Why Abu Dhabi’s F1 track changes are about more than just overtaking


Following repeated complaints that the Yas Marina layout was far from ideal in delivering a good F1 spectacle, track bosses gave the go-ahead earlier this year to an extensive overhaul.

The end result is alterations made at three key points of the circuit, a revised hairpin on to the back straight, a new banked Turn 9 and tweaks at the hotel complex.

Individually, the changes may not appear that dramatic, but added together they will be very noticeable.

As Mercedes’ strategy chief James Vowles told the iRacing Downshift podcast: “Abu Dhabi, people may not think of it as a different circuit, but mark my words I think you’ll find it’s about 10 seconds faster, if not more, because it’s completely changed in layout.”

The overall aim of the revisions is to try to improve the racing, but it is wrong to say that the track designers have simply tried to create three corners that will deliver obvious overtaking opportunities.

Instead, a more holistic approach has been taken, where the whole rhythm of the circuit will change. This should allow cars to follow each other better, perhaps take different lines and not abuse their tyres as much.

The changes at Abu Dhabi were overseen by track design consultant MRK1, in coordination with sports venue architects Driven International.

Mark Hughes, managing director of MRK1, praised Abu Dhabi for being open to accepting that the original layout was not perfect.

“It flows a lot better,” he said of the new configuration. “In 2009, I think there was a different ethos around track design and the cars were very different.

“I think Yas have been quite brave recognising that they’ve got amazing architecture, they’ve got the Marina, they have good concerts and parties and everything else. The one ingredient that let them down was the track.

“Not everybody would have taken it on the chin and said ‘Yep, let’s change it’. But they have and I think it’s a great, great thing to do.”

As part of their work, MRK1 and Driven International called on the services of former F1 driver and Sky pundit Karun Chandhok to help test out the planned changes in the simulator.

Chandhok is convinced that what’s been done will deliver a step forward – both for the drivers and the fans.

“Having done hundreds of laps around the modified Yas Marina, I’m confident that the drivers will find it a more flowing and enjoyable track to drive,” he said.

“Modifying an existing circuit is never easy – it’s a bit like renovating a house rather than building from ground up, as there are some key bits you can’t change. In Yas’ case, the position of the pit complex, the Marina and the Hotel is obviously fixed.”

Here then are the key changes, and why they have been made.

The hairpin

North Hairpin - 1

North Hairpin – 1

One of the most obvious changes that has been urged ever since Yas Marina first arrived on the calendar was the hairpin at the start of the back straight.

It was long understood that the chicane on the entry spread the cars out. It meant drivers couldn’t get close enough to use the tight left hander as a potential overtaking spot, nor use it as a chance to go wide and potentially get a slingshot under acceleration afterwards.

However, the chicane was an original compromise because, based on the speeds cars would have arrived there without it, the barriers and grandstands were too close to do anything else. The chicane helped slow them down.

Of course moving the barriers and grandstands further back to remove the chicane was not an option. So instead, the hairpin has been brought further forward

Ben Willshire, from Driven International who managed the completion of the changes, said: “The only way to make this work is to create more run off. So we have had to pull the corner back about 42 metres earlier, as well as upgraded the barriers in consultation with the FIA.

“Although being close to the cars was part of the attraction at that area, where the cars are braking now will be even more spectacular for those either side of the hairpin. Plus, with a 20-metre wide hairpin bend there now, there should hopefully be some action and overtaking.”

The new banked corner

Marsa Corner -1

Marsa Corner -1

MRK1 and Driven undertook a deep analysis of the overtaking nature of the two back straight sequences.

While the first chicane was a good spot for getting moves done, the second straight afterwards opened the door for repassing. So in effect there was no net benefit.

That is why, when the off-camber sequence of corners at the far end of the circuit were looked to be replaced, the preference was for a high-speed turn rather than another heavy braking zone.

Chandhok said: “With the change we’ve done to the new T9, we’ve created a challenging high-speed corner that the track lacked, and also got rid of four negative camber corners that were frustrating for the drivers.

“We were looking at options with track camber in the final sector because the negative camber corners just send the rear tyre temps through the roof.”

Willshire added: “The philosophy here really is to try to keep the momentum of the cars as high as possible to allow the cars to follow closely.

“But also the Yas circuit doesn’t really have any challenging high speed corners apart from the Turns 2/3 complex. We wanted to create a signature corner, like Parabolica in Italy, where drivers will hold their breath every lap.

“And with it being banked, rather than off-camber, it should generate confidence rather than try to encourage mistakes. Having that will mean drivers can try different lines to stay close, and possibly run side-by-side, which should help allow overtaking elsewhere on the track.

“I think it creates a different type of thinking, and it gives two different characteristics to the circuit. That’s what we were trying to achieve.”

The hotel section tweaks

Hotel Section - 1

Hotel Section – 1

While the hairpin and new banked corner changes are very obvious, the most detailed tweaks have been made around the hotel complex.

The overall direction of the circuit is hemmed in here by the buildings around it. However, it was felt that the tight sequence around here not only affected the flow of the track, but also served to overheat the tyres – which hurt the racing elsewhere around the lap.

Getting rid of the negative cambered corners here was not possible, because it would have meant massive construction work to change barriers and run offs. So instead the focus has been on changing the kerbs to open things up.

Chandhok said: “Just opening up the radius of the double left under the hotel (T13 / 14) and making T15 more open was the best alternative.”

Willshire added: “I would say that that area of the work here was probably one of the most complex part of the design and construction – as you are dealing with millimetres on the paving.

“The old Turns 17/18/19 have all been opened up on the insides, and it has improved the flow through there. We wanted to get rid of the stop start sequencing that stopped cars following each other – and rolling over the crest of the kerb on a longer arc means drivers can carry more speed and momentum.”

Other ideas

Marsa Corner - 2

Marsa Corner – 2

As part of its evaluation process, MRK1 and Driven also looked at other tweaks that could help – which included a reprofiling of the chicane in the middle of the two back straights.

One idea was easing the angle of the second right element of that chicane to see if it would improve the racing, but it was felt that the current design was good enough to allow side-by-side action.

Furthermore, some consideration was given to seeing if the final corner could be made more of an overtaking spot – but the cars would not approach it fast enough from the hotel complex to make it work.

With the tight timing to get the current revisions done, there was also some consideration given to stagger the three final changes. However, Hughes was convinced that was not the right way to go. It was felt essential that all three corners were changed at the same time.

“We went through a process with Craig Wilson from F1 and, at one point, there was an internal discussion about whether, because of the timeframe, should we drop one of the changes and maybe do one of them later,” he said.

“That would firstly have increased costs, because you end up mobilising everything twice. But then actually, when you check the simulation data, the three elements work together as a whole to create a better overall lap.

“Taking one of them out would have negated the other two changes. So there wasn’t really an easy way to reduce the amount of work that we were doing.”

Holistic track improvement

North Hairpin - 2

North Hairpin – 2

With the three changes added together, the hope is that the new Abu Dhabi will be something that drivers will get excited about.

Willshire says: “We’ve taken almost 300 metres off the length of the circuit, the average speed is going up and the lap time is coming down.

“All the changes are going to alter the tyre wear, and drivers will feel a different experience from what we hope is a faster, more flowing and fun circuit to drive.”

Chandhok knows that only the F1 race on Sunday will show just how well the changes have helped improve the spectacle, but he is sure the Yas Marina circuit is a step forward.

“Overall, I think we have to see how much it really helps overtaking when the circus comes to town,” he said. “However on the whole, it’s certainly a better circuit layout to drive.”

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