Formula 1’s extravagant circuit-building boom of the new millennium brought about the creation of some of the most unique and technically difficult racetracks in the world.
Equipped with larger budgets than ever before, and able to design and evaluate new circuit configurations on a computer, German architect Hermann Tilke designed a series of uniquely challenging circuits, each one seemingly upping the ante.
Welcome to the new world
Formula 1’s first ‘new-world’ circuit was Sepang, in Malaysia, which held its first grand prix in 1999. That track was a jewel – viewed from above, it resembled a fractal, gracefully linking together one elegant parabola after another. And it was a drivers’ challenge, too, filled with sweeping, fast curves and demanding near-flat sweeps.
In quick succession, Tilke delivered Bahrain’s Sakhir (2004), the Shanghai International Circuit (2004) and Istanbul Park (2005). At the end of the decade, he completed work on Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi (2009), Korea International Circuit (2010) and India’s Buddh International (2011).
If Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina stands as perhaps the zenith of modern circuit design, conceived with an epic grand vision and a budget to match, Shanghai’s International Circuit, now more than a decade old, exists as grand prix racing’s most immense and towering achievement. The twin-towered grandstand pontoons stand as an iconic landmark, and the sinuous circuit far below is as tough and demanding of both man and machine as any in the world.
And, of all the corners on the track, China’s Turn One complex is undoubtedly the most, uh… complex!
Turn One is an almost endless right-hander, a gradually tightening spiral that almost doubles back on itself before twisting in the opposite direction, reeling out onto a short, gently curved straight.
For the drivers, it’s something of a physics problem: how do you thread a car through a corner that never provides you with a constant state without scrubbing off too much speed.
The answer, as ever, is through compromise.
Here, McLaren simulator driver, and Formula 2 racer, Nyck de Vries, is our guide.
“Turn One is so long,” says the Dutchman, with a smile. “It’s like a never-ending corner. You basically have to try and carry as much entry speed through the corner – but the track is so wide, and the corner so long, with the apex so far ahead, that you go in and never really know when to hit your apex. Getting the timing right is very hard.”
So, let’s break it down into phases, and study just what the best drivers in the world are doing to join the dots through this complex of corners.
Phase one: corner entry
“You arrive at Turn One in eighth gear, and you turn in flat-out before first applying your brakes,” he continues. “Your first application of the brakes isn’t particularly heavy. In fact, you’re just light braking throughout the whole corner. At the same time as you start braking, you’re making your first downshifts, from eighth to fifth – these first few gearshifts are done in the beginning of the corner.
“Actually, there are two ways of approaching this corner: either you brake a little bit harder and apply throttle in the middle of the corner, and then brake a second time to take the apex; or you apply a very light brake, and then basically control your speed through the corner by applying your brakes, with very little pressure. The latter is the approach I prefer.
“Either way, it’s all about controlling the car, balancing it at the limit."
Phase two: balancing the car mid-corner
“The corner is so long that you’re constantly controlling your brake and throttle to maintain and optimize your entry speed. At the same time, you’re trying to keep the car on the correct line – you don’t want it to slide too far left – that part of the corner looks a little bit off-camber.
“Then you postpone your last few gearchanges until later in the corner in order to maintain that critical entry speed. Then it’s into fourth, then third, and second gear for Turn Two – you want to delay those last two downshifts. All you want to do is carry as much entry speed as possible to reach that point – without having to apply throttle in between.
“All the time, the lateral loads are increasing: the corner is tightening and the g-forces are loading up.”
The turn-in point for Turn Two (effectively the point at which Turn One distinctly tightens), is the point where it’s easiest to lose the rear of the car. The lateral loadings are quite significant, and the car is scrabbling for grip, changing direction just as the track drops for Turn Three.
Look to see an elegant pirouette or two here during free practice – particularly if the track is wet.
Phase three: setting the car up for exit
After the endlessness of Turn One, it all starts to happen very quickly: Turn Two is slightly misleadingly labelled, it’s really the (incredibly late) apex for Turn One, but, importantly, it’s the point at which the drivers commit their cars to the corners.
Suddenly, as in Malaysia’s first-corner complex, the track drops downhill, and the cars are thrown to the opposite side of the track ahead of Turn Three, the tight left-hander that concludes the series of turns.
This is the point at which your careful management through the entirety of Turn One is rewarded.
“Personally, I prefer to target a late apex for Turn Two,” says Nyck. “If you apex too early, you end up with the car washing out and pushing you towards the inside of Turn Three, and you need to keep the car pulled over to the right-hand side of the track so you can better control your entry into that left-hander.
“It’s your exit speed that matters most here, because that corner leads onto a straight. It’s not a very straight exit, it has a long, curved exit, so it’s pretty tricky on traction. It’s difficult to manage, you’re on part-throttle, progressively applying the gas as the car finds its limit.”
Slippery when wet
Of course, if, as predicted, the Chinese Grand Prix turns into a largely wet affair, all that wisdom goes out the window.
Nyck explains: “Generally, in the wet you’re trying to avoid driving on the rubber that’s been laid down on the track during dry running. You want to find more grip, which usually means running off-line.
“For Turn One at China, you’d probably go in deeper, stay wide and then move across the racing line from the outside. It depends on the grip levels in the wet as it can always be difficult, which vary a lot from track to track.”
No matter what happens, this corner will always be one of Formula 1’s trickiest and most technical corners.