Excitement and safety are priorities, says Diriyah Formula E track designer Simon Gibbons

Street races are a beloved, cherished part of motorsport, especially at night beneath the stars and the bright lights of the big city.

It is a big part of why the ABB FIA World Formula E World Championship’s world-renowned Diriyah E-Prix — which features back-to-back night races on Jan. 26 and 27 in Riyadh — has in recent years become so popular with drivers and fans alike.

But when it comes to a street race, says Simon Gibbons, the track designer of the Diriyah Formula E track, the aim is precisely that — to race on the streets.

“We’re not in the business of trying to change those streets; we’re trying to fit racing onto the existing streets,” Gibbons says. “But in all reality, streets are not designed like big race tracks. They’re not designed with big run off areas. What they are designed with is pedestrian islands, traffic islands, street lighting, traffic lights — all the street furniture that is common on normal streets is not ideally what you want around a race track. So, we accommodate the track in a safe and exciting way.”

And track safety is of number one importance when designing a track.

“How and where braking and run off is added to the layout is vital, so that if there is an impact, it happens in a safe way,” says Gibbons. “Crashes happen in motorsport, of course they will— we all actually enjoy seeing crashes — but what we don’t want to see are people getting hurt. So, we try to ensure that where there are heavy braking points we’ve got protection by way of barriers or run off, or both, so that point of impact is at a controllable speed.

“Formula E, as many people are becoming aware, is tight wheel-to-wheel racing because the cars are very equally matched in performance. What you come to expect is only a few meters between cars at any given time.”

That means assessing what the track width can accommodate and the detailed configuration of walls, curves and alignment. And then ensuring it is put together in such a way that it enables overtaking and wheel-to-wheel, side-by-side racing in a safe but hugely thrilling manner.

“It’s a really fine balance,” says Gibbons, 55, whose background is in civil and structural engineering, having earned his degree in the subject from the University of Manchester in 1989.

As well as designing the Diriyah track, Gibbons has been to all six editions of the Formula E races held there. He well remembers being asked to conduct the very first feasibility study for a Formula E track in Riyadh.

“We looked at a number of places in the city and for various reasons, Diriyah was recommended and then adopted by Formula E and the Ministry of Sport as being the chosen location,” says the Englishman.

The fact that Diriyah is home to the At Turaif UNESCO World Heritage site, a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s rich culture and tradition, was a factor in the location for the 2.495 km long track, which features 21 turns.

“It was one of the attractive reasons for coming to Diriyah,” says Gibbons. “It has that history — it was the original capital of Saudi Arabia — and it has historic features that give it a tangible feel of what Saudi Arabia is about. That was a reason for coming but also a reason why damaging it or changing it simply isn’t an option.”

There is, however, far more than just historical beauty as to why the area was chosen.

“We have talked about the track, that’s paramount to the fundamental needs of racing, but what we mustn’t forget are the spaces around the track,” says Gibbons, who has also worked on the design of Formula E tracks in places such as Malaysia, London, Montreal and more.

“Namely the pit lane, the paddock, the logistics, the power compound, the television compound, the production compound, the media center, hospitality spaces, fan zones, production compounds and parking. And before you know it, you come to realize that finding a street can be quite easy but finding a street with lots of empty space beside it — we’re talking about 200,000 or 300,000 square meters of unused space — well, that’s a ginormous operation, and city centers don’t generally have unoccupied spaces.”

In the initial concept and feasibility stage of selecting a location, Gibbons, who previously worked for Formula One for 10 years before moving into Formula E, insists an understanding of those other essential activities is imperative.

“In my time with Formula One and Formula E, I’d like to think that is one of my key skills,” he says. “I have that appreciation of all the elements of the event — not in detail, that isn’t in my remit — but I can appreciate a technical understanding of them all and what makes a venue feasible. If those things are not considered until too late, it can be too late.”

When it comes to designing tracks, he adds, “specific races have specific needs.”

The first race in Diriyah, for instance, required a significant amount of civil engineering works, which was a challenge that, with his background, strongly appealed to Gibbons. Civil works were needed for the track, the paddock, the pit lane, as well as what is now the fan village, the Emotion space and the concert area. All the required work took one year to complete before that first race in December 2018.

“When we came to Diriyah we thought ‘that piece of land is unoccupied, undeveloped — could it be the one?’ Then we put a sketch, a layout of a track and what we’d need for the paddock and those other spaces that we mentioned,” Gibbons says. “And within a year, we’d created it. I am proud of what has been done. What I love is putting race tracks together and seeing the enjoyment that people get out of it, not only drivers and teams, but also fans and television viewers. That’s what gives me a buzz.”

Since that first race, however, there has been significant development not only in the Diriyah area but in and around the race track — Bujairi Terrace and the Ministry of Culture building, for example.

This, says Gibbons, raises further important questions ahead of the upcoming race nights on Friday and Saturday.

“We need to think of logistics,” he adds. “At what point can we close the road? At what point can we cut access to those spaces, and how do we make sure what we’re doing doesn’t detrimentally impact those other local stakeholders any more than it has to?

“What matters to me is that the work is well planned and works well. When the track is handed over and signed off, I can sit back and watch it being used. And that’s what I enjoy doing.”