From Indianapolis to Daytona to Monaco, famous racetracks can take on a life and mystique of their own. How they're designed and built can be as complicated and circuitous as the twists and turns that they make race cars endure.
Some tracks, like the Indy course at Toronto's Exhibition Place, aren't so much designed as simply laid out and constructed.
As vice-president and general manager of the Honda Indy Toronto, Charlie Johnstone is also the de facto track designer - he didn't map out the track, but it's up to him to maintain its design and update it as necessary, working closely with officials from ASN FIA Canada, the Canadian representatives of the FIA (International Automobile Federation), motorsport's international governing body.
The first Indy-style race took place in Toronto in 1986, making this year the 25th anniversary of the race (there was no race in 2008). The 11-turn, 2.824-km (1.76-mile) track makes use of both Canadian National Exhibition grounds and city streets.
Street circuits present a unique challenge to racetrack designers in that designers need to figure out the best vantage points that allow fans to see a race, while allowing race cars to safely manoeuvre around existing buildings and other structures.
"On a street circuit, it's not like we can build new roads, and we have to accommodate the fans," says Johnstone. "The overriding factor becomes safety; of the drivers and the fans."
Johnstone believes when an Indy-style racetrack was first discussed for the city in the late 1970s, initial plans called for the Lakeshore straightaway to extend to the western edge of Exhibition Place, well beyond its current location. But, says Johnstone, that would have meant an excessively long straightaway that would be great for drivers testing the red line on their cars, but not so great for fans who would have had to wait too long for the cars to make a return appearance.
An ideal time for a complete lap is between 60 and 90 seconds. (In 1999, Gil de Ferran recorded the fastest pole time registered for the track with a lap of 57.143 seconds.)
"It's pretty unique to have a back straight like Lakeshore on a street course," he says, especially compared to notoriously tight street courses like Monaco, which offer drivers too few passing options.
The track's design is also inspected by FIA officials every year and if there's wheel-to-wheel contact during a race. "We look at every accident that happens to see if we can make any improvements to the course," says Johnstone. "The cars are analyzed, as well as the walls and fences, to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do."
The track will get some new walls and fences in time for this year's event, partly funded by the federal government. They were redesigned to meet FIA specifications for height, thickness and weight.
"We're the only sport that builds our stadium and tears it down every year," says Johnstone.
Roger Peart knows all about motorsport "stadiums" such as the Honda Indy racetrack. Peart is the president of ASN Canada FIA. In addition to his work inspecting racetracks and working around the world for FIA, Peart can also lay claim to designing what became known as Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, in 1977.
At the time, Peart was an engineer by trade and a part-time race driver. Labatt held the sponsorship rights to F1 in Canada and had decided to move the race from Mosport. Peart, who had also become involved in track safety and race officiating, took it upon himself, with Labatt's support, to design a track on Ile Notre Dame. At the time, the Expo 67 buildings were languishing on the site and some were ready to be condemned; so Peart thought it would be a great spot for a racetrack.
But an island presents its own unique challenges.
"We had a lot of water, but not much land," he says. "I would have liked to take advantage of the grandstand that faced the (Olympic) rowing area, but that was impossible. So we had to squeeze both directions of the track behind that grandstand.
"We ended up creating the hairpin, which has become a very popular spot."
The track came together over just a matter of months - the design was approved in May, 1977, and the first F1 race took place in November. It received the perfect opening-day gift when Canadian Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve won the first Grand Prix on Nov. 13, 1977.
Since that time, Peart has remained active in track design and safety and became a member of the FIA Circuits Commission in 1979. All his work on track inspections hinges on safety, the definition of which has evolved from catch-fences to gravel traps to systems using sophisticated computer models.
One such system is in use by FIA. Making use of CAD drawings supplied by tracks around the world, the system can plot the ideal racing line around a particular track, using data from a selection of racing cars, with Formula One cars setting the fastest benchmark.
The system can plot the escape line of a car that has lost control and is leaving the track, mapping how far it will go before coming to a stop. "It will allow you to look at the amount of runoff room, and make modifications (to make that portion of the track safer)," he said.
Like Peart, designer Alan Wilson was a driver first and a track designer second. He also worked at the Brands Hatch circuit in the U.K. in the late 1970s, became involved in track safety, which led to track design and eventually to full-time work as a track designer. The process of seeing a racetrack from concept to design to construction can be long and difficult, yet he still gets about three requests a week to design one, and has designed about 100 in his career, with 31 tracks completed and operating.
Wilson says the requests to design a racetrack usually originate with an enthusiast or business person looking to develop a parcel of land. Often, he adds, they have "strong pre-conceived ideas" of what they want the finished project to look like.
Wilson's first task is make a general assessment of the business aspects of the project and get a sense of the environmental impact a racetrack would have on the area - it can't be near wetlands, for example - and he'll look at overall terrain and identify infrastructure issues such as proximity of access to sewer and water services and ease of access for pedestrians and motorists.
From that point, he'll try to find the flattest piece of land to situate the paddocks and the main straightaway along with the main entrance.
Tracks are typically built to accommodate a variety of racing machines, from motorcycles to vintage cars, so the main straightaway should be about 2,000 feet in length. Like other designers, Wilson keeps safety a top priority as the design begins to take shape, but he also tries to take into account harder to define elements such as where the sun will hit a driver's eyes at a certain time of day.
Wilson designs the track with motorcycle racing in mind - cars can race on a motorcycle track because of their width and huge runoff areas. Typically, Wilson says customers will ask for one 150-mph (240-km/h) corner, and he tells then they'll also need a 2,500-foot straightaway that will allow the cars to build up the speed necessary to take a 150-mph corner. They then also need a large safety zone and a wide radius near the turn, in keeping with FIA guidelines.
Early on in its development, a track will begin to develop its own character as the designers and their teams begin to adapt the track to the natural terrain. Wilson is currently working on a new motorsports complex in New Orleans (which will be part country club, race track and private driving facility). The terrain there is mostly flat, with some of it below sea level, which means the ground is fairly soft and it's difficult to add weight to it.
At Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa, a track he also designed (based on an old track) and which remains one of his favourites, designers and construction crews had quite a different challenge. They had to work around the rocky terrain - a turn is named Big Rock.
"At Calabogie, it's an organic track. It's the only one I didn't design on a computer," says Wilson. "The terrain was so different that I actually walked through the woods with a bulldozer behind me pointing out areas to avoid."