Racing through F1’s iconic circuits


The Formula One season start has been postponed. But when the schedule does roar off the starting line, here are the one-of-a-kind tracks from all over the globe that bring drivers within a hair's width of historic places, quirky corners and, yes, plenty of danger. Buckle up for 15 of the wildest spots of the F1 season.



The jewel of the Formula One schedule, the Monaco Grand Prix (May 21-24), is held in the jewel of the Mediterranean, a luxurious microstate nestled on the southern coast of France. The race, traditionally held at the end of May, sees drivers sweeping past historic hotels, an iconic casino and extravagant yachts as they compete on the tight streets of the principality.

And drivers understand the gravity. Of his legendary 1988 pole position lap, F1 great Ayrton Senna said, "That was the maximum for me -- no room for anything more. I never really reached that feeling again."

Monaco lives and breathes tradition. The second-oldest circuit on the tour stands as one of the most glamorous -- and challenging -- on the schedule. Drivers have to manage the narrow roads and tight turns with no margin for error. "Any slight error and it is going to be a big crash," longtime driver Martin Brundle said. "You can't miskick the ball or slice a backhand."

Monaco's most iconic turn (named for the adjacent hotel) also is the slowest point on the Formula One tour, with a school-zone-type average speed of 30 mph.
Two drivers have skipped the barrier at the Nouvelle Chicane and launched directly into the Mediterranean: Alberto Ascari in 1955 and Paul Hawkins in 1965. Hawkins walked away uninjured, and Ascari had only a broken nose -- though he died four days later in an unrelated test lap crash.
And sometimes the Mediterranean makes itself part of the race. In 1950, a wave crashed onto the Tabac Corner and caused a pileup that wiped out half the field.

Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan

Perhaps no track illustrates the complexities of a modern, global F1 better than Baku. Half the track runs through the lavish downtown city, and the other half runs along historical architecture reminiscent of cartoonish Mario Kart castles.

This Herman Tilke-designed track puts modern twists on a street course while tormenting drivers with some of the narrowest stretches on the tour. Concerns over the country's human rights record have swirled around the race in Azerbaijan (June 5-7 this year), but the chaotic nature of the young race has already made it a popular fixture. Baku is currently on the schedule through the 2023 season.

Baku is a high-speed track, with a different winner each of the four years of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix's existence. "It's a spectacular track, it's super fast, it's massively challenging, a little bit crazy as well, in a positive sense," former driver Nico Hulkenberg said. The narrow turns and fast straights force drivers to be creative to get ahead. And with the potential for crashes, collisions and road hazards, everything can change in an instant.

The walls of Baku's Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are surrounded by the narrowest road in F1 at just 7.6 meters (25 feet) wide. "The scenery, the setting, just makes for good racing," Hulkenberg said. "It's pretty entertaining from inside the car as well."
While designing this track, Tilke identified the cobblestone roads of the Old City as a potential hazard for drivers, so race organizers planned to put down temporary gravel and asphalt. Soon, however, they decided to just leave the tarmac year-round.
For 1.4 miles from Turn 16 to Turn 1, Baku features the longest full-throttle period on the tour, allowing cars to get up around 210 mph.

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium

Expect the unexpected at the Belgian Grand Prix. When it rains, drivers have to manage the poor visibility and track conditions. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is F1's longest course, so it can be raining on one side and sunny on the other.

And even if the mercurial summer (Aug. 28-30) weather cooperates, drivers will be forced to wrangle some of the most iconic and challenging stretches in F1, such as Eau Rouge and Raidillon.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc won last year's race after only 10 drivers finished on the lead lap. A tour favorite ("I bet every driver likes Spa," Kimi Raikkonen said), winning here proves that a driver can handle everything a track can throw at them, all in one race.

Former F1 driver Fernando Alonso put it this way: "One lap of Spa is like 20 at any other track, in terms of the excitement and adrenaline it generates."

The rain here notably wreaked havoc on the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, which started with a 13-car pileup at Turn 1 and even saw six-time winner Michael Schumacher crashing out early.
Lewis Hamilton might have described Eau Rouge best: "When you get to the bottom of it, your insides drop. And then when you get to the top, they come back up and it feels like everything will come out of your mouth -- quite a feeling when you're going at 200 mph."
Urban legend contended that the chicane on this tight stretch (which features speeds of 68.4 mph) was once a bus stop (this photo is from its pre-2005 design days). In actuality, "bus stop chicane" is simply a style found on many circuits. And furthermore, the corner was changed back to a standard chicane in 2005. But despite the lack of public transit here, the name has stuck.

Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas

Ups and downs galore in Texas! This Tilke track opened in 2012 and has been the home of the United States Grand Prix (Oct. 23-25 this season) since. The track makes use of the rolling hills outside of Austin not just as scenery but also to give drivers elevation changes found nowhere else on the schedule.

At a time when Formula One faced concerns of stagnant races with few passes, Circuit of the Americas was built to feature wide turns that give drivers multiple opportune locations to make moves. "You can pass in four different places," Daniel Ricciardo said, "which encourages you to battle. It encourages you to fight."

Lewis Hamilton is a five-time winner here, but last year's winner was his Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas.

As soon as the race starts, a 133-foot ascent averaging 53 mph smacks drivers in the face. "There's no other circuit on the calendar which has anything like Turn 1 at COTA," Ricciardo said.
The gauntlet of curves starting at Turn 3 requires drivers to quickly flick the wheel back and forth at 180 mph. "You have to be very aggressive with the steering and really throw the car around," Hamilton said.
The average speed at this sharp-angle turn drops from 180 mph to 56 mph at the turn and then rises back up over 180.

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Every fall, F1's only voyage to South America is also to its largest worldwide market: In 2018, the tour attracted 115 million Brazilian viewers! And that passion shows on race day at Interlagos, with fervent fans all along the counterclockwise circuit.

Describing his 2008 showdown with Brazilian Felipe Massa, Hamilton said as much: "The noise, the atmosphere, was just crazy. I had perhaps 2% of the fans wanting me to win while the rest were for Felipe. It was just so intense. But I didn't resent it -- it was normal for Sao Paulo."

This race has been friendly to the home country, having been won by a Brazilian driver nine times. In fact, due to Brazil's position on the calendar (Nov. 13-15 this season), this race has been the site of season championships coming down to the wire. The future of this historic track, however, is up in the air, as the race might move from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro after the 2020 edition.

At the highest point of one of the most elevated circuits on the schedule, modern F1 cars on this 2,600-foot-high starting line benefit from sophisticated turbochargers to get the same engine power they'd have at sea level.
Though the track was built years before the 1994 death of Brazilian F1 legend Ayrton Senna, the S curve that opens the lap is known as "S do Senna," or the Senna Esses.
The stretch from the final turn to the finish line is one of the longest full-throttle stretches on the tour, where top speeds can reach over 205 mph.

When the green flag drops ...

When the green flag drops ...

The start of F1's 70th season is in limbo with the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. When drivers do hit the roads, their schedule will take them all over the planet, from Vietnam to the Netherlands to Russia to Mexico -- and many more places -- by the end of the season.

Photography by Getty Images, Icon Sportswire, Sutton Images, EMPICS, Corbis.

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