Monday, 28 March 2011

Looking back, looking forward: a new era for long-distance racing?

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow", goes the saying, and whilst it is true that oak trees do not grow overnight, so it is equally true that some of my ideas grow over a period of time. One such is that we are moving, or perhaps that we have moved, into a significant new era for long-distance sportscar racing.

I have covered some of this ground before, but in the hope that I am not banging the same old drum, I am putting a different slant on this essay.

The transition to the new era probably started around the turn of the millennium, when reliability in long-distance races became less and less of an issue. Understanding of the ‘life’ of components improved, and it became a realistic anticipation for a car to run without a problem for twenty-four hours, especially if your car was one of a multi-car team. In the eighties and nineties, teams often hoped for trouble-free runs, but rarely was it achieved. Often it was a case of throwing a large number of team cars into the race, in the hope that one of them would reach the finish. That was certainly Tom Walkinshaw’s successful approach in the days of the Silk Cut Jaguars, and Nissan and later Toyota tried similar tactics in the 1990’s without success.

As the new millennium dawned though, that hope became something more of a realistic expectation as Audi first drastically improved repair times, and then increased reliability to where component failure was unexpected, rather than inevitable. The contrast between “fast but fragile” and “steady and reliable” became less distinct.

During the same period, race organisers tended to concentrate more on structuring regulations to ensure greater equality of performance across the entry. If a car looked to be in a position to dominate, its technology would be handicapped.

So there is a tendency nowadays - and Sebring was a very good example of it - to get a number of cars running very reliably and at the same speed. Then the only way to make a break and get a decent margin ahead is to pull a smart - or lucky - pit stop move during a caution period and hope that it then doesn’t backfire on you and leave you having to make an extra stop later in the race.

And if you do fall behind, through mechanical misfortune, on-track incident or pit-stop fumble, it has become unlikely that you’ll be able to recover the lost ground.

This brings a different philosophy to the whole approach to long-distance racing, in my opinion, and those who have not recognised the arrival of this new era are destined to be regarded as old-fashioned, rather than wise. The new generation may look at their elders with kindness and respect (I hope), but will not understand the way things were in the fifties, sixties and seventies sportscar racing.

I believe Sebring, Le Mans, Road Atlanta, etc. are now tests of concentration, rather than endurance. And I leave as an exercise for the reader to discuss the difference.

Is it the case that today’s Le Mans prototypes have been so restricted that the skill of the driver is less important? I think it might be. When you look at the relative times of different drivers in the same car these days, it is often the case that they are closely matched. I suspect that you could take many of the ‘platinum’ graded drivers, put them in a top-class car, and you would find them within a few tenths of each other. Today’s prototypes are not the highly-strung, finely balanced thoroughbreds that their predecessors were. As a result, their drivers do not need the same delicate touch and finesse.

On the other hand, it might well be argued that the close racing of the new era provides a great spectacle and draws in the crowds, not only at the circuits but also on television. And if that is the case, then surely sponsorship money will be quick to follow, more teams will be drawn in and the quality of the show will improve still further. A virtuous circle indeed.

So do not imagine that I am suggesting that the new era is necessarily a bad thing - my intention is merely to highlight that it has happened. I wonder if Twenty20 cricket will one day surpass the Test Match in its importance?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Grand Prix: The Killer Years

It has come to my notice that the latest of John Matthews’ films is being aired this Sunday evening on BBC4 at 9pm (don’t forget that the clocks go forward this weekend as well).

Regular readers will recognise John as the producer of “Deadliest Crash”, which was reviewed on this blog a while back.

Matthews' latest film is called “Grand Prix: The Killer Years” and tells the story of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when it was common for Grand Prix drivers to be killed racing, often televised for millions to see. Mechanical failure, lethal track design, fire and incompetence snuffed out dozens of young drivers. It was the most lethal period of Grand Prix history.

The film features Sir Jackie Stewart OBE, Emerson Fittipaldi and John Surtees OBE, and explores how Grand Prix drivers grew sick of their closest friends being killed and finally took control of their destiny.

It is probably not a film to enjoy, but one that should be watched, nevertheless.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Sebring coverage on

I'm sure people who read this will have noticed already, but DSC's Sebring coverage is free to all to view.

And tomorrow, you should see my reflections there on the "Four Hours of Sebring".


And if time permits, I might look at the GT classes at some point too.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Sebring prospects

The Sebring 12 hours, the first round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, is coming up this weekend, and I reflected on dailysportscar a few weeks ago on the prospects for the race and the season ahead. Gary Horrocks has now provided an excellent preview ‘over there’, which I commend to you (if you haven’t already read it). For what it’s worth though, here’s my take on the prospects for this year’s 12 hour marathon over the bumps and through the traffic in the Florida sunshine.

Sadly, I won’t be there to witness it at first hand. Somehow events always seem to contrive against me getting there, and once again I shall miss it. At least the second half of the race takes place after bedtime here in the UK, so I shall try and catch some of it while the rest of the family sleeps.

The weather forecast in Florida is good: (it says here) dry and sunny, temperatures in the eighties (nudging 30 degrees Celsius), which may put air-conditioning units under strain.

In the battle for overall victory are two pukka 2011-specification Peugeot 908 cars up against two 2010 Audi R15 (“plus minus”) and a 2010 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you are already up to speed with the regulations, but just in case, here’s a distillation.

For 2011, engine capacity for the turbo-diesels is reduced to 3.7 litres. As Audi’s new R18 is not racing at Sebring, the team will be using last year’s car, the R15, which has a 5.5 litre V10 engine as permitted by 2010 regulations. The ACO has vowed “to maintain a slight advantage to cars in compliance with 2011 regulations” at the expense of those running to the 2010 regulations, such as the Audi R15, which will be handicapped as follows:
  • the diameter of the two restrictors, through which the engine draws its air, is reduced, by four millimetres, from 37.5mm to 33.5mm
  • maximum turbo boost pressure is also reduced by 23% from just over 2.5 to less than 2 atmospheres
  • the fuel tank size is reduced from 81 to 65 litres
  • the fuel flow during refuelling is also reduced - the restrictor through which the fuel must flow into the tank is reduced from 33 to 28mm
(Bear in mind that the fuel tank regulations apply for all diesels, not just the 2010 cars. This reduction is from last year to this.)

Now I’m no engineer, but it seems to me that getting this balance right is a veritable minefield. What if it’s not right? How much is a “slight” advantage? Look at the possible outcomes:
  1. The handicap is not enough and the strangulated Audi R15 with its big V10 is still quicker than the Peugeot. Even if the Audi is pitting more often for fuel, the Peugeot will not be able to catch up. Audi wins, but as the R15 is not entered for Le Mans, no-one cares.
  2. The handicap is too much and the new Peugeots sail away into the distance. Audi achieves its team-building exercise, Peugeot enjoys the benefits of race-testing and gets lots of good publicity, but no-one really cares, because there was no excitement in the race and it is Le Mans that counts… Peugeot won Sebring in 2010, after all, in the absence of competition from Audi.
  3. Audi and Peugeot are extremely well-matched, producing a fantastic battle for the lead throughout the 12 hours. Allan McNish puts in a superb final stint and steals the victory from Anthony Davidson, who trips over a slower car in the last minutes of the race (just suppose). Peugeot complains bitterly to the ACO that the regulations guaranteed them an advantage and lodge a protest.
Of course, Peugeot has a 2010-spec car as well, entered by ORECA, which will be there to battle (it hopes) with the Audis in the first (and possibly third) scenario I describe above.

For everyone’s sakes, I just hope that it all falls out well, that the race serves the series well and adds to Sebring’s reputation… and that circumstances permit me to be there next year…

I don’t mean to ignore the rest of the 56-car entry, although there are elements (in particular the LMPC and GTC classes) which contribute very little and which I hope stay out of the way.

But I shall be paying close attention to the progress of the Rebellion Lola with its Toyota engine, to the Honda-powered Highcroft HPD and to the Mazda-engined Dyson Lola. I suspect that their supply chains will be fairly independent of the tragedy that is unfolding in Japan but I hope that those who are affected do not lose sight of their priorities.

Cytosport's 2010 Aston Martin and Oak Racing's Pescarolos might provide an indication of how successfully the petrol / diesel equivalence has been adjusted for this year, but my suspicion is that not much will be apparent until the debut of Prodrive's AMR-ONE at Paul Ricard next month.

I am hoping that the LMP2s prove reliable - there aren’t really enough of them to sustain any serious level of attrition.

And no doubt there will be a right dust-up in the GT class, with Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche guaranteed to be well-matched, BMW hoping that the lessons of 2010 have been learnt and that the M3s are able mix it with the class leaders, to say nothing of the variety provided by Jaguar, Lamborghini and the Ford GTs.

I can see a late night in prospect on Saturday night!