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Mexico City, essence and slash-and-burn

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Images used in the spirit of fair use

In historical terms, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has contributed very little of note to F1 history. The Mexican Grand Prix hosted the season finale in the 1960s, back when the world championship was something of a sideshow that only an exclusive number of races were part of, but it dropped off the calendar after the 1970 race due to safety fears associated with the large crowds. It returned in 1986, hosting seven further races before dropping off again after 1992.

The circuit itself was never really regarded as a classic, being bumpy, twisty and located in the middle of one of the most crowded, polluted cities in the world. But the popularity of circuits evolves over time. A circuit built in the 1960s (or even more recently) would often begin its existence unpopular because it was being compared to the alternatives, this being a time when road circuits and the likes of the Nurburgring Nordschliefe were still hosting grands prix, but by the 21st century, it’s a relic of the past, with the Nordschliefe, old Spa and many others consigned to the history books.

Even if you look at the circuits of the 1980s, you can see this transformation. The Hungaroring and the new Nurburgring were initially despised, to the point where the latter disappeared off the F1 calendar for a decade. But now, the Hungaroring receives credit for being something different on a calendar largely consisting of modern identikit circuits, while the Nurburgring is considered favourably to the truncated Hockenheim.

In addition to this, what makes a circuit popular has changed over time. Fast technical sequences of corners are popular now but that’s not to say they always have been. For example, Suzuka wasn’t regarded as a great circuit when it first appeared on the F1 calendar because it was too tight and twisty, but today this is regarded as a positive boon, the circuit’s raison d’etre.

The Mexico City is a good example of this. It had one great corner, the fearsome Peraltada, a 90-degree right-hander linking the back straight with the start/finish straight that was slightly banked until fairly recently. But the rest of the circuit was regarded as unremarkable. Looking at it with modern eyes, though, and it is an interesting circuit – a long straight leads into a tight sequence of corners, followed by another straight, a technical section, and then a fast, flowing series of esses that would really test a modern F1 car, before the back straight and the Peraltada.

It has everything a modern F1 circuit would want – fast sections, slow sections, long straights and overtaking opportunities. Add in the historical aspect and a thriving following thanks to the rise of Sergio Perez, and surely there’s no downside to the announcement that F1 will return there next year…

Well, until seeing this. Yes, there had been subtle hints that the circuit would have to be altered – Hermann Tilke had been contacted a year ago – but to this extent?

The future:

The present:

(Credit for the screenshots:

So what’s the problem? It’s not that the proposed layout itself is inherently bad – it looks like an interesting circuit. And it’s not exactly that different from the overall silhouette – it’s pretty similar.

But look closer and every corner has been changed in some way. Some of the changes are fairly minor – a tightening here and there – but the overall result is a circuit that’s quite different from the current one. What was once a flowing circuit with smooth curves is now a bog standard modern circuit with sharp corners joined by straights and the token very slow hairpin sequence. I appreciate that safety is a problem but was all this necessary?

Turns 1-3: All tighter, with Turns 2 and 3 particularly tightened to singular apexes from smooth curves. Why? It’s beyond me. There are no safety concerns associated with this – they are slow corners.

Turns 4-5: Turn 4 tightened to a hairpin, Turn 5 also seems slightly tightened. This again is not safety-related – instead, it’s more likely to be to create overtaking. Also the massive new grandstands next to these corners probably have something to do with it…

Turns 6-8: Turn 6 might be the only corner to just about get away unscathed, but its character is fundamentally changed with Turns 7 and 8 being bypassed by a straight, with another new grandstand plonked on top of the old corners, which again is your likely explanation for the changes.

Turns 9-13: Every single one of these corners looks like they have been tightened to not far off a single apex. What was once a series of constant arcs will instead look like a series of different corners seemingly designed to be similar to the sort of sequence we get in every modern F1 circuit, particularly Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. In fact, looking at the overall circuit, this will leave Mexico City looking very much like a flat Austin, albeit with slightly less tarmac run-off and slightly more character.

Turn 14: The Peraltada will be bypassed with a route through the large baseball stadium inside it, as Champ Car did in the mid-2000s. But unlike Champ Car’s route, which consisted of three 90-degree corners, F1 (which of course has to go one step further, because it’s F1) includes a tight hairpin and another corner coming out of it, seemingly designed to slow the cars down a little bit more. The old corner will remain and will probably be used by other series, as is the case now.

These changes will be billed as necessary for safety, but that seems a bit hollow to me looking at what they’re actually going to do. One of the bizarre things about this is that there isn’t actually that much run-off on the outside of most of these corners even after the changes, particularly the Esses. This is following the recent trend in modern circuits of not having the barriers too far from the track (see the fast section at the Valencia “urban circuit” or some parts of the Yeongam circuit, host of the Korean Grand Prix) – F1’s “run-off is needed” policy has always been inconsistently applied, which makes me suspicious.

The reason for the changes can be found in the mentions of “new grandstands” and tightening corners to slow the cars down a little bit more. The grandstands are there to pack more people in, no doubt at a premium rate compared to general admission. The slower corners are there to slow the cars for the cameras, so that they get good shots of the adverts and sponsors’ logos. Of course, these are usually included in modern circuits under the pretence of safety or “compromising setup”, but in this case in particular, it seems egregiously excessive.

The changes to the circuit aren’t about the circuit – they’re there for F1 and its various parties to make more money, sold under the false pretence that they are necessary when they clearly aren’t. In this case, it’s not even subtle.

Obviously there are genuine safety concerns. For one the Peraltada isn’t particularly safe in its current form because there’s no run-off on the outside and expanding that would be very difficult due to the presence of a road behind it. But it wears thin when you look at the proposed layout of the Esses and you see very little run-off anyway, or when you look at other modern circuits and see less safe corners that were allowed to pass. The changes to the Esses smack of change for the sake of change – making it “modern”.

And that’s what troubles me in particular. Changing or updating an old circuit is by no means a new thing, but there are a lot of examples in recent years in particular – the Osterreichring, Hockenheim, Fuji, Silverstone, and now seemingly Mexico City are the most prominent. These are always billed by F1 as returning to an old venue, even though the layouts of these circuits are often very different. The Osterreichring (or A1-Ring and Red Bull Ring as it became), Hockenheim and Fuji were particularly different, bearing little resemblance to the circuits they once were.

What F1 is effectively doing is giving you an essence of the past – it’s not quite the old circuit but it’s in the same place and includes small parts of it so it could be it. It’s as if they treat it as a modern interpretation of the past, even though these circuits were still the present for many series outside the F1 bubble. Fuji aside (sort of), it was only F1 which required these circuits to be changed, but every other series that uses them will be affected by this.

But the reason the issue of essence and modern interpretation is important is because it can be applied to a lot more than circuits – it can be used as a way of describing the sport as a whole. F1 today is obsessed with its history, fetishising its past. Everything that happens today is compared to the past. Everything is put into context of the mythology of the sport.

Modern culture as a whole is like this. There is less effort to create great culture these days because it is considered that it cannot be great itself, so instead everything has to refer to great culture from the past, an “interpretation of”, a “homage to” or “satire of” something. F1 in particular seems to have fallen into this trap. F1 in 2014 has become a sort of warped homage to the F1 of 1968 or 1991. The Mexico City circuit of 2015 will be a warped homage to the Mexico City circuit of 1968 or 1991. It’s all a shiny artifice.

The problem with warped homages is that they aren’t the real thing. I know most viewers won’t care and will watch in regardless – to be fair, I probably will as well – but the more circuits that go into the knife to be “modernised”, the more F1’s actual historical basis is irreversibly eroded.

I appreciate that small changes have often been made over time, including at Mexico City prior to its 1986 return, but as with the famous brush (i.e. “it was my great-grandfather’s brush, though my grandfather changed the handle and my father changed the head”), how many actual links to the past are there?

To put it another way, here is the proposed 2002 F1 layout for Brands Hatch which eventually fell through, from Guido di Carli’s circuits website:

As you can see, while it retains the essence of Brands Hatch, it’s radically different. Would it really be Brands Hatch with the fastest corners slowed, the trees cut down and the pits moved? It would be in the same place and retain a couple of notable features, but surely it would be hollow and superficial.

And yet while this would be considered quite shocking, it’s also reality. F1 has allowed its actual circuits to be changed to an extent where they are also similarly unrecognisable from their previous versions, often only for financial gain and to the detriment of the facility as a whole.

And then consider how things like DRS and energy recovery have been added to F1 cars in order to facilitate great racing, to recreate the mythical great racing of the past. Consider how double points have been added to the last race of the season to ape the drama of past title deciders. Consider how the Lotus brand was basically resurrected to provide a fictional link to the past (something I was originally favour of, which I regret).

Trying to recreate the past is futile, especially using such half-arsed methods. The past is gone. Some may argue that for that reason it’s pointless complaining about the loss of the “old” Mexico City circuit, and other former versions of circuits. It’s a fair point, but it ignores that the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is still here and still being used by series. As recently as 2008, the circuit (including the Peraltada) was considered safe and up-to-date enough to host A1 GP and the NASCAR Nationwide Series – why does F1 require such ludicrous special measures?

The point is the circuit is about to be desecrated not for the reasons that they will give, but for making money. And yet the organisers won’t make money from it – F1 venues lose money on grands prix, because it all goes to FOM. It’s F1’s slash-and-burn policy in action. Knowing Mexico’s volatile history on the F1 calendar, it’s not unfair to suggest that in five or ten years’ time, the circuit will be abandoned by the circus again, having extracted all the revenue it can. The regeneration will most likely all be for very little, but the old circuit will be lost for good.

The problem is F1 itself. It is in the middle of a profound identity crisis but those running the show are only interested in short-term financial gain. They are happy to provide a cold, diluted, sterile series which provides a plastic inauthentic sample of what it was like once upon a time, and to provide this, they take advantage of naive regional governments, billionaires and circuit owners prepared to make a Faustian pact with them, leaving a trail of struggling white elephant circuits in their wake.

This is clearly unsustainable, because there are only so many rich people and countries in the world prepared to bankroll a grand prix, and the more you piss off, the less “untapped markets” there will be. Meanwhile, the longer it goes on, the more authentic sites of historical importance will be irreversibly altered in the name of “progress”. It’s a mess, and it’s sucking the rest of motorsport into this whirlpool too. The longer those running F1 continue to chop and change their minds over what they want it to be, the more damage will be done.


Written by James Bennett

July 24, 2014 at 15:43

Posted in F1, F1 history, F1 politics

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