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Hermann Tilke Interview: F1 Circuit Designer on Baku Track and Handling Critics

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2016

F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke.
F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke.Tilke.de

Hermann Tilke has a mixed reputation in Formula One circles. The 61-year-old German engineer has designed every new F1 venue since the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia was introduced in 1999 and also redesigned several older tracks.

Some, like the Circuit of the Americas, Istanbul Park and Sepang, are regarded as modern classics. Others, like the Valencia Street Circuit, Korea International Circuit and the redesigned Hockenheimring, well, not so much.

The ubiquitous Tilke's latest design is the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan, which is about to host the revived European Grand Prix. Like Monaco, it is built through the pre-existing streets of a seaside city; unlike Monaco, which hosted its first race in 1929, the Baku track is designed with modern F1 cars in mind.

Bleacher Report caught up with Tilke as he was on his way to Azerbaijan to get his views on the circuit, the challenges surrounding its construction and how he handles the criticism that often flies in his direction.

You might imagine that an engineer would prefer an empty plot of virgin ground on which to build his masterpiece, rather than a city where he is confined to the existing streets, but Tilke said that is not necessarily the case.

"It's very challenging, very interesting and very difficult," he explained. "Because it's difficult, it's so interesting and challenging."

The pit straight and paddock complex in Baku.
The pit straight and paddock complex in Baku.Baku City Circuit

When he started to develop a plan for Baku, the local organizers did not already have a circuit layout in mind (or if they did, they did not share it with Tilke). "The only thing that was given to us was to make the paddock in front of the government house," he said.

Other than that, it was up to Tilke and his team to pick the streets that would work best for an F1 race.

"From there, we had to choose the track, together with them, of course. And after a while, we had three possibilities to make the street circuit in Baku. Three different possibilities. And the one that was chosen is the most interesting, because it's facing the old city, going around the old city wall and all the things that show the city in its prettiest way."

Asked whether priority was given to showing off the city instead of the flow of the circuit, Tilke said, "Yeah, it was to show the city—to show the beauty of the city—and of course to make something for the drivers, something interesting.

"From the driver's perspective, it will be really interesting, really challenging, and also for showing the old city."

Monaco is also very challenging for the drivers, but one of the criticisms from fans is that the race is often too processional, without many overtaking opportunities. 

On the other hand, mistakes in Monaco are punished more harshly than almost anywhere else, as they will be in Baku. With no run-off areas, the slightest miscalculation often leaves cars smashed against the unforgiving walls.

Tilke is adamant that overtaking will not be a problem in Baku, though.

"For sure there will be opportunities for overtaking," he said. "For sure. 

"Of course, some areas not, because they are too narrow—the width is not enough for overtaking—it makes it difficult. The long straight, the first corner is an overtaking point. Here it is possible to overtake."

This may also mean that qualifying will not be quite as important in Baku as it is in Monaco, where the pole-sitter has won seven of the last 10 races.

The circuit winds past the old city walls.
The circuit winds past the old city walls.Baku City Circuit

When asked about working within the FIA’s safety constraints, Tilke said, "Yes, this is always difficult, but especially here. Here, we had to find special solutions.

"The area which is very narrow, which is only seven-and-a-half metres, especially. It is nonexistent in Formula One."

Challenges like this obviously excite him.

"Before this area, the very narrow area, we slow the cars down a lot, we made a very sharp corner there. … But it's never been done before!"

Cobblestones were another potential problem in Baku, but Tilke and his team developed a solution to preserve a section of them in the old city.

"Because of the history, they want to keep the cobblestone area," Tilke said. "But for Formula One, it's not possible to drive over cobblestones, especially in the rain, and so we had to cover it, temporarily. It means we build it shortly before the race, we build it up, and after the race, we demolish it and then the cobblestones are there.

"So, this was a real challenge to find technical solutions to do this, so the cobblestones, in their original way, were there after the race. 

"The cobblestones are covered with geotextiles, then with gravel to make it even, and then with asphalt over it. But the problem is at the beginning of this part, it's not that flat. … We have to be careful that the asphalt is not cracking because it's so steep."

Workers prepare to pave over the cobblestones.
Workers prepare to pave over the cobblestones.Baku City Circuit

Aside from working with the FIA, F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone also has a role to play in the design of any new circuit, as he does in every other detail of the sport's operations.

"In the early days, he's doing it. We show him our ideas and he gives his comments and we discuss it," Tilke explained. "It's a process with discussion."

Unfortunately, he could not recall any of Ecclestone’s specific comments or suggestions for the Baku track.

And about that criticism? Tilke hears it, but he simply asks for a chance to explain his side.

"I'm an F1 fan, absolutely," he said. He is not trying to design circuits that drivers and fans won't enjoy.

"I listen very carefully to criticism and some criticism I think, 'Yeah, maybe it could be another way.'

"But the people who criticise don’t know the frame we have. On the one hand, you have the safety from the FIA, the other is most of the circuits are suitable also for motorcycles, and this makes it also a little bit different and more difficult. 

"And then we have some restrictions: we have the restriction of budget—mostly we have a restriction of budget—we have a restriction of the land. The land is here and somebody can say, 'Why don't you make a corner faster?' And I can only say, 'Because we have not enough space there, because the boundary of the land is there.'

"And so there are a lot of frictions we have. I think criticism can be done, but then give us a chance to answer why it is like this."

Baku City Circuit @BakuCityCircuit

What a view! Awesome spirit of #EuropeGP #F1Baku @suttonimages https://t.co/zDpW1uwk0R

Some of the abuse slung at Tilke feels similar to that which Pirelli has endured. The Italian company was mandated to make tyres that degraded quickly and then was criticised for doing just that. Likewise, Tilke must create circuits that adhere to the safety criteria laid out by the FIA.

Asked whether he would go back and change any of his tracks after watching a few races on them, Tilke said, "Yes, because you learn. With every circuit, you learn. When you design and it's in use and it's busy, then you learn a lot again for the next circuit. But nothing where you would say this is completely wrong. 

"Maybe in detail I could say, 'Ah, here maybe we could have it a little bit in another way,' but only a little bit."

He is reluctant to name a favourite circuit among his own designs, saying that each one elicits different feelings. Of the circuits on the current F1 calendar that he has not had a hand in, though, he mentions Suzuka and Spa as two of his favourites.

As for the future, there are more F1 projects coming, but for now, Tilke will only say "Yes, there are some, but nothing is decided at the moment."

Right now, he is focused on Baku. Another new race on another new circuit, but set in a centuries-old city. As Tilke jets off to Azerbaijan, he sounds almost like a new father.

"I'm looking forward to see the race in Baku," he said. "We are a little bit nervous, of course, that everything went well—always for the first race on a circuit."

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