INSIGHT: How to build an F1 street circuit
New Formula 1 circuits are impressive facilities, some taking years to build at huge expense. They tend to require a significant amount of land, and as a result, are usually hidden in locations well outside of major population hubs.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking a street circuit is an easier option in terms of setting up a new race. Roads are already in place, as is the infrastructure around the venue, so you add some curbs, barriers and a pit building, and it’s job done, right?
The 2020 season currently features a record-breaking 22-event calendar that includes two new venues. One is a permanent circuit at Zandvoort being updated to Formula 1 standards, and the other is a new street track in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
In January it was announced that the Hanoi pit building had been completed, marking a major milestone in the track build, but the amount of work that needs to go into other areas of the project might surprise you.
The track length and layout itself changed as late as December – just four months before the inaugural race – when a 23rd turn was added, and as Le Ngoc Chi, CEO of the Vietnam Grand Prix Corporation, explains, development of a new track involves constant liaising with the FIA and Formula 1.
“The track was 5565 meters (3.46 miles) long, and now it’s 5607 meters (3.48 miles),” Chi says. “So it’s official and final, and approved by everyone. Everyone thought that [the extension] will just make a better track. Don’t ask me about the technical details!
“They still try to improve it, and try to make it safer, too. So even to this day, they’re still trying to change a little bit here and a little bit there in terms of the runoff. Obviously they’re not changing the track anymore because the track is completely done, but the runoff areas can still be fixed and revised a little to make it safer.
“The FIA is still asking us to put a bit more fence here, put more Tecpro [barriers] there, add SAFER barriers, just to make sure that it’s 100 percent safe. From the promoter point of view, of course financially that means we have to spend more money, but we are happy to do it because we will do everything to make it safe. That’s the most important thing that we want to deliver, so we don’t mind that at all.
“We are working very closely with the FIA right now to make it perfect in terms of safety, and with the F1 motorsport division to make it attractive, and make it more exciting for the drivers and for the fans.”
While there are ongoing changes and tweaks in order to produce the best possible circuit given the space available, some aspects are fixed. The track surface requirements are incredibly specific: a normal road is unlikely to do the job.
“The building of the asphalt is beyond anything that I’ve done and imagined before,” Chi admits. “It’s not regular asphalt paving like normal roads that you do; it’s just such a complicated and delicate process. For the choosing of the materials, we have to go to all kinds of different mines all over the country, not just one or two, from the north to the south, just so that we can find a mine that produces the quality materials.
When it comes to building an F1 track surface, not all asphalt is created equal. Image via Vietnam Grand Prix
“And in order to know whether it’s quality or not, we have to send off all the samples to different laboratories for tests – in Singapore, in Germany, in Vietnam, all over the place. Throughout the whole country, only one mine actually met with the requirement.
“Then we have to grind it to a certain result because the dimensions have to be a certain size, and then we have to transport it to Hanoi, close to the track, and then we have to build all new plants to produce the aggregate. Then we have to import all the specific machines for it – we cannot even use the ones that we use normally on the regular roads. And then we have to hire all those specialists from abroad to train our people.
“Not only that, when they do the paving, it has to be so specific. Normally for a regular road you can do it piece by piece, but for this we have to do a long stretch because you cannot create a lot of joins. Say, for example, you do one stretch that is one kilometer and then you do the next one, the joint has to be perfectly smooth, and that is also very hard to do.
“Only when you do the paving will you know whether the quality will meet with the requirement or not. So numerous times we have done the paving, and then we have to get them to mill it all up and redo it all over again. It is quite complicated, and a lot harder than the regular roads, but we went through all of that – it took us a while, but we went through all of that – and we got our track completed.
“I think that’s a very good accomplishment on our side, given the fact that we have never done that before. And now we have two newly-built plants with all the sources of materials that we know will meet with the requirements, and we can use that for the coming years. So I’m happy with that, and the fact that our people also know how to do very high level of operating Grade A tracks now.”
That level of detail doesn’t stop with just the paving, as the condition of those streets needs to be strictly maintained ahead of each race. And unless you want a riot on your hands, you can’t close the roads off forever.
For Vietnam GP organizers, the process of ensuring that the country’s first F1 race will meet the required standards has been an eye-opening experience. Image via Vietnam Grand Prix
“For the existing part of the street, in order to do the asphalt, we had to block the streets off,” Chi says. “When we were done, we opened the track for everyone to be able to commute and move around just like normal. We blocked it off for a month and a half. Everyone was not too happy, but when we opened it, it’s so funny… now one side of the street is new and F1 paved asphalt, and the other side is normal, so everyone’s driving on our side and the other side is completely empty!
“So we opened it for everyone to be able to transport on, and it’s the whole point of the street circuit. When we do that, of course we are worried about whether the regular daily traffic is going to create damage on our track. That was my single biggest concern before I opened it. So we have to take so many measures – we have to limit certain big machinery, and we have to refrain from oil leaks from all the machines and vehicles, because apparently oil leaks can dissolve the asphalt.
“So we have a team that patrols the whole track 24/7. First of all, if any machine has oil leak potential, we have to remove them. Or if a leak happens, we have to have all the chemicals to clean it right away. We will have to keep that until the track is open for the event, and make sure that it is perfect for the race.
“Afterwards we will leave it, and then before the next event we will repair it again. I understand now that maintenance is also a lot of work.”
Next up, items such as team buildings and a media centrer will be put in place, before moving on to grandstands that don’t require road closures. The delivery of medical vehicles – imported from Germany – is also being taken and marshals trained, while Chi says “10 zillion other things are going on at the same time in parallel”. But all fans are worried about is seeing an exciting race.
“I definitely learned a lot, even though I don’t know what I’m going to do with all that knowledge later!” she says. “I get to share all the hard work that the construction workers actually have to put in to give us such a nice track.
“When the event happens, people only see all the glamor or excitement, but now I understand the hard work behind all of that. The sweat, tears and all the hard work that people have put in to make it happen, makes me appreciate what we’re doing even more.”