With Madrid rumoured to be in line to replace the Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, there is another signal that city-based tracks will play a key role in the future of the sport. But are those street circuits actually hurting F1’s image?
While the Monaco Grand Prix has played a critical role in the growth and evolution of F1, and while F1 has attempted to host events in various American city centers for decades, there’s no denying that things have changed as the sport leaves traditional tracks behind.
But for all the benefits those city circuits bring – such as ease of access for fans, cheaper year-round maintenance fees, and the hype that comes with a prime location – many street tracks simply aren’t the thrilling spectacle they’re built up to be.
Sub-optimal track layout
By their very nature, street circuits face one primary obstacle: layouts. Tracks built in cities are held hostage by a road network that already exists, and those road networks are designed for the standard flow of life, not the high-performance flow of a Formula 1 race.
Instead of a sweeping curve, for example, a street track will have to utilize the 90-degree corner that already exists.
Further, the mere shape of city roads are not designed with modern F1 cars in mind. Monaco’s streets are narrow and nimble, which prevents overtaking, side-by-side action, or thrilling lines into tight corners.
Baku’s crowned surface is designed for road cars, not street cars. Even months of construction failed to adequately accommodate Las Vegas’ manhole covers in time for Free Practice 1.
The result is a bit like asking a master painter to try his hand at sculpting; in an unfamiliar medium, even a virtuoso can seem like an amateur.
Limited tyre choices
Pirelli, F1’s primary tire supplier, faces regulatory limitations that prevent it from developing unique tire compounds for each race.
The Italian provider must only develop five homologated compounds that must be used across the entire calendar, three of which will be made available at each event.
That prevents Pirelli from developing compounds specific to street circuits that could also improve the racing.
Street circuits often feature smoother tarmac, which necessitates a softer compound than would be used on a track like Spa-Francorchamps. But because there are still more traditional circuits than street tracks on the calendar, Pirelli doesn’t find value in developing compounds specific to city layouts.
This often results in one-stop races or predictable strategies; each team is somewhat limited to the ideal tires to use, and engineers will likely deploy those strategies at the same time.
A traditional circuit-focused regulatory package
The regulatory package that Formula 1 introduced in 2022 simply did not produce cars capable of putting on a great show on a street circuit.
The ground-effect cars that were intended to produce more passing have actually created new issues with dirty air that make it challenging for one driver to overtake another – and that issue is exacerbated on the narrow confines of a street track.
Further, current Formula 1 cars are heavy, long, and wide; watch a full grid of F1 cars barrel into Monaco’s hairpin on the first lap of the Grand Prix, and it becomes obvious that these machines simply do not fit on that circuit the way they used to. With cars that don’t fit their circuits, Formula 1 races sadly suffer.
Potential for local conflicts
Even before a Formula 1 car exits the temporary pit lane of a street circuit, the location of the track has likely sparked local conflicts that have not been resolved and that have hurt the perception of F1 in that location.
In Miami Gardens, for example, local residents who fought against the construction of the Dolphins NFL stadium also opposed the running of a Formula 1 race, for many of the same concerns: noise, street congestion, and a fanbase that is encouraged to spend money in South Beach or Biscayne Bay as opposed to Miami Gardens.
In Las Vegas, where the track was so centrally located that its construction shut down the city’s main thoroughfare for months, locals complained of horrible traffic congestion, the destruction of local landmarks, and a complete lack of communication from F1.
While tensions have now eased, local communities are still struggling with the fact that they feel ignored by F1. Even if fans enjoyed the event, the sport’s overall perception in the region among residents is just as important for developing F1’s overall image – and for now, many people aren’t impressed.