The debate over the addition of new circuits to various racing calendars will rage for years and years to come. And while in some cases the new arrives as an addition, there are many classic tracks that have fallen by the wayside in the face of progress. Here we’ve picked seven of our favourites.
The seven best circuits that no longer exist
The Circuit de Charade had it all – set in the mountainous Massif Central of central France, near the city of Clermont-Ferrand, it could rival the Nordschleife for a challenge. The full circuit was 8km (5 miles) long, but managed to pack in so many corners that the longest straight was measured at just 650 yards. That, added to its mountainside setting, meant Charade was deemed to be a “twistier, faster version of the Nüburgring” – just imagine someone creating a circuit like that today. So fast, full of elevation changes and twisty was it, that it would give some seasoned racers (including Jochen Rindt) motion sickness, causing them to race with open face helmets to help them get through the battle. But the drivers embraced it. After his first race there, in 1959, Sir Stirling Moss declared “I don’t know a more wonderful track than Charade”.
The circuit’s biggest advantage – its setting in the mountainous countryside – would be its biggest downfall. Firstly the volcanic area would lead to thousands of small, sharp stones falling on the tarmac. These would cause regular punctures, and even ended the career of current Red Bull talent chief Helmut Marko, when a stone punctured his visor and blinded him in one eye. The mountainous landscape also left little room for runoff. With the growth in safety standards for motorsport the circuit fell out of fashion. Eventually it, like many others, would be reprofiled. The modern version, a 3.9km (2.4 mile) strip of tarmac including some of the early and late corners, is good, but it’s not the legend that came before.
Some potential controversy first up, there are many out there who are fans of the new version of Silverstone. Indeed I’m not averse to its flowing fast corners, the problem is that the old version was... better. We’re not talking about the layout used from 1990 onward, that neutered some of the best sections of the track, although the new Maggots/Becketts/Chapel esses were arguably an improvement. No we’re talking about the version largely used from 1949 to 1990. This was the fastest track on the calendar, a mighty blast around the outside of the former RAF base on the outskirts of the small Northamptonshire village of Silverstone. Many of the corner names remain, but they are shadows of what they once were. Stowe and Club were once almost identical high-speed right-handers, requiring a couple of brave pills to really get right, Woodcote (pre-chicanes), with its unbroken run-up from Abbey, and wider radius than Stowe, was the fastest corner in F1. Abbey was a wickedly fast left handed kink which would be flat in today’s F1 cars, but would still look spectacular. While some corners that followed on the many versions of Silverstone since have been spectacular (the new Abbey is a balls-ey corner, Bridge was a test of grit) the flow has never been quite the same.
Almost anyone on a cross-European road trip now finds themselves stopping at this city in North-Eastern France. While most will visit for the local delicacy (it remains the home of champagne) petrolheads gather to take pictures of an old relic. The circuit of Reims-Gueux was a high-speed blast through the countryside of Champagne. It featured two 2.2km straights, a couple of hairpins and a high-speed section of fast corners connecting them. The home of the French Grand Prix for many years the simple nature of Reims meant it saw many slipstream battles through its history, with average race speeds touching 200km/h (120mph) at times. It is now the monolithic grandstands and simple, brightly decorated pit buildings that people visit. Standing out as odd reminders by the side of an otherwise unremarkable road. Reims fell out of fashion in the late 1960s as motorsport moved to permanent facilities rather than road courses. Now the grandstands and pits are all that remain to remind us of a time when Formula 1 cars sliced their way through these vineyard-laden lands.
The circuit that the Targa Florio covered for the majority of its life is called the Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie. In English that is the Small Circuit of the Madonie. Indeed it was a reduction in size when it was introduced in 1955, replacing the monstrous tour of the entire island of Sicily that had gone before. But small is a relative term, the course of the Targa Florio until 1973 was a 72km (45 mile) lap... and they did up to 14 laps per race. It sounds more like a rally than a racing event (the circuit is used today for a historic rally) but in fact this behemoth was used as a part of the World Sportscar Championship for many years in the mid-20th Century.
The Piccolo course had upward of 800 corners for each lap, making the ‘Ring look frankly simple. It meant that learning the whole course was nigh-on impossible, no matter how many times you had raced there. Not only that, but if you wanted to learn it beforehand, or even gain some knowledge of what was upcoming, you needed to go out when the public where around, since it was set entirely on public roads. You might imagine this a course for just small, nimble racing cars, but since it was a world renowned race until into the 1970s it saw the likes of Porsche’s 908/3 (picked because the 917 was probably a little too heavy) and even the Alfa Romeo 33TT12 flying round. Plus, the course didn’t just pick its way through the countryside, at several points these mighty machines would be hurtling through tiny Sicilian villages, the kind of landscape you expect to see in The Godfather, not Le Mans. It must have been a truly incredible sight.
We’re very lucky that during the fall of the old big public road circuits from F1 grace the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps underwent a brilliant rerouting. The modern circuit is one of the best in the world, featuring a series of fast, flowing corners through awesome elevation changes. The thing is, it isn’t anything on the old course. That circuit, fully 14.1km (8.6 mile) was one of the most daunting tasks the motorsport world has seen. Where the current circuit heads off downhill with a right, left, right complex at Les Combes, the old went the other way, through a rapid left hand downhill turn, plunging toward the small villages of Burnenville and Malmedy. Through Burnenville was found one of Formula 1’s most legendary corners, an almost everlasting righthander that dipped and dipped and dipped until it felt like the world was going to end before the corner. Masta’s famous chip shop heralds the kink, which would catch many out with its fast left/right while the cars continued to plunge downhill to the village of Stavelot. There the cars climbed and climbed, in a flat-out set of curves knows as La Carriere.
All these corners can be driven today in a road car, as they make up the local roads, and every one will leave you completely disbelieving that people could ever have raced F1 cars here. It shows how high speed and daunting a circuit it was, that even for all the advances of modern racing cars, the average speed of Valtteri Bottas’s lap record of the new circuit is actually nearly 20mph slower than Henri Pescarolo’s record on the old track, in 1973... in a sportscar.
The only American circuit on our list, Riverside was known to many as “The House that Dan Gurney built”. The great American racer grew up nearby, made his name at the circuit, tested there and had the idea that IndyCar race there. It is footage of Can-Am cars attacking this ribbon of tarmac through the Californian desert that hooked us. The circuit immediately climbs and dips through a series of high-speed, high-risk left-right twists. Imagine throwing a mighty Can-Am car, all power and no grip, through these fast twits, plunging through Riverside’s rollercoaster triple hairpins before feeling all that V8 might power down the massive 1.1-mile straight.
Riverside was spectacular and dangerous, with its dips and downhill braking zones catching many out. Sadly due to the creep of local housing the circuit always lived its life under threat. First from noise complaints from nearby houses, then from rising land values tempting developers. Finally, after hosting IMSA races, NASCAR, IndyCar and more, it closed in 1989. By 1992 the land was a shopping mall, and the final remnants of track were torn away in 2003.
On paper Avus is, frankly, rubbish. It’s two straights and two hairpins. Even its name is uninspiring – AVUS is an acronym, Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstaße means “Automobile traffic and training road” in English. Indeed it was built partly as a race track, and partly for manufacturers to test their cars. But what it’s two humongous straights – Avus is a whopping 8.3km (5.1 miles) long – created was an arms race for top speed. And then they went and raised the stakes. In 1936 they wanted the cars to go even faster, so they installed a high, 43-degree bank at the north curve. In 1937 cars turned up to race on this new, even higher-speed, track with ultra-slippery streamlined bodywork. Luigi Fagioli claimed pole with an average speed of 280km/h (174mph). The fastest lap of that race (276km/h, 171mph) would not be beaten as the fastest racing lap ever until the 1986 Indianapolis 500. That big north banking was nicknamed “The wall of death” as it had zero protection at the top, so if you got it wrong the banking was transformed into a launch ramp. The thing that made it famous would be the thing that brought it down. Those speeds became untenable even in the 1940s. Gradually Avus was shortened, chicanes were added, the banking was dismantled in 1967, and now all that remains is some motorway.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Which is your favourite old-school circuit?
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