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Culture

Lord of the Rings

When racing drivers roar around the new Formula 1 circuit in Shanghai, the German architect Hermann Tilke will be the toast of the town. The designer has made it his mission to thrill spectators with high-speed tracks.

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The new playing field for Germany's most creative asphalt designer

Only a few months ago, the Aachen based civil engineer and architect watched as his Bahrain track was inaugurated as the first Formula 1 circuit in the Middle East. On Sunday, Tilke's second major racing project of the year will attract even more attention as the most expensive of all motor tracks opens with engines roaring.

Architekt Hermann Tilke

He lives for speed, curves and drama on the race track

Called the "Lord of the Rings," or the "creative director of the asphalt branch," Tilke is the most sought-after designer of racetracks in the world. Wherever Michael Schumacher and co. whiz past at speeds of more than 300 km/h (180 mph), Tilke's design team has been at work.

The Shanghai spectacle

The Shanghai International Circuit is a futuristic mega project constructed with an eye for the newest in road-building technology and architectural aesthetics. Built largely of aluminum, glass and steel, the impressive complex of viewing towers, media center and electronically equipped grandstands surpasses anything motor sporting has seen before, including all the big-name circuits in Europe.

Galerie Tilke Bahrain Architektur

Bahrain's Formula 1 circuit saw its first action in April 2004

Tilke's Shanghai track, the fourth major racecourse he's designed after Malaysia, Turkey and Bahrain, has the potential to set several records. Already, it is the biggest of the Formula 1 complexes, with seating for 200,000 spectators. (Bahrain is the second largest with room for 150,000 viewers.) At nearly $300 million (roughly €240 million), the Chinese Grand Prix stretch is also the most expensive track ever built.

From the air, the 5.45 km (3.39 mile) track with its five left and five right curves and a long stretch for passing, resembles the Chinese character "shang," which means uplifting or spectacular.

Galerie Tilke Schanghai Architektur

5.45 kilometers of curves and tricks for the world's best drivers

Surpassing expectations

Not only the sleek modern design bears resemblance to the Chinese word, but also the speed at which Tilke and his 120-member crew managed to complete building on the project. In just 18 months the circuit rose up out of the swampy waste land outside Shanghai, far exceeding the most optimistic of expectations.

"Initially we were shocked," Tilke said, describing the first reaction upon seeing the site, which is located above a deep swamp. "Building a surface on that for Formula 1 cars doing 300 km/h is a real challenge," he recalled.

But Tilke devised a plan to essentially float the track on 40,000 concrete posts, which he rammed 30-40 meters into the swamp. For the various inclines, he built up layers of styrofoam, which helped to keep down the weight on the posts. "We bought up all the styrofoam on the Chinese market for a half a year," Tilke said.

Spectacle guaranteed

Formel 1 Shanghai chinesische Fans Motorsport Formel 1

Chinese fans packed the stands on Saturday, a day ahead of the final race

The effort that went into the building will almost certainly pay off on Sunday. In the run-up to the final race, the stands were already full with Ferrari fans and those who were just curious about watching China's first Grand Prix.

Tilke's track is expected to produce a good show when the world's best racers rev up their engines. During one of his practice runs, it proved almost too much for Michael Schumacher, who took a curve too fast and spun out of control -- an unheard of mistake for the six-time world champion. Tilke's course will be "quite a challenge," he told reporters on Saturday.

Tilke, who turned his passion into profession, is fond of saying "good track design does not automatically guarantee a spectacular race, but bad design certainly will prevent it."

Designed for speed

Michael Schumacher vor dem Großen Preis von Australien

Schumacher races in the Grand Prix from Australia

The Shanghai track is designed for speed and to challenge the drivers like no circuit before it. The start and finish areas, for instance, are followed by a combination of curves that compress the field instead of drawing it out, "otherwise the excitement would be gone right after the first round," Tilke explained his design theory. Plus, the field has to offer overtaking possibilities. And there have to be difficult stretches for drivers to make mistakes -- that increases the suspense.

"If you build ups and downs into the track, for example, sometimes the weight comes off the front axle so proper steering is no longer possible. If the driver is then following a wrong line or runs into a curve a bit too fast, the car threatens to go out of control," he said.

And that's what the fans want to see. Too often the races end without any drama, Tilke lamented. The European circuits have been driven so often that many of them have become like routine. The Shanghai track is completely new; the drivers have to really get used to it first.

The new face of China

The spectators are expected to flock in numbers to the track, which is being seen as a real boost to the local economy. All the good hotels in the region are already booked up. All flights from Germany to Shanghai are full.

"The image effect is unbeatable," said Steffen Hezinger, one of the initiators of Formula 1 racing in Shanghai. "Unlike the Olympics which will be in Beijing, motor sport and Formula 1 take place annually. Travelers to China will include racing in their programs. It's all going to add to the numbers," he said.

Bernie Ecclestone, the financial manager behind Formula 1 and the impetus behind the Shanghai circuit, praised Tilke's track, saying the world had never seen anything like it before. "Did you see the Athens Olympics? That was nice," he quipped to reporters, "but nothing compared to this."

Next stop: Istanbul

As for Tilke, while the Chinese track is being christened with the first race, he'll be continuing work on another Formula 1 project: the 2005 Istanbul Grand Prix. Whether in the desert, the jungle or in a swamp, whenever Tilke builds a new track, it means an older one has to be closed down to keep the number of Formula 1 races from surpassing the restricted 17 a year. That doesn't bother Tilke, nor does he see it as a threat to his own future.

"Racing circuits are sports facilities and there has always been, and there always will be money for them, wherever it comes from," Tilke said.

Michael Schumacher zur Formel 1 in Schanghai, China

Michael Schumacher says the Shanghai circuit is "quite a challenge."

But the architect has a more immediate worry: "I'm a Schumacher fan, so I really hope he wins on Sunday."

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