Sunday, 27 February 2011

Getting older...

Those of my readers who know me, will know that I am not in my first flush of youth. I’ll make no bones about it: I’m in my fifties: Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister when I was born. And, although I started relatively late to have a family, my daughter becomes a teenager next month. As she grows up, so she shows me a different outlook on the world, just as I probably did with my parents before me.

As the years go by, I can’t avoid noticing the speed and inevitability with which change happens. And I find that, increasingly, my thoughts for this blog are around the way that “things ain’t what they used to be”.

So I was just getting ready to have a pop at ‘green’ technologies: electric car racing, bio-diesel, bio-ethanol, and so on and so forth. I was preparing a case to suggest that motor racing should be about going as fast as you can, whether in a straight line or around the corners, no matter what the cost in financial or planetary terms. Eco-friendly cars always seem to me to be a bit wacky and unrealistic. With innovative thinking so restricted in so many racing categories, I suppose I should applaud these initiatives, and I had to sit up and take notice when the hybrid Porsche nearly won the Nürburgring 24 hours last year. The trouble is that you never really know how much the regulations get tilted in favour of these things though. Look at the diesel sportscars from Audi and Peugeot: they do not compete on a level playing field with their petrol-powered brethren at Le Mans, do they?

There’s something about the ‘green movement’ of today that makes me slightly uncomfortable, I find. It’s a bit like that charity collector that you just know is going to try and engage you in a discussion. You know you ought to help, but, well, not me, not now. And there’s a tendency for the adjective ‘green’ to edge towards the word ‘alternative’, and that in turn can easily become ‘anti-establishment’ and it is that which I am most uneasy about. Those signs in hotel bathrooms encouraging me to use my towels again have an air of the rebel, the ‘left-wing extremist’ about them.

So, yes, I’m old; and yes, I’m getting out of breath trying to keep up with technology. But then Matt James wrote in Motorsport News last week about noise, and that got me thinking a bit more deeply. We live in an age of change. Nothing new with that of course, as human beings we have always changed things. It is not in our nature to leave things as they are – part of the reason that we have evolved as far as we have is that we make changes to everything, evaluate how that change looks, and hence make progress.

I may be being perverse, but I think that we have to accept that some racing cars are now quite quiet; just as we accept that fossil fuels will not last forever and that alternative means of powering our transport need to be found.

The future belongs to my children, not to me and it will be the future world that they have to live in, not the world that I grew up in. Looking back is useful, learning from the past is essential, but thinking that the times will not change is futile. Not to learn from history is to be condemned to repeat it.

Noise is no more an essential part of motor racing than petrol is. Have you ever seen a peregrine falcon at top speed? Speed and silence can go together, and mighty spectacular it is too!

Friday, 4 February 2011

Daytona Rumblings

I have fond memories of Daytona, having first visited in 1990, as the guest of the BBC’s Andy Smith, to witness the TWR Jaguars overcome all kinds of drama to win. The morning after the race, Andy managed to fix an interview with Walkinshaw himself, and I shall never forget his first question to Tom: “that, Tom, was presumably not Plan A.” It was a great way to get him to open up, and having seen the momentous events at Le Mans eighteen months earlier, enabled me to get a better insight into the man and the way he ran his team. I’m not sure that his later exploits endeared him to me as much, but a great man, nevertheless.

I returned to Daytona the following year, and saw the last hurrah for the Joest Porsche 962 and again in 1992 to see the long-awaited 24-hour triumph for Don Devendorf’s Electramotive Nissan driven by Mashiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki – probably Japan’s greatest day in endurance racing, eclipsing Mazda’s win at Le Mans in 1991 and Masanori Sekiya’s win in 1995.

The timing of the 24 hours, at the start of the so-called Daytona SpeedWeeks in early February, and the location, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, made for a very pleasant break – either from New Jersey’s lingering winter (where I was at that time living) or from the dreary post-Christmas UK. In 1993 I returned again to Daytona, this time to see the ‘500’ – the climax of SpeedWeeks and a very different atmosphere, won by Dale Jarrett.

Although I’ve been to Florida several times since, the last time I visited ‘the World Center of Racing’ was in 1996, once more for the 24 hours, to see a win for the Oldsmobile-engined Riley & Scott Mk III in the hands of Wayne Taylor, Scott Speed and Jim Pace. Fifteen years is a long time, and towards the end of last year, there was a glimmer of hope that I might be invited back to the Rolex-sponsored event this year (in what capacity, I knew not, but the location and the time of year were very enticing).

So I felt a tinge of disappointment as the invitation came to nothing, and I consoled myself by taking my wife to see 'The King’s Speech' instead. On Sunday evening, I checked the results of Daytona, mainly to see how Brundle / Blundell had got on in the United Autosports entry, but with little other interest, I have to admit.

A few hours later, an email arrived from János Wimpffen, author of ‘Time and Two Seats’, collector of statistics and long-time sports car enthusiast. In it, he suggested that: “the cars are so narrowly drawn that … there is no technical, tactical, or even driving advantage. It’s all about show, nothing about finesse or technology. To call this a 24 hour race is a sham.” He finished with: “I love 24 Hour races and attend all those that are likely to be of quality. I've intentionally missed this one for several years and have missed nothing.”

Then I read Mark Cole’s piece on this week, and he was quite clearly enthralled. Having commentated on many 24 hour races, I know whereof he speaks though: having an action-packed race makes the commentating so much easier. But commentating on a Caterham race, which normally provides lots of overtaking, is much easier than commentating on a Formula 3 race, which will provide one overtaking move in the entire race if you’re lucky. This does not make Caterham racing more worthy than Formula 3, nor does it make the drivers concerned any better: it merely makes the task of finding something to say easier.

Matt James was at Daytona too, writing for Motorsport News, and described the race as “a truly epic spectacle,… tense, competitive, clean and spellbinding”. His problem was not filling the airwaves with the spoken word, but condensing all the race incidents into a double-page spread.

The fact that the Daytona 24 hour race provides wall-to-wall entertainment does not automatically make it worthy. It used to be the case that the race was held in the same high regard as the Le Mans 24 hours. Nowadays it is the Sebring 12-hours that is used as the barometer of form for Le Mans, and Daytona, with its specification prototypes is in quite a different ballpark. The philosophy, the very core of Le Mans Prototypes is different from the Daytona variety, and I am afraid that I side with János in believing that the DP’s just don’t cut it, although without question they are cheaper.

To go back to my email exchange with János; he brought up Umberto Eco’s concept of hyper-reality, a state manufactured, he said, “by companies to control markets, tastes and experiences”. And Eco’s examples quoted by János were of McDonalds and DisneyWorld. (Jim France might be honoured to be compared to such corporate power-houses, but no matter.)

János said: “Whether you go to a McDonalds in Cleveland or Nairobi, the food and ambience is identical. It's not great and it's not terrible, but it is entirely predictable. There is no challenge to it. Whereas if you go to a ma & pa diner in either city the food could be the best meal you've had or the worst. Same with going to Disney World. You will have a precisely measured amount of entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Whereas if you went to the Himalayas, Amazon, or the Paris Metro, you could have a really fun and interesting time or you may die”.

I understood what he was driving at, but gave him my own version. I wrote back:

“Here's another 'mind picture' for you. Would anyone come to see a running race between me and Usain Bolt? Well, yes they would, because Bolt is a celebrity, and the fastest man on the planet. But after a few races, interest would wane. So what about we tie his legs together and make him carry a 200lb lump of lead in a rucksack? How about we get Keira Knightly to compete in a 3-way race (wearing her heels)? Slowly, you convert a pure race into pure entertainment.”

These are extreme points of view, but illustrate the problem facing both the ACO and Grand-Am as they strive to balance the purity of the sport with its entertainment value. What is important for both organisations to bear in mind as they do so, is that the reputations of their events can change. Don’t ignore the fact that drivers such as Le Mans winners Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell and Hurley Haywood, Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya, multiple NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and several former Formula 1 drivers all chose to take part. There is an increasing depth of quality in the driver entry at Daytona: a fact that should not be ignored.

The thing that worries me is that 'popular' does not usually imply 'quality'. The labels on the meats at my local butcher are a good example. In my recent conversation with Wolfgang Ullrich (to be released as soon as Audi has approved it) he often used words like 'prestige' and 'pinnacle'. I don't think that anyone would suggest that the current fad for reality TV shows represents the 'pinnacle' of television broadcast quality, although they are undoubtedly very popular.

Pandering to the shrill cries of the masses may win you support in the short term, but to be truly influential you must strive for excellence: in whatever field you choose to operate.

Let me know what you think. Leave me a comment below.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Audi's Sebring Test

Allan McNish took part in Audi's recent test session at Sebring, Florida.

Here's what he said afterwards:

“The test was conducted over four days and I have to say was quite important for us for the development of the car, not just because of the endurance side but because of performance as well.

“I got more mileage in the R18 and also did some set up work for the R15 for the race in Sebring. The R18 itself is coming along quite well and I think by the time we get to Le Mans test day we’ll have got a handle on what makes this particular car tick.”

There were three cars at the test session, two R18s and one R15 Allan, along with Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, Mike Rockenfeller, Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer all drove all three cars over the course of the test.

Le Mans Test Day is on April 24th, Easter Sunday, when I shall be on an aeroplane flying back from our family holiday in Tuscany. The 12 hours of Sebring is on March 19th.