​The Dangerous Game: Motor Racing on the Streets


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​The Dangerous Game: Motor Racing on the Streets

Motorsport began life on the streets. More than a century later, its biggest and most prestigious races still take place on ordinary roads.

Racing began life on the streets. Before state-of-the-art circuits with air-conditioned suites and bottles of Cristal on ice, the wilder members of society with a burning desire for speed and danger took their machines on to public roads and raced. Sometimes it was legal, sometimes not so much. To many of the early competitors that really didn't matter; the illicit nature of what they were doing was part of the appeal.


And we're not just talking about people on the fringes of society – name a racing series that's now considered respectable and you can point to its roots on the streets. Formula One's most famous event, the Monaco Grand Prix, takes place in a billionaires' playground on the Med, while even earlier grand prix events were staged on the public roads of France.

The unapologetically American NASCAR series has far more roughneck origins. During Prohibition-era America, bootleggers transported their illegal hooch using fast, nimble cars that could outrun the cops. As well as the booze they were carrying, they also got a taste for the buzz of driving insanely fast on the road. After Prohibition ended they still wanted that thrill, so racing on public roads with modified cars grew increasingly popular. Over time this developed into stock car racing – and what we now know as NASCAR.

These days, street circuit racing is part of almost every form of motorsport: F1, Formula E, touring cars, bikes – you name it, they race on closed public roads at least once a year. You could call it a tradition, as much a part of the sport as cup games in football and Serena Williams hammering everyone in tennis.

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But though it may have become part of the establishment, that's not to say it's lost its sense of danger. While your average track looks increasingly safe – which no one is complaining about – street circuits retain something terrifying. There's no run off, the surface is bumpy as hell, and it all appears that much faster. In short, they look insane.


For both drivers and spectators, the risk feels far more real and immediate. On a standard circuit the barriers are way off in the distance; on a street track, competitors brush up against them at every corner. If you make a mistake you could be making a sizeable dent in those barriers in no time – and that's going to hurt.

It doesn't even have to be your error. If something breaks on the car, you're heading straight for the scene of a very nasty accident. Or if the guy behind doesn't value your safety as much as his own, they might send you there.

Visually, too, it's far more engaging than racing in what is essentially a big field covered with tarmac. The sight of houses rushing by, of regular road signs and markings, take it to another level. When cars race on street circuits they are traversing the same roads that you or I could drive – they're just doing it a hell of a lot faster.

It all adds up to make them the doyen of racing circuits. Most people associate thoroughbred ability on street circuits with true greatness. In F1, drivers who have won at Monaco are considered to be the elite of the elite. Ayrton Senna won the race a record six times, while Michael Schumacher took five victories and Alain Prost four. Right there, you're looking at three of the most highly acclaimed drivers of all time. And that's no coincidence.

Senna was godlike at Monaco, but even he could be caught out. In 1988 he crashed out while leading comfortably, handing victory to his nemesis Prost. Senna was so distraught that he locked himself in his apartment (which, being a street circuit, was conveniently nearby) and didn't speak to his team for several hours. It made a massive impression on Senna – he won every other Monaco Grand Prix he contested until his death in 1994.


This incident added to Monaco's allure. If someone of Senna's ability could balls it up so badly, clearly mere mortals would have their work cut out at the track. Ask the drivers and almost every one will tell you that a Monaco win is more important than any other.

Not everyone loves it, however. The three-time world champion Nelson Piquet wasn't a fan of Monaco at all. "It's like riding a bicycle around your living room," the Brazilian once said. But maybe that was because he never won it…

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His son, Nelson Piquet Jr., has had far more success on street tracks – as well as one absolute horrorshow. In 2008 he was instructed to intentionally crash at the Singapore street circuit to help his Renault teammate Fernando Alonso win the race. The plot eventually went public and Piquet's F1 career was ruined.

But he's earned redemption on them, too. He won the first Formula E championship last season, a feat which involved a full 11-race compliment of street circuits. All of Formula E's events take place in city centres, with the all-electric championship looking to showcase sustainable technology at the heart of major urban settlements. That's good for the green credentials, but even better for those who love racing on the streets.

Nelson Jr won in Long Beach and Moscow, and clinched the title by one point at the finale in London, where the course wound around the roads of Battersea Park. Formula E provides a happy hunting ground for drivers who can kick arse on street tracks. Its most successful protagonists thus far – such as Piquet, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi – are all clearly at home between the barriers and over the bumps.


It doesn't always go to plan, however. Here's how the first ever Formula E race ended, with Nico Prost's aggressive defence from Nick Heidfeld resulting in a spectacular accident. To make matters all the more spicy, this was for the win. Both men were out, allowing Di Grassi to cruise through and take victory.

Not pretty.

But the real extreme of road and street circuit racing – which might even take it too far – is when motorbikes get involved. When this happens, serious injury and death can lurk around every corner.

Take the Snaefell Mountain Course, which hosts both the Isle of Man TT race and the Manx Grand Prix. Both are iconic and extremely popular bike races, but the insanely fast circuit around the mountain can be terrifyingly dangerous. This year alone three riders have died (one in the TT, two in the Manx GP), with a total of 17 perishing in the past five years.

That's a staggering figure that confirms not only the incredible danger of racing on roads and streets, but also the undeniable allure that these events hold. That so many people continue to sign up to compete despite knowing they may very well not be coming home demonstrates the addictive quality of racing on the road. And for so long as they're happy to do so, who are we to stop them? They are clearly another breed of human.