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Hangin' With ... Tilke Engineers & Architects Founder Hermann Tilke

HERMANN TILKE is a world-renowned racetrack designer and the founder of Tilke Engineers & Architects. Tilke established his own company in '83. He started out tweaking corners at the legendary Nürburgring racetrack in Germany, where he also often competes in endurance races. His designs have been criticized by fans and pundits, but drivers revere his ability to create challenging tracks that fit the requirements of modern F1. Tilke put his mark on more than half of this year's 19 F1 race venues, including the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The 60-year-old German recently spoke to SBD Global about becoming a racetrack designer, current F1 projects, criticism and pushing the limits.

On becoming a racetrack designer ...
Hermann Tilke: I am racer myself. I started racing when I was 18. After I graduated from university I worked at a regular company, but I didn’t have enough vacation days to continue racing. So I quit my job and founded my own company. I started out doing small changes to the Nürburgring. That’s how it started and after some years people started saying, "He’s an expert." The company gradually grew and we then got the chance to design our first Formula 1 track -- the now Red Bull Ring in Austria. That was in 1995. Almost at the same time we also got the chance to redesign the Sachsenring, where the German MotoGP race is held. By now we’ve done 65 circuits around the world, including 17 Formula 1 tracks.

On approaching a new project ...
Tilke: We first have to carefully look at the land. Every property has boundaries. We look to the surroundings. We try to get a feel of the region. All of it influences the design. The typography of the area is also very important. The condition and quality of the soil. The surrounding infrastructure. We take those things into consideration. Once we have taken a look at all those things, we start. However, we never have a white sheet of paper like many people think. There are always restrictions in terms of the surrounding area and also in terms of budget. Another aspect that we have to consider is the safety regulations from FIA or FIM, or both. Then it’s a process of design and redesign until we come to a final result. When we have to redesign an existing racetrack, most of the time it has a history. Therefore we don’t try to change the character so much. Sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it’s not. But we always try to keep the character and the history of the circuit. If it is a new track, we try to make it part of the typography. We also try to showcase the region and country. We try to make sure it feels like it's part of the landscape. We think that’s very important.

Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Source: TILKE ENGINEERS & ARCHITECTS
On costs of building an F1 circuit ...
Tilke: Sometimes you need to spend more money because the clients want to showcase the country. You can make it very simple and functional, but you can also make it more sophisticated. On the one hand it’s the design of the racetrack, but also the buildings. For example, the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi showcases Arab architecture. They wanted to have it like this to show it to the world. Sometimes we have a very low budget and it’s also very interesting to work with a low budget, but I would say around €100 million ($110M) is the minimum for a brand new Formula 1 racetrack.

On current F1 projects ...
Tilke: Mexico City is an old racetrack from the early '60s. It has to be modified to the current safety standards and also modernized. We are renewing the facilities such as the pit building. The main changes to track are due to safety standards. We try to keep the character of the track. The difficulty in Mexico City is its really tight boundaries, which provide a challenge. We need to bring some parts of the track to the inside to have more runoff on the outside to comply with FIA safety regulations. Another challenge was to include an existing baseball stadium in the layout. The client’s wish was to drive through the stadium, which will seat 40,000 spectators. We expect the work to be finished in the final days leading up to the race. It’s always like this, especially for the first grand prix. It’s always last minute, but we know how to deal with it. The other Formula 1 project we are working on is the temporary street circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan. We currently also design eight other racetracks around the world. None of those are for Formula 1 or MotoGP.

On criticism his tracks don't allow overtaking ...
Tilke: We have to do our part and the regulations have to do their part to make overtaking possible. We try to create corners where overtaking is possible. The simplest way is a long straight followed by a sharp corner, which creates a long break zone. However, if regulations prohibit cars from racing close to each other they simply can’t overtake. That’s always a problem, but we try to find ways to make it possible. We also try to find ways to allow drivers to make mistakes. The problem is the drivers in Formula 1 are the best drivers in the world and they don’t make mistakes. The first corner combination is also very important as you try to avoid spreading out the field. You want to keep them closely together. Some criticism is simply not true. Take Bahrain for example. People said, "Oh, it will be boring because overtaking is not possible.” Not true. Last year, Bahrain was one of the most exciting races in history. There was overtaking everywhere.

Construction at Mexico City's the main straight
Source: TILKE ENGINEERS & ARCHITECTS
On his favorite racetrack ...
Tilke: That’s really difficult to answer for me. Let’s say you work on a racetrack for four years, from the first sketch you do to the opening of the track. It takes four years, minimum three years. You put a lot of heart in it. You live with it and it becomes something like a baby, and you know you like every baby.

On changes in design over the years ...
Tilke: Of course it has changed, particularly in terms of results. Nowadays, we just have a lot of experience and that’s why clients come to us because we make less mistakes than others. We also push the limits more nowadays. We are doing things now that we wouldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago. Now that we know those things, we can go much closer to the edge of the regulations to make it more exciting.

On the disappearence of traditional European races in F1 ...
Tilke: First of all it’s a world championship, so it should go to every corner of the world. But also the traditional European races should remain part of it. For me personally, I’m not really happy that Germany has no grand prix this year. And should Italy lose its race, it would be very disappointing for me as a fan. I like the traditional races such as Spa, Monza, Hockenheim, Nürburgring or Silverstone. As a fan, I want them to be part of Formula 1 for the next 50 years and beyond.

Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.