One of the unique traits of motorsport in comparison to other sports is the fact that its playing surface is one of the most essential parts of the game. Unlike in virtually every other sport (famous exceptions are baseball and cricket, where unique parks and stadiums still maintain the differences of a less-organised era), the „playing field“, i.e. race tracks, are specifically designed to make life difficult for the competitors.
Of course, GP Rejects has written about tracks before. However, the author figured a new, geeky look at the racing circuits of the world would make for a fun exercise. For this purpose, please meet this graphic:
This is a Dungeons and Dragons-esque alignment chart. As has been seen on the internet, you can basically sort everything into these charts. So we are going to do the very same thing with the racing circuits of this world.
For the record, the author openly admits he stole the idea from YouTuber S1apSh0es and his video sorting NASCAR race winners on an alignment chart like the one seen above. Feel free to check out that video and if you are interested in NASCAR content, do subscribe to him. His work comes with warm recommendations from GP Rejects.
Now, before the rating starts, definitions are required first. The alignment chart separates lawful, neutral and chaotic. The question is how would you translate that to racing tracks? To the author, it is simply a question of the structure of a track. A “lawful” track would be a track that follows a strict philosophy: where a driver has a good idea how his car needs to be set up to optimise lap times. The extremes of lawful tracks on the Formula One calendar are Monaco and Monza, being both defined by their speeds (albeit at different ends of the spectrum). In contrast, a “chaotic” track is one where setup is not just, to use video game terminology, setting all sliders in one direction. A track that both requires great speed down long straights, but also has twisty corners and annoying technical sections. To give two examples from recent years: the pre-2021 Yas Marina Circuit and the Shanghai International Circuit.
Of course, after that comes the sorting into “good”, “neutral” and “evil”. Handing out moral assessments of pathways of asphalt is an inane concept, so the idea of good and evil must be seen more as a declaration of the perceived intent of the track designer. To that purpose, the circuits will be observed on their nature. A “good” track is a track that plays it, for lack of a better term, fair. A venue with generous run-offs, that does not have many corners that are blind or deceptively slow/fast. In turn, an “evil” track is a driver where you fight the venue as much or even more than your rivals on the track. Usually when looking back to the past, you will find a lot of retirements as a product of driver error, crashes and spins alike.
One important thing to note is that just because a track is good or evil in this assessment, it does not say anything about the actual quality of the racing. Good tracks can make for fun clashes where drivers only have to concern themselves with racing their enemies, as the more entertaining Turkish Grands Prix demonstrated. On the other hand, evil tracks can result in uneventful races if not enough drivers are caught out by their gruesome nature, as demonstrated by the more uneventful Monaco Grands Prix.
With all the definitions out of the way, let’s get into the meat of things. Before that happens, however, it is worth noting that these classifications are fluid, simply because they are based on subjective evaluations, e.g. there is no objective evaluation on whether a track is challenging or not. Another factor is that the definitions of good and evil are unaffected by weather conditions, as there are few sites in motorsport history which were specifically used because of their weather. Furthermore, the Gravel Trap will give future track designers pointers on the disadvantages and advantages of these track types to help them make a decision on what type they should aim for.
The author will start at the top left, going through each step of chart in snake scan order:
Now, a cynic would take my previous definitions and assume that a lawful good track would be boring: predictable and unchallenging. That observation can be true, as one example would be the Circuit Paul Ricard layout currently used by Formula 1 (1C-V2), but to claim it is universal would be unfair.
Sometimes a track can be fun without screwing over drivers or needing much variation in terms of corners. One popular example of a lawful good circuit is the beloved Red Bull Ring with its high-speed straights, short lap times and almost continuous flow. Few drivers and fans would say that events held there are dull.
- good for providing the most “authentic” racing experience
- nobody is going to be able to claim they lost because of anything but their own car’s performance/their own driver skill
- reliable testing venue
- races can be dull and predictable
- the track will most likely never top anybody’s favourite circuit lists
- few chances of safety cars spicing up races (especially if using asphalt runoff)
These venues have more of a different nature to them, but are all-in-all not designed to screw any driver over. Setup requires a few compromises, but none that truly alter the approach in a major way. One name to mention is the Sepang International Circuit, which has generally enough room to spare teams from driver-induced retirements, and is mostly a downforce-heavy circuit where you still need to spare enough speed not to be a sitting duck on the two long straights.
One example of this concept on the current calendar is the current version of the Silverstone Circuit. Like Sepang, it has a clear majority of the lap devoted to a specific idea (high speed corners and relatively long straights in Silverstone’s case), but has a few slow corners to throw a wrench into things. An example of this concept being executed poorly would be the GP extension of Donington, where the slower chicane and the double-hairpin Grand Prix extension just ruins the otherwise beautiful flow of the venue.
- can make for great racing if the difference-makers can set up overtakes
- challenges drivers without actually hurting their chances
- driver skill is pronounced
- the parts that differ from the rest of the circuit could ruin the flow of a lap
- if slower parts are used to add variance to a fast track, these parts could be considered Mickey Mouse-y
- if the setup changes are not worth the loss of performance on other parts of the track, the variance can create a safety hazard
These circuits can be special: a masterpiece of screwing with engineers and drivers, making both of them work overtime to meet the demands of these wild mixes of slow sections and high-speed chases. Often popular with hardcore fans, these venues provide great, yet safe challenges. Istanbul Park and the current Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace are two popular circuits of this type.
As with all alignments, it is possible to make a mess of this one: if the run-off is too generous or the variance is not appreciated enough (especially if the overtaking is lacking), the track will be ruthlessly panned as boring, possibly pretentious. The prime example of an unpopular chaotic good racing circuit is the Buddh International Circuit, home of the former Indian Grand Prix.
- relatively easy to be popular with fans
- challenging for drivers, therefore pronouncing their skill
- good chance of creating a unique layout
- can really pronounce the difference of cars in a field, having a risk of domination if there are noticeable gaps in car performance
- may make overtaking too difficult
- despite setup challenges, track can be perceived as too easy if run-offs are too generous
Here we get into the first time the track is not quite as positively minded towards drivers and machinery. It is not quite designed to destroy them, but certainly designers of these tracks would not mind if it happens, but with chaotic neutral, it is not the main focus. Of course to this spice, there comes the inherent challenge of a chaotic circuit: featuring both quick and slow parts, these venues are a challenge on every level. The prime example of a popular chaotic neutral track on the current schedule is the Albert Park Circuit.
As with all types, this one can be done poorly. If the bite is lacking or just fails to catch out drivers above a certain skill level, the generally difficult overtakes will result in boring events. Just ask Formula 1 fans on their feelings towards the Sochi International Circuit.
- even likelier to be popular with fans than Chaotic Good if executed well
- tests machines and drivers to the limit without becoming cruel
- very good chance to create memorable corners
- can cause problems with weather conditions, running these tracks in heavy rain is difficult
- difficult to not fall into Chaotic Good with modern safety standards, with all disadvantages that entails
- must be challenging enough to gain popularity
Straight in the middle of the chart are these venues: providing both a variable circuit layout and a middle-of-the road challenge. One could argue most tracks are designed with this idea in mind, as in theory it offers a little bit of everything to fans and drivers. Theory and practice are two different things, otherwise, the other eight alignments would not exist.
To prove that tracks can develop beyond their initial alignment: the original version of the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace is a great example of a true neutral track. To pick a more modern version, the current version of the Hockenheimring is also a true neutral track. In fact, it serves as a good statement on the inherent risk of designing a track of this alignment: compared to the emphatically neutral evil old Hockenheim, many feel the current version is bland by comparison.
- relatively easy to design
- in theory appealing to both fans and drivers
- can be raced on by pretty much any form of race car
- can fail to stand out in comparison to other venues
- not the most challenging type
- most boring type if done poorly
Racing circuits that have a clear demand from driver and machine and are willing to test both without outright punishing every mistake. This is one of the two alignments that are the most common in oval racing, as short ovals follow this general principle, but unlike their superspeedway counterparts are not actually intended to feature “big ones” or exhaust drivers with heavy G-loads.
In Formula One, a great example of a Lawful Neutral track is the Hungaroring. Sometimes likened to Monaco as a closed circuit, it has a very clear theme and has some tricky sections without being as cruel as Monaco. To provide a disappointing example for Formula 1, the Losail International Circuit had the same concept but did not produce an entertaining main event in 2021.
- pretty much providing as “fair” racing as Lawful Good while having more bite
- can really emphasise driver ability
- only few fans and drivers will loathe the track
- popularity will suffer when the challenge is not quite challenging enough
- at the Formula 1 level, it can produce results that do not reflect actual performance
- bad races will be very bad
If we are being honest, most alignment charts are most interesting at the bottom: evil is something inherently appealing in escapism because there are so many imaginative ways to be evil. These circuits do it by lulling drivers and engineers into expecting a predictable event, only to then immediately and swiftly punish any mistakes.
As mentioned above, superspeedways are generally found in this category because of the physical strain caused by the ridiculously high speeds and the close walls. Monaco was mentioned in the Lawful Neutral section as an example of this trope, but it applies for the supermajority of “classic” street circuits like Phoenix and Singapore as well because of various factors (such as close walls, bumps and low speed sections as well as safety car periods that alter races and strategy).
- those who love the track will really love it
- great test of physical and mental fitness
- even boring events have a chance of a curveball saving the race
- those who hate the track will really hate it
- can unfairly rob great drives of their rewards for minor errors
- if it is a low-speed circuit, overtaking will be excessively rare
If merely punishing drivers is not enough, the Neutral Evil circuit comes into play. Not only do you need to conquer the venue, you need to adjust to slight changes during the lap during the entire race. At first, this looks like a format that is hard to execute, but if you do it properly, it’s an easy way to get a popular circuit. The Baku City Circuit is a current example that, despite early misgivings about racing in Azerbaijan, has grown in popularity.
However, it is not a guarantee to make a good track when going for this style. The infamous Montjuïc Circuit is also a neutral evil circuit that was rejected by drivers for being rather dangerous. To add an oval and road course example (to avoid implying evil is only reserved for temporary circuits), the Autódromo Oscar y Juan Gálvez (No. 15) and the “Tricky Triangle”, Pocono Raceway are two great examples.
- very good chance of creating a fan favourite
- very likely a unique layout
- if the track is safe, it can create the illusion of danger some fans feel is missing from modern racing
- hard to design and build properly
- high efforts into track safety required
- can unfairly rob great drives of their rewards for minor errors
The names of these venues are spoken of in myth and reverence. Races at these venues genuinely can claim that anyone who finishes them ought to be thought of as a winner. Even the subjectively most boring races at these venues still draw a certain level of respect. There are only two circuits on the planet that are still used that are truly chaotic evil: the Isle of Man TT circuit and the 25.378 km long “Green Hell”, the Nürburgring Gesamtstrecke. The author honestly believes with modern standards and expenses, it is pretty much impossible to create a Chaotic Evil track nowadays.
Permanent modern circuits of a chaotic nature have too generous run-off and a lack of race-ending deterrents to ever truly be considered evil. Temporary circuits are too short to have sufficient variance. The closest any track built after 1980 has come to chaotic evil are Baku and, at least for the author, it could only classify if the tricky sections were around a kilometre or two longer. The world of video gaming will be the only place for modern chaotic evil tracks, such as the infamous Complex String featured in the popular Gran Turismo series.
- the track will be (in)famous
- prestige gained by success on these tracks will draw stars from everywhere
- events can easily serve as headliner for a single series
- pretty much impossible to create to build standards and expectations
- complex and nature may limit number of days available for events
- nature may limit cars that are able to safely compete
Having had a look at these nine alignments and displayed examples of each, the author is proud to present the Official Gravel Trap Racing Circuits Alignment Example Chart™:
Now that any aspiring track designers have learned about the nine alignments of racing circuits, they may wonder which alignments would the motorsport world need, i.e. which alignment should they go for?
The author feels that modern track design has gone too far away from the lawful concepts, perhaps out of a fear of being judged as dull. Taking a look at the examples of lawful circuits mentioned during each alignment, the reader will certainly note that all of those venues are at least three decades old in their original design. Outside of new oval circuits, designers shy away too much from having a clear goal. There are exceptions, as the author would deem the new Jeddah Corniche Circuit an awesome example of a lawful evil circuit, but generally, new venues try too much to be seen as “chaotic”, sometimes at the expense of being a more fun circuit. It might be understandable that this causes a minor butterfly effect: as lawful tracks are being considered outdated, fewer lawful tracks are built which causes them to be perceived as even more outdated.
That, however, would be a crying shame. As far as motorsport and motorsport circuits are concerned, there will always be room for the classics.
Sources: GP Rejects, S1apSh0es, Wikipedia
Image sources: Reddit (alignment chart template), Pixabay, Wikipedia (various creators and licenses, resized)