Going round in squares

Beijing track like a box

The track design for the opening round of the first Formula E championship has been revealed and…well, it’s more box than bird’s nest in shape.

The distinctly square 3.44km circuit layout incorporates 20 bends, which might sound like a real workout for the drivers, a sublime spectacle of man and machine versus dastardly designers.

The reality, however, is that majority of those bends seem to be artificial chicanes introduced to break up the four roughly even sides. If we assume that each of those sides is less than 0.9km in length, and take into account the fact that that none of the sides enjoys a full length straight and all incorporate some sort of chicane-type device, that means that the uninterrupted straight sections are likely to be less than 500m at the longest. That’s not very long. Perhaps the organisers are planning a “Formula E versus Usain Bolt” sideshow.

In itself, a circuit with short straights is not an issue. Monaco makes for demanding driving, after all, and there are very few places on that track where drivers can really open up. But shape is everything, and Monaco has a fantastic mix of bends and changes in grade, and of course, a high-speed curving tunnel and that famous hairpin.

In comparison, the Beijing circuit – on the evidence thus far – comes up short.

How has the vibrant and forward-looking group of people at the helm of Formula E ended up here? There are a number of factors to consider:

  1. Time. The whole series has come together in months, rather than years. To have an approved race track designed and built by September is a monumental achievement in its own right.
  2. Roads. Street circuit design is largely dictated by layout of the streets, but there a host of other factors to consider, such as which routes can be disrupted (not just on the race day, but in the preceding weeks when construction is underway). The race organisers may have had their hands tied by the combination of FIA requirements, which include minimum widths and provision for safety infrastructure, and local authorities, who would be looking for a solution which causes minimum impact to city residents.
  3. TV. Formula E organisers have been promising a backdrop of iconic buildings, and this layout certainly provides that. In fact, it will be virtually impossible to film any part of the race without including the famous sports buildings. Cue lots of artistic slow motion TV replays of the cars streaming past the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest.
  4. Technology. With the limitations of the electric powertrain, the organisers made it clear from the outset that they were keen to avoid long straights, which would needlessly drain batteries. That objective has certainly been accomplished. Good. There are a series of short straights instead, however. Less good.
  5. Pit lane. The pit lane is u-shaped, to immerse spectators in the action. It seems like an odd planning decision, until we remember that the drivers will not be allowed to swap tyres (apart from in the event of a puncture) but will be swapping cars. So the straight pit lane of conventional motorsports with crews at the ready is rendered obsolete, and the shape provides a handy means of slowing the drivers before they perform feats of acrobatic ability in leaping from one car to another.
  6. Risk. Formula E has shown itself to be – paradoxically – rather risk averse to date, with conservative approaches to the racing car itself and its powertrain, and the participating teams and drivers. Everything has been designed with one goal in mind: to absolutely not fail. In that context, the lack of adventure in the Beijing track design makes sense. Formula E races will combine practice, qualifying and racing on a single day – so there is no chance to adjust the track if it throws up any unpleasant surprises once the cars start running on Saturday morning. An unimaginative track that works is preferable to a wild one that results in a race cancellation, is presumably the rationale.

With just six months to go until the first race, other track designs will begin to be revealed shortly. Fingers crossed that other circuits introduce more curves and fluidity. Otherwise, watching Formula E really will give you square eyes. 

Current E Beijing circuit diagram

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