Unpopular circuits consigned to Formula 1's history

This weekend F1 visits Sochi for the latest Russian Grand Prix, and you likely won’t need me to tell you that the venue doesn’t currently win many popularity awards.

If it’s any sort of consolation to the place though it’s far from the first to hold such status. Indeed for much of its history F1 has had at least one stop-off that it’s seriously struggled to love. Here, in by no means an exhaustive run down, are a few of the sport’s more egregious ugly ducklings…

Porto

It wasn’t always this way though. Look at the itinerary of the first ever F1 world championship season, in 1950, and it’s very hard to argue. Silverstone, Monaco, Bremgarten, Spa, Reims and Monza (and, technically, Indianapolis). Perhaps the first dud track on the calendar was Buenos Aires which debuted in 1953, but I’ve given that one a reprieve as it got good later (before becoming rubbish again, but hey…).

But fast forward to 1958 and we have the Porto circuit, used then as well as in 1960. Not everything about it was bad – indeed it was attractively set, with the start-finish near the harbour-front esplanade and it also proceeded through Porto’s streets at reasonable speed. The trouble was the surface, and what surrounded it.

Not only was there plenty to hit nearby such as lamp posts, trees and kerbstones, and the circuit largely on cobbles, worst of the lot tram lines weaved all over the road. It wasn’t at all uncommon for drivers to find their car suddenly for some reason, apparently against their will, heading in a different direction to where they wanted to go. Due to their narrow wheels getting literally stuck in the tram lines. It shocked even the hardy souls of 1950s Grand Epreuve racing – “it was as if someone had grabbed the steering wheel out of my hands…” noted the usually-placid 1960 winner Jack Brabham after one such adventure.

Jarama

John Hugenholtz is a hero. He gave us Suzuka and Zandvoort. Sadly though he also gave us Jarama. He can point to a few mitigating factors in this Spanish instance however, particularly that the landmass he was afforded for the layout was less than anticipated. Whatever though the result was rather a go kart track. It got worse too. The summer heat near Madrid usually was uncomfortable. Races mainly were ones of survival. For a time, thanks to Spanish political sensibilities, it alternated with scintillating Montjuic in Barcelona, which also did little for Jarama’s popularity. Over time the place became a little run down. Crowds weren’t always that large either.

Worst of all the local organisation – particularly in regard to safety – often had to be seen to be believed.

Worst of all the local organisation – particularly in regard to safety – often had to be seen to be believed. The crash barriers for a time seemed designed primarily to decapitate drivers and it was all topped in the 1970 race when Jackie Oliver’s BRM t-boned Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari, and the resultant massive conflagration was essentially allowed to go out by itself over some time, the officials apparently unable to do anything about it other than try to quell molten magnesium with water… (fortunately Ickx and Oliver both got out).

Jarama did though manage to depart with a race that still lives fresh in memory, when in 1981 Gilles Villeneuve somehow held off a (just about literal) train of quicker cars to win in an agricultural Ferrari, his last ever Grand Prix victory. Even so few were sorry to see the back of the place.

Nivelles

The start of the 1974 Belgian GP

For a while this was the ultimate F1 pariah. Synonymous with the subject of a poor circuit. And that F1 only visited Nivelles twice underlines the (bad) impression left in a short period. The Belgian track was another from the pen of Hugenholtz, and it suffered from similar problems. The land available wasn’t anything like on the scale promised. Neither in this case was the time available to complete things.

Admittedly following the magnificent eight-mile plus original Spa-Francorchamps always was going to be a tough gig, but Nivelles wasn’t the beginning of any sort of answer. The circuit was soulless, sterile (as if designed with only box-ticking in mind), flat, constrained, hard to pass on, and for some reason the spectator areas were barely in the same postcode as the track. Organisation was poor too – all-comers it seemed wandered the paddock and even in some cases the circuit’s run off areas, and in 1974 Autocourse described the published pole position time as “pure fantasy”.

It was rather ill-conceived too, with its existence reflecting that Flanders (in the shape of Zolder) and Wallonia (in the shape of Nivelles) both on political grounds required a cut of F1 action. After two race organisers had gone bankrupt in succession Nivelles however was dropped.

To the modern eye the Nivelles track layout doesn’t look awful, indeed the opening part of the lap looks positively challenging. It shows that context matters (which we know, given that plenty of tracks have been desperately unpopular at first but became liked as the calendar changed around them – Paul Ricard, old Hockenheim, new Nurburgring, the Hungaroring…). A few have commented too that Nivelles was rather a forerunner of the modern-day autodrome. Now, mercifully, the circuit largely is buried under a business park.

Detroit

F1’s US stop-offs in the 1980s are a treasure trove when hunting ugly ducklings. Having decided that visiting wonderful Long Beach and Watkins Glen every year was way too sensible, F1 dropped them and entered instead an extraordinary succession of flop venues.

Some, despite being trashed by history, did have potential. Dallas has gone into folklore as peculiarly awful – intense Texan summer heat and a crumbling track. But the layout was good and with much (new) money in the area there was a potential audience too (indeed in the sport’s sole visit upwards of 90,000 turned up on race day). But the points became moot when someone did a runner with the race’s takings.

The Las Vegas car park too, while having a certain absurdity, was another not quite as awful as often assumed. Nigel Roebuck has this to say about the place on the sport’s first visit, in 1981: “The Las Vegas track was something of a pleasant surprise. Or perhaps I mean that it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The surface was first class, and there were one or two really good corners. The average speed was higher than expected, the organisation generally good.”

Torturously slow and twisty, perilously bumpy, at some points so narrow as to be virtually single-file. And capping it all run-down Detroit was a city that far from captivated the haughty fraternity.

Phoenix though, visited three times from 1989 to 1991, was harder to defend, hamstrung as it was by a) its layout being an uninspiring mix of straights and right-angled turns, and b) having almost no local enthusiasm. Mirth was made one year that a nearby llama festival attracted apparently more of a crowd.

But Detroit topped all of them. Torturously slow and twisty, perilously bumpy, at some points so narrow as to be virtually single-file. And capping it all run-down Detroit was a city that far from captivated the haughty fraternity. Somehow it lingered for seven seasons before it floundered on the sport’s not unreasonable request that the pit garages should feature a roof…

Aida

Japanese entrepreneur Hajime Tanaka inherited a lot of money. Initially he put much of it into building exclusive golf resorts, an activity which experienced a boom in (at the time) booming Japan. He then resolved to do something similar with motor racing, building a circuit at which wealthy people could bring their cars to and pay to use as they would a country club. Modestly Tanaka named the place the ‘Tanaka International Circuit’ (not coincidentally presumably, the layout also resembled the letters ‘TI’). Still not content, and possibly minded of making back some of his investment, not long later he turned his attention to also holding championship events there, and eventually to F1.

The tight layout wasn’t the biggest problem. That instead was its location. Remote doesn’t begin to cover it.

Some chuckles were had that Japanese F3000 had already more than once turned the place down on the grounds of it being too tight – in fairness that conclusion may have owed more to sectional politics than actuality, yet it can’t be denied that the Aida circuit didn’t offer much breathing space. Still, money talks, and in that recurring modern theme it spoke to Bernie Ecclestone. The track was visited by F1 as a second Japanese round – titled the Pacific Grand Prix – in 1994 and 1995.

But the tight layout wasn’t the biggest problem. That instead was its location. Remote doesn’t begin to cover it. It was literally in the mountains, and roughly 100 miles from major cities, hotels and the like. Fleets of busses did their best to take up the slack, but had limited impact as queues stretched interminably, the place being connected to the outside world by a single narrow road that stretched upwards of 10 miles. Some spectators apparently slept on tables. Happily the sport didn’t return for 1996.

Valencia

Valencia in 2010 (xpb.cc)

Again, this one really shouldn’t have been able to fail. The country of Fernando Alonso-mania got a second F1 round from 2008, and in something rare at the time it was to be on a street track (the first to debut in F1 in near enough 20 years – if we don’t include Melbourne’s parkland circuit). But the sport turned up to find it sited in a rather derelict part of town, and the near-at-hand harbour seemed much more industrial than Monegasque glamour. The beautiful people seemed to agree judging by the sparse presence of yachts. The tunnel of walls lining the circuit deprived it of most of its backdrop in any case. Oddly too you could stand in Valencia’s city centre during the race weekend and have no idea the event was on. 

And it wasn’t saved by what happened on track. It was devoid of challenge as well as claustrophobic – Mark Webber described it as akin to driving around a Tesco car park. In that modern way also a layout designed with overtaking apparently at the front of minds – with more than one extended full throttle section ended by a big braking zone – somehow provided almost none of it. The sport left after a vague plan to alternate with Barcelona fell through. But, wouldn’t you know it, just like its Jarama compatriot it signed off with a classic, in 2012. Perhaps it shows that circuits should never be written off. Some ugly ducklings can turn into a very fine swan indeed.

More recent photos of the place, rather falling into disrepair, suggests F1 ain’t retuning any time soon though.

Yeongam

This Korean venue was another whose road to hell was paved with good intentions, and no little ambition. The aim was a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a whole range of leisure facilities, hotels etc etc, as well as a marina to again attract the beautiful people on their boats. A night race was talked about too. Presumably that it was in a remote location – some 400km from Seoul on reclaimed swampland near a shipping port – would stop to matter once everything was in place. And there was potential more broadly what with Korea being a populous wealthy country with a strong car industry. Even the layout was one of Hermann Tilke’s better efforts.

Before the first visit, in 2010, construction fell behind schedule. Yet the recently-laid track was approved a matter of days before first practice and everything was alright on the night, although the facility remained skeletal.

The unfinished but rather quirky facility, combined with rather sparse crowds, gave it all a creepy, out of context feel. Slightly like an abandoned city in some dystopian future (while in a Kafkaesque feature, it had a grand separate pit and paddock for support events, despite not having any support events).

But rather than merely a shaky start it was a portent. Everyone turned up to Yeongam a year later to find that there had been no progress on the new gleaming city. Indeed, literally it seemed, the place had been locked up when the previous year’s Grand Prix circus had left town and not opened again until the next year’s had come along. Chat was that money had run out, not helped by the bottom line of the first event being disappointing. The unfinished but rather quirky facility, combined with rather sparse crowds, gave it all a creepy, out of context feel. Slightly like an abandoned city in some dystopian future (while in a Kafkaesque feature, it had a grand separate pit and paddock for support events, despite not having any support events). The event lingered on to no one’s great enthusiasm as the contract was run down, F1 last stopping by in 2013.