Imagine the scene, a 1950’s or 60’s Formula One driver is threading the needle between houses and trees up a winding hill at a speed, that even in a still, grainy black and white photo you can tell is unsafe.
There are no wings on the car, which is front engine and free from the wind—tunnel—tuned aerodynamic widgets of today, fire retardant clothing is in its infancy (if it exists at all), and mention safety and people will look at you like you’ve insulted their mother.
It’s all completely different to what we see in F1 (or any other racing series for that matter) today.
Or is it? Look a little harder. Where is this driver? AVUS? Spa? Brno? Rouen? What are they all? Street circuits.
Ah yes, the street circuit, like the uncle no one knows who he’s related to, they sit in the dark corner of F1 racing, and no-one knows quite what to do. In decades past, they have been a pivotal point of the F1 calendar.
In the early decades, tracks around rural roads made up many of the tracks early Grand Prix drivers pitted their wits against.
They were huge wandering beasts rattling though villages using roads identical to those used by the general public.
But as safety concerns increased, along with the availability of purpose built closed course tracks, these original street circuits found themselves having to change or die.
Spa changed into the track that now bears its name. Brno changed. Rouen and AVUS died, replaced by newer facilities or left to the public.
But street circuits soldiered on, both in F1 and other racing series.
But the trials of safety had hemmed them in, along with the confines of city streets that now hosted them.
(In)famous American examples in Detroit, Phoenix, and Las Vegas show what a disaster these new street tracks could be.
Dull, featureless, straight—90 degree turn—straight—90 degree turn—repeat to fade affairs that were unpopular with drivers and fans alike.
The story abounds, urban myth like, that an Ostrich Festival in Phoenix drew bigger crowds than the city’s final F1 race.
That sums up what they were like.
But is 2008 the year of the return of the street circuit?
Well, not really.
The venerable Monaco aside, there have always been two street circuits in F1 in recent years: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal and Albert Park Melbourne.
But this year, they are joined by two more, the new venue of the European GP, round Valencia’s port/harbour and the track set to host F1’s first night race in Singapore.
But are they really street tracks?
Let's look at the evidence. Street tracks provide some of the best racing to watch. The close confines of the barriers demand a driver’s permanent attention and instantly punish those who even think of putting a foot wrong.
A good street circuit doesn’t make overtaking impossible, only a more skillful approach. For those who don’t believe me, watch an Australian V8 Supercars race round the old F1 venue in Adelaide, or any race round Nuremburg’s Norisring. They produce great races.
I’m sure anyone who watched the parade around Valencia will agree that was not great racing.
The track was good, especially the final blast round the sweeping corners, but the racing wasn’t.
Well, here is not the place to open the age-old overtaking in F1 debate.
Could it be that it wasn’t really a street track? Did you notice that there were no white lines down the middle of the track? No.
Did you think that Valencia would allow the ubiquitous Hermann Tilke to redesign their street layout for his track? No.
Did you notice the gigantic pastures of safety tarmac where walls would be on a real street circuit? Yes.
Valencia was a modern closed course track pasted round a supposedly picturesque setting.
While I can’t pass judgement on Singapore’s effort (but to be honest I’m expecting much of the same), the same can be said of Melbourne and Montreal.
Did you ever notice gravel traps, let alone multi coloured ones, on the way to your local shops.
No? Well you clearly don’t live in Melbourne, because they do there, surrounding their street circuit.
The tracks are closed courses in all but names.
None of the permanent barrier dodging, nothing different from anything else.
And it doesn’t look set to change much either, despite Bernie’s wish to have F1 cars racing round Paris or London, both are probably unworkable, meaning were stuck with Monaco and the pretenders to the street circuit title.
Picture the scene, a lone Ferrari is flashing across the harbour bridge in Valencia. How things change in 50 years.