Hermann Tilke: The track star
The Formula One calendar increasingly reads like a who's who of Hermann Tilke circuits. The tracks at Bahrain, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, Valencia, South Korea and Abu Dhabi are all the handiwork of the former German racing driver. By the time India and Austin are added to the race calendar, he could comfortably be responsible for half of the circuits raced on during an F1 season. Yas Marina is the undoubted jewel in the crown and Tilke talks of that particular creation with immense pride. "I think visually it's my best circuit," he says. "It's the most spectacular and we had a lot of fun designing it. It's a circuit we'll always be proud of."
Tilke admits his surprise at the manner in which he has become the world's premier circuit designer. Now 55, he only started his business, Tilke Engineering, at his home in the early 1980s and his first design foray in motorsport was working with Michele Mouton for the Race of Champions at the Nürburgring at the end of the decade. His first F1 creation at Sepang, home of the Malaysian Grand Prix, opened in 1998 and the circuit contracts have come thick and fast for him and his staff of 300 people ever since.
"We never expected it and we didn't plan for this to happen," says Tilke, "so yes, the success has taken us by a surprise." The initial inspiration for the German circuit designer was the Nürburgring, the first track where he raced and a place that still has special resonance for him. "The old Nürburgring is very special - it's really very impressive," says Tilke. "I know it very well as I did a few races there and it's an amazing circuit. It's perhaps a little bit simple to say it's a favourite circuit.
"It was the first circuit I ever went to, and I remember going there and standing by the fence. But I went to Spa and Hockenheim at a similar time." Tilke's own motor-racing ambitions never quite reached the lofty heights of the F1 drivers that hurtle around his track creations every race weekend. He was an accomplished touring car racer, and competed in VLN endurance racing and the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
"I was actually still a racing driver until the end of last year. I became too slow which is sad. I was a good amateur racer but I never came to the level of the professionals. Maybe I will again do some racing in the future, we'll see." Tilke likes to drive around all the circuits he has designed - and has done so with everyone of them. He has the ambition of racing at each and every one of them but admits that his work commitments mean that it is becoming increasingly unlikely.
As a circuit designer, he has not been without his critics. Some argue that he has made F1 boring with his circuit designs while others have gone to the extent of claiming he is killing the sport. Tilke is not remotely stung by the criticism. For starters, he insists: "I like to have critics because that's when you learn." But he adds: "Some of the criticism is a little bit unfair but we have to live with it."
The former racer points out that his hands are tied by very strict planning regulations from the specific countries where he builds and also by the safety constraints put upon him by the F1 governing body, the FIA. "People criticise and say this or that is boring and that we have too many run-off areas," he says. "But we don't want deaths and nobody wants somebody to be seriously hurt. Motorsport is dangerous and what we have to do in this age is to make it as safe as possible, and we always have to take that into account.
"Even if we wanted to make circuits like the old ones with no run-off areas, that would not be possible with the FIA rules." One example of Tilke's point is the street circuit at Valencia. It was initially castigated for having boring races before this year, when the introduction of the safety car turned the race on its head. But the other focal point of the race was Mark Webber's horrific accident in which he flipped over in his Red Bull after driving into the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus.
"If we didn't have run-off areas in Valencia," says Tilke, "then I don't think Mark Webber would have walked out of his car in the way he did. I think Mark will tell you he's happy to have run-off areas." One suspects Tilke, as a designer, would love to rip up the rule book and build a circuit to emulate the old Nürburgring or some of F1's other more classic circuits, not that he'll admit it. He also refuses to be drawn on how his ideal circuit would come together - whether it be the opening sweeping corners of Silverstone, Eau Rouge at Spa or even Tilke's own turn eight at Istanbul.
"The problem is you can't just copy one part of a circuit as you have to have the whole circuit together, so to copy something like Eau Rouge is just impossible," he says. "You need to have the land like it is and no one really has that sort of space anymore. "A circuit needs a lot of land, a lot of hectares to be built. So the first thing you have to deal with when designing a circuit is to look at the design. You normally don't end up with the best piece of land and then you have to also consider the environment, as well as the fans and the drivers.
"So you never start designing with a fully blank canvas, and there are always certain restraints when you can't do this or that from the very start. People don't always know the facts - the fact you can't have a corner there or something has to be back 10 metres here and there." Any suggestions that Tilke circuits have provided boring racing to date in 2010 have not been warranted, except perhaps at the season opener in Bahrain where fans were treated to a procession of a race.
But as Tilke himself points out: "You have boring football games and obviously some interesting ones too - that's the same with racing and that's just how the sport is." The critics have certainly numbered fewer with the improved spectacle and Tilke admits to a sense of pride as he watches F1 drivers hurtle around his creations, the most recent of which will host the Korean Grand Prix in October. "Both Korea and India [which will be added to the calendar next year] should be fantastic circuits, but it's not important that they're Hermann Tilke circuits. I'm not important, what's important is that it's a good circuit and that people enjoy it.
"I think Korea will be great, even more next year with a city built around it. It's a fantastic concept. Hopefully it will work and I believe there will be good overtaking opportunities there." Austin, Texas is the latest creation that Tilke and his team of designers have started working on, and he already believes the outcome will be a "very, very interesting result". Tilke's company, though, is not solely the reserve of the motorsport fraternity. His office also works on designing hotels, hospitals, sport and leisure facilities, administrative buildings, residential housing and urban planning.
Tilke himself is keen not to take responsibility for all the positives of his creation. During our interview he talks about "we" when discussing any design concept and, to highlight the point, insists "it's not just me". However, the buck stops with Tilke, who has comfortably become the market leader in motorsport circuit design. As for what stands him apart from his rivals, he is quite clear. "I think the advantage is that we make less mistakes than others." firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: August 21, 2010 04:00 AM