Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, September 25, 1999

For Some Race-Track Creators, Nothing Seems Worse Than a Backseat Designer

Ford Team Endorses Cosworth

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Surprising as it may seem, some race-car track designers say they do not need the advice of race-car drivers to do their work.

The next three Formula One races -- which will decide the championship among four drivers -- just might prove their point.

Eddie Irvine, who is tied for the lead in the title race with Mika Hakkinen, believes that the upcoming tracks, starting with the Nurburgring, which stages the European Grand Prix in Germany on Sunday, will suit him and his car better than the last two did and give Ferrari an edge on McLaren.

Which is why Kevin Forbes, who designed the new Formula One track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the U.S. Grand Prix takes place next September, does not ask drivers for advice.

''The problem is that they are the competitor,'' Forbes said. ''Every driver you ask is going to give you a track shape and geometry that gives him the advantage. Some drivers may love chicanes and some may love a lot of tight hairpin corners. Some may just want a lot of drag-strips long straightaways.''

But according to Jean Alesi, the French driver for the Sauber team, all any driver wants is ''at least one place to overtake.''

On paper that is most commonly achieved through a long straightaway followed by a hairpin corner. But whether it works depends on other factors.

''It becomes a psychological issue with the driver,'' Forbes said. ''For example, if the tire safety barrier by the corner is aligned in such a way that it makes him feel intimidated.''

While only some corners inspire confidence in all drivers, Forbes said that in designing a track ''you eliminate anything that is dangerous, while admitting that anytime you are hurling people and metal and carbon fiber at more than 200 miles per hour into basically immovable objects, it's dangerous.''

Hermann Tilke, who designed the Sepang track where the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix takes place next month, said that a driver must also feel that if he makes a mistake while overtaking he will not get stuck in a gravel trap and be out of the race. The Malaysian track is the widest in the sport, with one corner measuring 22 meters (72 feet) wide.

Tilke, a German, also redesigned part of the Nurburgring. The original track measured 22.8 kilometers (14.7 miles) long, and was built as part of an employment program in the 1920s. It held the German Grand Prix until 1976 when Niki Lauda was nearly killed there in an accident. A new, 4.5 kilometer track was built next to it and opened in 1984 and again hosted the German Grand Prix in 1985. It was then dropped until 1995, when it began to stage the European Grand Prix, after Tilke made some safety changes to it.

''Safety is always the first aim,'' Tilke said. ''But the other aim is to design a track for the spectator's pleasure. Generally, it will be interesting for the spectator if it's interesting for the drivers. And for that the racing line must move, not just be flat or straight.''

Spectators should be seated as close as possible, he added, not only to see and hear the cars ''but to smell them.''

But there is a fine balance to it all. Both spectators and drivers complain that at the Nurburgring the grandstands are too far away. For the driver, this can also decrease the sense of speed.

Track designers, however, face rigid regulations set by the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body. Those rules include everything from the width and slope of the track to the size of runoff areas and the height of concrete barriers and debris fences.

Precise drainage specifications must be met to prevent aquaplaning the Malaysian track drains at 27 cubic meters (953 cubic feet) per second and while for wet racing the pavement must provide grip, too much grip is undesirable in a dry race, where it reduces braking time and so limits overtaking.

Highway engineers worry about the effect of heavy trucks pressing the pavement into the ground, but with racing cars, Tilke said, ''the tires are like chewing gum, and can pull the stones out of the asphalt.'' The stones must therefore be chosen and laid very carefully.

Tilke and his 70 employees, based in Aachen, Germany, create a computer mock-up of the track facility with programs that simulate every spectator's view and the position of the sun during a race. This allows them to gauge the right size for the grandstand roof, as they move it virtually on-screen to block the sun.

In the end, however, track owners might do well to speak to drivers. Alex Zanardi, a Williams driver, said that his favorite track is not a $100-million dollar high-tech designer's installation, but the temporary road course on the runways of the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, where he raced in the CART series.

''It's really safe,'' Zanardi said, ''and it invites you to try to overtake because it is very, very wide. You can enter into a corner five-abreast. But just one car goes out ahead. You'll often see a car overtaking, then going into the next corner and losing position again, then coming out to try the same move again at the following corner. It's spectacular for the public.''

But Zanardi would praise that track. It is where he won last year and in 1997, when he raced from 22d place to victory.

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