Against all my expectations, the Tuscan Grand Prix was a good race. As good as modern Formula 1 can usually be without random variables spicing up the lead battle. That means there was a bit of intrigue at the front (Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at the three standing starts), a strong secondary plot (Alex Albon’s podium) and something dramatic just to create extra spice (two red flags including a huge startline crash).
Every driver and team boss I spoke to during the Mugello weekend would love to return, but it seems unlikely. It was only possible this season because of the coronavirus pandemic and a special deal struck between Ferrari, the circuit owner, and Formula 1. Ferrari was particularly motivated because it could market the race as its 1,000th world championship F1 race.
While the disruption caused by COVID-19 isn’t likely to end in 2020, and F1 may seem further innovative calendar solutions for next year, a return to Mugello seems unlikely. If that’s the case I’d urge F1 and the FIA to get creative and work out how to incorporate what made Mugello so good at other circuits.
The first is in the design of the circuits themselves. We need to move away from boring, car-park facilities. So few modern venues are unveiled with character as a priority. Long straights, big braking zones, lots of asphalt run-off: boring.
Clearly Mugello’s not a circuit for constant wheel-to-wheel racing. But it has elements that other tracks sorely need. The profile of corner at Turn 1, for example, was brilliant. Overtakes couldn’t be easily repelled with a defence on the inside line because those on the outside can carry the speed through. And it is a constantly undulating and twisting circuit that created a challenge in qualifying and the race as a result.
More circuits should be designed with a priority question in mind: what makes for good racing? That doesn’t mean loads of easy overtaking spots. It’s about how cars can follow and how they can take a corner in battle.
And even the best new tracks that do quite well in achieving this, like the Circuit of the Americas, come with a drawback because if a driver runs wide they have half of Austin to travel before they come close to a barrier.
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not advocating crashes. Far from it. I think anything F1 can do in the name of safety is good. But Mugello’s track limits were almost exclusively defined by grass and gravel, despite being very high speed. The FIA was clearly happy with this and that, to me, completely undermines the argument that’s often used for run-off changes at other old-school circuits: that it’s being done for safety reasons.
I get tired of the boring, unimaginative responses to questions about track limits that ‘there isn’t one solution that fits everywhere’. Of course that’s true. But why, in that case, are old-school circuits being homogenised? Every time F1 heads to Spa or Silverstone or Monza or Suzuka, something of a holy quartet of race tracks, a little bit of the challenge gets eroded. More run-off here. No grass there. A scaled back gravel trap there.
Mugello’s place on the calendar, much like Imola’s return this year, shows that the primary issue is with the circuit itself. I’m quite convinced it’s a matter of cost. Is the circuit owner willing to foot the bill for grass and gravel? It’s more expensive to maintain. And it’s more punishing for less professional drivers.
If that sounds odd, what I mean is paying customers are more likely to use tracks with more run-off. I know of at least one major circuit owner who has gone to great lengths to make his tracks more forgiving for customers and cheaper for his staff to maintain, to maximise revenue.
F1 now has a week off but will then trade a run of races at Spa, Monza and Mugello for…Sochi. I like going there. It’s a curious part of the world. But the facility is sterile and so is the track. Its design is the antithesis of good racing and it’s a weekend nobody expects to be interesting.
And unlike Mugello, it doesn’t have the characteristics to induce a surprise.