Last weekend I headed off to the latest new track to be opened in Spain, Circuito de Navarra. Situated a couple of picturesque hours' drive from Bilbao, the Los Arcos facility is remarkably the sixth in the country to attain the T1 status needed to host Formula 1 testing.
Now, you might reasonably ask why in a time when F1 testing is limited to a paltry 16 days a season, does Europe, let alone Spain, need another testing facility? What does Navarra offer that Circuit de Catalunya, Valencia, Jerez, Monteblanco or Motorland Aragon don't?
In truth, nothing. But that rather misses the point, and fails to take in how Spanish domestic politics work. Navarra, situated in the north of Spain in the heart of the best wine-growing region, is small - a population of 650,000 - but it's very rich, a legacy of a law dating back to the 15th century that exempts it from paying tax to the federal government.
The complicated story behind how the track came into being is well-told by Charles Bradley in this week's AUTOSPORT magazine. But it suffices to say that the Navarra regional government sees it as a way of showcasing the areas delightful produce and inviting countryside rather than a potential home of the Spanish Grand Prix.
Which is just as well, given that while praise for the standard of the facility was universal at its first high-profile event, reaction to the track layout was far less effusive. Generally, the fast sweeps and climbs that make up the first sector were well received, but the tight, 90-degree corners that proliferate the second sector were derided.
The circuit management has undoubtedly done a fine job with ensuring the very highest standards of safety were attained, without which T1 status would never have been reached, but it was disappointing that given a clean piece of paper a more inspiring layout couldn't have been created. Changes will almost certainly be made, smoothing out some of the right-angles into a more natural curve, it remains to be seen what impact they will have.
But it did get me thinking. I fully accept that track design needs to be as safe as possible, even if vast asphalt run offs have moved the fans too far away from the racing, making spectating far less spectacular. Even if this has led to all photos from new tracks looking undynamic and homogenised. Even if this has allowed drivers to make mistakes with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they'll be willing to rejoin with barely a loss of time. Despite all of that, it's worth it if it stops a driver from being killed by a barrier that juts out at the wrong angle, or whatever.
But having conceded so many good things, like the ability to feel the wind on your face as a car rushes by, why do the incredibly prohibitive circuit design laws still exist? There's a reason all the Tilke tracks seem the same. The rules dictate that there can't be adverse camber corners. The rules mandate levels of incline and decline that mean a Paddock Hill or Eau Rouge could never be built into a track design again. Why? Given the acreage of bland, insipid run-off we've surrendered too, aren't we getting something back in return? Playing the new Korea track on F1 2010 is a sobering experience - it's quite possibly the most horrendously dull track yet.
Still, at least the residents of Navarra and the surrounding regions have a choice of standing way back from the track - although in fairness Navarra has done a good job in limiting this. There hasn't been a new track built in Britain since Rockingham and there seems little chance of that changing in the foreseeable future. The strength of the 'Not In My Back Yard' massif will see to that.
When I asked if there were any noise issue in Navarra my question was greeted as if it was a joke. It's no laughing matter in the UK, where people who think it's their human right to demand that other people stop what they're doing so they can enjoy some peace and quiet have the upper hand.
As a youngster I used to watch my club motorsport at Castle Combe. The highlight of the year was the British GT/Formula 3 meeting, where massive crowds were commonplace. It was a great day out, with a brilliant atmosphere. Not any more, the noise police having seen to that. Surely a handful of moaners preventing 20,000 people having a good time is anti-social behaviour, not the other way around!? I don't get it, but then I work for a company that felt the need to email its staff to warn them to take care of "conkers descenting (sic) from the trees in the car park". I'm fully expecting to be told to wrap up warm at the first sign of a cold snap...
Anyway, I digress. Auto GP had the honour of being the first major international series to race at Navarra. If you haven't heard of it, it's because there are so many single-seater championships at sub-GP2 level in Europe these days it's becoming almost impossible to see the wood for the trees.
In a nutshell, Auto GP is the descendent of the Euroseries 3000 championship run by Enzo Coloni. He bought the old Lola A1GP cars after the much-missed (by me at least) World Cup of Motorsport spent its way into oblivion and did a deal with Ferrari.
Coloni toned down some of the more outlandish bodywork and replaced it with wings that increased the grip. The bullet-proof Zytek V8 was retained but run at full boost (no push-to-pass), while the outrageously proportioned Cooper tyres have been replaced by grippier Michelins.
Costs are kept to a minimum. A budget for this year was around 380,000 euros, while decent prize money is on offer thanks to a title sponsorship deal with Partypoker.com. These all combined to attract some top-notch teams this year; A1GP champions Super Nova and DAMS, GP2 race winner Trident and Lazarus (a sort of step-sister team to GP2 powerhouse Rapax following the closure of Piquet/GP Racing).
These in turn have attracted a decent array of drivers, with Renault F1 reject Romain Grosjean the stand-out talent this season. The cars have a lot of power compared to the level of grip and are quite a tricky beast to tame. They can run close to one another, so the racing is generally pretty exciting.
However, the series profile is low, and while Grosjean (who's likely to win the championship at Monza this weekend) appears to be inching his way back onto the F1 radar, it's hard to see how his rivals are going to progress next season, however the series could prosper by making itself a sort of unofficial test programme.
GP2 has clearly established itself at the shop window for F1 wannabees, but with the Asia series being pretty much crucial preparation for a title shot owing to the lack of series testing (that chestnut again!), budgets for 2011 are creeping shockingly close to the 2.5 million euro mark. Surely another few hundred thousand is a small price to pay for some valuable mileage in a car with similar levels of power.
That's almost unbelievable stuff for a series that said it would cost 80 per cent of an F3000 budget when it was launched in 2005. It also makes it difficult to understand how it could be more expensive to have a true open formula in its place.
I know I'm not alone in lamenting the lack of a real Formula 2 - one with multiple chassis constructors and engine suppliers. One where drivers learn how to work with an engineer to develop the car. One where young designers learn how to build cars on a tight budget before graduating to the limitless expenditure of F1.
Sadly, this type of competition only really exists in sportscars these days. Audi and Peugeot have left no stone unturned in their quest for performance this year. I'll be seeing how they get on this weekend at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. Now, there's a proper track.
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