Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Reflecting on some of the numbers in my life

I was never really any good at celebrating birthdays. Particularly the 'big' birthdays that all my friends seem to make such a fuss about. In some ways I am sorry that the 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries of the day I was born passed by without a party - but I don't really like parties: there are always too many people there. I would far rather have friends round in small doses and be able to have a proper conversation. And that can be done anytime, without the need for a special occasion.

Anyway, as it is in my nature to take a sideways look at things, it fell upon me recently that today is a day that I should celebrate - for exactly 20,000 days ago was the day that I was born. Since then, I have visited 672 race meetings at 35 different circuits in 11 countries (12 if you count Wales). I have probably watched getting on for 5,000 races, and inevitably, have forgotten about an awful lot of them. On the other hand, many of them stick out. I have seen 47 24-hour races, and hope that my 50th will be at Le Mans next year. Among the events I have seen are the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Daytona 500. And I have the raceday programme for every single one of them.

I also seem to have acquired an awful lot of motor racing magazines (although I have disposed of a large number of copies of Motoring News and Autosport). But I highly value the 35 years of bound copies of Motor Sport (going back to the 1950’s), supplemented by 1923 - 1959 in digital format.

At some point down the line (on day 14,296, to be precise), I got married, and now have two wonderful children.

I also have about 120 books with a motorsport theme, but lest I be accused of a single-minded passion, I should also point out that I have watched the England national teams play cricket and football, I have seen tennis (and stock cars) at Wimbledon, show jumping at Hickstead and even seen the rugby league challenge cup final at Wembley Stadium.

There are many things that I would like to have done, that I have not (yet) done, but the passing of the years seems to make some of these less likely. At least next year I should be able to add “Olympic Games” to my list.

And there are various other memorabilia. I have a small collection of model cars, mostly in 1/43 scale, but a couple in 1/18 scale.

Then there is the box in which I store all my passes and the pile of ‘other stuff’, not really valuable, but far too interesting to throw away (just yet). Although I am not an autograph hunter, I do have original signatures from Fangio, Moss, Jackie Stewart and Phil Hill, among others, and enough photos to shake a stick at.

(It being the time of year for such things, anyone fancy doing a "who, what, where" on any of these?)

More valuable than all of ‘the stuff’ though, are the memories. As the years go by, so those memories become more important to me. But I wonder if they interest anyone else? These things are very personal, and a Blog, by its nature, is public. But hey, you don’t have to read it!

I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do in the motor-racing world. A long time ago, I used to go to races (on my own) and keep a lap chart, trying to hear the commentary over the loudspeakers and follow what was going on. And at various times, something really interesting would happen, that the commentators hadn’t noticed, and I really wanted to nudge the bloke standing next to me and tell him: “fifth place should change on the next lap - watch car no. 7!” but I never did, and he probably wasn’t interested anyway.

Nowadays, it is other people nudging me (often electronically) to point out something that I have missed as I am trying to keep track of races. The beauty is that I now have an audience (yes I admit it is only a small one) who is actually interested - and that I find very heartening.

It’s a funny world, the world of motor sport. I suspect it is like many sports, in that it often takes itself too seriously, but on the other hand it is unlike other sports as there are so many aspects to it. The rarefied world of Formula 1 is to my mind as far (or further) away from club motorsport as the top and bottom rungs of any sport. Then there are the pursuits of rallying, sprints, hillclimbs, motorbikes - it is all motor sport. Should I also include powerboating? After all, I’ve been to a couple of such events (consider the different challanges facing the competitors in the offshore event from Cowes to Torquay and back compared to the Formula 1 event at Bristol docks that I attended in the mid-1980s).

But it is a world in which the skill of the driver is frequently overshadowed by the car he is driving. For my money, this is part of the appeal. Less appealing is the fact that as a consequence, the amount of money that is invested also casts a shadow over things. But then again, by investing large sums of money into their activity, some drivers have had the opportunity to practise their art, an opportunity that the less wealthy may not have - but which results in them undoubtedly becoming more skilled.

It is a sport in which participants need to approach, but not go over, a line which separates driving safely from crashing; a line which separates triumph from disaster. Watching someone consistently improving, edging ever closer to that line without going over it, and then maintaining that level of performance, is fascinating and provides an insight into the way that racing drivers, proper racing drivers are.

Friday, 25 November 2011

More thoughts on the 2012 World Endurance Championship. (Updated)

I wrote on this subject a while ago (here) - and now we have a calendar, it is a subject that bears re-visiting.

And in case anyone doesn’t have it, here is the schedule that has been announced:
March 17th - Sebring, USA (12 hours)
May 5th - Spa, Belgium (6 hours)
June 16th / 17th - Le Mans, France (24 hours)
August 25th - Silverstone, Great Britain (6 hours)
September 16th - Interlagos, Brazil (6 hours)
September 30th - Fuji, Japan (6 hours)
October 20th - Sakhir, Bahrain (6 hours)
November 11th or 18th - China - TBA (6 hours)

Given the hints about the schedule that were being dropped by both the ACO and the FIA prior to the announcement, I was surprised by the amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth that appeared afterwards in various outlets.

On the list are four current Grand Prix circuits: Spa, Silverstone, Interlagos and Sakhir; note though that the Bahrain Formula 1 event is scheduled to take place on April 22nd, so perhaps the FIA is thinking that that a final decision about the wisdom of that event can be made following the success or otherwise of the Grand Prix.

Then there is Mount Fuji, used as recently as 2008 for the Japanese Grand Prix, and bearing in mind the fact that the circuit is owned by Toyota, one can imagine why the FIA came to announce the Japanese round there.

That leaves Le Mans and Sebring, which despite the protestations of many of our transatlantic cousins are to my mind the two circuits in the world that have the most claim to be home to worthy endurance races.

Overall, I think it is a good schedule. Undoubtedly, FIA politics is at play; but I wouldn’t expect anything else - that happens when you have an FIA-approved championship.

There are two big points that warrant further comment though: one, the inclusion of Bahrain; and two, the exclusion (by virtue of a date clash) of Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

First, Bahrain. Given the political unrest, I would be far happier if it weren’t on the calendar at all. I almost certainly won’t be going anyway, but if I were to be invited, I would feel uncomfortable, knowing the disregard that authorities there have shown to simple human rights; more fundamentally than that: basic human kindness and tolerance.

As I mentioned already – there is no doubt that politics is at play. The FIA, for whatever reason, wants to hold a Grand Prix there. From all those whom I have read on the matter, before the unrest became an issue, the Grand Prix was popular, the facilities good and the organisation smooth. I suspect there is a personal chemistry between the individuals involved, and having two FIA-sanctioned, world championship events scheduled provides the possibility for a face-saving cancellation, while still enabling promises to be kept.

The chairman of the circuit, Zayed Al-Zayani, has attempted on a number of occasions to resolve some of the problems between the protesters and the government. Clearly he has a vested interest in smoothing the waters, but the very fact that he has been involved illustrates the gravity of the situation and the importance of political stability to the staging of international sports events in Bahrain.

I don’t buy the argument made by Gérard Neveu, the FIA’s WEC manager, that making the date clash with Petit Le Mans was unavoidable. I think what we have here is a clear rattling of the FIA’s sabre to let Scott Atherton and his team know who is now in charge. It is obvious to me that two US races were never going to be in the World Endurance Championship. Equally clear is that the only two contenders were Road Atlanta and Sebring. Quite aside from Sebring’s claim to a longer race and a classic pedigree, it is also the case that Sebring is a Spring race and Petit Le Mans an Autumnal one. The biggest problem the FIA had in drawing up the calendar has been that there are too many races in the second half of the season. The only alternative that would have allowed Petit Le Mans to remain on the calendar (at the expense of Sebring) would have been to have scheduled Bahrain for a March / April date. But that would have put it too close to the Formula One race for comfort. (Although an F1 / WEC double header would have been interesting).

Sebring in March is a known factor. Bahrain could be a shambles. The FIA may not be averse to risk, but in this case, they have taken the safe (at least safer) option.

Whatever the vagaries of the calendar, it is shaping up to be an interesting season ahead. Audi’s 2011 was character-building (their words) - the Le Mans win serving to shine a bright light on an otherwise dismal season. Peugeot will have to up its game in order not to succumb to an improved Audi next year - none of this year’s successes in the ILMC were run-away victories. Then there’s Toyota. I won’t be surprised to see them right on the pace from Sebring onwards.

I was lucky enough to have dinner recently with Audi engineers Howden ‘H’ Haynes, Leena Gade and Kyle Wilson-Clarke… highly informative and entertaining and of which more another time. They can’t wait for the season to start - and although there’s the small matter of Christmas to overcome first, I know how they feel.

7th December:
I hear that the FIA has now issued an amendment to this calendar - the date for the Bahrain event has been moved to September 29th and the Japanese round to October 14th. Shock! The Bahrain date now clashes with the Britcar 24 hours at Silverstone. Politics afoot? Have the FIA decided to aim its torpedoes at James Tucker? Frankly, I doubt it. I don't know why the decision has been made, but I don't see that it makes any difference. Even if there are those entrants in the WEC who want to race at Road Atlanta, the schedule, while it doesn't have an actual race date clash, doesn't really make it feasible.

I stand by my previous remarks. I believe the Bahrain GP will be cancelled and the WEC will go ahead at Sakhir. FIA honour will be satisfied.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


I am often asked to justify my assertion that sportscar racing, and the Le Mans 24 hour race in particular, is a more worthy thing to follow than Formula 1, and although I wholeheartedly believe it to be true, I usually struggle to find a way to present my case.

One of the things that I enjoy about Le Mans is the variety it provides. Although, having said that, the technical regulations usually end up giving one form of technology an advantage over others; and reliability is so strong these days (as I have discussed before) that generally means that there is only a handful of cars in a position to win the race.

Compare that to Formula 1, though, where to have even a handful of cars from which to pick a winner would be a luxury. The heart of the problem lies beyond where we are today, but in how we got here.

When I first started following motor racing, the only category in which all the cars were the same was Mini racing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Mini racing: I always have and I am sure I always will. But, in my book, it loses a certain cadre because of the “single make” tag.

Motor racing has traditionally been about first and foremost getting an advantage over the competition by virtue of a technological advantage and then finding a driver capable of handling such a vehicle. Yes, Formula 1 is all about the drivers, but there have been many occasions in the past when the World Drivers’ Champion has won his title by virtue of being in the best car, not by virtue of being better than everybody else.

It is a paradox, but one which lends interest and gives the sport more charm. While I am sure that innovative thinking is still an intrinsic part of the Formula 1 world, these days it is in tiny, narrow back-alleys that few see or understand. Blown diffusers and F-ducts may be inspirational developments, but when I was young we had big high wings, air-boxes, turbines (as well as turbo-chargers), six-wheelers and fans, to name but a few.

This was radical thinking that you could see, that made you sit up and take notice. That’s what I like about Le Mans’ “56th garage”. The ACO may never quite have got the equivalence right, but they have encouraged alternative approaches for years and have been a far better shop-window for technological development - certainly in more recent years - than Formula 1.

Formula 1 may not be a single-make ‘spec’ formula, but both GP2 and GP3, the official ‘feeder’ series, are. And the Formula 1 regulations these days are so restrictive, that you are not free to alter any of the bodywork dimensions, still less choose your engine configuration, your fuel type or your tyres. Partly of course this is all due to cost-control; but if the money were not there, it would not be spent. Much more it is due to a restrictive rule book.

I read a quote from Pat Symonds earlier this year, that in 1983 the F1 technical regulations ran to 11 pages. In 2010 it was 67 pages - to say nothing of a 62 page appendix and various ‘technical directives’. But the heart of the difference between this and Le Mans is that if you come up with something a bit wacky and take it to the organisers, you can then make a case for getting an entry. In Formula 1, the doors to technical innovation are constantly being slammed shut.

However, a bit like any good thing, it is only good if it is under control; uncontrolled freedom is anarchy. With the number of turbo-charged and diesel-fuelled cars on the public roads these days, their participation in the 24 hours is obviously reasonable. I am all in favour of Ben Bowlby’s DeltaWing project and I wish it the best of luck in the 2012 event. Aside from its obvious visual impact, I applaud the principle of less power and less weight. It is, for me, an appealing idea.

Less appealing (to me) is hybrid technology. I was never one to follow conventional wisdom, and at the risk of being proved completely wrong, I think Hybrid will not be with us long.

In the mid-1970’s, the world was in the grip of the Middle East fuel crisis. In the UK, the government went as far as issuing coupons, in order to be ready for the increasingly likely scenario that fuel rationing would be introduced. In France, the ACO reacted against the inevitable criticism that the Le Mans 24 hours was a dreadful waste of fuel, by introducing a rule that forced cars to complete at least 20 laps between refuelling stops for the 1975 race. This represented something like a 20% improvement over the previous year and added around 15 seconds to lap times. In the end, the reduced pace meant that reliability was better and more cars completed the race than ever before. So the amount of fuel consumed by the race was actually more, rather than less, than in previous years.

My concern is that similar unintended consequences arise with hybrid technology. Fuel consumption is improved, but marginally. And the environmental cost of getting hold of the lithium required for the battery elements of a Hybrid is far in excess of the fuel saved. Half of the world’s known lithium is in Bolivia. Recent US investigation has suggested that a similar amount might be in Afghanistan. The sad fact is that the Western world sees it as acceptable that we ravage such states with impunity, with little regard for rain-forest or other environmental aspects.

The clue is in the name. Should not a racing car be a thoroughbred? By its very nature, a hybrid is a compromise, a halfway house, neither one thing nor another. Be assured, the R&D departments of the world’s motor manufacturers are busy beyond hybrid towards other fuels and types of engines.

And do you know what? I bet we see those technologies at Le Mans before we see them in a Formula 1 race.

Monday, 17 October 2011


When I was first captivated by motor racing, it was not uncommon to read of drivers being killed. Jim Clark, Lorenzo Bandini, Mike Spence; they all perished within 15 months of me visiting Brands Hatch for the first time in 1967. And through the seventies, a steady stream of names came to be added to the list of drivers who died at the wheels of their fearsomely fragile cars.

And as my teenage years gave way to my twenties, I compared my life to that of my father, who spent the same period of his life in the Royal Navy during World War II, where young men met untimely deaths on an even more frequent basis, but I never spent much time on philosophical reflection.

Now I am in my fifties, and more and more friends, colleagues and relatives are having problems with their health, often (as the NHS would put it) with ‘negative outcomes’.

And in most cases, there is no rhyme nor reason why certain folk are victims and others seem to lead ‘charmed lives’. Regular readers (should) know that I am a Christian: that I faithfully believe in heaven (and hell) and that after we finish these lives on earth there is something more to come. So I am not about to get morbid here.

All that said, nothing can prepare you for dealing with the sudden death of anyone, be it close relative, dear friend or sporting hero. But that is not to say that you cannot be prepared. Try it now - just imagine that you hear of the death of the one person on earth that you feel closest to: how would you deal with it? Don’t dwell on it though, don’t become depressed, just give it a few moments thought. Now imagine how that person will deal with the news of your death. Are there things that need to be resolved, discussed, agreed? Again, I am not suggesting anything too deep here, just planting some seeds, which might grow, especially if there is a particular need.

In the last decade or so (it might have been the death of Diana, Princess of Wales that started it), there seems to me to have started a trend for disproportionate outpourings of grief at sudden deaths, especially those that hit news headlines. I have heard it called ‘emotional correctness’, and it is an apposite term.

I am not denying the tragedy of death (particularly in the case of young racing drivers in accidents), but I sense a whiff of self-aggrandisement in a sort of “my eulogy is better than your eulogy” way. Or “Look at me I'm upset” - whatever became of private grief? Thousands of families every week go through the same sort of agonies, all suffering the same sense of loss, but without hundreds of media-types jumping on bandwagons and starting campaigns. The death of Senna changed Formula 1, that of Dale Earnhardt changed NASCAR, but after the dust settles, the “sport” continues; brave young men (and women) take risks and observers - be they in the organisation, the media or the spectator enclosures - become complacent once more.

The other thing that irks me is the use of the phrase “passes”, instead of “dies”. I am not being insensitive or uncaring here; but these things happen, reports have to be written and despite my faith, I find that the word “passing” lacks the impact of “death”. I understand that it is more common to use it in the USA, but for me, it is another Americanism that we in England can do without.

Sorry if this appears harsh - that is not my intention. I suppose I am just expressing my feelings. I never could quite get my emotions right.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Britcar 24 hours at Silverstone

It grieves me that it has taken me so long to get this blog posted. The fact is that my day job has been occupying a great deal of my time recently, and I haven’t been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to this little hobby of mine. Anyway, on the grounds that it is better to write something late than nothing at all, let me share with you some observations about the Silverstone 24 hour race.

Of course, the weather was the highlight of the weekend. Temperatures peaked at about 28 degrees C, and there was not the hint of a chance of rain throughout. For those who braved the cold and wet of last year’s event it was a stark contrast.

Silverstone, October? Surely not?
The spectators were treated to a great race, too, from the 57 starters who took part.

On the circuit PA system, we (I) made quite a fuss about breaking the 2,000 mile distance barrier, which in the end was quite easily achieved (in fact it was achieved by all the podium finishers). We also had an arcane discussion on the PA about what that represented (Hanoi to Saigon, anyone?). Well, to put it in a better context, if you would plan a route from Silverstone to Castle Combe, and then to Pembrey, north to Oulton Park, across the Pennines to Croft, then south to Snetterton, Brands Hatch, Thruxton and back to Silverstone, you would, according to Google Maps, have to drive 1020 miles. So do that twice, and you have a rough idea of how far the winning car travelled over the course of the race.

I’m not sure how many readers here actually listened to the commentary, either at the circuit or over the live ‘webstream’, which apparently was being provided from the Britcar website - but I would be interested to know, so leave a comment for me one way or another. In any event, those who know me will know that I try, during the race, to keep track, and I find I am setting myself an increasingly tough load, in terms of working out the pattern of the race, pit strategies and average lap times. I sometimes wonder if it is worth it. Or if there is a better way.

The trouble is that it is hard work keeping tabs on the race while trying to keep a flow of commentary going, as happened this year during the wee small hours when Brian Jones, in the pit lane, and I (in the main box) were keeping our listeners informed, while the other members of the team took breaks.

It was certainly a race of attrition, just as a 24 hour race should be. In contrast to the more celebrated 24 hour race in June in France, I would be surprised to learn if any of the entrants had done a 24 hour test prior to the race, and this led to a much more interesting scenario as the Silverstone 24 hours unfolded and the race was in a continual state of uncertainty.

The official results show 43 classified finishers out of the 57 starters. However, of these, six were no longer participating in the race, and did not receive the chequered flag, but according to the regulations, there was no need to do so, the qualification criterion being merely to complete 50% of the distance covered by the winner. Of the remaining 37 cars, 21 received outside assistance, in the shape of a “tow-back” to the pits having stopped out on the circuit. By my calculations, an amazing 34 such “roadside recovery” operations took place during the race, the biggest beneficiary being the Piranha Motorsport Ginetta G40, no. 91, which stopped three times on the track and was brought back to the pits each time, in order to resume its race.

That left just 16 runners at the end, who took the chequered flag after 24 hours without receiving the organiser’s help. Then there was John Thorne’s BMW no. 60, which did not receive outside assistance, but completed only 171 laps (less than 30% of the race winner’s distance), at an average speed of 26mph, thus counting, in my book as “running but not classified”. The others, it should be noted, completed more than 70% of the winner’s distance.
The view from the commentary box
I’m not complaining though. There was a good crowd at Silverstone at the weekend, the atmosphere was great, and quite apart from considerations for the entrants themselves, to watch 17 cars plodding round the full Grand Prix circuit in the closing stages would not have encouraged many of them to return. So rather, let us applaud the efforts of Silverstone’s recovery units, for enabling more than half the field to continue racing when stricter rules would have seen them excluded.

One of the difficulties about working out the strategy in a Britcar race is the rule that enables cars to run with fuel tanks of up to 120 litres, but only to re-fuel a maximum of 75 litres per pit stop. Especially when the limit is 25 litres during safety car periods. So it is hard to know exactly how much fuel is on board any particular car, and the length of a stint is correspondingly hard to calculate.

However, the following table is an interesting comparison of the five fastest Class 1 cars average lap times for their longest two stints.

I fear that some of this might be misleading, since these are specifically the longest stints achieved during the race, not the fastest - but it is clear how much the fuel pick-up problem hampered the Strata 21 Mosler, even though it was quite quick when it was running well. And there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with the fuel consumption of the Aquila. Incidentally, it is interesting that it managed two 32-lap stints with average lap times of 2m 11.5s (Martin) and 2m 12.4s (Berridge).

The tow-back feature means that looking at the time spent in the pits is tricky, but at least for the first three cars home it is possible to look at the numbers. Consider this:

Time spent in Pits:
2 - Eclipse Ferrari: 1h 03m 50.34s (24 stops)
49 - Nick Mee Racing Aston Martin: 43m 39.01s (19 stops)
57 - Marcos Racing Lotus Evora: 1h 15m 47.07s (24 stops plus two stop and go penalties)

Note that only the time of the second placed Aston Martin approaches the sorts of times spent in the pits from last year’s race - last year, none of the top three finishers spent longer than 40 minutes in the pits. Interesting, eh?

Finally, the winning Eclipse Ferrari was one of only a few to have only three drivers on the crew. With father Mike McInerney unable to drive at night, this meant that the rota was pretty gruelling. Here’s how it broke down:

Mike McInerney - 145 laps - 5h 50m 03s
Sean McInerney - 197 laps - 8h 17m 09s
Phil Keen - 231 laps - 9h 23m 21s

For these numbers, I have excluded the time spent in the pits for driver changes, but included those pit-stops where re-fuelling, etc., but no driver change took place.

And there's more from Phil Keen on dailysportscar this week, thanks to Mark Howson’s efforts.

My home for the 24 hours...

Monday, 26 September 2011

The emergence of a new technology.

I have mentioned before that I am a fan of (and a subscriber to) the French language ‘Le Mans Racing’ magazine - and an article caught my eye in the most recent edition, that I thought might interest my readership here. It is all about the emergence of LED headlamp technology, and I translate (and paraphrase) it below:

It was well-publicised by Audi, praised by the drivers who used it and also criticised by GT drivers who spoke of being blinded, but LED headlights hit the headlines in the recent 24 hour of Le Mans. They also achieved an historic victory.

Since their invention, car headlights have always evolved - from traditional tungsten bulbs to halogen. In both cases though, the same principle is used - a filament (wire) in a glass bulb. For a few years, xenon headlights have become more widespread. The bulb consists of two electrodes sitting in xenon (a gas) under high pressure. An auxiliary system that generates a high voltage of 20,000 volts starts the illumination of the gap between the two electrodes; then the voltage is reduced to 85 volts as soon as the beam is started.

A few years ago LED headlights appeared in concept cars at shows and exhibitions, giving designers greater freedom - enabling them to design cars that did not have merely round headlamps. And this year, for the first time, LED headlights appeared in competition, fitted on certain cars in the 24 hours of Le Mans. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) consist of a semi-conductor which converts electric current directly into light, and a lens ensuring that the light forms a beam. One can also put a mirror behind the LED (like in a traditional headlight).

There are several advantages.
The delay to illuminate an LED is extremely short - between 2 and 10 milliseconds - this is especially useful when flashing headlights, compared to 150ms to 300ms for halogen lights.

Since about 80% of the energy is converted to light, compared to 20% for traditional bulbs (the rest is converted to heat), headlights with equal brightness consume much less current.

The temperature of the emitted light is 6000 Kelvin, which amounts to a very white light, comparable to daylight. This is identical to that produced by xenon headlights (but compares to only 3000K for halogen, which are slightly yellowish). But the light is more diffuse, less violent than xenon and the lighting is more “comfortable”, and permits better distinction of the features of the road. In fact, halogen headlights produce a luminosity of 1500 lumens, xenon bulbs about 3200 lumens and a headlight with 6 LEDs produces about 1500. The light produced is therefore less bright than xenon, and therefore induces less glare.

The additional weight of xenon lights is also an important consideration - the combination of the weight for the projection equipment and the bulb itself is around 1.1 - 1.2kg, compared to 650g for a headlight consisting of 9 diodes. The integration into the bodywork is also simpler: no big projector to install, less heat generated, a flexible and adaptable shape along with a reduced volume; and it is the last two reasons that are important in racing circles.

In summary, then, LEDs are light, easy to install, use a little less current than xenon and a lot less than halogen and produce a less violent and a slightly less glare-inducing light than xenon but more homogenous and comfortable than halogen.

Victory at Le Mans
Only three models of car - all LMP1 - were equipped with LED headlamps at this year’s 24 hours. Of course there were the three Audi R18’s and in addition two of the four Oak Pescarolos. The 2011 version of the Peugeot 908 had a mixed lighting system, with a single LED lamp situated above the more traditional xenon lights. Although the LEDs of Audi and Oak came from the same supplier (Osram), the installations were completely different on the two cars. The implementation on the Audi was specific to the R18. On each side of the car was a double vertical beam, with 5 diodes on the outside of the headlamp and three on the inside. Behind these diodes were placed many mini-reflectors. Only the outside part was illuminated during the daytime.

Oak Racing replaced the three traditional Xenon headlights on each side of their Pescarolos by three LED
projectors, supplied by the RaceTech Harnessing. One of these had six diodes, and the other two had just three, all equipped with lenses to focus the light.

In the final classification, with one Audi followed by three Peugeots, the four first positions were occupied by cars using LED headlights.

Finally, note that this technology, which is already present on the rear lights of some road cars, will be rapidly used for road headlamps - and this has already been authorised by the EU.

Apologies for the slightly clunky English - that’s why I am not a professional translator. In any event, I found it interesting, as is RaceTech Harnessing’s website: http://www.racetechharnessing.co.uk/. I get the impression that in a few years' time we will look back on 'bulb' technology as something very quaint. Remember when number plates used to be black and white?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Silverstone 6 hours - 30 hours at Becketts

Readers of this blog don’t come here to read race reports or the latest news from the sportscar scene. So if that’s what you’re after, I suggest you read elsewhere. What I try to bring you, dear reader, is an alternative view: occasionally a deeper view, but in any case something that you can’t read elsewhere. For that reason, I would like to share my experiences of being at Silverstone for the 2011 ILMC/LMS Six Hour race. And I apologise that it’s taken me so long to get this out, but the demands of work and home life have been particularly great recently.

Anyway, the organisers asked John Hindhaugh and his crew from radiolemans.com to provide PA commentary for the whole meeting, including practice, qualifying and all the support events. This is just what I used to do, years ago, before family pressures came along, and hence I was asked to be at the Becketts commentary box from nine o’clock on Friday morning until the end of track action on Sunday evening.

OK, so I was allowed out to attend the teamDOT AGM on Friday evening, and to get my meals (thanks to Carlo and his team at the Smoking Dog). And thanks too to Gail at Linford Stables, where I spent very quiet and comfortable Friday and Saturday nights. But other than that, I was at my post throughout - and I have to say, I was very happy to be there. One of the drawbacks about commentating these days is that I often find myself removed from ‘the action’. I get a great view of the start finish straight at Le Mans, and can see wonderfully into the pits, but I really miss not being able to see cars actually racing, in the same way that spectators can. Watching on a TV when you’re there misses the point, to my way of thinking.

The view from the box at Becketts is outstanding. I could see the cars through Farm Corner (turn 2), Village, The Loop, Aintree and out onto the Wellington Straight. Then they went out of view at Brooklands, Luffield and the National Straight. But I could see them again out of Copse, through the astonishing Becketts esses before they went out of sight again. From the back rows of the grandstands (that were open to the public) either on the outside of Becketts, or on the outside of Village, the view would have been even better.

Throughout the weekend, a steady flow of spectators trudged past, on their way to other viewing locations, but they all had smiles on their faces. Less cheerful were the media, team and VIP types who had to catch the bus from Silverstone’s new nerve centre at The Wing to the car parks at the other end of the estate. What I cannot understand is why buildings such as The Wing, while they are impressive visual edifices architecturally, do not provide either a media centre with windows, or commentary boxes with anything like a decent view of the circuit. Even though Hindhaugh’s box overlooked the start finish area, there was no view of the pit lane, and in order to watch cars come out of the final corner one had to climb up onto the table in front of the commentary box window. If I had been trying to do a manual lap chart from there, it would have been nigh on impossible.

Apart from the logistics of getting from one place to another, I think Silverstone has a fine circuit these days though. Fast, sweeping corners in abundance and a couple of tight, technical bits to demand compromises to set-up and precision in driving. It is a good, wide circuit where overtaking is possible. And I was amazed at how quickly it dried out after a couple of rain showers that crossed the circuit over the weekend. The pit garages are cavernous, although not suitable for a fifty-car entry, which really needs more garages of a smaller size. As for the pit lane itself - it is a curiosity: very wide, with a huge expanse of grass between the pit lane and the pit wall; and seemingly descending into a trench at the far (pit-out) end as it strives for a level track surface where the contours around it are climbing upwards. I didn’t measure it, but it seemed to be to be half the length of the pit-lane at Le Mans.

Now is not the time for ‘what-might-have-been’, but I just wonder if the possibility was considered to build the pits and have the start/finish on the Wellington Straight (formerly known as the National Straight)?

Anyway, what of the race itself? It was probably not a classic, although most of the ingredients were there to make it one. What impressed me most of all was how close the Audi and Peugeots were. In a sense it was the perfect race - the difference was not in the cars, but in the drivers: having to make several overtaking decisions every lap; evaluating risk, judging closing speeds, avoiding collisions. And the difference, as far as the outright result was concerned, was down purely to those factors: not mechanical breakdowns, or weather, or safety car interventions.

Just how close the top four works diesels were is shown in the following table. This shows the average lap time for each driver, ignoring full course caution periods and those laps where accidents, spins or other incidents occurred, and ignoring time spent in the pits.

For comparison, I also show the best lap for each driver, although note that for the purposes of this I include ‘in laps’, which at Silverstone in its current configuration, is shorter than the normal racing lap. An asterisk shows if the lap was an ‘in lap’ (i.e. it terminated in the pit lane).

Was Peugeot a worthy winner? Or did Audi throw away a chance of victory? Let’s have a look at ‘Time spent in pits’ for each of those cars: The number in brackets for Audi no. 2 and Peugeot no.8 includes an estimate of the time lost on the track while recovering from their respective off-track excursions. In McNish’s case, this was around 58s lost on a slow lap back to the pits; for Montagny I have added 7m 15s while Franck (and the marshals) man-handled the car out of the gravel at Copse Corner.

At the end of the race there was 1m 29.763s between the no 1 Audi of Bernhard/Fässler and the no 7 Peugeot of Bourdais/Pagenaud. The difference in time spent in the pits was 1m 03s. Bernhard lost about 17s when he spun on lap 40. So even allowing for this, the Peugeot seems to have deserved its victory - although that is not to say that had certain events turned out differently, that we could have had a different result.

What I find puzzling, but what time has not allowed me to find out, is why the delayed Peugeot of Montagny / Sarrazin and the delayed Audi of McNish / Kristensen finished three laps apart, when the amount of time that each lost was nearly the same. It could be a glitch in my data, but I haven’t had the opportunity to dig more deeply.

For those whom it interests (are there others out there like me?) full details of the pit stops for the four diesels are as follows:

Peugeot no. 7 - Start driver Sebastien Bourdais.
Stop 1 (lap 25) Fuel only - 59s
Stop 2 (lap 53) Driver change: Bourdais to Pagenaud; fuel; tyres - 1m 27s
Stop 3 (lap 79) Fuel only - 1m 00s
Stop 4 (lap 105) Driver change: Pagenaud to Bourdais; fuel; tyres - 1m 27s
Stop 5 (lap 132) Fuel only - 1m 00s
Stop 6 (lap 159) Driver change: Bourdais to Pagenaud; fuel; tyres - 1m 29s
Stop 7 (lap 185) Fuel only - 35s

Audi no. 1 - Start driver Timo Bernhard
Stop 1 (lap 25) Fuel only - 58s
Stop 2 (lap 53) Driver change: Bernhard to Fassler; fuel; tyres - 1m 24s
Stop 3 (lap 79) Fuel only - 58s
Stop 4 (lap 105) Driver change: Fassler to Bernhard; fuel; tyres - 1m 26s
Stop 5 (lap 131) Driver change: Bernhard to Fassler; fuel; tyres; rear bodywork - 2m 27s
Stop 6 (lap 157) Fuel; change front left tyre - 1m 09s
Stop 7 (lap 183) Fuel only - 38s

Audi no. 2 - Start driver Allan McNish
Stop 1 (lap 23) Fuel; tyres; inspect damage after contact - 1m 33s
Stop 2 (lap 24) Fuel; front left tyre; suspension; bodywork - 12m 53s
Stop 3 (lap 50) Fuel only - 58s
Stop 4 (lap 77) Driver change: McNish to Kristensen; fuel; tyres - 1m 28s
Stop 5 (lap 104) Fuel only - 59s
Stop 6 (lap 131) Driver change: Kristensen to McNish; fuel; tyres - 1m 25s
Stop 7 (lap 158) Driver change: McNish to Kristensen; fuel; tyres - 1m 30s

Peugeot no. 8 - Start driver Franck Montagny
Stop 1 (lap 9) Accident repairs: front left; fuel; tyres - 7m 58s
Stop 2 (lap 37) Fuel only - 57s
Stop 3 (lap 63) Driver change: Montagny to Sarrazin; fuel; tyres - 1m 23s
Stop 4 (lap 89) Fuel only - 59s
Stop 5 (lap 115) Fuel; tyres - 1m 26s
Stop 6 (lap 140) Driver change: Sarrazin to Montagny; fuel; tyres - 1m 22s
Stop 7 (lap 159) Fuel only - 49s

I'm back at Silverstone again in a couple of weeks - for the Britcar 24. Should be fun - I'm looking forward to it. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Man Who Caught Crippen - Joe Saward

"The Amazing Life of Henry Kendall"
I have previously expressed my admiration for Joe Saward here; indeed to an extent his blog was the inspiration for me to start my own. I read his previous book ‘The Grand Prix Saboteurs’, and was surprised to find that I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.

My thoughts (written in May last year), are here.

‘Grand Prix Saboteurs’ is not a book about motor racing; it is about people and what they got up to during the Second World War. And as Joe explained somewhere, ‘The Man Who Caught Crippen’ has absolutely nothing to do with motor-racing at all. And although this blog is supposed to be about racing, I decided to make an exception, merely because this book is a jolly good read.

In many ways it is a lot simpler than ‘Grand Prix Saboteurs’, as it focuses purely on the exploits of one man. But that man’s life spanned 91 years, through war and peace, and was a good deal more adventurous than most.

Typically, Joe’s research is meticulous, detailed and thorough. The political and economic times through which Kendall lived are explained, as is relevant background history, with an engaging and readable style. Joe has that knack of writing prose that flows, and keeps the interest of the reader with a stream of riveting, sequential ideas.
I am not a big fan of biography, nor do I have any particular interest in ships or things maritime (although my father, ex-Royal Navy, would have loved it if I would have) - nevertheless I found this a gripping story, told with vibrant colour and detail. There are typos (not as many as there were in ‘Grand Prix Saboteurs’) and the photographs are of a pretty poor quality - but I would rather have them there than not have them at all.

I am not going to spoil the story for you by saying any more - read the book and let me know your thoughts!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Audi road cars

I’ve written here before about my enthusiasm for Audi’s road cars. A company that spends as much money on racing as Audi, does so in the certain belief that it helps it to sell road cars. And as part of that endeavour, I occasionally have the opportunity to sample cars from their UK press fleet.

Recently, I have had the chance to drive both an A6 saloon, and an RS5 coupe. The A6 had every conceivable extra on it, even though it was only sold as the SE, rather than the higher specification S-line. But it was interesting to try out some of the gizmos that are available these days.

The first thing to say is that my ‘normal’ car - the one that I regularly drive around in and the one which I bought out of my own money - has Audi’s Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), so I am used to that, and no longer find it ‘gimmicky’ at all. In addition to this, the A6 had Audi’s “Active Lane Assist” and “Side Assist”, fitted as extras. The Side Assist system consists of an orange light on the inside of each wing mirror, which lights up if there is a car travelling alongside, and blinks vigorously if you then indicate in that direction. I found this useful, although there is no substitute for actually turning your head and looking to see if the way is clear.

The Lane Assist was extremely clever. Really only useful in motorway driving, it ensured that you stay in your lane, by applying gentle inputs to the steering wheel to keep you within the white lines marking the lane. In effect, with the ACC on, and Lane Assist working, the driver doesn’t need to do anything - the ACC will keep you at a constant speed and avoid running into the car in front and the Lane Assist will keep you in your lane (provided that there aren’t any sharp corners). Unfortunately, Lane Assist notices when you don’t make any steering inputs yourself and shuts itself off with a warning on the dashboard that you should “continue to steer the vehicle”.

Less useful was the system which turns off the engine when you are idling. In fact it became more of an irritation really. I had experienced this on a manual Audi before, and found it quite good. With the S-tronic gearbox fitted to the A6 though, it would cut the engine while you were stationary, with your foot on the brake, but as soon as you shifted to neutral and applied the handbrake, it fired up again. And at toll booths, I found it would switch of completely, meaning that I had to manually restart the engine to get away. I’m sure I could get used to it, but it wasn’t an intuitive system at all. However, the fuel economy of the 3 litre turbo diesel was most impressive.

Fuel economy and the RS5 do not really fit in the same sentence. The “dynamic” button provides plenty of thrills and a wonderful auditory experience, but means that you get through V-power at a rate of 13mpg. At least, I did. Before I go on to eulogise about the performance though, a word about the gimmicks. The RS5 was fitted with hill-hold assist, which applies the handbrake whenever you reach a standstill. The car comes with the automatic gearbox (S-tronic) as standard, and personally, I find it is easy to get used to the way that it ‘rolls’ on tickover. There is an electro-magnetic handbrake, which can be manually applied when you want it, and which releases as soon as you accelerate. This is fine, but I found the hill-hold somewhat intrusive. It is easy enough to disable, but my advice would be not to bother specifying it as an extra.

The gimmick I did like was the advanced “smart key”. These are increasingly common these days in high-specification cars, but in effect you don’t need to do anything with the key, just make sure it is in your pocket. Doors and boot unlock automatically when you touch the handle, and you then press the starter button to fire up the engine and away you go. When you get out, just move your hand over the door handle, and you’ve locked it. Don’t do what I did the first few times though and check that the door is locked, as then it will cleverly unlock itself for you again!

Enough of optional extras. The beauty of the RS5 is the driving experience. It is superb. The normally-aspirated 4.2 litre V8 engine provides 450bhp and a 0 - 100km/h figure of 4.2 seconds. Quattro four wheel drive does the rest - road-holding and traction that are so sure-footed that you wonder why all cars can’t do this. I’ve mentioned the “dynamic” button already - but in “Auto” mode, the car works out whether you are being dynamic or not and gives you the appropriate setting. I’m not going to enter an argument about whether it is better than the BMW M3 or not - as I am not qualified to judge, but various colleagues expressed their opinions to me - largely gained from watching Top Gear, I’m afraid. Interestingly, Autocar suggests that the RS5 is quicker. (What? “Top Gear” in misrepresentation of truth shock? Surely not?)

Personally, I found the RS5 a lovely-looking car, plenty of space for adults in the back, and room in the boot for golf clubs (if that’s what you need). At around £60,000 when you’ve put the optional extras on, it is beyond what I would consider spending on a car, but with the R8 V10 costing nearly double, the RS5 is certainly not in the ‘unrealistic’ category.

The biggest problem I had with the RS5 was its need to be driven fast. In an R8, one can enjoy driving slowly, safe in the knowledge that heads will turn as you pass. With the RS5, driving slowly didn’t seem to be an option, somehow. And folk in front would happily move out of the way of an R8, but seeing the RS5 in the rear-view mirror seemed to merely make people stay in the way for longer. Apologies to those whom I may have irritated, but my need to explore the acceleration capability of the car (without necessarily exceeding any speed limits), often meant that overtaking had to be done. Amazing how some people seem to regard overtaking as a heinous crime these days.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The FIA World Endurance Championship of 2012

Essentially, I am an old-fashioned sort of bloke. I get a great deal of pleasure from remembering how things used to be and wishing, wistfully, for those days to return. Of course I don’t really mean it; the fact of the matter is more that I yearn for the days of my youth because I yearn for my youth. The days when I was younger, I was fitter and more carefree, I suppose. Now I am older, I am wiser, but have to consider more carefully the fact that I shall not live (in this world) for ever.

History is important though. Although Winston Churchill is often credited with saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it was George Santayana who originally coined the phrase in 1906 (The Life of Reason) - “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I would like to think that by not merely remembering, but more importantly, understanding what happened in the past, we can behave more appropriately in the present. And it is this that motivates me to pay attention to what is going on and to try and get under the skin of it a bit, and not just take everything at face value. I know that this can be infuriating to those close to me, but it’s just the way I am.

I am also fundamentally a positive person. I tend to think that things will be OK. As the toast slips from my fingers, I just know that the butter side will land uppermost. Even if things don’t quite go OK, I know that they will turn out OK in the end. There’s always another piece of bread that can go in the toaster. I tend only to prepare for the worst when it happens (perhaps I have more in common with the Murdoch family than I ought to have).

So when the announcement was made that there would be an FIA World Endurance Championship next year, my initial reaction was one of welcome. I had, after all, posed the question at the beginning of the year, asking why we had the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and not an FIA-sanctioned world championship. And most of the people that I posed the question to thought that although the ACO was doing a reasonably good job of organising the ILMC, an FIA World Championship would be a good thing.

Indeed, now that the announcement has been made, most of the major players are saying publicly that it is a good thing, that to have a World Endurance Championship - organised by the FIA - will improve things for everybody. However, in private, a number of people have vouchsafed to me their misgivings: where will the rounds be? How will it be organised? Who will take part? Is there a place for privateers? How will performance balancing be achieved? What about the GT classes? What happens to the Le Mans Series and the FIA GT World Championship?

But on the positive side, there has been no shortage of announcements. At Le Mans came news of the Le Mans Delta Wing car, to run at Le Mans in 2012, but outside the regulations, making use of the provision of the ACO for innovative technologies. There were two other “new technology” proposals as well, applying for the 56th entry at Le Mans. Then Porsche announced their intended participation with an LMP1 car in 2014. And hot on Porsche’s heels, an all-electric Lola from Drayson Racing. This week came news that Jaguar is going to build an LMP1 car. The intentions of Lotus in LMP1 are perhaps more hopeful than realistic, but these are all the kinds of announcements which indicate that interest in Endurance racing in general, and Le Mans in particular, is high.

The FIA may be the senior partner, but in the coalition of the ACO and FIA that now exists, it is the ACO which seems to be forcing the pace: particularly in the areas of new technologies. The ACO has long appreciated the value of diversity in the entry list at Le Mans, but by reserving its 56th garage for a “special case”, where someone can run outside the regulations, they need to take care that the recipients of this entry do not turn into too many blind alleys. New technology, yes - wacky racers, no thanks!

Talking of the 56th entry, when 56 cars took the start this year, I was blithely commenting that it was the first time that more than 55 cars had started since 1955 (when there were 60). But I had overlooked 1975. Reading Quentin Spurring’s excellent “Official History” book provided the nugget that in 1975, 56 cars also started the race; even though only 55 had qualified. Fausto Morello, from Ecuador, entered in a Porsche Carrera RSR which had failed to qualify, decided to take the start anyway. He managed three laps before anyone noticed!

Anyway, back to the present and the World Endurance Championship. Despite the major revisions to the regulations this year, I think that next year will prove to be more of a new start. Certainly there are questions hanging open at the moment. But importantly, there is time (at the moment) to address them. Provided that things get nailed down before the end of October, then there is every prospect of a successful championship. It may sound a little harsh, but the ALMS and the LMS have no intrinsic right to exist. As I have argued before, a World Championship, of which the 24 hours of Le Mans can be a part, should exist - even though it has not always been so. To my mind, the hierarchy should be ‘top-down’ - in other words, the top level championship should be well-defined, before subsequent layers beneath that can be formulated. What has happened in recent years is that the ACO and the ALMS have ‘gone global’, without the full sanction of the world governing body. And while that has worked well in the last 10 years or so, there needs to be a controlling influence. My big concern is that the control that the FIA will impose will be benevolent and not malicious. But hey, I’m optimistic.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

2011 - 2012 Calendar

I was surprised to receive in the post yesterday a Le Mans calendar. It has been produced by one of those companies that produces small-scale publicity material for small businesses - and has some great photos from last year's 24 hour race, as well as some photos from the Silverstone 1000kms.

It also contains some amusing notes in the dates - not least the fact that next year, Good Friday will fall on a Sunday (which is a bit of a worry).

Anyway, I am very grateful to whomever it was who sent it - by all means remain anonymous if you wish, but I am sure that I owe you a beer, if you'd like to make yourself known to me!

Hopefully I shall get around to writing some more on this blog in the near future - sadly there hasn't been much going on recently which has inspired me. Possibly some thoughts on the World Endurance Championship might emerge soon. And I have driven a couple of very nice Audis recently, impressions of which I really ought to share. Just a question of time, really.

Friday, 1 July 2011

24-Hour Reflections from Le Mans and the Nürburgring

I spent two very different weekends at the two twenty-four hour races at Le Mans and at the Nürburgring in June. It is very difficult to compare the two events - indeed the venues themselves, their traditions, cultures; the very heart of each event makes comparisons pointless. As Tom Kristensen said when asked to choose between his Le Mans victories, “it’s like choosing between your children - they’re all different, but all very special”.

What both races had in common though, was that they were close. Obviously, getting a lap ahead at the Nürburgring is a somewhat different proposition than at Le Mans, but in both races, the leading two cars were always on the same lap, throughout the race. As I mentioned a little while ago on this blog - this is the “new era”, in which endurance racing has to be approached in a “zero fault tolerance” way: to win, you must be perfect.

And largely, that is what Audi managed at Le Mans, with the Lotterer / Tréluyer / Fässler R18 TDI, and what Manthey Racing managed at the ’Ring, with their Porsche 911 RSR of Luhr / Dumas / Lieb / Bernhard. Both cars had a competitor close behind, which arguably did not have the same pace, but which was close enough to overtake if the slightest problem arose. Both were specialists in their field, and as each race progressed, the leaders looked increasingly unlikely to have such a problem. A bit like watching a circus tightrope walker, when you somehow know that he isn’t going to fall off - but that doesn’t make it any less exciting or less tense.

I do not propose to give a race report here, as there are others available elsewhere. And in case you are watching here or on dailysportscar.com for an analysis of the Le Mans 24 hours, you'll have to look in the next issue of Racecar Engineering - so I encourage you to go out and buy that! Or have a look at www.racecar-engineering.com in the coming weeks.

As far as the Nürburgring 24 hours is concerned, though, it struck me that the Manthey approach of having a car that would be able to stretch its legs in the second half of the race, as the amount of traffic reduced, was very wise indeed. It is a fact that on busy circuits, it is difficult to make the most of a performance advantage, since much of your pace is dependent on the pace of the traffic. Nürburgring must rank as a busy circuit - perhaps not as busy as Sebring, but a lot busier than Le Mans.
Both the Manthey Hybrid Porsche and the Hankook Ferrari demonstrated in last year’s race that they were capable of winning the race. It was therefore a disappointment that both of them struck problems this year. Both clearly had the pace, but were not able to run fault-free. The Audi R8 LMS were unable to challenge for the lead, but the no 17 “Playboy” sponsored car seemed indecently quick at times, and one wonders what would have happened had it not had its delays fixing a minor electrical glitch in the first quarter of the race and recovering from a collision with another car at around half-distance. And the Mercedes SLS were pretty spectacular too. In terms of pace, the #30 was probably the one to watch - indeed it led the race for some 30 laps, but the #46 was lapping just as quickly at times. Could either have won? Probably, and the Mercedes SLS should certainly go on the list of potential winners next year, subject to balance of performance issues.

Here’s an interesting way of looking at the numbers, although I am not sure what it proves, if anything:

In the end the battle was between the #1 Schnitzer BMW M3 and the #18 Manthey Porsche RSR. Just as last year, a battle between Charly Lamm and Olaf Manthey, two of the great characters of endurance racing and with enough enthusiasm and experience to write a novel about. However, unlike Le Mans, it was very easy to spot the moment when the race turned away from BMW. On lap 24, the BMW took to the grass on the left as it passed a slower car on the way into the Karussell, and was then unable to slow down enough to avoid a collision with the same car (another BMW) as it turned through the corner. Both cars spun through nearly 180 degrees, and the Schnitzer car ended up in the middle of the circuit, facing the wrong way. Pedro Lamy was the driver, and he then drove forwards, against the flow of the oncoming traffic, to a point where he could turn the car across the track and head back to the pits - where he was anyway due at the end of the lap - for repairs.

The to-ing and fro-ing on the track only cost the BMW about 15s, but then a further 1m 10s was lost in the pits as the front bodywork was replaced. Not long afterwards came the news that the incident was being investigated by the race stewards, and after three hours, a three-minute stop-go penalty was announced, not for the contact, but for driving against the flow of traffic (around 30 metres, by my reckoning).

So, 15s on the track, 1m 10s in the pit and 3m penalty, a total of 4m 25s. The winning margin of the Manthey Porsche? 4m 23.792s. Poor old Pedro - having being pushed out of the second-placed Peugeot at Le Mans by the speedier(?), (French) co-drivers, he’s then the guy who costs BMW victory at the Nürburgring, two weeks later.

Lamy is back at Imola this weekend, driving for BMW again. Now here’s a poignant link, for it was he (remember?) who drove into the back of JJ Lehto at the start of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. I hope he has a really good race this weekend - he probably deserves one.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Senna - the movie.

Did anyone else notice that in the scene where Ayrton is shown talking to Roland Bruynseraede through the window of an official car, when they are discussing which side of the track pole position should be, and whether the racing line is on the right or the left hand side of the track... that they are at Hockenheim, not at Suzuka?

In general, I think that Manish Pandey and Asif Kapadia have done a superb job with the film, but with this scene I fear that they may be guilty of misleading their audience somewhat.

It's not really a complaint in any real sense of the word, as I would like to encourage as many people as possible to go and see the film. And if anyone has an explanation, I'd love to hear it.

I'm off to the Nurburgring this weekend... much more relaxing than Le Mans, in many ways. A lot less intensity, and in many ways, more fun. More thoughts next week.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A few miscellaneous facts

Total Time spent in pits this year:
Audi no 2 - Treluyer/Fassler/Lotterer - 31 stops, 7 driver changes - 33m 56s
Peugeot no 9 - Bourdais/Pagenaud/Lamy - 28 stops, 8 driver changes - 34m 19s
Peugeot no 8 - Montagny/Sarrazin/Minassian - 29 stops, 9 driver changes - 37m 16s
Peugeot no 7 - Wurz/Davidson/Gene - 28 stops, 8 driver changes - 43m 55s

Corvette no 73 - Garcia/Milner/Beretta - 23 stops, 10 driver changes - 32m 05s

Note that I have omitted the stop and go penalty for the no 8 Peugeot, so if you see official statistics showing that it had 30 stops, this is why.

For comparison, here are the shortest times spent in the pits from previous years races:
Audi no 9 - 35m 25s
Audi no 8 - 35m 31s
Strakka HPD no 42 - 35m 10s

Audi no 2 - 31m 56s

Driving Times:
Audi No 2.
Treluyer - 9h 21m 29s - 147 laps in 3 shifts (48 laps, 45 laps and 54 laps)
Fassler - 5h 39m 23s - 89 laps in 2 shifts (44 laps and 45 laps)
Lotterer - 8h 07m 34s - 119 laps in 3 shifts (38 laps, 20 laps and 61 laps)

Peugeot No 9.
Bourdais - 11h 11m 56s - 155 laps in 4 shifts (39 laps, 46 laps, 35 laps and 35 laps)
Pagenaud - 10h 13m 04s - 166 laps in 4 shifts (36 laps, 48 laps, 37 laps and 45 laps)
Lamy - 2h 02m 18s - 34 laps in a single shift.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Winning at Le Mans

I have spent a good deal of time since the chequered flag fell at the end of the Le Mans 24 hours discussing with various folk about the race. A common thread was beginning to appear. Did Peugeot lose the race, or did Audi win it? Well, I am not really ready to present all my evidence to the court, but it seems to me that although Peugeot may not have capitalised on their position after Audi had lost two cars, the remaining Audi was sufficiently quick that Peugeot couldn't have caught it. It may have been close, but the result, provided that the #2 Audi did not suffer mechanical failure or accident damage had to go the way of the German manufacturer.

Put simply, the Audi was just too fast for Peugeot.

At least, that's the way I see it.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Looking forward to Le Mans

I used this heading for an article that I wrote in March last year, and for a number of reasons, I find myself writing such a piece again. I guess that, one way or another, I am always looking forward to Le Mans. But with my schedule for the journey now set, my anticipation is heightened, and I am truly looking forward to next week.

First of all though, I want to thank those who commented on my previous post about the ACO’s performance adjustments. Although it is not clear to me (at this stage) who the bookie’s favourite for this year’s race would be, it is absolutely apparent that anything but a diesel-engined car winning this year’s twenty-four hours will be a massive surprise and even a major upset. With or without performance adjustments, the petrol-engined cars simply don’t have sufficient pace. To what extent this is due to the regulations, and to what extent it is due to the fact that Audi and Peugeot are spending an awful lot of money (even compared to the eye-watering sums that Pescarolo, Rebellion and even Aston Martin are spending), it is not possible to discern.

However, the issue I have is with the basic philosophy. I wrote a little while ago (here) about the “new era” in which we now live, in which the underlying approach to long-distance racing has undergone a change in recent years. The only strategy required these days is to work out how much fuel and tyres you are going to use and then simply go as fast as your car and drivers will allow you to and hope for the best. (It’s not as simple as that, I know, but bear with me, for the sake of the debate.)

I remember an interview that Stirling Moss gave years ago, in which he expressed his dislike for Le Mans. I forget his exact words, but his feeling was that it wasn’t really a race - it was more a case of going at a sufficiently slow speed that would enable the car to last the distance. The problem, in the fifties, sixties and seventies was to decide how fast you could afford to go, given the likelihood of failures of various components, and then run as close as possible to that pace.

Yes we want a close race, but Le Mans is, in a sense, above such things. It’s a bit like the thousands of people who flock to watch the London Marathon - the interest is not simply in watching the race to see who wins, but in understanding the efforts of every single competitor and joining them in their triumphs and tragedies.

I am part way through Quentin Spurring’s Le Mans book covering the years from 1970 - 1979 (having already finished the one from 1960 - 1969) and jolly good it is too. Q reminds us that in those days, cars were given a “target distance” that they were to complete, based on their performance characteristics. Like today, many were not in with a chance of winning the race overall, but the primary challenge for each team was to finish and to be classified, by achieving the target distance. Position in the overall classification was of secondary importance.

I worry a bit that the ACO is losing sight of this in its bid to ensure parity and equality. The whole point about the Le Mans experience (for those who are there) is that the Event is bigger than the Show. Things were never equal at Le Mans, and in my view, they don't need to be. Le Mans is more than simply a race.

Anyway, I am looking forward to it. I look forward to the journey there, I look forward to meeting up with the various friends that I will see there, and of course I look forward to the race itself. Afterwards, I shall spend some time reflecting, and then suddenly I will start looking forward to next year’s race.

Friday, 20 May 2011

ACO announces Adjustments to Performance for Le Mans

There has been a lot of chatter in recent days, following the publication by the ACO of the Performance Adjustments in advance of the Le Mans 24 hours, for which scrutineering is due to begin in just two weeks time. My sympathies lie with all concerned. First, with the ACO, who is coming under criticism for doing ‘too little, too late’. Second, with the smaller teams who now have very little time to test out different engine mappings and the impact on fuel consumption and tyre wear of running with less weight and more power. And third with the major manufacturers, whose advantage over the rest has (to an extent still to be determined) been diminished.

For the spectators and media though, it can only be good news. The media can now go into a frenzy of claim and counter-claim and the spectators have the prospect of a closer race to witness, with all kinds of possibilities now in prospect for the great race.

The detail of the adjustments can be found elsewhere on the web and if you are savvy enough to get here, then you’ll be able to read the exact changes that have been mandated. I also commend to you the interview (published both in English and French) with Vincent Beaumesnil (sporting manager of the ACO) justifying the adjustments. My purpose here is merely to comment.

First, a defence of the ACO. Article 1.3 of the 2011 Sporting Regulations (first issued in December 2010) was clear enough: the adjustments would be applied to ‘the slower technologies’ and there was no suggestion that the faster cars would be ‘reeled in’. So the idea that the ACO was going to adjust the performance of the diesels to slow them down to the ‘target lap time’ of 3 mins 30 secs was never (in my opinion) an objective for the ACO. I’ll admit that it was their stated objective when the Technical Regulations were written in the first place, but not the objective of the mid-season performance adjustment.

So suggestions that the ACO missed an opportunity to slow down the diesels are, quite simply, wrong.

It was equally obvious therefore that the impact of the performance adjustment would fall on the teams using the slower technologies. So the time to complain was in December and January (or in the many meetings that the ACO held with Le Mans entrants beforehand), not now that the actual adjustments are made known.

The regulations also made clear that only race data would be analysed, and adjustments would only be made after two races had taken place. Sebring and Spa were the first two rounds of the ILMC, but the ACO also had the chance to analyse data from Long Beach (ALMS) and Paul Ricard (LMS), but of course there were no diesel-engined cars at either of these events. Data from practice and qualifying sessions, and the Le Mans Test Day was inadmissible. From looking at the calendar, it was apparent that time would be tight between the data being available to analyse and the outcome of the organiser’s deliberations being made known.

The way I look at it - and for the moment focussing purely on LMP1 cars, the adjustments fall into two categories: firstly the diameter of the refuelling hose (or at least the orifice through which the fuel has to pass) and secondly the engine performance parameters.

The diameter of the refuelling hose obviously has no impact on lap times, but will affect the amount of time spent in the pits refuelling. Now I am no expert at fluid dynamics (I believe the term is rheology), but by reducing the size of the orifice through which the fuel must flow for the diesels by 3mm (to 25mm) and by increasing it for the petrol-powered teams by 10mm (to 38mm), the ACO has made a significant impact, without demanding the teams to make any change to the configuration of the car itself.

By my somewhat rough and ready calculation, the fuel flow rate for the diesels will be roughly half that for petrol-engined cars. In other words, petrol will flow (less viscosity, through a larger restrictor) at a rate of nearly 3 litres per second, but for the diesels at about 1½ litres per second. This will mean that a fuel-only stop will cost a petrol team 25 seconds (depending on how much fuel is left in the tank when the car stops), whereas a diesel car will be at rest for around 50 seconds.

Reassuringly, I did this calculation before reading the interview with Beaumesnil, who also suggested that the difference in refuelling time would be “over 22 seconds, the equivalent of two seconds a lap”. Over the course of 24 hours, this is like giving a diesel car around three and a half laps penalty. If that’s not “reeling in the diesels”, then what is?

The other category of change is the reduced weight / increased air restrictor combination, and this is what leads me to sympathise with the petrol-fuelled privateers. It’s now decision-time. Run at the reduced weight and risk a problem occurring in the race that hasn’t previously been encountered? Maybe the car is not at the weight limit anyway; in which case, the increased restrictor could mean additional engine development costs and changed mappings. But doing nothing is not really an option either - the extra air entering the engine should provide enough horsepower to reduce lap-times by up to a couple of seconds. But would Pescarolo or Rebellion (for example) want to come to Le Mans with a different package from the Test Day without proper testing? It is a real dilemma.

The trouble with all this performance fiddling, is that it makes comparisons difficult. Lap times obviously can’t be compared from last year to this, but nor really can pit stop times. “Time spent in pits” is one of those interesting statistics that I collect. But when I look back at the amount of time spent by cars in the pits over the years, I find myself increasingly comparing apples with pears. In the days of Group C, the fuel fill rate was one litre per second, and the tank (under the first iteration of the regulations), took two minutes to fill. More recently, the nonsense with the restrictions on the number of mechanics changing the tyres has made it meaningless to compare pit stop times with those from the early years of this decade.

This year, however, the fact that fuel is allowed to flow into some cars more quickly than others, will make "time spent in pits" even more irrelevant as a measure of a team's efficiency - although it may well have a bearing on the outcome of the race.

There are other aspects of the adjustments which also bear discussion, such as the reduced weight of the Oreca Peugeot (yes, the one that won at Sebring) and the LMP2 changes (which seem to penalise the slower cars), but I think I will leave those for another occasion.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Le Mans 1981 - personal recollections

In October last year, I posted some recollections of the first race I ever attended, the 1967 Race of Champions. With Le Mans 2011 fast approaching, I thought readers might be interested to read memories of my first trip there to see the fabled Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans in 1981. I was already a keen follower of motor-racing, having attended Grands Prix at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Austria and Monaco, as well as other races at most of the UK’s major circuits. On the endurance front, I first went to the BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch in 1972, and had seen quite a few 1,000kms and six hour races at Brands and Silverstone after that. I was also able to visit the 1,000kms at Monza in 1980 (won by Alain de Cadenet and Desiré Wilson by just a handful of seconds).

I remember that a friend of mine from university, Steve Davison, had suggested a couple of times that we should go to Le Mans together, and finally we agreed to go ahead and do it. At the time I was living and working in Redhill, Surrey, and a work colleague of mine at that time, Malcolm Gimblett, also decided to come along.

So we booked ourselves a ferry (Portsmouth to Le Havre), got some tickets and set off; the three of us, with a tent each, in my Alfasud, heading for the White Panorama campsite. We left in the morning of Wednesday 10th June, with me driving, and Malcolm (who had longer legs) alongside advising on whether it was safe to overtake or not. I felt his indecisiveness and caution were slowing us down, though, so after a stop for fuel, we squashed Malcolm into the back seat, and Steve (who had ‘navigated’ for me on some University-run treasure hunts in the past) took over as co-driver. Most of the road down from Le Havre was quite clear - a couple of helpful locals flashing headlamps to warn of ‘Gendarmes ahead’ - and we made good progress. Even so, night was falling as we sought out the ‘Parking Blanc’ signs, which we reckoned we needed to follow, and finally we found our campsite just after 10pm. The plots were marked, but un-numbered, so we found a good-looking flat-ish plot, parked the car and decided that, as we could hear practice in full flow and the fact that it was due to continue until 11pm, we’d find the track and put the tents up later, despite Malcolm’s warning to us: “do you really think that’s wise?”

As it was so late, the gates were open, so we didn’t have to show our tickets, but simply scrambled up a bank and found ourselves on the outside of the circuit, just past the Dunlop Bridge. It’s one of those memories that has remained clear in my mind ever since. The image of cars having just crested the rise, appearing from underneath that famous bridge and thundering away from us, downhill toward the Esses has not faded. That final half-hour or so of practice; my first encounter with the narcotic that is Le Mans, was truly intoxicating. They were fast - so fast - and they were spectacular - headlights illuminating the way and turbo-chargers flaming out as drivers lifted off the throttle before the Esses. All mighty impressive.

After practice ended, we put the tents up, and on the Thursday morning Steve went off to buy himself an admission ticket. I can’t remember the details now, but I think I had sorted the camping and entrance tickets for Malcolm and me (probably through ‘Just Tickets’), but Steve hadn’t. No worries, we thought, until Steve came back, complaining mildly that he had had to pay rather more than we had for ours. So we compared them and discovered that his was “Enceintes General” and ours “Enceintes Virages”. We went back and established that this meant that Steve could get into the start-finish area in front of the main grandstands, but that Malcolm and I could not. This would only apply for the race itself, though: for practice this evening we would be able to go anywhere.

Lancia MonteCarlo - note token barrier to keep crowd out!

At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that we could get pretty much anywhere we liked during Thursday. The paddock in those days was spread out behind the pits, which were not the sophisticated and well-equipped garages of today. The teams were camped under awnings, where they worked on the cars between practices sessions and the cars had to be pushed round into the pit lane, to sit in front of the pit boxes, at the start of every practice session.

As a result spectators could wander around the transporters, awnings and motorhomes practically at will, and cars could be easily seen as they were being worked on.

We went up onto the top of the pits to watch practice for the support race (Renault 5 Turbos), then through the tunnel to the outside of the circuit to watch final practice (which was from 6pm to 10pm).  

Tiff Needell in the IBEC, entering the pits straight
Then it was down to the funfair, located on the outside of the Esses in those days. Although I had been to funfairs in England before, I wasn’t expecting the sheer size and variety of things on offer at Le Mans. And the range of folk that were there was simply astonishing. It seemed to me that some were there specifically for the funfair, who found the car noise somewhat distracting, others whose high-heels and furs prevented them from leaving the relative safety of the ACO ‘Welcome’ building and still more dedicated race-fans like myself, trying to get the most from every experience.

I was reminded of Epsom Downs on Derby Day (when it used to be on a Wednesday), and the infield of the racecourse was open to everyone, and people turned up in their tens of thousands, not all interested in horse racing, not all honest, but every one contributing to the atmosphere of the event, making it something unique.

On Friday we went exploring into town to buy provisions. We drove round the track, at least as far as you could, we had a beer in the Restaurant des Vint-Quatre Heures, and then we went back and looked around the paddock some more, taking photos.

Derek Bell - can you imagine him allowing himself to be photographed like this nowadays?

Brian Redman
Saturday morning was bright and sunny - in fact the whole weekend was a scorcher. Armed with his ‘posh’ ticket, Steve went off to the grandstand area to watch the startline jollities; Malcolm and I trudged over the Dunlop Bridge and went down to watch the start from the outside of the first part of the Esses - on a well-inclined slope, looking straight at the cars as they descended the hill from the Dunlop Bridge towards the Esses.

Pace lap - Mass ahead of Ickx in the Porsches
We split up soon after the start… I continued to walk up to Tertre Rouge - watching from the inside, then through the tunnel there to the outside of the circuit. This was the first year that a pace car was used to neutralise the race, and I remember several incidents which required its deployment. It was only on Sunday morning, when I bought the newspaper, that I learned of the death of Jean-Louis Lafosse in the Rondeau. And only on the ferry back did I discover that a marshal had also been killed in separate accident earlier in the race. Such was the way of things in those days.

I headed back to the Esses, on the outside of the circuit, ignoring the dubious pleasures of the funfair while there was a race going on, as darkness began to fall.

Around 2am, I must admit to snoozing on the bank on the outside of the circuit, just before Tertre Rouge… it was completely dark and hard to see the numbers on the sides of the cars. I kept my notebook with me though, and had an appointment most hours (on the half-hour) to listen to Bob Constanduros give his English language update over the loudspeakers.

As dawn broke, I decided it was time to visit other parts of the circuit, so started the walk from the Esses, down to the Dunlop curve and out onto the service road behind the grandstands (not forgetting my ‘contre-marque’). Not being allowed into the ‘tribune area’ I continued the walk until the point where holders of the “Virages” ticket were allowed back in. I watched the cars braking for the Ford Chicane and followed the track as far as the spectator enclosure went, in the direction Maison Blanche, which in those days was not very far. Then it was back onto the public road (aware that this used to be the track, before the Porsche Curves were built) all the way to the crossroads (now a roundabout) where the road to Arnage leads off to the right.

This was the road I took, conscious that I was headed away from the track, but plodding on with determined resolution. Over the level crossing, I turned left, following the sign to Virages Arnage and Mulsanne. It took me the best part of three hours, as I remember, and the merguez at Arnage when I finally got there was very welcome indeed. Arnage was wonderful in the morning sunshine - the marshals had a stork in the infield area, I remember.
I found a man selling Le Maine Libre and spent some time sitting on the bank overlooking Arnage corner. This was one of the few places where you could hear the loudspeakers and see the track at the same time, as the cars were off the throttle and not quite so loud. This enabled me to piece together some of what had been happening during the race and to recover after my long walk.

I then felt strong enough to continue my trek around the track, walking up to Indianapolis, then found a path leading into the trees, which seemed to be heading in roughly the direction of Mulsanne Corner.

The path quickly petered out, but the cover of the trees provided a welcome respite from the heat of the day, which was building rapidly. I could see Armco barrier to my left and the flash of cars going past, through the trees, but the forest was too dense to get very close. There were a couple of rolls of barbed wire to hop over, I remember, but a couple of people way ahead of me, who seemed to know where they were going encouraged me to persevere. Then a few houses came into view, and eventually I came out at a large woodshed, and was able to find my way back into a proper spectator enclosure at the exit to Mulsanne corner.

From here I could see the signalling area, and a suddenly gained another fascinating insight into how Le Mans works. One car actually stopped and the driver had an animated conversation with the signallers, before heading off again. Throughout it all, the Porsche 936/81 of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell was running like clockwork and was getting further and further ahead of the opposition.

Bell in the winning Porsche at Tertre Rouge early in the race
I managed to find my way back to Indianapolis on the public road designed for such a journey - which saved me having to stumble over any more tree roots and pine cones, but deprived me of the view of the cars through the trees - and I watched the finish of the race from Arnage. By my watch, the flag marshals started invading the track waving with their flags a minute or two before four o’clock, which by my reckoning meant that the cars were still racing, which didn’t quite seem safe somehow. On the other hand, to watch the drivers respond, slowing down and acknowledging the marshals, stirred the emotions in a way that I wasn’t expecting. The sheer fatigue, shared by everyone, provided a huge sense of achievement. It brought a new angle to the meaning of “endurance”, more than just the achievement of winning the race, or a class, but just being there at the end, that even today I find difficult to put into words. As the cars passed on their final lap, the public was able to come onto the track as well, which gave me an ideal opportunity to walk back to the start-finish area on the track (a mere 4 kms), rather than going the long way round. Then it was back to the campsite, and I’m sure we must have gone out for a meal somewhere, but I remember only getting very grumpy with Malcolm and Steve. Not their fault, more the fact that I was unused to dealing with sleep deprivation.

We drove back to Le Havre on Monday, taking a night ferry back and arriving in Portsmouth on Tuesday morning. And to start making plans to revisit in 1982.

(All photos copyright from my private collection)