Thursday, 29 May 2014

Bentley on home soil

As I wrote in my last post, I was lucky enough, last weekend, to be at Silverstone when the Bentley Continental GT in the hands of Andy Meyrick, Guy Smith and Steven Kane scored its maiden win in the second round of the 2014 Blancpain Endurance Series.

It was lovely to be able to spend the weekend jumping between the commentary box at Becketts and the pit lane, while Jonny Palmer competently held the fort in the main box and kept the flow going. All three of the winning drivers managed to find time to talk to me, as did several of the ART Grand Prix drivers, who perhaps were justified in feeling that the race had been stolen from their McLaren MP4-12C in the Safety Car period during the final hour of the race.

Of course, motor racing is full of ifs and buts, and far be it from me to rain on Bentley's parade in their hour of victory, but thanks to the availability of relevant data, it is the matter of a few moments' work to remove the impact of the three Safety Car laps from the race, and come up with a result that (arguably) more fairly represents the performance of everyone at Silverstone. The table below shows the cars in the order that they finished the race, but with the time for 81 laps, rather than the 84 lap race distance.

Car No. Car Drivers Time
7 Bentley Continental GT Smith/Meyrick/Kane 2h 50m 29.072s
99 ART McLaren MP4-12C Soucek/Estre/Korjus 2h 50m 19.902s
1 Audi R8 LMS Ultra Basseng/Ramos/Vanthoor 2h 51m 38.813s
26 Audi R8 LMS Ultra Sandström/Ortelli/Guilvert 2h 51m 28.081s
85 Mercedes SLS AMG Afanasiev/Wolf/Dusseldorp 2h 52m 13.228s
84 Mercedes SLS AMG Verdonck/Primat/Schneider 2h 52m 18.904s
98 McLaren MP4-12C Parente/Demoustier/Premat 2h 51m 43.713s

The folly of this exercise is of course in that the winner's trophy went to Bentley, and the victory cannot so simply be taken away; but also in the fact that Premat's half-spin as the green flag flew cannot so easily be ignored.

But it is still interesting to reflect on how the race might have ended without that safety car period - certainly there is a good argument that the top three positions would have been McLaren ahead of Bentley and Saintéloc Audi.

In the Pro-Am class, the MP Motorsport Aston had just made its stop (from the outright lead of the race) when the Safety Car appeared, and its lead over the Nissan was shrunk from the best part of a lap to just a few seconds by the time the green flag was waved. One can question the wisdom of holding Mark Poole back for the final stint, but without the Safety Car period, it is hard to see how Florian Strauss would have been able to catch up the bronze driver (who also lost places to the two PRO class HTP Mercedes).

It was good to see that Bentley's public relations machine kicked into action following the result though, with a full-page advertisement in the Daily Telegraph to celebrate the Crewe manufacturer's victory on home soil.

The Blancpain Endurance Series is a real success story in today's motor-sporting tapestry - even if the grids aren't as big as last year, they are still healthy enough to provide a great spectacle and great racing. The crowd at Silverstone wasn't huge, but those who know their racing will have been there and will have gone home relishing not just result, but also a jolly good race and a fine day out.

Where GT racing is bound is quite another question - the inability of those involved to agree on a unified future is surely regrettable. I had a long conversation with someone (who had best remain nameless for now, but who is heavily involved in bringing yet another manufacturer into the series) - and it is clear that even though GT3 entrants have a large range of 24 hour races to choose from, the one that matters is Le Mans. And Le Mans has to appeal to the privateer entrant. There certainly seems to be no clear solution to me, but less intransigence from those with vested interests would help foster a better spirit of compromise.

Monday, 26 May 2014

A Personal Word.

I am very much aware that posts onto this blog have been somewhat few and far between recently, and rather than complete silence, I thought a word of explanation would be appropriate.

Many readers will be aware that I have a proper full-time job as an IT consultant, which enables me to earn my living and keep a roof over my family's head. Anything that I do which is motorsport-related, while it may pay me some money, does not do so sufficiently well to keep all the bills paid. So there are times when I have to make decisions about where my priorities lie - and for the past few months, those who pay the piper have been calling me to play their tune rather more than usual... leaving less time for leisure writing activities than I would like.

I have had time to analyse the data from the Spa Six Hours - what I have not had is time to present the results of that analysis here. I have also been looking ahead to what might happen at Le Mans, but again, I am afraid that I may not have time to post that here either.

I have just returned from a splendid couple of days at Silverstone, commentating with Jonny Palmer on the Blancpain Endurance Series GT race, and witnessed at first hand Bentley's historic win on home soil. I was even standing at the right place at the right time (overlooking Woodcote corner) as Steven Kane hustled the big Continental GT up the inside of the McLaren MP4-12C of Andy Soucek to take the lead with just a quarter of an hour of the three hour race remaining.

I would very much like to share impressions (and some data analysis) of that with you too - and I hope that the coming week will be sufficiently free of distraction to allow me to do so. The race also saw a brilliant battle for honours in the PRO-AM Cup, out of which Nissan came home winners. A late race safety car period probably affected the results of both classes, but nevertheless, the fact that the race provided (in my view) three hours of compelling entertainment, at the very pinnacle of GT3 racing, is an indication of the strength of the GT3 category. Stephane Ratel has a very special product in his hands. What it needs is support and nurturing - not a political battle with other organising bodies.

There is a lot going on - in the world of motorsport, in my home life and in my professional career: I am not going to go into further detail here, but I would appreciate your thoughts as I try to steer my way through all the challenges. If all goes well, I will be able to continue to share my musings here. I look forward to doing so!

A Brief Encounter with a Toyota

Regular readers will be aware that I drive an Audi as my regular road car, and that occasionally, the friendly folks in the Audi Press Office lend me something special from their fleet to allow me to experience their latest products and technology. Well, recently I had the opportunity for a brief drive in a Toyota, and I thought I should not only express my gratitude to Toyota but also give my impressions of the experience, by sharing my feelings with you, dear reader. It is possible that the timing might have been opportune, as the month of June beckons, and it strikes me that with that 24 hour contest in France on the horizon, the Sun might just be Rising a little further in the East - if you get my drift...

The Toyota in question was a rather well-specified GT86 - the latest addition to Toyota's sporty range - and apart from a hybrid Corolla that I drove last year, was the only Toyota I've driven since owning a Celica back in the early 1990's. And I have to say I was mightily impressed.

The GT86 is powered by a 4-cylinder boxer engine (a layout I first came across on my first beloved Alfasud), of 'only' 2 litres capacity giving just under 200bhp. So it is not a supercar, by any stretch of the imagination. But it is not priced as one either. The basic GT86, starts from a little over £25,000 - but I understand that the version I drove, with every imaginable TRD extra, would probably set you back at least another £10,000!

So whether I was impressed by the extras, or by the basic car, I can't really tell. First impressions as you settle into the cabin are certainly favourable. It is one of those cars that welcomes you, where you adjust the driving position to make it more comfortable, rather than just being able to get comfortable. All the controls are just in the right places already. Clever Japanese ergonomic engineers, I expect.

Once out on the road, the car is lovely to drive. A six-speed manual gearbox is easy to operate; all-round visibility is good, and the raspy exhaust note supplies just the right amount of decibels without being too raucous.

I find it an interesting car to look at. It is not outrageously styled, and the performance doesn't blow your socks off in the way that some of the high-priced and high performance Audis that I have driven. But its road-holding is outstanding. For a car that is not particularly low-slung, its ability to change direction is astonishing. I found myself just playing with the steering, and marvelling at the responsiveness. In traffic, or out on country lanes it comes close to putting the joy back into motoring. On the motorway, I imagine it's as dull as dishwater.

Although the acceleration was nothing to write home about, it was perfectly adequate. The brakes, though, were outstanding. A confidence-boosting dab when arriving slightly too quickly before a corner where there was uncertain grip levels left me quite happily able to continue on my way, and when another driver decided not to venture out onto a perfectly clear roundabout, I had to come to a complete halt rather more quickly than I had anticipated, but without any drama whatsoever.

It has to be said, though, that the calipers were part of the special TRD package, described in Toyota's publicity material as 'ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and brake assist Vehicle Stability Control with steering assist Traction Control': I've no idea what that all means, but it worked!

Overall, a brilliant driving experience - maybe not in the league of some of the Audis that I have driven over the years, but nevertheless a car with a great deal to offer its driver, and a price tag that is within the grasp of many more possible buyers.

The original Truswell Toyota - circa 1991!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Looking forward to Spa...

The Spa 6 hours promises to be a fascinating contest. Nine cars competing in the LMP1 category, seven of which are works cars, all of them approaching the race with different agendas and technologies, all of them focussing very much on the Le Mans 24 hours, but none of them able to forget that World Endurance Championship points will be at stake.

I will not be there, in person, although I will be covering the race for, based in the spare bedroom at home with more screens than I will be able to shake a stick at. If past experience is anything to go by, this provides a perfectly adequate environment from which to watch the race, and even if I am lacking in “Ardennes Atmosphere”, at least I save myself the time and strain of travelling and gain - or should I say, not lose - valuable brownie points at home.

There are a number of reasons for wanting to post this article immediately ahead of the Spa race; the main one is to draw attention to a number of significant factors that I find interesting, and hence might also be interesting to my readers.

First off, in the GTE class, the Aston Martin Vantages will be (are allowed to be) 15kg lighter than they were at Silverstone. Although the result for the British-built cars was in the end reasonably satisfying, the fact was inescapable that the cars were off the pace. Also, the Porsches will have to carry an additional 25kg, which will certainly prevent them from scampering away up the Kemmel straight at the rate that the Silverstone race implied that they might.

It is in the battle for overall honours, though that the chief interest - and intrigue - lies. What fascinates me is that Audi is the only LMP1 manufacturer that will have a high-downforce (non-Le Mans configuration) chassis at Spa. Fascinating, because historically, it is the Ingolstadt manufacturer that builds its season around the Le Mans 24 hour race - even to the extent of running three cars at Spa.

Having run two Silverstone-optimised chassis at the first round, Toyota has opted to configure both chassis at Spa in full Le Mans trim. Readers may remember that last year, the Japanese team had one car in each specification at Spa, enabling us to compare the low-downforce Toyota with the long-tail Audi.

Audi will once more have a long-tail car at Spa, but it will be in the hands of Marco Bonanomi and Felipe Albuquerque. All due respect to both, but they are two of the most inexperienced WEC drivers in the LMP1 entry, so any conclusions drawn about the expected performance of the long-tail Audi at Le Mans, based on its performance at Spa will be speculative indeed.

Porsche will be concentrating fully on preparing for Le Mans. Any result that is achieved at Spa will be against that background. I expect them to be closer to the Toyotas and Audis than they were at Silverstone, but I believe that we will only see the full potential of Stuttgart unleashed when we convene in France next month.

To my mind, the two season-long Audi entries, despite the strains of the past fortnight spent preparing the cars, will arrive at Spa-Francorchamps as the favourites: primarily because theirs will be the only LMP1 cars running without compromise. It is not in my nature to stick my neck out, but I would not be surprised to see them a lap or two ahead of the field at the end of six hours racing.

The other point of interest, more relevant (perhaps) to Le Mans than to Spa, is that the third Audi will be engineered at both races by Matthias Huber. Huber is from Audi Sport, as opposed to Progressive Motorsport. Last year, you may remember, this car was run by Progressive director, Howden ‘H’ Haynes. Haynes was able to oversee the running of both cars in those races where Audi entered only two cars, but at Spa and Le Mans he was principally focussed on looking after the no. 3 car.

Promotion this year for ‘H’ means that he will be overseeing all three cars (although with Kyle Wilson-Clarke and Leena Gade looking after the no. 1 and no. 2 cars, respectively, he might be giving a bit more of a helping hand to Huber initially). Ralf Jüttner now plays a less technical role, and so Haynes’ competitive spirit will not be lost on any of the Audis in the highest profile races of the year.

Audi's start to the season may not have been the one they would have wished, but no-one at Toyota or Porsche should under-estimate the likelihood of them bouncing back from the setbacks of Silverstone all the stronger.