As F1 approaches the end of its annual mid-season break, so the drivers and teams brace themselves for what are certainly the two most epic circuits on the world championship schedule. Spa-Francorchamps and Monza stand toe-to-toe, in my humble view, as the two Formula 1 venues that prompt a spontaneous and involuntary intake of deep breath at just the very mention of their names.
Are they the two greatest circuits in Formula 1? That’s not easy to answer, but seeing as we have the time and the forum with which to discuss it, let’s give it some thought…
Any discussion of Formula 1’s greatest circuit usually begins and ends with talk of the classic ‘Nordschleife’ Nurburgring. But therein lies the problem: where’s the fun in taking the journey if you already know your destination?
Some might argue that there are other contenders for the Nordschleife’s crown – and there are certainly plenty of ‘epic’ old road courses out there. Off the top of my head, there’s Pescara on the shores of the Adriatic in central Italy, a 26km loop that held but one grand prix, won by Stirling Moss, in 1957; Clermont Ferrand, the ‘mini-Nurburgring’ that wraps itself around a rugged hillside in the Auvergne countryside; you could throw in the ‘old’ Interlagos, and include the mighty giants of Rouen and Reims, too.
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On the other side of the Atlantic, it would be remiss of me to overlook Mont Tremblant, Mosport and Watkins Glen. And there are still plenty of ‘newer’ European races (ie: post-war circuits that were conceived when the sport was already well-established) such as the Osterreichring – about which I wrote last week and was reminded what a classic old beast it was – Brands Hatch, Imola (pre-chicanes, naturally) and Zandvoort.
Evocative and exciting places, all.
The thing is, bringing up all these great circuits from the past somewhat muddies the water, they’re all invariably great, but perhaps their greatness has been amplified by their distance from the modern era – absence makes the heart grow fonder, so to speak.
So I decided to apply a singular rule to my method: I would need to identify the greatest circuit in Formula 1 by drawing only from the current calendar.
That makes life a bit more straightforward, doesn’t it?
Let’s narrow that appreciably more modest list down to something a little more manageable. Of the current tracks, I’d suggest that eight have qualities that merit their being placed on my shortlist.
Those circuits are Sepang in Malaysia, Monaco, Canada’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Silverstone, Spa, Monza, Suzuka and Interlagos. For what it’s worth, Austin and India both just missed inclusion – partly because they’re still a little too new for me to apply proper perspective to their inclusion.
So what warrants this select group’s worthiness?
That’s difficult to adequately explain – there’s just something in these circuits’ very fibre that makes them special. All of them have earned that status in different ways – there’s very little that unites, for example, Sepang and Monaco, but they’re both special places at which to watch grand prix drivers working at the limit.
I think there are two factors that warrant greatness – neither are fully measurable, but both are evident once you know (and feel) what you are looking for.
The first is, purely and simply, circuit configuration: how are the corners connected to each other? How does the landscape and topography affect the driving experience? What sort of additional challenge is posed by the nature of the circuit and its relationship with its environment? I think it’s worthwhile citing Sepang at this juncture – it’s the newest circuit on our list (it held its first grand prix as recently as 1999) – yet it possesses a fast, flowing, truly challenging layout that all the drivers will tell you makes it one of the most difficult venues in the world.
It’s getting better, too; it’s wilder and woollier than when it first arrived in F1 – and all the better for it.
My second criterion is history, reputation, image – the shadow that imposes itself across that singular strip of winding Tarmac. And that’s a harder quality to define and assess, as age doesn’t necessarily equate to beauty: the Hungaroring, for example, has been an F1 staple for nearly 30 years, and I would still hesitate to include it in the upper echelon.
No, it’s something more intangible – Silverstone, Suzuka and Interlagos all somehow live and breathe motor racing; sure, that’s partly because they’re inextricably entwined with the past (it’s easy to associate Silverstone with Mike Hawthorn and Jim Clark because you know full well that both trod that very ground during their brief but glittering F1 careers), but also because the land itself seems somewhat hallowed; destined for racing.
Monaco and Montreal – two extremes of slow and fast – both make the mark, and you’re left in no doubt that these are venues for Formula 1. I’ve been to Monaco during the wintertime, and while there’s little to ostensibly remind you that you’re stood atop a grand prix circuit, there are constant reminders everywhere you choose to look. I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting the Ile Notre-Dame during one of Montreal’s famously bitterly cold winters (although I have been to the Canadian Grand Prix when the weather’s been bloody awful!), but I’m sure the same is true of that unforgiving drag-strip of a track.
As you may have guessed, I’m slowly edging back to where I started!
Spa, of course, has held a special and revered place in McLaren history ever since 1968 when team founder Bruce drove the shapely orange-liveried M7A to the marque’s first victory in an F1 world championship-qualifying round.
Of course, Spa brings with it pretty much more F1 heritage and tradition than all the other races on the calendar put together. And Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh has only to glance a few feet from his desk in the McLaren Technology Centre to be given a constant personal reminder of one of the team’s most remarkable victories of all time.
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This unlikely memento takes the form of a dramatically scuffed front-wing endplate from Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren-Mercedes. The carbon-fibre was damaged at the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix when the Finn elbowed his way ahead of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in dramatic style, and followed very public contact between the two cars the lap before.
Hakkinen’s was one of the most epic overtaking moves this writer has ever seen, when he forced his way past the Ferrari as the two cars lapped Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda on the penultimate lap, the two contenders for victory each going either side of the bewildered Brazilian a whisker short of 200mph.
And, just to prove that he’d got the whole episode well in hand, Mika sought out Michael immediately after the race to spell out to the German driver just how unimpressed he’d been with the Ferrari driver’s earlier display of defensive driving. More significantly, I always thought, Schumacher listened courteously and was very careful not to trigger a major argument with the Finn. That said much for the huge professional respect between the two men which, I felt, was on a level above most rivals on the starting grid.
Mika’s success at dealing with Schumacher so decisively also put me in mind of an incident involving Ayrton Senna when he was driving his McLaren-Honda MP4/4 turbo in the closing stages of the 1988 Italian GP at Monza. Senna was battling a serious fuel-shortage problem and had pulled every trick in the book to stay ahead of his team-mate Alain Prost’s sister car. But eventually the two McLarens suffered rare retirements, Alain’s car falling foul of an early misfire and Ayrton’s when he collided with Jean-Louis Schlesser’s William-Judd almost within sight of the chequered flag.
I was lucky enough to be present in the McLaren motorhome as the dust settled after the race when Ayrton summoned Schlesser for a dressing-down. But the Frenchman was totally unruffled, seized the initiative and told Ayrton that the entire episode was the Brazilian’s fault. I don’t think anybody had ever quite taken the wind out of Senna’s sails so decisively!!
Of course, that double McLaren-Honda retirement opened the door for an emotional Ferrari one-two, just one month after the Scuderia’s founder, Enzo Ferrari, had passed away at the grand old age of 90. I don’t put much faith in divine providence, but, this being Monza – the home of Ferrari and, I believe, the spiritual home of grand prix racing – there may well have been something in it that day.
That little episode neatly encapsulates Monza’s uniqueness: it’s a place with such an over-abundance of magic that it’s hard not to come under its spell.
So how would I ultimately swing it?
Well, both have the history, the epic scale and the weight of significance on their side. Both have a unique configuration – both are fast, sweeping and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Hmm, I’d perhaps state that the sheer majesty of Spa puts it a nose ahead.
It’s almost impossible to stand in the paddock and turn your head upwards and catch the track rising higher and higher up the hill towards Kemmel and Les Combes and not be over-awed by the mighty scale of the place. The track actually dips over the horizon, where the tips of the pine trees occlude your view, before you catch sight of the cars again – this time just fast-moving dabs of colour – as they exit Rivage plunge downhill towards Pouhon, and once again disappear out of sight behind the dense, shaggy pine forests.
Nowhere else in the world can you watch Formula 1 performed on such an epic stage. It’s breathtaking.
But, there’s something about Monza – the dusty light through the trees, the morning mist, the crumbling concrete banking, the chaos, the mood, the fever – that is utterly unique. It’s magic in a bottle, and something that speaks to me about grand prix racing and its very essence more than any other place on earth.
Spa, then, is the greatest-ever curtain-raiser to the greatest-ever double-feature in motorsport; a weekend in Belgium the perfect aperitif to a weekend in Milan and the magic of Monza.
Whether or not you have a preference between the two, you are in for a treat over the next two races…