Monday, 15 October 2012

Howden Haynes - Clever!

I was surprised, during the Fuji six hour race, when Allan McNish's number 2 Audi came into the pits when the safety car made its brief appearance in the fourth hour of the race. The car had just taken the lead, following the scheduled pit stop of the number 7 Toyota and the unscheduled stop to replace the nose of the other Audi after its rather abrupt coming-together with the Aston Martin. With not only the remains from the front end of the Audi, but also with other bits of bodywork that had been shed during the race, Eduardo Freitas made the call to neutralise the race and out came the two Safety Cars.

It seemed to me, with all three of the leading cars queued up behind the same safety car, that the best thing for McNish to do would be to stay out, expecting the safety car period to be brief, and then attempt to keep the Toyota behind when the green flag signal was given.

The Audi had been inexplicably slow in the first half of the race. No, that's not fair, the car certainly wasn't slow; but it wasn't quite as quick as either the Toyota or the Audi of the number 1 crew of André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler.

In the first stint, McNish had clashed with Marc Lieb in the Felbermayr Porsche, and since then, the car had never quite been itself again. By half distance, McNish and Kristensen were struggling, more than a minute behind the leaders, and losing on average half-a-second per lap to other Audi.

So, with just the Signatech Nissan of Jordan Tresson separating the Audi from the Toyota, and with fuel aboard for around thirteen racing laps, H called McNish into the pits. It looked like a bad call, as if McNish would have stayed out while the track was cleared, then he might have been able to keep Nakajima, with fresh tyres on the Toyota behind for a few laps after the safety cars had been withdrawn. Even if he would have managed that, though, he would have had to come in for fuel and tyres on lap 140, at which point he'd have lost 1m 20s, putting him nearly a lap behind.

Instead, although he was left waiting at the end of the pit lane for the next safety car to come past, McNish ended up at the tail of the other group of cars. This meant that when the green flag was shown to Tresson (with Nakajima poised to pass) at the start finish line, McNish was able to start overtaking as 'his' safety car was released half way round the lap. He had already dealt with five cars by the time he reached the end of the lap, and by the end of the first fully 'green' lap, was only 34 seconds behind the Toyota and 22 seconds behind the other Audi (in the hands of Fässler).

Fully fuelled and with a new set of tyres, the car was still 'slow', to the tune of half-a-second per lap, so it wasn't going to gain any ground on the other two, unless they had other delays. Crucially, though, it would only have to make two more stops, and both the Toyota and the other Audi would need three. In the end, it wasn't enough to make a difference to the result, but it did save itself around 47 seconds by my reckoning, and was even able (just) to stay on the lead lap to the end of the race.

Without quick thinking on the pit wall, that certainly wouldn't have happened. Well done, H.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Fuji Collective Test - Close!

There was a 'Collective Test' for the WEC cars at Fuji yesterday. Two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

As far as the privateer LMP1 teams were concerned, these sessions were primarily for shaking down and setting up - no long runs over 20 minutes were done.

But both Audi and Toyota used the afternoon to run some full tank tests. The results were as follows:
Audi No.1 (Lotterer, Fässler, Tréluyer): 35 laps with an average lap time of 1m 29.988s
Audi No.2 (Kristensen, McNish): 36 laps with an average lap time of 1m 30.782s
Toyota No.7 (Wurz, Lapierre, Nakajima): 32 laps with an average lap time of 1m 30.437s

The trouble is, that by my calculation, you will need to get 34 laps out of a tank to make it possible to run the race on just 6 pit stops, unless there is rain (unlikely) or a safety car.

So it will be very interesting to watch the Free Practice sessions tomorrow, and see if the Toyota can go the extra couple of laps. If it can, without compromising the lap time, then we could be in for a jolly good race!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Digital Revolution

Anyone who has lived through the last ten years will be aware of the Digital Revolution. The point where the mobile telephone ceased to be merely a way of enabling other people to call you when you were away from the office and actually became a fashion accessory isn’t quite clear to me. Nor is the reason why people continue to wear a wrist-watch when the time is displayed on their phone, which they seem to be constantly using.

And the Personal Computer, from being a glorified word-processor and calculator, has evolved into an everyday household gadget to be found in every home – in many cases being more utilised than the washing machine or even the television.

Linking these two, and bringing together the full power of the technology, is the Internet. Homes without ‘always-on’ broadband are now the exception, rather than the rule, and most people nowadays have a single media supplier, providing an internet service, TV and telephone.

What has become clear in recent years is that this is technology for the masses. Home broadband today is as fundamental a utility as gas or electricity. Computer ownership is as ubiquitous as the car or the refrigerator. In my opinion, we are in danger of underestimating the historical significance of the era that we are living in. The twenty-first century ‘digital revolution’ is every bit as important as the revolution in transport of the last century, or the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Maybe you think I’m stating the obvious; and in any case you’re no doubt thinking that this is not supposed to be a technology blog. True on both counts, and technology is certainly not my specialist subject, but bear with me. Failing to recognise the significance of the digital revolution is to fail to take an opportunity that occurs just once, at most, every hundred years. It is that important. And motor-racing, only just one hundred years old, has to be in a position to react. Indeed, being a competitive sport driven by speed and technology, motor-racing needs to push at the conventional understanding of the way that things are done.

There are two aspects to this in particular that I want to highlight here.

The first of these concerns the way that major motor races are presented to the public. Traditionally, television has been the most sought-after medium. Exposure on TV has brought the sport into people’s living rooms. Achieve this at a peak viewing period, when folk are browsing channels, and you increase awareness of the sport, hopefully attracting people to watch again, or even to attend in person; and most important of all: to buy the products of the company that’s providing the money to pay for the coverage.

However, these days there is such a preponderance of available channels on most people’s televisions, and those channels are usually tailored to the viewer’s interest area: drama, sport, news, etc. Also, the airing times of many motor-racing events are increasingly esoteric. All this reduces the numbers of casual viewers and instead, you get people watching who have made it a specific goal to find the programme concerned. Idle browsers are a rare breed these days.

Experience from the World Endurance Championship tends to suggest that there is a different type of viewer these days. This is no couch potato who comes across a six hour sportscar race and gets hooked on the mellifluous tones of John Hindhaugh and the dramatic shape of a modern sports prototype (nor even the other way round).

This new breed of viewer is the dedicated fan, who has live pictures streaming on the one hand, live timing on the other and live commentary on his headphones. More than likely he’ll also be keeping tabs on Twitter and Facebook as well and interacting with fellow fans in one way or another. This is unquestionably an intense way of following a race, but from what I can gather, the numbers of people doing so is increasing with every round of the championship. This is a global audience, independent of TV or radio, for whom the Internet is as much taken for granted as the fact that clean, fresh water comes at the turn of the tap.

And for the people who are paying to make the coverage happen, an increasing audience can only be encouraging, surely? The beauty (or in the view of the socially inept, like me, the peril) of social media is that it is very susceptible to ‘viral infection’, in the modern, technological sense. In other words, what used to happen by word-of-mouth now happens via the Internet, about ten times more quickly and a hundred times more effectively. Hey presto, advertisers find that their exposure grows.

Race organisers have to appreciate this shift in approach. No longer is mainstream television the target for their broadcast, but a TV production company that can provide pictures (and commentary) still needs to be an integral part of the package for the event. Get those pictures onto the web and the audience will do the rest.

But who pays for it all? Series’ organisers know that it costs money to get a series onto a commercial TV channel, even a cable channel that the consumer has to pay for. But if you’re putting that coverage onto the web, your costs can be much less. And if you can make your series attractive enough, then it will gain momentum as the size of the audience grows. This makes life easier for the entrants, who after all, ultimately have the most to gain from demonstrating to their partners that the global interest in their brand is growing.

Race organisers need to learn that just as stewards, timekeepers and marshals are essential elements to run a race meeting, so a production company, providing pictures and commentary, should be no different. Just as the printed (and TV) media have come to realise that the Internet is for many a much preferred source of news, so race organisers must appreciate that the broadcast of a motor race to a general TV audience may not be commercially viable, but that making it available to an interested, dedicated fan-base might well be.

A second, possibly darker, consequence of the digital revolution is the way that people actually participate in the sport. The Nissan Playstation GT Academy has shown how drivers can be trained in the isolated world of video games. Importantly, it has also brought drivers out of that world and into the ‘real’ world of racing. There is no doubt that it has had success in doing that, while at the same time succeeded in promoting its brand. So far so good.

However, there are many drivers out there who will remain in the ‘virtual’ world and will never make the physical journey to Silverstone, Brands Hatch or any other real racing circuit. Why not? Because they don’t need to. Their ambitions are constrained to the virtual racing world, and that’s as far as they want to go.

As technology makes such endeavours ever more realistic, so there is a whole marketplace that is being lost to those who make their money out of people going racing. Whether it is eight year olds going karting, or successful businessmen (and women) taking up racing later in life, I see it as inevitable that there will be a reduction in those who go and apply for their racing licence as the appeal of virtual racing takes hold.

I cannot imagine a world where ‘real’ motor-racing is replaced by ‘console’ gaming, but that might only be because my own imagination is conditioned by a lifetime of knowing the reality of Paddock Hill Bend, Hangar Straight, Pflanzgarten, Eau Rouge and Les Hunaudières.

I know what it’s like to drive a real car along those real bits of tarmac, because I’ve done so. And for me, a simulation would never do justice to the memories that I have, however good that simulation, because ‘being there’ is… well, just better.

But I might be wrong. The growth in popularity of Formula 1 was unimaginable fifty years ago. Who knows where it will go in the next fifty years (without Bernie, presumably)?

I believe that a hundred years from now, people will look back at this era and identify it as the turning point when a whole new way of doing things began. I think it’s worth pausing to ponder that; and consider what we all might do differently as a result.

The industrial revolution brought a new meaning to the word ‘horsepower’. I wonder if a casualty of the digital revolution will be the word ‘reality’?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

In the footsteps of 'Motorsport Norm'

I was invited to Snetterton at the weekend, by Peter Snowdon of the Aston Martin Owners’ Club, who asked me to commentate at the club’s final race meeting of the year.

I have written on this blog before about my fondness for Snetterton and it was great to be in Norfolk again – the weather was lovely, and I renewed plenty of old acquaintances.

It was ten years since I had last been at Snetterton, when I had commentated at a BTCC night race, and much has inevitably changed. Most significant of course is the new "Snetterton 300" circuit, which may not have come in for much praise from many of the competitors, but the changes at least make the track a decent length, and provide some great viewing for spectators.

A casualty of the changes has been the old commentary box, which has now been replaced by a well-appointed box above race control, on the inside rather than on the outside of the track. I was delighted, as I stepped into the commentary box on Saturday morning, to discover that the new box is called the "Norman Greenway Commentary Room". I would love to know who's idea this was, as it was a wonderful reminder to me of the man into whose shoes I felt myself stepping as I became the resident commentator at Snett during the late 1980's and into the 90's.

Norman was a great character, a great enthusiast and although he commentated all over the country, was always associated with Snetterton. He took the job seriously, but his sense of fun came bursting through his commentary, in a way which, when necessary, put what we do into a perfect perspective.

In a sense, the Aston Martin Owners' Club puts things into perspective too. The racing is quite clearly organised for the benefit of the participants and as a consequence is not really directed towards the (paying) spectator. For all that though, it was an entertaining day out. There was a fine race for fifties sports cars, featuring a great battle between a Mk 1 Lola and a Lotus 11, chased home by a Maserati 300S, a Porsche 356 and several XK120 Jaguars. A handicap race for pre-war cars provided typical confusion as the handicapper's penalties unwound themselves and the race reached its conclusion. A surprise highlight was the Elite GTS race, in which two Triumph TR4's got the better of the single TVR Grantura. One just had to be impressed with the standard of preparation in these races. Bearing in mind this was not a race which drew the crowds in like the Goodwood Revival or the Silverstone Classic - this was just enthusiasts practising their art.

The headline race of the day was the three hour AMR GT4 Challenge of Great Britain. The rules required three pit stops, each of two minutes duration. Except, that is, if you were Stuart Hall, in which case you had to make each pit stop of 2m 40s duration. Organiser Jamie Wall was aware of the controversy of this, as he was that a safety car period could throw his calculations completely out. In the end, despite a meagre 10-car entry, two of them contrived to fall over each other while lapping, and sure enough, the intervention came.

Unfortunately for Stuart, it worked against him, and he ended up losing by just 37 seconds to the car of Olivier Bouche and Pierre Mantello.

In conclusion then, a great day out - thanks to all those at Snetterton, and especially to the Aston Martin Owners' Club for organising it and inviting me along. Hopefully we can do it again sometime!