Across its long and chequered history, Formula One has hosted Grands Prix at more than seventy different venues, many of which have held Grands Prix at more than one layout of their track. As you might imagine, many of those tracks were great motor racing venues: the likes of Silverstone have been highly regarded even as they have evolved to suit the needs of a changing sport. Many others have been merely okay, like Okayama or Mexico City. This article isn’t about either of those kinds of tracks. It’s about the third kind of track; arguably the most diverse category of them all. It is the one for tracks which were catastrophic in one way or another. Some were dull, some were dangerous, and some fell into disrepair – but all of them were dreadful for their own special reasons.
10. Complex de Nivelles-Baulers
|Lap length||2.314 miles/3.724 kilometres|
|Grands Prix held||2|
Nivelles-Baulers was one of the two Belgian circuits that were brought onto the Formula One calendar in order to replace the terrifying Spa-Francorchamps circuit. It was intended to be a 3.5-mile run through the Walloon countryside, but the circuit owners couldn’t afford all of the land they wanted to build the circuit on. So they bought what they could afford, then ended the track in a hairpin rather than build the planned southern loop. This gave the circuit its distinctive firearm shape, because they never could afford that extra land.
Once drivers were let loose on it, it proved an instant non-success. The length and high speeds made for a short laptime and a repetitive driving experience. The spectators, used to being mere yards from the track at Spa, had been pushed farther back from the track in order to make room for run-offs and other safety features. In the modern era, it would likely be better-regarded, but the 1970s were not the modern era and spectators voted with their feet.
By 1974, the circuit had gone bankrupt (though it did manage to cobble together a race for that year’s Belgian Grand Prix). Two years later in 1976 it had fallen into disrepair and would be unable to host its scheduled Belgian Grand Prix for that year. And by 1980, the new Spa-Francorchamps had been built, and Nivelles-Baulers was a thing of the past less than ten years after they finished building it.
The outline of the old circuit remains pretty much intact, forming the road layout for a Nivelles industrial estate. As far as I can tell, the farmer to the south of the circuit never did sell his land. Just kidding, the area where the southern loop would have been is now a TEC bus depot…
9. Sochi Autodrom
|Lap length||3.624 miles/5.848 kilometres|
|Grands Prix held||6|
|Years||2014 to present|
After the Sochi Winter Olympics had finished, there was a whole lot of Russian real estate that was not set to serve any real purpose. With this in mind, the plan had always been to convert it and its road layout into a brand new Formula One street circuit with the Caucasus mountains as a backdrop.
Building the circuit set the Russian government back the equivalent of 200 million US dollars, and it gave them the third-longest lap on the calendar at the time. Despite that, said lap had only one memorable corner, the flat-out semicircular Turn 4. A corner that good deserves a better name, especially as Turn 4 is only the second proper turn on the circuit. Weird.
The only Russian Grand Prix that I can remember out of the six so far is the first one, in which Nico Rosberg pitted on the first lap, but still managed to finish in second place. He was able to do this because (a) the Mercedes W05 was an absolute monster with no competition from anyone else on the grid, and (b) the silky-smooth asphalt created near-zero tyre degradation, which meant there was never the slightest consideration of Rosberg’s tyres not lasting. For the rest of the year, the “streets” that make up the circuit don’t actually lead to anywhere, so they don’t get used.
All of which means that the Russian Grand Prix is a race without any racing, held on a street circuit without any real streets. Given that the whole complex was designed with this circuit in mind, they could and should have done better, but thanks to the considerable currency the race brings in, we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.
8. Bahrain International Endurance Circuit
|Lap length||3.914 miles/6.299 kilometres|
|Grands Prix held||1|
The Bahrain International Circuit has really come into its own since it became a night race. Before that it was an okay track with one truly outstanding corner: the downhill double-left at Turns 9 and 10. But in 2010, for the first race of what was promised to be a new era of Formula One (but wasn’t when the cost cap got canned) that double-left became turns 18 and 19.
The additional loop, the “Endurance Layout” was added to cater for the expected extra teams due to join the grid in 2010, and was supposed to offer extra overtaking opportunities. To the surprise of nobody who saw the track map, it didn’t do this. Instead, the sequence of nine mostly slow-speed corners served to make laptimes longer than at Spa-Francorchamps, but with none of the challenge or spectacle. Instead, drivers spent the additional 20 seconds of the lap in a window roughly between second and fourth gears, without overusing either the throttle or the brakes.
Fans hated the track, drivers hated the track, and when Formula One returned in 2012 (against a backdrop of bloody street violence between Bahraini government forces and civilians) it did so on the Grand Prix layout we have all become familiar with.
7. Caesars Palace Circuit
|Lap length||2.268 miles/3.650 kilometres|
|Grands Prix held||2|
The Caesars Palace Circuit is one that is well known for being one of Formula One’s most obvious poor decisions. Eager to capitalise on the potential market for F1 in the United States, the new Formula One World Championship (replacing the World Championship of Drivers) was scheduled to feature three rounds in the United States at Long Beach, Watkins Glen and a new venue in Las Vegas.
But this wasn’t to be a street track – instead, it would be a temporary circuit in a car park. Now, by temporary-circuit-in-a-car-park standards it was very well equipped, with ample run-off and lots of safety precautions for the era. The problem was everything else. Plus the fact that it was in a car park.
The layout itself was repetitive and uninspired: to fit it into a car park (did I mention the car park?) its 2.268 miles contained no fewer than five hairpin switchbacks. It was also the World Championship decider in both years, but because of the sweltering Vegas heat the Champions crowned had to take the time to recuperate and rehydrate before they could celebrate, lest they needed to intubate.
The final nail in the coffin was that nobody turned up to watch, which meant that the Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino lost millions on the venture, which they recouped by selling the land in 1984 for developers to build two more casinos on. Ah, Vegas.
6. Fair Park Street Circuit
|Lap length||2.424 miles / 3.901 kilometres|
|Grands Prix held||1|
F1 visited a lot of very dodgy American circuits in the 1980s, but perhaps the dodgiest was the Fair Park Street Circuit that played host to the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix. One thing that pretty much everybody knows about Texas is that it gets very hot in the summer. In the case of 8th July 1984, that meant 40-degree heat and six metre per second winds.
The event was meant to promote Dallas as a “world class city”, but its Grand Prix was anything but. Throughout the weekend, people expected it to be cancelled. Why, you may ask? Well, mostly because the 40-degree heat was melting the track: Goodyear never once recorded a higher track temperature than the 66 degrees celcius at Dallas. Rather than cancel, the race was rescheduled earlier in the day to escape the highest heat of the day. The drivers (including a pyjama-clad Jacques Laffite, who gave the impression of a man forcibly dragged out of bed) had to be at the circuit at 07:45 for their warm-up. That warm-up never happened, however, because the track didn’t have a surface. What it had plenty of was diggers, which were forcibly stripping what was left of the asphalt in order to drop fast-dry cement as a new track surface. This may be the only instance in history of drivers qualifying on one track surface, then racing on another.
Because they did race, despite the best efforts of Lauda and Prost to arrange a boycott. Even Bernie Ecclestone had misgivings about the race going ahead, but there were 90,000 fans in attendance, who were being sun-dried in the grandstands. The decision was made to give them a race to watch, as Keke Rosberg predicted when he said that “Track surface or no track surface, you know as well as I do that we’ll race.”
In the race, a dozen drivers spun off to their retirements, which could have been something to do with a track made out of fresh cement dust. Race winner Rosberg was able to cope with the heat with a NASCAR-inspired water-cooled skullcap; others, like Piercarlo Ghinzani, had buckets of water thrown into the cockpit during pit stops. This was also the race where Nigel Mansell got out of his car to push it to the line, only to pass out with heat exhaustion, and where Ayrton Senna’s excuse of “the wall must have moved” to explain his crash on lap 47 turned out to be true.
Formula One never went back to Dallas, but it did eventually return to Texas when the Circuit of the Americas was built decades later. It now plays host to the United States Grand Prix at a far more sensible time of year.