Sunday, 26 February 2012


I was having a bit of a spring clean recently, and in the course of re-organising my book-shelves, I came across a copy of Anthony Pritchard’s 'The Motor Racing Year No. 3'. Sadly the cover has come under attack from some paper-eating animal, but the pages are still intact, and I was drawn to Part 2 - The Sports Car Year. It is fascinating looking back, and I wondered what might be learned from examining the state of sports car racing forty years or so ago and comparing it to the state we are in today. That there was a (World) Sports Car Manufacturers’ Championship was not remarked upon, nor was the fact that it took place over eleven rounds in which Le Mans was round nine, and the final race of the season was before the end of July. Different days indeed.

However, Spa, Le Mans and Sebring were all on the championship trail, all venues steeped in sports car racing history. There is something very reassuring about consistency of this nature - it makes you feel that the subject of your interest is more worthy, more honourable, in a way. It reminded me of Andrew Marr's recent documentary about "The Diamond Queen", in which we are told of the Queen's constant presence over the last sixty years: despite all the changes in the social and political background, the monarchy has always been there and somehow one thinks it will always be there.

Not like sports car racing. Or is it? I found particularly fascinating the doom-laden tone of much of the text of the time. Take this, the introduction to chapter 6: “The 1971 season was not exceptional by any standard, as one vital ingredient for exciting motor racing was lacking, the absence at most races of any serious opposition to the overwhelming Porsche onslaught.” Audi’s approach to 2012 may not be such an onslaught, but it struck me as ironic that, forty years later, there are strong parallels.

That's the beauty of looking back - as any student of history will confirm; you find uncanny similarities with the past, as well as unexpected and unpredictable contrasts.

Then there is the review of the Le Mans 24 hours race itself: “Le Mans has degenerated into a long, tedious marathon of attrition, with most of the faster cars retiring and with very little interest or drama except in the first few hours.” Pritchard continues: “The 1971 race attracted the worst entry for many years,” but goes on to assert that the ACO had seventy-four entries from which to pick the fifty-five starters. Seems strong enough a level of support to me, but there seemed little space for optimism in 1971. Is that true in 2012?

In 1971, Motor Sport's DSJ wasn't even at Le Mans, covering instead a non-championship Formula One race at Hockenheim. The 24 hour race was reported for Motor Sport by Andrew Marriott, who wrote:
"Undoubtedly, Le Mans has lost much of its old magic and in this, the last year of the present 5-litre cars, there were few high spots as the most famous of all sports car races played itself out.

Don't you just love the closely packed text?

"The 1971 Le Mans 24-Hours will go down as one of the less memorable races for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the main one was that, with a couple of minor exceptions, there were no really new models in the race.

"Yes, the Le Mans magic has faded, and several of the old faces were missing including MOTOR SPORT's Continental Correspondent who was giving the race a miss for the first time in almost twenty years."

The zenith of Group C is far in the future, the complete disappearance of a world championship in the 1990's unimaginable, and yet, here we are, approaching the eightieth running of the great race with its popularity intact and probably, if anything, on the increase.

In his Continental Notes in MOTOR SPORT's July, 1971 edition, however, Denis Jenkinson did suggest, that with the introduction of the 3-litre formula for sports cars, scheduled for 1972, an era could be envisaged in which Grand Prix and Sports car racing would be able to converge: "Could we possibly be entering on a new phase of equality between Grand Prix and Sports Cars where the best of both worlds are combined into a one-type racing scene, with the scrapping of the Drivers' World Championship and the Manufacturers' Campionship, and the introduction of an overall Racing Championship for the best team (and/or driver) in motor racing."

Hardly. And now Formula 1, as Grand Prix racing seems to have become known, is further from any other form of the sport than even Jenks can have expected. But Sports Car racing still fills an important niche, with the ACO particularly willing to encourage and embrace new technologies with relevance to road car development.

Just as today, the 1970's were full of economic uncertainty, a severe fuel crisis, and the ACO had to react to world events with innovative regulations, often in the face of conflicting direction from the CSI (the then sporting arm of the FIA).

Apart from the sheer joy of wallowing in history, I think the point I am trying to draw out here is that ever since the announcement of the World Endurance Championship for 2012, media outlets have been portraying the negative aspects. Such is the nature of the media. I would not pretend that everything is necessarily as rosy as it could be. But by examining the past and understanding it, you become better placed to make the right decisions in the present to the benefit of the future.

In general, interest in sports car racing is high. The organisation is trying to make things better, not worse and I believe that, from a technical point of view, sports car racing is in good hands. What I sometimes doubt is when political or sporting decisions are made, they are frequently off beam - full of shortsightedness or riven with unintended consequence.

What we need now is wisdom and a strong nerve - not just in sports car racing, but in the world in general. 1971 gave us the Porsche Curves, and a 24-hour distance record that survived until 2010. I hope that 2012 can provide similarly iconic legacies.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Reflecting on Dubai and Daytona

January. Usually a pretty quiet month, motor-racing-wise. If I don’t go to the NEC for the Autosport show, then there’s usually not much reason to worry about motor-racing things. This normally means that I can devote myself to family matters, and the panic that goes with having a son whose birthday is three weeks after Christmas. This year has been different, though. First of all, I was asked if I would attend the Dubai 24 hour race, and this was swiftly followed by an invitation to the Daytona 24 hours, covering both as part of the Radio Le Mans team, which would be broadcasting for the Motors TV coverage of these events in Europe, as well as other outlets, too numerous for me to keep track of.

Luckily, my dear wife expressed little objection to my flying off to both these events – although to be fair I think she would have rather have me stay at home, but understands my passion for the sport, and knows how grumpy I would be if I would have stayed at home. And I never like to turn down an invitation.

Dubai and Daytona lie roughly on the same line of latitude - Dubai is about four degrees further south than Daytona, which is roughly the same amount that Le Mans is south of Silverstone. The Dunlop Dubai 24 hours is organised by the Dutch Creventic organisation, and encourages the participation of amateur, privateer, drivers and teams. These days, the Rolex Daytona 24 hours is a Grand-Am race, and is in many ways a pale shadow of the race that I first visited in 1990, which was then a full-blooded prototype rehearsal for Le Mans.

Despite now taking place for the seventh time, Dubai suffers from not having the same heritage as other 24 hour races that I attend. Even the Silverstone 24 hours has echoes of Willhire races of the 1980’s. And I would also suggest that, despite having a climate that makes being out-of-doors a far more pleasant experience in January than it would be in England, Dubai’s location is not really appealing.

I had never visited any part of the Middle East before, so everything was new to me. On arrival, I had an open mind, and the welcome was warm in all senses. But the Gulf of Arabia is bordered by not much more than desert. As one of the ‘Emirates’ in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai shares the same motor racing history as Bahrain or Abu Dhabi. In other words, very little heritage and lots of inherited wealth. There was a certain overt opulence about the place that was somehow tasteless, and materialistic poverty was never far out of sight. It was probably little different from the discomfort I would feel if I would attend a parent’s evening for students at Eton college, but that may be as much a reflection of a xenophobia on my part as anything else.

I think the location of the circuit, a little way away from the city centre might have also a part to play in my lack of enthusiasm for the place. The drive from hotel to track was through half-completed building projects, some seemingly abandoned, along roads still under construction. And at the circuit, many buildings are also as yet incomplete, giving the place a somewhat unready feel. Despite the warmth of the temperature, looking out across the desolate landscape didn’t do anything for the soul.

Daytona, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. I do like Florida, having been many times, for business, pleasure, and to visit the Daytona International Speedway – where I have now seen five twenty-four hour races, and once (in 1993) the Daytona 500 Winston Cup race. Although I prefer the Gulf (west) coast of Florida to the Atlantic side, I know of few places more pleasant in the early months of the year to go, in order to escape from grey, dreary and damp England.

Daytona has history, in racing terms. From tales of land speed record attempts on the beach to legends like ‘King’ Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and ‘Fireball’ Roberts, images of cars racing past a blurred ‘Daytona USA’ wall appeared in Boys’ Own annuals of my youth. Arriving at Daytona for the first time and seeing the towering main grandstand rates as high in my memory as my first visit to Monza, Monte Carlo or Le Mans.

Those with good memories will recall that I wrote some “Rumblings” following last year’s Daytona 24 hours. (It’s here if you want to remind yourself). My issue then, as now, is more with the race than with the place. As with the geography, so with the races at Dubai and Daytona: there are some similarities and there are some significant differences.

The 24 hour races at both Dubai and Daytona have some rather artificial rules, which may detract from the purity, but each in their own way add to the strategy and interest of the race and the entertainment it provides. In Dubai, there was the concept of ‘minimum reference lap time’, which was the lap time, faster than which you were not supposed to go. Ten ‘exception laps’ were allowed, but after that, drive-through penalties were handed out. As a consequence, once you had fallen behind, it was mighty difficult to catch up again, especially as the cars with the fastest ‘reference lap time’ fell out of the race early on.

On the other hand, at Daytona, arcane safety car procedures meant that catching up with the leader was merely a matter of waiting for the next full course caution period, when the leading cars (in each class) would be lined up nose-to-tail for the restart. Unless you were in a situation where you were about to fall off the lead lap, or in a position to unlap yourself from the leader in order to get back onto the lead lap, there was little point in trying to really go for it and establish an advantage. Much better to hold station, play follow-my-leader, and save the big effort for the final dash to the flag.

Both formats required sharp minds on the pit wall making the tactical decisions, and in both races the winners deserved the spoils of victory, in my view. Crucially, though, both races held the spectators’ interest throughout. The fact that cars which stopped out on the circuit could be brought back to the garages to be worked on; the fact that, at Daytona, you could benefit from the ‘free pass’, or ‘lucky dog’ to get back onto the lead lap, all meant that there was always action on the track, and a race result that was uncertain until the very end of the race.

Opening up a race in this way may seem unfair on teams which spend most of the time dominating, but it ensures that runaway victories do not happen, which in turn reduces the number of fans that leave before the end of the race, and keeps the competitors and drivers happy.

What made both events especially enjoyable, though, was hosts who genuinely wanted to make their guests feel welcome. Whether the guests were spectators, entrants, drivers or media, one could not mistake the helpful attitude and the eagerness to make a good impression. Despite its heritage, its atmosphere, and all the other things that go to make Le Mans the greatest race in the world, it is a lesson that one day might need to be learnt. Times change.