By an unfortunate piece of timing, televised transmission of the Indycar race at Road America followed not long after the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. Both races on purpose-built tracks were dominated by one driver. But that’s where the similarity ended.
There was more overtaking in Indycar (not that passing should be the gold standard when judging a motor race) but the prevailing plus for Road America hit you between the eyes from start to finish. The parkland track in Wisconsin looked immaculate; a rich shade of green surrounding a challenging circuit.
Paul Ricard, on the other hand, was a flat kaleidoscope of swirling colours that may have appealed to artists and illustrators but did nothing to create the impression of encouraging daring-do in a race car. If anything, it looked like a facility for a School of Motoring – which, in some ways, it was, given the demonstration of perfection laid on by Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes for an hour and 24 minutes on Sunday.
Despite an appearance of modernity, this track’s roots stretch back 50 years and the basic concept has changed very little since. When Paul Ricard, the drinks magnate and inventor of Pastis, looked for somewhere local to spend his money on a race track, he chose a dusty plateau that had to qualify as the flattest place in otherwise rugged terrain. The track was utterly featureless but, because it boasted run-off areas that were a novelty back in the day, Paul Ricard was hailed as safe and state of the art.
Jackie Stewart easily led a dull procession during the first Grand Prix in 1971 and that recipe would remain until the French Grand Prix shifted to Magny-Cours 20 years later. Paul Ricard would continue to host motor cycle and national races until M. Ricard’s death in 1997 prompted the eventual sale of the site to a company owned by Bernie Ecclestone.
The F1 boss removed grandstands, added the garish cosmetic touches and turned Paul Ricard into a test track made popular by either allowing drivers to make mistakes or cars to fail without the risk of hitting anything solid. For that same reason, holding a Grand Prix on the revamped circuit gives a numbing impression of sterility and simplicity.
Hamilton says Paul Ricard is actually "awesome to drive". It’s not easy, and there’s some technical areas where you can gain an advantage.’ Maybe so. But that does little to stir the soul of those sitting some distance away, either in the remote grandstands or at the other end of a television lens.
The other downside of outlining a track within acres of asphalt is that a white line defines what little risk there is. It leads to less than riveting analysis of replays: ‘Look! His left-front is definitely a couple of centimetres over the white line. That’s a penalty!’
At this rate, it won’t be long before we hear: ‘Hang on! We’ve just got word; Verstappen has a 5-second penalty for not parking his Aston Martin Vantage neatly and putting a wheel in Leclerc’s slot in the paddock car park.’
Back in real time, post-race discussion about Ricciardo’s punishment for breaking the white line rule (some social media observers referred to it as ‘cheating’. I’d prefer to think of it as ‘Last chance. So what the hell!’) was followed soon after by the rolling start at Road America.
Here we saw Alexander Rossi slipstream Colton Herta and run round the outside of the pole man going into the first corner. On the way out, Rossi had to run wide, all four wheels of his Andretti Autosport car crossing the white line and using the asphalt run-off all the way to the point where it filtered back to the track proper.
No one said a thing about this or other instances of drivers taking a chance on whatever grip lay on the Tarmac, grit and grass beyond the white line. The circuit policed itself. But then Road America is not an insipid facility masquerading as a race track and in need of superficial assistance.