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.

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
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?