Helicopters in living rooms

For the love of concrete walls

Ayrton Senna, Lotus-Honda, 1987 Detroit Grand Prix

Somewhere in the treasury vault of the Internet, more commonly known as YouTube, you can find one of my favourite racing videos of all time (see below). We ride along with Thierry Boutsen, who is driving a Williams-Renault around the streets of Phoenix, Arizona in March 1990. The video shows a track that is bumpy, slippery, practically impossible to pass on and above all: there is zero room for mistakes. One missed braking point, one overly tight apex and the suspension is reduced to rubble by the concrete walls surrounding the track. What the video shows most of all is the exhilaration of 800 hp machines racing down city streets, driven by men at the top of their abilities as they try and master their vehicles.

Those days seem like a distant memory in 2015. Sure, Monaco has always been on the calendar and always will be, even though it ignores all the safety standards that apply to Formula One tracks in 2015. But Monaco has a special status, despite the fact that driving a race car around the principality is “like flying a helicopter in your livingroom”, as Nelson Piquet once put it. Sure, Adelaide had a decent run, even though it, too, was replaced in 1996 by the streets around Melbourne’s Albert Park, which much more resemble a purpose-built road course. And sure, there is Singapore. But Singapore is the archetype of Formula One’s 21st century street course: the wall is never as close as it used to be in the older days, due to the numerous run off areas and escape roads incorporated in the track design (the short-lived Valencia ‘street course’ suffered from the same issues).

The track in Phoenix was never very popular with drivers, for all of the reasons above. Compared to other venues, the track was notoriously hard on man and machine, thus leading to many retirements in each race. The lack of passing opportunities made the race frustrating for all but a few daredevils. Combine that with disappointing attendance numbers, and it’s no surprise that these factors conspired to make Phoenix disappear off the Formula One calendar after only three years. But at least Phoenix was slightly more popular than its predecessor: the infamous Detroit street course around Renaissance Center, nowadays the headquarters of General Motors, where Formula One raced between 1981 and 1988.

If you think the streets of Phoenix were bumpy, well, it’s all about what you compare it with. The asphalt in Arizona was like a billiard table, compared to what American sports commentators called ‘the mean streets of Detroit’, tortured year in, year out by the hot summers and freezing winters of Michigan. If you think the poorly-lit tunnel in Monaco is a safety risk, consider the fact that the Detroit street course contained three tunnels of different length. And if you think Phoenix was tough on Formula One cars, remember that drivers in Detroit had to avoid 11,532 manhole covers spread around the track, while they made over 1,500 gear shifts during a race.

Walk in the park

And maybe tracks like Phoenix and Detroit were too much of a challenge. When Formula One left for the sunnier pastures of Phoenix and the Detroit Grand Prix became a feature on the 1989 IndyCar Series calendar, the American scene was determined to make a success out of the race. The purse with prize money for what was now called the Valvoline Grand Prix of Detroit was the largest after the Indianapolis 500, and commentators and drivers alike scoffed at the complaints from the Formula One contingent. Used as they were to other bumpy street courses on the calendar (Long Beach, Meadowlands, Toronto), the stars of IndyCar were actually looking forward to putting on a show in Motown.

Driving on the streets of Detroit is a bit like being in a rodeo, said Tom Sneva, winner of the 1983 Indianapolis 500: “This is a great circuit. All you need here is a strong holding rope and a good pair of spurs.” Ken Squier, the CBS anchor covering the live telecast of the 1989 race, observed that “they call this a new era in Detroit. I see it as a new attitude. The Formula 1 contingent was never too happy with Detroit. The bone of contention was always this track. They said it was too rough, too brutal on their cars, too many blind corners. Well, for an Andretti or an Unser or a Foyt, who grew up on half-mile dirt tracks with lots of big ruts, this thing is a walk in the park.”

Be that as it may, the IndyCars, too, left downtown Detroit after only three years, and moved their race in the Motor City to the somewhat smoother surface of Belle Isle’s park roads in 1992. The potholes and cracks in the asphalt down Larned Street and Jefferson Avenue would never again see the racing masters of the universe blast past. As for Phoenix, the days of Formula One cars screaming down its streets are now long gone. These days, racing fans descending on Arizona are instead heading for the tri-oval just outside the city, expected to return on the 2016 IndyCar schedule.

Turn 2 at Russia’s Sochi ‘street course’

F1 in 2015: AstroTurf galore

Meanwhile, with the quasi-exception of Singapore, Formula One has developed a knack for adding fake street courses to its schedule. This weekend’s Russian Grand Prix takes place on a track that ostensibly exists of the streets around Sochi’s Olympic Park. The reality is that Sochi keeps its wall mostly far away from the drivers, with large slabs of AstroTurf and extra asphalt taking away all risk from what could have been challenging corners: Turn 2 and 3 are probably the worst example (but at least UBS gets its paid-for exposure). The Formula One season these days has its grand finale on the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi: a weak attempt at emulating Monaco’s harbour setting, equally put together on the drawing table. Here too, AstroTurf and run-off roads rule the school. And for those who expect the forthcoming street course around Azerbaijan’s capital Baku to be any different: don’t hold your breath.

There is no doubt that tracks like Sochi and Abu Dhabi are much safer than their American counterparts from the 1980s and early 1990s. For the teams, who pour dozens of millions of dollars into developing their cars and running their operations, it is probably a comforting thought that a brief lack of concentration does not immediately lead to sky-high costs and late nights of repairing cars.

But as I watch today’s Formula One drivers correct their mistakes on run-off areas in fluorescent turquoise, I sometimes long back for the days where, for champions and rookies alike, all that stood between success and despair was a rock-solid, unforgiving wall of concrete. Just ask two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendijk about his experience on the streets of Vancouver in 1990. Concrete can shatter dreams in an instant, but it also builds characters and legends.

Images accompanying this post have been borrowed from Pinterest and PSAM.