Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Tempting Fate?

I realised this week that if the number 2 Audi should win at Le Mans in just over two weeks time, not only would Dindo Capello have the honour of winning the big race on his birthday, but also he would become the oldest ever winner.

The popular Italian is driving better than ever, according to Audi insiders, and he will celebrate his 48th birthday on Sunday, June 17th this year.

He will be keen to make amends for the disappointment of his 43rd birthday, when his Audi R10 lost a wheel when leading, at the approach to Indianapolis at 7:30am.

The previous oldest winner of the race, Luigi Chinetti, did so in June 1949 at the age of 47 years and 11 months, at the wheel of a Ferrari 166 MM.

The other scary fact is that between them, Capello, Kristensen and McNish will this year have 100 years racing experience. Inevitably, they all started racing in karts: Capello in 1976, McNish in 1980 and Kristensen in 1983. No other team of three drivers has raced together so often - this year's race will be the seventh time they have shared a car together at Le Mans.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A new outlook

Well, after twenty-four years of watching the Le Mans 24 hours from the ACO grandstand overlooking the startline, it seems I shall be getting a new place to watch this year's race from.

New commentary boxes have been built, on the inside of the Ford Chicane, and the tribune is being (or has been) converted into hospitality suites.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the original booths - small open-backed glass cabins with no soundproofing, on the top floor of the ACO building - were known as the "ash-trays". There is a marvellous story from the late eighties concerning Simon Taylor, Janice Minton and boiled sweeets, that I would like to tell on the blog one day, but that will be another time. Over time, the commentator's floor was renovated, the boxes refitted and the whole affair became slightly less agricultural.

In more recent years, some additional "greenhouses" were built on what used to be the photographer's balcony, a flight of steps further down, but still with an unrivalled view of the grid, the pre-race 'animations', and most importantly, the pit lane. These provided less headroom, but more space for notebooks and TV screens and have been my home during the race for several years now.

So this year will be different. Hopefully, from the point of view of Radio Le Mans listeners, the changes behind the scenes will lead to a better broadcast. For Radio Show Limited, it has meant a great deal of work, but I have the greatest confidence not only in them, but also in our technical staff to make it all work!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Some idle thoughts about the WEC

Hybrid or not?

I wasn’t at the six hour WEC race at Spa, but I have spoken to a few folk that were, and I have the data from the race from Al Kamel Systems. Because of the unsettled weather, and the absence of Toyota, it is very difficult to draw any conclusions about what was going on at Audi, but the consensus seems to be that the non-hybrids seemed to be at an advantage when it was dry, whereas they seemed to suffer more of a handicap when the track was wetter.

There are two big questions to which I would like to know answers though: First, how close to their true potential were the Audis running? And second, which car has the greater potential: the hybrid or the non-hybrid?

The trouble is that I see no way of getting answers to these questions, as the relevant people at the Ingolstadt marque who know would be perfectly justified in not telling anyone.

Let me make it absolutely clear - I do not believe that the drivers, engineers and mechanics at Audi were not giving their absolute all during the six hour race at Spa (and during qualifying beforehand). But I do believe that, if circumstances had been different, there were things that could have been done which would have made faster lap times possible from both the R18 ultra and the R18 e-tron quattro.

Of course, when we get to Le Mans, it will be a very different situation. Will it though? It saddens me that none of the reports coming from Toyota fills me with much hope that the Japanese challenge will amount to very much. I hope that their announcement that they will attempt to lead the race on pace was inspired by bravado rather than a strategic approach. The car is bound still to be fragile, especially bearing in mind the rumours that are emerging to the effect that following its accident, a fairly major re-work of the design has taken place. What it needs to do, though, is to finish the race. To me that means that they should be reducing their pace to one at which they think they can achieve reliability. If that means it can’t keep up with the Audis, then fine. But pushing is courting disaster, especially against an adversary such as Audi.

Everyone I have spoken to at Audi (and regular readers will know that I talk a lot to Audi people) has expressed disappointment: (a) that Toyota wasn’t at Spa and (b) that the challenge has not been more mighty. While it would be foolish to be complacent about Le Mans, Audi really only has to compete against the event itself.

More than knowing the answers to those Audi questions, I would like to know the answers to some Toyota questions. Why only plan to have one car for the season? As someone pointed out last year - Toyota would be putting themselves at a disadvantage immediately by compromising the amount of data that it is possible to gather from the races they do compete in.

I have not been in the TMG facility at Cologne, but surely it must have the potential to work at a more productive rate than has so far been evidenced? The incremental costs of approaching the season in a more committed fashion are not that great, compared to the overall outlay of competing in the first place. There would seem, to my mind, to be a serious risk that they don’t even get two cars to the start line at Le Mans. In some ways, it must be an indication of just how expensive it is to compete at the highest level these days, if the incremental cost of “doing it properly” becomes prohibitive.

Look at the situation at Audi. With the best will in the world, it is not necessary to run four cars, surely? What about the expense of that? Running two hybrids and a single non-hybrid for reference would surely be adequate. Audi sees the incremental cost of the fourth car as a worthy investment. Going into the 2013 season, it will be Audi that has the most data about running a hybrid in the WEC.

And a final question to ponder: What will happen in 2014? New regulations are already drafted, manufacturers are already evaluating designs. Where is the money for that coming from? Maybe, just maybe, that’s where Toyota’s budgets are focussed, while Audi is using up its allocation before the reins from the VW point of view are taken up by Porsche.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Spot the difference!

By pure fluke, I managed to get a shot of the winning Audi R8 LMS ultra a few hours before, and just after the Nürburgring 24 hours. Look closely and you can just see the time stamp on the photo at the bottom left.

A thoroughly well-deserved win, in a race that swung in virtually every conceiveable direction over its duration!

Well done to Marc Basseng, Christopher Haase, Frank Stippler and Markus Winkelhock!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A visit to Lola Cars

In preparation for a feature that appeared recently on dailysportscar, I visited Lola Cars in Huntingdon, and spent a very enjoyable, interesting and informative few hours looking around. The main purpose for my visit was to interview the new Managing Director, Jean Marchioni, but thanks to the good offices of Lola’s Press and PR manager, Sam Smith, I was also given a guided tour around their splendid factory.

Lola celebrated its fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago and although these days it concentrates on sports prototypes, its history covers virtually every form of competitive motor sport. Photographs adorn the walls not only of the reception area, but also of every corridor: there are Formula 1 cars, Indycars, Can-Am, Formula 5000, Le Mans prototypes and more.

Our first stop was the seven-post rig, which is used for ensuring optimal set up of suspension - all Lola’s racing cars get shaken down on this rig - literally. Sitting quietly alongside is Julian Bailey’s Formula Ford Festival winning T640E, which brings back fond memories for both Sam and me.

The advantage of a seven-post rig is that the car can be subjected to additional forces such as those caused by aerodynamics and braking as well as surface irregularities and cornering g-forces. In addition, Lola often ‘rents out’ the rig to road car manufacturers as well as racing teams to evaluate and fine tune suspension geometry and vehicle dynamics. This is considerably more cost-effective than test sessions at a circuit.

The highlight of the visit was undoubtedly the wind tunnel. This is a 50% scale tunnel, and it was in operation, with the 2012 Le Mans car undergoing testing, when I visited. The unit sits on a turntable, so that the car can be subjected to sideways airflow if necessary, and a rolling road can generate speeds of around 150mph. It is the unexpected which makes the biggest impression though. In the case of the Lola wind tunnel, this was the sheer size of the installation. The half size model of the car is dwarfed by the tunnel in which it sits and by the orifice through which the air is blown at it. But then Sam takes me behind the scenes to see the complete installation, a vast tube, shaped roughly like a doughnut, at least four feet in diameter, around which the air circulates as specially-built fans accelerate the airflow.

The other aspect that is easy to overlook, is that when you have a wind tunnel, you have to make models of the car that you wish to test. If you want to test something, like a different wing profile, a louvre panel or air intake, you have to manufacture it first and then put it on the model. To do that, you need to have a rapid build process - and this Lola has, thanks to (among other things) stereolithography (Google it if you want to know more). In effect, this is three-dimensional printing, enabling parts that have been designed on the computer to be rapidly manufactured - in either plastic or resin - and evaluated on the car in the wind tunnel. Dan Cox, senior aerodynamicist, says: “It’s so important to be able to rapidly assemble plastics into whatever form you want. The kind of thing that would have taken you more than a week to make by hand, with this type of manufacture you can do it in five hours”.

Standing in the wind tunnel, observing the latest bodywork tweaks on the new LMP car (I wasn’t allowed to take photos), we discussed the way that design evolves. Even if the form of the bodywork is not as aesthetically pleasing as it once was, it is clear that the mantra is “if it goes quicker, it looks better”!

The wind tunnel and the seven-post rig are integral to Lola’s capacity to produce racing cars in the volumes it does. When I visited, it was relatively quiet, as most of this season’s cars have now been delivered. But as you walk around, Smith points out various items that might have made things different - the abortive Formula 1 project, Indycar, etc. “We’ve got the space, the resources and the capability here to do virtually anything,” he says.

I am also introduced to Phil Tiller, CFD Manager, who takes me through the processes used in the design phase at Lola, where Computational Fluid Dynamics and Finite Element Analysis is used without the need for the expense of wind tunnel time. “Of course we still need the wind tunnel, to validate the findings here,” says Phil, “but the speed with which we can do design and development before it goes to the wind tunnel, means that we get to the optimum design much more quickly.”

CFD is not just used for bodywork and aero design - Tiller also shows me the dynamics of the refuelling process. “We take the viscosity of the fuel and the shape of the tank into account, and work out how we can get the fuel into the tank as quickly as possible within the constraints of the gravity feed demanded by the regulations.”

A large part of the work at Lola, is however, nothing to do with racing cars. And if racing car design is a sensitive matter, there is a whole department that I am not even allowed to visit - which sees Lola doing work on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for the Ministry of Defence. The Mantis was designed and built for BAE systems in just three months, and Lola also produces and assembles the Watchkeeper range.

In some ways, this work is more crucial to the company than the racing. “If we can base the financial security of the company on the defence work, then that enables the racing development to continue,” says Smith. “The trouble with motor-racing is that is ebbs and flows, and that makes it difficult to rely upon any revenue streams. The government isn’t like that.”

The Managing Director of Lola Cars International is Jean Marchioni, who joined from Level 5 Motorsports in the USA in March this year. The tone for our meeting is set as Sam and I are admiring a photo on the wall of the boardroom showing two Lola Mk4s in the pit lane at Monaco in 1962. “That was the first race I went to,” says Marchioni, as he comes in. “You can see here behind, the castle is here, and there is a road with a wall, you know - that is where we watched from. We didn’t have grandstand tickets or anything, we just sat on the wall, overlooking the gasworks hairpin.”

Much of the rest of our conversation revolved around the state of sportscar racing and the squabbles between the various organising bodies. It can be read on dailysportscar (if you are a subscriber), but some fascinating other snippets that weren’t really relevant to that article also came up.

Such as when we were talking about Jean Alesi (exactly how the conversation got onto that subject I can’t quite remember), and Marchioni said “I know Jean very well, I ran him in karting. Actually I am trying to get hold of him right now to see if he needs a spotter at Indianapolis. It would be cool to re-unite and for me to go to Indy.” There speaks a real enthusiast, not just the MD of a successful manufacturing company.

And on Don Panoz: “He’s a really interesting guy - I had a few conversations with him. I think the guy is awesome. He is always thinking about going global. He is not thinking about doing something in his own little corner to protect what he has. He has a wide range of thinking. Look at his businesses - they are all over the world. When he wakes up every morning he knows that five million or six million dollars went in the bank!”

The other topic that kept creeping into the conversation was that of a Lola “works team”. Sam Smith makes it clear: “Martin Birraine, our CEO, doesn’t want it to happen. It isn’t really feasible anyway, as we exist for our customers. Sure it can be frustrating not being able to choose our drivers, and always having to think about the financial side. The heartbeat of the team is the racing… if you would ask the workforce, I am sure they would want a works team.”

What is clear though is that if a major manufacturer would come to Lola with a partnership proposal, then a quasi-works project similar to the Nissan Le Mans effort in 1989/90 would “absolutely be possible,” in Marchioni’s words. “It would be the only way we would do it. It would need to be in the building next door (or somewhere). We need to keep the customers comfortable with what we are doing, as the business side is still very important to us. But we are constantly talking to manufacturers, looking for opportunities. You have to remember that from concept to finished product, we can do it really quickly here - and we have a lot of brainpower upstairs.”

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


Readers of will have noticed, if they are paying attention, that I have been appointed as Features Editor. This is something that Graham Goodwin - the editor of dailysportscar - and I have been discussing for some time, but only now has it come to pass that it can be made official.

The idea is, that with an increasing amount of content on dailysportscar being free now, there is something for the subscribers that will cause them to renew their subscriptions, when they become due, and moreover, that the increasing number of viewers of the free material will be tempted into subscribing when they see a little of what they are missing. As a business case, it does make sense. The annual subscription, at just £35, is not extortionate, and if enough 'free' viewers are prepared to subscribe, then the coffers will fill sufficiently to pay for the roster of writers that will make up the "features team".

So if it doesn't work, then the subscription only features will have to stop - simple as that. Not that I do this for the money - indeed there is no money at all to be made out of blogging - but I do prefer to 'formalise' such things... so that readers know what they are going to get. If all the plans come off, then dsc subscribers will be seeing a 'feature' every few days - an average of two a week.

As Graham said to me recently, "more 'Motor Sport' than 'Autosport' ". We'll see how it goes. One concern that I do have is that the time taken to look after my new responsibility will have to come at the expense of something. And one of those things might be this blog.

I don't want to steal Graham's thunder by revealing here the full roster of writers, but it is a funny feeling to be put in a position to "edit" the writing of folk that I've read for years and who have been making a living from writing, while I have been 'doing a proper job'.

I just hope that we (Graham, the writers, and me together) can make it work, and maintain a level of consistent quality that is too easy to lose once initial enthusiasm for the new project has worn off. Meantime, the season progresses: Spa this weekend, then the Nürburgring, then it's Le Mans. That should provide sufficient inspiration for us all to find something to write!