Friday, 12 December 2014

Looking back on 2014 and forward to 2015

2014 has been rather a hectic year, and I have written rather less on this blog that I have wanted to, particularly in the middle of the year. Pressures of work, family, other commitments: they've all taken their toll, and meant that I’ve not written about all manner of things that I have wanted to.

So I’m going to attempt to address that with this - a rather all-encompassing mish-mash of thoughts, experiences and tales from my year. At least part of it. Since writing here is purely a hobby for me, it has been one of my lower priorities. No, that’s not quite true: it’s a leisure activity, and hence it’s important to me. It is also a platform that I use to indulge myself. I may not make any money out of it, but I take great pleasure in watching how many readers I get; where they are based; and what reaction I get to my various musings.

I’ve been touched by offers from various people of help, in very open-ended forms: not knowing what might improve things for me, people wanting to make things better. As a Christian, I believe that prayer can make a difference, and whether folk have been praying, or whether it is just a general sense of positiveness, or whether pure chance and circumstance; you may all have different views.

But from my side, I am expecting a very different year next year from the one that is about to pass. Before going on to tell you about that though, a reflection on some of the things that I have wanted to write about this year, but failed, being overtaken (and possibly lapped) by events before I had chance put fingers to keyboard.

Back in July, the opportunity arose for me to visit Silverstone on the first day of free practice for the British Grand Prix, and it seemed like a good idea to go. I was surprised to discover, when I checked, that it had been as many as 12 years since I had last been at a Formula 1 race - having seen my first British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1968, and been to every single GP in this country between 1976 and 2002 - I may nowadays associate myself more with endurance and sportscars, but it was not ever thus.

These days there are many F1 fans - they call themselves “motorsport fans” - who rarely visit a race. I don’t want to say this is necessarily a bad thing, for F1 on TV these days is very popular, due entirely to these fans; but personally, I do think that you can’t beat actually being there. To experience things from the spectator’s viewpoint is crucial for me and I had a jolly good day out at Silverstone. Admittedly I didn’t actually get there until mid-way through Free Practice 1, but by doing so I had no dramas with parking, no queues, and got to the trackside very easily indeed. The sun shone and it was great to be able to wander around the enclosures, spending the whole day watching from various points. I was rather disappointed to be told that I couldn’t go in the ‘Silverstone Six’ grandstand: the one that overlooks the inside of the Becketts esses as well as the exit to the Loop; but I did get into the stand on the outside of Becketts, and also at Stowe, Club, and opposite the pits.

It was great too, to see Silverstone looking its best. There is no doubt that when everything is painted, the grass is mown and there are vendors’ stands everywhere, the place has a splendid atmosphere, worthy of any major public event, sporting or otherwise.

I'm not sure whether Formula 1 lived up to my expectations though. For me, the lack of noise was an issue, even for one who has grown to love the whispering diesel prototypes that do so well in endurance racing. The only point of jaw-dropping, knocking-my-socks-off, in-your-face Formula 1 was when I stood on the outside of the track, at Maggotts, the first element of the Becketts esses. There you can get yourself pretty close to the track, and the barely bridled violence of a Grand Prix car at speed can be felt in every fibre of one's body. But without that immediacy, it was - at times - a bit tame, especially at slow corners. Granted of course, I was just there for a free practice session, and that never quite grabs the attention in the same way as a full-blown race, but still, I felt there was something out-of-reach about Formula 1 when I look back to the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s whereas I had the impression that today’s cars were being driven by mere mortals.

Apart from the Grand Prix, I didn’t go to any races ‘for fun’ this year. Indeed, following the Spa 24 hours in July, I didn’t manage to get to any other races this year at all - apart from those kart races in which my son was competing! After trips in the first half of the year to Dubai, Bathurst, Silverstone, Le Mans and Nürburgring, this was not such a sacrifice, and family holidays in Spain and Warwickshire (yes, Warwickshire) at least enabled me to increase my store of brownie points in August.

Covering the five remaining rounds of the World Endurance Championship for from my spare bedroom might not have been exotic, but it worked pretty well, in my opinion - and your views would of course be welcome. Although it would have been fun to travel to Texas, Japan, China, Bahrain and Brazil, I am pretty sure that my home and work life would not have survived such trips.

Without the assistance of the kind folk at Al Kamel Systems (the WEC timekeepers) and of SBG Sports Software, who loaned me a version of their RaceWatch software, it would have been a far more difficult exercise though. These systems together enabled me to follow what was going on halfway across the globe and indeed furnished me with more information than John Hindhaugh and Graham Goodwin were getting in their commentary booth at the various circuits.

Inspired by my experiences of ‘remote commentary’, and also by the discovery that one LMP1 team had more than 250 working technicians at Le Mans this year, I began to work on an article entitled ‘Remote Engineering’; the purpose of which was to make the case that a lot of the strategy work, telemetry monitoring, tactical decision-making and more, can be done ‘back at base’ and doesn’t need to have people travelling to all the races at all. Maybe that’s an article that will get written in 2015.

I’ve also wanted to tell you about some good books that I’ve read this year. Tony Brooks’ autobiography, ‘Poetry in Motion’ was probably the best of the motor racing ones. In his foreword, Brooks boasts (or maybe admits is a better word), that it is all his own work. Despite offers of help from professional writers, he decided to write it himself. It shows too, but it is a good read for all that. Brooks manages to confront his critics, puff out his chest and boast of his achievements, but all in a modest way. As one who spent his career up against the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, he hardly disguises his opinions of his contemporaries, and provides some splendid insights into a somewhat different world that was motor racing fifty or sixty years ago.

I tend to shy away from expensive ‘photo books’, and hence bought the latest book ‘Uncrowned King’ about Jochen Rindt with some trepidation. I had experienced Rindt's career as it happened, and remember to this day coming home from Crystal Palace and seeing an Evening Standard news placard from the top deck of the 164 bus at Rose Hill blurting out the news: “Racing star killed at Monza”.

I had read Heinz Prüller’s biography, and wasn’t sure that I needed to revisit the subject. However, partly prompted by the fact that David Tremayne is a writer that I enjoy reading and also by the fact that Rindt belongs to that special band of drivers to have won Le Mans; I took the plunge, and am very glad that I did. It may be expensive, and it may have a lot of pictures, but if you're looking for a last minute Christmas present for a friend, then you could do a lot worse. It’s a book that I suspect a lot of people don’t have.

At the moment, I am part way through ‘Doctor on the Grid’ by Tony Goodwin. Although I haven’t seen him for years, I got to know Tony quite well in my days at Brands Hatch; and a nicer man you couldn’t wish to meet. He may not be a household name, but like the tales of Perry McCarthy and Tommy Byrne, his story is worth telling and definitely worth a read. Like Brooks, Goodwin combined a passion (and a considerable, if largely unrecognised talent) for racing with a proper job in the medical profession, and both talk of the difficulty of balancing that passion with more mundane but important things like job and family. Which of course is a theme that I know well.

A theme that brings me on to my plans for 2015. After thirty-five years of working full-time in the IT industry, the plan is to spend no more than three days per week doing that next year. The idea is that this will free up time for pursuits such as writing and talking about cars and racing. I’m not sure yet how I shall make ends meet, but I am optimistic that I have enough money-earning potential that I shall be able to spend more time doing the things that I enjoy, whether that be crafting prose, analysing spreadsheets, talking into a microphone or simply spending more time with my family. If I make money enough money for a holiday, then that will be a bonus!