Friday, 23 December 2016

Looking back on the 2016 WEC season - GTE-Pro

Over the course of the 2016 WEC season, I became increasingly dissatisfied as ever more adjustments were made to the GTE-Pro class Balance of Performance parameters. I have a great deal of respect for the technical wizards that work out how these parameters should be set in order to ensure good, competitive racing, but the fact that nearly every race was presaged by a missive from the Endurance Committee announcing further adjustments, smacked to me less of balancing and more of a handicap system based on previous performances.

The extent to which these were the result of lobbying by various manufacturers cannot fully be known. However, the fuss before the Le Mans 24-hour race this year, which resulted in the very awkward precedent being set of a new list of parameters being issued after qualifying, left little doubt that there was much to-ing and fro-ing going on between the representatives of the teams and the ACO.

Now that the curtain has come down on the season, the trophies have been awarded, and the dust has settled, it might be an appropriate moment to reflect on the season. The World Endurance Cup for GT Manufacturers was won by Ferrari ahead of Aston Martin, with just 7 points separating them. The Cup for GT Drivers wasn’t quite so close, but put the balance back to the British firm, with Aston Martin drivers Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim taking the champions’ trophy ahead of Ferrari drivers Davide Rigon / Sam Bird and Gianmaria Bruni / James Calado.

In a sense, then, honours were roughly even. But how much was that down to the teams and the drivers, and how much due to the Endurance Committee bulletins?

Throughout the WEC season, I measure the performance of each of the GTE-Pro cars by comparing the average of the best 20% of green flag laps in each race. Taking the best in each race as 100%, I then see where the other cars lie as a percentage of the best. To minimise the impact of different drivers, I merely take the better car in each race from each manufacturer. For Aston Martin, the picture looks like this:

At first sight, the fact that the Astons were victorious on three occasions, (at Mexico, COTA and Bahrain) matches fairly well with those races when their cars were the fastest. At the Nürburgring, the best that Thiim and Sørensen could salvage was third place behind the two Ferraris, despite having the fastest car.

But this ignores those Balance of Performance adjustments. To take everything into account here would be far too complicated – and probably beyond my capability – so I am going to simplify matters. For Aston Martin, there are two principal parameters that are used to affect their performance: the weight and the diameter of the orifice allowing air into the engine. Obviously, the greater the weight, the slower the car will be, and the larger the orifice, the faster the car will go. So I have combined these two figures for each race throughout the season into a single “performance factor”, taking the inverse of the weight and multiplying by the air restrictor size.

Looking only at the performance factors for Aston Martin, here’s what it looks like for each race:

Remarkably similar to the results graph, isn’t it? To my mind, this merely demonstrates that for most of the season, Aston Martin’s results were due as much to BoP adjustments as they were to any efforts of the team or drivers and I don’t mean any offence to any of them by that. The only anomalies are in the final two races of the season, where in Shanghai, the team seems to have under-performed, and in Bahrain, where they did surprisingly well.

As I already mentioned, partly the problem is that I have over-simplified matters. In Shanghai, the Ford GTs had the upper hand, as the Ferraris were handicapped with boost pressure restrictions. Similar limits were then applied to Ford for the final round at Bahrain, along with 20kg more weight. As a result, in the season finale, the no. 97 Aston Martin (in the hands of Darren Turner and Jonny Adam) was measurably quicker than the champions elect in the no. 95, and it is this car that shows the big boost in the final round. I suspect that Thiim/Sørensen were by this stage unconsciously driving with restraint, knowing that the drivers’ championship was in the bag.

Apart from the fact that there is an implication here that the FIA/ACO was merely chasing to catch up with the progress being made at Ferrari, Ford and Aston Martin, what seems wrong is that the organisation seemed to control the destiny of the trophies. I mentioned already that the adjustments between qualifying and race at Le Mans might be taken to set a precedent. What was particularly galling was that the ACO admitted that Ford had been hiding the true potential of their car from the scrutineers; an offence that went unpunished in all the re-adjustments to the performance parameters.

At the Spa 24 hours, Mercedes was accused of similar offences, and paid the penalty of a five-minute stop/go penalty to be served in the first hour of the race. Some red faces in board rooms no doubt ensued.

The problem with graphs like the ones on this page is that they do not really help racing teams in their pursuit of perfection. It may help encourage other manufacturers to take the plunge and enter the championship, but I am not sure whether it is then for the right reasons. I rather hope that 2016 has not set a precedent, and that “Decisions of the Endurance Committee” are somewhat fewer and further between in 2017.

For those who want them, here are the numbers behind the graphs above.
Venue Result Speed (%age) Weight (kg) Restrictor (mm)
Silverstone 3rd 98.77 1233 29.8
Spa 3rd 99.14 1213 29.8
Le Mans 5th 99.35 1183 29.4
Nürburgring 3rd 100 1183 29.8
Mexico 1st 100 1183 29.8
Austin 1st 99.88 1183 29.4
Fuji 5th 99.56 1183 29.0
Shanghai 4th 99.39 1183 29.2
Bahrain 1st 99.96 1183 29.2

Oh, and before I forget, Merry Christmas one and all!

Monday, 19 December 2016

‘That Horrid Motor Track’

Lack of time prevented me from writing about a splendid day out spent earlier this year at Brooklands, in the company of Charles Dressing and Paul Tarsey. We were hosted by the ever-enthusiastic and knowledgeable Allan Winn, the CEO of the Brooklands Trust, which looks after the Museum and the site.

The phrase ‘looks after’ hardly does justice to what Allan does – Brooklands is in the process of a grand plan for re-engineering, which will include a restoration of the Finishing Straight. If you are at all interested, I suggest you visit the website and then arrange a visit for yourself. You surely won’t be disappointed.

However, while digging through my memorabilia shortly afterwards, I came across the following, which was sent to me (I forget by whom) more than forty years ago. It is from a diary written in 1907, and apart from its content, I just love the period feel of the prose.

We went down to the Barnes’s at Fox Holm near Weybridge. Mr and Mrs Locke King came to dinner. They have been building this awful motor track and are so hated by their neighbours, many of whose houses they have simply ruined, that hardly anyone will speak to them. I was rather uncertain whether I had better go and see this horrid motor track, but as they offered to take me in the Fox Warren motor I thought it would be stupid of me not to go. I was well rewarded for going by having a nice talk with Mrs Wilfred Ward, the clever Roman Catholic (formerly Miss Hope Scott) who has written novels (One Small Scruple, Out of Due Time, and others). I made her acquaintance, first at Mrs Cave’s, at Ditcham, long ago.

The motor track is a perfect nightmare. It has cost more than £150,000 to construct; a great oval of cement 60-100 yards wide and more than 2½ miles round. It is for motor races. Within it stands a ruined farm and cut down trees, mere desolation. A more unenjoyable place to come to on a hot Sunday afternoon I cannot imagine. The beautiful Surrey landscape looks down into this purgatory of motor stables and everything that motors require, seats for thousands of spectators cut in the side of the hill. There were some twenty of these snorting beasts, and Mr and Mrs Locke King were there looking most depressed. But as she offered to drive me round in her motor I got boldly in and sat by her on the ‘box’. She put it to 43 miles an hour – I felt my eyes pressed in by the air at that terrific speed, and I could hardly breathe. I went round again in the Fox Warren motor, much slower. I find I don’t care to ‘go round’ – what I like are the lanes and roads and views, and the getting to one’s destination so quickly and easily. The enormous size of the arena, almost like a great Roman work, and the controlled strength of the motors, prevents this great horrid place from being vulgar. I might have felt differently last week when 20,000 spectators arrived, and 1,200 motors. No wonder the neighbours thirst for Locke King’s blood.
From A Victorian Diarist: later extracts from the journals of Mary, Lady Monkswell, edited by the Hon. E C F Collier, 1946

Which goes to show that you cannot please all the people all the time. Sadly, Lady Monkswell died in 1930, but I wonder whether she was ever won over to the sport? I fear probably not. Now if they would have visited Le Mans, it might have been a different story...

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Reflecting on the state we’re in

It had to happen, I suppose. It was inevitable that a major manufacturer would withdraw from the World Endurance Championship at some point. But in my view, the bombshell that Audi dropped when it announced its intention to withdraw from the championship at the end of the current season, is not as severe as the one that Peugeot dropped when it pulled out at the beginning of 2012. At that time, remember, the FIA had only recently launched their World Endurance Championship, and the title that Peugeot and Audi had been fighting over was the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the final round of which the French manufacturer had won, with a dominant 1-2 victory by a lap over the nearest opposition.

In January 2012, the latest 908 HDI was already at Sebring, ready for testing, when the plug was pulled on the racing programme, leaving a large number of racing folk with uncertain futures, to say nothing of a gaping hole in the championship. By June 2012, two Toyotas had been hastily prepared to lend some respectability to the grid for Le Mans and in 2014, Porsche arrived with the immediately-competitive 919 Hybrid. And ever since, we’ve been treated to some of the best racing ever seen at such a high level of the sport.

But to put this into context, let us not forget that in 2003, 2004 and 2005 Joest Racing was not present at Le Mans (although obviously various team personnel were involved in the race). On the other hand, readers may remember 1996 and 1997, when the team cobbled together an entry for Le Mans – and ended up winning – with the WSC95 Porsche.

Joest Racing certainly has access to several R18s in their workshop, including a non-hybrid ultra that ran in 2012. Although it would be five years old next year, it would probably still be able to carry off the Privateers’ trophy. If Joest is going to continue to be involved in the World Endurance Championship, it is going to have to find some funding from somewhere. It wouldn’t be the first time. Think back to various Porsches 956s and 962s entered by Joest in the eighties – they had some substantial sponsorship packages. Don’t forget that Reinhold was a successful driver in the past. He didn’t get there by paying all his own bills. There may also be those in the Audi AG boardroom who would welcome the opportunity to see some “four rings” branding at Le Mans in 2017.

Racing goes in cycles. It always has. Periods of strength are followed by periods of weakness. And the period of weakness for which we are now headed is only relative. So I am not about to turn away from sportscar racing - I think there will be some great races next year. Nevertheless, I thought I would add my few thoughts here to those of everyone else who has written or spoken on the subject.

The first thing to say is that no-one in my circle of contacts has really expressed surprise at Audi’s decision to withdraw. Rumours that it was to happen at the end of 2017 were increasing and no-one denies that what Audi has been this year is nothing like the force that it was even as recently as two or three years ago.

Secondly, I do not believe that it is necessarily a good thing if endurance races are without fail close, exciting races with side-by-side racing and close finishes. Such is not the nature of the beast, and if those in control have such an aim, then we are headed in the wrong direction.

Thirdly, getting more manufacturers involved in LMP1 is not worth doing if it is not done properly. Whether it is BMW, Peugeot or Ford (all of which I could easily show up with a prototype in the next five years) we must avoid another fiasco like that of Nissan’s LMP1 foray in 2015. Although the episode demonstrated admirably that it is quite hard to do what Porsche and Toyota have done, the Nismo effort failed to deliver much else. The sport needs to get on with what it does and allow nature – or whatever it is that governs these things – to take its course.

Enough of the philosophy though: on a pragmatic level, what’s going to happen in 2017? Well, there are still things to be decided, for sure. The most crucial of those decisions is for Toyota. Take two cars to Le Mans, or three? The arguments given in previous years for only entering two cars are surely still valid? If not, and if the view taken in the Japanese boardroom is that extreme steps must be taken to avert the disappointments of Le Mans 2016, then the incremental cost of a third car is not as much as the potential benefit of having a 50% better chance of getting the car to the finish. Then, although Porsche has been tight-lipped on the subject, surely Weissach will respond with a third Porsche 919 as well? In turn, this would be good news for the ACO – needing to fill 60 garages at Le Mans – as well as for Messrs Jarvis, Tréluyer, Lotterer, Fässler et al.

Otherwise, it is difficult to see where the former Audi drivers might end up. One assumes that Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval will occupy themselves with Formula E, but what of the others? Well, I would suggest that they go and have a chat with Nicolas Lapierre. I grant you that LMP2 will look different next year, but I reckon that the Frenchman, who was unceremoniously dumped by Toyota at the end of 2014, might have some interesting thoughts on the competitiveness of the class and how much fun there is to be derived from the racing – if not the financial reward.

It was interesting that the Audi announcement specifically mentioned Formula E as being one of its focus points for the immediate future. While I agree with Gary Watkins in Autosport that the remarks might have been disingenuous, I wonder also whether it means that Daniel Abt’s team might be getting even more resource from Audi next year. Is a Formula E arms race about to start?

Back to endurance racing though. Even if the World Endurance Championship may have suffered a blow with Audi’s withdrawal, there is no sign of any reduction in interest in LMP2, LMP3 or GT racing. Talk of convergence of GTE and GT3 racing has been replaced by arguments about who can provide the best LMP3 racing. GT4 is flourishing on the national level. All in all, things could be a lot worse.

Stéphane Ratel’s Blancpain GT Series has announced a ten round series for 2017 – five for the endurance series, two of which depart from the normal three hours duration - the 1000km race into the night at Paul Ricard, and the showpiece Spa 24 hours, surely one of the highlights of the season.

The Creventic organisation – addressing a somewhat different marketplace from Ratel – is expanding in 2017, with a six-round GT series, featuring three 24-hour races, rounded off by a non-championship 24-hour race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

Now Creventic doesn’t really target the sort of teams that contend the World Endurance Championship, but nevertheless, if you include the ADAC’s Nürburgring 24 hours, you have six 24-hour races to participate in, if you are so minded, without counting Le Mans or Daytona. With several high-profile 12-hour races as well, is it all too much?

It depends. At the Brno Epilog 24-hour race last month, I had the sense that the culture of a 24-hour race has changed, certainly in the Creventic series. There was a time when nothing would be spared to get the car to the finish, when taking the flag was everything. At Le Mans, that culture still exists. But in some of the ‘lesser’ 24-hour races that we have these days, there is an element of “let’s just pack up and get some sleep”, which was new to me this year. At least in part, I think, that is because we simply have too much of a good thing. It is still special to race through the night, to pit yourself against fatigue and push through to the end, but like many things these days, “it isn’t like it used to be”!

I am put in mind of the athletes that one reads about these days that complete multiple marathons – often on consecutive days. I have nothing but respect for such people, but it is inevitable that by their actions, they devalue the single event. In effect, more is less. Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath’ will know the effect of the inverted ‘U’ curve. Oftentimes, more is less.

As always, your comments are welcome!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Epilog Brno

A relatively disappointing 30 cars are on the provisional entry list for the first ever 24-hour race to be held in the Czech Republic this weekend – the Creventic-organised “Epilog” Brno 24 hours. Originally scheduled to be a 12-hour race, and hence with points being awarded at the half-way point, one briefly wonders what the point is of staying up all night, if there is nothing to play for but the honour?

That said, Creventic has always been about the participation. Their emphasis has been on providing the opportunity to enable enthusiasts to race, rather than on setting up a stage for prima donnas to preen their egos or mercenary ‘win at all costs’ pot-hunters. For sure the championship positions are important, but – I hope – the joy of racing will ensure that a good race to the end takes place.

Last year’s 12-hour Epilog attracted 50 starters, and the lowest number of starters for any of Crevetic’s International Endurance Racing Series races this year has been 43 at Zandvoort. With the cancellation of the Touring Car Endurance Series (TCES) race at Meppen in Germany, Brno has now been nominated as the final points-scoring round of the TCES, but this seems not to have bolstered the entry that much.

The A6 class – for the big GT3 cars – is down to a measly five cars, meaning that the distinction between A6-Pro and A6-Am will this weekend be blurred. In effect, there will be only one class; however, different balances of performance (BOP) will be applied as normal to provide entrants the opportunity to run as “Pro-BOP”, “Am-BOP-advantage” or “Am-BOP-neutral”. The evidence from previous races is that the only way that an “Am-BOP” car can win overall is if all – or should that be both? – the “Pro-BOP” cars strike problems.

That said, I’m hoping that the five cars that we do have will provide some good racing – they certainly provide variety enough with one each of Mercedes, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini. Favourite in my book has to be the Precote Herberth Motorsport Porsche that has won the last three rounds of the Series in the hands of Alfred and Robert Renauer, Daniel Alleman and Ralf Bohn. The car has been perfectly prepared and the team’s races perfectly executed, so beating them is going to have to be done on pace.

Scuderia Praha has entered its Ferrari 488 GT3 – which, if it races, will be the first time this season that the latest Maranello product has competed in a Creventic-run race. I say if, because it looks to me as though Creventic’s Balance of Performance favours the normally-aspirated 458 GT3 over the turbo-charged 488. Certainly the 458 can match the pace of the 911, but will the 488 be able to repeat the team’s 2015 (12-hour) win this weekend?

If Scuderia Praha doesn’t, then who will? The Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán is probably the only candidate. The addition of Super GT hotshot Andrea Caldarelli won’t do the team’s chances any harm, but GRT will have to ensure reliability at least as good as the Barwell example managed at Barcelona in September.

Twenty-four hour races are always enthralling though. The challenge of getting to the finish is fascinating to watch, and if – make that when – races break out in the lower classes, for position, or even championship points, it is impossible not to get sucked into the story.

There are five 991 Cup Porsches to fight over class honours and there are three KTM X-Bows (one entered as an SP2 car and the other two in SP3) entered. Only two pukka entries are in each of the A2 and A3 classes, with the two BMW M235 cup cars being absorbed into class A3. but again, variety abounds with Ferrari, Audi, MARC Cars, BMW, Seat, Honda and Peugeot all being represented.

Perhaps the other talking point, as Creventic closes its books on what has been its most successful season so far, is the expansion planned for 2017. The team – or should I say ‘family’, for Creventic is without question the easiest group of people to work with in motor sport – has big plans for 2017, with a seven-round International Endurance Series headlined by GT3 cars, five rounds of the Touring Car Endurance Series as well as a yet-to-be-announced schedule of prototype races, commencing with three three-hour races in Dubai in January.

The world is, unfortunately, littered with examples of successful small enterprises that have grown too quickly, or too much, and have been unable to sustain their success. I sincerely hope that Creventic is not one of them, but the shift from what they currently do very well to what they think they can do sits uncomfortably with me.

And I hope that the relatively small size of the entry at Brno does not become regarded in the future as a symptom that failed to be recognised.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Some details from Paul Ricard 24 hours

In some ways the Paul Ricard 24 hour race, organised by the Creventic organisation for GT3 cars, 24-hour specials and touring cars, was an unusual race. It was not unusual to see a Porsche winning, nor was the warm, dry, sunny weather a surprise. What marked it out as unusual was the fact that only one of the leading runners had a fault-free race. Not only that, but those that had problems seemed to have more, and lost more time in the pits as a result.

Out of the ten A6-Pro cars entered, only five finished and a look at the time spent in the pits for each of these is revealing in determining the destination of the silverware.

Car No. Team Car No. of stops Total time in pit
911 Herberth Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3-R 20 1h 30m 28s
30 Ram Racing Mercedes AMG GT3 20 1h 48m 16s
27 SPS automotive Mercedes AMG GT3 22 2h 02m 11s
41 HTP Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 24 2h 24m 25s
49 Drivex Audi R8 LMS ultra 25 5h 55m 15s

However, it is worth noting that the winning margin of the Porsche was 14 laps, or very nearly 32 minutes in terms of time. So although Ram Racing spent around 18 minutes longer in the pit than the Porsche, it still had another 14 minutes that was lost in straight speed on the track.

Let’s look at the pace of the fastest six cars – again I will constrain myself to the A6-Pro cars, and I am well aware that this excludes some quick A6-Am class runners - three of which filled the top six places - but we will return to them later.

Car No. Car Fastest lap Average of best 100 laps Average of best 20%
911 Herberth Porsche 2m 08.311s 2m 10.2s 2m 10.3s
30 Ram Mercedes 2m 08.512s 2m 10.3s 2m 10.4s
27 SPS Mercedes 2m 08.740s 2m 10.4s 2m 10.5s
41 HTP Mercedes 2m 07.261s 2m 09.5s 2m 09.5s
49 Drivex Audi 2m 09.315s 2m 12.3s 2m 12.0s
11 Scuderia Praha Ferrari 2m 08.259s 2m 09.8s 2m 09.8s
963 GRT Lamborghini 2m 07.805s 2m 09.9s 2m 09.9s
14 Optimum Audi 2m 09.023s 2m 11.9s 2m 10.9s
33 Car Collection Audi 2m 10.468s 2m 14.4s 2m 12.6s

Interesting is the fact that there is little difference between taking the fastest lap and taking the average lap times: the gaps are around the same - apart from the Lamborghini, which could not translate a fast single lap into as fast average laps. It does seem that the Audi R8 was at a (slight) disadvantage, and one wonders (quietly) what HTP was doing that made their Mercedes so much quicker than the other AMG GT3s.

And although the Hankook tyres are specified for all teams, the pressure and camber angle had a large role to play as well. The fact that (left-rear) punctures impacted the race so heavily bears testament to that.

Looking specifically at the difference between the Herberth Porsche and the Ram Mercedes, the British team’s fast laps were only a tenth or so slower than those of the German’s. Over 600 laps, that only accounts for one minute of the fourteen that I identified earlier as being the difference between the cars. To get to the bottom of this, it is necessary to look more closely at the lap times of the individual drivers.

An aspect of GT3 racing in general and Creventic-organised events in particular is that the cars are relatively easy to drive. “The car may break traction, but it does so progressively, and any slide is relatively easy to control,” one driver told me. That is not to say that all drivers can get the same out of the car though and not only the combination of drivers in crews was important, but also how the drivers were used. Here is the data for the drivers in each of the first five cars in the overall results.
911 - Herberth Motorsport Porsche
Name Laps Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Robert Renauer 174 6h 44m 59s 2m 08.311s 2m 09.8s
Daniel Allemann 153 5h 43m 12s 2m 10.470s 2m 11.6s
Ralf Bohn 133 5h 08m 15s 2m 11.120s 2m 12.2s
Alfred Renauer 131 5h 05m 26s 2m 08.774s 2m 09.9s

30 - Ram Racing Mercedes
Name Laps Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Stuart Hall 183 7h 09m 15s 2m 08.512s 2m 10.2s
Jamie Campbell-Walter 195 7h 23m 27s 2m 09.227s 2m 10.3s
Roald Goethe 49 2h 03m 19s 2m 15.794s 2m 16.4s
Dan Brown 150 5h 50m 16s 2m 09.922s 2m 10.6s

10 - Hofor-Racing Mercedes (A6-Am, minimum ref. lap time 2m 13s)
Name Laps Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Christiaan Frankenhout 155 6h 09m 04s 2m 11.937s *2m 13.3s
Kenneth Heyer 111 4h 08m 55s 2m 10.168s **2m 13.3s
Roland Eggimann 143 5h 41m 37s 2m 13.562s 2m 15.5s
Chantal Kroll 106 4h 17m 52s 2m 15.447s 2m 16.0s
Michael Kroll 62 2h 28m 09s 2m 16.537s 2m 17.4s
*excludes four joker laps
**excludes two joker laps

27 - SPS automotive-performance Mercedes
Name Laps Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Lance-David Arnold 143 5h 29m 32s 2m 08.740s 2m 10.2s
Valentin Pierburg 62 2h 36m 58s 2m 11.764s 2m 13.4s
Alex Müller 166 6h 39m 48s 2m 08.982s 2m 10.4s
Stéphane Kox 46 1h 53m 50s 2m 12.459s 2m 13.4s
Tom Onslow-Cole 158 5h 51m 49s 2m 09.352s 2m 10.5s

34 - Car Collection Audi (A6-Am, minimum ref. lap time 2m 13s)
Name Laps Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Ingo Vogler 124 4h 58m 51s 2m 12.830s *2m 14.1s
Elmar Grimm 152 5h 51m 36s 2m 12.597s **2m 14.0s
Johannes Dr. Kirchhoff 123 5h 09m 12s 2m 13.903s 2m 14.7s
Gustav Edelhoff 82 3h 10m 37s 2m 15.716s 2m 17.0s
Max Edelhoff 89 3h 27m 42s 2m 12.065s ***2m 13.4s
*excludes two joker laps
**excludes one joker lap
***excludes six joker laps

I have included the two cars in the top five that were from the A6-Am category in this analysis, and it makes interesting reading. It seems to me that only the HTP Mercedes, the Scuderia Praha Ferrari and the Grasser Lamborghini had the pace to beat the Herberth Porsche and all three had problems. The Precote Porsche, just as it did at Zandvoort, had a perfect race.

Herberth Motorsport celebrates its 20th anniversary in motor sport this year, having begun racing in 1996 in the ADAC GT Cup. Founded by Alfred Herberth (father of Robert and Alfred), it was a proud moment for him when his twin sons joined the grid of the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland in 2003. The team was rocked by the death of Alfred senior in a road accident in 2012, leaving Robert and Alfred to take over the team. Somehow, I think dad would be proud of the team’s achievements this year.

The competition will need to improve its reliability, if not its pace, in the two remaining 24-hour races of the season at Barcelona and Brno. If Herberth hadn’t made it look so easy in the South of France, we would have had a better race!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The State of Silverstone

I spent a rather good day at Silverstone last Friday – on the first day of practice for the 2016 British Grand Prix. It was one of those days when I got to experience racing from the spectator side of the fence – one of those days, indeed, that reminded me of those days when as a young man, I became a motor racing fan. It was the second such day in the space of a week, as I also attended the London E-Prix at Battersea Park, but apart from the fact that both involved single seater racing cars and the word “Prix”, there was not a lot in common between them.

Bearing in mind that we actually bought “Pit walk” tickets for Battersea, the cost, to the paying spectator, was slightly less to the Grand Prix Friday than it was for the E-Prix, although travel costs meant that the two days were very comparable in price.

I did the same ‘double’ last year and recorded my impressions here, but I have to say that Silverstone gave me a far better day out than Battersea Park, and without hefty persuasion from my son, I don’t think I’ll be going back to Formula E wherever it ends up next year. The trouble is that, whatever the organisers of the E-Prix do, they will struggle with trying to give the spectator a decent view of the track. And by its very nature, it is rather a one-trick pony: although the Park offers off-track entertainment, with only one race on the programme, it doesn’t really stand a chance against the offering that Silverstone serves up.

Arriving at Silverstone last Friday just as the first Free Practice session for the Formula 1 cars was starting, I sat in the grandstand opposite the pits and ticked off the cars in the entry list. My first (and probably only) complaint – the PA speakers were either not switched on at all, or were woefully quiet. Luckily I had remembered to bring my FM radio, so could keep up-to-date with what was going on thanks to the entertaining and informative commentary team of David Addison, Ian Titchmarsh and Bob Constanduros, assisted during support race action by Alan Hyde.

There were at least three big screens in sight on the pits straight, and the current standings were easily visible on the Rolex scoreboard gantry under which the cars drove as they exited the pit lane. Provided you knew that the second-named driver in the programme was the one driving the car with the yellow roll-hoop camera, and were familiar with the three-letter abbreviations of the drivers’ names, all was reasonably straightforward. I enjoyed watching Charles Leclerc at the wheel of the ‘first’ Haas, and knowing it was him rather than Gutiérrez.

For the GP2 Free Practice session, that came next, I moved round to the grandstand on the outside of Club Corner – and what a good view that provides! At £300 a seat for next year’s GP, I suspect it probably exceeds the Truswell family budget, but I would expect them to be sold out by Christmas!

One of the things I miss from my days of PA commentary at lower classes of racing is watching new, young drivers coming up ‘through the ranks’, and watching the young guns in GP2 and GP3 had me reminiscing anew at the same time as wondering which of the current crop would end up in F1 racing in future, which would find homes in prototypes and GT racing and which would sink without trace.

For the second F1 Free Practice session I wandered down to Stowe, and I found the availability of such a wide range of hot and cold food and drink simply astonishing. There was, quite literally, something for every taste, whether that was Indian, Thai, hog roast, burgers, fish and chips, beer, lager or simply coffee or tea. Of course, although it was busy on Friday, the crowd was probably less than half that which would be there on Sunday, so how they all coped as the weekend wore on, I cannot say. Based on Friday’s experience though, queuing times were entirely manageable.

And despite its reputation, Silverstone has some pretty good vantage points for the spectator. After the spectacle of Hangar Straight and Stowe Corner, I continued my walk: Becketts, Copse, Woodcote and Luffield, all pretty proper, by any measure, even if overtaking opportunities in a race situation would be limited at any of them.

Apparently even Bernie Ecclestone was complimentary about the place, calling it a worthy Grand Prix venue. Maybe at last the investment and dedication of the BRDC has been rewarded. I was also pleased to hear about the Silverstone Heritage Experience, which is due to open in October 2018. The idea, as Sally Reynolds, Chief Executive of Silverstone Heritage Ltd., told me on Friday evening, is to provide not only an additional attraction for those visiting Silverstone on racedays, but also to provide a reason for visiting in its own right. More than 450,000 visitors per year are anticipated to the interactive, inspirational and educational experience – to be housed in the World War Two hangar to the right of the main entrance.

In addition to providing a permanent exhibition, research facilities to the BRDC archive and tours around the circuit, a further objective of the project is to encourage more people into the engineering industry, recognising as it does the part that the UK-based motor sport industry has played in the development of the sport across the world. The project has received a £9.1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is looking to raise a similar amount from businesses and individuals to ensure that the proposed timetable is met. With the patronage of HRH Prince Harry, and Ian Phillips in charge of fund-raising, the project has a good foundation from which to move forward.

I look forward to seeing it all come to pass. Silverstone deserves it!

Thursday, 7 July 2016

LMP2 at Le Mans - Some Answers?

Less than three weeks have passed since the dramatic events of the 2016 Le Mans 24-hour race, but somehow it seems longer than that. I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing the emotions of the week with a lot of people. Having been to Le Mans every year since 1981, it remains a very special week, but somehow perhaps not as much of a highlight as it once was. That said, the impressions of 2016 will remain with me for a long time. I have read a lot of what has been written, and listened to a lot of what has been said in the last three weeks – but there has been so much that I have probably missed most of it. Undoubtedly the rights and wrongs of the stories from the LMP1 and GTE classes warranted the extensive coverage, and yet, somehow I feel that there are elements of the stories that might never be known – at least not in public.

But before moving on, I want to spend some time reflecting on the LMP2 class, which may have been put into the shade a little by the shenanigans in the other classes, but nevertheless holds stories of its own. It was interesting that the winning Signatech Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes not only had a slower average lap time, but also spent longer in the pits than the second-placed G-Drive Oreca 05 of René Rast, Will Stevens and Roman Rusinov. As regular readers will know, I use the average of the best 20% of green laps to establish the ultimate performance of the car, and the results of the class were as follows.
Pos. No. Team Race Best Lap Time Race Average Lap Time
1 36 Signatech Alpine 3m 37.195s 3m 39.038s
2 26 G-Drive Oreca 3m 36.558s 3m 38.739s
3 37 SMP Racing BR01 3m 40.065s 3m 42.476s
4 42 Strakka Gibson 3m 38.795s 3m 41.968s
5 33 Eurasia Oreca 3m 38.605s 3m 41.700s
6 41 Greaves Ligier 3m 41.806s 3m 44.820s
7 27 SMP BR01 3m 39.445s 3m 42.371s
8 23 Panis Barthez Ligier 3m 39.629s 3m 42.721s
9 49 Michael Shank Ligier 3m 37.339s 3m 41.315s
10 43 RGR Morand Ligier 3m 38.734s 3m 41.406s
11 30 ESM Ligier 3m 42.146s 3m 44.037s
12 25 Algarve Pro Ligier 3m 40.450s 3m 43.218s
13 40 Krohn Ligier 3m 39.998s 3m 43.442s
14 22 SO24! Ligier 3m 43.769s 3m 47.349s
15 48 Murphy Oreca 03 3m 41.582s 3m 44.470s
16 31 ESM Ligier 3m 39.156s 3m 42.189s
17 34 Race Performance Oreca 3m 43.647s 3m 46.774s

And the time spent in the pit lane was:
Pos. No. Team No. of Pit Stops Total Time in Pits
1 36 Signatech Alpine 33 46m 53s
2 26 G-Drive Oreca 35 41m 12s
3 37 SMP Racing BR01 32 41m 05s
4 42 Strakka Gibson 33 39m 52s
5 33 Eurasia Oreca 33 52m 49s
6 41 Greaves Ligier 33 45m 07s
7 27 SMP BR01 36 1h 05m 13s
8 23 Panis Barthez Ligier 33 51m 33s
9 49 Michael Shank Ligier 32 49m 49s
10 43 RGR Morand Ligier 32 1h 16m 23s
11 30 ESM Ligier 30 45m 38s
12 25 Algarve Pro Ligier 34 1h 08m 37s
13 40 Krohn Ligier 32 59m 12s
14 22 SO24! Ligier 32 1h 39m 50s
15 48 Murphy Oreca 03 32 2h 10m 07s
16 31 ESM Ligier 31 3h 57m 50s
17 34 Race Performance Oreca 33 3h 33m 57s

There were also noteworthy performances from the Oreca 05s of both Manor and Thiriet by TDS Racing. Roberto Merhi, Matt Rao and Tor Graves held the class lead for 44 laps in the British-entered car and also set the fastest lap in LMP2, thanks to a lap of 3m 36.259s by Merhi. In the Thiriet car, Pierre Thiriet, sharing with Mathias Beche and Ryo Hirakawa, exchanged the lead for much of the race before Pierre came to grief early on Sunday morning in the gravel at Mulsanne corner. Their average lap times were: 44 (Manor) – 3m 39.448s and 46 (Thiriet by RDS Racing) – 3m 39.697s, so which compare well with the leading two cars.

However, it seems to me that not only the battle between Signatech and G-Drive is worth a more detailed look, but also the fight for the final step on the podium between the SMP Racing BR01 of Kirill Ladygin, Victor Shaitar and Vitaly Petrov and the Strakka Racing Gibson of Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis.

It seems counter-intuitive that a car spending less time in the pits and with a faster average lap time (the G-Drive Oreca) should lose out to one (Signatech) that spends more time in the pits and has a slower average lap time. Inevitably, and obviously, something else is going on.

Examine the “Rising Lap Time” graph, shown below. This sorts the lap times for each car into ascending order and the plots them, best to worst, from left to right. Whichever line is closer to the x-axis is faster.

Hopefully this shows clearly enough – click on the graph to make it bigger – that the Signatech (blue line) is above (i.e. slower than) the G-Drive (brown line) at the left hand (fast) end of the range, but below for the larger, right hand end of the range. The conclusion is that although G-Drive was quicker for the fastest 80 or so laps, Signatech was quicker for the rest of the time.

The graph does not show – but I am not convinced it is relevant – that the no. 36 Signatech pitted during each of the three SC periods (ignoring the first SC period at the start of the race), shortening the planned stint as it did so… the 26 G-Drive didn’t come in at all during SC periods, hence its shorter time in the pit lane. The average pit stop time for a ‘normal’ stop was 1m 11s for #36 and 1m 12s for #26. Note that G-Drive also had a drive through penalty which would have cost it about 28 secs.

It is interesting that Slow Zones / Safety Cars, nor which driver was at the wheel, seem to have much impact on this pattern. What can be established is that the majority of G-Drive’s quicker times came in the final eight hours of the race, whereas the Signatech Alpine set its quicker times earlier in the race – when the track temperatures were cooler. All this merely goes to show that looking at the average of the best 20% may show the true potential of the car, but doesn’t always reflect its performance over a 24-hour period.

It is a very relevant feature of the LMP2 class that the crew composition must include at least one silver or bronze driver, of course, and in addition, each driver must be at the wheel for a minimum of six hours. To a large extent, this explains the fact that the all-Russian crew in the SMP Racing BR01 was able to bring their car home onto the third step of the podium ahead of the all-British Gibson 015S.

The following table shows the driver comparison for the first four cars in the class.
36 - Signatech Alpine
Name Grade Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Gustavo Menezes Silver 7h 08m 53s 3m 37.452s 3m 38.8s
Nicolas Lapierre Platinum 9h 07m 13s 3m 37.195s 3m 38.8s
Stéphane Richelmi Gold 6h 57m 39s 3m 38.112s 3m 40.2s

26 - G-Drive Oreca
Name Grade Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Roman Rusinov Silver 6h 54m 13s 3m 36.558s 3m 39.0s
Will Stevens Platinum 6h 54m 11s 3m 36.891s 3m 39.7s
René Rast Platinum 9h 33m 43s 3m 36.563s 3m 38.2s

37 - SMP Racing BR01
Name Grade Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Vitaly Petrov Platinum 9h 30m 32s 3m 40.065s 3m 41.8s
Victor Shaitar Silver 7h 37m 02s 3m 41.268s 3m 42.5s
Kirill Ladygin Gold 6h 14m 36s 3m 43.489s 3m 45.1s

42 - Strakka Gibson
Name Grade Driving Time Best Lap Average Lap
Jonny Kane Platinum 9h 25m 28s 3m 38.795s 3m 40.7s
Danny Watts Platinum 7h 53m 38s 3m 41.860s 3m 42.9s
Nick Leventis Silver 6h 02m 55s 3m 45.090s 3m 47.8s

The Average Lap time above is calculated as the average of the best 25 laps achieved, and it is clear that the star drivers are Rast, Lapierre (no surprises there) and Menezes, performing particularly well on his début. But G-Drive car is quicker (when it is quick), no matter who is driving, than Signatech. The French squad won as a result of being quicker when the competition was slower - and that was when the track was cooler. Twenty-four hour racing is all about consistency.

Just go back and look at that “Rising Lap Time” chart!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Some Questions for Toyota

I have spent much of the last two weeks going over the data from this year’s astonishing Le Mans 24-hour race, and in the analysis of the numbers, some of the emotion has been lost. Probably, this is good thing, because for several hours after the race a sense of numbness overcame me – as I am sure it did for a lot of people.

Make no mistake, there has never been a finish like this one. Not just in terms of the proximity to the finish when the leading car coughed, spluttered and died – at least temporarily – but also in the fact that the chasing car – a Porsche – was only just over a minute behind when it happened. And that minute would have been a lot less but for a puncture in the last 15 minutes.

I must admit, in the immediate aftermath, the biggest injustice seemed to me that the no. 5 Toyota, so ably driven throughout the race by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, was not even classified. No wonder that the Audi crew of Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval was so reluctant to take up the third step of the podium.

But “rules are rules”, came the cry – and it clearly states in article 10.15(e) of the Le Mans Supplementary Regulations, that the final lap must be completed in less than six minutes, except in cases of force majeure, at the Stewards’ discretion. Exactly what constitutes force majeure was the subject of some debate, albeit somewhat briefly – and there didn’t seem to be much stomach for it in the Module Sportif. There would be two German flags and one Japanese flown over the podium, and that, it would seem, was that.

The first time that a limit was imposed for a time to complete the final lap was in 1949, when the rule was introduced that the final lap had to be completed in under 30 minutes. The rule was introduced, as much as anything else, because the organisers wanted to ensure that the marshals could be safely stood down at the end of the race, and that the track be re-opened to the public, without some racing car still trying to complete its twenty-four (and a half) hour race.

It was not until after the millennium that the maximum time for the final lap was reduced to six minutes, and the reason it was done was not merely to allow the marshals to stand down sooner.

After the 24-hour race of 2007, there had been some criticism of the ACO that various rules had not been strictly applied, and early in 2008, the organising body issued a statement to clarify matters. Interestingly, two of the specific complaints had been that bodywork had been used to block the view into the garages and the race numbers were not visible at night – maybe progress has not been as great in the last ten years as we think.

However, and more significantly to my mind, was that the Peugeot 908 driven by Sébastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin had not completed the final lap in the required six minutes – indeed it had come out and waited by the start finish line for the chequered flag to be waved at the winning Audi before crossing the line in ‘second’ place, strictly against the provision of the same article in the regulations that led to the exclusion of the Toyota this year.

In fact, none of the final four laps of that Peugeot had been under six minutes – although there was the mitigating factor of rain, but we will return to the subject of the weather later.

Ah, said the ACO, but the spirit of the rule had not been broken. The rule had been introduced, they said, to prevent an “endless victory lap before the end of the race and thus endangering safety of other cars that were racing for position”. This was merely the case of the car trying to get to the finish of the world’s greatest endurance race. No-one mentioned the fact that it was a French car, of course.

I reminded a seasoned hack of this immediately after the race. “Yes, but that was nearly ten years ago,” I was told, “now we have an FIA/ACO alliance and a World Championship. Things are different.”

Maybe so, but only two years ago (when there was indeed a World Endurance Championship to be fought over and points to be won and lost), there was a little bit of trouble and fuss when the Porsche driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb (remember them?) completed the final lap of the race in 1h 26m 09.430s and yet somehow that counted as force majeure and their fourth place in the LMP1-H class enabled them to score 24 points in the championship.

In case you missed it, the Porsche had made a long pit stop, and came out just in time to complete its final lap, but as the start finish line is before pit, the time that the car spent in its pit counted towards the final lap time. Although the final lap time should have led to the car’s exclusion, the ACO reasoned that the final lap time should not be defined as the time between crossings of the timing line, but should be calculated as the time from the pit out to the finish line.

Fair enough I suppose, but in that case why didn’t Nakajima bring the Toyota into the pits when the car suffered its problem at 14:57 on Sunday afternoon? The pit lane would have (should have) remained open until Neel Jani got round his final lap, so getting out of the pit again would not have been a problem. The fact is, Kazuki panicked. Rafal Pokora, the race engineer on the car, panicked. I suspect everyone in the Toyota garage who had any influence panicked.

The other option would have been for Nakajima to stop his car just before the pit lane entrance. Assuming that whatever was done could have been done just as well there as three hundred yards further on, again, it would have ensured that the long ‘problem’ lap was the penultimate lap and the final one would have been covered in less than the six minutes required by the regulation.

It wouldn’t have given them the win that they wanted, but at least Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Nakajima would have had a second-place podium consolation prize. And the humiliation of being stationery under the famous Rolex clock, in front of the packed grandstands, would have been avoided as well. Somehow, that image smacked to me of a stereotypical Japanese melodrama. I’m not sure that I would have reacted any differently in that situation, but I suspect that some of Hugues de Chaunac’s tears were due to the missed opportunities. The people who are paid to know what to do failed to come up with the correct answers in a crisis.

Let’s take a look at the matter from a different angle. I can see an argument for dispensing with the six-minute rule altogether (although I grant you that some means has to allow the poor soul waving the chequered flag to be able to furl his flag and go home). In recent years, crowd control at Le Mans has improved vastly – we no longer have spectators invading the track as the cars are on their last lap, blissfully unaware of any class battles that may be going on. The introduction of a proper slowing-down lap and the positioning of the parc fermé on the track at the Ford Chicane means that the marshals can leave their flag-waving appreciation of everyone’s efforts until after the race is over.

When the cars were waved off the track at the end of the pit lane, the only opportunity for drivers to appreciate the crowd was on the last racing lap. Of course they milked it (if their lead was big enough).

Now, consider the possibility that the no. 5 Toyota, instead of being just a minute or so ahead of its nearest competitor, had been a lap or more ahead. Then, when the Porsche had gone past the stricken Toyota, it would only have been unlapping itself, not going into the lead. If, as it did, the Toyota got going again to complete its lap, it would have won the race, surely? Not if its final lap was discounted for being over six minutes long! Thankfully, it didn’t happen – but it would have presented the stewards with an interesting dilemma.

Alternatively, consider what would have happened if the weather conditions on Sunday would have been as bad as on Saturday. Would we have had a finish behind the Safety Car? The ACO considers such an eventuality extremely unlikely, but would the need to follow the Safety Car be regarded as force majeure? Maybe the whole field would have been excluded!

Feel free to leave your comment below.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Team-mates - Thoughts from Allan McNish

Looking through the entry list for this year’s Le Mans 24 race, it occurs to me that this year will be the seventh consecutive time that Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer will have driven together in the same car. Apart from this being remarkable in its own right, it is also significant because it equals the record set by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, who also shared the same car on seven occasions, between 2006 and 2012.

“I wasn’t aware of that!” said Allan McNish when I drew his attention to the fact earlier this week. “But it is an interesting reflection on the fact that there are not many manufacturers around that are in a position to provide that sort of an opportunity, where drivers can work together for that many years.”

Although Allan, Tom and Dindo only won the big race once as a team of drivers (in 2008), McNish believes it gives a big advantage to have that kind of longevity for a driving crew. “Knowing your co-drivers is very important,” he says. “It is harder for three drivers to make it work than if you would only have two, but it is very important to be able to understand and work well together. Tom, Dindo and I are all very strong characters – you have to be a strong character if you are a racing driver – but it was Dindo who really brought us together as a team. He was the key ingredient: he would put his arm round your shoulder when you needed it.”

The combination of the Briton, the Dane and the Italian came together in the first year of the Audi turbodiesel engine. Although they had never all driven together before, all had been part of the Audi family for many years, and all had already won the 24 hours before – Kristensen and Capello having shared the winning Goh Audi in 2004 as well as the Bentley that triumphed in 2003. “It was a good time to get together,” opines McNish, “as the new technology meant a new start in some ways. On the other hand, we all knew each other well already, so it didn’t take long to be effective, as a team.”

It is more than just a team of three drivers, though, as McNish readily admits. “People like Dr. Ullrich, Ralf Jüttner, Ulrich Baretzky and Jo Hausner have all been involved since the very start,” he says. “Even if there has been change [Howden Haynes, Chris Reinke have both now moved on], the nucleus of the team has remained. That’s especially true on the design side and in the engine development, which is vitally important.”

The German/French/Swiss combination of Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fässler has been immensely successful of course: on the six occasions they have shared a car at Le Mans, they have won the race three times. Does McNish see any parallels in the driving crews? “Not really, Marcel, Ben and André are quite different from Tom, Dindo and me. With them, you have someone for every occasion. André may seem quite laid-back, but he is pretty intense. What you have to remember is that they all had quite varied careers before joining Audi – they haven’t been successful all of the time. Ben has quite a lot of other elements to his career. He and Marcel are both a little older – they have families, in fact Marcel has four girls!”

Although André Lotterer is regarded by many people as the outstanding member of the crew when fast laps are required – indeed some would regard him as the outstanding endurance racer of the current era – both Marcel and Benoît have turned in race-winning performances of their own. “Absolutely!” agrees McNish, “there have been races in the past where Marcel and Ben have both stepped up and, quite frankly, won the race. All three drivers have the ability to raise their game when they have to. They are all extremely strong under pressure. With Marcel, well, he’s Swiss! There are no secrets with him – what you see is what you get. If he’s feeling an emotion, you will know exactly what it is!”

In 2009, the year before Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer came together at Audi for the first time, they had all been at Le Mans, but in rather different machinery. André Lotterer had been at the wheel of the older, Kolles-entered Audi R10; Tréluyer had been employed by Henri Pescarolo to drive his privately-entered Peugeot 908 and Fässler had been at the wheel of a factory GT1 Chevrolet Corvette.

“It wasn’t a crew of drivers that seemed a natural fit at first,” accepts Allan McNish. “Marcel was part of the Audi team already (having driven Audis in GT racing) and the relationship between him, Ben and André was a bit like a marriage: it had to be worked at. It took a bit of time to get it right.”

What is not in doubt, as the teams assemble for the 84th running of the 24 hour race, is that the relationship is now absolutely right. With Leena Gade on the pit wall, masterminding the crew for the last time before moving on to pastures new at Bentley, the no.7 Audi e-tron quattro must be counted among the favourites for what would be a fourth win for the four of them together!