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...