Sunday afternoons are ridiculously busy after a grand prix, what with trying to file lots of content as well as gather as much reaction as possible from across the paddock. But I often end up staying in the press room much later than perhaps I should, because I tend to put other live sport on my iPad to watch while I work.
This weekend was no different as I switched over to the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio while transcribing, but there was something that stood out while I watched Scott Dixon make a rare error and trundle through the gravel while recovering from a spin: for once, I wasn’t watching IndyCar showcasing a venue that stood out as much more old school and challenging than the one we’d just had a Formula 1 race at.
Much like Dixon was punished after dropping a wheel on the grass, similar errors got the same result at Mugello. This was a track that had no asphalt run-off areas, instead featuring grass and gravel at every turn. FIA race director Michael Masi decided drivers could push their luck with track limits all they wanted, because what was waiting for them just beyond the white line was a physical obstacle that would slow them significantly (unless you’re George Russell, who managed to go off before the first Arrabbiata but kept his foot in and somehow still improved his lap time in Q1).
And it is exactly the sort of circuit that F1 needs.
There were concerns before the race weekend that it would be impossible to pass in an F1 car on the circuit because it was so high-speed, but there was one proper braking zone at the end of the pit straight that ensured the race was not a procession. And when you make it such a test of both driver skill and car performance, you’re more likely to get errors that open up opportunities.
“I personally love it,” Lewis Hamilton said after winning on Sunday. “I don’t know how it was for the racing, but it was one of the toughest tracks to drive, I think being that it’s medium and high speed. But it’s a fantastic circuit and I don’t think it was too dangerous; I think it’s more old-school with the run-off areas and the gravel. I hope they don’t change that, and I would love to come back.”
‘Old-school’ is exactly what we usually see from U.S. road courses, and long for in F1 — at least, I do. I was hooked on IndyCar not because of the unique aspect of oval racing, but through its road courses, and the feeling that drivers are constantly inches away from an error that could change the race, even when it’s processional.
When talking about how cool Road Atlanta or Laguna Seca is, I’ll frequently cave to the argument that F1 cars are quicker and have different safety requirements. Instead, Mugello has shown you can take a U.S.-style road course and adapt a few aspects to retain the challenge, but tick all the required FIA boxes, too.
“I think it’s great — I think it should be in the calendar every year,” Valtteri Bottas said. “It definitely goes really high up in my list, so it’s not too dangerous. Well, motorsport is dangerous, that’s how it goes, but it’s an old school track and we all love it.”
Alex Albon’s first podium will give him a reason to reflect on Mugello fondly, but as one of the newer-generation F1 drivers who have had fewer opportunities to race on similar circuits in such machinery, he emphasized the importance of having a track that doesn’t allow mistakes.
“I really love the circuit,” Albon said. “I think it’s nice to go to these tracks which aren’t (laid out with) your normal run-off area — let’s say ‘mistake-free tracks.’ Here it was a bit more punishing, and it just feels a bit more special as well to come to these unique old places where there’s a lot of history behind it.”
History does help, but as a track that had never hosted an F1 race, I can’t say it was one that I spent much time soaking in the history while I was there. But I was desperate to take in as much of the spectacle as possible, walking to a car park on Friday afternoon just to watch the drivers tackle the thrilling sector of Casanova-Savelli-Arrabbiata 1-Arrabbiata 2 at ridiculous speeds, even in practice.
That particular chance to watch was cut short by a Lando Norris crash, yet he agreed with Albon that there to be a real balance between risk and reward when pushing hard, rather than get-out-of-jail-free areas at every corner.
Of course, we only got to race at Mugello due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to rapidly reorganize the calendar, but that has led to a venue getting onto the schedule that would have had no hope in a normal year. And F1 can learn a lot from this situation, including how racing can be aided by tracks that carry more severe penalties for mistakes.
Does that mean making them more dangerous? No. It means that if a driver knows they will lose a lot more time or damage their car by making a small error, they’re likely to leave a bit more margin. They then have to balance how safe they want to play it with the time loss, increasing the chances of closer racing or offsets of performance in certain sections of track if others take more risk. And then even the best can get caught out, just like Dixon at Mid-Ohio.
Are we going to get the Mugello blueprint replicated on every F1 circuit? No, because as Masi points out, that’s unrealistic, and also not what a world championship should be about.
“No, we can’t (have gravel at every track),” Masi said. “It’s not a one size fits all. We need to come up with appropriate solutions with each of the circuit owners and operators. We’ll continue working through that; we’ve already discussed it with the drivers. It’s not the solution everywhere, let’s put it that way.
“The facility, management here, at all levels of the circuit, have been brilliant. The amount of work they have done to upgrade all of the safety requirements, within a really short period of time, has been amazing. The presentation of the facility has been brilliant, so to the entire Ferrari group as the Mugello owners, credit where credit is due.
“We all said coming here was going to be a fantastic circuit, the drivers would enjoy driving it, and from the comments I’ve heard, they all have thoroughly enjoyed driving it. Would it be nice to have another genuine overtaking area? Possibly. But do we want 22 circuits each year being exactly the same? No. And I think that’s part of the world championship — having variety.”
He’s right, and if every venue looked the same it would take away how special some of them are. But tracks like Mugello need to be added to the calendar to stop them all becoming modern, clinical circuits, and to ensure that there is every chance of someone tuning in and thinking, ‘Whoa, this looks awesome’ regardless of how competitive the race is.