Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Revolution in the Air?

A lot has been written in recent months about the state of sportscar racing and the direction that it is taking. What with the GrandAm merger with the ALMS (or was it a takeover?) and new ACO regulations in the pipeline, we are indeed going through a time of change. Change always happens, though, so that’s nothing new; what makes the current situation different is that the changes ahead have an air of revolution about them.

The United States of America is not alone in sometimes taking itself too seriously. Many ‘important’ countries occasionally fall into the trap of believing that the world ends at its own borders. There is more than a hint of truth in the old headline “Fog in Channel – continent cut off”.

But the USA is bigger, more important, and more easily ensnared by the trap. Sports like baseball are particularly “American”. Basketball and ice hockey, which are widely played across the world (and more popular even than cricket or rugby?) have such a strong presence in the States that the Americans can lay claim to the phrase “World Class”.

But I do find myself smiling inwardly to myself when I hear Americans talking of the importance of American-based motor racing. While America has NASCAR and IndyCar, these are clearly USA-centric and for me fall into the category of baseball and American football. When talk turns to sportscars, the US finds the stage already occupied. From some of what you hear, you would be forgiven for thinking that the whole future of endurance sportscar racing hinges on the choices made by those who are currently evaluating the regulations for the unified American series in 2014.

The trouble is this. In the USA, NASCAR and IndyCar racing have no overlap with other forms of motorsport elsewhere in the world, whereas sports-prototype and GT racing does. What the merger of Grand-Am and ALMS has done is to remove Grand-Am from being a national race series (if you know UK club racing – think Legends) and to place upon its successor the opportunity to define a class for international prototypes. This is a huge opportunity and how it is dealt with is fundamental to the future direction of sportscar racing worldwide.

To my way of thinking, the unified American series will go one of two ways – either they’ll get it wrong and it will disappear; to fall into sub-categories of the European classes, or they’ll hit the jackpot, and create something sufficiently attractive to both manufacturers and privateers to which spectators, journalists and media will come in numbers.

On the international stage, sports-prototypes are getting themselves into a bit of a knot. There’s a good case that the knot exists already. The ACO’s LMP1 category is (unintentionally) excluding privateers as the manufacturers raise the bar to higher and higher levels. LMP2 is becoming a headline category, but with no chance of achieving outright wins in the World Endurance Championship.

What is needed is a prototype category in which manufacturers can showcase their technology, and privateers can compete against them, by being fast, efficient and – yes, by exploiting loopholes in the regulations.

So, then, just imagine you have a blank sheet of paper, no particular political allegiance one way or the other, and no axe to grind; and consider this: Prototype Pro and Prototype Am. Or perhaps better expressed as “Prototype Manufacturer” and “Prototype Privateer”. Hopefully the distinction is clear. If you build the car, then you’re a manufacturer. If you buy it, you’re a privateer. If a manufacturer gives you a car, (look out, Nick Wirth), then sorry, but that still counts as a manufacturer. Maybe the distinction needs to be made clearer still, by saying that if you’re a manufacturer entrant, then your car has to be a closed prototype; if you’re a manufacturer selling to privateers, then your car has to be open-topped.

Do you see where I’m going here? If you’re a manufacturer and you want to go prototype racing, then you have to build a specification (closed) chassis. Not a Daytona Prototype in the current sense, but a World Prototype, sanctioned by the FIA. Think of the potential – Audi, Peugeot, Toyota, GM, BMW, Ford. It’s too late now to do it for 2014, but it could be the basis for 2016 regulations. And there’s no reason why it couldn’t be driven by energy consumption, to take the 2014 regulations further in that direction.

The existing LMP2 category is close to providing what the privateers want – the only thing that it doesn’t do is to enable them to compete for outright victories. This is where the clear definition between closed and open cars comes in – the regulations can allow for more horsepower or ‘higher energy consumption’, if you prefer to phrase it that way, for the open, privateer prototypes.

In the field of GT racing, there is in some senses an embarrassment of riches: there is currently a very good level of interest from manufacturers and drivers alike, but critics will point at the confusion of classes. With the possibility to race your GT car for 24 hours at Dubai, Daytona, the Nürburgring, Le Mans and Spa-Francorchamps, it seems somewhat bizarre that technical regulations are different at each event. Surely, if unification of the Prototype classes is being discussed, unification of GT regulations must happen too?

The biggest decision faced by the rule-makers in GT is to establish whether it is a raw meritocracy, or whether the objective is to encourage close racing. Manufacturers’ figures show that the performance of a Ferrari 458 Italia is better than an Aston Martin Vantage, but it’s also £40,000 more expensive. If you’re spending that kind of money on a car, there’s more to your purchasing decision that merely 0-60 times. And whether it wins or comes fourth in some motor race is not such a significant factor (in my book) as the fact that it is in the race. Prestige, both for the manufacturer and the event, comes from participation.

Looking back, 1999 was the high point in recent years at Le Mans for manufacturer participation, with eighteen works cars from six different manufacturers (BMW, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz). That should really be twenty-three, including the cars from Riley & Scott, Courage and Panoz, since they were also entered by the teams that built them. There was no magic formula that attracted manufacturers in such large numbers then, and there was no performance balancing; rather it was quite simply that everyone wanted to be in the race. Clearly, not every manufacturer entry was in with the same chance of winning; the objective of some was just to finish. But with every manufacturer entry came added prestige and that in turn provided a sense of importance to the race, and to the World Championship series of which Le Mans was just a part.

The same is true today.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Australia for the Bathurst 12 Hours

It was a huge privilege to be able to attend the Bathurst 12 hours. It was an adventure to visit Australia, as I had never been before, but it was Mount Panorama itself that made the most impression.

Arriving in the middle of the Australian summer after a journey of more than 30 hours from freezing temperatures at home, was bound to jolt the system more than somewhat, and I have to admit that my anticipation was high, having been told by many people of the treat that I had in store, being able to visit one of those iconic circuits that I had seen on TV so many times.

The reality, to my surprise, exceeded the expectations. Bathurst is a very special place, and the Mount Panorama circuit is a very special race track. It is of course defined by its ‘Mountain Section’ – a roller-coaster ride up and over the ‘Mountain’ that gives the circuit its name. It may not be a mountain in the alpine sense of the word, but is certainly big enough to be what the Scots call a ‘Ben’, rising up to a height of 862m above sea level, and towering 174m above the pit and paddock complex below. The views from the top are simply stunning: on a clear day, it feels like you can see the whole of Australia (you can tell that I still haven’t quite taken on board the enormity of the continent, can’t you?). The layout of the circuit is classic; the corner names familiar – Skyline, the Dipper, the Elbow; unmistakable, if often corrupted by the names of a corporate sponsor.

I took a walk during one of the practice sessions, to get a feeling at first-hand what it is that makes Bathurst a mecca for racing fans. I started at Reid Park, already part way up the elevation, a series of fast corners where the need for delicate positioning of the car must be balanced against the commitment to use raw horsepower to get up the hill. A sweeping series of multi-apex left-handers brings you onto Skyline, and here I was for the first time surprised. Here you can marvel at the vista spread out before you; the paddock in the foreground, and the mountains in the distance; capped, if you’re lucky, by acres of blue skies. The circuit straightens up, cars travelling from left to right, and under a bridge – but drivers seem tentative, unwilling to commit to full-on acceleration. It’s early in the session, though, so I press on round the circuit… the esses are next. And here is the explanation. Driving over the top of Skyline is a bit like jumping off a cliff. Except that rather than free falling, you have to negotiate the right-left-right sequence of corners going downhill – think Craner Curves, but three times as tight and five times as steep!

Then it’s the Dipper – more of the same, but even less visibility of the track ahead – if you’re a skier, think of a steep mogul field with a blindfold on to get an idea. The spectator enclosure is not large, by any means, but affords a simply fantastic sight of cars on the limits of adhesion, threading the needle. The contours are packed, the slopes sheer. You can look down on the top of a car at one point, scramble down a slope, and suddenly the cars appear above you as they exit, trying to stay off the kerb, which will upset the balance before the next turn. Which is The Elbow, virtually a hairpin, and the final corner before another iconic name in motor sport - the Conrod Straight.

Conrod Straight is aptly named. Unlike some ‘straights’ in motor sport, Conrod Straight is arrow-like for two kilometres. Downhill but undulating, it finally arrives at the ‘Chase’, a fast right handed swerve into the newly built-chicane that leads back to the start finish straight.

Anyone who has visited a famous place will know the feeling: the recognition that the images hitting your retinas are images that you’ve seen before, in pictures from books, magazines or TV. It happened to me the first time I went to Le Mans. Seeing the Dunlop Bridge, knowing that cars would be going light before heading downhill towards the esses, where they would swing left, then back to the right and slightly uphill. It was all familiar and yet simultaneously wonderful.

The same thing happened as we came to Bathurst. First had been the sight of the words ‘Mount Panorama’ painted on the side of the hill, but then as I turned the rental car through the gates and into the circuit came the recognition that we were on the startline, driving over the grid markings, heading towards Turn 1 – Hell’s Corner! The pits were on our left, and countless replays of touring car races from the eighties flooded my mind.

A few minutes later, and I was lost in a camp site, trying to find my way into the paddock. “Can I help you, mate?” came a voice from a man dressed in a singlet, sounding a bit as if he meant: “Get off my land!” I explained my predicament and his swarthy features cracked into a smile. “You need to turn round, head back up there, turn left up the hill, then go back down again!” he said (I think).

, we (Shea Adam and I) found our way to the media centre, and found an even more hearty welcome. Without question, they do things (motorsport-wise) differently in Australia (timing to four decimal places for example). Unlike in the USA though, they don’t seem to justify – nor defend – such differences; simply put, it is merely different, live with it.

As a race, it worked extremely well. I could go off on a rant about safety cars, but that would be churlish. The 12-hour format, all in daylight, was great, the entry was good, and the most deserving, if not the quickest, team won. As a circuit, it is a bit like a cross between Nürburgring and Cadwell Park. But somehow that over-simplifies the matter, as it fails to take account of the ‘Australian-ness’ of the place. Despite being more famous for its Grand Prix circuits at Adelaide and Melbourne, something about Bathurst encapsulates Australian Motor Racing. They called the Bathurst 1000 “The Great Race” for a reason.

If you get the chance to go, then take it, you won’t be disappointed. The organisers said that there were 22,000 there this year, and that is likely to continue growing. I hope, I really, really do hope, that I get the chance to go again – and it’s the sort of place that my family would enjoy as well.