There are few professions that demand such a combination of creativity, technical competence and resilience to criticism, as architecture. In particular when designing sporting arenas, one is immediately surrounded by pundits convinced they can do better.
Hermann Tilke has since 1994 been at the centre of this pressure, involved with almost every track on the Formula One calendar. Work has ranged from ‘makeovers’ of long-established circuits such as Barcelona, Monza, Nürburgring and Hockenheim, to ‘new build’ tracks at Sepang, Shanghai, Bahrain and Istanbul, and the sport’s newest venues in Abu Dhabi and Korea.
This year the Tilke-designed Jaypee Group Circuit on the outskirts of New Delhi, will in October host the inaugural Formula 1™ Grand Prix of India. Meanwhile another team of Tilke designers and engineers is immersed in the creation of the USA’s first purpose-made Formula One venue at Austin in Texas, ahead of it gaining its place on the 2012 calendar.
Tilke GmbH is described as an “interdisciplinary skilled team of more than 350 engineers and architects”, with offices in Bahrain, the UAE, Singapore, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Azerbijan and India, as well as the company headquarters in Aachen in Germany. Herman initially trained as a civil engineer at Aachen’s University of Applied Sciences before starting his company in partnership with fellow graduate Peter Wahl, but it is a lesser-known fact that Tilke is an accomplished car racer in his own right.
Tilke has a particular enthusiasm for endurance touring car races on the classic Nurburgring Nordschliefe, the fearsome lap of some 25km which was abandoned by Formula One after Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in 1976. He now has more than 100 races on the track to his credit, has scored victories in VLN endurance races, in addition to racing 500 hp V8 Star cars.
“Since my childhood I have had a great passion for motor racing and started racing myself when I was 18,” says Tilke. “Once I graduated, I became self-employed - always having had the wish to design tracks and incorporate racing into my profession.”
Tilke’s first track project was a short access road at the Nürburgring, gained through contacts made in racing. In 1993, he won his first major contract, the upgrading of the super-fast Österreichring in Austria.
It was an ambitious transformation. The old track was regarded as a classic alongside Spa Francorchamps or Monza, but it was narrow and lacked run-off areas leading to a disproportionate number of accidents. The final Grand Prix on the old track even necessitated three attempts to start the race.
Tilke’s redevelopment created the safer, shorter A1-Ring which hosted the Austrian Grand Prix again from 1997 to 2003, but it also taught Tilke something of the fickle nature of drivers and fans.
“The long track could not be kept as it was. It needed to be shortened dramatically” says Tilke. “At the beginning, when we built it, everyone was saying, ‘what have you done?’ and so on. Then after a while, opinions changed and the drivers liked it. We learned a great deal and since then we have built more than 50 circuits worldwide.”
So where does the inspiration come from to create a race track? Is it the topography, the future use or outside influences that shape a track? Contrary to popular opinion, outlines of the perfect track are not sketched out on table cloths in local restaurants!
“Every track is unique, has its challenges and its own atmosphere” says Tilke, “but I see myself first as an engineer, rather than an artist. At the beginning we have to perform a careful and intensive research of the property, the surrounding area and region, outer influences and local conditions.
“Detail is essential. The budget is very important and like everywhere else we pay attention to bureaucracy, but we do stay out of politics.
“The topography, characteristics of the premises, the atmosphere that surrounds the site, critical details of the main wind direction, soil quality, infrastructure, road access, and the routes for spectators and visitors, are all extremely important. Once we have done this we start our first sketches.”
Digital mock-ups also simulate the views for the spectators and can therefore predict what they will see. One aim is wherever possible, to get the trackside spectators as close, and as safely, as possible to the action.
However the modern FIA need for wide run-off areas which inevitably leads to comparison with older tracks where the guardrail is close to the edge of the track. Tilke also points out that most track owners and investors want to have motorcycle races too. Motorcycles have to have even more run-off, often at corners where it is not needed for F1 cars.
One novel solution was developed at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi. At turn 8, the tight left-hand hairpin at the end of the 1.1km back straight, the run-off area actually extends underneath elevated grandstand seats.
However good the view, it is of little consequence if all the spectator can watch is a procession. Some tracks have been criticised for a lack of overtaking and Tilke accepts that there are some who use the generic title of “Tilkedrome”. Does that bother him?
“No not at all. We take it very seriously. Frequently criticism is associated negatively but often it can also help you learn and make you aware of things. We listen carefully to criticism. And yes, one can design to encourage overtaking. Improvements to the initial design are allowed for to a certain extent too.”
A long straight, followed by hard braking into a slow hairpin was traditionally regarded as being the formula for overtaking. However the greater dependence on aerodynamic downforce has changed things. As a pursuing car loses grip on a corner leading onto a straight, it cannot follow other cars sufficiently closely to pass.
“The best thing now is to have not only one corner, but to have a combination of slow corners before a straight” says Tilke. “You need more than one corner to bring it together, it means if the car behind is faster then he can get close to the car in front.”
One of Tilke’s most conspicuous successes is the fearsome Turn 8 at the Istanbul’s Park Circuit. The ultra-long, quadruple apex corner is entered at more 300km/h, at which point the drivers sustain a cornering load of 4 times the force of gravity for 4 seconds. It is almost universally regarded as the best corner in Formula One - but was it created by accident or design?
“It was designed” says Tilke. “Its speciality is its elevation. 2-dimensional wise the complete curve is already interesting and within the curve itself 3 elevation changes have been implemented which results in a “wave” effect and that makes it unique and is very difficult to drive.”
Tilke also points out that while no sane person would ever attempt overtaking on Turn 8, it contributes to passing on other parts of the circuit. The cars generate such immense downforce they often bottom out. On a straight, bottoming out is not such a problem but in a corner like Turn 8, it could push them off the track. So the teams must raise the cars for this corner, compromising their downforce for other parts of the track.
Of course, Hermann Tilke’s long relationship with Formula One means close links with impresario Bernie Ecclestone. As might be expected, he is coy on the subject: “I have discussed a lot of things, and a lot of good ideas come from Bernie Ecclestone. He helps a lot in terms of the design due to his experience. We always have fruitful discussions with a successful outcome.
There is no generic “Tilke” design language. Instead local tones have carried into the hibiscus flower grandstand roofs in Sepang, the traditional Arabic themes in the Bahrain pit lane buildings and even the shape of the Shanghai track which symbolises the Chinese character “shang” meaning to rise or ascend.
“Every track is unique, has its challenges and its own atmosphere” says Tilke. “We aim to create facilities that have a high recognition value in terms of the tradition and culture of the country. If possible, each circuit should be recognisable by its architecture.”
Tilke points to the Yas Marina track in Abu Dhabi with the surrounding marina, hotel spanning the track and culture-related architecture all embedded into overall design and is equally enthusiastic about what will come next: “The New Delhi track is looking very good. We are within the time schedule and it is great working with the people of Jaypee.”
Looking ahead to the return of Formula One to the USA, where spectators are used to stadium-type events, we ask Tilke whether Austin, Texas need a new approach to attract the American audience.
“Definitely. We need to consider the special wishes of the spectators in America. A huge arena is planned and I believe audiences will be looking forward to the event.”
So, where to next in the world for Formula One? Tilke smiles: “Where ever the sport will take us.”