How public roads turn into race tracks
Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Mariah Lutz
At the time of writing this, F1 has just left Monaco and will be racing in Azerbaijan on short notice. The Baku street circuit is set to become the fifth race weekend at a nonpermanent track this year, for a total of seven in 2022. That is quite the achievement, considering how hard it can be to organise one. Let’s find out what the FIA and the organisers have to go through to make one happen.
Planning is the most important aspect of an inaugural race. Circuit planners can potentially use thousands of different road combinations, but only a handful of them will ever get the ‘OK’ signal. In the case of Baku, planning and designing the track took two years. Once that is done, construction on the actual circuit can begin. The time it takes to complete construction varies across the globe. In Jeddah, for example, construction started a year before the race weekend, while Baku only needed half as much time. This makes sense when one considers the amount of work the Corniche circuit needed, from soil improvements to placing infrastructure and upgrading drainage systems in an attempt not to disrupt everyday life. It's amazing, given it’s only supposed to be a placeholder for a purpose-built track.
A critical aspect for officials to consider is resurfacing, given these streets are used by thousands every day. In Monaco, a third of the track gets resurfaced every year over a three-week period. On the opposite end, Albert park’s first asphalt makeover came 25 years after the circuit’s introduction to the calendar, back in 1996, and coincided with the pre-planned track changes we saw in 2021. Baku is particularly unique in this area, as part of the track gets covered with asphalt because it is cobbled. Pavement also needed to be removed because the road was too narrow when F1 first visited the city. Generally, organisers use local materials for the asphalt on the track. Miami used this to create a rougher surface so the tyres wouldn’t last as long, encouraging more pit stops.
Preparation of the circuits to make them race-ready again depends on the countries themselves. For example, in the principality, work begins six weeks before the event, while in Melbourne, it begins nine weeks before the Grand Prix. These early starts are due to the amount of cargo that must be shipped to the tracks. To give an idea of the sheer size of the cargo, a total of 1600 tonnes arrived in Melbourne for the race. Then there is the not-so-small issue of the grandstands. In Australia, the substructure of Brabham grandstand alone took a week to build. In complete contrast, the pit garages in Monte Carlo are assembled in just 14 days. Some tracks, like Miami, also use temporary curbs that bolt onto the tarmac and footbridges to ensure everyone at the event has quick and easy access to all facilities. Monaco additionally adds extra gangways for accessibility. Finally, the night races have the additional issue of lighting. In Singapore, 1600 floodlights were specially designed to minimise glare and surface reflection and meet F1’s broadcasting standards.
Safety is a big concern for officials, more so if they have racing cars going at speeds upward of 250KPH (155 MPH) on what are basically public roads. That is where the barriers come in. Most of the time, F1 uses deformable Tecpro barriers to slow down the cars in case of a crash. Sometimes, speeds are too high for Tecpro, so Steel And Foam Energy Reduction Barrier (SAFER Barrier) that originated from NASCAR take their place. They are more prominent in circuits like Baku and Jeddah. Azerbaijan’s long straights between turns 6,7,19, and 20, where cars are going in opposite directions, are split by special concrete barriers, each block weighing around 7.5 tonnes, embedded 40 metres deep into the ground. Most controversially, Miami used concrete barriers instead of Tecpro, though they did have a unique feature. Each block features a QR code that can be scanned, and its number can be instantly found, making it easier to check or even replace damaged parts of the barriers. And once the paddock is put in place, the track is officially race-ready.
After the race has finished, everything slowly starts getting disassembled and put away. Having a three-month window between its first and second Grand Prix, Jeddah chose to leave the circuit intact and instead use it for local events, like cycling races. The officials at Albert Park also found the opportunity to make improvements not only to the circuit but to the park itself. They’ve added lights, more parking spaces, and green spaces for everyone who visits the park. Going to show F1 can have a positive, long-lasting impact on the places it travels to instead of simply offering a spectacle.