Thursday, 23 September 2010

Looking forward to the Britcar 24 hours

I was delighted when Brian Jones asked me to be part of the commentary team for the Silverstone 24 hour Britcar race. Partly because it is always nice to be asked to do something (far better than having to ask to do it), partly because it will take my mind off the fact that I am not at Road Atlanta for Petit Le Mans, and partly because I have never been to a 24 hour race at Silverstone, nor even to a Britcar race.

So, a weekend to look forward to, then. The timetable for the event is very busy indeed, with five support races taking place on Friday, October 1st, and a further eight races on the Saturday, before the 24 hour race itself starts at 4:30 in the afternoon. Considering that qualifying for all these events, not to mention day and night qualifying (and a warm-up) for the Britcar entrants all has to be squeezed in as well, the BRSCC is going to have a busy few days.

In comparison, I will have it fairly easy (I hope). Brian has asked me only to be involved in the Britcar race, which actually suits me fine, given my lack of familiarity with UK club race categories these days. And even then, I have been told to “arrange my own breaks” during the race itself.

So what is there actually to look forward to? More than 60 entrants in four classes, featuring everything from a fearsome Ferrari 430 to a humble Honda Civic. Not forgetting of course that this is merely one round of a nine-race season, which visits most of the leading UK circuits. And although I have to admit almost complete ignorance, having not been to a Britcar race before, the impression I get is that the series is built on the premise that the competitors’ needs are paramount, that entrants are to be encouraged, and that the competition thus arising will make for a spectacle that will attract spectators. A sort of “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.

Indeed, the very existence of the 24 hour race at Silverstone is very much down to James Tucker and his way of doing things. I have encountered James only twice – at the Nurburgring and at Le Mans 24 hour races – and I admire him for what he has contributed to what is after all a busy motor racing calendar. Britcar seems to me, an outsider, to have bridged the gap between the competitive track day driver and the committed club racer in a very inclusive way.

As for who will win, well, I am just not qualified to say. Personal allegiances would make the Rollcentre Mosler a favourite, and of course Martin Short is a former winner of the event. But it would seem foolish to exclude any of the Moslers, nor the (championship-leading) MJC Ferrari from a list of likely contenders. With a busy track, a wide disparity in driver abilities and car performance, keeping out of trouble and delivering consistent lap times will be key.

Hopefully, between Brian Jones, Matt James, Marcus Simmonds, Ben Evans and me, we’ll be able to stay on top of it, and it will be a good race.

Meanwhile, over the 'pond' in Atlanta, Georgia, Audi and Peugeot will be going head-to-head again in the second round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, in the ten hour, or 1,000 mile Petit Le Mans race. On the basis of what happened at Silverstone a couple of weeks ago (see my earlier post, below) Peugeot starts as favourite. But I fancy that the R15 will be more suited to the circuit, and the team will be keen to ensure that Audi reliability has been restored after the differential failure that forced Allan McNish to retire at Silverstone. The weather forecast is currently good, so it should be a straight fight. But with ALMS championships up for grabs, there will be plenty of things to watch out for, if your focus is not on the Britcar at Silverstone.

A very good way to round off my season.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


After the Silverstone 1,000kms someone who had best remain nameless in the press office said to me: “What did you think of that, Paul? Not very riveting, was it?”

Actually, I think riveting described the race perfectly. It may not have been thrilling, and it may not have had an action-packed battle for the overall lead after the problem that struck Allan McNish’s Audi R15 saw him abandon the car with barely half-an-hour completed; but I was riveted. Faultless races from four of the top seven contenders meant that the top four places were predictable, but somehow one had the feeling throughout that the unexpected was just around the corner.

In the end, Peugeot were worthy and deserving winners. They were the two fastest cars and both of them had better fuel consumption than the Audi. And there was the knowledge from the early stages of the race that both Peugeots were capable of overtaking the German cars, when the need arose. Which of course it did, thanks to the fact, as Bruno Famin admitted – in jest – before the start, that Peugeot had adopted Audi’s strategy of qualifying on the second row of the grid. But Timo Bernhard, sharing with Dindo Capello, looked particularly uncomfortable in the early stages of the race, and it seemed clear that neither Audi was going to keep the Peugeots behind for long.

Most impressive, on the new circuit, was the elapsed time, a whisker over five hours and ten minutes: the sort of time taken to complete the 1000kms in the late eighties, before the bulldozers took up permanent residence at Silverstone. I suppose that's appropriate enough, given the record distance achieved at Le Mans this year.

The race for the other classes was enlivened by the penalties handed out to each of the class leaders for transgressing the limits of the circuit. I would have thought that the indications were fairly clear throughout free practice that this was going to be closely watched by officialdom, and it wasn’t long before warnings, flags and penalties started to be issued. Of the three class leaders to suffer, only the LMP2 Strakka Racing HPD was able to recover, with neither the JMW Aston Martin nor Steve Zacchia’s Hope Polevision FLM car adequately dominant in its class to be able to recover, as the inimitable Danny Watts was able to.

It was a fascinating race though, and I am glad I was there. A reasonable crowd seems to have shown up to watch, the weather was kind to them, and the new track layout seemed to work well.

But on the evidence of what happened at Silverstone, it looks to me that Audi is going to have to work very hard indeed to reverse its fortunes in just three weeks time in Road Atlanta, or at Zhuhai, in China, for the final Intercontinental Le Mans Cup round at the beginning of November. I suspect that the R15 will not be remembered as fondly at Ingolstadt as either the R10 or the R8. Attention must now focus on the R18, but I suspect that Audi will have even stiffer competition in 2011 as new regulations come into force.

It’s too early to be thinking about it, but I suggest that 2011 has some very lofty possibilities. But like all lofty things, they can end up in disappointment. Let’s hope not, anyway.

Friday, 3 September 2010

September comment for dailysportscar

Well, my column for has just gone in for typesetting. I won't post it here - might increase dsc subscriber lists if I force you to go there... but the theme of the piece is the McQueen rant (see below), then a few grumbles about driving standards and team orders.

Not particularly insightful, but it keeps my name in the limelight (?) until after the Silverstone 1000kms, when hopefully I'll be able to produce another of my analysis pieces.

It promises to be a good race actually - it will be interesting to see if the Audis are anywhere near the pace of the Peugeots. And I'm looking forward to seeing the new Arena track layout. Not sure whether we'll be using Stowe or Becketts boxes at the moment (or maybe both!) Hopefully the weather will be kind, and here's to the success of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Audi A5 Cabriolet

Thanks to the generosity of David Ingram at Audi UK, I have had the opportunity to drive an A5 cabrio for the past week. And to be brutally honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It's a 2.0 TFSI (petrol), manual gearbox, and having played briefly with the 'configurator' on Audi's website, it will end up costing not much short of £40,000 if you were to buy one (it's the S-line). Which is about the same as the S4 Avant that I bought exactly a year ago today.

The main problem is that I can't quite decide about convertibles. I had the top down as much as possible, but it was only warm enough to make it a real pleasure on a couple of occasions. That's not a criticism of the car, as much as it is of the English climate. And unlike the R8 Spyder, it doesn't have that jaw-dropping impact on passers-by, which brings me to my second problem... is it an A5 or an A4? Back seat room is less than on my S4, and the luggage space is certainly less. And only specialists in the trademark 'fairy-light' patterns will notice the difference from the front. To me, the A5 sportback and the coupe look a bit special, and that distinctiveness is lost with the cabriolet.

Having said all that, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the car. It performs reasonably (211 PS), and it is a good drive. And it is a very good-looking car, it has a certain elegance about it that gives you a feel-good factor as you drive. The fuel consumption is good and it features many of the clever tricks that you would expect. Auto-stop/start, electronic handbrake, extending seat belt supports, all make the driving experience better. And I was impressed by the courtesy lights for the rear seat passengers embedded in the roof.

I suppose if you do not have the family requirements that I do, then it becomes a very sensible buy. And on the two days of the year when the weather is good enough - it's unbeatable!

The real drawback (and apologies, this may be merely that I couldn't find the right button) was that it seemed impossible to open the boot without removing the key from the ignition and using the remote control to release the catch. I expect there was a button somewhere, but it wasn't obvious, neither to me, nor the man who came to collect the car!

There is certainly something a bit special about convertibles, but I am not sure that they warrant the asking price. Your thoughts welcome below.