Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Coming to America

The first Formula 1 US Grand Prix came in 1959, when Sebring, Florida hosted the championship decider between Ferrari’s Tony Brooks and the Coopers of Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss at the final race of the season. Brabham prevailed that day, pushing his out-of-fuel car over the line to claim his first of three titles, but while the US has featured on nearly every F1 calendar since then, Florida has never reappeared; F1 instead drifted around the US, from cites like Las Vegas and Detroit to permanent facilities such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Circuit of the Americas.

But after a 62-year absence, Formula 1 recently announced its return to Florida with the new 2022 Miami Grand Prix.

News of the race initially broke during the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekend, but on Thursday, F1 debuted the track layout in a new video simulation, giving fans a taste of what to expect next season. 

The track snakes its way around Hard Rock Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins, and is composed of 19 corners and three straights (and therefore three potential DRS zones). As a street track, it looks quite narrow and feels reminiscent of the stillborn Hanoi Street Circuit, designed for the inaugural Vietnamese Grand Prix, which was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The average speed around the Miami track is predicted to be 138 mph, significantly faster than street circuits like Singapore and Monaco, and many corners will be taken flat out, like turns nine and ten which effectively form the straight ending at the tight hairpin of turn 11. Turns 11 and 17 certainly seem like good overtaking opportunities, but the length of the straights that precede them could make DRS too powerful. This would lead to most passing happening on the straight rather than into the braking zones. The front straight is much shorter, so turn one could end up creating the most exciting passing moves, since the reduced power of DRS would force drivers to execute their passes under braking. 

Visually, the track is pretty bland—in the video, not much besides the barriers, stadium, grandstands, and some palm trees are visible from the onboard. Essentially constructed in the arena’s expansive parking lot, there aren’t buildings lining the track like in Baku or Monaco, making it blend in with other recent street track designs like Jeddah or Hanoi. While Jeddah benefits from some drastic elevation changes, the Miami circuit sits on incredibly flat land, leaving it feeling devoid of character.

The Miami Grand Prix will likely take place in June, when the rainy season is just getting underway, so the weather might mix up the grid and create some thrilling races. Turn seven could also be an interesting part of the track—the decreasing radius, one of the hardest types of corners to navigate, means the ideal racing line will require braking deep and clipping a late apex, which could see some lockups or late lunges. 

Ultimately, having exciting battles around the Hard Rock Stadium Circuit will depend on the success of the new aerodynamic regulations coming in 2022, and we won’t truly know how close the racing will be until the start of the season. If the cars can follow one another easily and DRS becomes unnecessary, the Miami Grand Prix could be an exciting proposition, but until then, the potential for overpowering DRS and the circuit’s anonymity overshadow any positive takeaways. 

In other news this week

Red Bull took one of its first major steps in creating its own engine division, after Honda chose to exit Formula 1 after 2021. Red Bull, which will continue adapting Honda’s engine until crafting their own for the new 2025 rules, hired Ben Hodgkinson, current Head of Mechanical Engineering for Mercedes’ engine squad, as their Technical Director. Hodgkinson has been with the Brackley-based team for nearly two decades, and when he joins Red Bull after his Mercedes contract ends this season, he will focus on development for the 2025 power unit. 

This move from Red Bull is extremely encouraging on two levels—first, it indicates a long-term commitment from Red Bull, not just to Formula 1, but returning to their championship-winning ways by taking matters into their own hands. Red Bull has always purchased its engines, and during the hybrid era the power units from Renault and Honda have often undermined Red Bull’s strong aero and chassis development. Perhaps Red Bull will find better success by building its own engines. 

Hodgkinson’s signing also shows optimism for the competitiveness of Red Bull’s future power units. Not only have they acquired one of the sport’s top talents, but the fact that Hodgkinson left the dominant Mercedes for Red Bull shows his confidence in the team’s ability to reach its goal of winning championships. 

– This week also saw F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali reveal to Sky Sports F1 the plans for a trial run of Saturday sprint races that are expected to be approved soon. These shorter events, at one-third of a standard race distance, would act as qualifying for the main grand prix on Sunday, with the sprint race grid set by a qualifying session on Friday. The proposal is for sprint races at three 2021 events, and could be approved at the World Motorsport Council as soon as Monday, April 26. 

Although the apparent reason for sprint races is to spice things up by adding more action and unpredictability, the plan seems more like marketing ploy to attract more viewership across a race weekend. While Fridays are currently reserved for practice, which draws few eyes outside of the F1 faithful, having the high intensity qualifying session on Friday and a wheel-to-wheel race on Saturday as well as Sunday would likely increase fan engagement, and therefore revenue. 

But what this proposal ignores is that fact that F1 doesn’t need more racing, it just needs better racing. The F1 calendar has already ballooned to 23 races, and since the sprint race grids will be dictated by a normal qualifying session, they will likely have the same predictable outcome of Mercedes and Red Bull starting at the front. This could also lead to more processional grand prix on Sundays—since the sprint race decides Sunday’s starting grid, the field will already be ordered by race pace and will likely remain relatively unchanged throughout the race. 

The sprint race proposal will also diminish the significance of the main grand prix event. The points gained during Sunday’s race will lose value with points now up for grabs on Saturdays, and the grand prix will now not be the only session to feature wheel-to-wheel racing. The sprint race format also threatens to distract from the grands prix—the energy won’t build throughout the weekend towards the “main show,” as there will instead be more emphasis on collecting points on Saturday as well as Sunday.  

– Lastly, it appears that Imola may have a future in Formula 1, after journalist Beatrice Zamuner tweeted that Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio told Sky Italia “We are working to bring F1 to Imola again.” This would please fans after the track produced a gripping race on Sunday, and could get even more enthralling when the cars can follow more closely with the new regulations. And with the addition of new events like Miami and Saudi Arabia, fans will be relieved to hear that F1’s historic venues still have a place in the series. 

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