This weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix brings Formula 1 back to the historic Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City for the first time since 1992, when Nigel Mansell led Williams team-mate Riccardo Patrese to a dominant one-two on his way to the World Championship in the all-conquering FW14B.
The high-altitude circuit, named in honour of Mexico’s greatest sibling racers, Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, first hosted a world Championship GP in 1963. On that occasion Jim Clark’s Lotus 25 thrashed the opposition to the tune of almost two minutes.
The race continued until 1970, after which it fell off the calendar due to woeful safety standards. Images of hundreds of fans sitting on the grass close to the track edge, and animals roaming around, still cause sharp intakes of breath, and it would be 16 years before the race returned, on a slightly shorter version of the layout. Six more races took place after Gerhard Berger’s maiden win for Benetton in 1986, before F1 again fell out of love with Mexico.
In the subsequent 23 years, precious little international action took place, although the US IndyCar series visited six times between 2002 and 2007. All told, the venue needed much attention to get it up to F1 standard.
That work is now complete yet, while the layout retains much of its original shape, the fabulous, super-fast 180-degree Peraltada right-hander at the end of the lap is still a thing of the past. Remember Nigel Mansell hurling his downforce-laden, spark-showering Ferrari around the outside of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren to take second place in 1990? It was one of F1’s greatest challenges, lost forever.
And that got us thinking: which F1 circuits that, thanks to emasculation, became poor relations of their former selves? Which venues lost a bit of their original magic, charm and appeal – to drivers and race fans? And, before you ask, no, Spa-Francorchamps is not on the list because, despite being half its original – and terrifying – length, it’s still mega.
5. SILVERSTONE – ENGLAND
The home of British motorsport remains a superb racetrack, with some huge challenges, but the spirit of Silverstone, host of the very first World Championship GP in May 1950, has slowly been lost due to endless changes to the Northamptonshire airfield venue. Purists recall the maximum-attack layout of Copse, Maggotts, Becketts, Hangar, Stowe, Club, Abbey and Woodcote, but big alterations to just about every part of the track – dog-leg left/right before Woodcote (1987), the Complex/Becketts/Vale set-up (1991), the Abbey chicane (1994) and the addition of the infield Arena section for 2010 – means it doesn’t command quite the same aura.
4. BUENOS AIRES – ARGENTINA
The Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez in Buenos Aires was built in 1952 and would host 20 World Championship Argentinian Grands Prix between 1953 and 1998. Numerous layouts were used, the shortest in 1972 and ’73, the longest, with a super-fast loop comprising two long straights connected by the daunting, flat-out Curvon de Salotto, from 1974 and 1981.
When Argentina rejoined the calendar for 1995, a 2.6-mile, twisty version was used and it didn’t have the same appeal – especially as you could see the old bits snaking off into the distance. By 1998 there was no interest in – or money for – F1 and that was that.
3. IMOLA – SAN MARINO
The death of Ayrton Senna during the 1994 San Marino GP at Imola sparked probably the biggest safety overhaul that F1 had ever seen, much of it described as ‘knee-jerk’ by many observers – including a chicane at Eau Rouge for the 1994 Belgian GP at Spa (designed by Michael Schumacher, and greatly benefiting the traction of his Benetton, ed). The swingeing changes affected cars and circuits and the wonderfully atmospheric topography that made up the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, host to 26 San Marino GPs and one Italian GP, didn’t go unpunished. The very public death of the greatest driver of his generation changed the sport forever.
The foot-planted and wide-eyed run through Tamburello (where Senna crashed) and Villeneuve on the approach to the Tosa hairpin was one of the greatest sections of any F1 circuit, but the presence of chicanes has now changed that forever.
2. OSTERREICHRING – AUSTRIA
Eighteen times during the 1970s and most of the ’80s, the majestic sweeps of the Osterreichring carried drivers on F1’s fastest and most picturesque rollercoaster through Austria’s Styrian Mountains. It was a driver and fan favourite, right up there with the best of them. Its disappearance from the calendar was much lamented, with the excitement of a return for 1997 soon quashed by news that the new venue, uninspiringly named the A1-Ring in deference to the Austrian telecomms company that funded the redesign, would bypass much of the original, including the Hella Licht S, the Flatschach and Dr Tiroch Kurve, not to mention the epic downhill plunges of the Bosch Kurve and Jochen Rindt Kurve.
The 2003 race was the last on the A1-Ring, but Red Bull drinks magnate Dietrich Mateschitz bought the remains and, to his credit, brought it back for 2014, with superb new facilities and viewing opportunities. The circuit is popular with the modern F1 breed, but it’s still not what it once was.
1. HOCKENHEIM – GERMANY
Cars blasting out of the Turn 1 Nordkurve and off into dense forests characterised Germany’s Hockenheim circuit for many years. It was first used in 1970 after the Nurburgring Nordschleife was temporarily boycotted on safety grounds. After Niki Lauda’s 1976 accident sounded the death knell for the 14-mile ’Ring, Hockenheim became the home of the German GP. And the sight and sound of cars flat out between the trees, punctuated with fast chicanes, was exhilarating for fans.
And then, for 2002, they cut it in half, ripped up the old asphalt and planted trees, instantly ending any chance of a reprieve for the old configuration. A terrible waste.