Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Valencia Circuit: The Suzuka of the Streets

The Suzuka International Circuit was the first international speedway in Japan and has been widely heralded since it was completed in 1962 and served as a test track for Honda Motor Company. Suzuka still evokes many dramatic images from the past. One can look back to the legendary clashes of bitter rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990; the title clinching performances of Damon Hill in 1996 and Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999; and mostly recently Michael Schumacher's improbable engine failure that all but gift-wrapped the 2006 Driver's Championship to Fernando Alonso. If you played the Pole Position series of games back in the day, you surely have driven this amazing track with great corners such as 130R and 'S' curve.

Suzuka is a true driver's circuit that is universally loved. In the words of Fernando Alonso, "it's a very trying track for drivers and very technical: you have to have a car that is stable in the front for the changes of direction, and a stable rear so you can have the confidence to attack the high speed corners. The other thing about Suzuka though, is that you have to take risks in the corners — and all drivers like that." It was a true shame to see this circuit axed from the Formula One schedule.

However, having looked at a collection of photos, simulations and now some actually video of the new Valencia Street Circuit in Spain, it appears that we may have a true gem in our hands. The Valencia Street Circuit, new for the 2008 F1 season, is the host for this year's F1 European Grand Prix. Although already celebrated for the great urban scenery the circuit itself appears to be quite the eye catcher and a technical challenge to drive. First, it is a street circuit. This in and of itself presents a real test of courage with concrete barriers lining the track and projected speeds of about 200 mph. Second, the number of corners will keep the drivers attention and will present a physical challenge. Moreover, there are a number of these corners that appear to be very quick and have a good sequence and flow to them that should be a real joy to watch in a Formula One car. In other sections, a driver's right foot will be tested by the slow corners as there is no traction control; a driver will have to have good rhythm to maximize the lap time. It is this mix of high speeds, technical corners, sweeps and physical demand which makes it similar to Suzuka.

In the words of Panasonic Toyota driver Jarno Trulli, "the track looks amazing. I have seen the lay-out and the location but the best way to prepare for racing on a new track is to get there as soon as possible to spot the small details on the track. The best way to understand a circuit is to drive it and I can not wait!" According to McLaren Mercedes driver, Lewis Hamilton, "it looks like an amazing track".

Still, a driver needs a team of engineers that also understand the challenge. Honda F1 Team Principal, Ross Brawn says, "it is going to be a medium to low downforce track with a couple of quick corners which will present a very challenging circuit in an exciting environment. The Valencia weekend is going to be a fascinating engineering challenge for the team and we are all looking forward to it." If there ever was a street circuit that would be a real driver's circuit my initial impressions would be that this is the one. Again, this track is going to be a blast to watch a Formula One race on. However, the proof is going to be when 1st Friday practice begins. For some comparsion, check out the onboard laps of each circuit. However, the onboard lap of Valencia is that of a lower formula race. Now imagine the speed generated that will be generated by an F1 car.

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