Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 2: Spa

I wrote last week at length about Crevenitc’s 24H Series, which accounted for five of the 24-hour events that I attended this year.

I also visited Spa-Francorchamps in July for the ‘Total’ Spa 24-hours, the highlight event of the Blancpain GT Series, but also part of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. The Spa race is also a round of the Blancpain-backed Intercontinental GT Challenge, which also comprises the Bathurst 12 hours, the California 8 hours (held last weekend at Laguna Seca) and the Sepang 12 hours (in December). Creventic is not alone in having multiple and complex championship structures!

Despite the role it plays in various championships, series or cups, for me it is a bit of a stand-alone event, as this year I haven’t visited any of the other Blancpain races.

I always enjoy Spa, it is one of those places from which history oozes all over the place. It is similar to the Nürburgring in that respect, and the two tracks share more than a geographical proximity. Both have been neutered from their original ferocity, but while the Nürburgring is perhaps a little more hardcore (and entirely suitable for its devotees), without any snobbishness intended, I find the towns and villages of the Ardennes surrounding the Spa circuit a touch more cultured and refined.

Just as Creventic achieves a particular ambience at its events, so too there is a ‘Blancpain’ feel to the Spa 24, which is definitely different. The Blancpain series is managed by SRO – Stephane Ratel Organisation – and there is no doubt that the personality of the man at the helm has a role to play. There are some things that SRO treats very differently compared to Creventic – internet connections and timing system data are specific examples – my impression is that the two organisations march to the beat of very different tunes. I know which I prefer, but variety, they say, is the spice of life so in that sense I embrace both.

Back to the race though. The 2017 Spa 24 hours had 63 starters, all but two of which were GT3 cars and as a result, speed differentials were simply not on the same scale as in Creventic races, or the races at the Nürburgring. On the other hand, the parity of competition is part of the appeal of Spa - it was mighty impressive to watch the field thunder through Eau Rouge – or anywhere else around the circuit, come to that.

The Blancpain series comes in for a fair amount of criticism because of the way that the sporting regulations (allegedly) prevent innovative use of strategy. The maximum stint length (65 minutes), the ‘pit stop delta’ (meaning that at Spa this year, the length of pit stops was not allowed to be between 1m 33s and 2m 13s) and the ‘technical pit stop’ (a minimum five-minute stop between the 12th and 15th hour of the race), all reduce the options for team managers.

There are perfectly good reasons for these ideas, but like a lot of ideas with the best intentions, unintended consequences often result. I spoke to one team manager who felt that he was being penalised because the ‘short’ pit stop time did not allow the team to get a full 65-minutes-worth of fuel into the car and thus prevented the team from being able to double-stint the tyres. The fact that his car could easily double-stint a set of tyres (he said), while others were struggling to get a set of Pirellis to last a single stint was an advantage that the organisers were quite clearly trying to neutralise.

To be fair, he had a point, but the whole basis of the Blancpain series is to level the playing field and prevent anyone having an advantage. It is a strategy that has, over the years, ensured the series’ success, at least in terms of numbers of entrants.

It does mean that the effort of individual drivers comes to the forefront: a driver can end up being the thing that makes the difference. No doubt the driving technique required for a GT3 car, with its traction control and ABS, is somewhat specialised, and might also be compromised by the need to have a car that suits the needs of each of the drivers on the crew, but the guy (or girl) at the wheel has to deliver, lap after lap, throughout their stint.

For Stéphane Ratel, it is the cars that are the stars, but for the teams, it is all about the synergy within the team. The mechanics, engineers and drivers all have their part to play, and the differentials are so small that tiny things can have big impacts. Those who excel in SRO racing tend not to be the star names from the WEC or elsewhere, but their expertise is nevertheless sought after, and in my view their efforts deserve to be recognised.

The fastest lap of the Spa 24 hours was set by Markus Winkelhock in the winning Saintéloc Audi, but in terms of average lap times, it was Kevin Estre (Bernhard Porsche 911) and Maxime Soulet (M-Sport Bentley) who were the quickest. Most astonishing of all though, was the endurance shown by Raffaele Marciello in the Akka Mercedes AMG, who was at the wheel for a total driving time of not far short of 14 hours.

What the Blancpain series may lack in terms of class differentials and household names, it more than makes up for in the breadth of different manufacturers involved. Ratel likes to call them ‘brands’, and the off-track involvement of Audi, Mercedes, Nissan, etc. is a key aspect of the marketing of many of the major marques involved. Ratel’s passion has always been for road-going supercars, and he certainly has a knack for attracting paying players to his series.

In return, there is live television coverage, some great circuits and plenty of attractions for spectators who attend the events, whether they arrive in a Ferrari or a Ford.

Historically, the Spa 24 hours was a touring car event, rather than one for GT cars. However, since it has been in its current format, it has blossomed and now occupies an important position in the international racing calendar. Stéphane Ratel surely understands that Spa is the premier event in his portfolio; but he also runs SRO as a business, and will be ruthless if economics demanded. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the event continues to succeed, despite those who don’t hold it in such high esteem.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 1: Creventic

Is it just me, or has there been even more of a proliferation of endurance racing this year? Certainly, in terms of the races that I have been asked to work for on radiolemans.com, there has been more to do this year than ever before.

Hence I find I have been to nine 24-hour races this year, five of which have been organised by Creventic – and if you haven’t heard of Creventic, and yet are reading this, I can only suggest you visit their website at www.24hseries.com and come back when you’ve finished!

I don’t think that there can be much doubt that this year Creventic over-stretched itself rather. After an enormously successful 2016 season, the Dutch team decided to create a separate series of races for Touring Car Endurance cars and also launch a prototype series in an attempt to provide long-distance races for owners of LMP2, LMP3 and CN cars who didn’t fancy the higher profile (and shorter distance) of the European Le Mans series races.

Although there seemed to be sufficient interest before the season started, with 17 cars on the grid for the trial 3-hour races at the Dubai Autodrome in January, the Proto series fell somewhat flat, forcing the cancellation of races up to Spa-Francorchamps last weekend. Even then, a paltry seven cars sat on the grid, two of which were Porsche 911s, and aside from Jordan Sanders crashing his LNT Ginetta beyond repair at Raidillon on the first lap of the two scheduled races, there was little in the way of action for ten hours.

There is optimistic talk of twenty cars for 2018 and an eleven-round championship (at five events) but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Clearly, the jury is still out, but Creventic has a habit of getting things right, if not at the first time of asking, so maybe they’ll be able to turn this one around too.

The Touring Car Endurance Series fared rather better, although the mood in the early rounds was soured by some scrapping over Balance of Performance limits and class assignments. Grid sizes were variable, from a disappointing dozen at Misano to a healthy forty at Barcelona and a whopping 48 at the final round at Spa.

To be fair to Creventic, the dissatisfied competitors were listened to, the disaffected were appeased and the issues were sorted out – typical, I have to say, of the Creventic approach.

Despite the series being advertised as being for Touring Cars, GT4 cars were welcomed into the SP3 class, but were handicapped by a ‘minimum reference lap time’. In general, the balance was not too bad, and most of the races were close contests between the TCR-class cars and the theoretically faster SP3-GT4 cars. Only at Barcelona, (ironic rather, in Seat’s back yard), were the TCR’s beaten, however, with the win being taken by Nil Monserrat’s locally-entered Ginetta G55 GT4.

However, the best of the Creventic events this year have been the races for GT3 cars – or A6, as the Creventic class structure calls them. The 2017 season took place over six rounds, three being of 12-hour duration, and three over a full 24 hours. The 12-hour races were all run as ‘split’ races, with an overnight intervention, in which cars were held in parc fermé. A similar split timetable will be applied for the non-championship 24-hour race at COTA next month, with the first part on Saturday running for 14 hours, and the final ten hours running on the Sunday.

Although the COTA race is not part of the International Endurance Series, it does count for the Championship of the Continents, in which teams score the total of their results from Dubai, COTA, and their best of the European rounds.

Over the season, Herberth Motorsport’s Porsche 911 has taken three outright victories; Scuderia Praha with their Ferrari 488 took two wins, and there was one win for the Car Collection Audi R8 LMS. But the A6 teams’ championship went to the Hofor-Racing Mercedes, which ran in the A6-Am class and benefited from consistent points-scoring finishes throughout the season.

Scuderia Praha will not be at COTA, instead Ferrari’s colours will be carried by Risi Competizione, but Herberth, Car Collection and Hofor-Racing are all entered. Entries from Black Falcon (Mercedes AMG), Manthey (Porsche) and Grasser (Lamborghini) show how seriously this end-of-season jamboree is being taken at the sharp end of the grid.

Creventic’s races are streamed on the www.24hseries.com web site, with the camerawork being performed by 0221 Media Group from Cologne, Germany. Originally more used to televising music concerts, the company has quickly learned about motor-racing and a friendlier and more fun-loving bunch of people you could not wish to meet.

Creventic has just announced its 2018 calendar, which is ambitious, but has sensibly bitten off far less for next year. While there will continue to be two separate championships for GT cars and Touring cars, they will generally be run concurrently at the same races. The notable exceptions are Silverstone in March (brrr…) where there will be separate races: 12 hours for the GT’s and 24 for the touring cars; and Navarra (Spain) which is scheduled (provisionally) as a GT-only race.

Dubai and COTA will top and tail the season with 24h races in January and November, respectively. Not much time for a winter break then!

The other thing to mention about the Creventic races is their timekeeping partner, TimeService.nl. With the exception of the Barcelona 24 hours, which is the preserve of local firm Al Kamel, TimeService looks after all of the 24HSeries races. Run by Harald Roesle, and ably assisted by Rob Oude Luttikhuis and Floortje Snoek, they are extremely helpful and provide a great service. Their approach has always been rather different to that of most other timekeeping teams, largely because of their roots as a software firm, and their presentation of live timing on the internet is unsurpassed.

I expect most of my readers are already familiar with their website http://raceresults.nu, but if not, you can find all the results of past races there, plus a link to the live timing website for each event (normally http://livetiming.getraceresults.com/24hseries).

Hopefully, 2018 will be another successful year for Creventic and the 24h-series. Importantly, there will be changes to the regulations which include the removal of the dreaded ‘Minimum Reference Lap Time’ in all the classes, enabling a return to ‘pure racing’.

It should be good.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Starting Again: the New World Endurance Championship

I knew a lot of time had passed since I last managed to write anything here, but I was somewhat shocked to find that more than six months has slipped by since my last post. It was never my intention to make this a regular affair, but still, it feels rather awkward, sitting here writing after so long away from the blog.

It is not as if there has been a shortage of topics. I keep a little notebook of ideas that might make suitable subjects, and looking back, I find various entries. Some are typically Truswellian analyses of races; some are reflections on things I’ve been up to (and there have been many), still others are more whimsical thoughts on cultural and historical aspects of the sport – but in all cases, I try to keep to my Golden Rule of not writing anything that you can find elsewhere. Although I try to keep to facts and reportage, rather than fiction or scurrilous rumour and speculation, I do find that a lot of the things I want to comment on are covered perfectly well elsewhere on the Internet leaving little space to address my particular niche. There may be no shortage of burning issues, but I wonder why you might want to read my take on such things rather than anyone else’s?

Having said all that, the World Endurance Championship seems to have gone through such an upheaval in the last six months that maybe readers might want to comment on a few of my own thoughts.

The announcement by Porsche that the factory LMP1 team will be withdrawing at the end of the 2017 season forced the hand of the WEC. Action was needed – although there is a good argument that action was necessary regardless of the decisions in the boardrooms of Stuttgart. On the other hand, in the early 1990’s, when the FIA brought World Championship-level sportscar racing to its knees by forcing the use of 3.5 litre normally-aspirated engines and shortening race distances to be more TV-friendly, we were left with no World Championship for 1993 and a rather ad hoc look to the Le Mans 24-hour centrepiece.

It may have seemed like the end of the world at the time, but by the end of the decade not only had we FIA-sanctioned Championships for both Sportscars and GTs, but we had a Le Mans 24-hour race with entries from seven different manufacturers, contributing 20 out of the 48 starters in 1999.

It was certainly a difficult transition, but the point is that nature took its course, (or perhaps more accurately some visionary entrepreneurs had the space to innovate) and without FIA intervention or direction, the sport found its feet and headed into the new millennium.

We are not talking ancient history here – the fact is that the foundations for today’s endurance racing formulae (prototypes and GT cars) were laid only twenty years ago – but the culture of the sport (indeed everything generally) has changed since then. Laissez-faire as a doctrine may have had its origins in the late 18th century, but doing nothing is simply not an option in today’s world. Gérard Neveu (CEO of the FIA WEC*) felt that he had to take some decisions and act. Having made the announcements in Mexico about the direction of the Championship, there may be some ‘clarifications’, but there is no going back.

Unfortunately for him, and for Pierre Fillon (President of the ACO*), the future of the World Endurance Championship will be directed as much by the actions of the major motor manufacturers and the teams that enter the cars as it will by their decision-making. Whether the 2018-2019 ‘super-season’ will be regarded as a success or not will depend largely on who takes part, and how good the races are.

Readers of this blog will surely be sufficiently knowledgeable to understand Toyota’s dilemma. Effectively, the Japanese manufacturer needs to decide now whether to participate, at enormous cost, with a strong chance of being handicapped out of contention, or to walk away, from both the Le Mans 24 hours and the World Endurance Championship. I suspect a decision has already been taken in Japan, if not yet made public.

Personally, I don’t really mind. In my opinion, the success of the 2018-2019 season will depend on the quality and parity of privateers participating in the premier class. The possibility of a win at Le Mans, never mind a unique World Championship, must be tempting.

As far as the GT classes are concerned, there has been less decisiveness from the organising bodies. Or at least, with six manufacturers likely to be represented next year, the obvious tactic is to ensure stability. For the immediate future, I wouldn’t argue with that. Yet in the longer term, I would like to see the fastest of the GT cars being able to compete for overall victories. Consider that the current pace of GTE-Pro cars could have enabled them to win Le Mans in the mid-1990’s. I was there, and I wasn’t thinking how slowly the prototypes were going.

There are ways and means of controlling pace: larger tanks, faster refuelling, different tyre allowances; it need not always depend on changing technical regulations, although it is clear that the technical ability exists in the FIA and ACO to manage that.

My biggest misgiving however, is the proposal that Le Mans should be the final round of future World Endurance Championships. I also see this as being the most difficult decision to change, at least from the political point of view.

The problem with Le Mans being the decisive round in the championship is that decisions could be made, either at a corporate level or even within a multi-car team, which could – no, will – impact the outright result of the world’s biggest endurance race. It happened in 1966, but every other year in the history of the race (except, I suppose in the first few years in the 1920’s when drivers had an eye on the biennial and triennial cups), the race has been as pure a race, as free from commercial or political intervention, as any sporting event there is.

Porsche has demonstrated this year its willingness to manipulate races in the WEC to ensure it secures drivers’ as well as manufacturers’ championships. What if such ‘team orders’ were put into effect at Le Mans? Not a thought that appeals to my particular taste, I must admit.

Or suppose that Toyota, having won the 24 hours in 2018, gets to the 2019 race needing only to finish fifth (say) to secure the World Endurance Championship’s inaugural ‘Superseason’. I can imagine Pascal Vasselon (not Hugues de Chaunac, admittedly) telling his drivers to slow down, preserve the machinery, and not even attempt to win, that finishing the race at all costs was more important than winning. Would anyone else find that distasteful?


*Footnote: I mention Neveu’s and Fillon’s specific roles since I think (some might disagree) that the distinction between the ACO and the WEC (which belongs to the FIA) is important. The ACO was founded in 1906 and has organised the Le Mans 24 hours since its inception, whereas the WEC (as an organisation) was established by the FIA in 2012.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

John Surtees

I was saddened to hear of John Surtees’ death at the end of last week.

For one thing, I didn’t know he was ill – indeed the last I had heard of him was that he was still working hard ‘at the coal-face’ of Buckmore Park, which has undergone something of a face-lift since his taking over of it a few years ago. It has been a face-lift that I been able to watch at first hand as my son and I regularly visit the place. He had been due to attend their annual awards dinner last year, but had to cancel at the last minute, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed – not least because Robin had been there to pick up an award, and even if it was no more than a name to him, at least to have met the man would have given him something to tell his children about.

There are a couple of other reasons why ‘Big John’ was particularly relevant to me, in the way that he seemed to be an oft-recurring theme in my experiences of motor sport.

It is odd the way that these things stick in the mind, but he was the first racing driver that I ever saw. I remember that day at Brands Hatch in 1967, at the Race of Champions: his Honda (number 7) was the first car out onto the track at the beginning of the day, even though Surtees qualified second-fastest and therefore would start the first Heat from the middle of the front row. In those days there was no left-hander at Brands Hatch named after him – what we now call Surtees, was then South Bank Bend, taking the cars out of the Brands ‘bowl’ up the hill and out into the country.

As only road cars had been making relatively slow laps of the circuit at that point (I later realised it was the marshals heading to their posts), the speed of the Formula 1 cars heading out of paddock and up the hill to Druid’s seemed to my young eyes as truly breakneck. Forever more, Surtees was the one, despite Dan Gurney’s win and Jack Brabham’s fastest lap in the final, who took my racing virginity, if you’ll pardon the indelicacy of the phrase.

Fourteen years later – in 1981 – he was present again, at another ‘first’ for me, again at Brands Hatch. It was the ‘John Surtees Days’, a two-day event, the first of which was for motor-bikes and the second for cars – and my first ever visit to a commentary box. The whole event was the brainchild of John Webb, and featured a ‘parade of champions’ in which Surtees made only his second public appearance on a motorcycle (inevitably, it was an MV Agusta) since his retirement from the two-wheeled sport in 1961.

Since then, he has been an ever-present force on the motor-racing scene; giving interviews and speaking often on a wide variety of topics. Always lucid, sometimes controversial, and usually right, in his frankly-expressed views.

The last time I saw John Surtees was at the Motor Sport ‘Hall of Fame’ awards last year, where he was inducting Valentino Rossi into the exclusive club of which he himself became a member in 2012. The fact that The Henry Surtees’ Foundation will be the official charity partner for this year will be especially poignant. I was indeed impressed with the grace with which John handled the whole business last year. Those who were there will know what I mean.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Fifty years...

In just over a week, I will reach another of those significant birthdays. I have written before that I don’t make a particularly big thing about celebrating such things, but this birthday will also (almost) coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of my first visit to a motor race, at Brands Hatch, which you can read about here, if you are so inclined.

It was also at Brands Hatch, as a result of the encouragement of Brian Jones, that I first became involved in public address commentary, and the place has always been close to my heart. Chas Parker, in his excellent book on the history of Brands Hatch, describes it as Britain’s best-loved motor-racing circuit and he does have a point.

For those wanting all the details, then I can do no more than recommend Chas’s book, which is still available and not overly expensive. However, as I have not found the following piece posted anywhere else on the internet – I’m not saying it’s not out there, just that I couldn’t find it – I thought I would share it here.

It is taken from the official programme of the RAC British Grand Prix, 1966, and is written by Duncan Measor*, Motor Sport Correspondent of the Manchester Evening News.

FROM GRASS TRACK TO GRAND PRIX
The most powerful pair of legs in Kent swung over a farm fence and picked a careful path through the dense crop of mushrooms. It was the moment that began all that we see here today, for the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested youth who stopped where the meadowland dipped into a natural amphitheatre was walking into history – just as he has slipped quietly out of it.

From that memorable moment the seed was planted which was to grow into Brands Hatch, the great circuit which is known throughout the world wherever enthusiasts talk about racing machines. The Army had stamped and manoeuvred its noisy, grass-crushing way around those fields. Now it had gone the white Brands Hatch farmhouse stood silent again in the undulating meadowland… until Ron Argent, a 9s-a-week engineering apprentice, and his fellow cyclists stopped that day in 1926 and saw the potentiality of this land beside the main road from London to Maidstone. With the farmer’s permission, they started to use the Brands Hatch ‘bowl’ for cycle racing and pacemaking. The idea caught on rapidly and soon cyclists from 50 miles around were making it their Sunday Mecca. An afternoon of furious cycling would end with them sitting on the grass with their families and having tea served by an old couple who turned an Army hut into a café.

Jimmy Newson, a venerable pioneer of Woolwich Cycling Club, recalled the first experimental speed event at Brands Hatch – a four-mile race between cyclists and cross-country runners. The runners won. Peter Barnett, of Belvedere, Kent, another club member, told me: “The ‘Hatch’ was covered in mole-hills and many hours were spent chopping off the tops. The world champion, Jackie Hoobin, of Australia, raced there. We used two-thirds of the present straight, Paddock Bend, down the hill and returned parallel to the straight.”

No sound of engines broke the silence of Brands in those days but already its history of breeding champions had started. Ron Argent, now a wealthy businessman with a hotel in Wateringbury and an engineering factory and seven cycle and motorcycle shops in the Maidstone area, became the first and most famous of the cycling aces. From 1933 to 1939 he was the unbeatable cycling champion of Kent, winning 70 trophies and many of them at Brands Hatch.

By 1928, the motorcycle boys were interested and when the cyclists wheeled their machines away for tea the bowl became a grass-track. “I remember thinking”, Ron told me, “that as we first looked around the finest mushroom crop in the area, there was something about the shape and situation of this land which made it a natural race track. Several of us had the feeling that what we were starting was going to keep on growing – but we never envisaged that it would become so fantastically successful.”

With the dark clouds of 1939 back came the Army and out went the regular residents – but the motorcycles roared back in force as soon as the war ended and there was petrol to be saved for sport.

By now the land that had been pock-marked with rabbit warrens, violated by Army vehicles and developed eczema through its dry underskin of chalk, was still further scarred by bomb craters. But there was no denying the keenness of the helmeted devotees who incorporated the craters in their track and turned it into the finest and most famous grass circuit in Britain, so much so that in 1947 it became organised as a commercial proposition when Brands Hatch Stadium (later Circuit) Ltd., began to run it.

But on a bitterly cold day early in 1949 a new sound was heard – the deafening hammer of 500cc engines in chunky little racing cars. Out on to the rutted motorcycle track went a straggling line of enthusiasts with a great idea. Among them was the fiery scramble ace Ken Carter, now a Sidcup estate agent; a youthful John Cooper (in a Cooper, of course); Ian Smith, now chairman of the British Racing and Sports Car Club which, as the 500 Club, made Brands Hatch its home circuit and blasted its name into the headlines; and Ken Gregory, a mainstay of the Club in its early years.

It was Ken who later worked ceaselessly with other officials of the Club and with Joe Francis, then managing director of Brands Hatch, to arrange for the first car race there. And he is always generous in his praise of Stan Coldham, the driver who first tipped off the club that the circuit they were needing was in striking distance of London.

But what of that first car trial? “We all thought it could be used for pure track racing”, said Ian Smith. The historic decision was taken and that year £14,000 was spent on laying a one-mile tarmacadam track – but the first intention, before the 500 boys pricked up their ears, was that it should be used primarily for motorcycles.

On April 16, 1950, the half-litre bangers rolled out on to the new track – and 10,000 people turned up to see the circuit’s first and thrilling car race. Ken Carter, Don Parker and Bill Whitehouse won races and a happy John Cooper, with his family’s cars among the winners, recalls: “It was really a homely club affair”. “It was just a big garden party compared with today’s highly-organised meetings”, said Ian Smith. “If a car broke down the driver would chat over the fence until the race ended.”

The greatest racing-driver nursery in the world had been born and at the head of the 500cc ‘babes’ who were to learn their racing in elbow-to-elbow scraps round the exacting Brands ‘kidney’ was to be Stirling Moss. Next came a move which made the circuit unique among British tracks – and all because housing developers took over Northolt pony-trotting course.

Representatives of Brands Hatch and the BRSCC called at the defunct track, bought a stand “at a bargain figure” and had it taken down with every girder numbered and then reassembled to give Brands Hatch the first Continental-style permanent grandstand in the country. A year later every marshal was linked by telephone to race control and the finest track hospital in Britain was fitted out, even to an operating theatre.

The rest is modern history known to all knowledgeable fans… in the winter of 1959/60 the circuit was extended to 2.65 miles and, a year later, the new owners, Grovewood Securities Ltd. began to pour in money for facilities to increase the comfort and safety for spectators and drivers.

All the years of work and foresight paid off in 1964, when the highest accolade was awarded – the staging of the British and European Grand Prix. A huge crowd saw one of the most thrilling and close-fought classic races of all time with Jim Clark’s Lotus just pipping Graham Hill’s BRM by less than three seconds after 212 miles.

Today sees history being written once more in the shattering roar of massed 3-litre cars handled by the world’s finest drivers. It is the first British Grand Prix to be held under the new formula which has doubled the capacity of the engines.

And as the lions scarl down in the colourful arena and the twentieth-century gladiators prepare to do battle here this afternoon, it is worth giving perhaps more than a passing thought to how it all began… back to the day in 1926 when a bunch of ruddy-cheeked cyclists, on their way home after a 150-mile ‘spin’, stopped to contemplate a field whose only claim to fame had been its mushrooms.

Barely nine months after this graceful prose appeared in print, my parents took me to Brands for my birthday treat, and I attach below a photo from our family archive. For good measure, I have included another, again from the Race of Champions, and then one that I found on the internet and simply could not resist! Thank you for your indulgence.


*Measor died in 2009, at the age of 84.
1967 Race of Champions - my first race!

Jackie Stewart wins in 1970
Much later - the other side of the fence!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Getting the balance right

Motor sport is not alone in utilising systems of handicapping, and it has done so, in various forms, for a long time. I see no particular problem with this – provided that the mechanisms are understood, and that participants understand what is going on. People tend not to think of horse racing or golf as being ‘impure’ compared to football or cricket, just because there is (quite literally I suppose) a level playing field.

But these days, it seems that the particular phrase ‘Balance of Performance’ has crept up on us, and is, to an extent I fear, spoiling some avenues of our sport. It should not be – although occasionally it is – confused with Equivalence of Technology, which is used by the FIA in an endeavour to ensure that different types of fuel and hybrid system can compete together in the World Endurance Championship.

The particular Balance of Performance that is (perhaps) going wrong at the moment, is that which is trying to bring cars with quite widely differing potential performance into a situation in which they will produce similar lap times, by virtue of adding weight, constraining the amount of air that can get into the engine, reducing turbo boost, and a variety of other measures.

Often, this can lead to some extremely close – and hence exciting – racing. Indeed, I take my metaphorical hat off to those technical arbiters that rule on such matters, because often we have had exhilarating races purely because the ‘balance’ has been just right. Not just between two types of car, either, but frequently between half-a-dozen or more.

The trouble is, of course, that because we see the act of balancing being performed so well, we tend to expect it to be done perfectly all the time. If the races are a little unrepresentative of reality as a result – ‘fake’ might be an inappropriate word to use – then nobody really minds, provided they have been entertaining.

In my opinion, there have been two occasions recently where the balance has not been right, and I draw attention to that here not to apportion any blame, but to show how important it is to get right.

The first was Daytona during the Rolex 24 hours, when the nascent Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class cars were competing against cars from the FIA WEC’s LMP2 category. Although LMP2 cars have been competing at Daytona since 2014, this was the first year of the ‘new’ Gibson-engined chassis, and of course the DPi cars were all brand-new and hence also rather unknown quantities. It was thus always going to be a difficult call.

There were twelve cars in the Prototype class, split 7-5 between DPi and LMP2. Among the DPi’s were three Cadillacs, two Mazdas and two Nissans. Representing the LMP2 brigade were three Orecas, a Ligier and a Riley. The Cadillac was powered by a 6.2 litre normally-aspirated V8, the Mazda had a 2-litre turbo from AER, and the Nissans were powered by a 3.8 litre twin-turbo V6. The LMP2 Gibson engine is a 4.2 litre, normally-aspirated V8.

Off-the-record, I was told that IMSA’s objective in balancing this wide range of configurations was to attempt to limit the DPi machinery to the fastest of the LMP2 cars. Previously, of course, we have seen that Daytona is not really typical of the rest of the IMSA calendar. Daytona is an unabashed ‘power’ circuit and no-one really expected anything other than a DPi to be the fastest. What was to my mind surprising, though, was that no attempt appeared to have been made to balance the individual DPi's – with the result that the Cadillacs were embarrassingly fast.

The touchstone statistic for Performance is to take the average of the best 20% of ‘green’ laps, and compare; and that is what is shown in the table below.
Pos No. Car Type Average Lap %age difference
1 10 WTR Cadillac DPi 1m 37.5s 0.00%
2 5 AER Cadillac DPi 1m 37.7s 0.19%
3 90 Visit Florida Riley P2 1m 40.6s 3.17%
4 2 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.8s 3.35%
17 22 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.5s 3.07%
31 13 Rebellion Oreca P2 1m 38.9s 1.42%
35 52 PR1 Ligier P2 1m 41.2s 3.79%
39 81 DragonSpeed Oreca P2 1m 39.6s 2.08%
40 55 Mazda DPi 1m 41.0s 3.54%

At Bathurst, a week later, the GT3 Performance Balancers were at work. The GTD class at Daytona had been exceedingly well-matched, and this class is equivalent to GT3. Since this was the first round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge (for which the remaining rounds are the Spa 24 hours, the California 8 hours at Laguna Seca and the Sepang 12 hours), this falls to Stéphane Ratel – or at least the organisation that bears his initials.

Here are the same results for the Liqui-Moly 12 hours:
Pos No. Car Top
Speed
Average Lap %age difference
1 88 Ferrari 280.3 km/h 2m 04.1s 0.00%
2 12 Porsche 279.2 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.88%
3 17 Bentley 284.7 km/h 2m 05.7s 1.30%
4 912 Porsche 278.2 km/h 2m 07.7s 2.89%
5 1 McLaren 280.3 km/h 2m 04.6s 0.42%
6 32 Lamborghini 281.4 km/h 2m 05.9s 1.41%
7 3 Audi 278.2 km/h 2m 06.6s 2.01%
8 24 Nissan 282.5 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.90%
9 9 Audi 276.1 km/h 2m 07.0s 2.35%
10 29 Lamborghini 275.0 km/h 2m 07.2s 2.46%
13 22 Mercedes 276.0 km/h 2m 05.0s 0.74%


Normally, I would say that anything over 1% is a significant margin. That means about a second a lap at Daytona, or 1.25s at Bathurst. In either case that means that over 100 laps you will be lapped – purely on the basis of pace. At Daytona, there were over 500 green laps, at Bathurst almost 250. Surely a reasonable BoP would attempt to get everyone on the same lap at the end? If the figures from the GT classes in Daytona are anything to go by, this is certainly an achievable aim.

But at Bathurst, only the McLaren was in the same ballpark as Maranello Motorsport’s Ferrari, and even the boys from Woking were looking at a half-second per lap disadvantage. Audi and Lamborghini were hobbled completely out of contention. In defence of the SRO, it is never easy when there is only a singleton entry – as in the case of the Ferrari – since you never quite know to what extent the advantage is due to BoP and how much is due to the team doing a good job.

The danger is, that once the balance is swung too far in one direction, there’s a tendency to over-compensate next time out, particularly when championship points are at stake. Despite this, both Daytona and Bathurst were good, exciting races – what is most important, however, is that the decisions of the technical bodies are respected and that honour and respect is maintained.

Otherwise, it just won’t be cricket, will it?

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fun with Creventic in the desert

Of the 92 cars that took the start of the 2017 Hankook Dubai 24 hours, 16 were in the A6-Pro class: full-house GT3 cars unconstrained by limitations on lap time and driven by a mix of drivers classified as Pro, Semi-Pro and Am. Creventic’s regulations require each car to have a maximum of two Pro drivers and a minimum of one Am driver, with the Pro drivers not being allowed to drive for more than a total of twelve hours, and the Am driver(s) having to complete a minimum of two hours. The classification of drivers is specific to Creventic, but is broadly based on the FIA’s Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze, with Platinum and Gold drivers being defined as Pro, Silver as Semi-Pro and everyone else as Am.

The A6-Am class requires teams to lap outside the “minimum reference lap time” of 2m 03s (or 2m 05s if in the so-called AM-BOP advantage sub-class). Often this has proved a recipe for success in overall terms – Hofor Racing having come home fourth overall last year, and Dragon Racing’s Am-class Ferrari having finished on the overall podium in 2015. This year’s race was different in that respect, though. The first six cars in the overall classification were all in the A6-Pro class.

The top six consisted of three Porsches, two Audis and a Mercedes, the only other contenders for the win, Lamborghini, having fallen by the wayside with various problems. In the end, it was not a nail-biting finish, the main point of interest in the closing stages being the fight for second place between the Manthey Porsche and the second-string (no. 3) Black Falcon Mercedes. That’s not to say it was a race without interest; with strategy, tactics and incidents aplenty throughout the race to hold the attention.

Famously, the Herberth Porsche 991 GT3-R had Brendon Hartley on its driving strength, and once again the plain white Porsche was a picture of perfection – not only running faultlessly for the entire 24 hours, but also running fast enough to match the lap times of all but the Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT3s. Its victory was well-deserved.

It was no real surprise to see Hartley slotting in smoothly, without disrupting the low-key approach of the team. The World Endurance star neither hid from nor hogged the limelight, and seemed to revel in the whole experience. Arguably, the race fell to Herberth as a result of two incidents on the track, which significantly delayed its two chief rivals. The more significant occurred just before dawn, when Khaled Al Qubaisi took the wheel, for the first time, of the no. 2 Black Falcon Mercedes that had been right at the front of the field up until that point. Contact on the 11th lap of Khaled’s stint inflicted sufficient damage to the AMG to render it hors de combat for the remaining seven hours of the race.

Much earlier in the race – in fact after just three hours had elapsed – Otto Klohs, in the Manthey Porsche, was on his first ‘out’ lap when he had a coming-together, resulting in a delay returning to the pit and an unscheduled pit stop while repairs were affected (and no doubt the driver’s confidence was restored).

Psychological factors aside, the incident on the track and Klohs’ lap back to the pits cost it around 40s, and the repairs cost a further 1m 20s. Taking account of the Code-60 under which the stop took place, the total time lost (compared to the Herberth Porsche, which was at that point behind the Manthey car) was around 2m 30s. Herberth’s winning margin was two laps, or 4m 46s, so to say that the incident cost them the race is probably over-egging the pudding somewhat, but at least they might have been able to challenge, and exert some pressure on the (unflappable) Herberth crew.

Whatever the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ were, the true strength on Herberth Motorsport’s side is their consistency. The balance of the driving line-up is far better than most of their competitors. For Herberth, unlike Black Falcon, the drive time regulations seem to have no impact at all on the strategy.

It is always interesting to compare the driving times of the individual drivers in each crew, and this is shown below. Hopefully the colour-coding helps.













Finally, a look at lap times. For the purposes of the tables below, I show both the best lap achieved by each driver in each of the top six cars, and also their “best stint” time. This is derived by taking the average lap time for the stint by ignoring the ‘in’ lap, the ‘out’ lap and any laps affected by Code-60. I have also, for this purpose, ignored the opening stint for each car, since the three or four laps of traffic-free running skews the average significantly. Inevitably, however, this leads to some averages being from a much smaller sample than others, and of course the track conditions change over the course of the race, so I am aware that some of the figures may be misleading. Nevertheless, the comparisons are interesting.

911 Herberth Porsche Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Daniel Alleman 2m 01.310s 2m 03.6s
Ralf Bohn 2m 01.808s 2m 04.2s
Robert Renauer 1m 59.516s 2m 02.4s
Alfred Renauer 2m 01.506s 2m 03.1s
Brendon Hartley 2m 00.514s 2m 02.1s
12 Manthey Porsche Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Otto Klohs 2m 05.092s 2m 06.3s
Jochen Krumbach 2m 01.534s 2m 03.8s
Matteo Cairoli 2m 00.077s 2m 02.1s
Sven Müller 2m 00.321s 2m 02.3s
3 Black Falcon Mercedes Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Abdulaziz Al Faisal 2m 00.942s 2m 03.5s
Hubert Haupt 2m 00.979s 2m 02.1s
Yelmer Buurman 1m 59.198s 2m 02.4s
Maro Engel 2m 00.194s 2m 02.5s
Michal Broniszewski 2m 03.108s 2m 04.9s

As always, I am happy to hear your comments, so do let me know if you have any!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Looking back on the 2016 WEC season - LMP1

The 2016 World Endurance Championship was closely contested between three manufacturer teams: Porsche, Audi and Toyota. In 2015, Toyota had a pretty rotten season, it being clear early on that the car simply wasn’t quick enough, and attention turned to the development of a car that would be better able to contend against the two siblings from Germany. Whether or not Toyota succeeded is not necessarily as easy a question to answer as it might seem, as a look at the championship positions is really too simplistic.

Similarly, one might argue that Audi came into 2016 with a significantly upgraded version of its R18 e-tron quattro; a car that was fast, but fragile, and one that failed to do itself justice over the course of the season.

I have had many such discussions with people since the season ended in Bahrain last year, and – as is my wont – I have spent some time trying to work out how best to answer these questions objectively, using the data that I have managed to collect over the season.

I would like to think that, if you are reading this, you might also have read my piece about Aston Martin’s season in the GTE-Pro class, and how it was affected by the Endurance Committee’s decisions in their attempts to Balance Performance. It is here if you haven’t.

In any case, the method that I use there, and that I am going to use in this analysis, is to base an assumption that a car’s outright performance can be judged by looking not at its single fastest lap in the race, but in the average of the best 20% of green laps in the race. Taking the best car in each race by this measure, and then comparing the competition as a percentage against this, reveals how much slower each car was, relative to the best.

Over the whole season, this data looks like this:


(I know, this is far too small to read... click on the image, to make it bigger!)

Also, in preparing these numbers, I have taken only the better-performing car from each manufacturer. At Silverstone, the figures for the no. 1 Porsche, the no. 5 Toyota and the no. 8 Audi are based only on the first green period before the FCY.

A common assertion these days is that endurance racing is a sprint, from start to finish. There is no room for taking things easy, for looking after the machinery. In the pits, there is not a lot to separate the teams. It is all down to the quickest driver and the quickest car. Well, yes it is; but that doesn’t tell the whole story either. If it did, then the results of each race would reflect the graph shown above.

To make this easy to compare, I show below the finishing positions of the best car from each of Porsche, Toyota and Audi in each race.



The obvious conclusion from this is that only Le Mans and Bahrain provided race results that were true representations of the performance of the cars in each race. And anyone who was at Le Mans will know that the result of that race was hardly what had been expected either.

This view is too simplistic though, since the finishing position does not show the relative distance between cars at the end of the race. Instead, we should look at this, which shows the average speed over the whole race, as a percentage of the winner.



This shows much better how close the races were, particularly in the latter part of the season. In the first two races of the season, Audi was able to convert its performance advantage into victories. At Le Mans though, the “car with the four rings” was simply not fast enough. Their podium at the Circuit de la Sarthe only came at Toyota’s misery. It is interesting though, that Toyota had a car that was not as quick as the Porsche. Although Toyota had a clear performance disadvantage at Mexico, the margin by which they lost the race was very small.

After Le Mans, the performance of Audi (in particular, the number 8 car) was outstanding: in terms of speed, the car was only beatable at Mexico and Shanghai. The fact that this was not translated into victories is evidence that there is still – thank heavens – more to winning a race that just being fast. The points table could have looked rather different if Audi had capitalised on these performance advantages.

The fact that the performance graphs are so different from the finishing position and race speed graphs underlines the fact that there is more to the WEC than speed alone. Drivers are correct when they give credit to the team for success. And having fast drivers and a fast car is not enough to win titles, as Audi has proved in 2016.

Creating a winning squad is an art – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It will be interesting to see who has put the pieces together most effectively in 2017.