This weekend’s inaugural Grand Prix to be staged around the streets of the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, will mark the newest chapter in motorsport’s love affair with street-circuit racing.
Racing on streets is not a new phenomenon. The early years of motorsport featured marathon events staged on public roads – think of the Mille Miglia, for example – while the more ubiquitous purpose-built autodromes are a comparatively more modern phenomenon.
Baku organisers will be keen to see the race, which will be staged on a 6-kilometre layout winding around some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, become a fixture on the Formula 1 calendar.
On paper at least – with its 340km/h start-finish straight and absurdly narrow complex of corners around Baku Castle – it looks like it could deliver the goods.
Equally, the fact that it’s another Grand Prix to be hosted by a country with bottomless pockets and next to no motorsport culture could also sound its early death knell.
How could it stack up against some of the all-time great pure* street circuits to have ever been used in all forms of motorsport? Here is our shortlist of the ten best ever…
10. Circuit de Monaco, Monaco
This has to be the most iconic Grand Prix circuit in the world, and the Monaco Grand Prix has been a mainstay on the sporting – and social! – calendars since its inception in 1929.
Held on the tiny principality, Monaco was once famously described by author Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people”, and it’s certainly true that the glitterati flock to this hugely popular event. It’s a place for flesh to be pressed, deals to be struck and sponsors to be schmoozed – simply put, there is no other place like it.
The barrier-lined street circuit is impossibly narrow and its tight confines present a unique challenge to drivers, who either love it or hate it.
The track is a completely different beast to anything else on the Formula 1 calendar. Iconic corners just roll off the tongue: Casino Square, Loews, Tabac, Swimming Pool – all are well-known turns on one of the most thrilling pieces of tarmac on the sport’s calendar.
Overtaking is next to impossible and it’s a track that rewards patience, accurate driving and plenty of luck along the way. It’s a drivers’ track: plenty of great drivers have managed to haul seemingly-impossible results from bad cars in the years gone by. And it’s also a car-breaker: there are inevitably few finishers and a car still circulating at the end of the 78-lap race is likely to be in the points.
The inaugural modern-era Monaco Grand Prix set the pattern that hasn’t changed since: ten cars were wiped out in an opening-lap pile-up caused by a freak wave washing onto the circuit!
The list of winners reads like the ultimate roll call of Formula 1: Ayrton Senna is the outright record holder with six wins (including five in a row from 1989-1993), while Graham Hill and Michael Schumacher claimed five wins apiece.
What’s the reason for its surprisingly low ranking in our top-ten? Sadly, the recent layout changes in the same of improved racing and safety – reprofiling some corners and pushing back the trackside barriers – have taken the shine off much of its appeal.
9. Long Beach street circuit, United States
The Long Beach street circuit was the brainchild of local travel agent Chris Pook, who dreamed of transforming a drab seaport into one of motorsport’s great desinations.
The original layout started a few blocks back from the beach on Ocean Boulevard, before turning right and plunging downhill through a series of twists and an incredibly tight hairpin onto the sweeping Shoreline Drive. The long gentle right-hander propelled cars at speeds upwards of 180mph before a climb through more twisty corners to complete the lap.
Its inaugural Formula 5000 race in 1975 – won by Brian Redman – proved an organisational success, and a year later the Formula 1 grid arrived. The event’s popularity soared when local hero Mario Andretti won a race-long battle in his Lotus in 1977.
The races were brutal tests of attrition and concentration; one mistake and it was easy to end your run in the barriers. If you’d like to see some insane car control from Patrick Depailler in the 1978 Grand Prix, then click here.
Later configurations saw the climb to Ocean Boulevard dropped and the start/finish straight and pits relocated to Shoreline Drive. The racing was just as good, and in 1983 McLaren teammates John Watson and Niki Lauda pulled off the extraordinary feat of claiming a 1-2 finish from the back of the grid.
That would prove to be Long Beach’s final fling with Formula 1, as ongoing operating costs to stage the race were proving insurmountable. Pook and his team didn’t let the venture go to waste and offered to stage a race for the local IndyCar series, which has visited the sunny street circuit every year since. A shortened configuration also plays host to the FIA Formula E Championship.
Talks about returning the Formula 1 field to Long Beach have so far failed to translate into anything further.
8. Punta del Este street circuit, Uruguay
Dubbed ‘the Monaco of South America’, the streets of the seaside resort town of Punte del Este in Uruguay have been welcoming motorsport since the early 1980s.
Its inaugural race was in 1981 when it staged a round of the Argentine Formula 2 championship on a layout that wound its way around the streets straddling the Mansa beach. It quickly grew into a fixture event on what became the South American Codasur F2 series, with Argentine driver Guillermo Maldonado winning a staggering four times between 1981-85. The local Formula 3 championship staged races in 1987-88 and the engines fell silent for over almost two decades.
In the mid-2000s a group of local businessmen successfully lobbied for a return to racing, and in 2007 it managed to secure a round of the highly popular Argentine TC2000 touring car series, with support billing from the Renault Megane Cup and Formula Renault Argentina championships.
The new layout was set up on the eastern side of the city peninsula, with several high-speed sections that only served to highlight the proximity of the unyielding concrete walls that lined the circuit.
While the circuit has undergone a number of minor layout changes, its daunting characteristics have gone untouched and it is a challenge that will reward the most committed of racing drivers. The added hazard of the beach’s sand being constantly blown onto the track only adds to the thrill of a truly great venue.
7. Monjuïc circuit, Spain
Located on a steep hillside overlooking the city of Barcelona, Montjuïc Park’s public roads first played host to motor racing way back in 1933. Ongoing races were interrupted by the onset of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and it took until 1966 before racing was revived.
By then, the Formula 1 races were taking place at the unpopular Jarama circuit, and the well-attended Formula 2 races prompted F1 to switch venues by 1969 to be the new host of the Spanish Grand Prix.
The 3.79-kilometre track layout proved a hit with drivers. The start/finish line was perched almost at the circuit’s summit, rising gently to a crest before beginning its descent through a tight left-hand hairpin and several subsequent twists. Those fed onto the city’s streets at the bottom of the park, featuring a short blast past one of the city’s palaces before the field returned to the parklands and started their climb back up the hill. Fast left- and right-handers awaited, preceding a never-ending left-hander that completed the lap.
Formula 1 aerodynamics were in their infancy in 1969, and that year’s race saw the majority of the field running with aerofoil wings mounted absurdly high on the cars. The aero loads proved too much, and on the ninth lap of the race Graham Hill’s Lotus crashed heavily when its rear wing collapsed. Before the team could warn Hill’s teammate Jochen Rindt – whose rear wing was similarly starting to buckle – to come into the pits, the Austrian crashed out at exactly the same crest on the circuit and slammed into Hill’s abandoned car.
Improvements in aerodynamics made the 1971 and 1973 races comparatively uneventful, but the 1975 Grand Prix delivered another terrifying repeat. Many of the drivers refused to participate in practice until the higher trackside barriers were properly fastened. The race eventually took place and reached a tragic climax when Rolf Stommelen – driving for Graham Hill’s Embassy team – lost his rear wing at the same crest. His car pinballed off the barriers and split into when he his a lamp post. A fire marshal and three spectators standing in a prohibited area were killed by the debris while dozens more people were injured.
The race was stopped and Grand Prix racing was never to return. It was ironic that the controversial barriers had actually done their job and prevented further catastrophe.
6. Pau street circuit, France
Considered by many to be an even greater challenge that its more famous cousin, Monaco, the Pau street circuit has been thrilling drivers and spectators on a virtually unchanged layout since the 1930s.
It was the first race to use the ‘Grand Prix’ moniker back in 1901, although the 200-mile single lap between a number of nearby Pyrenees cities bore no resemblance to today’s affairs.
The first true Grand Prix de Pau was held in 1933 – with two African drivers finishing 1-2 in near snowstorm conditions! – before moving to its present-day 2.76-kilometre layout in 1935. While the trackside barriers have replaced hay bales, the circuit layout is identical over 80 years on. Featuring a combination of blind twists and turns, wicked camber changes and original streetside kerbing to makes its chicanes even more of a challenge, spectators can get up close to some truly great racing.
Far too short and narrow to ever have staged a Formula 1 race, the circuit has played host to a number of its feeder championships over the decades. Formula 2 and Formula 3000 races were an annual fixture, later giving way to Formula 3 and (for a while) the World Touring Car Championship.
In recent years the city has additionally played host to the GP de Pau Historique, where fans get a rare chance to watch historic machinery being piloted at speed on a circuit layout that is as old as the cars running on it.
5. Circuito Internacional de Vila Real, Portugal
Dubbed ‘the Nürburgring of the South’, the origins of this hillside street circuit located in Portugal’s wine-making north can be traced back to 1931. It’s a venue which has weathered world wars, economic and political turmoil and the the loss of its international status in the 1970s, through to a grassroots revival and a return to the international stage.
What a track! Terrifyingly quick in its original 7-kilometre layout, the track ran over two perilous bridges straddling sheer drops to the valley below, as well as a pair of railway level crossings over a narrow-gauge train line. Additional hazards such as houses, lamp posts and the odd stray dog or spectator made this truly one of the meanest circuits in the world.
The post-War era saw the circuit as a major stopping point for a number of high-profile international racers, with the likes of Eugenio Castelotti, Felice Bonetto, Sir Stirling Moss, Jean Behra, David Piper and Maria Teresa de Filippis having graced its many rising and plunging corners.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the town hosted innumerable sports car races until the Portuguese revolution of 1974, and despite a brief revival in 1979, it lost its international license and was consigned to hosting local Group A touring car events. Racing was stopped altogether in 1991 when four spectators were killed during a support race.
Then in 2007, Vila Real rose once again with a revival meeting – attended by Moss, no less – on a shortened 4.8-kilometre layout. Further running was impacted by the Global Financial Crisis before it made another (and hopefully permanent) comeback, hosting a round of the FIA World Touring Car Championship in 2015.
With 24 turns, the track starts its climb out of downtown Vila Real up the Subida de Abambres to its summit at Turn 11 at the circuit’s most easterly point, with a total elevation change of 75 metres (250 feet). Exiting Turn 14, the Curva do Cipreste, the track plunges downhill before two flat-out left-handers – taken at over 240km/h! – before a hard stop at Turn 17, the track’s best overtaking point. There’s a short high-speed blast back onto the start/finish straight, where the field is slowed by a temporary chicane in the final corners.
4. Mount Panorama circuit, Australia
Bathurst’s Mount Panorama circuit holds an indelible part of Australian motor racing folklore since its debut in the 1930s.
Winding its way up and down a hillside with peak speeds of over 300km/h, it is widely regarded as a favourite among the drivers worldwide for being one of the most challenging circuits in the world. Winning here, regardless of the category, it a major achievement.
The circuit was the brinchild of Bathurst Mayor and motorsport fan Martin Griffin, who sourced federal government funding during the depression to boost employment with the construction of a scenic tourist road. He ensured that the engineers built each corner just a little wider than what was specified…
The first races were held in the Easter of 1938, a calendar slot that is now claimed every year by the Australian Formula 3 Championship. In recent years, the circuit has held a 12-hour endurance race for GT3-spec machines, attracting a multitude of world-class entries from all corners of the globe.
None of these machines can compete, however, with the legendary touring cars that arrive every October since 1963 to contest the Bathurst 1000, one of the country’s largest single-day sporting events. Heightened by the long-time rivalry between the Holden and Ford brands, the event has created lifetime legends that include the likes of Dick Johnson, Allan Moffat, Colin Bond, Allan Grice, Greg Murphy and the late ‘King of the Mountain’ Peter Brock, who won here a record nine times.
While the track has been radically modernised to improve driver and spectator safety, the challenge has not diminished one iota and it remains on the ‘bucket list’ for every racing driver worldwide.
3. Snaefell Mountain Course, Isle of Man
Better known to many as the Isle of Man’s TT motorcycle course, this venue holds a unique place in the hearts of many two-wheeled riders. It’s an utterly terrifying and demanding throwback to the sort of racing that has all but disappeared.
Every May, this little island territory in the Irish Sea attracts tens of thousands of fans who come to watch the influx of professional and amateur racers, keen to test their skills on one of the toughest, longest and most dangerous circuits in use today. Over 250 riders to-date have lost their lives in the event’s history. It truly is the final frontier.
The birth of the Tourist Trophy came over 100 years ago in 1904, when the Automobile Club of Britain and Ireland – fed up with the mainland’s 20mph speed restrictions on public roads – came knocking for a venue that could stage high-speed races. The island’s parliament signed off on the deal and the inaugural Gordon Bennett Trial was staged on a 83.93-kilometre circuit.
That layout covered much of today’s 60.7-kilometre loop, a layout that is over 20 miles longer than the iconic Nürburgring Nordschleife. For the record, the official lap record is 16 minutes and 53.929 seconds at an average speed of 215.591km/h (133.9625mph).
2. Adelaide street circuit, Australia
Sadly missed by the Formula 1 circus since the Australian Grand Prix moved to Melbourne at the end of 1995, all eleven Grands Prix staged in the ‘City of Churches’ produced incredible drama.
South Australia’s state capital had generally been perceived as something of a backwater city until local business Bill O’Gorman came up with the bright idea that hosting a Formula 1 race would do wonders to improve the image of the city. He secured support from the state government and flew to London to sign a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, securing a seven-year contract, starting in 1985.
And with the necessary state laws changed to allow a race, it was decided that the circuit should incorporate the city’s parks and buck the (usual) trend of being a low-speed follow-my-leader street circuit. The end result was an end-of-season race of a daunting high-speed track that proved to be one of the most popular events on the sport’s calendar.
The first event in 1985 saw the street fighter Keke Rosberg take his last F1 victory, which would be feats repeated by Ayrton Senna (1993) and Nigel Mansell (1994). The event has also seen some thrilling title deciders, with the 1986 race seeing a down-to-the-wire title chase between Piquet, Mansell and Prost go to the Frenchman when Mansell’s tyre exploded. The 1994 race saw Schumacher and Hill controversially collide, handing the crown to the German.
The racing has always been excellent at Adelaide and the circuit’s layout produced great wheel-to-wheel action, which was further heightened if the weather turned nasty, such as in 1989 and 1991 – the latter of which was the shortest World Championship race ever staged.
And when in 1995 it emerged that Melbourne had snatched the rights to host the race, the city saw F1 off in famous style, with a world record crowd of 250,000 spectators turning up on race day to watch Damon Hill win by 2 laps! Who needs an Arabian ‘Tilkedrome’ when you’ve got Adelaide?
While no longer part of the Formula 1 calendar, a shortened version of the circuit lives on as one of the country’s showpiece events on the Australian touring car calendar and it remains one of the best street circuits ever.
If you’d like some onboard action of the full Grand Prix circuit, click here.
1. Guia Circuit, Macau
You would be hard pressed to find another street circuit in the world that can lay claim to running its races on virtually the same layout for the entirety of its 60-year history, but that’s precisely what our number-one street circuit, Macau Guia, has achieved. Since 1954, open-wheelers, touring cars and – incredibly – motorcycles have raced flat-out along the circuit’s long waterfront straights before rising and falling through the territory’s twists and turns.
The idea of a street circuit spawned from the sports car racing trio of Fernando Macedo Pinto, Carlos Silva and Paulo Antas, who came up with the idea over a coffee at the Riviera Hotel to have a motorised treasure hunt. The Portuguese enclave had barely 300 cars on its streets, so they reached out to the Hong Kong Motor Sports Club to help create a layout and organise the event.
The club members suggested that the track layout bore a striking resemblance to the Monaco circuit and suggested it would be ideal for motor racing. The 6-kilometre layout starts at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and follows the harbourfront to the Lisboa Hotel, where a hard right-hand turn kicks off a mad dash through the narrow inclined streets through the hillside. The impossibly tight Melco Hairpin is one of the slowest corners in motorsport, which feeds onto another high-speed blast past a reservoir and back onto the main straight.
The early years saw the races at Macau catering to rich amateurs,but it quickly established itself as one of the marquee events of the Asia-Pacific racing scene; by the mid-1960s it was attracting the attention of European drivers and the mid-1970s saw the birth of the official year-ending Formula 3 Grand Prix, which has the crème of open-wheel racers on its list of winners.
The event has become a pathway for F1 drivers, with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Maurício Gugelmin, Martin Donnelly, David Brabham, Michael and Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard, Ralph Firman and Takuma Sato all tasting the victory champagne.
It has also been the home of the Guia Race for touring cars. Since 1972, a host of the leading car manufacturers have sent entries through its Group A, Class One, Super Touring and Super 2000 regulations – the 2012 WTCC title-winner Rob Huff has won there a record eight times.
* Astute readers will note that the likes of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Circuit de La Sarthe and Marina Bay street circuits – and plenty of other worthy venues – didn’t make the list. The fact is that it’s a subjective list, but also – for the sake of a clear definition – we’re looking at venues run 100% on public streets.
Image via Red Bull Racing