Friday, 26 February 2010


I am not really into single seater racing, but although there are many reasons for this, there are none of them particularly good ones. In the past, I have followed Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 3000 and I have even been to Indianapolis for the 500. Not to mention Formula One racing - the first race I ever saw was for Formula One.

And if it weren't for my family duties restricting the number of races I go to, then I am sure I would still be a big fan.

And I read the UK weekly magazines - at least I open them, turn the pages and look at most of them - enough to sustain my interest.

But my eye was particularly caught by the Delta Wing Indy Car proposal. Now there's a car that certainly looks different. If we are going to make this sport more appealing to the general public, then it makes sense to accentuate the differences between different categories. Making IndyCars very different from Formula 1 has to be a good thing, doesn't it?

And if you can drive one, surely you can drive the other?

Go on, Indycar, be bold!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Motor Racing - sport or spectacle?

Arising from my post last week about use of safety cars and full course cautions, I had a bit of an email exchange with Janos Wimpffen - author of Time and Two Seats and more latterly the set of four picture books entitled "Open Roads and Front Engines", "Winged Sportscars and Enduring Innovation", "Spyders and Silhouettes" and "Monocoques and Ground Effects". All of which are expensive, but worth it.

Anyway, our discussion was about the different approach in the USA and Europe. Motor Racing in the USA has always been much more about entertainment - and for this reason full course cautions get used more often. European racing has traditionally been a story of technical advancement, with spectators welcome to watch, but the race not being interfered with for their benefit (particularly).

Janos wrote to me:
That goes back to the dawn of racing whereing the sport was considered to be a platform for participants and manufacturers in Europe but a matter of spectacle in the U.S.

I replied:
can it "always" have been so? Surely motor racing started as an indulgence for those fortunate enough to own a motor vehicle and unfortunate enough to meet another such going in the same direction? A bit like wealth - but watching people get rich didn't ever get popular for some reason. Watching people race cars is entertaining, for all manner of reasons. But at some point, someone in America decided to make a spectacle out of it. And from that point on the sport entered the arena of public entertainment, and had to be "manipulated" to ensure that its entertainment value was maximised, not unlike many other US sports.

To which Janos's response was:
Of course there were no roads in the modern sense at the turn of the last century, but the European networks were far more developed with routes reaching back to Roman times. Also the distances between major centeres was far less than in the U.S. Thus when the auto emerged there were ready made routes for use wheter for rich boys with toys or for manufacturers.

The distances in the US were and remain great and the only inter-city transport was rail (by contrast with today where rail is nearly extinct). So there was little opportunity to have point-to-point races at the dawn of the auto age, although a few significant events did take place.

This gap plus interest in the new tech created a vacuum filled by entrepreneurs such as fair ground operators to use the ample space to build oval circuits, attract paying spectators and offer prizes.

And I think that's right. Thanks to Janos for his insight!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Le Mans entry list

So, the ACO has published an entry list, and it's only February. Takes some of the fun out it, doesn't it, if they make it this easy. I am sure there'll be many changes between now and June though.

Items of note - initial reactions... David Brabham out of the Peugeot and racing a Highcroft HPD (Acura)? I wonder if that was Brabs decision or Peugeots? His lap times may not have been as quick as some of the other Peugeot Pilots, but his influence on the team undoubtedly was a factor in the victory of the number 9 car in 2009. I suspect that he may have decided himself: it won't get any better than this - what can you do after winning, except win again? And even if Peugoet's chances in this year's race are good, David might drive perfectly well and still not win. No, with Highcroft he will have far more fun, he is part of the team, and he will get just as much satisfaction out of winning LMP2 with a Le Mans rookie car / team than driving in the manufacturer equipe. At least that's the way I see it.

What about Audi? Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer in - Luhr, Premat out. I am slightly surprised by the omission of Premat - he is extremely quick - but I suspect that his face maybe doesn't fit - or his attitude is wrong. Any comments gratefully received. More fundamentally, I worry about the R15. Even with a "plus" version. You can be sure that the 2010 Peugeot will have been updated over 2009 as well. I'm looking forward to seeing how the car shapes up at Paul Ricard in April. That's a good sign, and it will be very revealing in so many ways.

Then there are the Mansells - I suppose it will be an achievement if all three of them actually get to drive the car in the race. But it won't be on the pace, will it? I think one of the interesting battles will be between the Rebellion cars and the Aston Martins. I'm extremely optimistic about Rebellion - they seem to be taking it very seriously indeed - and the driver line-up is excellent with Boullion and Bellichi. And the team has a heart.

Another team with heart is Strakka Racing. And two better blokes than Danny Watts and Jonny Kane, you couldn't wish to have in a car together. Forza Strakka!

GT1 looks half-decent too - three private Corvettes and an Aston Martin up against the Larbre Saleen and a couple of Ford GTs. Somehow the JLOC Lamborghini seems to have sneaked in there again, and there is not a great deal of depth of GT1 cars in the reserve list, so I am afraid my enthusiasm for GT1 is under control.

GT2 is a mix of works Corvettes, BMWs, Porsche and Ferrari. With a Jaguar and a Spyker in there too to add lustre (if ex-F1 names add lustre).

All in all, I like it... there's lots more that could be said, but for now, I will let others say it.

DSC February Comment

I subscribe to the French language magazine "Le Mans Racing" and jolly good it is too.

In an article last year, editor François Hurel struck a chord with me in a piece he wrote about the use of safety cars to establish a “full-course caution”. I wonder how many readers, like me, were astonished how few safety cars proved necessary in Le Mans Series 1,000kms races last year? In the last three races of the season, in the Algarve, at the Nürburgring and at Silverstone there were a total of precisely zero laps behind the safety car. A jolly good thing that was too, in my view. It allowed the pattern of the races to emerge, rewarded good strategy and enabled the spectators to follow progress more easily. That’s the trouble with a full-course caution – aside from the fact that it interrupts the flow of the race, it also introduces an element of luck: inevitably, however efficiently the safety car (or cars) is / are deployed, you will end up giving an advantage to one competitor, or disadvantaging another. Those familiar with Formula One will recall Singapore 2008. Whether Renault was cheating or not, the safety car period clearly enabled Alonso to win the race and deprived Massa of a world championship title.

For my money then, periods behind a safety car should be avoided at all costs. I grant you that it can spice up a dull race, if a spread-out field is bunched up again, but surely deliberately manipulating a race should only be done in the direst of circumstances?

It’s a bit of a culture thing. In the USA, full-course yellows are commonplace. And are frequently – it seems to me – called on a whim. But racing in the USA grew out of ovals, often extremely short ovals, where a full course yellow is perhaps the only way to ensure safety when there is an incident, short of stopping the race altogether. This, surely, is how the practice arose in the first place. Racing in Europe, though, began on long road courses, where most of the circuit lay beyond the direct view of the race control building – and this has led to a different culture.

At Le Mans, the first use of a safety car was as recently as 1981 (I call that recent – does that make me old?). Then, they were called pace-cars, and were regarded very much as an ‘import’ from the USA. However, in the intervening thirty years, ‘pace car periods’ have become very much a feature of racing the world over, and not just endurance racing. The ability to make a good restart from behind the safety car is these days regarded as a vital element to a driver’s skill set.

I have been at the Nürburgring 24 hour race the last two seasons – and unsurprisingly, the organisers do not use full course cautions, nor do they have the phrase ‘neutralise the race’ in their vocabulary. It would be madness to sit behind a safety car when the lap is 25km long.

What they do have though is the concept of a ‘neutralised section’ of track. Without the use of a safety car, they force drivers to slow down by using cones to restrict the available width of the track and enable marshals to work on cars or damaged barriers safely. Drivers have to slow down, just as you do on the public highway when lane closures occur on the motorway due to road works. Sufficient marshals are available to wave yellow flags, transgressions are reported, but most importantly, drivers are responsible and slow down sufficiently to minimise risk. On occasions when this happened during the 2009 race, it appeared to the folk in the media centre that there was merely an increase in lap times (was it maybe raining on the far side of the track?), and for the fans in the non-affected areas, the on-track action continued unabated.

Surely there is a lesson to be learned here somewhere? Due to a combination of circumstances, the organisers end up without spoiling the spectacle of the race, yet are able to keep the cars competing against one another and keep the race flowing.

What about the weather though? Particularly at the Nüburgring, where fog can be a hazard. But there have been occasions elsewhere recently when the safety car has been deployed in the face of particularly heavy rain. Last year’s Petit Le Mans event is an obvious example, but I am also thinking of the closing stages of Le Mans 2007, when we saw torrential rain, TV pictures showing Emmanuele Pirro holding a piece of card, with “Safety Car?” written by hand, and reports of team managers going to race control, requesting that the race be neutralised.

Now I find all this ‘appealing’ to race organisers a bit unpalatable. As I noted in last month’s column, there seems to be a general malaise these days, in which sportsmen (and women) in every field use whatever means necessary to try and achieve their ends, and are regarded as merely showing ‘commitment’ when they do so.

The question of safety cars in extraordinary weather though, is a very difficult one. The trouble is, that once you send the safety car out because of rain (or fog, or any other extreme weather condition), you need to find a good time to withdraw it again.

One of the reasons I am so averse to safety cars is that two of the most dangerous parts of the race are the deployment of the safety car (as some drivers have a tendency to miss it, and do not slow down, others over-react and slow down excessively), and the restart after the safety car is withdrawn, when cars are bunched-up and drivers are unsure how much grip is available under race conditions.

So often we’ve seen a long period of running behind the safety car followed by another caution period immediately afterwards as another incident occurs at or shortly after the restart. Someone with far more experience in these things than I once suggested to me that Ayrton Senna would still be with us if safety cars did not exist in Formula 1 – but I think that is another debate, and not one to which I feel qualified to contribute.

Suppose, just suppose, that safety cars were not deployed at Petit Le Mans last year, and suppose, just suppose, that the race had not been stopped. Here’s an imaginary conversation between Allan McNish and me.

PT: What are conditions like, Allan?

AMcN: Awful, the car’s undriveable!

PT: OK, bring it into the pits, we’ll wait for conditions to improve.

AMcN: What? You’re kidding me, we’ll lose positions!

PT: You have no choice. It’s either that or crash.

AMcN: You don’t understand! I’m a racing driver! It’s up to the organisers to stop the race!

I know, it wouldn’t happen, would it? The reason why it wouldn’t happen is that most racing drivers these days have stopped thinking about their responsibilities as human beings and focus single-mindedly on racing and driving the car as quickly as it will go. Felipe Massa was recently quoted as saying that he forgets about his wife and newborn child when he gets in his racing car and only remembers he has a family when he gets out again. Whether or not this is wholly true, I would not call it wholly responsible.

Listen to interviews with the great drivers of the fifties, Moss, Fangio, etc. and they all say that they would leave a margin when racing, in order to have some room for manoeuvre when they needed it – and they did need it, since often lives depended on it – and not just their own.

In the recent snowy conditions that prevailed in this country, I left the car in the garage for two days. I took a judgement and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. My decision was influenced by the fact that technology and my boss permitted me to work from home. A friend who has some snow chains, fitted them to his car and went off to the hospital, where he works in A&E. My wife felt less comfortable in the conditions, and didn’t move her car for the whole week. The point is, we each evaluated the conditions, took account of the circumstances, made a judgement and lived with the consequences.

I’m not really having a moan here, honest I’m not. All I’m asking is that we in this sport – all of us, drivers, organisers, team members, media and even spectators, take our responsibilities more seriously. I didn’t say that racing drivers these days can’t think, indeed many that I have met are far more intelligent than I am. I’m not saying that full-course cautions should never be used either, just that they are used too often, and they can cause more problems than they solve. If a well-respected race director gave a proper race briefing, explaining to drivers and team managers the (very limited) circumstances under which safety cars would be deployed, I think we might just get some better, fairer races, without jeopardising safety.