What Are F1 Tracks Made Of? (Surfaces Explained)

The goal of a Formula 1 track is to allow the drivers to maximize the performance of their cars and to promote the wheel-to-wheel action that the sport is known for. The material used to create a racetrack is very important in achieving these goals, leaving fans wondering what F1 tracks are made of.

F1 tracks are usually made of asphalt. Depending on whether the track is a road circuit or a purpose-built circuit, the design team might not have any say in what the surface material will be. When designing a street circuit, like the Miami track, designers are decisively more limited.

Asphalt mixes are generally thought of as being better for the performance of the cars than concrete, but it isn’t as simple as using the surface that the cars accelerate or corner the fastest on. Below, we take a closer look at what an F1 track surface is made of.

What Are F1 Track Surfaces Made Of?

F1 track surfaces are generally made of asphalt. Asphalt has more irregularities than concrete and provides a high level of grip to cars traveling on it. Asphalt is also more absorbent. This is useful when race cars leak fluids onto the track and for when it rains, so the track dries faster.

The fluid is able to seep into and beneath the surface. Asphalt’s absorbency is also beneficial during bad weather. The water is able to be absorbed into the track quickly, speeding up the time that it takes to dry out the racing line. Concrete surfaces can cause water to pool up, which can cause hydroplaning and crashes, although this still happens with asphalt in very heavy rain.

Asphalt vs Concrete

One of the most drastic benefits that concrete has over asphalt is the lifespan of the material. On average, concrete can last two to four times longer than asphalt. The general maintenance cost of an asphalt track can end up being much more expensive. The true benefits of concrete are found on public roads rather than in high-performance races.

Concrete is able to withstand more weight over a longer period of time. This makes it ideal for public roads where semi-trucks and heavy construction material are consistently putting a lot of weight on the road surface. Concrete does a good job of spreading the weight of an object over a wider area. Concrete is also comparatively more environmentally friendly and offers better mpg to cars.

Asphalt Is Better For Racing

Asphalt is comparatively quieter than concrete is when vehicles are traveling on it. Asphalt can also be laid in one piece. The laying of a concrete track requires it to be laid down in sections. This causes a concrete track to have slits in it, similar to how concrete sidewalks also look. These slits are noticeable to a driver when they drive over them and are certainly not ideal.

When new asphalt is laid down, the color of it is deep black. This black coloration allows asphalt tracks to use the power of the sun by absorbing the heat. When the sun comes back out from behind clouds after a downpour, an asphalt track will be able to heat up quicker to dry out the moisture left on the racing surface.

Different Types Of Track Surface In F1

Even though Formula 1 tracks are usually made from asphalt, each track is always a little bit different than the next. There are some tracks that have a very smooth track surface and then there are others that have more of a bumpy texture to them. Different mixtures of asphalt are used to reach a consistency that designers are content with. There are pros and cons to these differing surface types.

Despite the scientifically-proven pros and cons of smooth and bumpy surfaces, there are some drivers who prefer a certain racing surface. Some demand that track surfaces be perfectly maintained to reach optimal smoothness. Others are alright with the imperfections that they might encounter when rocketing their way around the circuit. To them, it just requires more skill.

Smooth Surfaces

The Monaco Grand Prix is home to one of the smoother track options on the Formula 1 calendar. When a track is smooth, it helps with tire degradation over the course of a race. Without a lot of small undulations throughout the whole track, tires don’t get torn up as easily. The ride for the drivers will also be much more pleasant, because they won’t be bouncing around as much.

There are downsides to this though. With a completely smooth surface, there is less resistance for the tires to encounter as they travel along the track. This is a good thing for making tires last longer, but not as beneficial for increasing the amount of grip the track is giving the car. Extremely smooth surfaces are not always the preferred choice of some of the best drivers the world.

Bumpy Surfaces

Some drivers in the Formula 1 sphere have stated that they prefer when a track has some bumpiness to it rather than feeling as though they are gliding across the surface. It doesn’t appear that the preference is due to any performance boost in terms of pace, but instead the feel of the car. Daniel Ricciardo has said that when a track is too smooth, it just feels like playing a video game.

A bumpy track is never ideal for pushing a Formula 1 car to its limits. However, there are times when a bit of imperfection on the surface of a track can be beneficial to the amount of grip that a car can have. Imperfections in the track give tires something to grab onto as a car is entering into a turn. There is give and take to this though.

The tire might be getting more leverage to grab onto on a bumpy circuit, but along with this increase in the grip levels, there can also be a steep increase in how fast tires degrade throughout the course of a race. With each pit stop costing drivers a substantial amount of track time, depending on the track, the increase in grip might not actually be beneficial for teams.

The Miami Grand Prix

The first ever Miami Grand Prix, held in 2022, received criticism for its track surface. Drivers complained that if they left the racing line by even a few centimeters they would immediately start to lose traction and performance. This was the first race to ever be held at this track, so the track had not been broken in at all yet.

Some fans have complained that other tracks to host their first races, such as Jeddah, have been able to provide an acceptable racing surface. You must keep in mind, however, that the Miami Grand Prix was held in the afternoon in Florida, whereas Jeddah was at night. The track temperatures were some of the highest temperatures F1 will race on during a season.

The asphalt that was used for the Miami circuit is a different composition of materials than what is considered Formula 1 standard. The reason for this is that Florida has regulations which state than any surfaces that are laid need to be composed of certain materials. This caused the Formula 1 track designers to get creative. The end result was a track that left drivers disappointed.

The Friday practice sessions were by far the worst part of the whole weekend. Drivers all down the paddock were complaining about it and were even citing dangerous racing conditions. But as the weekend continued, the performance of the track got better and better. By the time race day came around on Sunday, there was just enough grip on the track!

How Track Surface Affects Tire Degradation In F1

The quality and composition of a Formula 1 track’s surface is possibly the most important factor for the tire providers and teams to take into account when determining their tire strategy for the race. If the Formula 1 tire provider fails to select hard-enough compound tires from their season selection for a bumpy track, then the teams are at risk of struggling to make it through races.

Similarly, if a team decides to use too hard of a tire on a smooth track surface, then they will suffer a loss of time to their competitors who are on the softer tire compound. Failing to gain a good understanding of the surface of the track in the build-up to Sunday’s race can spell disaster for a team’s entire weekend.

Gliding Across The Track

Tires usually last longer when there are fewer surface imperfections to deal with. When a tire at speed rolls over imperfections on the track, it experiences more wear and tear. This in turn causes the tire’s life span to shorten. When a track is virtually free of major imperfections, it allows the tires of a Formula 1 car to travel smoothly across the surface. This lengthens a tire’s lifespan.

Predicting how tires will degrade over the duration of a race becomes much simpler when the track surface is predictably smooth. It is also easier for drivers to judge how the car will react to certain lines or movements. A bumpy track with small, scattered imperfections is the equivalent of a minefield to even the most talented drivers on the grid.

The Unpredictability Can Be A Blessing

Some drivers and track designers reject this notion of track surface perfection. They believe that the modern track, with its pursuit towards perfect smoothness, lacks character. The Circuit of the Americas, located in Austin, Texas, was rejected by drivers at first due to its comparatively bumpy surface as opposed to other F1 tracks on the calendar. Some members of the grid were pleased, however.

Whether or not you enjoy a bumpy surface, the simple fact is that they are less friendly to softer tire compounds. This doesn’t mean a bumpy surface can’t be used, it just means that harder compound tires are necessary for the track to be raceable in Formula 1. F1 is not a stranger to bumpy surfaces, but most venues do their best to keep their racing surface as smooth as they can.

How Often Are F1 Tracks Resurfaced?

F1 tracks that hold annual races are normally resurfaced every 10 to 15 years. Resurfacing a track consists of scraping off the top layer and reapplying a new one. This practice allows for imperfections that have built up over time to be quickly dealt with in a cost-effective manner.

Depending on how serious the imperfections are or how many times the track has already been resurfaced, resurfacing might need to be completed more often than expected in order to keep a smooth racing surface.

Keeping The Same Track

When resurfacing a track that consistently hosts a Formula 1 race, workers must be very careful when putting the top layer of the track back. If only certain parts of the track have been chosen to be resurfaced, then the maintenance team must be sure that cars transitioning from the old part of the track to the new ones don’t experience a change.

When a portion of a track is resurfaced, the visual difference is usually obvious due to its darker color. But just because it’s visually different doesn’t mean that the track crew can’t make seamless transitions occur to the benefit of the performance of the cars and the comfort of the drivers.

Bumpy transitions between old and new sections of a track are not ideal and are never intended by track designers. Even drivers that enjoy a bit of bumpiness to their racing surface would agree that an unstable transition from a new part of the track to an old part of the track is simply dangerous at the speeds F1 cars race.

Are F1 Tracks Sticky?

Formula 1 tracks are not initially sticky when completed. When a new track dries, it has its worst grip level due to oils in the track that need to wash away. Rain makes the issues of a new track much more noticeable. The oils that are in the track make the surface even more slippery when wet.

Luckily, if a track is lacking grip, the best thing to do is drive on it. When race cars drive at speed on a track, their tires degrade overtime. This degradation isn’t beneficial because drivers will then need to make a pit stop. However, there is a hidden benefit behind this disappointment.

As tires degrade, they lose rubber. The rubber isn’t just disappearing though. Rather, it’s being ground into the track surface by the sheer force of the car. This build-up of rubber creates a hot and sticky film for other cars to use for more grip. Rubber is good at sticking to itself, so the longer the weekend goes on, the faster everyone on the track gets.

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 tracks are primarily made using asphalt as the surface material. While some tracks, like street circuits, may be composed of various other materials, asphalt is usually the preferred material. F1 tracks are often resurfaced to keep them in top condition, usually every 10-15 years.