The great corners in motorsport – think of the Senna S at Interlagos, the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca or the Parabolica in Monza – do not suddenly just come into being. They are generally the result of clever planning and imaginative design by racetrack architects. Today, the best and most famous of these is Hermann Tilke. From his practice in Aachen in Germany, Hermann designs and then helps bring to life racetracks the world over. In a career spanning nearly four decades, Hermann has produced many of the great modern racetracks, including the tracks at Bahrain, Sochi and the Circuit Of The Americas. His latest projects are the Jeddah Street Circuit – which in December 2021 hosted the first ever Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix – and the forthcoming Grand Prix track at Qiddiya, also in Saudi Arabia, which is set to replace the Jeddah course on the F1 calendar in 2024. We got the unique opportunity to spend time with Hermann and get the inside track on how to design a racetrack.
You managed to create the Jeddah street circuit in an extraordinarily quick time – and during a period when everyone had trouble travelling and conducting their normal business, didn’t you?
“Absolutely. The first sketches for the Jeddah Street Circuit were started in December 2020 and the Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia took place on 5 December 2021. This is precisely what set this project apart: A complete Formula 1 race track built from scratch within one year. That is a record achievement.”
You’ve designed many different tracks – for Formula 1, MotoGP and also tracks for the Porsche Experience Center. What is the usual process for building a racetrack?
“We often have the opportunity to scout the land with the client, which is hugely helpful. From there it goes to the first workshops where we consider what the character of this racetrack could be. This depends, of course, on the land itself – by that I mean how many height differences there are. And the size and shape of the parcel of land also play a role. Sometimes we have the opportunity, for example, to turn the track so that the spectators on the grandstand are not looking into the sun at the start of the race. Once we have discussed all that in several workshops, we have the first basic concept."
“This then goes into the computer, where the driving dynamics are examined and then fed into a driving simulator here so that we can drive the track. Towards the start of construction, we must then ensure that everything is correctly coordinated and that we will be finished on time. But even when the track is complete, that is not the end of the project for us. We continue to provide support to the track on technical issues, but then gradually we step back from the operation.”
How do Formula 1 layouts differ from the Porsche Experience Center layouts currently being planned?
“In general, the process is the same for all tracks – whether it’s an Experience Center track, a Formula 1 track, or a MotoGP track. The PEC [Porsche Experience Center] tracks are used somewhat differently. Mostly not for actual racing, but instead for training or for Porsche Experience events. Therefore, the layout must be such that it is interesting for everyone, whether professional drivers or not. Over the years, we have built six PEC tracks. In Atlanta, for example, the track was completed in 2015 – an extension is currently being built there because it was so well received. Hockenheim is an incredible PEC track.”
Whenever I’m on site, I always drive the track, regardless of what condition it is in, simply to feel what it’s like
When you think of how to design a racetrack, what – for you – does it need to have to be a good one?
“The most important thing is the ‘third dimension’ when driving. That you feel a compression as if the car is dropping into a ‘hole’ or when you drive over a crest and feel raised up. But what’s also really important for the driver to feel that dynamism is the cross slope of the bend. For this, you have to be very detail-focused during planning when it comes to what’s happening in the car in terms of driving dynamics. So, off-camber curves – ie, curves with an ‘incorrect’ cross slope, that cause you to oversteer – or curves with ‘banking’ – the exact opposite – are just two options available in track design.”
Do you drive every track once it’s finished?
“I drive them, but not in the sense of racing on them. I have stopped actively racing. But yes, of course, I drive the tracks – and from the very early phases in fact, even when there is only hardcore along the route, and then in every subsequent phase [laughs]. Whenever I’m on site, I always drive the track, regardless of what condition it is in. Simply to feel what it’s like.”
What car do you prefer to drive on racetracks around the world?
“These days I would absolutely choose the Porsche 911 GT3. Simply because it is the most fun. The GT3 is such a cool car and so great to drive. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had much opportunity to enjoy the RSR. The next time you ask me that, perhaps I will say the Porsche RSR – when I’ve had the chance to really drive it!”