Formula 1: Hermann Tilke's Top 5 Circuits
Formula 1 has expanded a lot in recent years. Ten years ago, 65 percent of the races, 11 out of 17, were held in Europe, the sport's traditional heartland. In 2012, the figure has dropped to 40 percent, just eight out of a total of 20.
This shift has been made possible by a wave of shiny new circuits popping up around the globe. These circuits tend to follow a familiar pattern, and are usually designed by one man—world renown track architect Hermann Tilke.
Tilke has designed ten circuits that have hosted at least one F1 Grand Prix. Another is set to debut later this year, with (at least) two more planned to arrive in the future.
In addition, Tilke GmBH (his company) has worked on alterations to existing circuits such as Hockenheimring, Nurburgring and Fuji Speedway.
Fans and drivers are divided on whether Tilke's influence has been positive or negative. Many say his circuits are too similar, soulless and that they don't punish driver errors enough.
To them, a top five of Tilke tracks will be like a nicest smelling dog poo competition, or a battle to determine Justin Bieber's best song.
On the other side of the fence, they've been praised for—in theory at least—promoting overtaking opportunities and being exceptionally safe.
The remaining fans (including me) lie somewhere in between. Tilke tracks do lack character and soul, and they certainly don't punish mistakes enough—but some of them produce top racing and a true challenge for drivers.
Here's my personal top five.
Shanghai International Circuit
The Shanghai International Circuit went from the drawing board to race-readiness in just 18 months, and hosted the first-ever Chinese Grand Prix in 2004.
Great care was taken to ensure the new circuit measured up to the demands of modern F1.
Less care was taken when choosing a location. With 9,596,961 square kilometers of Chinese land to choose from, someone decided that building the track on a swamp and creating artificial elevation changes using "complex materials" on soft ground would be a good idea.
A really, really good idea.
That aside, the circuit has consistently done what it was intended to do—hosted interesting Chinese Grands Prix. And that's the main reason this circuit has taken fifth place in my rankings.
The other is one of my favourite corners, Turn 1. This endless, ever-tightening right-hander closely resembles a snail's shell and is a more extreme version of the first corner at the Sepang circuit.
In-car camera views of this turn are especially interesting to watch, as the drivers make a high-speed turn-in before slowly bleeding off the speed as the corner progresses.
As Tilke circuits go, this is one of the best.
Buddh International Circuit
The Buddh International Circuit opened its doors in 2011, becoming the 10th Tilke-designed track to host a round of the Formula 1 World Championship.
Located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a single glance at the track map would tell you who was responsible for it. This is a layout designed with modern F1 cars in mind.
A very long straight, the tight corner at the end, the detached and varied infield. All the Tilke hallmarks are there, but it manages to stand out from its brothers and sisters.
One of the things I like about the Buddh circuit is that it embraces the local geography—though I'm unsure if it's natural or man-made.
There's a very nice uphill section just after the start peaking at Turn 3, followed by a long straight which runs down into a shallow valley before climbing up again for Turn 4.
Without meaning to sound like the second coming of Erika Eiffel, it's one of the best-looking straights in the world.
The circuit continues to go up and down all the way around the lap, and the difference this makes can't be understated. Some dips and crests can turn an average track into a beautiful one.
On top of that, it has several very nice corners. The slow, multi-lined Turn 3 is a favourite of mine, and while it's not as good to watch as I thought it might be from the track map, Turn 10 is quite appealing.
The fast chicanes and kerb-hopping opportunities are nice too, though Felipe Massa's suspension would probably disagree.
It's definitely one of the best Tilke has produced, and I wouldn't object to the circuit hosting the Indian Grand Prix for a long time to come.
New Österreichring / A1 Ring / Red Bull Ring
Designing this eight-corner track of many names was Tilke's first major role in Formula 1.
The shape was largely determined by the old Osterreichring, a fearsome beast of a circuit deemed unsafe as the sport moved towards the end of the 1980s.
It features three straights, each with a tight corner at the end. The infield consists of three quicker turns, and a lap is ended with two tricky medium-speed corners.
It was all very simple, unassuming and straightforward, and that's why I love it.
The A1 Ring hosted the Austrian Grand Prix from 1997 to 2003, and it always seemed to produce a good race. The three linked straights provided good opportunities for overtaking, and it was common to see battles going on right through the order.
When F1 departed, the circuit was bought by Red Bull, and it remained largely unused for many years.
But following a renovation, the sound of revving engines has once again returned to the Austrian Alps.
DTM and Formula 2 have held rounds at the circuit, and though F1 will probably never return, it looks likely to retain some form of racing well into the future.
One of the few Tilke designs which isn't called "International Circuit" (I really wish coming up with an imaginative name for every track was part of his contract), Istanbul Park lies on the Asian side of the city which spans two continents.
The circuit opened its doors in 2005 and hosted the first Turkish Grand Prix in August of that year.
It's instantly recognisable as a Tilke circuit, featuring all the standard ingredients. But it manages to stand apart from its brothers and sisters, and it's mostly down to one corner—Turn 8.
To me this is far and away the best corner the German architect has ever designed. A quadruple-apex left-hander which sweeps downhill and can easily catch out the unwary, it's up there with Eau Rouge as one of the best corners in the world.
The only downside is that it has a tarmac run-off area the size of Belgium, so mistakes are rarely punished.
Elsewhere, Turn 1 is a very nice left-hander which abruptly cuts downhill and into a long right for Turn 2. Reasonable overtaking opportunities exist around the circuit, particularly at Turns 1, 9 and 12.
Financial issues meant the circuit was dropped from the calendar for 2012, and I can honestly say I miss the place.
Hopefully it'll be back sooner rather than later.
Sepang International Circuit
Most things get better with time. But on the evidence we currently have available, Tilke's track-designing skills have gone in the opposite direction.
Back in the late 1990s, restrictions on tobacco advertising in Europe (then a huge contributor to the budgets of many teams) and a desire to broaden its horizons led F1 to seek new locations for races.
At the same time, Malaysia was looking to raise its exposure on the world sporting stage. A top-class motorsport venue and annual Grand Prix would certainly do that, and the Sepang International Circuit was built to be ready for the 1999 season.
It was Tilke's first from-scratch design, and it received great reviews.
The circuit is a true test of man and machine, with corners of almost every variety and several overtaking opportunities.
It features some beautiful quick corners which flow into one another, several tricky turns which can catch out the unwary and every single section of the track strikes me as being in the right place. There are no "Mickey Mouse corners" here.
Above all it seems far more natural than the average Tilke circuit. While the rest (to various degrees) appear "plastic" and are very obviously man-made, Sepang has a layout and rhythm not unlike an old European circuit.
It almost has a soul.
And that's the biggest compliment that could ever be paid to a Tilke circuit.
And the Rest
That was harder than I expected. The street circuits were instantly discarded as I have a fairly strong aversion towards them, but the rest are so very similar.
Fifth place could easily have gone to Bahrain or Korea.
Despite resembling a novelty knuckleduster/bottle opener combo, the Circuit of the Americas would probably have made the list if it was based on looking at the track maps alone.
Any circuit with near-identical copies of Istanbul's Turn 8, the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex at Silverstone and the Hockenheim stadium section can't be bad.
But until we've seen racing on it, judgement shall be reserved.
In coming years, two new tracks will (hopefully) appear on the calendar—one in New Jersey, the other in the Russian resort city of Sochi. Both will be street circuits.
And both will have been designed by Hermann Tilke.
For whatever reason, he continues to get pretty much every job going, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that no man—not even Bernie Ecclestone—has influenced F1 as much in the last decade as Tilke has.
Maybe it's time to let someone else have a go.
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