During the recent British Grand Prix, the all new start/finish line at Silverstone got unveiled and predictably received lots of media attention. With its sweeping and almost futuristic looks, the pit lane buildings actually hark back to those used during the then French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard in the 1970s. Back then, that pit lane complex seemed ahead of its time with its modern buildings and emphasis on safety.
While many praised the new Silverstone start straight, many British GP traditionalists, including myself, felt that the new track layout and particularly the loss of Bridge corner and Priory, that formed part of the fantastic Priory, Brooklands, Luffield and Woodcote complex of corners, have ruined the character of what Silverstone once was.
Although the layout of the track behind the new pit lane area is new, one must remember that the Wellington straight which now replaces the super fast Bridge corner, was used a lot during the ʹ80s and ʹ90s as part of the then short circuit (that eliminated the corners from Beckkets to Priory) that hosted rounds of the British Touring Car Championship. Look closely at a map of Silverstone from that time and you will see that the track had a lot of different layouts. Remember the Woodcote chicane that was designed to slow cars down but instead also created some spectacular accidents?
My main issue with racetracks today is that in the current safety-obsessed era and in trying to lower speeds, certain race tracks are being re-modelled in such a way that they are slower than say 25-25 years ago and unfortunately some distinguishing features that made them unique either get removed or modified to such an extent that the circuit becomes slower and safer but also boring to watch either on television or live. It has not only been Silverstone that has lost some character. In fact, there are many, many examples of this…
A couple of years ago the Dingle Dell chicane on the Brans Hatch GP circuit, that in some ways was not a chicane but a launch pad, got remodelled into a fast right hander at the request of the Superbike riders who felt that the corner was too dangerous and fast. In some ways the lost of the Dingle Dell chicane translated into the loss of a feature that made the Brans Hatch GP circuit so great.
Here in South Africa, we have three very good examples of this. The first was the loss the super fast old Kyalami to the current, rather slow and boring track. The old track had a characteristic flow that made racing look fast and spectacular, especially that descending drop form the start line to Crowthorne corner. Recently US sports channel ESPN showcased the 1970-1979 Formula 1 championship. Watching those old F1 cars racing on the old track, it became clear to me why the older folk of today are all reminiscing about the old track.
The other two examples would be the total loss of the old Goldfields Raceway in the Free State with its one kilometre straight named after the late, great Tony Viana and finally the somewhat boring makeover that the Zwartkops raceway received a few years ago. The old Zwartkops was not only fast but also challenging and prone to cause some spectacular accidents like the one between Shaun van der Linde’s BMW 318i and Nic de Waal’s BP sponsored Nissan Sentra during a round of our Touring Car series in 1995. The sight of the two cars touching at the Bosal sweep, which led onto the main straight, and the BMW barrel rolling to destruction without causing harm to Van der Linde became a lasting memory of how spectacular the old track was.
Other crimes would include the horrendous and shameful total rebuild of the Bus Stop chicane at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and the loss of the original Hockenheimring in Germany with its long tree-lined back straight and never ending amount of chicanes. The reason for eliminating the old layout, according to a former DTM commentator, was given as “to provide the spectators with a better view of the cars and so see them more”. Sure, now the spectators can see the cars more but at the cost of losing the straight that become a feature of the old track.
But the worst crime committed in terms of destroying a cult racetrack, was the implementation of the two chicanes on the Mulsanne straight at the Circuit de la Sarthe situated at the town of Le Mans during 1990. Of course it had to be done because of the ridiculous speeds achieved by the Group C monsters during the 1980’s but also to curb the amount of fatal accidents that unfortunately became a trait of the of the ultra-fast straight during that time. Today, racing at nearly 400 km/h on public roads would be seen as just stupid, but it was exactly just that which made Le Mans the cult racetrack that it still is today. Just the sight of seeing those white and blue flashes of Rothmans Porsche 956 and purple Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9 flashing past you at that speed on the opening lap of a 24 hour race must have been the most evocative sights ever.
From a personal view, the Le Mans 24 hours remains my favourite racing event and, despite the chicanes, it still has the same X Factor. The irony however is that those two chicanes have done little to make the current crop of diesel-powered prototype of Audis and Peugeots slower, with both cars doing over 320 km/h between the two chicanes.
To answer my own question, are racetracks today becoming slower, boring and dull? Unfortunately I have to say yes. I fully understand the commitment to safety because nobody wants a repeat of Le Mans 1955 or even Formula 1 during the 1970s when deaths were regular occurrences but does that mean changing an iconic a race track with features that made it popular in the first place?
Over the years race tracks such as AVUS in Germany, the A-1 Ring in Austria, Jarama in Spain, Paul Ricard and Dijon in France and countless tracks in the USA have all been bypassed because the have been deemed unsafe because cars were getting faster thanks to advances in technology. I am not saying that such advances are not good, but one has to wonder when some of the current Formula 1 tracks will one day fall away because they are deemed unsafe when in actual fact it’s the cars that are becoming too fast for their own good. Just remember what happened during the Group B rally era as a start.
Image from www.grandprix.com