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.