It’s a question that I’m sure literally some of us have lost sleep over, so let us be the ones to attempt to answer it. Starting at the beginning, we’re going to take you on a journey from the first F1 season in 1950 until the present day, picking out some key eras of car design and seeing, simply, which ones would make the most interesting circuit layouts.
There are some basic ‘rules’ to get out of the way first. We’ve made the bottom of each layout flat, mainly because otherwise every single track would have two long, constant radius corners where the wheels are, which would be a bit boring, plus it also allows for all of the tracks to have a nice long pit straight along the bottom. Each track is intended to run in an anti-clockwise direction (it makes sense that the front of the car would be the first corner) and have no elevation changes, just to keep things simple. Finally, some small aspects of the cars – windscreens, sensors, mirrors, some small winglets – have been omitted to prevent the tracks from being too complicated. Got it? Good – let’s get started!
Giuseppe Farina became F1’s first World Champion driving an Alfa 158 – a car which had been designed before the Second World War and only lightly upgraded for the dawn of the World Championship.
Its simple front-engined design results in a very simple track – which seems appropriate. It almost looks like the sort of airfield-derived track that might have been used for racing 70 years ago and you can almost imagine the cars of the 1950s sliding around some of the wide, flowing bends.
Rating – 5/10. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly interesting either. It also looks like it might be a difficult place for a modern car to overtake.
On to the end of the decade and Cooper had well and truly kickstarted the rear-engined revolution. Having won some race the year before, the team utterly dominated in 1959 as Jack Brabham clinched his maiden title.
It still makes for a fairly simple design, but the scoop at the front and the shape of the headrest make for a couple of unwanted chicanes. The squared-off rear end looks interesting, though – it almost looks like it’d be a backwards version of Monza’s Lesmo corners.
Rating – 7/10. The two chicanes knock points off, but the rest of it looks good. The left-right where the cockpit begins seems like it’d be a high-speed challenge for any car.
By 1962, every team had realised that mounting the engine behind the driver was the way to go. Lotus launched the 25 that year – the first F1 car with a monocoque chassis – and Jim Clark came within a few laps of winning the championship. He did take the title the following year and the 25 was so good that it was still winning races in 1965.
This style of car also marks a major shift in the shape of the track. The curve of the underside of the nose would make for an interesting, tightening first corner, but it’s the top half of the car where things look really interesting. The shape of the wheels, cockpit, and exposed engine make for a seriously twisty – yet still fast – section of track. It almost looks like something you’d see on a natural road course like the Nordschleife or Clermont-Ferrand – again, entirely appropriate for the era of car.
Rating – 9/10. The elongated exhaust and exposed gearbox make the end of the lap a bit mickey mouse, but we’re absolutely here for the rest of the lap.
In the late 1960s, teams started experimenting with aerodynamics. For a short while, the favoured solution was to put wings at the top of of massive stilts, elevating them above the car, which would end up being banned by 1969.
This completely ruins the track layout of the BRM P133, which we’ve used as an example. The first half is similar to the Lotus 25, but with fewer corners and more straight lines. Then you get to the roll hoop, which puts a pointless hairpin in the middle of a straight, and it all goes to pot. There’s nothing wrong with slow corners, just not that many, that close together.
Rating – 3/10. Remember in 2010 when the Bahrain GP was held on a longer layout which added a pointless, slow, squiggly bit and it was absolutely rubbish? Yeah, that’s basically what the BRM P133 is to the Lotus 25.
One of the many things that made the Lotus 72 a legendary car was the decision to move the radiators from the nose to the side of the car, creating the wedge shape and sidepods which, in a way, still forms the basis of F1 car design to this day. Jochen Rindt used the car to win a (sadly posthumous) championship, and with continued upgrades the 72 raced for a staggering six seasons.
The result is a nice, juicy, tight hairpin for the first corner – perfect for overtaking. The shape of the front wheel dominates a slightly boring first half of the lap before we get to a busier second half. Just like the BRM, we have a bunch slow corners courtesy of the rear wing, oil cooler, and exhaust, but at least they’re slightly more defined.
Rating – 4/10. To continue the real race track analogy, this is a bit like Yas Marina – lots of straights at the start, followed by a slow bit at the end. Neither is necessarily bad on its own, but the combination seems to make for uninspiring racing. The only reason this gets an extra point over the BRM is because the outline makes it look a little bit like some kind of spaceship from a bad 1970s sci-fi programme.
While aerodynamics were the hot new thing in the late 60s and early 70s, that didn’t mean that teams had stopped searching for engine power. One of the ways teams tried to squeeze more ponies from the powerplants was to fit massive airboxes, which would suck in more air and compress it as it passed through the intake, thus helping the engines to breathe easier and produce more power. As usual in F1, some teams took things a bit far – not least Ligier, who fitted an extreme solution to its JS5 before the rulemakers cracked down on airbox augmentation.
The result is a fairly decent-looking race track. We’ve got a nice sharp first corner for passing and some fast, flowing corners on the run up to the airbox. That leads into a long, curved ‘straight’, followed by a couple of fast kinks just before a heavy braking zone.
Rating – 8/10. That smattering of 90-degree corners to end the lap isn’t ideal, but at least it’s a simple layout. And the rest of it would surely be superb.
Lotus may have pioneered ground effect in F1, but Williams is the one who really perfected it. The FW07 made its debut in the 1979 season and soon proved almost unbeatable, winning both titles in 1980 and coming close to doing the same again the following year.
With much of the aero coming from the underside of the car, the result is a slightly simpler layout than others. The big improvement from previous years comes towards the end of the lap, with a more rounded rear wing endplate making for a lap that seems to flow quite nicely from start to finish.
Rating – 5/10. It’s OK, and the end of the lap looks good, but there’s nothing to really shout about. And unfortunately, the wheel-shaped corners dominate things a bit too much.
A mandate for all cars to have a flat undertray in 1983 effectively caused the end of ground effect, which left team clambering for other ways to find downforce. With turbo engines causing power figures to soar, rear downforce was becoming a particular priorirty, which led to many teams coming with extreme rear wing solutions. Toleman went all-out and simply fitted two rear wings to a car which would become iconic thanks to the performances of a rookie Ayrton Senna.
The slight chicane at the first corner looks a little bit like the first three corners at Singapore, which is no bad thing – it’s always an action spot. It’s a pretty simple lap, all things told, with the main point of interest being the last two corners. They look like they’d be pretty fast, effectively extending the length of the pit straight, which would probably make for some interesting slipstream battles.
Rating – 3/10. There’s nothing especially offensive about the layout but, final corners aside, it just looks… dull. The double rear wing section could be a touch repetitive and the whole lap would be a bit too stop/start.
For many, the Jordan 191 is one of the best-looking F1 cars of all time – but would it make a decent race track? Changes in car design had become more and more subtle over the years and with the aero craziness still yet to really take off, the cars of the early 90s had perhaps some of the cleanest styling in the history of the sport.
The result is a very simple track, with lots of slow, angular corners and not much in the way of sweeping, high-speed ones – save for the outlines of the wheels and the cockpit section.
Rating – 1/10. This is really bad. Not one corner looks remotely interesting, and the slow corners around the rear wing and diffuser area just look like they’d spread out the field of cars. The Jordan 191 may look fantastic, but let’s be glad we don’t have to race around it (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).
Onto the late 90s, a time when noses and cockpit sides were high and aero was starting to become a bit more intricate. 1997 was the last year of wide cars and slick tyres for a while but that’s not the main reason we’ve included it. That’d be because 1997 was an epic season, and also because the F1 ‘97 game had a cheat which unlocked a bonus track shaped like an F1 car – the inspiration for this article.
That high nose makes for an unfortunate change to the first corner. Instead of a nice simple hairpin, we now have a series of slow lefts and rights before breaking onto the upper section. This bit actually looks quite fast, with the chicane at the front of the cockpit potentially being quite tricky.
Rating – 4/10. Although having prominent ‘wheel corners’ has generally been a bad thing so far, on this they actually seem quite interesting, with the rear actually providing some much-needed flowing corners. Ultimately, though, there are a few too many slow corners to make this layout anything to get too excited about.
Now we’re skipping all the way ahead to 2010, a year when shark fins were all the rage and the beginning of a decade when only two different teams and three different drivers would win championships; the RB6 gave Sebastian Vettel the first of his four.
That shark fin makes for a very differently-shaped layout (it almost looks like it could be the outline of an American state), while the curved rear wing endplate and exposed rain light/crash structure makes for a new ending to the lap.
Rating – 6/10. Although there are too many slow corners and hairpins, there are a couple of seriously interesting sections which bump the rating up. The first is that fast-looking chicane near the end of the main straight, which would surely be chaos during a race start. The second is in the cockpit area, where a series of increasingly tight corners in a very short space of time at the end of a long straight would be a serious challenge when it comes to the drivers trying to slow the cars down.
Bringing us (almost) up to the modern day, the major difference in the profile of the cars is the addition of the Halo, as well as the significantly more detailed rear wing endplates.
The Halo is a good addition to the track, too. Gone are the fiddly slow bits around the cockpits, replaced instead by a series of fast sweepers. The lower nose also sees a return to a less fiddly first set of corners.
Rating – 8/10. The Halo really improves things and although there are still a couple of slow, twisty bits, there are also some truly odd corners. Just look at the rear wing – all those subtle kinks and direction changes look like they’d be rather interesting. It almost looks like it could be part street track, part permanent track. And with future F1 venues looking use that formula for new circuits, that seems about as appropriate as the simplicity of the Alfa Romeo-based track from 1950.
In conclusion? The profile of cars from the early 1960s would make the best race tracks, while the simple angular nature of stuff from the 80s and 90s really doesn’t translate well to circuit design. The more you know…