Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch

Had a very pleasant afternoon today at Brands... we only arrived at about 3pm and the man on the gate kindly took pity on me and charged me £12 to get in - plus a fiver for the programme. The pre-1966 touring cars were out practising when we arrived, and we then walked round to paddock hill bend to watch the World Sportscar Masters. It was excellent fun watching - the Osella driven by Richard Evans won the half-hour race at a canter, and unfortunately the Ferrari 512M was a retirement while running fourth.

We had a bit of a walk around the paddock - saw a Ferrari Enzo, of which you don't see many, and a couple of old racing drivers - of which you see quite a lot!

Patrick Watts made my son's day by allowing him to sit in his Ford Mustang... also saw Dave Loudoun, who hasn't been out for a year or three. Apparently he got the forms for his competition licence this year, but never quite got around to filling them in! Didn't seem to be missing it much though.

Afterwards, I managed to drag Robin out for a walk around at least a part of the Grand Prix circuit. A bit like going out onto the school field at your old school, it is the only bit that hasn't changed much... but then it has, in many ways. Reminded me though what a great place Brands Hatch is for spectators, especially when we emerged at the exit of Stirling's - what a good corner that is. Sean Walker and Ian Flux managed to get their Lotus Elan home first in the two hour "Gentleman Drivers" race. And we managed to get into the pit lane to congratulate Ian on his achievement. Followed by a walk down the pit lane and a visit into most of the garages, where we could look at some of the F1 machinery that we had missed on the track earlier in the day. And I couldn't quite work out what the Matra M670B was doing there - but it looked great anyway.

All in all, a fine afternoon out. Must make a day of it next time... if the family (and wife) permit it!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

38th ADAC Zurich 24h Rennen - aka Nürburgring 24 hours

An excellent weekend at the Nürburgring for the 24 hours. Drove over in my S4 Avant (did I mention my S4 Avant already? What a nice car!) via the Channel Tunnel with Graham Goodwin for company and had a troublefree journey in each direction.

Radio Le Mans (dotcom) operating out of the Aston Martin Hospitality Lounge, and a very pleasant place it is too. A limited view of the track (from the corner of the lounge where we are squashed), but access to the catering facilities, which are really, really good. It’s above the press room too, so access to information is good, although we probably didn’t make as much use of it as we should have done.

And – a first for the Nürburgring 24 hours – Radio Le Mans covered the whole race without a break. And why not, for the race was truly enthralling. There are doubtless better places than this if you want to find out what happened, but as Manthey Racing had provided the winning car for the last three years, and had a strong entry this year, it looked like a safe bet to me. But when it fell out as a result of a collision with a VW Golf that bounced off the barrier and into its path, the race looked to be turning to Audi. The R8s had looked somewhat on the edge throughout, but Marco Werner must have hoped to stay in the lead for somewhat more than the ten corners that he negotiated between passing the Golf / Porsche contretemps, and arriving at the Pflanzgarten and having a collision of his own.

As the other Audis also fell foul of traffic and breakdown, so the Manthey Hybrid Porsche established a lead that looked unstoppable. Until it stopped, victim of a broken gearbox. Which left us with a battle between the Hankook Ferrari and the Schnitzer BMW M3. The Italian car had previously been overhauled by the German one, as a result of some particularly slow laps during darkness, and but for that, a thrilling chase for the flag might have ensued. Maybe the Ferrari could have won. But a Nürburgring 24 hours with the first Porsche in only fifth place is certainly a sign of an unusual race.

With the 24 hours at Le Mans not many weeks away, a spot of reflection. First, I like the fact that the Nürburgring race is certainly not a sprint. Driving safely, and to a strategy, is the secret to success. On only a couple of occasions did it seem to me that an R8 would reach the chequered flag first, and on those my vision was of a smouldering, shuddering wreck of a car that wouldn’t complete another lap. The BMW looked nearly immaculate at the finish.

Second, it is very, very easy to crash at the Ring. With 197 starters, and back-markers being encountered on the leaders’ very first lap, traffic is inevitably a problem. More of a problem is the width of the Nordschleife and the fact that the barriers are not very far away. Thankfully, although there were incidents aplenty, none was serious and the race was a safe one.

Third, I am not sure about this business of being allowed to get a tow back to the pits if you stop on the circuit. It’s a good way of ensuring that the rate of attrition is not too high, but it has all the potential to change the strategy altogether. Why not take a risk here or there if you can get someone to bring you home and resume your race? With so many classes, many of which have few entrants, it is possible to get a good class result despite being stranded. The Aston Martin Vantage ‘Kermit’ still finished 3rd in class despite needing a tow back from somewhere out in the woods on the back of the Chairman’s Rapide. More significantly, it thus finished ahead of five other classified finishers in the class. It just doesn’t seem right to me.

My only other gripe is the way that the time-keeping system works. For some reason the no. 76 BMW Z4 was credited with 3 minutes (I think) which made following its progress very difficult, especially when you compared it to what was happening on the track. There might be no better way of doing it (just as towing cars back to the pits might be the best way of keeping as many as possible in the race), but it doesn’t seem quite right either.

Apart from these last two things though, I am really, really glad I went (thanks John, for having me! – and Eve). In some ways I would have preferred to go to Spa and miss Nürburgring, but I am very glad I didn’t miss that one. And I am looking forward to seeing another cracking good race again next year… maybe a proper race between Audi and Porsche?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Grand Prix Saboteurs – Joe Saward

I have had this book for some time, but haven’t managed to pluck up the courage to pick it up and start it. Our Easter vacation in Portugal provided the impetus, and I found myself gripped before the aeroplane even took off.

Why should I have needed courage? Well, partly because I hold Joe in high regard – his writing is good, his intellect is strong and his memory phenomenal. In all areas, he is my superior. I guess I was afraid of having my inadequacies exposed. I needn’t have worried. This is an excellent book that will appeal to readers of many different backgrounds.

The narrative flows beautifully, and even though the detail is intense, this does not interrupt the enjoyment. I would hate to be submitted to a full examination to test my assimilation of the facts it contains, for there are too many. In terms of facts, the reader is fairly assaulted. I was reminded of the early Nick Park Wallace and Gromit films, in which it took three days to film two seconds of the film. I had an image of Joe, surrounded by books in a dusty archive somewhere in France, seeking to find just one name to insert into a paragraph, which already had twenty names in it.

I exaggerate. Not much though. But through this intensity of facts, two emotions come flooding out, filling me with admiration. First for the bravery of the folk around whom story revolves – principally the pre-war drivers William Grover, who won the first ever Monaco Grand Prix under the pseudonym W Williams, and Robert Benoist, who won the twenty-four hours of Le Mans in 1937, with the third chief character in the book, Jean-Pierre Wimille, who would triumph at Le Mans again in 1939, and then go on to an illustrious racing career after the war.

Second for the evident love the author has of his subject. More than eighteen years of research illustrates the passion that his topic holds for the author. Despite having only a passing interest in the activities of the French Resistance, Saward has whetted my appetite for his next book on this subject, which I can only assume will have even less reference to motor racing than this volume.

I felt that occasionally, we disappeared off on tangents that served only to illustrate the depth of the author’s research rather than further the plot, but we invariably came back to the matter in hand, and always did so with Joe’s engaging style intact. My other gripe concerned the number of typos (even one on the first page!), which were minor, but too frequent to be ignored.

Whatever kind of motor racing fan you are, even if you are not (so what are you doing reading this?) this is a story that I suggest you will find hard to put down. Thankyou Joe – well done!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Spa 1000kms – inconclusive, but who cares?

The 1000kms of Spa was full of action and incident and I am sure it provided a drama-filled six hours for those who were there; for those who paid their money to spectate. A tremendous battle for the lead, practically throughout the race between the two manufacturer teams from Peugeot and Audi. Great battles in the classes. Uncertain weather conditions. A forty-minute hiatus while power was restored to the circuit? Bizarre that.

I remember in the early 1980’s at Brands Hatch, there would often be a power cut around 30 minutes before the Grand Prix began, as 26 tyre warmers were all switched on at once. Much panic all round ensued. But the race was not delayed.

I found myself in two minds as the drama unfolded. The old-fashioned, backward-looking side of me wondered what all the fuss was about. Surely a motor race shouldn’t be dependent on a supply of mains electricity? I grant that it makes life difficult (if not impossible) for those in the media centre, gazing at TV screens and trying to keep a live audience around the world informed what was going on. And for those in the hallowed race control building, with its air-conditioning and walls of monitors; the Big Brothers, controlling everything and everybody, governing which flags are shown where, overruling marshals in their split-second judgements at posts around the circuit.

What about those spectators around the circuit though? Public Address loudspeaker coverage at Spa is any case somewhat patchy (I’ve been there as a spectator – I know). It must have been a bit odd for those campers up at Pouhon or Blanchimont when it all went quiet.

But then the 21st century side of me took over. We live in an age of electricity. In not many years to come, I am sure that advances in battery technology and increasing worries about mains supplies through traditional ‘non-renewable’ generation will mean that this era will become regarded as a quaint transitional period, when our dependence on wires to supply electricity become as outmoded as the need to have wires to ensure communication. We are not yet in that era though. We are still dependent on the wires for power. I can understand the worries of the race director, who, after all, bears the ultimate responsibility for the safe execution of the event. We have become used to having live timing screens – although I am convinced that RIS timing will have had back-up plans in place to do without power, as would Audi, Peugeot and the other major players. But for the world’s media, as well as for the safety of all concerned, I suspect that the decision to pause the race was the best one, at least to preserve the reputation of most concerned. As ever, I’m not sure that playing a ‘blame game’ actually would achieve anything.

Remarkably though, the ‘power cut pause’ did not spoil the race very much (from where I was sitting). We very nearly got through 1,000kms anyway. And we had a great race. Seen in isolation from Le Mans, the battle for the lead was excellent. Two major manufacturers, each using a slightly different configuration (Peugeot adapted their car for the particular requirements of Spa, Audi running in full Le Mans trim). Changeable weather conditions. Lots of traffic and several safety car interventions. A change for second place on the penultimate lap, and three cars on the lead lap at the finish. Great stuff.

And interestingly, the winning Peugeot spent more than three minutes less time in the pits than the third placed Audi. Yet at the chequered flag, the Audi was only just over two minutes adrift. So Audi could have won the race on pace alone. Hopefully the myth of dubious Peugeot pit strategy can be put to rest at last.

Yet if I were in Dr Wolfgang Ullrich’s shoes, I would be worried. He may have been able to make the most of the opportunity to enable his team to ‘gel’. The team may have learned a lot about the performance of the upgrades to the R15. But at Spa at least, the team was reduced to a pretty much one-car team against the three factory Peugeots. And even with the ‘dream team’ of Audi driving talent, there was no evidence of a significant advantage of the sort Audi enjoyed for so many years.

Peugeot may have had their moments too. But first, second and fourth places for their three cars with all the dramas that the race threw up is a highly creditable performance. First blood to the French, it seems to me.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

April Comment column for dsc

I sent this to dailysportscar for my end of April comment, I'm sure they'll post it soon!

I missed the Le Mans series race at Paul Ricard – “les huit heures du Castellet” – as we were flying off on our Easter family holiday. And having to contend with the ash cloud from Iceland’s volcanic eruption, as well as a water pump failure on my car (happily the Airbus was more reliable) getting back was a bit more arduous than I had hoped. As a result, I haven’t done my usual in-depth analysis of what happened.

Of course the re-vamped Audi R15 ran away with the race, and although the British-built Lolas filled the podium places, it is still clear that diesels enjoy a performance advantage over the petrol-powered cars. However, I was interested to compare the works Audi performance to the Oreca Peugeot 908, which finished just off the podium, following an 18-minute pit stop in the first hour. Despite (or perhaps because of) its delay, it managed to complete the race on two fewer pit-stops than the winning car (seven rather than nine), which had to make an unscheduled stop to fix a mirror, as well as a stop for wet-weather tyres. But even taking this into account, the Peugeot was able to cover 32 or 33 laps on a tank of diesel compared to the Audis clockwork stints of 31 laps.

It was running slightly slower than the Audi of course, which might account for the better consumption, and twice round Paul Ricard is still less than a lap round Le Mans, so the difference (if there is one) might not be important. And of course only the men from Ingolstadt know how much fuel actually went in at each stop. Sandbagging has been known before, after all. We’ll see in six weeks time.

Before Le Mans, though, there’s May to survive. I was looking through my diary (checking how long until Le Mans) and was astonished at the schedule facing the sportscar racing world in May. The action kicks off with the Silverstone Supercar meeting, featuring the second round of the FIA GT1 World Championship and the opening rounds of the GT3 and GT4 European Championships, all on the new Grand Prix circuit. The following weekend sees three of the newly revamped Audi R15s battling against a similar number of Peugeot 908s over 1000km of Spa-Francorchamps, and then there’s just week until the classic 24 hour race over the Nürburgring’s tortuous Nordschleife (or to be more precise, the ‘Gesamtstrecke’, which comprises both the Nordschleife and the Grand Prix ‘loop’). A week later sees the second proper round of the 2010 American Le Mans Series at Laguna Seca, California, which clashes with the third round of the FIA GT1 World Championship, again supported by the GT3 and GT4 series, which are at Brno in the Czech Republic.

Five major races over four weekends. I can think of many people who will be at three of those five events – a couple I know might even take in four. And when you think about it, for specialists of sportscar racing – and I am sure you would not be reading this if you weren’t a specialist – these events offer superb variety within the genre. Whatever you think of performance equalisation, the FIA’s GT1 World Championship certainly provides the opportunity for evocative sounding and looking machinery to go racing on a world stage, with a world title at stake.

The Spa showdown provides spectators and analysts alike a wonderful curtain-raiser for the Le Mans 24 hour race in June – just as the Silverstone Six Hours used to in times past. And at the spectacular Laguna Seca raceway, it will be enormously interesting to see once again the battle between the two flavours of Le Mans prototype running in a single class in a battle for overall supremacy.

Brno may be the poorer relation of the group, but at least the circuit has some character and a history, and should provide a stirring backdrop for the spectacular GT cars. One hopes that by then the performance arguments might have been sorted.

Differing formats as well; from the 199 entries (on my most recent list) for the 24-hour marathon at the Nürburgring, to the more manageable grids and easily-packaged-for-TV sprints for GT cars, with the 1,000km at Spa and the six hour distance for Laguna Seca providing a sort of (ideal?) happy medium.

But is this glut of sportscar racing a good thing? “Less can be more”, so the saying goes, but the opposite is also sometimes true. Looking at the amount of emptiness in a glass can sometimes be revealing. Audi was absent from Sebring, just as the factory Peugeots were from Paul Ricard. None of the American based teams contesting the ALMS will be at Spa, which is the first time that we’ll see the two major works teams going head-to-head. Spectators at Silverstone and Brno will see no fewer than six one-hour races, and I’m guessing that there will be many for whom the differences between GT1, GT3 and GT4 will not be apparent. And there may even be some who ask why there isn’t a race for GT2.

I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to have a World Championship for Le Mans cars. A single set of regulations, a single calendar, running at proper venues (Monza, Kyalami, Suzuki?). Send your list on a post card to the editor.

But the trouble is that today, there are too many people with vested interests; too many egos. I think that Bernie Ecclestone is to blame. Thirty years ago, he dragged Formula One out of the state that it was in and made it the global media circus that it now is. And now people see him as a role model. Who do you think is trying to be “GT Racing Supremo”? Or “Endurance ring-master”? “Le Mans Csar”, anybody?

As long as there isn’t a single autocrat (or powerful governing body) in control, it isn’t going to happen and we will continue to get a multiplicity of flavours of sportscar racing vying for our attention, each run by someone with a business model, a financial plan, but not necessarily any heart and soul for the sport. In the long run, the value of each individual event is reduced. The reason that the World Cup in football is special is that it only happens once every four years. Ecclestone has somehow succeeded in convincing us (has he?) that Grand Prix motor racing is still worth the name when there are nineteen or twenty events a year – those with longer memories than me will be able to recall the early years of the world drivers’ championship when only six or seven races counted. There were other races for Formula One cars of course, but a Grand Prix was something special.

Of course there should always be a place for strong national sportscar championships, which may need to cut their cloth differently, but wouldn’t fewer, bigger World Championship rounds bring in bigger crowds and be more worthwhile for the entrants?

Having said that, I have to admit that I’m expecting May to fairly fly by, and we’ll be at Le Mans before you realise it!