Formula E picked an iconic location for its first German event; the former Tempelhof airport, complete with its enormous main terminal, which is among the largest listed buildings in the world. Once a symbol of freedom for Berliners during the Cold War, it is now being turned into an event centre, office spaces, museum and large outdoor park.
The circuit sits on the concrete apron in front of the terminal building, which allows a clean sheet approach to designing the circuit. This proved a boon during the coronavirus 2019-20 season, when Berlin hosted three separate twin races to round out the season, each utilising a different layout.
This adaptability has been retained, with the regular circuit layout able to run in either direction.
Sited on the giant apron of the terminal building, the original anti-clockwise ePrix course wound around 2.469km of a twisty layout, which packed in 17 turns despite its relatively short distance. Event though it was an airport track, the circuit was based on the main apron and made no use of the former runways. Part of the circuit passed under the large canopy of the terminal building, which used to provide protection from the elements for passengers boarding departing aircraft.
The course was designed by Rodrigo Nunes, who also designed numerous Formula E circuits, including Paris, Beijing and Moscow, among others, as well as the Porto track used by the WTCC.
Originally built in 1927, Berlin-Tempelhof was extensively re-constructed during the 1930s by the Nazis, becoming one of the largest buildings in the world when it opened, constructed in a quadrant measuring some 1.2 kms. The building complex was designed to resemble an eagle in flight with semicircular hangars forming the bird's spread wings. Due to the outbreak of World War II it was never completed for civilian use, instead becoming a manufacturing base for Junckers and Focke-Wolfe bombers. Elsewhere on the site was housed Berlin's only SS concentration camp.
At the end of the war, the airport was handed over to the US military and became famous in 1948/49 during the Berlin Air Lift, when Western Forces kept the besieged Berlin population supplied with food and other necessities during the Soviet blockade of all other routes into the city. During the division of Germany the airport became a gateway to freedom for many people. US Forces remained at the airport during the Cold War, but following the reunification of Germany in 1990 it reverted to civilian-only use.
Once one of the busiest airports in the world, aided by its close proximity to the city centre, in the late 1990s, plans were made to concentrate domestic and international air traffic in Berlin and Brandenburg at one airport: Berlin-Schönefeld International Airport. Tegel and Tempelhof were both to close as part of the plans, but in the end only Tempelhof ended flight operations, with the last planes leaving in 2008.
Since then, the facility has been transforming itself into an events centre and outdoor park. Fashion shows and a music festival have been held here and, aside from Formula E, the DTM touring car championship began negotiations in 2013 with the city government about holding a round of its series at Tempelhof but, to date, nothing has come of this.
In its first appearance as a racing circuit in 2015, Jarno Trulli scored an unexpected pole position, which proved the high spot in a dismal position. At the start he soon slipped down the order and out of contention, eventually retiring. The race was initially won by championship leader Lucas di Grassi, but after di Grassi's car was found to have used a modified front wing, the victory was handed to second-placed Jérôme d'Ambrosio.
Although included on the 2015-16 Formula E calendar, the race was switched to a new circuit on Alexanderplatz after Tempelhof was converted into a refugee camp as part of the German's capital's response to the European migration crisis. Problems with the new venue, however, meant that Templehof was back in favour by 2017, albeit with a new layout, named the Tempelhofring This included a section of the track passing through the 'Emotion' village, forming a short tunnel. After the Brussels ePrix fell through, Formula E organisers elected to make the Berlin event a double-header.
In 2018 the track was mildly revised, with three changes from the year before: the first involved the re-positioning of the pit lane entry from Turn 10 to after the final corner. The second saw the 180-degree Turn 6 right-hander moved away from the centre of a braking zone slightly, allowing for a straighter approach to the hairpin and to provide more overtaking opportunities. This also resulted in the length of the straight increasing by some 40 metres (130 ft). These alterations increased the track's overall length by 100 metres (330 ft).
There were no further track alterations in 2019, though the tunnel section after Turn 3 was eliminated with the relocation of the 'Emotion' village.
Three circuits in one
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Formula E struck a deal with the Berlin authorities to host the remaining races of the 2019/20 season at Tempelhof. A total of six races were run in August, with a mix of weekend and mid-week races. Each pair of races used a different track configuration, presenting opportunities for distinct strategies, while the events will be held behind closed doors. As per German government guidelines, a maximum number of 1,000 people were allowed on site at any given time, including local suppliers and medical crews with each Formula E team bringing 20 staff. All other operations were carried out remotely.
The first pair of races saw the track layout reversed, while the middle pair saw the electric racers use the more traditional layout. The final pair of races took place on a revised circuit, known as Tempelhofer Park, with a set of sweeping curves added to the back straight and a more technical set of corners added after the hairpin.
"It is a huge undertaking in terms of production to set up three different configurations for this event, with fewer people on-site to be able to carry out those changes," explained Frederic Espinos, Formula E Sporting Director, ahead of the event. "We're doing something that has never been seen before in world-class motorsport and it's an example of how reactive and innovative Formula E is – it's in our DNA.
"Racing in both directions has a lot of implications. It is not just turning all braking markers and the grid boxes around. Other international series wanted to make this happen but their proposals were rejected by the governing body. We had to make sure all the broadcast technology, overlays, branding, safety measures, barriers, kerbs and run-off worked and plan accordingly for this – whilst also making the changes viable in just 24 hours, with reduced resources."
Three becomes two
The 'NILREB' project to reverse the Tempelhof layout was in the pipeline prior to the global pandemic, with Formula E's Sporting team always looking to spring a surprise on competitors and the fans watching on. It was perhaps no surprise therefore that in 2021 with a more normal double header event, a simpler option of simply reversing the layout for the second race was pursued. In typical Formula E style, however, confirmation of this was not made until a few days before the event in order to keep the teams on their toes!
- Tempelhofer Park, Tempelhof, 12101 Berlin, Germany
- Official website
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