first but on onto the second (or the other way around)

    Undulation on what should be the racing line which should effect the braking. something like just before Monaco turn 5 where you can risk bottoming out in exchange for a better line into the corner.

    I think it's about time we looked at kids Scalextric sets and tried to see what's possible and would work. Instead we're going to get a really long straight with a sharp bend and no imagination.

  • I have learned to like Sepang and Shanghai. Both (particularly the latter) have staged thrilling Grands Prix, albeit with some help from weather. Korea doesn't look bad either.

    Valencia is the worst Tilke track. Abu Dhabi and Bahrein are also tasteless. And the poor ole Hockenheimring was axed in a very cruel manner... More cons than pros probably? Let's take a look at COTA...

  • For me Tilke's tracks have two fundamental flaws that ruin racing.

    The first is that he has way too many corners. More than 20 corners in 3 miles is ludicrous. If you look at the history of the sport to find flat circuits that gave great racing the best was always Monza before they littered it with chicanes for the 1972 race. Monza is around 3 miles long and had 5 corners - Curva Grande, Lesmo 1, Lesmo 2, Ascari and Parabolica. With the exception of the Lesmos the corners are individual corners and Tilke's second problem is that he likes sequences of corners. His motto could almost be why have one corner when you can have 5.

    If you have one F1 car following another of equal performance along a straight it will eventually catch it. If you have the same two cars going through a corner the following car will drop back. If you stick half a dozen corners one after the other after one pass through the grid will start to spread out. If you have a sequence like that it doesn't matter what else you do with the rest of the track you will not have overtaking and if you have no overtaking you have no racing.

    Of course ideally you want a bit of gradient or preferably like Spa lots of it. In Austin Tilke was handed some gradient and he has demonstrated that he has no more understanding of the effects of gravity on racing cars than the rest of the laws of physics. For racing the length of a straight should be measured in seconds rather than metres as it is really time rather than distance that matters. So long uphill straights give better racing and we see that on the run from Eau Rouge to Les Combes up the Kemmel straight at Spa. Conversely to get longer braking zones you need a downhill braking zone.

    The best example to look at is Interlagos. A long, long uphill straight (albeit a bendy straight) into a downhill braking zone into a tight couple of corners and you get all sorts of passes and re-passes.

    You would think even Tilke would look at that in learn but instead at Austin he has demonstrated a new level of ignorance. In Austin he has a long straight followed by and UPHILL braking zone. It is beyond moronic.

  • For me, it's the amount of the circuit that are effectively "no passing zones" that impact the racing the most. Any segment of the track that restricts the drivers to a single file "groove" is effectively a "no passing zone". For instance, narrow turns that don't permit two cars to take the turn side-by-side without one of them ending up off-roading. Another frequent culprit are quick esses or chicanes where the "preferred" driving line is to drive in more or less a straight line thru the turns, while bouncing off of alternating curbing. The end effect of these "no passing zones" is that if you approach a slower car just before one of them, but don't get past before the driving line narrows to a single car width, you're forced to brake hard, which kills any momentum you might have, and it gives an advantage to the slower car, since the faster car behind now has to rebuild that faster speed in the next section of the track and before the *next* "no passing zone". There are some F1 tracks where almost half the track can be classed as "no passing zones", so it's no suprise that there's a lack of passing/overtaking.

  • The Tundraland Method of building a better race track than whatever Tilke can dream up is to hire a Candian Engineering firm to build a subway system an tell them they are free to dump the landfill into a river or other body of water....

    A proven solution since 1972 !

  • Given the headline, I was expecting to see maps of the Tilke-drones with some skethed-out ideas as to how these tracks (that for one reason or another are here for the long-run) can be improved. A future post perhaps?

    I know Anthony Davidson and Karun Chandhok commented about doing this a lot when they were on 5Live's coverage - maybe some pics of those and/or Google Earth would be a good starting point?

  • maybe some pics of those and/or Google Earth would be a good starting point?

    we do like a volunteer ;)

  • I advocate that most major circuits bank at least one curve, with the aim of enabling side-by-side cornering on it, as is common on oval tracks. At YouTube search, type "schumacher karting in stuttgart 1996," and watch. In a karting context you'll see the potential.

  • Given the headline, I was expecting to see maps of the Tilke-drones with some skethed-out ideas as to how these tracks (that for one reason or another are here for the long-run) can be improved. A future post perhaps?

    As did I.

    We've been over this ground before although I checked back and apparently the last time was over a year ago, doesn't time fly? I like that this article is a full analysis and consideration of the facts - including the positive ones - rather than the usual default criticisms.

    My stock response which hasn't changed is that I like Sepang, Shanghai is usually dull but offers surprises, Turkey has some good races and the rest are awful. I'm sure Valencia can be made better by reworking the layout/alignments, maybe drop the last bit where they drive past the pits and then double back.

    I'll add to that, the map of COTA looks like it'll generate field spread as India does, but I'd like to see it in action before automatically ruling it out.

  • I advocate that most major circuits bank at least one curve, with the aim of enabling side-by-side cornering on it, as is common on oval tracks. At YouTube search, type "schumacher karting in stuttgart 1996," and watch. In a karting context you'll see the potential.

    The corner before the really long straight in Shanghai is banked, it seems to help.

  • The problem with Valencia is that the harbour can't be seen and as Daren Heath pointed out. But to slow down the cars though certain sections a decent corner chance five times has been spoilt. The final sector of Valencia however is very good. It's the best of it which s plain, repetitive and boring

  • maybe some pics of those and/or Google Earth would be a good starting point?

    we do like a volunteer ;)

    I remember doing this on F1NGers when Indianapolis appeared, redesigning it using the wonders of MS Paint because we were so appalled how they could ruin such a great venue :)

  • The problem with Valencia is that the harbour can't be seen and as Daren Heath pointed out. But to slow down the cars though certain sections a decent corner chance five times has been spoilt. The final sector of Valencia however is very good. It's the best of it which s plain, repetitive and boring

    I do like the final sector at Valencia, fun, fast, has character. Sadly it's also the only place you can realistically shorten the track. I think the other option is to reroute it completely.

  • I advocate that most major circuits bank at least one curve, with the aim of enabling side-by-side cornering on it, as is common on oval tracks. At YouTube search, type "schumacher karting in stuttgart 1996," and watch. In a karting context you'll see the potential.

    Try searching for "Mansell Berger Mexico" (1990?)

  • For me, Tilke tracks have two main problems:

    1) They are too damm wide. Makes the cars look small and slow (kills atmosphere) and does nothing for overtaking

    2) A proliferation of 'long radius' corners that place the emphasis on aero balance, and promote 'field spread'

    However, how ever much we vilify Tilke, some of his tracks have now started to produce good racing. They do seem tailor made for the DRS.

  • YouTube search "2012 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Highlights," and see how beautiful a contemporary (2003) road-course can still be. Thanks to Alan L. Wilson, track designer par excellence. This sets the standard by which I'll judge the COTA.

  • trap+corner=long winded win?

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