Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The dark side of track design

Yes, that's Darth Vader taking selfie. The Dark Side has gone modern.
Mapping this to Formula 1, creating a track also has its dark side. I'm re-posting an interview with Herman Tilke; If you are F1 addict, you have certainly heard his name, for good or bad. The following interview is here thanks to the F1 Racing Bulgaria.

  • They give us a predefined piece of land, which is a limiting factor. 
  • We, Tilke Design, have no monopoly over building tracks in F1, we just make less mistakes than anyone else. 
  • The tracks have to be compliant to F1 and MotoGP standards, and that leads to compromises. 
  • The configuration of India track includes artificial hill made with 4 million cubic meters of soil. 
Not really emotional, lack creativity and no abilities to overtake - why are Tilke tracks so negatively rewarded by the fans? Here's what he has to say about it.

Definitely, Tilke is the man to answer many questions. During the last decade we saw migration of the sport from traditional European tracks to new circuits, which according to most, are state-of-art facilities, but the tracks per se lack 'soul'.
The popular Imola, Estoril and Zandvoort made way for Bahrain, China, Turkey, Korea, Abu Dhabi and finaly India. They are all Tilke's kids. The critics say that his designs do not offer anything that might spice up the show, as opposed to Her Majesty Spa and Monza. Sir Jackie Steward, the Lord of Nordschleife, is among those critics. "I think that today's tracks are too similar and the tracks are like made from template - same uniform". For example, the Scott continues, all golf play fields are made by different people, whereas in F1 most of the new tracks are done by the same man".

Lack of tough speedy corners, presence of large run-off areas, which do not punish driver error, inability to overtake - are all those critics right? Having Sochi and New Jersey ahead in the near future, there's very little chance for comeback of Imola and Zandvoort. The future belongs to Tilke. The ex-German pilot founded Tilke GmbH in 1984 and was a consultant when modernizing The Ring. 10 years later the architect Peter Whal joined the company and that led to extending the firm's profile. Today, more than 350 people work there across all offices in the world and 40 of them are engaged in every F1 project. They are responsible for the design, the construction work, soil analysis, laying down the asphalt, and so on. The newest projects include even hospitals. But it's time for Tilke and his right hand, Whal, to respond to the sea of critics flowing towards them. 

Why most of the tracks are on flat surface? If you want to create a thriller, why don't you replicate turns like Eau Rouge, where there's a great elevation? 
Petel Whal: We are getting a piece of land and that's it - we are limited by it. People have to understand that. We cannot do what we want; exception was the Budh track in India, where we placed 4 million cubic meters of soil to create couple of level changes. Certainly, it would be great to flow in some 20 million cubic meters, but the problem is that no one can afford it. We want interesting turns, more places to overtake, but we are always limited by the budget. In the end you cannot be very creative. 

When Nico Rosberg drove initially in India, you have got Congratulations for the job well done. But apart from India, you have projected both China and Korea, which don't look that good. What is the reason? 
Tilke: One of the main issues and many local ones is that the client wants the track to be both F1 and MotoGP compliant. That leads to compromises in the design. In addition to that, there are different safety rules in FIA and FIM. We have to calculate the speed and the braking points for both categories, then we look at the possibilities of the outer part of the turn. For example in MotoGP there has to be gravel in the safety areas, whereas in F1 it should be tarmac. 

That's one of the biggest points for criticism - that the pilot doesn't lose anything if he goes out of the track. 
Back in the years the mistakes were punished heavily, which was leading to large incidents, but this was a driving factor to improve piloting skills. 
Whal: I think 'punish' is the wrong word in this case. With gravel alongside the turns we were seeing drivers retiring from the races on Lap 1. Today, this isn't happening and the car gets back into the race. Yes, the penalty is couple of seconds added to the lap time, but you aren't losing the wholes race, which is the right thing. This leads to taking greater risks and more interesting races. 

Why there are no more turns like 130R at Suzuka and Copse at Silverstone? There are too less speed banks to push the drivers at their best. 
Tilke: The problem is that such turns are very hard to be designed. They are great, because you can just lift-off a little and take the challenge. We calculate the radius, then again next year the downforce level increase and the turn can be taken at full speed. If we take Eau Rouge for example - yes, a fantastic turn which is not that dramatic to the drivers, as it can be taken on full throttle. Now you see some of the issues we are dealing with, like changing rules and varying levels of downforce. 

Do the drivers have influence in track design? 
Tilke: Yes, in a positive way, because they see what we have done and they give feedback, which we are carefully listening to. Sometimes they criticize certain aspects, but they never say that the track is bad. They don't like turn who is very open or too narrow, for example, but just small details. 

You have built your first track in 1999, Sepang. Did you learn from mistakes ever since? 
Whal: We are trying to improve since Malaysia - there are certain ideas that did not work as expected over there, so we left those out for the future plans. If something comes out really good after the initial race analysis, we transfer the good part into the next projects. We like feedback, but only if it's constructive and fair. In the end, we think that every track after Sepang is a step ahead. 

You get fair amount of angry voices that your tracks do not offer enough places for overtaking. India is great as a track, but did it have enough action during the race? 
Tilke: Check out turn #3 in India - we have doubled the width of the entry and the apex is blind. We made it after long discussion with FIA and some of the drivers. With solution like that it is sometimes hard to defend your position and there are couple of racing lines possible in that turn. When you have a car behind, usually the defense is at the inside, but the car behind can choose wider line and attack on the straight that is ahead. So places like that increase the chance for overtaking. I'm sure that it doesn't always work like that. Same goes for the hairpin at Hockenheim - we have extended the width and the solution works. There are overtakes all the time on that turn. One of the biggest issues in F1 is that the cars are lined from the fastest to the slowest. If there is no big difference in tire conditions or the driver make a mistake, sometimes not much is happening. We can't change that. 

Sir Jackie Steward focuses on the problem that there's a sole designer for tracks. Why do you have monopoly over that? 
Tilke: We have no monopoly. Singapore wasn't designed by us, but from an Australian company - KBR, which took our original idea and did the track. I guess the reason why we have more invitations is that we make less mistakes that anyone else, because we have experience with 60 tracks. We haven't done any bad tracks, otherwise we wouldn't be in the business. 

Tell us about New Jersey and the street track that is supposed to host F1 races soon....
Whal: the track is at the Hudson river, west to Manhattan. We have elevation of 60 meters and many fast sections. The max speed will be over 320 km/h. There will be permanent pits - the first floor will be the pit box, the second one - temporary, like Monaco. Regarding elevation changes the track is like Spa, but bears the character of Monaco. Imagine the combination of these two in New York. It will also be a green race - you won't be able to go there with your car. 

Finally, name your favorite track? 
Tilke: That's gotta be Nordschleife :) 

Some of the best turns by Tilke. 
  1. No flashy name, but turn #8 in Turkey is a legend. It has four apexes and drivers accelerate through on 6-th gear with about 265 km/h. At the same time they are trying to avoid the kerb on the exit, which can throw them out of the track. And the first lap with full gas tanks on full throttle there is a really nervous exercise. Unfortunately Turkey is no longer hosting an F1 race.
  2. Turn #10 in India. The drivers accelerate with about 190 km/h on 4-th gear through the right hander virage, which gets narrow at the exit. The left tires can touch the kerbs and the astroturf, then there's a straight and downhill.
  3. Turn #14 in Sepang is one of the hardest on the calendar and it has to be done perfect. Approaching it, the drivers are on 6-th gear, the braking point is hard to find while you downshift to 2-nd gear and 120 km/h when turning in. The apex is on a blind virage, so is the exit and the car is unstable when accelerating.