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What Makes A Racetrack A Classic? An Investigative Look At Some Of The Best

Formula 1 cars on racetrack

Motorsports, for better or for worse, 80% of the time need to be run at dedicated facilities built precisely to host them. These facilities have garages to perform mechanical work in, a slow area to leave and join the dedicated racing surface from those garages, and a length of specially prepared tarmac that is grippy, smooth, and winds its way around the landscape. We are, of course, talking about racing tracks.

However, throughout the history of motorsports, there have been innumerable amounts of tracks prepared, presented, raced on, and used for all levels of motorsport, yet only a handful are truly remembered as great tracks. In the United States alone, there are over 1,000 race tracks, but when you say COTA, everyone knows that that is Circuit Of The Americas. If you say Brainerd International Raceway, a few of the older folks will nod their heads as they remember the days of Can-Am, but most people will go “where’s that?” It’s in Minnesota, by the way, and is “famous” for having the single longest straight of any track in America.

Going international, you can mention tracks like Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Circuit de la Sarthe, Kyalami, and the like, and a lot of people that watch motorsports will know exactly what and where you’re talking about, and a rough layout of the track itself. Yet the question remains… what makes a track truly a classic, that everyone knows, even if they’re not into motorsports? To answer that, we’re going to look at three of the all-time greats.

Monza: The Temple Of Speed & How It Gained That Name

The original 1922 layout of Monza
The original 1922 layout of Monza. Image Via: Wikipedia.

Officially Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, this historic track was originally built in 1922 just outside of Milan, Italy, and had two different courses that could be joined together to form a massive 10 km (6.2 miles) course. The “speed loop” of the original layout was a 4.5 km (2.8 miles) mostly oval track, with the “road course” running around the outside of it for a length of 5.5 km (3.4 miles). It was immediately popular, as the cars of the time could get up to near their top speeds on the speed loop, and since the automobile was still a relatively new invention, it was exciting to see these machines show just what they could do.

Throughout the years, the track has had multiple reprofilings, each of which unfortunately came about because of fatal accidents. In fact, one of the deadliest days in Italian racing history came in 1928 when 27 spectators and driver Emilio Materassi all died from a high-speed crash, which led to the track having slower speed corners added at the end of the massive back straight. Throughout all these reprofilings, Monza was still known as the place you wanted to go if you wanted to see the cars of the day reach their top speeds.

The current layout of the Temple of Speed
The current layout of the Temple of Speed, with the old 1950s profile behind it for comparison. Image via Via: Wikipedia.

The track has not changed much since the last major reprofiling in the 1970s, with the only major change being the Variante del Rettifilo, the chicane at the end of the front straight, being made a sharper turn than before. If you watch a race at Monza, you can actually see the two previous layouts of the front straight in that chicane, with the original track being the run-off area that rejoins the track just before the Curva Grande, and the first edition of the Variante del Rettifilo being the run off on the inside of the left hand second corner. It may not seem like that large of a track, but the official track length as of 2022 is 5.793 km, or 3.6 miles on the nose.

The famous Curva Parabolica racetrack
The famous Curva Parabolica, which slingshots cars down the front straight at Monza. Image via Via: Summer In Italy.

The question is, however, why is a track with a grand total of 11 corners considered one of the most classic, one of the greatest, that has ever been laid down? The answer to that comes in two parts, the first of which lies with the name that the track has earned over the years: The Temple of Speed.

From a purely technical point of view, Monza is a brutal test of engine endurance, brakes, tire wear, and balancing aerodynamics. There are three primary straights in a lap, those being the start/finish straight from Curva Parabolica to the Variante del Rerttifilo, from Curve di Lesmo 2 to the Variante Ascari, and from Ascari to the Parabolica. During each of these straights, engines are at full power, wide open throttle, and if you include the Curva Grande as a straight, which is taken at full throttle in many racing series, a modern day racing engine is at full power for just about 75% of a lap.

F1 racecars on the Monza racetrack
The super-fast front straight at Monza during the Italian Grand Prix in 2021. Image via Official F1 Media.

Balanced against that is the fact that each straight and the Curva Grande all end braking zones where speeds sometimes over 300 KPH (186 MPH) need to scrubbed down to about 100 KPH (62 MPH) in under 200 meters, often under 100 meters in Formula One cars. What this provides for both drivers and spectators are excellent passing zones, where the bravest of the late brakers will either take the inside line of the corner or spear off into the runoff areas.

The other major reason that Monza is one of the most classic tracks of all time is that it is one of the best spectator circuits on the modern day racing calendar. By being, in a word, a “simple” track of straights, heavy braking zones, and amazing corners, there are plenty of areas around the track that grandstands have been set up, and the walking paths between these can also see the course through fences. The only restricted area is around the paddock, for obvious reasons, but otherwise you can watch races from pretty much anywhere around the track.

Of course, with a lot of fans, great views, some of the fastest speeds on a racing calendar, and most racing events being a full weekend of events, the atmosphere around the track is just the icing on the cake of spectator engagement. Adding to the atmosphere even more is the fact that Monza, when Imola is not used in the calendar, is considered the home track of Ferrari. As such, you will often find a large group of fans of the prancing horse grouping together, and collectively, they are known around the world as the Tifosi.

The Tifosi at Monza
The Tifosi at Monza when Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc won in 2019

Anyone who has watched any F1 race at Monza on TV in the past few decades has seen one of the signature moments of “tifo,” or a visual display of support for a team by use of colors or flags, that occurs when the cars arrive on the grid before the formation lap. A gigantic Ferrari shield flag is unfurled in the grandstands and waved enthusiastically, often the focus of the opening shot of TV coverage, and can sometimes be accompanied by red smoke flares being set off around the track.

To bring it together, it is actually very simple math that makes Monza one of the greatest tracks of all time. On its own, as shown during the shortened F1 season in 2021, it is a challenging, high speed, technically demanding track that pushes machinery and driver to be committed to the race. Combine that with some of the most rabid fans anywhere in the world of motorsport, literally turning entire grandstands red in support of Ferrari. Add a dash of speed, mix vigorously with history, and bake for one race distance, and you have the perfect recipe for a classic track.

Spa-Francorchamps: Classic Because Of So Many Different Parts Being Perfect

The original 1922 layout of Spa-Francorchamps
The original 1922 layout of Spa-Francorchamps. Image Via: Wikipedia.

While Monza is not the shortest track on many racing series’ calendars by far, it is a speck of dust next to the longest track that still uses all of its racing surface, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Spa, as it is often called, is a monster of a track that is draped over a small mountain in the Ardennes forest of Belgium, and has an official track length of 7.004 km, or 4.352 miles. What surprises people even more is that this distance is half the original track length!

Designed in 1920, the original track layout combined public roads between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy, and Stavelot with a dedicated track surface that was located at the crest of a hill between Stavelot and Francorchamps, famous for its almost 170 degree hairpin turn, La Source. The original length of 14.982 km (9.310 miles) was widely regarded by drivers as a dangerous, fast circuit, and as such attracted those that wanted to show their dedication to going around it as fast as possible.

Unlike many other tracks that were reprofiled or redesigned after major accidents or fatalities, Spa was left unchanged until the late 1970s. Running out of money and with safety starting to become a major point in motorsports, the track finally had to acquiesce and the newer 7 KM circuit was drafted, and then built.

The 2022 layout of Spa-Francorchamps
The current circuit in 2022, still considered one of the most demanding, technical, and fastest tracks on any race calendar. Image Via: Wikipedia.

The new circuit, however, was still a very demanding course, and is often ranked by drivers of everything from touring cars to Formula One as one of the best courses on the calendar. It has the most elevation changes of any current F1 circuit, it’s the longest by far, and it’s also one of the fastest, with some corners being taken at wide open throttle.

Of course, you cannot talk about Spa-Francorchamps without mentioning the corner. Possibly the most famous complex in all of racing, Eau Rouge/Radillion is a remnant of the dangerous 14.9 km course. After plunging downhill on a straight, drivers need to quickly sweep the car left, then hard right as the car bottoms out due to compression, and then almost immediately turn left again as the car crests a small hill, going light and sometimes causing cars to spin out spectacularly.

Looking downhill from the Source grandstands towards the fearsome Eau Rouge and Raidillon corners
Looking downhill from the Source grandstands towards the fearsome Eau Rouge and Raidillon corners. Image via : Wikipedia.

A good exit from Radillon is essential because the next kilometer of the course is uphill, along the Kemmel Straight. This straight is a remnant as well of the old course, but instead of continuing out into the countryside, heading for Malmedy, a very fast series of essess called Les Combes slows cars down for the short blast to the constant radius hairpin, Bruxelles. Formula One cars will reach this point, about 2 kilometers (just under a mile) into the track in about 50 seconds after crossing the start/finish line.

From there, one of the two fastest corners on the entire circuit comes after a short left hander and a sprint downhill, the double apex Pouhon. In GT cars, there is a very short braking period and the corner is usually swept through in 3rd or 4th gear. Formula One cars take this corner by lifting ever so slightly off the gas to turn in, and then foot to the floor to scream through the second apex. A series of essess follows shortly in the Campus Complex, before the hard right hander at Stavelot that is the official start of sector three of the course, the back straight.

The fastest part by far of the circuit, as cars exit Courbe Paul Frere, they accelerate to top gear and top speed, taking the gentle curves in the road absolutely flat out, heading for the second most famous corner on the track. Blanchimont is a “gentle” left hand corner, but at over 200 MPH, it’s a sharp, hard left. F1 cars will take this corner absolutely flat, without a hint of a lift, and the driver will experience upwards of 3 to 4 lateral G’s. GT cars can take it almost flat, just needing a minor lift to get the nose turned in.

Finally, at the end of the circuit, there is the famous Bus Stop chicane, which, before the track was fully enclosed in a motorsport park, actually was a bus stop between Francorchamps and Stavelot. It has been reprofiled a few times, from a step out-step in chicane to the current tight-S chicane, but it is still a tricky corner because you are braking from maximum speed, and a lot of race-winning, last-chance passes are made here with some bravery and hard braking. After a quick blast down the start/finish straight, cars then go around the slowest corner on the circuit, La Source hairpin, and start the whole journey again.

The beautiful, fast, difficult Spa-Francorchamps nestled in the Ardennes forest
The beautiful, fast, difficult Spa-Francorchamps nestled in the Ardennes forest. You can actually just see the outer edge of the town of Francorchamps at the very top of the picture. Image Via: Wikipedia.

So what makes it classic? Apart from two legendary corners, it is one of the most technically demanding courses for a driver, and is very difficult to set a car up for. You have sections where you want to have the minimum amount of drag on the car, but there are corners where you absolutely must have strong downforce or the car will spear off into the barriers. Despite the speed and difficulty, it is also a course with multiple passing zones sprinkled everywhere.

One of the biggest things about Spa is that it is so large, so spread out, that it is not uncommon to have different weather at different parts of the track. It could be sunny and warm at the start/finish straight, but raining heavily at the Campus Complex, and when it rains at Spa, it rains. Team strategists have probably used more Advil and Tylenol for the headaches that the circuit gives them than any other track, as a call into the pit lane is a huge roll of the dice. This is because the pits, at least in the endurance and GT configuration, are about 1.5 kilometers long, with the entrance at the Bus Stop, and the exit just after Raidillon.

Take the speed of Monza, add some wickedly fast corners, some challenging and technical corners, and a couple of moments around the course where you need to take your brave pills, and you have a circuit that will live on for eternity. Just Eau Rouge through Raidillon is enough to put this circuit here, but it was designed by people that knew what they were doing, and they made one hell of a circuit.

Monaco: The Ultimate Classic Track

Current layout of the Circuit de Monaco
Circuit de Monaco, current layout. Image Via: Wikipedia.

Monaco. You simply say the name, and depending on who you talk to, they either envision the French Riviera, a city that celebrates and embraces excess, or the famous Monaco circuit layout, which is also sometimes called the Cote d’Azure layout. It’s that third one we’re talking about here, and when people say that Monaco has history, they are not lying.

Monaco, with the exception of 2021, has been a staple of the Formula One calendar since the start of the championship in 1950. While it has had some changes over the years, the basic layout, without the swimming pool complex or La Rascasse hairpin, has remained the same. The race is so popular, so famous that it is one of the races needed to achieve one of the most difficult milestones in motorsports, the Triple Crown.

To date, only one driver, Graham Hill, has been able to achieve the Triple Crown. To put your name beside his, you need to win the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There are many drivers that have two of the races under their belts, and Fernando Alonso famously came very close in 2018 to achieving an Indy 500 win.

Yet, critics of the race state that it is slow, processional, with very few chances to overtake, and is too tight and too small for modern F1 cars. Being completely fair, every point they are making is absolutely true. The race can sometimes literally be won or lost in qualifying, and once the cars settle into their order, despite a lot of effort, it is nearly impossible to pass as the circuit just never lets up the pressure.

Top down view of the Monaco racetrack next to the marina
Looking over the marina at Monaco during race week. There’s easily more than a billion dollars worth of yachts in this picture alone, the Monaco GP is that serious of an attraction. Image via Via: Formula 1.

Yet, talk to a fan of F1 that has literally only watched one full season. Say Sainte Devote, the Tunnel, Mirabeau, the Loews Hairpin (formerly the Grand Hotel Hairpin), and that fan will instantly know the corner you’re talking about. It’s the one circuit that no matter how much or how little of a fan of F1 you are, you know the layout.

While both Spa and Monza are technical tracks that combine many elements into one to make a classic track, Monaco is a classic because it celebrates the spectacle of motorsports. Nowhere else in the world will you find a city that effectively shuts down for an entire weekend to watch cars effectively go in a circle around their streets. Sure, the racing might be processional and the overtakes are few and far between, but for the Monegasque, it’s the race.

It’s when you’ll see some of the most expensive yachts in the world tie up at the marina, overlooking the back section of the track. It’s when you will see some of the greatest drivers in the world attend multiple functions that you might just have been lucky enough to get a ticket to. It’s where you can be sitting just a few scant feet away from the most technologically advanced race cars in the world.

Another factor that makes it a classic track is that for many of the drivers, it’s their home grand prix. Once you’ve “made it” as an F1 driver, and you’re earning your multiple millions of dollars per season salary and getting all that sponsor endorsement money, it’s almost expected you’ll buy a condo in the city and live there. More often than not it’s because Monte Carlo, as a principality, has no income tax and is a tax haven for the rich, but it’s also because the city is so vibrant, with a character and personality that only exists in Monaco.

Every driver on the Formula One grid, if they were to only ever win once, want it to be Monaco. You are on it the whole way around, there is barely any time to breathe or adjust settings, and the margin for error is measured in millimeters. Get it wrong, and as the famous saying goes, “You’re going into the wall.” Get it right, and you become immortal. Ayrton Senna’s spectacular 1988 qualifying session, where he earned pole over “The Professor” Alain Prost by a scarcely believable 1.5 seconds, is still considered one of the greatest qualifying laps of all time in F1. Not just Monaco, across the entire history of the sport. He earned the title “The King of Monaco” for good reason.

Sure, the circuit might be classic in and of itself, but it’s the city, the people, the history, and one of the jewels you need for the Triple Crown that makes it a classic.