One of the main features of the Formula 1 season is the variation in the tracks used to host races. With races taking place all around the globe in several different climates and terrains, it may leave some viewers wondering whether there are any F1 tracks that are completely flat.
F1 tracks are not completely flat, due to the land on which they are built. Spa in Belgium features the largest elevation change, with cars climbing a total of 102.2 meters (335 ft) around the circuit. Albert Park is the flattest F1 track, with total elevation change of just 2.6 m (8 ft 6 in).
While it may seem counterproductive to have tracks with steep inclines because of the low ride height of F1 cars, tracks with high elevation changes often produce the most entertaining races. In the article below, we’ll discuss elevation on F1 tracks, as well as the effect that it has on the cars.
Are All F1 Tracks Flat?
No F1 tracks are 100% flat. The elevation change varies depending on the circuit, with some tracks significantly flatter than others. The Sochi Autodrom in Russia is the flattest circuit to have been used in recent years, with just 1.9 meters (or just over 6 feet) of elevation change.
During the entirety of a race at Sochi, cars climbed a total of 100.7 meters, which is incredibly flat when you consider cars will climb 102.2 meters in just one lap at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Spa is F1’s most elevated track, as well as its longest. The Eau Rouge into Raidillon section of the track features a 35-meter incline and is one reason for the track’s enduring popularity.
Altitude-wise, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriquez in Mexico City is the highest track on the calendar, situated 2000 meters above sea level, 1200 meters higher than the second highest track, Interlagos. Despite its altitude, the track features very little elevation change, with only Sochi (no longer used) and Albert Park in Australia being flatter.
How Elevation Changes Affect F1 Cars
Changes in the elevation of a track don’t have too much of an effect on F1 cars. Teams will increase their car’s front ride height to deal with elevation changes in the track. With an increased front ride height, the car can handle the huge downforce that comes with elevation changes.
The effect elevation changes have on cars also depends on the speed and intensity in which cars navigate them. Eau Rouge and Radillon at Spa are typically fast corners, which means the level of downforce will be high, often requiring an increase in front ride height. Tracks with elevation changes in slow corners don’t need as much of this.
It should be noted that altitude is not what we’re talking about here. Altitude affects F1 cars in different ways, most notably because the air gets less dense (or ‘thinner’) the higher you go, and this affects both the cooling and the aerodynamics of the cars in different ways. However, localized (i.e. on-track) elevation changes don’t have these effects on the cars.
How Elevation Changes Affect F1 Drivers
While the cars are manufactured in a way that makes them adaptable to changes in elevation, drivers are presented with a different challenge. Learning the track becomes more difficult as braking points and racing lines change with varying declines and inclines. This is because entry points into corners are much more difficult to see when they are either up or down a hill.
This challenge in vision is evident during practice laps where it tends to take drivers a little longer to settle into the track and get the hang of the blind apexes that come with elevation. Drivers also must contend with a feeling of reduced traction when they are heading down a gradient decline, as the cars will begin to feel light and slippery because of gravitational effects.
Tracks with constant elevation and decline also put drivers under greater physical strain than flatter tracks, due to the compression and force that runs through cars when going up hills at speed. Drivers will feel intense bursts of weight being forced onto their bodies when navigating corners like Eau Rouge and Radillon, due to the speed at which these corners are taken.
Are Flatter F1 Tracks Better?
Flatter F1 tracks are not necessarily better. Elevated tracks provide more of an entertaining visual spectacle due to the higher regularity of overtaking. Elevation-heavy tracks like Spa and the Red Bull Ring have become fan favorites over the years, producing many exciting and unpredictable races.
Having increased elevation levels doesn’t always correlate with increased overtaking, as is proved by Monaco. Despite its frequent changes in elevation, Monaco is known for having very few overtakes, with its main source of excitement stemming from its narrowness and large number of obstacles and track variation that drivers must navigate.
Many F1 fans tend to gravitate towards tracks with a lot of different variables, and very often hilly circuits provide this. Elevation requires drivers to push their cars to greater limits, providing fans with much more intensity and excitement. This isn’t to say that a track must be elevated to be enjoyed. Street circuits Marina Bay and Albert Park are much loved by F1 fans.
While fans may love a hilly track, the constructors would much rather settle for the predictability of a flatter surface. With fewer modifications to the car required, as well as the lower amount of risk that comes with having fewer blind corners, flatter tracks will lead to more comfortable viewing for the backroom staff of a racing team.
Are All F1 Tracks Smooth?
Not all F1 tracks are smooth. Street circuits tend to have rougher surfaces because they are used as normal roads for most of the year. Cars, trucks, and other standard road vehicles also pollute the surface with oil and dirt, which is almost impossible to remove from the road surface for race day.
Dedicated racetracks are usually a lot smoother than their street counterparts, as their surfaces are generally made from asphalt. Tracks that regularly host races are also smoother as they have been repeatedly flattened out by cars constantly going over them at high speed.
However, there are some dedicated racetracks with bumpier surfaces, including the ageing Silverstone. The track was resurfaced twice in two years, following drainage issues that were realized at a MotoGP event in 2019. This caused Lewis Hamilton to complain that it was the bumpiest track he had ever driven on.
The surface underneath an F1 track can reduce smoothness as well, with the Circuit of the Americas in Texas having repeated surface issues because of the softness of the soil that it was built on. This has led to water erosion in the past, creating multiple bumps on the track’s surface, something that requires constant maintenance to prevent.
F1 Tracks With Largest Elevation Changes
F1’s most elevation-heavy track is Spa. When people think of Spa, the first thought that comes to mind is usually the huge 35-meter incline at Eau Rouge, the turn that often tops the list for the fan’s favorite corner. Spa has an overall incline of 102.2 meters. To put this into perspective, the incline is 10 meters taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The Red Bull Ring has an overall incline of 63.5 meters, and while that may not be anywhere near the overall incline of Spa, it’s still about the same length as the wingspan of a 747. This change in elevation should come as no surprise when you consider that the track is situated in the picturesque Austrian Alps.
The incline at the Red Bull Ring is fast and steep, with the starting straight being the lowest point of the track and turn 2 being the highest. Interlagos in Sao Paulo, Brazil is the opposite, with the starting straight being in the highest section of the track before drivers navigate a decline of 43 meters going into turn 5, which is double the length of a bowling lane.
Not all F1 tracks are flat. Each track has its own unique variables that help make Formula 1 so interesting. Elevation change is one of the most important of these variables because of the sheer speed that it allows for, and the number of overtaking opportunities created by hills.