How hard can it be to design a race circuit? Clive Bowen asked that question himself when he founded Apex Circuit Design in 1997.
More than two decades later, his company is responsible for nearly two-dozen new motor racing venues and is currently working on the Miami Grand Prix Formula 1 street circuit that's due to host its first race in 2022.
So, how hard is it? Why can’t every circuit be like Spa-Francorchamps or Suzuka? Why do new tracks have acres of asphalt run-off, stripping drivers and riders of challenge and making the violation of track limits such a bone of contention? We asked Bowen, who offered us a key set of rules that drive the science behind modern race circuit design.
1. Don’t make your track too hard to drive
“We always treat a track as a dynamic environment for a race car rather than a static piece of engineering. It’s all about creating an environment where you challenge the car and driver in places but not everywhere. If you create something that's on the edge everywhere, it means you drive at 98% and make fewer mistakes or you drive at 100% and make mistakes everywhere. What makes for better racing, in my experience, is where you have ‘mistake generators’ in locations that might look benign but have an effect on traction, rotation or braking. It could be a contributory factor to something that might not necessarily happen at that point but further down the track, too.”
2. Aim to create a circuit that works for a variety of car set-ups
“When we design tracks, we intentionally go for sequences of corners that are going to require a car to have a spread of set-ups, so hopefully the outcome is different teams, engineers and drivers choose to optimise their cars for different locations around the track to suit either their style or the performance parameters of their package. With a fair wind, that means we're not just going to see DRS passes [in F1].”
3. Topography is key
“If we’re starting from a greenfield or brownfield site, we have to work with what we’re given. My first question if somebody comes to us and says 'we’ve got some land' is 'what’s it like?'. Is it flat? Does it have a hill? What’s the ground made out of? Is there a waterway? We want it to look like the track is a ribbon running through an existing site rather than to butcher the site to yield to our will. There are certain things that help. A hill is something we would work with, so we would try to have a corner cresting over it or, if there’s a dip, get a compression through it.”