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 GĂ©rard 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.