With the 2021 F1 season finally upon us, we run down every track on the calendar with Sky pundit Karun Chandhok
Formula 1 is set for a record 23-race season in 2021 – pandemic permitting – as grands prix stretch from the Bahrain season opener on March 28 to the Abu Dhabi finale on December 12.
That means wall-to-wall racing through most of the spring, summer and autumn (with a short breather in August) which is great for TV viewers, but makes for a punishing schedule for the hard-working teams. Ex-F1 driver and top Sky F1 TV pundit Karun Chandhok will be at most of them and offers Autocar his expert view on each of the tracks, covering individual circuit characteristics, set-up tips, the best overtaking spots, the key corners to bank quick lap times and what we’ve called ‘The Talent Zone’ (in other words the hardest bits).
Sakhir | Imola | Portimao | Catalunya | Monte-Carlo | Baku | Montreal | Paul Ricard | Red Bull Ring | Silverstone | Hungaroring | Spa-Francorchamps | Zandvoort | Monza | Sochi | Singapore | Suzuka | Austin | Mexico | Interlagos | Melbourne | Jeddah | Yas Marina
1 Sakhir, Bahrain GP (Mar 28)
Character: Good for racing, lots of overtaking opportunities, big emphasis on braking stability and traction. A track where engine power can be very helpful.
Set-up strategy: You need something that gives you good confidence on the brakes and good traction, especially in the race when the tyre wear kicks in.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 1, but we’ve also seen some great moves at Turn 4 in recent times when you can get a switch-back on the way out.
Key corner for a quick lap: Turns 1 and 2.
The Talent Zone: Turn 10 is really important because you can lose a lot of time there.
Most wins: Sebastian Vettel, 4 (2012, 2013, 2017, 2018); Lewis Hamilton, 4 (2014, 2015,2019, 2020)
2 Imola, Emilia Romagna GP (Apr 18)
Character: A great history, much narrower than the modern tracks. The undulations and blind corners make it a real challenge.
Set-up strategy: Something that gives you a good change of direction on the front end is very helpful.
Best overtaking spot: There isn’t one! The only one is into the first chicane – possibly…
Key corner for a quick lap: The two Rivazza left-handers at the end of the lap. It’s easy to overshoot the first one on the brakes and it’s also important to get a good exit from the second for the straight.
The Talent Zone: The Variante Alta chicane at the top of the circuit.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 7 (1994, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006)
3 Portimao, Portuguese GP (May 2)
Character: Very undulating, lots of blind corners, lots of corners where you are braking and turning at the same time. So you need a car that allows you to carry good speed while you are heading for the apex.
Set-up strategy: You need a car that will give you confidence for braking and turning. Also anything that can give you good compliance over the crests and bumps. It’s high downforce.
Best overtaking spot: Down into Turn 1, but you also have an opportunity at Turn 5.
Key corner for a quick lap: The fast left-hander in the second half of the lap followed by a long right that tightens – Turns 9, 10 and 11.
The Talent Zone: Again, Turns 9, 10 and 11.
Most wins: Alain Prost, 3 (1984, 1987, 1988); Nigel Mansell, 3 (1986, 1990, 1992). All won at Estoril.
4 Catalunya, Spanish GP (May 9)
Character: A circuit everyone knows too well! But it’s a track that’s got everything: high speed, slow-speed corners, a long straight, heavy braking – which is why it’s a great test track.
Set-up strategy: You need downforce, downforce, downforce!
Best overtaking spot: It has to be Turn 1. There are not many places to pass here.
Key corner for a quick lap: There are quite a few. I’d say Turns 7 and 8.
The Talent Zone: The whole of the last sector because the rear tyre temperatures get hot.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 6 (1995, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
5 Monte-Carlo, Monaco GP (May 23)
Character: The first street track of the year. It’s obviously historic and iconic, but it’s sanitised from what it used to be. Still a great driver’s challenge though.
Set-up strategy: High aero – absolute every last ounce of downforce with no consideration for drag. Anything that is going to give the driver confidence to get close to the barriers. Making the car predictable is important at Monaco.
Best overtaking spot: The chicane – if you are brave. It’s not easy here.
Key corner for a quick lap: Getting around Casino Square and the Hotel de Paris.
The Talent Zone: All of it is difficult! Nothing is easy at Monaco.
Most wins: Ayrton Senna, 6 (1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993)
6 Baku, Azerbaijan GP (Jun 6)
Character: A really interesting track layout because you have to compromise in terms of set-up for straight-line speed and braking stability for the middle sector of the lap. A real challenge and it produces some very exciting racing.
Set-up strategy: It’s a massive compromise. You see drivers and teams constantly having to evaluate what’s the best approach: taking downforce off for high-speed performance versus improving their braking with a bit more aero.
Best overtaking spot: The biggest one is Turn 1. We’ve seen overtaking into Turn 3, so those two are the main areas
Key corner for a quick lap: Turn 16, the left-hander before the long blast back to the finish line.
The Talent Zone: The corner before that, Turn 15. You have to turn a little bit to the right while you are braking to go sharply left downhill. Really difficult.
Most wins: Daniel Ricciardo, 1 (2017); Lewis Hamilton, 1 (2018), Valtteri Bottas, 1 (2019)
7 Montréal, Canadian GP (Jun 13)
Character: Unforgiving. The walls are close and the quick change in direction through the chicanes make them really tricky. To get the right lines through the chicanes you are threading the eye of a needle.
Set-up strategy: Like Baku, it’s medium-level downforce, but you also need a car that’s going to allow you to attack the kerbs and be responsive on change of direction. Traction is valuable here too.
Best overtaking spot: Into the final chicane, but also into the hairpin.
Key corner for a quick lap: The last chicane
The Talent Zone: That last chicane again!
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 7 (1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004); Lewis Hamilton, 7 (2007, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019)
8 Paul Ricard, French GP (Jun 27)
Character: Not the most exciting track layout. There’s talk about getting rid of the chicane on the back straight, which might help. There are several layouts at Paul Ricard and I’m not convinced they have chosen the best one for racing.
Set-up strategy: It’s a track that demands a very good front end because you have a lot of long-radius corners that tighten up. It puts a higher emphasis on front downforce than a lot of other circuits.
Best overtaking spot: Probably down the back straight.
Key corner for a quick lap: The double right-hander, De Beausset. There’s a lot of lap time to be lost there.
The Talent Zone: The whole final sector because the tyres will be struggling by that point.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 8 (1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006). All at Magny-Cours
9 Red Bull Ring, Austrian GP (Jul 4)
Character: Great for racing. We’ve seen some cracking races here. It’s a short layout, one of the shortest, so the time differences in qualifying are minute. There’s a lot of pressure on the drivers to get it right and it’s pretty unforgiving.
Set-up strategy: You need good braking and traction for the first half of the lap and a good front end for the second half. So you need a bit of everything.
Best overtaking spot: Into Turn 3 at the top of the hill.
Key corner for a quick lap: Probably Turn 1
The Talent Zone: The two left-handers in the middle sector are tricky, but I’d say the last two corners are the toughest.
Most wins: Alain Prost (1983, 1985, 1986). All on the Osterreichring.
10 Silverstone, British GP (Jul 18)
Character: Brilliant high-speed circuit: fast, flowing, one that the drivers all enjoy.
Set-up strategy: Nowadays it’s not necessarily maximum downforce. We’ve seen some teams gaining performance by reducing downforce levels because these modern cars produce so much drag. The key is still to inspire confidence in the high-speed corners, but with one eye on your drag levels.
Best overtaking spot: There are several now. I’d say down into Brooklands and down the Hangar Straight are the most obvious.
Key corner for a quick lap: The Maggotts/Becketts/Chapel complex.
The Talent Zone: Again, I’d say the Becketts complex, especially taking into account the wind which can make it very tricky.
Most wins: Lewis Hamilton, 7 (2008, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020)
11 Hungaroring, Hungarian GP (Aug 1)
Character: A very challenging circuit and the drivers need a good rhythm to get a good lap time.
Set-up strategy: You need a car that gives you a good positive change in direction for the middle sector. Having lots of downforce is very helpful.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 1, but we’ve also seen moves into Turn 2.
Key corner for a quick lap: All of the middle sector, from Turn 4 to 9. It’s all one corner into another.
The Talent Zone: Also Turn 4 to Turn 9.
Most wins: Lewis Hamilton, 8 (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020)
12 Spa-Francorchamps, Belgian GP (Aug 29)
Character: The unpredictable weather is the biggest challenge. With the level of drag these cars have, getting the set-up compromise right is massively important.
Set-up strategy: You need straight-line speed in the first and third sectors and good cornering speed in the middle. That’s the compromise.
Best overtaking spot: Les Combes at the end of the Kemmel Straight, and the Bus Stop at the end of the lap.
Key corner for a quick lap: I think the La Source hairpin is really important. Getting a good exit down the hill to Eau Rouge makes a big difference.
The Talent Zone: Guessing the weather!
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 6 (1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002)
13 Zandvoort, Dutch GP (Sep 5)
Character: A big return to the calendar this year. I raced there in GTs and loved it. It’s a great track to drive and the drivers will enjoy the flow and layout. But the racing and overtaking will be a challenge because of the number of fast corners and how narrow it is.
Set-up strategy: You want high downforce because there are a lot of high-speed corners. It’s probably similar to the Hungaroring: you need a good front end for change of direction, but you also need loads of downforce.
Best overtaking spot: It has to be Tarzan, Turn 1, but we need to see how powerful the DRS is coming off the newly banked final turn. What you could get is a strong headwind which could make the DRS very powerful and then we’ll get more overtaking. It’s right by the sea.
Key corner for a quick lap: There’s a bit where you go over the top of a brow at the far end of the track, and then you drop downhill to two right-handers. It’s three right-handers in a row – two quick and one slow. Those three – Turns 8, 9 and 10 – will be really tricky to get right.
The Talent Zone: The most difficult part is probably Turns 3 and 4, Gerlachtbocht and Hugenholtzbocht which is heavily banked to the left.
Most wins: Jim Clark, 4 (1963, 1964, 1965, 1967)
14 Monza, Italian GP (Sep 12)
Character: From one of the highest downforce tracks we go to the lowest. I like Monza because of the history of the place, but also it’s the only true low-downforce track we have on the calendar now. It’s nice to go to something different. The calendar needs a balance of variety and Monza offers that.
Set-up strategy: Obviously low downforce. A car that allows you to have good braking stability and good traction despite the low downforce.
Best overtaking spot: The first and second chicanes.
Key corner for a quick lap: The last corner, Parabolica.
The Talent Zone: The Ascari chicane.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 5 (1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006); Lewis Hamilton, 5 (2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018)
15 Sochi, Russian GP (Sep 26)
Character: Not the most exciting track layout. It has a very low-grip surface, so there is very low tyre degradation. There’s always a bit of chaos at the first corner.
Set-up strategy: You need a car that’s going to help the tyres work and get in the right operating window because of the low grip. Braking stability is also quite important.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 1, but we’ve also seen moves into Turn 4 and at the end of the back straight into Turn 13 with the second DRS zone.
Key corner for a quick lap: I’d say Turn 1. You need to brake late and get a good exit.
The Talent Zone: The left-right chicane (Turns 15 and 16) just before the last two corners, which has camber in it.
Most wins: Lewis Hamilton, 4 (2014, 2015, 2018, 2019)
16 Singapore, Singapore GP (Oct 3)
Character: It’s quickly become a modern favourite for the drivers and the paddock as a whole. The track layout is really challenging and has one of the longest lap times. It’s a tough, unforgiving circuit.
Set-up strategy: High downforce, but also a car that will allow you to have confidence while riding the bumps.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 7, after the first DRS zone.
Key corner for a quick lap: There’s lots of them. I’d say Turn 5, Turn 13 after the Anderson bridge, and the right-left chicane (Turn 20/21) before the last two corners.
The Talent Zone: Everywhere. Trying to keep the tyres working on a quali lap is tough here.
Most wins: Sebastian Vettel, 5 (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2019)
17 Suzuka, Japanese GP (Oct 10)
Character: Now the ultimate drivers’ track. It’s not as sanitised as Spa and Silverstone have become.
Set-up strategy: Much like Barcelona, downforce will be your best friend – but unlike Budapest and Monaco you also need to think about drag.
Best overtaking spot: Difficult, but using DRS into Turn 1 or into the chicane.
Key corner for a quick lap: The Esses.
The Talent Zone: Also The Esses.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 5 (1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004)
18 Austin, United States GP (Oct 24)
Character: One of the best of the modern track layouts. Great atmosphere in the city, great atmosphere at the track. An event everybody loves.
Set-up strategy: You need confidence for high-speed changes in direction and a good front end because there are lots of corners where one leads into another.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 1 is good, but I’d say Turn 12.
Key corner for a quick lap: Tricky. There are lots of them! From Turns 3 to 9 are probably key.
The Talent Zone: Turns 3 to 9 again, because it’s quite wind-affected up that end of the circuit too.
Most wins: Lewis Hamilton, 6 (2007, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). 2007 win at Indianapolis
19 Mexico City, Mexican GP (Oct 31)
Character: A tricky track because of the altitude. The thin air means the drivers have much less downforce, and we get some incredible speeds down the straight with these turbo hybrid engines. The atmosphere is brilliant and we’ve seen some great races.
Set-up strategy: Having a car that works well despite the relatively low level of downforce, in terms of generating heat in the tyres. Also a good front end for the slow-speed corners.
Best overtaking spot: Turn 1
Key corner for a quick lap: The stadium section – don’t underestimate it.
The Talent Zone: Braking for Turn 1 is very tricky.
Most wins: Jim Clark, 3 (1962, 1963, 1967). 1962 Mexican GP was non-championship
20 Interlagos, Brazilian GP (Nov 7)
Character: A great track for racing. Changeable weather conditions adds another element of excitement. It’s historic too.
Set-up strategy: A car that gives you braking and turning stability is important, but also can deal with cambers and undulations. A car that can cope with that is very useful.
Best overtaking spot: The Senna Esses at Turn 1.
Key corner for a quick lap: The last real corner that leads you back up the hill, Juncao.
The Talent Zone: The two fast uphill right-handers, Ferradura and Laranjinha.
Most wins: Alain Prost, 6 (1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990). All at Jacarepaguá, Rio de Janeiro
21 Melbourne, Australian GP (Nov 21)
Character: We’re going at a totally different time of the year this time, so it will be hotter than normal. It’s a tricky track layout with some unusual cambers and crowns in the road, and they are modifying some of the corners this year.
Set-up strategy: It’s going to be different this season because of the different time of the year and for a change we’re going when drivers and teams will know their cars much better.
Best overtaking spot: Not easy here, but Turn 1 is the place if you get a good run out of the last corner. Possibly Turn 3 too.
Key corner for a quick lap: The last sector in qualifying, because the tyres are struggling by that stage.
The Talent Zone: The last three corners.
Most wins: Michael Schumacher, 4 (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004)
22 Jeddah, Saudia Arabian GP (Dec 5)
We don’t know much about this new street circuit yet. We’ll find out in December…
23 Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi GP (Dec 12)
Character: Fantastic facilities, it looks great on TV, amazing spectacle, but not a great track for racing and overtaking.
Set-up strategy: You need good braking stability, good traction and anything you can do to keep the rear tyre temperatures under control for the final sector.
Best overtaking spot: Very difficult. We see them done at Turns 8 and 9, and also at the chicane at Turns 11 and 12.
Key corner for a quick lap: The final section around the hotel.
The Talent Zone: Also that bit around the hotel.
Most wins: Lewis Hamilton, 5 (2011, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019)
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