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.