I haven’t written a Formula 1 post yet. Funny that, with all the stupidity that seems to spill out of Bernie Ecclestone’s mouth almost daily.
But it is one photo that is being circulated over the internet has tipped me over the edge. But not for the obvious reason.
The owners of the Autodromo Nazionale Monza have decided to remove a gravel run off area at the end of the straight leading into the famous Parabolica corner and replace it with tarmac.
By the reaction of some people, you’d think they had installed a chicane on corner entry.
It’s important to remember: Monza is not a slow track. Despite three chicanes installed to break up the flow and the sheer speed of the place, the average speed for a lap around the 5.8km is 260kmh. Let that sink in: the AVERAGE speed is 260km/h.
Here’s the thing about the Parabolica: It’s a single-line bend. It’s a long one. It’s 180° and lasts for a good 4 seconds of an 80 second lap. For a circuit that is made up of straights in a park, that’s quite a lot. You want to stay as far to the inside as possible.
The circuit’s longest straight follows the Parabolica, so just going off-line through the Parabolica can cost you up to 3 seconds as you will be down on potential maximum velocity all the way down the 1.2km front straight. It is not ideal.
It’s such a long corner that even if you do get on the throttle too early, it could be another 2 seconds before you realise that you won’t be able to keep your right foot to the floor and make the corner exit, and have to feather, or worse still, lift totally for that brief moment.
A trend you will find on all FIA approved motorsport tracks around the world is tarmac run off areas. Extensive FIA research has found that an out of control car is safer traveling and decelerating through a flat tarmac zone than an unpredictably undulating gravel trap. Gravel runs the risk of flipping a car, tarmac keeps it level. A car flipped over onto tarmac is safer for the driver of that vehicle than a turned over car being arrested by gravel.
If there is still gravel used, it is for low speed corners with entry speeds that aren’t particularly high. That is why for notoriously fast circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps, the very fast corners/kinks such as Eau Rouge (in the background of image below), Phouon and Blanchimont are tarmac, while the slower entry corners – such as Malmedy and Stavelot are gravel.
At Suzuka, Turn 1 (below), Spoon curve and the legendary 130R (second image below) are paved, while the Degner, the snake (turns 3 to 7) and the slower entry hairpin is gravel.
At Monza, the approach speed to the Parabolica is 320km/h. With hybrid turbo engines in 2014, it could be over 350km/h. The braking point is 50m from the corner entry. The entry speed is well over 200 km/h. It is one of the fastest corner on the calendar.
The entry to the Parabolica is similar to the entry to Turn 1 at Suzuka. Very fast, little braking, single line. Little to gain, very much time to lose. But has a tarmac run off killed Suzuka? Of course it hasn’t. If you make a mistake you are still going to go wide and lose time, maybe a few positions if you have cars behind.
But it’s what happens on the way IN to the corner that the tarmac is designed for. The following are what can go wrong at the end of a regular straight with gravel as a run off. A straight that hits only 300km/h.
And this is what happens when there is tarmac:
The main job of a run off area is to allow space for an out-of-control car to decelerates as it finds its way towards a barrier. The problem with tarmac is that it allows a car that has simply overshot a braking or tun in point to correct a mistake and barely lose a second whereas in the past, having to traverse a gravel trap could cost anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds, or if you really got it wrong, beach the car and deliver a DNF.
The safety features of a Formula 1 car and track work best when everything is upright and level. Tyre walls and belts covering them, impact protection systems, HANS devices and wheel tethers are just a few I could mention. They are more likely to protect the driver as designed and tested when the car is sliding on tarmac instead of rolling uncontrollably on gravel.
How does this link back to the complaining about “the Parabolica is dead”? A tarmac run off that runs too far around the outside of the corner will allow drivers making a mistake to rejoin the track barely losing any time. We see it quite often every second week without fail.
Below is the previous aerial image of Monza, but this time with a driving line superimposed.
If they are going to create a tarmac run off that drivers can take advantage of, it will need to go all the way around to where the yellow overhead banner is. That is approximately where drivers touch the white line on the outside of the exit of the Parabolica.
Even if the tarmac reaches around to the first 90° of the bend, it is still going to be so far off the racing line that a driver will lose quite a bit of time. Any driver that goes off there is likely to have a mechanical failure that would see them retire or need a pit stop.
It may see cars rejoin the race track and continue on, but so what? Better to have a run off zone that is proven to retard a damaged car’s velocity that to have it hurtle out of control through gravel.
And to the argument that we haven’t had a fatal crash at the Parabolica since Jochen Rindt in 1970: all the more reason to keep it fatality free. Better to be proactive that reactive.
A new tarmac area isn’t going to destroy the Parabolica or Monza in general. It will still be the same magical venue. It will still feature the same mad Tifosi chanting for Ferrari. It will still be the fastest race on the calendar. It will still be Monza.
It is just that now it’s a bit safer in the event of a car failure at the wrong point of the circuit.
There’s many things in Formula 1 worth complaining about. Circuit safety at the fastest circuit isn’t one of them.