Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sebring 12 Hours - What might have been?

The Sebring 12 hours was dominated – not entirely unexpectedly – by the Safety Car. In all, 5h 04m were spent under full course caution, in a total of eleven separate periods. At one point, the red flag was waved, and cars came to a complete halt on the Ullman Straight while the debris from the accident between David Ostella (Oreca no. 38) and Frankie Montecalvo (Oreca no. 52) was cleared up.

In the end, the winning Chip Ganassi entry, in the hands of Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett came home the winner, but that was largely down to luck: although the efforts of Franchitti to keep the Riley-Ford in the lead for the last twenty minutes were indeed impressive, the car was only in that position due to its slightly higher fuel consumption requiring it to stop earlier than its competition, and the final Safety Car period coming at just the right time for the team and entirely changing the complexion of a race that was in some ways a fine strategic battle.

The Safety Car disruption meant that only three periods in the race were long enough for cars to use more than a tank of fuel, as shown in the table below:

From lap
To lap
From Time
To time
2h 06m
1h 21m

I thought it might be interesting to look at what happened in the race, based solely on the lap times recorded during these periods, and the results – unsurprisingly – bear little resemblance to the actual race results.

In the prototype class, the results were:

Pos No. Car Laps completed Time Pit stops
1 42 Oak Morgan-Nissan 131 4h 19m 27.179s 5
2 5 Corvette DP 131 4h 19m 40.927s 5
3 1 ESM HPD-Honda 131 4h 19m 52.695s 5
4 02 Ganassi Riley-Ford 131 4h 20m 55.253s 6
5 2 ESM HPD-Honda 131 4h 20m 58.920s 5
6 01 Ganassi Riley-Ford 131 4h 21m 19.503s 6

I am not sure what, if anything, this all proves. Possibly that the race leaders in the United SportsCar Championship races do not push on as hard as they possibly can, knowing that any lead that they do establish will be eroded as soon as the next Safety Car appears. In any case, it is certainly interesting that the Oak P2-spec car was consistently quicker than any other, and also that the Extreme Speed HPD also came within a whisker of winning the race overall.

The balance of P2 and DP is probably about right, therefore, at least at Sebring. I suspect Daytona was probably somewhat extreme.

In the GT-LM class, the “All-Green” (using the same periods as above) race result looks like this:

Pos No. Car Laps completed Time Pit stops
1 4 Corvette C7.R 126 4h 20m 31.371s 4
2 3 Corvette C7.R 126 4h 20m 44.205s 4
3 912 Works Porsche 911 RSR 126 4h 21m 10.127s 5
4 93 SRT Viper 126 4h 21m 59.109s 5
5 17 Falken Porsche 911 RSR 124 4h 19m 31.789s 4
6 55 BMW Z4 GTE 124 4h 22m 03.797s 10

From which the most evident thing is that this form of racing provides opportunities for recovery drives like no other - but then again, it was ever thus: racing for a team to exploit regulations, despite various setbacks. Hats off to the RLL BMW crew for getting back onto the class podium, despite losing two laps under green racing conditions!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

New Approach Needed?

Readers here may have read the rather odd piece that I published on dailysportscar earlier this month – I was in two minds about publishing it there, but having asked for contributions to a general debate over the winter months on the direction of sportscar racing in general, I felt I had to tie up some loose ends: even if it meant some rather tenuous links.

And then Motor Sport arrived this month, with talk of a revolution in F1, and certainly elements of Mark Hughes’ (and Nigel Roebuck’s) articles struck a chord. If you haven’t bought a copy, I recommend that you do. Especially as, for some months now, it seems to be the only mainstream medium calling time on Bernie’s career. The time has indeed come. An era of post-Bernie may be just around the corner – and if that is the case, it will not just affect Formula 1, but all branches of the sport.

However, one theme that I particularly want to explore in this article, which I alluded to in the DSC article and which also features in Motor Sport, is the matter of procedure. There seems to be an idea these days that procedure is a good thing. A few years ago, when I went into hospital for a fairly major operation to remove a lump that was growing inside my skull, the surgeon came in before the operation to describe how he was going to hook the lump out, through a hole behind my ear, that was to have been drilled previously by a colleague of his. Then the anaesthetist came in to tell me how he was going to ensure that I remained unconscious for the whole time. All very sobering stuff. As he was leaving, I felt it appropriate to wish the anaesthetist “Good Luck”.

“No need for that,” he cheerily replied. “There’s no need for luck, it’s all procedure.” To an extent, this put my mind at rest, but nevertheless, the thought that there was no room for the virtuosity of the various professionals at work on me to demonstrate their skill – their artistry – made me feel more like a car being repaired than a piano being played.

And it is this disapproval of any expression of virtuosity in motor sport, in order for it to gain the approval of the FIA, that I find perturbing. Mark Hughes, in Motor Sport, refers to the ‘punkish’ spirit of the sport in the past, which has been lost today, and I know exactly what he means. Any place for spontaneity is being removed. Unpredictability makes people in authority nervous. But the fans love it.

I have said before that 24 hour races at Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring and Spa have nothing really in common as far as their organisation is concerned; and even if they are part of wider championships, they still stand alone in terms of specific sporting regulations, organising bodies, starting times, practice and qualification procedures and so on and so forth. With the exception of Daytona, they all draw substantial crowds, and yet have minimal impact on the sporting radar of mainstream media. Other races also spring to mind: the Sebring 12 hours, yes; but also the Indianapolis 500, the Monte Carlo rally – all events that have a culture of their own, above and beyond being ‘just another round of a championship’.

Twenty years ago, the great god was television. Great lengths were gone to, in order to ensure that ‘our’ product was suitable for televising. The world has moved on though. The public no longer watches television in the same way as it did twenty years ago. People want a race summary broadcast of an endurance race (in much the same way as they wanted DSJ’s GP reports back in the seventies), but more important today is the niche broadcast to those who have a specific interest. Those who watched BBC Ceefax to get news of Le Mans through the night in the eighties were perhaps ahead of their time.

The reason that what I call the “FIA Formula” evolved was that it made it easier for media organisations. Fixed times for press conferences, practice sessions and races, prescribed podium formats and an entry list fixed for the season meant that life became quite routine, if you were involved in the season-long championship; but it was meaningless for ad hoc reporting. And of course, the market, if you are selling a championship, is those with a season-long interest. The ad-hockers have to look after themselves.

What makes Bathurst, Le Mans, even the Indy 500 appealing is their uniqueness in the motor sporting calendar. By their very nature, they are ad-hoc events. In some ways, they provide a template for others to fit to, if they choose so to do.

What is not quite clear to me is whether the market wants something predictable, or whether part of the fun is in piecing together the various strands of information to extract what is going on. I get the impression, that to an extent, the internet-savvy motor sport fan of the twenty-first century derives a certain pleasure from finding video streaming channels, timing and scoring outlets, news and comment; even commentary (possibly).

But there’s another strand to this argument. Motor racing is something to be experienced first-hand. Formula 1 has undoubtedly sacrificed this principle to the dollars offered by television, but most people I speak to talk of their experiences being at races, seeing cars in the paddock, of talking to drivers and catching them in perhaps an off-guard moment, being – well – human. It’s my belief that it is this aspect that generates the appeal in the first place. Having kindled the fire of interest, then certainly, interest in a race may be clearly maintained by all manner of media outlets. But surely the most critical thing is making something that will get people through the gates in the first place – that is what will guarantee the future fans of the sport.

To my mind, the storyline of the race, whether it is won by clever strategy, sublime driving technique or sheer grunt under the bonnet, doesn’t have the same impact as standing beside the track, watching, feeling, smelling and of course hearing the action take place in front of you. However erudite and entertaining the commentators are, they will never be able to convey the full atmosphere of actually being there. However sophisticated online timing screens are, they are no substitute for seeing a car on and occasionally beyond its limit, controlled by someone whom you might have seen walking in the paddock earlier in the day, or standing in the bar later in the evening.

As always, your thoughts on the matter are welcome!