Friday, 19 March 2010


I really can't get excited about Sebring this year. With only eight prototype entries (not counting the PC's), and only two of those in with a shout of victory - there's not even really much of a fight for best petrol-powered car. Which is a shame, as I have watched the Daytona 24 hours shrink from being a guide to form at Le Mans to a "NASCAR-race for a long time", and where Sebring rose up to fill the gap, now it seems we have to wait till Paul Ricard (or maybe even Spa), to get those LM-type juices flowing.

No matter really, except that (and I know this is provocative, but bear with me) Americans have this tendency for trumpet-blowing, which is great when it's justified, but not so wise when it's not - ask those involved in the Afganistan fiasco.

Either it's a sign of things to come in Europe (and we've already seen reducing grids here), or it's a sign that American Endurance Road Racing is on the wane again.

Of course with GT1 gone, GM now in GT2, about to show Ferrari, Porsche and Jaguar how it's done, chances are the race for the GT class will be the best of the 12 hours. Just imagine the Prototypes have some problems, could Corvette win outright with a GT2? No, I don't think so either. But it would be an indication of the depth to which this classic race has sunk.

On a positive note, I truly believe that next year, the race will recover and that the 2011 12 hours will be a classic. I would love to be there, in one role or another. I just have to cover the cost of getting there - then convincing my wife that it's a good idea to go.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Deadliest Crash

I finally got around to watching this DVD last night (my wife couldn't really refuse, as it was my birthday, and having indulged in a curry from the local take-away, she kindly gave up an hour of Sims in order to watch with me).

It is made by Bigger Picture films, John Matthews' company, which also made the two films "In the Lap of the Gods" and "Chasing the Dream", featuring the inside story of Martin Short's exploits at Le Mans in 2006 and 2007.

Its documentary style sits well with the material Matthews has available, which is not quite as exclusive as the commentary suggests. However, interviews with spectators who were there capture the atmosphere and emotion of the event in general and the accident in particular. Even fifty years on, the sheer terror of being in that spectator enclosure comes over extremely vividly.

The first half of the film deals with the background to the event, and the lead up to the crash, rather than the disaster itself. This is probably a good thing, as there is only so much blood and gore that one needs. However, I felt that the analysis of the crash itself could have been better covered. The 3-D graphical representation of the pit area was good, but did not illustrate very much (other than the narrowness of the pit straight). The eye-witness accounts from the tribune area are powerful, but asking Fitch and Dewis their opinions of whose fault it was doesn't really help.

Although it would have been necessarily hypothetical, it would have been interesting to use the 3-D graphic to show the accident from the viewpoints of those involved, Hawthorn, Macklin, Levegh and Fangio. No mention was made at all of Fangio's avoidance, without which the death toll would unquestionaly have been higher. And that one line comment that Macklin was "out of control" wasn't really backed up by anything.

The thing I did want to hear from Fitch was his view of the Mercedes withdrawal, but either he didn't want to be quoted, or he wasn't asked. In either case, something of an omission, in my view.

Overall, though, an excellent documentary, thoroughly deserving of an airing on network TV (or maybe it was and I missed it - there was mention of collaboration with the BBC in the credits).

And I would commend anyone with an interest in this crash to look at, or anywhere else that Paul Frere's excellent account (written in 1975, I think) can be found.

The problem with analysing anything like this too deeply is that folks have different memories and points of view. Most telling, is John Wyer's account in "The Certain Sound" - he saw the spinning Austin Healey of Lance Macklin and completely missed the Mercedes of Levegh crashing - although he was no more than 30 yards away. He is also honest enough to admit as much, rather than taking a position for other reasons.

Deadliest Crash and Go Like Hell - I'm becoming quite a reviewer, am I not?

Monday, 8 March 2010

Looking forward to Le Mans

I know that the Le Mans Series is holding its official test this weekend, that Sebring is just around the corner, and that the attention of many sportscar teams and fans will be focussed elsewhere at the moment. But as the wintry days of February give way to more spring-like weather of March, I find myself pondering the prospects for “The Big One” in June – from a wider perspective.

One of the benefits of being alive in the 21st Century is the fact that everything works more reliably. Wherever you look, televisions, washing machines, central heating systems, even stuff like clocks, telephones, etc. they just work. Sure, things go wrong, but we have a much better understanding nowadays for why they go wrong, and almost inevitably, we take actions to ensure that they don’t go wrong again.

My parents, and their parents before them, became used to the unreliability of things, and became adept at fixing things, or at using things in such a way so as not to wear them out in the first place. They were cautious in their acceptance of new technology, as ‘new’ often meant ‘fragile’, and frequently also brought a level of complexity that meant that fixing became out of the question, and replacing became the norm.

Cars are especially a case in point. A perfect Sunday morning for my father was to be under the bonnet of his Ford Zephyr 4 (while the rest of us went to church), adjusting the points and fine-tuning the carburettor. Vocabulary, I fear, that will soon be lost forever. Apart from topping up the washer fluid, there is not a lot for me to do under the bonnet of my car, even if I would have the mechanical know-how.

The point is that, these days, we do not expect to have to carry out arduous maintenance on anything – we expect it merely to work. The Le Mans 24 hour race is similar. So many teams arrive at the race with a ‘package’ so reliable and so well-engineered, that they can justifiably expect (and not just hope) to get through the 24 hours without having to do much more than change the wheels and put fuel in the car.

I suppose I should applaud advances in engineering that allow sports racing prototypes these days to be driven flat-out for twenty-four hours. For it is the engineering precision and the understanding of the life-ing of components that go a long way to providing the improved reliability of many household items. It’s just that component failure during a 24 hour race is so unlikely these days, that it takes away some of the fascination of the race.

One of the (many) reasons that I stay up all night and monitor what is going on so closely at Le Mans is that ‘things happen’. But ‘something happening’ is becoming less and less common. I’m not really talking about accidents, or weather (it has been alleged that ‘it always rains at Le Mans’), but more about those failures of gearboxes, turbo-chargers, wishbones, etc, that ‘just happen’. Something that the team manager knew was a weak spot, and hopefully something that he had a contingency plan to deal with – be it telling the drivers to be careful over the kerbs, or a smart way of repairing – Audi’s quick-change drivetrain replacement being an example.

These things add uncertainty - add spice - and for the spectator add interest and fascination. In recent years, the 24 hours has turned into a bit of a long Grand Prix, in which if you have a problem, however small, your chances of a good result are ruined, as it is so unlikely that your competitor will have a similar problem.

Remember 1988, when Klaus Ludwig ran out of fuel in the works Porsche, and was forced to complete a slow lap back to the pits? Even though this handed an advantage to the no 2 Jaguar, there were sufficient (and justified) doubts about the Silk Cut car that everyone present was enthralled by the chase. In 1995, no-one really expected a McLaren F1 to survive a 24 hour race, let alone win. The film “Pursuit of Perfection” captures team manager Paul Lanzante stressing to his drivers the need to be gentle with every single gear change, to avoid hitting kerbs, to treat the car carefully. He knew that the only way to be in with a chance of victory was to ensure that the car was still in the race when the chequered flag fell. To put it another way, “to finish first, first you have to finish”.

Nowadays, though, (and this is not just my opinion, but one echoed by a number of drivers and team managers up and down the pitlane), to win Le Mans, you need to be flat-out throughout. Realistically, with three works diesels from each of the Peugeot and Audi factories, it would be a surprise if at least one car from each team didn’t make it to the flag without an unscheduled stop. And, most likely, the outright winners will be one of these. The romantic notion that all the works cars will have a problem and allow an Aston Martin, a Rebellion Lola or even the Mansell’s Ginetta to win is just pie in the sky. The fact is that the Le Mans 24 hours is simply much more predictable nowadays than it was in former times.

I am being a little unfair here. No disrespect to David Brabham, Marc Gene or Alex Wurz, but their car was not the fleetest of the Peugeots last year. Nor was the Audi R10 which won in 2008 quicker over a single (dry) lap than any of the French cars. In both cases, the triumph was one where efficiency and teamwork played vital roles. But the margins are so tight now, that pace cannot compensate for a problem.

Short of making it into a 48-hour race (now there’s a thought), I am not sure if there is a way to change this – you can’t un-invent technology, after all. However, there is one simple change that I would like to see to the ACO regulations concerning pit stops (although I am not sure that it really addresses the point I have been making here) and it is this. Forget about all this choreography about changing the wheels with one wheel gun and two mechanics and go back to a simple limit of four mechanics in total, who have to do everything: re-fuel, clean the screen, change the wheels, etc. And disqualify the car if it goes into the garage. Simple as that. All work has to take place on the apron in front of the car’s pit, where everyone can see it.

Think about it for a while, then tell me (or email the editor) with all the reasons why it would make things any worse. I know that this means that a more reliable car will be at even more of an advantage, but I guess I’m thinking that if certain repairs would cost a car more time being fixed in the pits, it would place a greater premium on the driver to ensure that the car steered clear of trouble, or the engineers coming up with better ‘endurance’ cars.

And of course it would improve the show for the spectators and make life easier for the Radio Le Mans pit reporters.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Go Like Hell

I've just finished reading A J Baime's new book - "Go Like Hell", the story of Ford and Ferrari's quest for speed and glory at the Le Mans 24 hour race. And a jolly good read it is too.

A couple of very minor niggles, but the sort of thing that really annoys me - I'll get them off my chest first, then proceed. Why, oh why do Americans increasingly omit the word "of" after the word "couple"? It is plain wrong English. And as I say, it annoys me. So we get "On a couple occasions..." and "A couple laps later..." Oh well, categorise it along with mis-spelling of "minuscule", which has been misspelt so often that the word "miniscule" even now appears in the OED. The other thing that annoyed me was Baime's failure to get the name of John Wyer's book correct - it is "The Certain Sound", of course, not "That Certain Sound".

But having got that out of the way, it is a really good book. As has been written several times, the author presents his story very much as a novelist would, which makes it extremely readable. Sadly this means that much detail is omitted - but I fear that if all the detail were there, the book would not only be impossibly long, but also too complex. Where it succeeds, is in making the reader want to do some more research. I found myself looking up Wyer's opinions in my own copy of "The Certain Sound", checking results and reports in Time and Two Seats, and even watching again "This Time Tomorrow".

The story tells more of the Ford side than of the Ferrari, I suppose; but having said that, John Surtees gets more than his fair share of the glory for his efforts for the Italian team, and we get a good insight into his side of the story. Baime basically reduces the number of characters in the story, which enables us to get to know a little better the ones that he does mention.

And Baime has clearly researched his story meticulously - although he has clearly visited Le Mans, I found myself wondering occasionally what qualified him particularly to write the book. Or even what motivated him to do so.

But all in all, an excellent book, and one which might yet inspire me to buy his next, which I understand is in preparation already.