Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Looking ahead on

Graham Goodwin has today posted my latest "Comment" article on You will have to go there, if you are a subscriber, in order to read it. If you are not a subscriber, then I suggest you do subscribe. It is no money in my pocket whether you do or whether you don't, but as the article in question took me quite a long time to write, I felt that it would compromise them if I simply posted it here.

In any case, much of it is merely a re-hash of what I wrote here on January 5th, although having re-read that piece, I see that my thinking has moved on a bit. Much has this has been due to talking to various people, or having email exchanges with them. Some have not replied to my emails, but others have - some willing to be quoted, others not. I will respect those wishes, by not mentioning anyone, then even the smarter ones among you will not be able to work anything out by a process of elimination.

However, one manufacturer should be singled out - Audi. Yes, I know I have a 'special relationship' with Audi - Audi UK has been very supportive of Radio Le Mans in general and of me in particular over recent years - but it is not all one way. I had an Audi 80 2.8i as a company car from 1992 until 1995, when it was stolen from a side street where I had left it overnight in Camberwell (not going there again). Then I bought a second hand, R-reg A4 Avant 2.4 (V6 petrol engine) in 2001, which I kept until 2009, when I bought the brand new S4 Avant that is my current means of transport. So I freely admit that I am a fan, regardless of their success at Le Mans. Maybe it is subliminal advertising,... but I digress.

The reason for the special mention of Audi in this context was that, having sent their PR man in the UK an email full of questions, I was offered the chance of a telephone interview with Dr Wolfgang Ullrich - Audi's Head of Motorsport. So of course I accepted, and at the appointed time, (to the minute) my phone rang, a very polite lady introduced herself, asked me if I was ready to speak to Dr Ullrich, and put me through. I then had twenty-five minutes in which one of the key individuals in Audi's motorsporting success in the last decade (and more) gave me his total attention. I felt very privileged.

I have not quoted him directly in the dailysportscar article, but did use some of the wisdom that he imparted in order both to ensure the accuracy of my facts and to colour my opinions.

In the next few days, I will try and compose my notes from that conversation into a piece that I shall then publish either here or on dailysportscar, I have yet to decide... but I am open to persuasion.

Postscript - and very parenthetically:
Deep down, I actually like Alfa Romeos quite a lot too, having owned two of them in the past. But the passion exhibited by some of my journalistic colleagues was straying into obsession, so I quietly buried my enthusiasm, changed jobs, got a company car (in those days the rule was "Vauxhall only"), and I have to admit that I haven't driven one for simply ages.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Snetterton - photos...

Last week I promised to post some pictures of Snetterton as it was... I guarantee you won't have seen this anywhere else on the net. Enjoy!

 Lanfranchi to Cleland, Willhire, 1987

Victory rostrum, Willhire 1987.

British Touring Cars... 1991 (I think)

 Alfas in paddock assembly area...

Friday, 14 January 2011

Last night's dinner

With thanks to Martyn Pass at Audi UK for providing the venue and the opportunity, Allan McNish hosted an informal dinner last night, and talked on a wide range of subjects. Chipper as ever, and exuding the knowledge and confidence that goes with his experience, here is a selection of quotes from the evening.

On Le Mans: “I never said I liked it. It’s a love-hate thing. After we went out in 2007 I felt like a never ever wanted to go back to the place. But that feeling is short, it doesn’t last long.”

“The track is good. But it's more than that. It’s interesting because it is constantly evolving, it like a living thing. There was one year when a tree root was growing up into the track between Mulsanne and Indianapolis, making a massive bump, and they shaved it off, flattened it out between Wednesday night and Thursday qualifying.”

“And there is always change on safety grounds; there has to be: moving kerbs, resurfacing, etc.”

“The history and character of Le Mans is a big part of it. It’s a race that you only get one chance a year to win, so yes, it is hard when you don’t get the breaks.”

“At Le Mans in 1997 there were three Portuguese drivers racing for Roock Racing [Roock was the team that Allan was driving for that year and the Portuguese team consisted of Manuel, Tomaz and Pedro Mello-Bryner - PT]. They came third in GT2 and at the end they were all crying in the garage because they were so happy with the result. Before that, I had always been totally focussed on winning, coming third would have meant nothing to me, but it made me realise about the culture of Le Mans; what it is all about, and how important it is as an event.”

Le Mans 2010: “That was strange, because when Tom [Kristensen] had the problem with Andy [Priaulx, who inadvertently made contact with the Audi when driving slowly back to the pits], I wasn’t thinking: ‘that’s the race win gone’, I was thinking ‘that’s fourth place gone’. I honestly thought that the best we could hope for was fourth place. I thought we could beat one of the Peugeots; that was our best realistic chance. So I wasn’t so disappointed when that happened. Up till then at Le Mans, I was always in a position to win - I would either be on the podium or be out of the race. We weren’t used to struggling for pace. I don’t want to be in that position again.”

Gentleman drivers: “They’re not a problem at Le Mans, it’s worse at Sebring and at Petit [Road Atlanta]. It’s good that the ACO are prohibiting Gentleman drivers from LMP1 cars though. You need to be aware of what’s going on around you all the time.”

“The biggest problem at Le Mans is the number of people in the pitlane. And for a lot of them, it is their first time there. Or at best, they only go once a year.”

On new regulations: “The new engines aren’t very powerful. Racing drivers always want more power. I don’t know how much bhp we’ve got, but it’s not enough. We’ll get used to it right enough, but it will be a different driving experience. We'll have to see how the car behaves.

“I drove the new car (the R18) in November, but we will use the R15+ at Sebring, and then the R18 will have its debut at Spa, with three cars there and at Le Mans.” [Interestingly, this might prevent the ACO from applying any balance of performance after Spa.]

On closed cars: “You obviously can’t see as much, because of the pillars and things, but don’t forget I drove the Toyota GT-One at Le Mans as well, and that had to comply with road car regulations, so had bigger windscreen, wider A pillars and suchlike. The biggest difference is the wind noise, which disappears, and you can hear the engine noise, because it kinda reverberates around the cockpit.”

On hybrid technology: “At Petit, I was coming up on the inside of the Hybrid Porsche, and I couldn’t believe the acceleration it had. Amazing!”

Thursday, 13 January 2011


I was happy to read in Motorsport News this week that work on the proposed changes at Snetterton are going ahead – and it would seem, are on schedule. The Norfolk track has a special place in my heart, for while I would not pretend to deserve Norman Greenway’s title of “the voice of Snetterton”, I was pretty much a fixture in the commentary box from 1986 until 1990.

Arguably, the place always lived somewhat in the shadow of its more illustrious brothers in the MCD conglomerate, then run by John Webb, whose focus was more firmly on Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. Although I first visited Snetterton in 1977, back in the sixties, Formula One races were held at Snetterton. While Brands had its Race of Champions, and Oulton its Gold Cup, Snetterton didn’t really have a talisman event. But it did have the Norwich Straight in those days, and at 2.7 miles long, represented as much of a high-speed challenge as Silverstone.

In the mid-eighties, however, after ‘Motorsport Norm’ had retired, I found at Snetterton a real family. Regardless of the organising club, the circuit staff always seemed to be the same, and I was welcomed by one and all.

Over the years, various proposals have been raised for Snetterton, various track re-vamps have been considered, as have suggestions to build a housing estate on the site. Each time, the proposals came to nothing, and although small changes have taken place (including the emasculation, probably correctly, on safety grounds of the Russell chicane and a rebuilt pit complex), Snetterton remained fundamentally the same.

So the news that work is underway (and the photographic evidence) is just great. And with Jonathan Palmer at the helm, one can realistically expect a successful project. It has to be said that Palmer and his MotorSport Vision organisation has done a great job for British motorsport. Wouldn’t the Autosport International exhibition be a good place to recognise his achievements?

A few highlights of memories from Snetterton:

  • Willhire 24 hour races in the late eighties and into the early nineties, including the longest race on which I have ever commentated, the Willhire 25 hours in 1989, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the event sponsor.
  • A ride on a microlight, commentating into a tape recorder during qualifying for the Willhire in 1987.
  • Commentating live from a helicopter during the opening laps of the 1988 Willhire.
  • Allan McNish’s debut in 1987 (on the subject of whom, I am supposed to be seeing him at an informal Audi dinner this evening, so stand by for news of that).
  • Hitching a ride back to Biggin Hill in MCD’s twin engined Cessna - taking off along the Revett Straight at the end of the race meeting.
  • Chatting with Ronald Leigh Hunt (the actor who played David Townsend - John Wyer’s persona – in the ‘Le Mans’ film) about Steve McQueen, who had died a few years previously.
  • Staying in various well-meaning but mostly dreadful guest houses in Thetford and Attleborough

With suitable encouragement, I might even expand on some of these, but my day job is calling right now!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Happy New Year to all my readers...

Well, dear reader (if I have any readers, that is), we are now in 2011, and that surely must be sufficient of a reason for another entry in this little Blog of mine.

And to my loyal (if occasional reader) I wish a very prosperous New Year. But also I must offer an apology for not being as prolific a writer as I would like to be. As an excuse, I can only offer that I got laid out by a bout of flu just before Christmas, and then spent a much longer time recovering that I wanted to. But in any case, I have been lacking inspiration, and despite several aborted starts, did not find that any of my attempts passed my own (admittedly somewhat lax) standards for publication.

But hang it all, who cares? This is largely for my own benefit anyway. And I would dearly love for someone, just once, to write me a comment. Please? At least give me the feeling that I have a readership!

Anyway, enough waffle. Down to business. This is the time of year when reviews of the past season are published, and prospects for the coming season discussed. So I shall not be very different. Over the past twelve months, and, from the looks of things, the coming twelve months, sportscar racing can be divided into two camps.

I might be being unfair, but I find that the division comes down pretty much in organisational terms. On the one hand, is Stephane Ratel and the various GT championships, and on the other is the ACO and the various categories carrying the Le Mans tag.

Now at my age, cynicism is an occupational hazard, but I find it impossible to swallow every press release from either the ACO or the SRO without a pinch of salt. I felt a bit sorry for Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels when I saw the pictures of the FIA Gala presentations in Monte Carlo. There they were, standing alongside two very scruffy world champions, in the shape of Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Loeb, having received their trophies for the FIA GT1 World Championship from Jean Todt, and yet I had to ask myself who really cared that they were there. Who would have got up at three in the morning to watch the final round of their championship? Particularly given the nature of the spectacular St Luis circuit in Argentina? I have added it to the list of circuits I ‘must visit’, but whether in hope or anticipation, I am not sure. I am sure though that I am not alone in thinking that people care much more about the outcome of the 24 hours at Le Mans than Ratel’s funny little championship, even if it has the cachet of a world title. An FIA World Championship does not necessarily bring with it gravitas though. And even if the ‘man in the street’ couldn’t name a single driver of the three who won this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, both Vettel and Loeb are practically household names and as such deserve the FIA accolade.

Despite Ratel’s efforts though, despite the fact that the FIA GT1 championship visits some great circuits, despite the fact that the cars look and sound terrific, I still can’t take it seriously as a proper sportscar world championship. And in 2011, it will all happen again, building on the success of 2010, according to the press release, visiting a new circuit in China, to further warrant the “World” billing. But who’s going to participate? I get the impression that it might fall before it even gets going. Ratel’s biggest problem, it seems to me, has been to fail to win the hearts and minds of the competitors in a way that they are beating a pathway to his door. The lessons of the premature death of last years GT2 championship do not seem to have been learned.

Then there’s the FIA European GT3 championship, which will extend itself into Russia for 2011. But again, it seems dependent on the participation of certain factions who will pander to Ratel’s ego, and I am sure that there are many, like me, who do not really go for the sprint formats.

So I was quite interested to read of the Blancpain Endurance Championship for GT3 and GT4 cars. The Spa 24 hour race is a classic, which will in 2011 be part of this championship. The rest of the series will comprise of three hour races, and I must confess, it holds a certain appeal for me, as a spectator. Time will tell whether it succeeds, but many of the ingredients for success seem to be in place.

One of the things that comes with the passing of the winter solstice, is the publication of the regulations for the coming year’s 24 hours race of Le Mans. And this year, a number of significant changes have taken place. The most compelling of these, I found was the way – I almost want to say ‘the insidious way’ – that the ACO is proliferating its regulations across many areas that it previously left well alone. Whereas in the past, the ACO has held to Le Mans as its holy grail, and the FIA has veered towards and away from the French classic as its politics has driven it, so today, the FIA is leaving well enough alone, and the ACO is now filling the vacuum that is left and providing a series for everyone. At least for everyone who wants to play. With the arrival of the Intercontinental Le Mans Series as the principal series of interest for those wishing to compete more than simply at the 24 hour classic at Le Mans, the American Le Mans Series and the European-based Le Mans Series races are now left with an uncertain position in the world-class racing hierarchy. And then there are two Asian Le Mans Series pencilled into the 2011 calendar as well.

On one hand, a co-ordinated approach must be a good thing, but on the other, the way that the series overlap one another is as confusing as anything that the sportscar world has ever dreamt up. And those with long memories will remember how confusing the various categories and championships of sport car and endurance racing have been over the years.

Despite my concerns for a world endurance series (is it a championship? is it a cup?) run by the ACO without the FIA’s blessing, I am optimistic for 2011 though. And I haven’t even mentioned Grand-Am, Dutch Supercar, Japanese SuperGT, VdeV or the British GT Championship, all of which have their individual strengths.

Finally though, a thought of a possibly unintended consequence. One of the overriding themes of the ACO regulations is the need to increase lap times for LMP1 cars to the ‘magic’ 3min 30secs, by reducing engine power. In consequence, the other classes also have to make do with less power this year. At the same time, the desire is clearly there to improve efficiency, in terms of fuel consumption, tyre wear, etc. But despite increasing numbers of very competent drivers, the ACO still wants to have (indeed, by insisting on ‘bronze’ level drivers in GTE-Am, will encourage) some drivers who, by definition, are not as skilled as their counterparts on the track. If you’re going to reduce power, then improved lap times are going to come through increasing cornering speeds. My concern is that this will lead to some difficult moments at Le Mans, and possibly more ‘Anthony Davidson’ moments, especially as Le Mans increasingly features sequences of high-speed corners where commitment is all-important.

In general, the aims of the regulations are exemplary, and it may well be that my concern is ill-founded – in the past few years driving standards at Le Mans have been extremely high – and I am particularly looking forward to how the diesels fare against the petrol-engined cars, and to see how the ACO manages to manipulate the regulations mid-season (importantly pre-Le Mans) to ensure parity between cars using different fuel types. What will Peugeot do? A fascinating season in prospect – I’m looking forward to it!