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Does F1 Race On Real Roads? (Street Circuits Explained)

Most Formula 1 races take place on purpose-built circuits, designed to the finest detail to host exciting races. However, not all circuits follow this pattern, with some appearing to take place on everyday streets. This may lead fans to wonder whether F1 races on real roads.

F1 frequently races on street circuit tracks that are made up of public roads. Outside of race weekends, tracks such as Monaco and Baku are open to public use, with temporary infrastructure put in place to host F1 races. Some street circuits are hybrids of real roads and purpose-built racetracks.

Street circuits are greeted with mixed reception from drivers and fans because of their narrow tracks and lack of overtaking. In this article, we will discuss the characteristics of street circuits, whether they do take place on real roads, and the infrastructure that’s required to host them.

What Is An F1 Street Circuit?

An F1 street circuit is a racetrack that is made up of predominantly public roads. These roads are open to public use outside of race weekends, with facilities such as paddocks, grandstands, and fences temporarily put in place for the duration of the Grand Prix. There are several on the F1 calendar.

Characteristics Of Street Circuits – Narrow Tracks

Characterized by narrow, unforgiving corners and limited areas for overtaking, street circuits generate mixed responses from both drivers and fans. On one hand, the tightness of the track offers bags of high-octane drama, with the speed of the cars often feeling heightened by the fact that there is so little room for error.

On the other hand, the minimal, and sometimes non-existent, run-off space increases the risk for drivers and their cars, which can sometimes lead to more tentative driving. Having little to no run-off area also means that there will often be safety cars or a red flag to allow recovery vehicles through, often causing a very stop-start style of race.

The lack of width on the track also means there are fewer areas where overtaking is viable, especially in modern times where cars are wider than they ever have been. While this may lead to minimal fluctuation in positions, it does make great maneuvers and battles for position even more exciting and appreciated by fans.

Unpredictable Road Surfaces

Whereas standard circuits are purpose-built for racing and therefore have very few bumps and cracks, street circuits are built for public use, meaning the surface isn’t optimized for a meticulously crafted Formula 1 car. The Circuit de Monaco is probably the biggest culprit for bumps, with some so severe that drivers must readjust their line to avoid any unnecessary damage to the car.

It’s not only bumps that drivers have to look out for. In the 2016 Azerbaijan Grand Prix on the Baku street circuit, Valtteri Bottas had to miss FP3 after damaging his car on an uneven drain cover. Such is the fragility of an F1 car, any slight irregularity on the track can cause major damage.

The tarmac itself isn’t always in tip-top condition either. Regular use by anything from buses to HGVs to street cars all tend to pollute the surface of the road throughout the year, leaving it a lot less smooth than the asphalt on a purpose-built track. This makes it harder for the F1 tires to grip to the surface, making it slippery and harder to control the car.

Beautiful Scenery

One major positive for viewers of F1 street races is the fact that they take place outside of the closed-off world of track racing, making for some unique and picturesque backdrops. Monaco is especially easy on the eye, as the drivers speed past a harbor filled to the brim with luxury yachts.

As well as being the millionaire’s playground that it is, Monaco is flanked by natural beauty, with mountains adorning the gorgeous Mediterranean coastline. The castle section at Baku also makes for interesting viewing, and so will the lights of the Las Vegas strip when the Vegas street circuit makes its Formula 1 debut in 2023.

Are Any F1 Tracks On Real Roads?

Some tracks like Abu Dhabi have blended a mixture of street-style circuits and traditional racetracks in the past, but most races do take place on actual roads. The most famous track, the Circuit de Monaco, takes place on the city’s streets, effectively shutting down the country for a weekend.

Monaco’s Street Circuit

The Monaco Grand Prix takes place throughout the Monte Carlo neighborhood of Monaco and has built up a reputation of being the most illustrious F1 event of them all. It is a two-mile-long circuit taking place solely on real roads. The infrastructure of the track takes six weeks to build and a further three weeks to dismantle.

The reputation of the Monaco Grand Prix has seemingly allowed it to get away with being less safe than all of the other F1 tracks, and if it had not been a mainstay on the Formula 1 calendar since the 1950s, it would no longer be permitted for use. But what would F1 be without a glitzy trip to Monte Carlo every year?

The Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore

The Marina Bay Street Circuit is a 3-mile-long street circuit that has been part of the F1 calendar since it first opened in 2008. It is a night race that takes place around the streets of Singapore, backlit by skyscrapers and a floating grandstand.

Because it takes place on public roads, the Marina Bay circuit is known for being one of the most demanding F1 tracks, with a bumpy surface with high curbs along the side of the track. It is also the only F1 track that has required the safety car in every single F1 race that it has hosted.

Baku Street Circuit

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix gives drivers a wonderful tour around the capital city of Baku, bypassing Government House and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs among other popular tourist destinations. The entirety of the race takes place on real roads throughout the city, with a mixture of long straights and very narrow sections, making it one of the more dangerous street circuits in F1.

The Las Vegas Street Circuit

Shaped like a submarine and starting in a disused parking lot, the Las Vegas street circuit is set for its maiden race in November 2023. The 3.8-mile-long track will take drivers onto the city streets and past the infamous Las Vegas strip. It is set to be a real showpiece event, with the added aim of boosting F1’s popularity in the United States.

How Does F1 Choose Where To Race?

To become an official Formula 1 venue, tracks have to obtain a Grade 1 license from the FIA. In order to be awarded this license, hopefuls have to fill out paperwork, noting the exact specifications of the track, from the number of turns to the buildings surrounding it. Details about local hospitals and medical centers must also be included.

If the form is approved by the national sporting authority of the country where the track resides, then the FIA will complete a detailed inspection, for a rather large fee. The FIA will then recommend any necessary changes that they believe will improve both the safety and quality of the track before deciding whether they will approve the bid.

Required Specifications For F1 Tracks

There are requirements that a track must meet if it’s to be chosen by F1. Circuits shouldn’t exceed 4.3 miles in length or contain straights longer than 1.2 miles. Circuits must also be longer than 2 miles in length. There are tracks that flout these rules such as the super long Spa-Francorchamps and the super short Circuit de Monaco, but as they are firm fan favorites, exceptions are made.

Tracks must meet strict safety protocols, with run-off areas not exceeding various gradient limits. Absorbent safety walls are required to line the tracks, as well as debris fences to keep fans and trackside staff safe. Venues must always have fully trained medical professionals on hand, including concussion, spinal, and burn specialists. All medics must be proficient in dealing with trauma.

Appropriate Infrastructure

This is the most difficult part for organizers of street circuit races. In order to be chosen by Formula 1 to host a race, venues must include space for the teams’ paddocks, as well as having media areas, timing areas, and space for race control to set up. A track must have adequate draining for wet sessions, and space for medical personnel to operate.

Once a track has made sure it has all of these many, many requirements in place, it can then be up for Formula 1 selection for the next three years, until the license needs renewing.

F1 Track Contracts

Once a track has been fully approved it can bid for a contract with F1 to host races. These contracts are often handed out to the highest bidder, with Qatar paying $55 million per year for a 10-year contract, starting in 2023. The Middle East has displayed a very keen interest in F1 in recent years, with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia all tied up in long-term F1 contracts.

Not all contracts are signed on the back of huge financial bids, with Miami working closely with the F1 to stage its own Grand Prix for the next 10 years. This means that F1 will take on a lot of the cost itself, which comes as no surprise as Liberty Media, owners of the F1 brand, have had desires of hosting a Miami GP since they took over in 2017.

Final Thoughts

F1 does feature some real road circuits that provide some of the most enthralling races and are much loved by many fans of the sport. Although they aren’t favored by every driver, circuits like Monaco and the Marina Bay street circuit have ingrained themselves into the history of Formula 1.