Thursday, 19 December 2013

Thoughts on the Asian Le Mans Series

Readers of will, I hope, have read my race report from the final round of the 2013 Asian Le Mans Series at Sepang, Malaysia. It was a trip organised very much at the last minute, thanks to the ACO and its partners, Total and Michelin. And it was a very short trip: my outbound flight left Heathrow late on Friday night, and I was back home early enough on Monday morning to see my children off to school.

In all, I spent a little over 24 hours in Malaysia, and a total of 10 hours at the Sepang track itself. But it was a most enjoyable trip; one which I was glad I had made, but one which by its very nature revealed the lengths to which the ACO is willing to go to promote its Asian Le Mans Series.

I spent some time talking to Mark Thomas, the man who is in charge, and you can read that interview here. But despite the upbeat nature of it all, the Le Mans Series races that have been held thus far cannot really be regarded as unqualified successes.

The first race which carried the title of an Asian Le Mans Series race was at Okayama in Japan in November 2009 - two 500km races held back to back, which was supposed to be followed by a further ‘double 500’ at Shanghai in China. A 23-car grid took the start in Japan, which was, by the standards of the time, somewhat disappointing, and the Chinese race was cancelled.

In 2010, the ACO contracted Mark Thomas’s S2M Group to take charge of sales and marketing in Asia, and ILMC races at Zhuhai in China were organised in 2010 and 2011. Renewed efforts were made, and a six-round Asian Le Mans Series for 2013 was announced last year, which planned to visit China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. In the end, of course, only four of those took place, with the final round at Sepang, in Malaysia, in a season of uncertainty and small grids.

What has become clear to me, though, in the last fortnight since my interest in the Asian Le Mans Series has been piqued, is the size of the prize. Or at least the perceived size of the prize. A conversation over dinner when I arrived in KL on Saturday night revealed how big the market place in Asia is to companies like Total and Michelin, and how badly they want to get a part of the economic growth of the Asian region.

For the ACO, their Endurance Racing pyramid is underpinned by continental Le Mans Series in Europe, America and Asia. Even if the American Le Mans Series name no longer exists, endurance racing of one form or another seems set to continue in the US, and the ACO will ensure that it maintains the transatlantic links originally forged by Don Panoz. In Europe, there are strong national championships, and a tradition of long-distance racing.

But Asia has been, as the ACO is all too aware, a tough nut to crack. The biggest problem is the nature of the beast itself. To the uneducated and simplistic western eye, Asia is a different culture; sure, but it is the sum of many disparate cultures. If one excludes Australia and New Zealand (which is fair enough, for that belongs to Australasia, in my mind, but then the AsLMS compromises itself by allowing drivers from the Antipodes to count as Asian, in terms of their rules concerning crew composition), one still needs to consider whether India, Russia and the Middle East should count as being within the continent, and therefore on a full Asian calendar.

At the moment, the brief is clear: the footprint is restricted to Japan and South-eastern Asia. But even within that zone, there are logistical, cultural and political obstacles to overcome. As Mark Thomas noted, there is no other pan-Asian sporting series, even on the scale of the Asian Le Mans Series; and if that is the case, one wonders why not, when the countries of the area clearly have a sporting heritage, as shown by their Olympic successes.

The answer, in my view, lies in the fact that the constituent parts of Asia do not necessarily have an ‘Asian Identity’. In much the same way, Italians, Germans and Spanish (to take but three) may be part of Europe, but they do not regard themselves as being European. For a Japanese or Chinese team to pack up and travel to, say Sepang, they might as well go the whole hog and go to somewhere with real heritage, such as Sebring or Spa.

But what is also clear, is that this is a complex situation. It may well be the case that there is more money available in Asia for business in general, and racing teams and sponsors in particular, to go after. Just look at the brand visibility of names like Petronas. Traditionalists like myself may drone on about motor-racing heartlands and the heritage of the sport, but the future doesn't belong to us; it belongs to those with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit.

I am put in mind of the so-called Serenity Prayer that can be found on tea-towels in cheap tourist shops: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” it goes.

It may be trite, but it is a prayer that many of those involved in the Asian Le Mans Series could well offer to their respective deities. The ACO is only a club, remember, not a multinational business. Its prized possession is the 24 hours of Le Mans. To build a structure that promotes and supports this pearl of great price is a worthy ambition, but it is that event itself that needs the focus. Its survival and prosperity are not dependent on the Asian Le Mans Series. My biggest concern, on returning from Malaysia, is that there doesn’t seem to be an exit plan.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Wirth Research

Nick Wirth is a very clever man. And as the owner of Wirth Research, whose Bicester premises I recently was able to visit, he can be proud of an establishment unique in the world of motor-sporting endeavour. The curious thing is, that nowhere on either of the two sites we visited, were there any cars. Nor even any pictures of cars (well hardly any). Just the odd Le Mans trophy perched on the edge of a coffee table in the board room – the casual visitor would be unsure what kind of ‘research’ Wirth was involved with – until one came to the Indycar-based simulator, which was undoubtedly the main attraction of the visit; and of which more anon.

The subtitle on the company logo is “Development in the Digital Domain” and after a while of talking to Wirth, you understand how his philosophy runs through everything he does. Nick Wirth himself has been involved in the world of motor sport for most of his working life, starting his career as an aerodynamicist at March, and founding the Simtek Formula 1 team in 1993. From 1996 until 1999 he worked as Chief Designer at the Benetton F1 team, but then branched out to found RoboScience, where he created the RS-01 – the world’s largest and most advanced commercial, legged robot.

Wirth Research came into being just ten years ago, initially to provide technical support not only in the Formula 1 arena but also to manufacturers and independent teams in other motor sport disciplines. Wirth is clearly a visionary, but like most intelligent people, is able to see the patently obvious when others seem myopic.

Wirth has a telling motto, which encompasses all the undertakings of his company. It is a sublime case of, not to put too fine a point on it, stating the bleedin' obvious, but I would nevertheless advise you to mull it over a couple of times before reading on:

“To develop the performance of a product substantially beyond the level at which a manufacturer has supplied it 
the application of technologies substantially more advanced than those used to design it.”

The first successes for Wirth Research were not slow in coming. Undertaking chassis development for the Honda Performance Development arm of Honda in the USA, he helped Honda to win the 2004 and 2005 IRL driver’s championships, as well as the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 and 2005.

Interestingly, Wirth relates that Honda’s focus was not Indy, however. Nor was it the IRL championship. It was to win at Motegi. For Honda, a win at Motegi was that important. Wirth believes, with the benefit of hindsight, that Honda was too successful at Indycars. “Everyone needs to have their day in the sun,” he says, “and even if we were doing a better job than anyone else, it damaged the reputation of the series that we were so dominant.”

However, the reputation of Wirth Research was only enhanced, as far as Honda was concerned, and after some encouragement from Wirth himself, they commissioned the build of an LMP2 sportscar, using the upmarket US Honda brand name of Acura to compete in the 2007 American Le Mans Series. An indication that Nick and his team knew what they were doing was the fact that the Acura ARX-01a won its class first time out in the 12 hours of Sebring.

For 2009, Wirth Research moved up to the LMP1 class with the ARX02-a, and amazingly took pole position on its debut at Sebring, against the might of the works Peugeot and Audi teams. The car was the first LMP1 car to make use of the large front wheels (although Audi and Peugeot later had the benefit of bespoke tyres on the front wheels – the Acura had to make do with using rear tyres on the front). It also pioneered the ‘swan’s neck’ rear wing mounting – another design feature of which Nick is justifiably proud. Eight outright wins came the way of the HPD (now no longer called an Acura), on the way to the 2009 ALMS title.

In 2010, the lure of Formula 1 called Wirth again, and having won a slot on the F1 entry list, intended to build a ‘cost-capped’ car for the World Championship. The Virgin Racing VR-01 was designed entirely using ‘virtual engineering technology’, CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics), and in many ways was the epitome of what Wirth Research, and Nick in particular sees as the perfect way to design a car.

“No parts ever get produced, no wind tunnel testing is necessary, we develop the whole thing using software,” he says. “We do aero work using a virtual wind tunnel - that way you don't need to create a model of the car first.” What he doesn’t say explicitly, but one can tell that the fact grieves him, is that it wouldn’t be possible, under the current F1 regulations to spend as much on CFD and computer simulation as Wirth Research currently does in the production of the ARX series of sports-prototypes.

The piece de resistance of the visit, and to some extent the final piece in the jigsaw of the virtual development environment, is the aforementioned simulator. This means that a driver can drive the car on the race-track, before the car is even built! A great deal of work has gone into the development of the tyre simulation – an area of technology that many similar simulators cannot deal with. MuriTyre (Multi-ribbed Tyre) simulates the performance of the tyre across its entire tread width, enabling the driver to experience, in the simulator, the behaviour of different tyre compounds.

The simulator, can, of course, be set up to ‘be’ a different car as required – the configuration that I tried was an LMP2 HPD, on the Mid Ohio circuit. Jonny Kane was on hand to provide coaching, guidance and general information. He didn’t provide the details, but he did let slip that the simulator could be configured to provide different levels of grip depending which part of the circuit you were on – enabling the driver to be on a ‘drying track’ for example. The grass was also, he said, just about as grippy as the track, so minor offs were easier to control. Hitting the wall at 100mph, though, as I did, meant the use of the only non-standard button on the steering wheel – a white reset button: but at least there was no expensive bill to pay or visit to the hospital to make.

Setting up information for a new track is painstaking, but glorious in the detail to which Wirth Research goes. There is a team of surveyors that hire the track for, on average two days, and they go around with laser imaging cameras to record every detail of the surroundings, the track layout, fences, trees and so on. The track surface itself is laser-scanned, so that different grip characteristics of different surfaces can be modelled, along with detailed analysis of the kerbs, so drivers know where they can use the extremities of the track.

Unfortunately, I have never been to Mid Ohio, nor have I ever driven anything remotely similar to an LMP2 car, so my evaluation of whether it was a good simulation of the real thing is not really relevant. It was, though, a great deal of fun: I had Jonny’s calm voice in the ear patiently telling me that I needed to shift down, and my ten minutes at the wheel, were, he said very consistent. Consistently slow, I said; and he was too kind to agree, but we were able to look at data traces to see where I was earlier on the brakes and later on the throttle than he was.

Given more time, I’m sure I could have improved, but the aim of the exercise was not to turn me into a racing driver, rather it was to show me Wirth’s capabilities, of which we barely scratched the surface.

Another notable development is Emersio, which is a head-mounted display, enabling the wearer to view and interact with objects in the room (or pit garage) with you. A simple example would be to illustrate the pick-up points for removing the nose-cone. Like many of Wirth Research’s innovations, this is not something that is specifically geared to motor racing. It would be entirely feasible for Emersio to be used for dismantling a washing machine, or constructing flat-pack furniture.

And this is why Wirth Research is such an exciting place right now, as it branches into architecture, transport and some very hush-hush stuff for Lockheed Martin for the US military. You come away, quite frankly, reeling from it all, and yet you know that Nick Wirth has let you see only a tiny bit of what is going on in his head.

In terms of motor-racing, he is committed to sportscar racing work, and it would seem that Honda is committed to Wirth. It would be easy to put two and two together, which is not what we were invited to Wirth Research to do; however, anything that involves a chassis with a Honda badge in sportscar racing in the next year or two will be worth watching. Whether it is the United Sportscar Championship in the USA, or the World Endurance Championship, you can be sure that Nick Wirth and his team have a winning reputation to build on.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Bahrain Preview - All about the tyres…

Having been caught out with my predictions recently, I decided that it would be best to wait until qualifying was done and dusted before trying to suggest how the final round of the 2013 World Endurance Championship would pan out.

With the LMP1 titles just about sorted out, we’re into the realms of a “stand-alone” race again in Bahrain – focus for both Audi and Toyota is now firmly on the 2014 development projects and an end-of-term feeling pervades the operational teams from both camps now.

It is clear that most, if not all, of the performance advantage that Audi enjoyed in the first five rounds of the championship has now been eroded by developments at Toyota. From what we’ve seen thus far in Bahrain, lap times have improved by around four seconds since last year’s race: I suspect that hybrid control system developments, rather than improvements in the hybrid motors themselves, are responsible.

But as Toyota and Audi have come closer together in lap times, so their respective fuel ranges have also converged. In Shanghai, Toyota could manage only one lap more on its 76-litre tank of petrol than Audi could on its 58-litre tank of diesel. My projection is showing that we’ll be getting 24 lap stints from Audi, and 26 laps from Toyota in Bahrain. The two-lap difference (on what is only a marginally shorter circuit) is purely due to the lap length suiting Toyota slightly better than Shanghai did.

In any event, if the race average lap times are between 1m 44s and 1m 45s, as I expect, then Audi will again be facing an 8-stop strategy, unless there is a safety car period, whereas Toyota will be able to run on 7 pit stops.

So Audi is going to have to be clever – or lucky – to win this one. But it seemed that way in Shanghai, and look what happened there. It could come down to tyres. If Audi can double-stint the Michelin rubber, then it will spend less time in the pits, and could win the race that way. The drop in temperature over the six hours will be significant, and that could mean that, even if the first stops are for fuel and tyres, the tyres will probably last longer in the later stints, and it could then swing in favour of Audi towards the end of the race. Traditionally, Audi sets up its cars to be fast at the end of endurance races, rather than the start – so no-one should be surprised to see ever-improving pace as the race goes on.

Toyota may have had the upper hand thus far in Bahrain, but they will have to fight for the outright win. And they will have to fight harder as the race evolves, I reckon. Just because the race seems to be going Toyota’s way in the early stages, don’t go away and do something else, as you’ll be sure to miss something!

In any case, the GTE class race looks like being a corker. I think it will be a question of making the fuel last as long as possible in each stint to enable the final ‘splash and dash’ stop to be as short as possible – I don’t think that four stops will be possible, but (as I have discussed before) it will require a stint of 1 hour 11 minutes to make it achievable. Of course, the safety car could make that calculation academic, but it looks like Aston, Porsche and Ferrari will be nose-to-tail throughout – with the fuel consumption of the re-vamped Porsche the big unknown!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Importance of Drivers

Historically, endurance racing in general and the Le Mans 24 hour race in particular, have been less about drivers and more about the manufacturers of their cars. Traditionally, it has been the car that matters, not who drives it. Acquaintances of mine who have been to only one or two endurance races will remember that a Jaguar or a Porsche – or more latterly, an Audi – won the race but are rarely able to recall (if indeed they paid sufficient attention to have even noticed in the first place) who the drivers were.

Although Formula 1 has its Manufacturer’s Championship, and although car manufacturers spend vast amounts of money, not only on engine development but also on the promotion of their brand through Formula 1, it has always struck me that it is the arena of Sports Car Racing that provides the better shop window for car brands to market their wares.

As one reflects on the first decade of this century, it is easy, with a little thought, to recall which ‘R’ of Audi won at Le Mans: three wins for the R8, then the Bentley win, followed by two more R8 wins, then three for the R10 diesel, before the Peugeot finally got a look-in, in 2009. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle to remember which races were won by Pirro and which Biela. (Actually, that’s a trick one, because they always won together!)

The point is, though, that it is the winning car that leaves the impression, and if it has its act together, then it is the manufacturer of that car that puts the full page advertisements in the national papers on the Monday after the race. But, as one who often is one of the last to step onto a new bandwagon, I do believe that we are now in an era when drivers count more in endurance racing than ever they did in the past.

The funny thing is that it is a phenomenon that has come to pass in all classes of endurance racing. Not just in LMP1, but also P2 – and especially in the GT classes. And it has come to pass in the marathon sprint that Le Mans represents these days just as much as the six-hour sprints that constitute the greater part of the World Endurance Championship.

I have reflected before on these pages about the way things change; particularly in the culture and conduct of the sport, and I find myself once again putting on the nostalgia hat. I am not – indeed I would like to think that I am not generally – suggesting that the past was so much better and that “fings ain’t wot they used to be”. No, instead I wish to draw attention to the change as it is happening, and be aware that living in the past is for dinosaurs.

As I have already suggested, though, this is a change that has already happened. We live now in an era of endurance racing where the driver has a very real role to play, and make-weights cannot be tolerated. To keep your car in with a chance of a podium place in whatever class it is competing, it can no longer be driven by a good, consistent journeyman. It has to be driven with verve, spirit, daring and skill. You have to, in a well-worn phrase much beloved by race engineers everywhere, “push without risk”. This requires high levels of concentration and ability, not found in every aspiring racing driver.

These days, therefore, there is a much greater dependency on the drivers that you choose when you are selecting your crew for a top prototype or GT car. And the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship is surely a title worthy of high acclaim. One small error in today’s endurance races rarely goes unpunished, and ‘fault-free’ is generally insufficient to win unless it is also ‘flat-out’. Gone are the days when anyone other than a truly top driver will get onto the top step of the podium.

The trouble is, of course, that the World Endurance Championship and particularly the Le Mans 24 hours, is dependent on wealthy enthusiasts, on drivers for whom the word ‘amateur’ is perhaps inappropriate, but who nevertheless do not make a living from racing and therefore cannot really be counted as professionals. And if they are not going to get their reward, then there is a danger that they will go elsewhere and do something else where good teamwork, clever organisation and raw competitiveness can beat young, talented professionals.

Except that they don’t. The World Endurance Committee of the FIA (or is it the ACO?) have thought of that and have implemented a system of driver classifications: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. Having classified everyone, they have then stipulated that to run in the LMP2 class, you have to have a driver who is classified Bronze or Silver in the driving crew. Similarly, in GTE-Am, the driving crew must (now) consist of at least two Bronze or Silver drivers.

On top of this, the rules then demand that to score world championship points, each driver must drive at least 1h 45m in a six hour race for the GTE-Am class, and 1h 15m in LMP2. In effect, this means that the least-able driver must drive for more than the distance that the car will go on one tank of fuel.

So what does this all mean? For the moment, all is well in the world. You have two strong professional-only classes in the World Endurance Championship, populated with a string of ex-formula 1 drivers and experienced and well-established ‘names’ in the sportscar racing world. Then, to fill up the grids, there are two classes for fully-privateer entrants with rules specifically tailored to ensure that the classes are attractive to wealthy amateurs and other non-professional drivers. A broad mix of manufacturers involved on a number of different levels is testament to its success (although an additional P2 engine manufacturer would not go amiss).

But most importantly of all, you have a meritocracy. A category where stars can shine and chumps have no place to hide. The trouble is that all good things have a tendency to come to an end. The challenge for those in charge is to preserve the good in the WEC as we move on into a possibly different-looking future.

As always, your comments are very welcome: let me know what you think below!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Racing for Points in the Far East

It was a great shame that the rain made racing impossible at the most recent round of the World Endurance Championship at Fuji, Japan. After practice and qualifying, a close race was truly in prospect between Audi and Toyota, and I must admit, anticipation was high.

Possibly out of frustration, I was ready to rant about the decision to award half-points: surely a race in which no overtaking is allowed should not be counted as a race at all? It made no sense to me that results should be issued, whether they included stoppage time or not. Luckily no points are awarded for fastest lap in the WEC! And I’m glad I didn’t make the trip all the way there to see just 16 laps (or was it 17?) behind the safety car.

But the passage of a couple of weeks to think about it has cooled my blood a little and there are plenty of reasons to justify the decisions made, and overall, I believe they were the correct ones.

Inevitably, practice and qualifying go part of the way to defining how a race will pan out, and it seems right that those who went well in qualifying should be rewarded. Also, it would have been wrong, in my view, if the errors (or misfortunes) that led to two of the top three LMP1 qualifiers falling back down the order had gone unpunished. Awarding half points achieved both of those things, at least as far as P1 was concerned.

So even if there were some unhappy customers after Fuji – and you never have to go far to find some disgruntled punters – I think the organisers, stewards and other officials did as good a job as could be done in the circumstances.

But the aim of this column is to look forward to round seven of the championship at Shanghai, China, not to look back at round six. And on that note, here are some predictions for how things might go. As usual, my starting point is to suppose a dry race with no safety car periods, which, as we have seen, is not necessarily a likely scenario, but is the best place to start.

In order to do a six hour race on seven pit stops, it is necessary to have 44 minutes fuel autonomy. In other words, you have to be able to drive for 44 minutes on a single tank. On the assumption that it takes a minute to drive down the pit lane and refuel (actually at Shanghai it takes 55 seconds), then you are out of the pit and running again after 45 minutes. Of course, three-quarters of an hour is exactly one-eighth of the race, so provides a perfect seven-stop strategy.

Of course, there are two slight wrinkles in the perfect strategy: the first being that you have to complete a formation lap at the beginning of the race – actually two laps, since you need to drive to the grid and you are not allowed to refuel on the grid – this means that the first stint is always a bit shorter; and second, the race runs to the end of the lap you’re on, after six hours has elapsed. However, since not every pit stop is ‘fuel-only’, the longer stops to change tyres and driver still means that 44 minutes is sufficient to make seven pit stops possible in a six-hour race.

The table shows the fuel autonomy figures required for other strategies:
No. of Stops Fuel Autonomy (time)
7 44m
6 51m
5 59m
4 1h 11m

My prediction is that Audi will be able to achieve 24 laps on a tank, and the average race lap time will be of the order of 1m 50s. This gives them exactly 44 minutes autonomy, so they will certainly be planning a seven-stop race (until the safety car appears). Someone at Ingolstadt obviously has done the same calculations as me.

Toyota has proved this year that it is able to go further on its fuel than Audi (partially helped by an increased tank size). To save an additional stop, though, they need to achieve an additional seven minutes, according to our table above. My calculation is that they will manage 27 laps, but even if they are a second a lap slower than Audi (which I doubt), they will still not be able to manage 51 minutes, so a seventh ‘splash and dash’ stop will also be necessary for Toyota.

However, it is entirely possible (and not entirely unlikely) that the safety car will slow the pace sufficiently to enable Toyota to do the race on six stops, but Audi will still need seven.

Regardless of the number of pit-stops made, the two factors that are most likely to affect the outcome of the race are: one, the pace differential between Audi and Toyota in average race lap time; and two, the position of the cars if and when the safety car is deployed.

At Fuji, the Toyotas were within a couple of tenths of a second per lap of the Audi times in both Free Practice and Qualifying, and I was expecting similar in the race. If the safety car enables Toyota to save a pit stop, and if it is deployed at a time favourable to Toyota (in other words, when Audi and Toyota have completed the same number of pit stops), then Audi will have to lap three-tenths faster per lap to ensure it doesn’t lose.

On the other hand, if we can survive the whole race without the need of the safety car, then even if the Toyotas can lap within a tenth of the Audis, I can’t see how they can prevent Audi from winning.

A third factor, which I do not expect to play a role, hence I have not mentioned it (until now) is the possibility that Toyota is able to double stint its tyres and Audi is not. This would give Toyota an advantage, over the race distance, of up to a minute: certainly enough to compensate for a lap time disadvantage of half a second per lap. Remember though, that last year’s race at Shanghai saw only Rebellion, from LMP1, double stinting the tyres.

In conclusion, although the gap between Audi and Toyota is reducing, I can find no evidence that Toyota is quicker. In which case, Toyota needs some kind of help, in the shape of the safety car, better tyre wear or Audi unreliability, to be able to win. But these are the unknowns that make endurance racing interesting. There are many things that can and do go wrong in a six hour race. Just let us hope that it is a proper race!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


There seems to be a bit of a romance going on at the moment between the world of Formula 1 and the cinema. I have a large collection of VHS tapes and DVD material covering many forms of motor sport: not just Le Mans but also Touring Cars and Formula 1, but by any stretch of the imagination, these are specialist films, never intended for anything other than home use or private showings at car clubs. They are certainly not in the same league as John Frankenheimer’s ‘Grand Prix’ or Steve McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’, which also sit in my video cabinet, but on a different shelf.

No, I’m talking about ‘proper cinema’: the kind that Barry Norman would talk about, the kind that brings interest in topics as diverse as the Titanic, George VI or John Nash to the public consciousness.

In 2010, the ‘Senna’ documentary became the first specifically Formula 1 movie to hit mainstream cinema since ‘Grand Prix’, and although it is difficult for me to be objective, it seemed that it struck a chord in the mind of the general public, or at least those who have an interest in the sports pages of the national newspapers. It was long enough ago to make it a story worth telling, but recent enough so that most cinema goers could remember where they were at the time. ‘Senna’ is, undoubtedly, a fine film, managing to balance documentary and drama, and in my view helped along by a charismatic subject in the feature role.

Then, earlier this year, along came ‘Rush’, with a great deal of fuss and amid much Hollywood dry ice. I went along, saw the movie, but came away down-spirited. I knew I would, I suppose: the fantasy world of the dimly-lit cinema with its comfy chairs and the smell of popcorn did not mix with personal memories of a damp Crystal Palace paddock or a packed Paddock Hill Bend.

So I was surprised to read of another F1 film being released this month, but went along with an open mind, when the opportunity arose to attend a preview screening. Shown as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival last week, ‘1’ charts the evolution of safety in Formula 1. Broadly, the film focusses on the period from 1968 to 1996, but director Paul Crowder happily goes beyond this period with impunity. Crowder was able, like Manesh Pandey before him, to convince Bernie Ecclestone to give him access to the FOM film archives, but unlike the director of ‘Senna’, Crowder’s mission was far more wide-ranging. Also, his subject matter pre-dates the FOM archive, and his material draws on much more material, including the Castrol and BP archives, all seamlessly edited into a coherent whole.

‘1’ is an impressive work. Maybe not as emotionally charged as John Matthew’s ‘The Killer Years’, but cleverly entertaining and informative, and above all, really enjoyable. The target audience is probably going to be limited to existing fans of Formula 1 as I suspect that there may be just too much content to explain everything to the uninitiated.

And for me, it is the content that makes this must-see viewing. More than that, it is a must-buy DVD. I had the chance to talk to Crowder after the screening and I told him how I felt like I wanted to press the pause button from time to time, and replay various scenes. “That’s what I try to do with my films,” he replied, “to pack in as much as possible, and make it a film that you will want to see over and over again. And each time you watch it, you’ll notice something different.”

It is clear that Crowder, along with writer Mark Monroe and associate producer Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon, (who was also at the screening), are all massive Formula 1 fans, even though this is Crowder’s first film about motor sport (his previous best-known work ‘Once in a Lifetime’, covered the story of the New York Cosmos soccer team). He certainly packs in the action. It keeps the attention; it is fast-paced and action-packed: features on World Champions Clark, Surtees, Hill (G and D), Rindt, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Hunt, Andretti, Scheckter and Mansell are intertwined with familiar drivers like Brundle, Ickx and Watson, along with lesser-known luminaries like Brett Lunger and John Miles.

But like a faithful old labrador, Crowder keeps returning to the theme of safety, comments coming thick and fast from Nigel Roebuck, Maurice Hamilton and other insiders like Alexander Hesketh, Sid Watkins, Jo Ramirez, John Hogan, Max Mosley, Paddy McNally and even Ecclestone himself. Then, suddenly, he’ll shock you with another accident. In this regard, the art is to get the balance right between contemporary interviews and archive footage; between drivers in action and in repose; between shots of wives, girlfriends and hangers-on and paddock activity. The background music is atmospheric and the narration, by Michael Fassbender, well-measured and accurate.

I suppose it is inevitable that debate will rage about who and what has been left out. Crowder reveals that: “we had a lot of stuff that didn’t make the final cut, but we wanted to keep the momentum of the film moving,” and in this he certainly succeeds. No offence meant to those involved, but for my own part, I would rather have lost the contributions of Vettel, Hamilton and Button and had more of Pryce, Villeneuve or Koenigg. Michael Schumacher appears too, of course, and could speak on behalf of all the 21st century racers, to my mind.

I noticed only two howlers, but neither detracted from the enjoyment of the film –indeed I would have to watch again to ensure that the errors were not mine. The film is scheduled to go on general release in the UK next year – if it comes to a cinema near you, don’t miss it. And even if it doesn’t, then buy the DVD (which promises to have special features with even more detail for aficionados) as soon as it’s available!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Passage of Time... where do the years go?

Although I have had it for some time, I have recently started reading Quentin Spurring’s latest book in his series in which he charts ‘the official history of the world’s greatest motor race’ – the Le Mans 24 hours. This is the fourth to be released, covering the decade from 1980 to 1989, and is the decade in which I started to attend the race myself, starting as a “mere” spectator in 1981, and by 1989 being part of the Radio Le Mans team (indeed, the year in which John Hindhaugh made his debut).

During those ten years the race became a highlight of my year, and much of its importance to me now derives from the impact that it made on me during that time. It was during the 1980’s that I began to get involved in commentary, and began to make contacts within the sport, allowing racing personalities and heroes to become acquaintances and even friends.

It was during those years as well, that acquiring a knowledge of the history of motor sport became more important to me, and I became rather envious of those people that I came across who were old enough (and in my eyes) lucky enough, to have visited Le Mans during the glory years of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a young man approaching his 30th birthday, those people that I met who had actually seen the Jaguars, Ferraris, Aston Martins and Masaratis that had contested those races thirty years earlier were ‘elder statesmen’, people whom I respected as witnesses of the sport I loved and the race that I regarded as the ultimate test, when it was even more venerable and whereof legends were made.

As Group C matured during the mid-eighties, those days seemed a very long time ago indeed.

And yet.

And yet now, as I think of those young people whose own love affair with Le Mans is just beginning (and there are many – the place still holds a magical and a magnetic appeal) – how lucky am I that I was there during the eighties, that I look at the ‘historic’ Group C races and think how artificial they look?

Camping des Tribunes, 1987
After all, the time difference, in absolute terms, is about the same – thirty years. But surely the gap from the fifties to the eighties is bigger than that from the eighties to the present day? Not only can I remember the sight, sound and the smell of a Rothmans 956, but I can remember the drive from Le Havre to Le Mans, remember the taste of the first merguez of the weekend, and remember the queue for the toilets in the Camping des Tribunes – and they were the posh toilets!

And I still remember talking to Mike and Sue (ok, I’ve forgotten their surname, but if they’re still alive they’ll know who they are, if they’re reading this), in the “Portes du Circuit” bar, in about 1984, about their memories of Ferraris and Astons in 1958, and how things had changed – although it seemed the Portes du Circuit had changed very little, except for the toilet now being indoors!

But the 1950’s (to which Quentin dedicates another volume) were so long ago, weren’t they? Tales of cars being driven to the circuit from Coventry, and further afield; of drivers ‘going it alone’, or working to dig the car out of a sandbank – surely this was a different era? Good old Mike, who had been there, seen that and drunk a bottle of red with Mike Hawthorn – how fantastic must that have been?

And yet.

And yet I can look back to a Le Mans that I visited in the eighties: the paddock area (anyone remember the ‘Restaurant des Pilotes’ in the middle of the paddock?), full of marquees and caravans; the signalling pits at Mulsanne Corner, a restaurant on the Ligne Droite des Hunaudieres in which you could have a meal while the cars screamed past the open window, and a race track on which damaged barriers were protected by straw bales.

A Le Mans surely very different to the one that we see today, and one that, in another thirty years will seem as lethal as that earth bank opposite the pits in 1955.

So I guess it’s not all bad, growing old. Although of course I yearn for the energy of youth, I must consider myself privileged to have lived through the Group C era, through the battles between Peugeot and Toyota that followed, the triumph of Paul Lanzante’s McLaren in 1995, and the simply stunning entries that characterised the races of the final years of the 1990’s, before the millennium and the years of Audi domination.

For the folk who cannot remember a race without an Audi in it, I feel sympathy in a certain way, for surely Le Mans has a depth beyond what Audi has done. And it is, to me, not unimaginable that Audi will cease to play a role at Le Mans in the future. The 24 hours of Le Mans has survived worse upheavals, let’s face it.

Derek Bell - Le Mans 1982
And that is the beauty of Quentin’s books. Not only do they chart the many upheavals over the years, but they are a minefield of fascinating facts, potted with marvellous photographs: familiar and unfamiliar, predictable and surprising.

I suppose I should confess at this point that I do know Quentin personally. At the time that I was learning how to do a lap chart for a 1000km race, Q was editor of Autosport, and would occasionally use my lap chart to check the accuracy of his race report. But that is an indication of the thoroughness of the man. Despite our acquaintance, I have paid for all four of the books with my own money, and begrudge not a single penny. I know there are a lot of books out there these days, but these I thoroughly recommend!

(All photos from my private collection)

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Crunch time for Toyota

It's the six hours of Fuji this weekend, and with two Toyota TS030 Hybrids up against two Audi R18 e-tron quattros, this will be as close to a stand-alone race as we will have in the World Endurance Championship outside France. Make no mistake, it is very, very important indeed for Toyota to win this one, but just how likely is it?

Rather late, I've begun my homework, and have been trying to figure out what we might expect to see in Japan, based on what we have seen so far this year. Certainly, it would be a surprise if the Audis were not quicker over a single lap, not only in the race, but also in qualifying. So expect another front row lock-out for championship leaders: in which order, I wouldn't like to say, as a vital championship point is a stake, and there is a real fight between the two Audi teams going into the final three rounds of the championship.

My prediction? A four-lap average for the better of the two Audis of 1m 26.2s, whereas Toyota will be more like 1m 26.9s, I think.

But what of the race? Here's where looking at the season so far is not as much help as you'd like it to be. Le Mans is very much a special case, so can't really be used as a guide to other races. Interlagos saw the only Toyota out of the race before the end of the first stint, which only leaves Austin, Texas, as a basis for predictions. And even there, the Toyota had a problem picking up all the fuel in the tank, so the stints there were shorter than they should have been.

I expect Toyota to be able to run for 37 laps at Fuji, compared with 34 for Audi. Actually, I think that Audi might only manage 33 laps on a tankful, but that will depend a little on the lap times that they do. My projection is that they will expect to do average lap times of 1m 28.1s. The problem with that is that they will then end up five minutes from the end of the race, needing to make one more stop for fuel, unless the safety car makes an appearance at some point, and slows the pace.

Toyota should have no difficulty in completing the race on six stops. The trouble is, of course, that they seem to struggle to match the pace of Audi. I expect the average lap time to be around half-a-second slower. This is just enough, given that extra pit-stop, to put them on the same lap as Audi at the end of the race, but 15 seconds adrift after what my projection says will be 295 laps of racing.

Now, if you're paying attention, you'll notice that I've made three crucial assumptions here:
(1) that the race is dry throughout;
(2) that there will be no safety car periods;
(3) that neither Audi nor Toyota will be able to double-stint the tyres.

Taking these one at a time:
(1) the long-range forecast that I have seen suggests heavy rain for Sunday, so it may well be a case of who is better able to adapt to the conditions - and you can consign the foregoing to the dustbin.
(2) it is probably safer to assume that a safety car will appear at some point - in which case, it will be a matter of timing, who gets the benefit. Statistically, since Toyota will be behind Audi (probably) more of the time than they will be ahead, it is more likely to benefit Toyota than Audi, since the safety car will bunch up the field; but in either case the reduced pace will benefit Audi more than Toyota, because it will remove the need for that extra stop.
(3) at Austin, the Toyota was easier on its tyres than Audi, but Fuji's track surface leads to a higher wear rate, so perhaps this assumption is the least unreasonable.

The top brass at Toyota did not expect to have been so comprehensively beaten by Audi thus far this year, and a good showing on home turf is essential to everyone involved in the Japanese manufacturer's efforts. Although budgets for 2014 will have already been allocated, senior managers will want to be confident that their investment is sound. This weekend's race is Toyota's best opportunity to demonstrate the fact.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Where there’s a will - or is there?

‘Motor Racing is Dangerous’ is a well-worn cliché – there are signs of warning at every circuit in the world. But it is also true that racing is safer now for all concerned than ever it has been in the past, and the future promises only for greater improvements in safety to be made.

When an incident occurs during a race of which drivers need to be made aware, flag signals are used. A waved yellow flag means “Danger, slow down, be prepared to stop. No overtaking” Of course, slowing down is not always the safest thing to do; and drivers’ preparedness to stop varies somewhat. At least the prohibition of overtaking is an absolute, describing something that can if necessary be penalised.

In the days when I first starting watching motor-racing, the only alternative to waved yellow flags was a red flag, which signified a race stoppage. And for a race to be stopped in the sixties or seventies, it had to be a pretty severe incident: a blocked track or a driver trapped in his car; that kind of thing.

When races were stopped, they would usually be re-started fairly quickly, and the result would be calculated ‘on aggregate’, by adding together the two parts of the race. This could be confusing and sometimes complicated, but at least it was fair to all concerned.

Some races were even planned as two-part events, with the aggregate result being used for deciding overall positions. Although there was no computer technology to help in those days, at least everyone was used to the procedure and it was not unusual for a driver scoring a couple of solid fourth places to end up on the overall podium, and no-one really complained.

This was the era, thirty years and more ago, when the motor-racing world was emerging from its deadliest phase; when cultural acceptance of risk was undergoing change and when litigation was starting to become the first resort of the victim. People with responsibility had to have contingency plans and were being held accountable. Causes had to be found for accidents and blame had to be apportioned.

At the same time, motor-racing was being televised: brought into living rooms the world over, and the schedule became the king. The TV magnates did not want to have to spend valuable satellite time if the race had been delayed by an hour or two. Weekend timeslots tended to be sacrosanct:  the football results at 5pm on a Saturday; Songs of Praise on a Sunday. Folk would complain in their thousands if their favourite was displaced by some late-running car race from somewhere.

The ‘casual’ spectator had to be attracted and retained; and making things ‘interesting’ often meant making them complex, and that limited the overall appeal. If the first car across the line wasn’t the winner, then who was? And why?

This was the context, then, in which Safety Cars (originally termed Pace Cars), were introduced to European racing in the early 1980’s. When there was a serious incident on the track, the race would not be stopped, it would merely be suspended, neutralised, and everyone would continue to circulate, but in a line behind the Pace Car until everything was ready, whereupon the green flag would be waved and racing would continue.

Nowadays, Safety Car Periods are common in virtually every branch of circuit racing, and many and various are the procedures to be followed in the name of fairness. This is particularly true with endurance races, where pit stops are an intrinsic part of the race, and very often cars are racing in different classes within the race. And while stopping a Grand Prix and restarting it over the remaining distance is a reasonable course of action, stopping and restarting a six, twelve or twenty-four hour race is dubious at best, as we experienced at the Nürburgring this year.

The nonsense of the Daytona 24 hours (in particular), in which no real racing happens until the final dash to the flag, makes a mockery (to my mind) of its claim to be an endurance race. A race of strategy, yes, and with great media appeal, no doubt. But a proper ‘endurance’ race? I’m not so sure.

There have been calls from various quarters in recent times for a rethink. Code-60, GPS speed monitoring, wave-by and drive-past procedures, use of several safety cars, separating the cars from different classes: these are all mechanisms to deal with the basic ‘unfairness’ that arises from bunching the cars up behind a Safety Car and then releasing them again.

My original intention with this article was to explore ways in which use of the Safety Car could be made unnecessary, but in preparing my case I have begun to wonder whether there is one. If we could rid ourselves of the Full Course Caution, would we actually do so?

Lack of driver discipline in reacting to yellow flag zones on the track has contributed to the propensity to use Safety Cars to ensure that racers slow down sufficiently to allow track officials to rescue drivers and move stricken cars from dangerous positions without compromising their own safety. Even if drivers showed yellow flags more respect, there is still the problem of barrier repair. I found it unacceptable that there ended up being not far short of five hours behind the Safety Car at Le Mans this year, mostly caused by the need to fix barriers. I’m not in a position to endorse the products of TecPro, SAFER or ProLink, but I wonder if Armco barriers are as misguided a solution as catch fencing was in the seventies?

But that is tangential to my topic. It merely explains why races without lengthy Safety Car periods are ever more rare. For me, part of the special attraction of endurance racing is because it runs - at least it should run - uninterrupted. It is meant to be a hard slog: a marathon without respite. I could easily run 26 miles and 385 yards if I stopped and rested every half-hour. (Actually, I probably couldn’t, but there’s no point letting facts get in the way of a good story.)

To my way of thinking, a full course caution is an artificial interruption and should be avoided at all costs. If a Safety Car is the only way, then for goodness' sake, its time on the track should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Predictability in any sport is not a good thing, though, especially in these days of short attention spans and TV remote control units. The possibility that a Safety Car intervention might be just around the corner provides a level of uncertainty for fans and race engineers alike. And taking the right decisions when a Safety Car does appear can cause the complexion of a race to change completely.

When the Audi ‘v’ Peugeot battle was at its height, Audi Race engineer Howden ‘H’ Haynes said to me: “The Safety Cars make it interesting. Without any Safety Car Periods, there’s nothing to do.” The trouble is that today’s endurance racers are so reliable that he’s probably right, especially working for Audi.

It’s just that this year’s playing field in the World Endurance Championship has been so level that, more often than not, the Safety Car periods have disrupted the races rather than enhanced them.

On the other hand, looking back at the six hours of São Paulo, Toyota’s strategy, when it realised that the Audi was faster, was to stay on the lead lap in the hope that a Safety Car period would occur, nullifying the Audi’s speed advantage, while still enabling it to take advantage of its better fuel consumption. In the end, of course, we were denied a really exciting race for the lead, but it means that even if Audi has the faster car, a win for Toyota in any of the remaining WEC races is certainly not out of the question.

It hurts the purist in me to admit it, but I don’t think that there is any point in trying to avoid Safety Car periods altogether. They are here to stay, no matter what. No matter what rules are imposed to close the pit lane entrance, to wave GT cars past or to always arrange for the leader to be immediately behind the Safety Car, it will always end up that the smart guys on the pit wall will exploit those rules, and someone, probably with justification, will feel aggrieved. Although everyone will tell you it’s on safety grounds, the fact is that it’s the best way to ensure that races remain unpredictable, that the slower car can still win, that the races are more likely to be entertaining and that the strategists still have something to work out! 

The Americans may have had it right all along - but for the sake of proper racing, it is vital that Safety Cars are used only as a last resort, and circuits must be organised so that 
neutralised periods’ are as short as possible.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sweating the Assets in São Paulo

I wrote earlier this week on about the World Endurance Championship race in Brazil, but I concentrated on the GTE-Pro class in that article, and I do not propose to repeat here what I have said there. Instead, I want to look a little more closely at the race for the overall lead in Brazil, which, let’s be fair, was less than enthralling.

There were really just two turning points, each of which accounted for one of the leading contenders, leaving just the no. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer to take the win.

The first of these turning points happened after just 35 minutes as Stéphane Sarrazin found himself on the outside of Dominik Kraimhamer’s mishandling Lotus and the two of them skittered off into the barriers at the Senna ‘S’ at some speed, inflicting damage to both cars from which neither could continue.

There followed 58 minutes behind the Safety Car, while the cars were moved and the barriers were repaired. Ten minutes after the green flag was waved, the Safety Car was out again, as Toni Vilander’s fiery Ferrari was dealt with, but as we went green for the second time, there was the prospect of more than four hours’ racing to settle the dispute between the two Audis.

Initially, this was between André Lotterer and Tom Kristensen, in the no. 1 and no 2 cars respectively, and as they completed the green flag lap, following that second Safety Car period, Lotterer (making the most of the traffic) was ahead by 5.643 seconds. At this point, he had sufficient fuel aboard for one more lap than Kristensen, so already the odds were looking stacked against the 2013 Le Mans winners.

In fact, it was Lotterer who pitted first, by which time he had extended his lead to 10.457 seconds. Both he and Kristensen took on fuel only, and were in the pit lane for 54.845s and 54.839s respectively. Both Leena Gade and Kyle Wilson-Clarke had taken a risk by going for a double stint on the tyres, but the logic was sound, since 9 out of the 37 laps (8 out of 35 in Lotterer’s case) had been done behind the Safety Car, and in addition, the reduced pace enabled them (independently) to look to the end of the race and count backwards. Stints of 45 minutes, meant that, anytime from half-distance onward, the finish would be reachable in three more stops.

Marginally quicker, but using commensurately more fuel, it was Lotterer who again stopped first, just over three minutes before half-distance. Kristensen stayed out three laps longer, but was by this time 18.498s in arrears. The changeover to Duval was achieved three seconds more quickly than Lotterer’s handover to Tréluyer, but Benoît’s pace in no. 2 was quicker than that of his compatriot, and the margin crept up to over 20 seconds as the second turning point of the race occurred.

Tréluyer had already pitted and taken on fresh tyres as Duval, now leading the race, came in for the equivalent pit stop at the end of his 142nd lap. Brad Kettler, operating the ‘stop’ board, saw four green lights, and sent the car on its way. Unknown to the team at the time, the right rear wheel had been misaligned, and although the nut torqued up perfectly, the wheel wobbled off as Loïc reached the pit exit. Bizarrely, it then bounced off the right hand guard rail and landed back on the rear deck of the R18. A slow lap back to the pits to have a new wheel fitted and two penalties then put the no. 1 car three laps down and the remaining two hours of the race became largely academic for the LMP1 cars.

As far as the championship is concerned, the no. 2 crew still holds the upper hand. Whether the Toyota has a role to play in stealing points from one or other of the Audis remains to be seen. In the first 25 laps of the race, Allan McNish, in the lead, averaged 1m 23.031s, compared to Marcel Fässler at 1m 23.308s, and Stéphane Sarrazin at 1m 23.580s.

What we don’t know is how long the Toyota would have been able to go between stops, and what its tyre situation was. I believe Toyota was planning 36 lap stints. That would have left it needing a splash of fuel to complete the final ten minutes of the race. But only a short Safety Car period would have bunched the field and, crucially, enabled it to complete the race on six stops.

The same pieces will be there for the next round, at the curiously-named 'Circuit of the Americas', in Austin, Texas. But how those pieces fit together could be very different. Expect the Audis to be doing 23 laps, the Toyotas 24 or 25. And hopefully, with all that space, there'll be no need for Safety Cars this time.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Classic Tracks, part 3 - Monaco

If Le Mans and Indianapolis are iconic race tracks, then so too, in the minds of the public at large, must be Monaco. It is hard to imagine a track more photographically recognisable, one that is instantly associated with the glamour of Formula 1, nor one that is more unlikely in the modern era.

Whether it’s the Lotuses of Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s colours or Graham Hill in the Gold Leaf livery; Derek Daly’s Tyrrell flying at St. Devote, Ayrton Senna in the barrier at Portier or Michael Schumacher stopped at Rascasse: they are all images ingrained indelibly in the minds of motor sport enthusiasts the world over.

(As an aside, if you are one of those enthusiasts, close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine a 917, 962 or R18 superimposed on the streets of the Principality - no, it doesn’t work for me either!)

Anyway, back to my topic. I have witnessed two Grands Prix at Monte Carlo – the first in 1977 and the second in 1980.

In 1977 I was still at University, and Page & Moy was offering a return coach trip to Monaco that arrived on the morning of the Grand Prix and included a general admission ticket to the “Pelouses Rocher” spectator enclosure that overlooked the Rascasse and the swimming pool.

I decided it made sense to meet the coach at Dover, so I found a side street in which to park my car, and joined my fellow-enthusiasts – most of whom had travelled on the bus from Victoria Coach Station. We took the ferry to Calais, and began the long and arduous journey across France. Well, it was long, but for a passenger, not particularly arduous. I remember not really knowing where I was for the largest part of the journey, finding it hard to sleep, and half-heartedly listening to the FA Cup final on the radio (must have been long-wave).

We arrived at the circuit at around nine or ten in the morning, as I recall, and were given our admission tickets. On the way, I made the acquaintance of another chap who was bound for the same location (quite a few of my fellows had bought grandstand seats), and we browsed the souvenir stalls together.

As we approached the point at which the tickets were being collected, so the crowds intensified and there was something of a scrum to get in. But there was no turnstile, nor any kind of gate, just a loose row of ticket collectors. I reached forward to hand my ticket over to one, only to be barged out of the way by a group of Italians who were slightly, shall we say, more physical, than I. I found myself shoved in front of another of the ticket collectors, except that my ticket was already in the hand of the first ticket collector. Problem! Indicating to my buddy ahead of my and the chap who had collected my ticket over to the side, I shrugged my shoulders at him, and the force of the throng behind me carried me through and onto the Rock itself.

If there hadn’t been a Grand Prix going on, then it would have been a good place for a nice walk, with lovely views over the harbour. As it was, although the view was grand, there were plenty of people and not too much room. Losing touch with my erstwhile buddy, I shoved myself to a point where I could see the track over the shoulders of just two beanie-hatted Italians. We couldn’t see the start from where we were, but we could see the exit from Ste. Devote, up the hill towards the Casino, and then from the exit of the tunnel, down round the swimming pool, and into La Rascasse, albeit at something of a distance. Luckily, I had binoculars.

Of course I had binoculars. Just like I had a stop-watch (an ordinary, analogue one), along with pen and paper for keeping a lap chart. And as the race wore on, and the two Ferraris of Lauda and Reutemann were closing in on the Wolf of Jody Scheckter that had led from the start, my Italian neighbours suddenly were pushing me forward, so they could look over my shoulder and see how many laps were left to run, and see my stop-watch measuring the gap. (There was no chance of hearing the commentary up on ‘the Rock’.)

Much to my frustration, after the race, there was no time to hang about, as I so enjoy to do, as we were supposed to be back at the coach straight after the race for the drive back home.

In 1980, I was lucky enough to go to the Grand Prix again, and in much better style. Although, as I was to discover, the style to which my budget stretched was still way short of the level attained by others. I was living in Lugano, Switzerland, at the time, so I hired a car to drive there and booked a hotel in Nice. I remember it was the Hotel Imperial, whether it is still there or not, I don’t know. The drive down from Switzerland was sublime, I felt like a movie star as I navigated down to Genoa and along the coast past Sanremo towards Ventimiglia. OK so I was only in an Opel Kadett – I remember it was red – but in my head I was Roger Moore in the Volvo P1800.

I found a spot to park on the Boulevard Albert le premier, and tried to mingle with the crowds, but I was hopelessly out of my depth. I had adjusted to the cost of living at Swiss prices, but Monte-Carlo was something else. A beer in Rosie’s bar and a coffee in the Rascasse blew the budget for dinner, so I drove back to the hotel and prepared for Saturday practice.

For Saturday, I had a ticket to a spectator enclosure situated on the inside of the circuit, between the Chicane and Tabac. The F3 support encounter was won by Mauro Baldi from pole position, but the star of the race was Kenny Acheson, who finished fourth having started on the penultimate row of the grid. Nigel Mansell was in there somewhere as well, in the Unipart-sponsored March.

Being there on my own, I was free to soak up the atmosphere of Saturday night in Monaco, and it was a marvellous experience, wandering the streets, observing the somehow obscene displays of glamour, decadence and jaw-dropping wealth that I honestly knew I could not even aspire to. I was in two minds whether indeed I did aspire to it all, but just for a brief moment, I was part of it.

It was also possible to wander around the paddock area (then, as now, along the harbour front from the actual pits) and get up close to the cars being worked on. At the time, I felt very much that this was the 'modern era', when technology (turbo-charging, electronics, etc.) was at its height, but to look back now on cars being worked on under awnings, on dirt floor, by mechanics in t-shirts and shorts, makes you realise how rudimentary it all was, by modern standards. One wonders how the current age will be regarded by the next generation?


The race itself on Sunday was almost an anti-climax, compared to the exhilaration of actually being there. There was a support race for Renault 5s, then Prince Rainer arrived to take up his position in the Royal box.

Didier Pironi, starting from pole in the Ligier, was heading for victory until he crashed as there was a brief rain shower. This handed victory to Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07), who had started alongside the Frenchman on the front row of the grid. Overtaking was never easy at Monaco (unless you’re Kenny Acheson).

But then again, nothing that I have ever experienced in racing comes close to the thrill of watching full-blooded Grand Prix cars threading their way through the streets of Monte Carlo. You are so close to the cars that you feel the impact of the air in your face as the cars go past. Constantly just inches away from concrete barriers, and occasionally glancing off them, by the end of the grand prix, you are exhausted from the physical exertion of watching.

A classic setting for Grand Prix cars, and some very special memories for me.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Spa 24 Hour Casino

Trying to follow a race when you're not actually there is never easy. But even if you are there, you really need to be able to see the track to stay on top of things. For the Spa 24 hours, John Hindhaugh, Martin Haven and I were following the race from afar, with invaluable information
being provided by Graham Goodwin, who was talking to us from media centre at Spa-Francorchamps. Although we managed to stay on top of things, (I think), there is nothing like trawling through the numbers afterwards, to make sure that the contemporary impressions are matched by the data.

Thanks to the kind folks from 'Blancpain Timing', a few days after the race, I managed to get hold of the data file which provided such analysis.

The first thing that I wanted to confirm was the impression that for the HTP Motorsports Mercedes SLS AMG and the Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R, Bernd Schneider and Patrick Pilet, respectively, were the outstanding drivers. Looking at single laps is often misleading, so in the table below, I show the average of the best 50 laps of each driver.
No. 84 HTP Mercedes
Average of best 50 laps
2m 23.314s
2m 23.621s
2m 23.848s

No. 150 Manthey Porsche
Average of best 50 laps
2m 23.792s
2m 23.963s
2m 23.994s

This shows quite clearly, the contribution that each of the respective team's drivers made to their result. Looking at the time spent by each driver behind the wheel is also interesting:
No. 84 HTP Mercedes
Driving Time
No of Laps
8h 17m 26s
6h 38m 05s
8h 07m 27s

No. 150 Manthey Porsche 911
Driving Time
No of Laps
8h 03m 49s
7h 57m 02s
7h 06m 09s

Note that the driving time does not include the time spent in the pits, which explains why the total does not add up to 24 hours (in case you were wondering)!

Another way of looking at average lap times is to take the time of a driver's stint and divide it by the number of laps completed. On this basis, let's look at the best full stint for each of the drivers of the no. 84 Mercedes and of the no. 150 Porsche.

No. 84 HTP Mercedes
Best Stint
Average lap time
8:09am - 9:11am
2m 23.4s
5:10am - 6:12am
2m 23.8s
1:54am - 2:57am
2m 24.2s

No. 150 Manthey Porsche 911
Best Stint
Average lap time
9:27am - 10:32am
2m 23.8s
10:34am - 11:39am
2m 23.8s
8:23am - 9:25am
2m 23.9s

Somewhat surprisingly, both Schneider and Pilet are the slowest! Undoubtedly, Schneider's ability to set a quick time for a stint was compromised by the safety car periods during the fastest part of the race on Sunday morning. But perhaps also, although he and Pilet are quick when the track conditions allow, they are a little more cautious in the traffic? It's a theory, at least.

Another thing that was noticeable during the race was that the HTP Motorsport team was far more eager to have its drivers do double stints than Olaf Manthey's team was. Here are the longest stints done by each driver:

No. 84 HTP Mercedes
Driving Time
Driving Laps
Stint Time
2h 07m 15s
3:00am - 5:07am
1h 51m 17s
5:10am -7:01am
2h 08m 19s
6:56pm - 9:05pm

No. 150 Manthey Porsche 911
Driving Time
Driving Laps
Stint Time
1h 04m 41s
9:27am - 10:32am
1h 42m 36s
0:06am -1:48am
1h 04m 14s
11:42am - 12:46am
1h 03m 03s
6:40pm - 7:43pm

I have shown Pilet twice in the table because the 22-lap stint was partly behind the safety car, and although his 26-lap stint took less time, it is perhaps more relevant as a 'long stint'.

The other key to the Mercedes win was the speed with which the HTP mechanics changed the brakes at half distance. The Mercedes brake change was 1m 51s quicker than on the Porsche.

However, the amount of time spent in the pits for each car was as follows:
Time Spent in pits
No of stops
HTP Mercedes SLS AMG
57m 11.467s
Manthey Porsche 911 GT3
53m 15.354s
Team WRT Audi R8 LMS
56m 08.677s

(Note that, for the purpose of this table, I have excluded Manthey's drive-through penalty.)

Arguments can no doubt be put forward from both Renaud Dufour (from HTP) and Olaf Manthey that they lost out due to safety car interventions, and it would be naïve to suggest that none of the five safety car periods had an impact on the race. Dufour had a strategy though and pitted on four of the five occasions that the safety car came out. The Porsche pitted only once when the safety car was out, but try as I might, I could not find conclusive evidence that either strategy was the correct (or the wrong) one.

It seemed to me a bit like betting on 'red' or 'black' at roulette - it is the best way of ensuring that you win something, but neither of them is better than the other: whether you win or not ultimately comes down to chance.

But it does seem to be clear that the key to the Mercedes win was its pace on the track. And also, that Schneider (who, don't forget, set the fastest lap of the race), was very ably supported by his two co-drivers. Oh yes, and the Manthey car had a misfire.