It may be time for F1 fans to buy a Lebanese phrase book, because Beirut is angling to eclipse Monaco in the 2006 Grand Prix.
Andrew Mylius reports.
When Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button and the rest of the Formula One pack lined up on the starting grid at Silverstone in July there were many UK motor racing fans wondering if they will ever see another Grand Prix on home soil. The cash strapped British event was slated by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone last year as 'a village fete masquerading as a global event', and he has been casting his eye internationally for a glitzier, higher octane venue.
So how about Beirut? The war torn Lebanese capital may be a surprise choice, but it cuts a dash. Bounded by the dazzling Mediterranean and with a backdrop of snow capped mountains, it boasts Roman ruins and French colonial architecture. It was a favourite playground of the rich and famous before civil war rocked Lebanon in the 1970s, and is winning back some of its former glitz by developing a marina packed with swanky yachts. Redevelopment of the bombed, bullet pocked city centre is advancing apace, but Beirut's battle scars even project a kind of dangerous glamour, which is very much Formula One's style.
Beirut wants to stage its first Grand Prix in 2006 on a brand new, 4.8km long on-street race circuit that will tour the city centre. By staging motor racing to rival the famed Grand Prix of Monaco it hopes to turn itself once more into an upmarket tourist destination. The city is using the race circuit to focus the redesign of a vast tract of reclaimed land.
In the last two to three decades Beirut's waterfront has been pushed 400m out to sea by the dumping of a colossal quantity of waste - anything from household rubbish to shattered tanks, aircraft and shell casings - creating 65ha of new land. This provides the city with a blank canvas on which to draw up a major new urban quarter.
Overseen by governmentbacked redevelopment body Solidere, consultant Dar Al-Handasah has already designed a new combined breakwater, promenade and corniche alongside the Med and is working up a detailed town plan. Dar has brought in specialist UK consultant Stuart Michael Associates to advise on the race circuit.
A widely spaced grid of streets has been laid out across the reclaimed area, knitting into the more irregularly organised and closely clustered streets of old Beirut. The race course zooms around the marina and along the corniche, offering cars flat out speeds of 300km/h, turning sharply back at its eastern extremity into the new city a couple of blocks back from the seafront. It then zigzags through a series of 40km/h right angle bends and fast straights before swooping through a tangle of curves on Beirut's old roads in the west. Over its length the course narrows and widens from three lane motorway to single carriageway road, scorching through wide open spaces and ducking between towering buildings.
Race track designers are not allowed under Formula One's rules to sound out their ideas for a course on team drivers. F1 regulatory body the FIA fears drivers may end up with too much knowledge of a course, or even get a course designed to their strengths. But Stuart Michael has done a lot of homework on what makes an exciting driver's track, says director Jerry Muscroft. The design has been tested on the FIA's track simulator and so far gets the thumbs up, he adds.
It is important to make the course interesting for spectators, he explains, but a race only becomes thrilling to watch when the drivers are gripped and enjoying the drive. Muscroft believes this means lots of aggressive acceleration, violent braking, some vision-blurring bursts of speed, and opportunities for technical and tactical prowess to shine - places where drivers can overtake, with a bit of difficulty.
Getting a really first class race course into the middle of a city throws up technical and tactical difficulties of its own however.
Racing cars often fail to brake hard enough to negotiate corners, and career off the track.
Every course therefore has gravelled or tarmacked run-off areas. The size and shape of runoff areas takes account of the cars' speed and tangent, and on greenfield sites it is possible to provide wide margins on the outside of every bend. But in a city centre, space is at a premium, ruling out large run-off areas.
Muscroft has tackled the problem by designing very tight corners, forcing drivers to slow right down. And because the radius of the turns is so small, run-offs when they happen will only ever be head on, so can be accommodated in the grid-iron street plan.
Design has also focused on kerbs and street furniture such as planters. 'We're trying to design as many permanent features of the circuit into the master plan as possible to make it easier to get it race ready, ' says Muscroft. Preparing the circuit for a four day Grand Prix will take around 45 days, he predicts, and will cost potentially tens of millions of dollars. Concrete planters will be set back from the road to allow for erection of protective tyre walls on bends and corners, or be sturdy enough to provide crash protection in their own right on straights. An additional first line of protection will be erected in the form of temporary concrete kerb units, measuring 1m high and 2.5m long, with secondary protection provided by debris fences.
Even though much of the course is over reclaimed land there are some hills to negotiate.
High points are 18m above the lowest. This means close attention has been paid to maximum gradients, which are set to prevent drivers losing sight of the course ahead or losing traction as they fly over hills. The height of an underpass which crosses the track on its south west leg will have to be reduced by 1m to comply with FIA requirements.
An eye must also be kept on surfacing, as F1 cars allow surface level variations of only +/-3mm. All roads will be laid to cope with loading from heavy goods vehicles, so deflection should not be a problem. However, surfacing must provide excellent grip and low spray for racing. At the same time it needs to cope with year round pounding from Beirut traffic - although the braking and acceleration of a F1 car metes out more punishment to a road than a 44t truck. Surfacing will probably be negative texture, laid continuously to minimise construction joints, which is where track is most vulnerable to the ripping action of a racing car's sticky tyres.