How to build a racetrack
A lifelong motorsport fan, Valencia native and Senior Track and Overlay Manager Agustín Delicado never imagined that his civil engineering degree would lead him to a dream job designing Formula E racetracks in the world’s most iconic cities. He tells us about the challenges of building temporary tracks in city centres – and the thrill of working through the night to make sure the FIA-approved track is ready on race day.
Agustín, how did you become a track designer?
Well, I’ve been a huge fan of motorsports since I was a kid, but I never thought about designing motorsport tracks until I joined Formula E. I studied civil engineering in Spain, and then I was recruited for a job to work on some track layouts for Formula E in their London office. And about nine months later, during Season 1 of Formula E, we started to actually build the tracks and then my life changed.
What makes Formula E racetracks unique?
The main difference between Formula E and other motorsport championships is that the tracks are temporary and are built right in the middle of the city. Therefore, the track layouts need to fit the specific circumstances of a city’s centre.
What are the main parameters you have to bear in mind when designing a racetrack?
We start with the feasibility study. When we define an initial layout of the track, it needs to be sufficiently wide. Then there’s the length of the track itself – we are now targeting tracks of 2.5 kilometres, especially because we will have an additional racing team next year. We also need to make sure there is enough space for the safety run-off areas. The biggest challenge at this feasibility stage is to consider what roadworks and surfacing work need to be carried out in the city. This might involve the removal of a traffic island and other street furniture. But we also need to find the space for our pit lane, which with 12 teams is becoming more challenging in city centres. So we have to be very creative.
How important is the involvement of the neighbourhood?
Well, that’s quite critical and is a key factor in being able to return to the same city in the next season. Let’s say you have a neighbourhood with a road full of businesses – they might not be too excited about us putting concrete blocks and fences in front of their establishments. So we’ve developed a system of modular blocks homologated by the FIA [Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – motorsport’s governing body] that helps us build a race circuit quickly without affecting residents and businesses. Thanks to this modular system, we can wait until Thursday night or Friday morning to install the blocks and fences and other infrastructure to allow for vehicle access, ensuring the businesses remain completely operational until then. As for pedestrian access, we ensure it is maintained during the entire event, of course.
In terms of planning, we need to work very closely with the city’s engineering department, traffic management and police to ensure that everything we do is in the right place for every stakeholder on and around the track.
Who approves the final layout of the track?
That would be the FIA. The Federation has ‘circuit safety commissions’, which carry out speed simulations and then give feedback to the respective national sporting authorities in the city. These commissions are the ones dealing directly with Formula E or with the track designer. They tell us which modifications we need to make to the planned track to ensure it is safe. This process is ongoing and is reviewed over time because the circuit safety commissioners need to see that what we are building is indeed what they have simulated and approved on paper. The final homologation by the FIA usually takes place on the Friday morning before the race, once they’ve had a chance to see the completed track.
Do you ever have to make last-minute changes to the track before a race?
Yes, but changing the layout in terms of the safety devices, the blocks and the fences and so on is not such a big challenge, because it might involve just a couple of curves, a couple of blocks, or simply repainting something. What is most challenging is having to make last-minute asphalt repairs. Because the roads are open to traffic as long as possible, there might be an issue and then you need to act on that on Friday night. The asphalt repairs are the more critical ones.
How do you balance the safety requirements with building a track that will deliver an exciting race?
The key thing for overtaking in general is the track width, which is very limited in a city. In Paris, for instance, there are not many options for changing the design of the track itself. But what makes our championship interesting is the drivers’ battery management, the FANBOOST and now the ATTACK MODE, which is new this year. This gives drivers various strategy options during the race.
So that really helps in races where we don’t have the option to widen the track. But if we go to places like the site of Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport, where we are not limited by the city streets, we can pretty much do whatever we want to make the track itself more challenging.
What are some of the physical obstacles that you typically encounter when designing a city circuit?
We’ve had several instances in which we had to work around some tramlines. Sometimes we need to find a solution to cover the tramlines, which, of course, has to be done at the last minute so that trams remain operational until Friday. But the real challenge lies in ensuring we don’t adversely affect any grassy areas or any trees in the city. So when we see a signpost or a traffic island, it’s not an issue for us because that’s easily repairable and we can even find a semi-permanent solution. But when we see anything green, we try to redesign the layout to make sure we don’t affect any of the city’s green areas.
What did you like most about the track in Zurich, the location of the first E-Prix on Swiss soil, which took place in 2018?
Well, although some people didn’t like it, I really enjoyed the fact that we needed to install almost 400 concrete barriers and debris fences on the last night – which is 1.6 kilometres of material. This requires coordinating with a lot of teams, suppliers and contractors working onsite through the night, and it’s quite a challenge to monitor that. This was all done to make sure that we could keep all roads open and the traffic flowing for the residents as long as possible. But this means having a very long and busy Thursday night into Friday – which is
not something everybody else enjoys as much as I do!
Let’s stay with the track in Zurich. What were the biggest design and implementation challenges?
In addition to the last-minute track building, we had a pit lane made of cobblestones for the very first time in our series. So it was a challenge to get the teams comfortable with it, build the temporary garage structure there, and then get the homologation from the FIA.
What is the most striking feature of the Berne track, the site of the second E-Prix hosted in Switzerland?
The nicest thing in Berne, apart from the backdrop that the city itself offers, is the slopes: half of the track slopes downwards and half of it slopes upwards. We have a little bit of that in Rome, but that’s not something that we have on many tracks in our series.
How does it feel to watch a race once the track is complete?
Well, when you come from the site and go to a screen to watch a race on a track that you’ve just finished building, you can feel quite proud. I’m always quite relaxed on race day because that means my work is done [laughs]. But I like to follow the race and see if there are any crashes so that I can think of how to improve the track for next year. Let’s say we have recurrent incidents in Turn 2. The following year, we will be ready to make changes to that turn.
And at the same time, I know that I need to come back and help take it all down after the race to help reopen the roads. So the adrenaline is still palpable on race day.
How quickly do you take everything down?
We usually take down the tracks in five, six days, but we’ve even removed some in four days. We always race on a Saturday, and if the venue really needs the roads reopened on Sunday, we remove every turn, every junction, everything we’ve installed in the middle of the roads and will leave only blocks and fences that are out of the way of normal traffic. And we work every night during that next week to make sure we are gone by, let’s say, Friday.
Are there any cities that are not already on the Formula E calendar that you would like to see host a race?
Ah, yes. There are big names out there that we haven’t tackled yet. Japan springs to mind. We could go to more cities in the United States. But I would also love to see a race in my hometown. When I go home to Valencia, I can see the Formula One racetrack from the plane, half of which is built. So, on my second visit back after I moved to London, as I was landing, I redesigned the Valencia street circuit to have a Formula E track. Maybe that will become a reality someday.
Formula E people
Every racing driver will tell you that it takes an entire team to make sure he and his car are ready to hit the track on race day. The same is true of Formula E. We take you behind the scenes to meet the engineers, mechanics, team managers, logistics coordinators, track engineers, PR managers – and many more – who make it possible to race in over ten city circuits each season.