Wednesday, 9 December 2009

1 season in 10 minutes

How do you sum up a season’s racing in just 10 minutes? Like this. This is the official highlight reel of the 2009 DTM championship.

That’s all that needs to be said, really. Just watch, and you’ll see that it speaks more for itself than I could ever write about it. It is just simply stunning. Enjoy.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Thursday Thoughts – Is engine parity necessary for 2010?

Over at Sidepodcast, they have started an initiative called Thursday Thoughts, where someone poses a topic or a question for people to comment and blog about. This time the question is as it states in the title: is it necessary to have engine parity for the 2010 F1 season. Or for those who want it in simple terms – should all engines be equalised?

Personally, my response is a combination of yes and no. Yes, everyone wants close racing and yes, no-one wants to see one team or one car driving off into the distance and dominating all the time. But at the same time, no-one wants F1 to become just another spec series like GP2, A1GP or IndyCar. Therefore, I propose a solution that keeps all the engines relative of each other while still allowing the teams some freedom in development.

What I think could work is this – the FIA gives every team a base unit. Very basic, very simple but with plenty of customisation available. The teams are then given a set budget which can be spent on developing this engine. They are free to spend as much of this as they want and develop it how they wish, but still keeping within the regulations laid out by the FIA.

That way, these engines are still related to each other in their basic components but at the same time are independent of each other as the teams have done their own work with them. Whether it could work we don’t know since nothing like this has been suggested. The only thing that comes close is the Cosworth unit which has gone to the new teams and Williams.

It’s nice to see competition and competitiveness in F1, but as mentioned no-one wants to see a runaway domination of the championship. Equality in F1 is good to a certain extent. Sure, series like GP2 can provide good close racing at times but this sport is all about the pinnacle of engineering and technology and innovation. Without any of that, it’s just another form of motorsport.

The drive to survive

It’s interesting how a team’s fortunes can change so quickly. Renault are pretty much deciding their future in F1 as I write this, while Sauber’s is safe and secure. The long-awaiting announcement that they would take the 13th spot on the entry list for the 2010 F1 season was a big relief to all those concern with the Hinwil outfit’s future. After a false takeover from Qadbak, which turned out to be nothing but a plot to exploit the funding the team would receive from the FIA due to their championship position from 2009. But Peter Sauber rescued his team from the brink of extinction and now all is well.

Meanwhile over in France, there is talk that David Richards of Prodrive is looking to buy out Renault’s F1 team. There were rumours a few months ago that Richards would take over as team principal after Briatore and Symonds were both exiled from the team after the Crashgate scandal involving Piquet’s accident at Singapore last year. There was also talk of 4 times world champion Alain Prost would step in as a team advisor. But those rumours quickly faded into the background and into obscurity.

Now, however, Richards’ name has come back into the fray. If it does happen, I couldn't think of anyone better to take control of an F1 team. The man oversees proceedings for the WRC, has looked after Subaru’s World Rally Team, currently campaigns Aston Martin-Lola’s in the LMS and at Le Mans, not forgetting his past exploits with the team when it was Benetton and also with BAR. Oh, and he’s overseen Ford’s works effort in the Australian V8 Supercar Championship.

You can’t deny the guy’s done the rounds when it comes to looking after race teams. With him at the head of the team, should it be re-branded Prodrive, or Aston Martin as has been touted, it hopefully shouldn’t be too much of a task to help the Enstone outfit be on the pace of the frontrunners once again. But there is one question on people’s lips – what of Kubica.

Currently, he has a contract with Renault. But if they decide to sell up to Richards and it becomes Prodrive, where would they both stand regarding his position in the team? Would he still stay firm and race for them? Will he go to another team? It has been rumoured that Mercedes would be his best bet since the second seat alongside Rosberg is yet to be announced. There are many rumours flying around who is going to get that drive. So far, Kubica’s teammate from the past 3 and a bit seasons, Nick Heidfeld, has been tipped as favourite, although talk of Michael Schumacher making a surprise return with a manufacturer he once raced sportscars for has been rife, although it has trailed off recently.

Whatever happens, I’m sure it will all come good in the end. Just like Sauber, who have an engine supply from Ferrari and a team in charge by its namesake once again, things are getting back to how they used to be. Something I’m all for.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

They are the young ones

This week in Jerez, all 9 F1 teams are out testing potential up and coming talent in the FIA’s official Young Driver Days. To someone who solely focuses on F1, you won’t have heard of pretty much most if not all of them. But if you’re someone like me, who happens to have a broad spread of knowledge and following when it comes to motorsport, you will have. Below is a list of all the drivers participating, and alongside them in brackets is the series they come from:

Brawn/Mercedes: Mike Conway (IndyCar), Marcus Ericsson (F3)
Red Bull: Daniel Ricciardo (F3)
McLaren: Gary Paffett (DTM), Oliver Turvey (WSR/GP2)
Ferrari: Jules Bianchi (F3), Daniel Zampieri (F3), Marco Zipoli (F3), Pablo Sanchez Lopez (F3)
Renault: Bertrand Baguette (WSR), Ho Pin Tung (Superleague), Lucas di Grassi (GP2)
BMW: Alexander Rossi (Formula Master), Estiban Gutierrez (F3)
Williams: Andy Soucek (F2), Nico Hulkenberg (GP2/F1)
Force India Paul di Resta (DTM), JR Hildebrand (Indy Lights)
Toro Rosso: Brendon Hartley (WSR/F3), Mirko Bortolotti (F3)

Not all of them will test on the same day as each other. Driver rotation throughout the 3 days ensure everyone gets a fair turn behind the wheel of their respective machinery. Apart from the BMW guys, the 3 Italian F3 drivers for Ferrari, Ericsson and Hildebrand, I’ve heard of all of these guys in some shape or form.

I think testing session like this are a very good idea. In fact, I’m in favour of bringing in some form of in-season testing again, if only to give drivers who are stepping in to take over from existing ones a chance to get used to the car before the next race weekend. We saw this season that drivers like Badoer and Grosjean suffered badly. Sure, Luca got a run in the F60 at Fiorano before his debut in Valencia, but it was a promotional run on demonstration tyres. He had no opportunity whatsoever to get used to the car in a qualifying or race simulation and spent most of the two race weekends he participated in suffering as a result, both from criticism and in pace.

Of course, the reason why the FIA banned in-season testing was to reduce costs. They want to get the spending levels back to those of the early 90s. But think about it – back then teams were still able to go testing, even the smaller ones. Well OK, maybe not all the smaller teams but the majority of the grid were still able to run at Silverstone or Monza in the days and weeks leading up to the respective race weekends. Why not allow testing for replacement drivers so that they get a chance to get to know the machine they’re about to wrestle around whichever circuit the F1 circus stops at next. But to make sure there’s no testing or development of any new parts, have an FIA steward present in the garage at all times. That way it ensures any updates only get tested in practice, like they have had to have been this year.

It should be a good thing that Formula 1 teams need to encourage young, up and coming talent into the sport, and the FIA should wholeheartedly embrace that. These Young Driver days are just the start, and while they do still want to reduce costs, this would surely be an initiative well worth investing in. Heck, if they managed to find any gems, I’m sure their potential success would help bring in the returns the FIA would want.

Also, who out of that lot up there seems to be in the best shape to secure an F1 drive in the future? Well, Bianchi for one has got to be up there. Yes, his times haven’t been fantastic but Ferrari have signed him up for the long term, which means they must have some faith and insight into the F3 Euro Series champion’s ability. If they can develop and nurture it appropriately, I think it’ll pay dividends for them. Also, I reckon a couple others are F2 Champion Andy Soucek and Paul di Resta for Force India. Soucek’s abilities shone through yesterday when he finished the first day on top of the time sheets. Personally, I think Williams should secure him as their 3rd and test driver for 2010 and then try and groom him as a replacement for Barrichello as and when he decides to end his racing career. di Resta has also looked impressive, as he put himself in the top 3 both yesterday and today. The man has talent, no doubt about it. Just whether any F1 teams pick up on it also remains to be seen. As with Soucek, he deserves a 3rd and test driver role with Force India.

These teams have to try and make more of an effort to help develop and nurture this young talents so that they become the stars of the future. All they need is for the FIA to see this too and allow them to run in test sessions away from the race weekends so that when a scenario like Massa’s in Hungary or Glock’s in Japan occurs, they don’t take forever to get up to speed and can instantly run at the pace the usual driver was at. If not on par, then around that level. This not only benefits them, but also the team and everyone else on the grid, as these replacement drivers don’t pose so much of a threat as they would when driving without having gotten familiar with their machine.

Will anything like this happen? Who knows. With a new FIA president in place, let’s sure hope so.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

If I ruled the FIA…

The FIA presidential elections are next month and at last we get to see the end of Max Mosley’s reign over the world of motorsport. In his place we will either see Jean Todt or Ari Vatanen and myself, along with a lot of my good friends over at Sidepodcast.com, would like to see the latter take the victory, despite the odds being against him.

This has just got me thinking – if I were FIA president, what rule changes would I want to implement in order for F1 to become better and more competitive, as well as easily accessible to the fans? These are only ideas off the top of my head, but of course you’re free to have your own say as to what you would do to change F1 if you had the chance.

1. Bring back pre-qualifying
For those of you who remember the late 80s and early 90s in F1, you will no doubt have heard of this. If not, let me explain. With so many small teams coming into the fray in this period of time, there simply wasn’t enough space on track for up to 39 odd cars from 20 teams all at once. Hence where pre-qualifying comes in. How it works is simple – at the time 30 cars were allowed to attempt to qualifying. But with only 26 spaces on the grid available for Sunday, this meant that 4 extra qualfying slots were available. A pre-qualifying session determined who got those 4 slots and were then permitted to attempt to qualifying for the race.

By the end of 1990, all these small teams were dying out and because of this it was no longer needed. But with so many entries for those 3 new team spaces for next year’s F1 World Championship, it would be a shame to see them all go to waste. Lola is a great example – they already have a scale model of what would have been their 2010 car on display at the factory, had they been selected by the FIA. Essentially, it’s a car that will never be built and therefore we will never find out just how competitive it would have been out on track.

Bringing back pre-qualifying would allow these teams to build their cars and take them to race weekends so that they could try and prove their worth. No matter how many cars that turn up, the pre-qualifying could take place and those who either don’t pre-qualify or those that do but don’t qualify can take part in a kind of support race alongside the GP2 and Porsche Supercup championships. This way their journey is not wasted – either way they would still be able to race and develop their cars and at the same time be able to test them against the other competition.

This would also require a reduction in the entry fees for the F1 world championship and of course the ability to allow teams to appear at GPs mid-season, like it used to be. It means more of a show for the fans and teams that want to make the leap into F1 can do so, just much more easily than before.

2. R&D budgets
There was a proposed £40m budget cap that for a short period of time was implemented for 2010. But thanks to FOTA, this has been increased and spending has now been agreed to be reduced to levels that were seen during the early 90s.

This is all well and good but I think they should go a bit further. Each team is given a set budget (let’s say £20m for example, can be more) for research and development on their car. They are only allowed to use that £20m and nothing else on developing the car to make it perform better. Once they’ve spent it, that’s it – they cannot enhance the car any more.

This would prevent teams like Toyota or McLaren spending millions upon millions trying to make their car work that little bit better. By restricting how much they can play with, it would force them to be intuitive and wise in terms of how they go about irking out that bit more extra speed. It’s amazing how teams such as Force India have a very small budget compared to the bigger teams, yet have already taken 2 front row starts, a 2nd place and a 4th place in the last two races. It’s not how much money you have, it’s how you use it, and that’s how it should be with all teams.

Plus it would mean they had a choice – use all their money early on in the season, produce a quick car and hope no-one else catches up, or spend it wisely, gradually continue development over the season and then use what’s left for one last push at the end of the season, or if the car’s performing well enough, they have to option to save it for next year’s budget. But also, a rule could be enforced saying they have to have spent at least 75% or so of that budget by season end, so teams can’t choose to save most of it for the following year.

There was an e-mail I sent to Christine at Sidepodcast way back at the end of 2007 expressing opinions on the 10 year engine freeze. I suggested a budget for engine R&D there, and said that if there were customer teams, then they had their own budget as well as everyone else to develop their engine themselves. Also, their supplier was not allowed to copy or share information with their customers and their engine development. This would give those teams more of a feeling of individuality as they are the ones putting the work into THEIR engine, not waiting on their supplier to come out with an update which could take some time and hinder the teams near the middle or back of the grid from making progress. Also, it could allow smaller teams to come up with ingenious and unique upgrades which can help them move up the grid.

3. Reduction in ticket prices
Now who here that’s an F1 fan wouldn’t want to pay less to go to a GP? Something needs to be done in this sector to help pack the grandstands again. At races like Turkey and Valencia this year, the fans were few and far between with mostly empty grandstands. What does this suggest to anyone from the outside looking in? That F1’s a boring sport? It’s too expensive? Uninteresting?

Cheaper tickets mean more of them are sold, more people get through the gate and the grandstands are packed to the rafters. This makes F1 seem more attractive and exciting if the circuits are heaving with fans. One series they need to look at for an example of fan satisfaction and value for money is the World Series by Renault. They have events all across Europe (in this instance, I still don’t know why it’s called a World Series when it never leaves Europe!) and they provide F1 demos, a full day’s racing and plenty of off-track entertainment. The cost for all this? Nothing. Nil. Nadda. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Tickets are absolutely free. This is why it’s so popular. I’ve been twice to the British rounds at Donington and Silverstone respectively (would have gone this year too had it not been for a last minute change of plans), and I’ve loved it. Some of the best days out I’ve ever had.

Maybe F1 needs to try this. Tickets at rock bottom prices and full access to the grandstands and circuit facilities. Sure, it could mean a loss for the circuit but think of the satisfaction it gives the fans. F1 wants to boost its popularity and draw in more interest and new fans. Doing something like this would help out no end. If not, maybe some official F1 promotional events which see a few of the teams get together and put on a show for those interested. Let them get close to the cars and drivers and enjoy the whole experience.

I was very fortunate to win the Puma Motorsport competition earlier this year and go to Silverstone for the British GP weekend access all areas in the paddock (well, almost). Now most fans will never in their life get a chance like that ever in their life. But something should be done so they can get a bit more intimate with the sport and let them take away memories and experiences they will never forget. That is how you create new fans and keep the existing ones.

Your opinions: These are the only 3 I can think of at the moment. If you had the power to implement new rules to help make F1 better, what would you do? Bigger engines? Changes to the race weekend? Restrictions on what teams can do with their cars? Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

My 5 “Legends of Le Mans”

With the Petit Le Mans taking place this weekend at Road Atlanta, I had a think to myself what my favourite 5 Le Mans machines of all time are. Le Mans and the whole sportscar genre that goes with it has been one of my favourite forms of motorsport over the years and all of these cars come from the 90s, possibly one of, if not the best era of Le Mans. So, let’s not waste any more time and get straight in with number 5.

5. 1999 BMW V12 LMR
imageWe start with a Le Mans winner from Germany – the very strik ing V12 LMR from BMW. The car was originally the V12 LM, which was run in the 24 Hours by the Schnitzer team with works backing. Unfortunately, both cars entered suffered vibrations in their drivetrains and both were out after just 60 laps. With this in mind, these chassis were sold off to private teams and the guys in Munich set about redesigning a new car for an assault to win in 1999. With support from Schintzer and Williams F1, the created the V12 LMR.

The cooling ducts were relocated and a wide rollhoop was incorporated to aid airflow to the rear wing. Overall, the entire chassis looked sleek and aerodynamic. Power would come from a 6.1L V12, which was estimated to put out about 580hp and allow the LMR to reach 214mph at Le Mans’s Mulsanne Straight. It was a race winner straight away with victory in the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours. Two cars were entered into the event, but one suffered a huge accident which damaged it beyond repair.

Onto Le Mans and despite the challenge from Toyota, Mercedes, Audi and Nissan, they stood firm and stayed consistent to triumph over their rivals and take Pierluigi Martini, Joachim Winkelhock and Yannick Dalmas to a legendary win in one of the most famous 24 Hour races ever. They continued to campaign the car for the rest of the year and throughout 2000, taking two wins and one car infamously flipping at the Petit Le Mans. With BMW and Williams now focusing on their F1 partnership, the cars were retired. Just 18 races saw one of these cars in action.

It’s a car which I remember for the sound – that beautiful wailing BMW V12 engine makes this car so memorable. I was fortunate to see it in action at the BMW Power Festival at Rockingham, Corby in 2005. Even though it’s at #5, it’s still one heck of a machine.

4. 1993 Toyota TS010
imageNow let’s rewind 6 years to 1993 and this beauty of a machine. Yes, it’s a Toyota but what a Toyota it is! The TS010 was a machine that again only race for a couple of years and never really that big an impression, but for those who truly appreciate cars like this, it really is a stunning looking thing.

Conceived in 1991 by legendary designer Tony Southgate, the car made its competition debut at the final round of the World Sportscar Championship that year at Autopolis, Japan. It managed a respectable 6th place finish in the hands of Brit duo Geoff Lees and Andy Wallace. For 1992, it now face opposition from Peugeot and the two battled it out for the next couple of years. Toyota struck the first blow with a win at Monza, but from there it was a case of staring at the 905’s exhaust pipes as it finished behind them in the rest of the races that year. It was enough to give them 2nd in the teams championship. Toyota also left one car to race in the final 2 rounds of the Japanese Sports Prototype championship, and it won both, with a second car ending up 4th at the final round at Suzuka, helping them secure the title ahead of Nissan and Mazda.

After 1992, the following year saw both the world and Japanese sportscar championships cancelled, meaning their only focus would be Le Mans. After coming 2nd and 6th with 2 cars while a third retired in 1992, they were aiming for the win. But once again Peugeot were in the way. With an updated car, the 905B, Japan’s best efforts could not overhaul them and they had to settle with 4th place behind their 3 car effort, that best-finishing car being lead by Eddie Irvine. With nowhere else for it to compete, the TS010 was retired.

It’s another car I remember for it’s noise. The beautiful F1-inspired 3.5L V10 meant it sounded like and went like an F1 car of that time period. But it also had the looks to go with it. Not that any of the other cars in this list don’t look good, but I would go so far as saying it’s the best looking out of the 5. Plus that engine is just wonderful. Thankfully, they returned 5 years later, and we’ll take a look at that effort in a sec. But first…

3. 1991 Mazda 787B
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Here we have what is probably the most successful Japanese Le Mans prototype. It may have only won one race in its lifetime, but it’s the only Japanese car to have won this particular event. The Mazda 787B is the only Japanese car to have won Le Mans, ladies and gentlemen. That is why it’s so legendary.

The car went through a few generations before making to this version. It started for Mazda in 1983 with the 717C and the story with this car starts in 1990. The car itself was originally the 787, an evolution of the the 767 (you still with me? Thought not!) and that car’s updated version the 767B. The 787 was first raced at Fuji, but after a mediocre performance, Mazda’s motorsport division Mazdaspeed focused its efforts on Le Mans with the car, getting Jacky Ickx to lead preparation of the cars and tests taking place at Silverstone and Estoril.

With their initial performance with the car at La Sarthe ending up with both cars having to retire following electrical fires caused by overheating, Mazda decided to start developing the car into the 787B for 1991. The updated car first appeared at the inaugural round of the WSC at Suzuka, where it came 6th overall and 4th in the C2 class. The car was then kept back for further development while the previous 787s ran Mazda’s campaign in Europe. They were only seen again when the season went back to Japan, coming in 9th and 10th places.

Come Le Mans 1991, they had massive competition from Peugeot, Sauber-Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan as well as a whole host of Porsche 962s. But as the bigger cars fell by the wayside with mechanical faults and driver errors, the little Mazda soldiered on, it’s thoroughly spine-tingling Rotary engine screaming round lap after lap. The Rotary was more fuel efficient which meant less time in the pits topping up and more time out on track. It also proved to have excellent reliability. And so the record books show that car #55, the bright orange and green, Renown-sponsored Mazda driven by Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler, crossed the line after 362 laps and made history.

This car is now preserved in Mazda’s history and is brought out to be demoed at promo and historic events. It still send gives people goosebumps every time the engine is fired up and at full chat down a main straight. It truely is a Le Mans legend.

2. 1999 Toyota GT-ONE (TS020)
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OK, so it’s not technically a Le Mans prototype, but it is an LMGTP – a Le Mans GT Prototype, and in my eyes that counts.

It was tough to pick this over the 787B for #2, but I like it because of the styling. It’s functional and aggressive, yet elegant and beautiful. I think it’s one of the best looking Le Mans cars ever. It was created by Toyota Team Europe, who at the time also had a WRC program to look after. But they found the budget to go back to Le Mans. It’s first race was of course Le Mans in 1998 on the back of promising pace at the pre-race test. All 3 cars suffered problems but one still finished, ending up 9th and 25 laps behind the race-winning Porsche 911 GT1.

For 1999, Toyota knew they had to get stronger. So they set about on an extensive testing program, conducting long distance tests at Spa and, if I recall correctly, Magny-Cours too. They went to the Le Mans test day, 3 cars entered, filled with confidence. And it showed, with all 3 cars taking 1st, 3rd and 5th respectively. Qualifying saw a front row lock out and throughout the race a fierce battle developed with the Mercedes and BMWs. But again, it was not to be. Cars #1 and '#2 both crashed during the night and #3 looked set to win only for a heartbreaking puncture to to occur at high speed in the closing stages. Still, 2nd place was a respectable result but Toyota left knowing what might have been.

With an F1 program now the main focus, Toyota gave the GT-One one last hurrah at the Fuji 1000km in ‘99, but again victory was denied due to mechanical problems and 2nd place was the result again as Nissan’s R391 LMP took the win. It is one of Le Mans’s greats and will never be forgotten. Thanks to racing games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, the GT-One still lives on in racing fans’ memories and is a firm favourite with them.

It’s also the only car in this list that doesn’t have a high-pitched wail. This car has a twin-turbo V8 which gives a lovely gruff engine note. I reckon that this is the greatest Le Mans racer that never won the great race. Such a shame, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. It is still one of a kind.

1. 1993 Peugeot 905B
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This is it. This is the car that started it all for me. The car that kicked off my love for Le Mans. I remember when I was younger I would watch the video of the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours endlessly and pick out this machine as my favourite. The way it looked, the way it drove and most of all, the way it sounded. Even now, it still gives me goosebumps. I give you – the Peugeot 905B.

Peugeot came off the back of a succesful World Rally and Paris-Dakar program with the 205 T16 and 405 T16. Mastermind of the project was head of Peugeot Talbot Sport, Jean Todt. He decided the next chapter in the team’s history in motorsport should be in sportscar racing and so the 905 was born. The project was announced in 1988 and the car was unveiled and debuted in late 1990, taking part in the last few races of the WSC, driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Keke Rosberg.

The first full season came in 1991 with competition from Jaguar. The car had early pace and reliability problems with Jaguar’s XJR-14 performing as fast as F1 cars of the time. Despite a lucky win at Suzuka, come Le Mans both cars never made it past 4 hours. Something had to be done, hence the 905B. Introduced at the Nurburgring that same year, the car finally had the race winning package and promptly took wins at Magny Cours and Mexico City to put Peugeot 2nd in the championship.

1992 was much better, with the 905B winning all but the first round of the WSC at Monza, which went to Toyota’s TS010. The car took 1st and 3rd at a rain-soaked Le Mans ahead of the Toyotas once again as well as the Mazdas which were effectively old Jag XJR-14 chassis with Rotary engines dropped in them. Peugeot were now looking to make it 2 wins in a row.

Jean Todt then made the decision to leave his post at Peugeot to become team principal at Ferrari’s F1 team. This meant the end of Peugeot Talbot Sport, so they were determined to go out on a high and, despite strong competition from a reinforced Toyota squad, they did it. Locking out the podium, it was an emotional end to what had been a brilliant team and a great project.

That 1993 race-winning car is now in the hands of AGS who use it on their F1 school programs. There was also a 905B sold at auction earlier this year, the car that won at Suzuka in 1991. But to me, this is my all time favourite. There is a shot early on in the 1993 Le Mans VHS which shows the car flying past the camera down Mulsanne and then coming over the crest down and round Mulsanne Corner. No commentary, just pure noise and the distinctive wail from that F1-spec 3.5L V10 engine. Watching that scene still gives me goosebumps and I’m sure it always will.

The 905B – my #1.

I would love to hear what you think of my top 5 Le Mans machines and indeed what are yours? What makes your top 5?

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Fisi & Ferrari: Sweet dream or beautiful nightmare?

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As he sat in the cockpit of the F60 for the first time to have his seat fitted, Giancarlo Fisichella must have thought that Christmas and his birthday had all come at once. This was his childhood dream. Ever since he’d began his racing career, he’d longed to drive for Ferrari, to become one of the prestigious list of people who had driven for the Prancing Horse. He got a chance to test a 412T2 at Mugello in 1995, the last of the screaming V12 Ferrari F1 cars. Then came the call-up to Minardi a year later. After driving for Jordan, Benetton, Jordan again, Sauber, Renault and Force India, he finally got his wish.

His stunning performance in the VJM02 to take pole and finish 2nd two weeks ago at Spa simply blew the entire F1 paddock away. No-one had expected the ex-Jordan, Midland and Spyker team to be in contention for the race win, let alone pole position. Had it not been for Raikkonen’s KERS-shod Ferrari, he probably would have won it regarding how Fisi managed to stay on his rear wing for practically the whole race. It was enough for Luca di Montezemolo to make the call and ask him to step up as replacement to the replacement to Massa, Luca Badoer.

Fast forward to yesterday’s qualifying session and we find ourselves asking the question: was it the right thing to do? Was moving to Ferrari, despite it being a lifelong dream, really the right step for his career, especially at this point in the season? The Force India is at its strongest on low downforce circuits such as Spa and Monza, and this was proven by Adrian Sutil and Fisi’s replacement Vitantonio Liuzzi. Adrian almost had pole but was denied by a hard-charging Lewis Hamilton, while Tonio impressed many on his first race weekend since 2007 by planting himself 7th on the grid for the race. Giancarlo, meanwhile? 14th. Go figure.

Had he elected to stay with FI, it could have been 2 poles in a row for him. But, while he lives out the ambition which he so desperately wanted all his career, the minnows he left behind don’t seem to be missing him all that much. Development work is always continuing at Force India this season. Ferrari have halted theirs to focus on 2010. Mainly the reason why Fisi seems to be so off the pace is the simple fact of a lack of testing. With the in-season ban, he had to use Friday and Saturday morning to learn the car. An off at the Parabolica yesterday morning didn’t help matters, but the car was thankfully rebuilt. Still, he has a hard slog ahead of him on home soil tomorrow if he’s a chance at points.

The guy has pace, no doubt about that. It’s like any good driver. Give him a good car and he’ll do well. Right now, while the F60 is still a capable machine, there are better mounts out there such as the Brawn, McLaren and indeed Force India, all Mercedes-powered cars I might add. With no development work going on on this car at all now, it does seem to be hurting Ferrari, but with the focus on next season, perhaps a return to form in 2010 is the main priority right now. Certainly seems that way. Can’t deny though, he’s a hell of a lot better than that Badoer. Ugh…

Personally, I feel that as long as Giancarlo’s happy, then I’m happy. He’s got what he wants, so let him be. Besides, if he doesn’t get a race drive next season, he’s still Ferrari’s reserve driver, so expect to see him pounding out the testing mileage during the winter. I’m sure his experience will be as invaluable to Maranello as it was to Force India. But you have to admit – you’d certainly feel the weight of expectation from the Tifosi on your shoulders out on track, wouldn’t you?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Madness from Maranello

Is it me or are Ferrari going nuts again? First off, they decide to try and bring Schumacher back, then when he's not able to do it they choose Luca Badoer over Marc Gene. Are they mad? Gene is the only one out of the two that still has an active racing career, yet all Luca's done is test for 10 years. Marc's even the driver they take to the race weekends as the reserve driver, as far as I know, and he even won Le Mans this year. Yet it still all counts for nothing just because some guy who's not as talented gets to drive instead just because he's been with the team longer. Let's face it, Luca's career is over. Marc should be in that car, regardless of any other LMS commitments with Peugeot. Think about it, if you had a choice between a Le Mans Series drive with Peugeot or an F1 race drive with Ferrari, which one would you pick? Exactly.

Even when these two were teammates together at Minardi in 1999, it was Marc who scored more points, Marc who outperformed Luca and Marc who was kept on for another year. But it’s probably done because of 10 years of loyal service. Which I can understand. But if you were the team boss at Ferrari, you’d at least want someone who can still go racing and do it well. How can they determine he’s race ready when all he’s done is pound around the test tracks clocking up miles. He might have done race simulations in testing, but it’s not the same as an actual race situation. Gene has managed to run in a 24 hour race and win it with Brabham and Wurz. But despite their rich history there as well, it seems the endurance classic means nothing to them anymore, regardless of who waved the starter flag this year.

Plus now there's this new fiasco where LDM wants 3 car teams, just so he can get Schumacher back racing again! It's ludicrous. How on earth can anyone let this go on? I for one hope that Vatanen becomes FIA president, so to stop this whole Ferrari favouritism that seems to be going on. With Todt, no matter how glossy his brochure may be, I fear for the future of F1 as we know it. Ari is a politician, he knows what he's talking about and should be given the chance to lead. Todt's only in that position because he's rubbed shoulders with Max for years just to get into his good books, and in return is able to get the nod over controversial matters. They said it themselves that F1 isn't F1 without a competitive Ferrari. More like a coniving Ferrari, if you ask me.

The idea of 3 cars teams was toyed with a few years back. Ironically, I remember seeing a picture in Autosport showing 3 Ferraris with Jacques Villeneuve in the 3rd car. Now this idea is ridiculous, simply because a new Concorde agreement has just been signed, with everyone agreeing to bring spending levels down to those of the 1990s. How in the world are teams going to do that by running 3 cars? Plus, it’s probably just another cheap ploy for publicity by both Ferrari and Schumacher himself. Some people never change.

I for one am glad that Michael isn’t coming back after all. It did seem to be tearing the F1 community in to two evident halves -  those that did want him to come back and those that didn’t. I was rather impartial at first, but after seeing what the mention of one man can do to F1 fans to a certain extent, I decided to move firmly into the latter. I think F1’s all the better for it. Now we just need Ari to become president and then everything will be alright. If Todt wins, I don’t even want to think about the consequences. Not for a second.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tuning of a different kind

I LOVE music. Who doesn’t? But then I also love cars and motorsport. So putting the two together always tends to make for an epic combination. This can be said for racing and driving games. Marrying the right soundtrack to such a game is crucial in order to help it flow smoothly when moving through the menus and raise the tempo when out on the virtual racetrack. Quite a few songs, bands and artists that I enjoy have originated from games I’ve played over the years. From that first play on a Sega Mega Drive to everyday use of an XBOX 360, there have been some great memories and these are just some of my favourite tunes that have helped create them.

Song: SURV1V3
Artist: Jonathan Underdown w/ Daiki Kasho
Game: Gran Turismo 5/Prologue (PS3)

Starting with something from the current crop of sim racing games on the mainstream consoles, we have the song from the European and Japanese intros of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (PS3). As a song just by itself, it’s brilliant but as a driving song, it’s on another level. The intro envisions preparations before the beginning of a race, and the bridge sounds like something you’d nudge down a gear and nail the throttle to. Also, during the interlude, at about 2’05 when the drums kick in, I can see a car driving fast through a winding mountain pass. Probably just me on that one, but anyway that’s not the point. Back on topic, the guitar riff is catchy and something to move your head to and the lyrics can be hard to make out at first, but a quick search on Google will help you find and understand them. There are parts where the singer Jonathan Underdown shouts lyrics like “Break Out!” or “Block Out!” which helps to make it all the more addicitive. I could easily listen to this over and over again, which I do, and never get tired of it. It is such a great song and Sony and Polyphony Digital made a great choice. One only hopes this will be on the full game’s soundtrack, which I’m sure it will be.

Song: Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 Intro
Artist: Barry Leitch
Game: Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 (Amiga)

Now for something retro! Going all the way back to 1991, we have here a classic piece of video game music in my eyes. Personally, I never had an Amiga so I never heard this version originally. I had a Sega Mega Drive when I was younger, so it was this version here that I experienced. Still, it brings back fond memories of my first days playing racing games. This, plus Gran Turismo, helped me develop my love of cars and games to what it is now. Without them, I’d probably look at them a bit differently. The original Amiga version is in the style of classic synthesiser 80’s/90’s music and could easily be played in a club and people would dance to it regardless. It has been remixed several times, but my favourite is Lain Courbet’s Turbo Remix version, which can be found here. It’s like the original, only extended a bit and brought forward into the 21st century a bit more. This is a song I will treasure, since it set me off on the path of sim racing that I currently drive down today. Without it, and this game, who knows what I’d be like!

Songs: Paradigm Shifter, Photon Rez, Cygnus Rift, Quantum Singularity
Artist: Electronic Arts
Game: Need For Speed Road Challenge/High Stakes (PS1/PC)

Moving forward again into the late 90s and another favourite racing game from my past. Back when EA made good Need For Speed games, High Stakes (or Road Challenge as it was known to us Europeans) featured 4 instrumental songs which, although different to each other, seem to relate at the same time. All of them were used as menu music, but you could drive to them in reality if you wanted. Above is Paradigm Shifter, probably my favourite of the 4. They all tend to use a mix of electronic dance beats with drum and bass in the background for good measure to give it some feeling. As I mentioned at the beginning, music in a game should help the transition from menu to menu and these music tracks do just that. They’re not too relaxed, but at the same time not too upbeat and overpowering. Each has its own unique beat and meaning it seems. Still, I have great memories of this game and the music. It was probably the first to ever feature the mighty McLaren F1, in it’s GTR Longtail guise. I’ll never forget the standard colour it was available in which was the very same orange that featured on their Can-Am race cars of old. Plus, the engine note of the Porsche 911 in this game is also a lasting memory. At the time, I thought it sounded exactly like it, but then as an 8 year old boy, you tend to do such things. You can listen to the other 3 songs here:

Photon Rez
Cygnus Rift
Quantum Singularity

Song: The whole sountrack
Artist: Various Japanese composers
Game: Ridge Racer Type 4 (PS1)

OK, I have saved the best, in my opinion, until last. I really can’t pick one song from this game’s soundtrack. I love them all too much in equal measure to decide. For me, the music in Ridge Racer Type 4 is THE best in any video game bar none. There is such a great mix of genres here, from upbeat dance to funk to drum and bass. It provides music for various occasions in the game. Pearl Blue Soul is great for a high-speed battle while Lucid Rhythms provide a gentle synthesiser track with a gentle yet effective drum beat, perfect to put over something like night racing at Le Mans. Other songs like Move Me have heavy use of drums and guitar to push home the illusion of speed and going fast. I think it’s brilliant how there seems to be two different styles of music in the same game, yet they match up so well. From the upbeat intro of Urban Fragments to the calming and sombre tone of Epilogue, it really is a complete soundtrack in my opinion. The best thing is, it is available to buy! A quick search on Amazon finds a music CD for the game. Sure it’s a little bit pricier than you’d expect, but take it from me – do some searching on YouTube, listen to a few of the songs and I hope that afterwards you’ll be hooked. I know I am, and I think I’m going to have to get that CD. The prospect of playing it in my car when I start driving is too good to pass up, me thinks…

I could list a lot more songs, but I thought I’d keep it short and sweet. So, if you have any favourites from racing games of past, present, and dare I say future, then by all means post them here. Who knows, you guys might have a song I’ve not heard yet that could just be a hidden gem.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Race-Shop World Series @ Pau – My P.O.V

Race Pro (XBOX 360) is a racing game close to my affections at the moment while I wait in anticipation for NFS Shift and Forza 3. It has been for a while, but after a short break I’m back into the groove. With me being a member of RaceDepartment, a sim racing forum known throughout the community, I’d been able to put my racing skills, honed since I first played Lotus Turbo Challenge on the Sega Mega Drive all those years ago when I was little, to the test against other enthusiasts of the game. After eventually managing to win a WTCC race at Monza in a Chevy Lacetti a while back, I continued to run races online. But only a few days ago, a friend of mine from RD called Gred Dranard offered me the chance to run in the Race-Shop World Series. He was running a Volvo S60 Challenge under the genius team name of Prawn GP and from my experience of racing against him, he was VERY quick. So of course, I asked and I got.  My debut – on the streets of Pau, France.

After some testing with Greg on Saturday night, I felt more confident, if only a little. He’d shown me a few ways on how to keep the car stable over the seemingly unsteady, winding streets, like making sure to always keep the diff loaded by applying power pretty much all the time through the long corners. That way it helped to redcue the chance of lift-off oversteer coming up the the very tricky, slightly downhill chicane with fairly large kerbs about halfway around the lap. Mind you, it didn’t mean I was never caught out a few times. By the end, I was in the low 1’22s with a controller, while he was managing 1’20s with a wheel. There seemed to lie the secret to his speed in a car with a stock setup.

Sunday came, and with more practice in the afternoon, I felt I was ready. But as soon as I got into the lobby and started seeing the times the other guys were producing, I knew my chances of even securing pole were slim. Still, I managed to put myself 4th fastest in the 2nd of the two lobbies with a 1’22.116:

Lobby Qualifying (to determine who would be in which lobby for the entire event):

Lobby 1

1. gregtwo, 1:21.214 (my teammate)
2. X calibur014, 1:21.714
3. UsR EXTR3ME, 1:21.916
4. VVV Haga, 1:22.281
5. Webbers88, 1:22.448
6. iiINIFIECTiiOIN, 1:22.916
7. TKR Garlicbread, 1:23.116
8. F4H Red Pod, 1:23.817

Lobby 2

  1. RpM Mad Monk - 1:20.812
  2. Noss The Boss - 1:21.447
  3. Kerry Katona - 1:22.983
  4. woodwiss - 1:22.116
  5. writester - 1:24.684
  6. iTrevorMcDonald - 1:21.481

Thankfully, that time came on my last flying lap and it got me into the A Final – just about, anyway. Onto the Superpole, which used the game’s normal qualifying system of just 1 flying lap. You were normally allowed to restart but the RWS rules did not allow this. One shot at pole was all you got. I knew I’d never get it, but I also wa hoping not to make a mistake – which is exactly what I did. That tricky downhill chicane with the big kerbs? Yup, lost it there and nosed it into the wall. But unlike the other guy who messed up, I carried on and finished my lap, which is why I started 6th instead of 7th.

A Final Superpole for Race 1

1: RpM Mad Monk - 1:21.346
2: gregtwo - 1:21.814 (teammate)
3: X Calibur014 - 1:21.948
4: UsR EXTR3ME - 1:22.515
5: Noss The Boss - 1:22.850
6: woodwiss - 1:30.924
7: iTrevorMcDonald – DNQ

The start was fairly straightforward. I decided to hang at the tail of the field for the first couple of laps and then started to try and advance up through the pack. A few times I managed to get a faster run through the final chicane than iTrevor in the SEAT in front of me, which meant I could pull alongside on the pit straight but only before backing out for the tight right hander before Turn 2. I managed to get as high as 4th before the inevitable mistake came. Going a bit too fast into the fast right kink after the pit straight, I clipped the outside wall, spun, hit the opposite wall and quickly got going again, albeit dropping to 5th with UsR EXTR3ME’s Chevy on my tail. The front of my car was crumpled which seemed to affect front end grip somewhat, but thankfully there was no mechanical damage. For the last 5 or so laps I bravely kept EXTR3ME behind, despite messing up at the tricky chicane on the last lap. So, 5th place on my debut while my teammate and series leader Greg went on to beat Mad Monk’s SEAT to the win.

Race 1 (14 laps)
1: gregtwo 19:20.354
2: RpM Mad Monk 1:20.646 - +1.273
3: Noss The Boss +8.890
4: iTrevorMcDonald +27.377
5: woodwiss +33.819
6: UsR EXTR3ME +34.120
7: X Calibur014 DNF

Race 2 would be wet and a reverse grid based on the finishing order of Race 1. This placed me 3rd behind X Calibur and UsR. It was also a rolling start with an extra lap added on to the 14 so we could perform it. It was a little confusing though. The front row went about 30 metres ahead too early which meant it was a drag race between the two of them into T1. But as I arrived there, I watched X Calibur’s SEAT spin sideways and lose it big time. UsR slowed to avoid and amidst all the carnage, I popped through the middle to lead on my debut! So there I was at the head of the pack doing Prawn GP proud. Granted, I was a tad slower than everyone else which meant I was essentially forming my own version of the Trulli Train. For 8 or so laps I bravely hung on, getting close to losing the lead once or twice but eventually it happened. Greg, iTrevor and Mad Monk all slipped by at the bottom hairpin to knock me to 4th. But Greg made a rare mistake and hit the final chicane wall getting him very loose, promoting me to 3rd, and then iTrevor outbraked himself at T2 and slid off, pushing me to 2nd. For the final laps I tried to close the gap to Monk but it was all in vain. Still, 5th and 2nd on my RWS debut was pretty decent, I think.

This isn’t a racing driver’s excuse here, but I don’t feel the Volvos were at their best at all on the streets of Pau. It is a good handling car with a stock setup, provided it’s on an actual race track. On a street circuit it seems it’s a little clumsy which seems to hamper it when faced off against the shorter, nimbler SEATs. But Brno is next, which is big and wide and hopefully should suit Prawn GP much better. Plus, I’ve just put in an order for a Logitech Drive FX Racing Wheel for the 360, the exact same one that Greg uses. Things are about to get serious.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

‘Ere, Loeb’s coming!

There has been much talk of a big name in motorsport making the jump into F1. The rumours flying around at the moment are concering Toro Rosso (they did about Bourdais’ eventual exit) as reports suggest that 5-time and reigning World Rally Champion, Sebastien Loeb is to make his debut in the World Championship before this season is through, most likely at the end of it in Abu Dhabi. Autosport magazine this week suggests that deal is done and he will get a go in the STR4 as will Bourdais’ current replacement, Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and also, rumoured to be, previous reserve driver for both Red Bull teams, Kiwi Brendon Hartley.

Loeb’s tie in with Red Bull as a whole comes from the drinks company’s title sponsorship with Seb’s current employers, the works Citroen WRC team. Olivier Quesnel, the team boss, has said that right now, it’s simply not possible for Seb to race with STR now since he’s caught in the middle of a championship battle with Mikko Hirvonen and Ford. But with the Abu Dhabi race taking place after the WRC season finishes, he has said that Loeb is essentially a free agent and can do what he likes. This would of course open the door for him to step through, into F1.

So is this serious or just one big publicity stunt by Red Bull themselves just to push promotion and sales of the brand? In motorsport as a whole, I’ve seen a Red-Bull sponsored car in pretty much every race series currently in existence. Their reach in this sport is amazing. With their own driver program and of course 2 F1 teams, it’s not hard for Dietrich Mateschitz for capitalise on any kind of marketing opportunity. But somehow, I don’t think it is. Loeb has said that he is committed to his duties in the WRC but wouldn’t say no to a drive in F1. I’m sure every other racing driver in the world be the same. Well, maybe not Montoya, but…

Of course, Seb has driven an F1 car before. His first time was when he and then Renault driver Heikki Kovalainen swapped cars, with the Finn trying out the C4 WRC while Loeb got behind the wheel of the R27 at the Paul Ricard HTTT circuit. You would have thought he’d take it easy and just trundle round. But this is Sebastien Loeb we’re talking about here, and this clip of him in said R27 proves my point – he doesn’t:

It seems to me that Loeb has that confidence that he’s picked up from all his years rallying. With this just being a publicity thing, you would have thought he’d play it safe and not push the car too hard. But he looks right at home in that car to me. He’s not afraid at all to go flat out. Look at the video at 2m 03 seconds onwards. He’s flat out at the end of the long Mistral straight at Paul Ricard and without a hint of lifting just powers round the long right hander with ease. Not a hesitation, not a flinch.

Then only last year was Seb invited by Red Bull to join them on an official test day in Barcelona. Beforehand, they brought him down to the factory in Milton Keynes for a seat fitting ahead of his first run in the RB4 at a damp Silverstone. Now without traction control as opposed to that in the Renault, on a wet track, you would think once again that Loeb wouldn’t particularly go too hard. Wrong:

Despite the wet conditions, Loeb still gives full pelt down the back straight and also seems to carry decent speed through the corners too. I think that with more track time he’ll be as fast as the current field of drivers and fit in very well. His performance at the Barcelona test last November was impressive, setting the 8th fastest time of the day he drove, faster that Piquet if I recall (fail).

It makes me think why rally drivers don’t get the opportunity to drive F1 cars more often. As I mentioned earlier, they seem to have a level of confidence that is on a par, if not higher, to those who regularly compete in the World Championship. F1 drivers just have the track, other drivers and weather conditions as obstacles. Rally drivers face all of this plus objects in the road such as rocks, boulders, trees and not forgetting the jumps and loose slippery surfaces. F1 drivers don’t have to contend with the potential scenario going at top speed through a narrow forest, trees all around, on a muddy, slippery road with braking distances greatly increased, knowing that you can slide off the road into the trees or down a bank at any moment if you make but a minute mistake. Rally drivers dare to push the limits a bit more than F1 because they need to be in order to stay in the hunt for the overall win.

I think that should this all go ahead as seemingly planned and it turns out Loeb does get to do the Abu Dhabi race and then a full time drive next season with Toro Rosso (and that’s something I’d definitely like to see), he has the potential to do fairly well. I think he seems to know how to handle a car on the edge and that might just put him in good stead. Reports suggest he’s been getting track time in an F3000 car in order to get up to speed. Apart from the 3 F1 test drives, his appearance at Le Mans and a drive in the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1 car, he’s had very little time on the racetrack compared to being on the stages. But as I pointed out in the last blog post I did, he needs a lot of track time in the car to get him up to speed as quickly as possible. That’s what needs to happen to make this work properly. If it all goes through, I wish Seb all the very best and I shall be supporting him!

Finally, he wasn’t actually the first rally driver that I know of to drive an F1 car. That honour fell to the late, great Colin McRae who was given a test drive by Jordan Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1996 as a birthday present in exchange for team driver Martin Brundle driving Colin’s world championship winning Subaru Imprezza 555 rally car. Eddie Jordan believed that had McRae chosen to race on the track than on the dirt, he could have had the potential to win multiple titles. But then again, when have we taken anything EJ says seriously recently, if at all ever?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Au Revoir, Seb

Sebastien Bourdais’ F1 fate has been sealed - for now at least. Toro Rosso have cut him loose and set him free into the big wide world of motorsport once again as a free agent. After 9 rather lacklustre and unimpressive performances, his promising points score in Australia has been a very far cry from the situation he finds himself in now. Nurburgring was the final straw, with his car and his F1 career finally giving up the ghost after just a few laps. Handshakes and hugs all round to his mechanics, it was a scene that plainly said “Thanks guys, nice knowing you”.

What has happened to the Bourdais that took 4 straight Champ Car titles, from 2004 to 2007, in a row? The Bourdais that was F3000 champion and did well at Le Mans? Are drivers that come from across the pond really destined to fail when they answer the call of F1? Some will argue that Jacques Villeneuve was a success, with a great debut season to finish 2nd in the championship behind eventual champion teammate Damon Hill in 1996, before seeing off Michael Schumacher all the way to the infamous final round at Jerez a year later to take the crown himself. But what else did he achieve? Nothing! Now he seeks a return to F1 after 3 seasons away in 2010. Somehow, I fail to see what would attract team bosses to a driver that likes his overalls at least 3 sizes too big.

Other such American imports that have tried and subsequently failed include Michael Andretti and Cristiano da Matta. You could half count Alessandro Zanardi since he started in F1, went to America and then came back as CART champion. By mentioning them, it’s made me come to a conclusion. All of these drivers are Indycar/CART/Champ Cap champions, a series which was mainly a half-spec series with 3 different chassis, 3 or 4 different engines and 2 tyre compounds. A lot of combinations there, but essentially every team didn’t have their own car. It was essentially a customer series. No works teams at all, just outfits buying what they needed to run in the championship. When Champ Car became a spec series, this is where I think Seb’s problems started. With him being so used to running against other drivers in identical machinery, he essentially was only going out there to prove he was the best driver in that car as a whole. Once he came to F1, with teams building their own cars and different engines and tyres and such, it was certainly a shock to the system.

It did seem as though something was starting to come good when STR hit their stride late last season, but it was Sebastien Vettel who benefitted from it most, netting his and the former Minardi team’s first victories. Since then of course, Vettel has moved on to the senior Red Bull team and become a winner with them twice over this season. It was thought that before this season even began, Bourdais would not keep his seat. He was up against Takuma Sato for it, and personally I wanted Taku in there purely for his experience and the fact that it would help Red Bul as a brand break into the Japanese market. For some reason, Franz Tost decided Le Seb was the better option and stuck with him to plonk alongside the sole new boy in the class, another Sebastien – Buemi, that is. So far the man has shown promise, especially with an impressive drive early on in the season in the soaking wet of Shanghai. Since then, the car hasn’t been updated but for Hungary the STR4 is getting an identical update to that which the Red Bull RB5 received at Silverstone at the hands of Adrian Newey. Buemi is hopeful of points, and after seeing what this upgrade has done for Vettel and Webber’s championship charge, I think he’s right to be.

Another problem I’ve found with drivers coming over from America is that they don’t get enough track time in the car prior to the new season. When Williams poached Villeneuve, they made sure he had as much testing mileage under his belt as possible in order for him to get up to speed quickly. It certainly seemed to work as he almost win the opening race of 1996 in Melbourne had it not been for techincal difficulties meaning he had to relinquish the victory to Hill and finish 2nd. But all this good form came when he was in a competitive car. 1998 was only a terrible season due to the fact the car was too far off the pace of the McLarens and Ferraris to even trouble them.

That’s another problem – these drivers have all entered F1 (bar Villeneuve) in rather uncompetitive cars. When they make their debut and not everything quite goes to plan, we make assumptions such as “Aww, he’s only new. Give him a few more races and he’ll be up to speed”. It’s only when they still continue to fail to impress and struggle that we assume they’re actually a load of rubbish and call for their heads. It was the same with Andretti. He got fed up and ran off back to his homeland leaving Mika Hakkinen to take over. He of course went on to greater things with the team.

So we see these champions in a different light, on circuits they seem befuddled by, in cars they don’t recognise the look or more importantly the feel of. Plus the fact that mainly, their racing is done on ovals which just means they turn left constantly for some 200 laps, or on street circuits which is a lot of stop-start, 90 degree, usually low speed mazes. Oh sure, they do run on road courses and some of them are brilliant. But none of them can really compare to the modern, European and Asian motordromes that have such advanced and excellent facilities. Our efforts seem to make the US look like they’re still in the 60s and 70s. Also one thing could be that because their racing is predominantly an oval series, the normal circuits tend to see those who dominate on them normally struggle.

In recent years, F1 exports to America such as Justin Wilson and Robert Doornbos have seen them win races. I feel this is because they’ve been at the pinnacle of motorsport and they know what it’s like. They can use that invaluable knowledge and experience they gained on the European circuits to their advantage when the Yanks visit their road courses. Wilson recently won the IndyCar race at Watkins Glen which is, of course, a road course. There aren’t many of them around in the US, apart from in my opinion Laguna Seca and Road America.

It’s a shame. They come over full of such promise, yet they leave empty-handed and seemingly red-faced. There needs to be more track time available to them if this is going to work in future, testing ban or not. Also, they need a competitive car to showcase their talents. Otherwise, they’ll end up the same as the rest. As for Bourdais, I’m tipping a future in the Le Mans Series with Peugeot. He seemed at home at Le Mans, finishing 2nd with Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin. He’s also been there before with Pescarolo so I think there’s something there for him. As for now, time has been called on his F1 adventure. If you ask me, it was for the best.

Monday, 13 July 2009

F1 2009 Super Season Grid – post Germany catch-up

It’s been a while, but I thought it was time to get back on track with the Super Season Grid. Things have changed in the F1 world since the last grid update after Spain. For one, the balance of power seems to have shifted to Red Bull with Vettel and Webber taking wins at Silverstone and Nurburgring respectively as Brawn have fallen behind a bit in the development race, Adrian Newey introducing a raft of chassis changes for the British GP. Meanwhile, the likes of Toyota and BMW have slipped back even further while Williams, McLaren and Ferrari have made a few jumps up the order.

But in terms of the drivers, who is still class of the field on average? Well, I’ve filled in the gaps from Monaco to today’s race and here is how it stands as of now:

  1. Jenson Button – 1’28.319  +0.000  Non-mover
  2. Nico Rosberg – 1’28.378  +0.059  Non-mover
  3. Rubens Barrichello – 1’28.407  +0.088  Non-mover
  4. Mark Webber – 1’28.489  +0.170  Non-mover
  5. Sebastien Vettel – 1’28.568  +0.250  Non-mover
  6. Felipe Massa – 1’28.647  +0.328  +1 place
  7. Kazuki Nakajima – 1’28.764  +0.446 +4 places
  8. Kimi Raikkonen – 1’28.775  +0.457  Non-mover
  9. Fernando Alonso – 1’28.798  +0.479  +4 places
  10. Lewis Hamilton – 1’28.821  +0.502  Non-mover
  11. Jarno Trulli – 1’28.855  +0.536  +1 place
  12. Timo Glock – 1’28.906 +0.587  -6 places
  13. Robert Kubica – 1’29.115  +0.796  -4 places
  14. Nick Heidfeld – 1’29.123  +0.804  +1 place
  15. Heikki Kovalainen – 1’29.185 +0.866  -1 place
  16. Nelson Piquet – 1’29.298  +0.980  Non-mover
  17. Adrian Sutil – 1’29.451  +1.132  +3 places
  18. Sebastien Buemi – 1’29.573  +1.254  -1 place
  19. Sebastien Bourdais – 1’29.622  +1.303  Non-mover
  20. Giancarlo Fisichella – 1’29.709  +1.391  -2 places

So, despite the surge of pace from Milton Keynes, Button is still at the head of the Grid after wins in Monaco and Turkey helped his championship charge with a couple of dominant weekends. Contrast that with the less than successful he’s had in Britain and Germany. Brawn now seem to be putting more focus on development on the BGP001, which should hopefully mean a big update is just around the corner.

Rosberg stays second ahead of Barrichello and the Red Bulls. The first 5 have stayed in exactly the same order since Spain, but the gap has closed by just under a quarter of a second which shows just how tight it is at the top. Behind them, Massa has taken over from Glock as best of the rest with Ferrari seemingly starting to find a bit of pace. Timo, meanwhile, has suffered the most. He is the biggest faller with a drop of 6 places. Such has been the fall from grace for Toyota that they are now no longer one of the top teams, a far cry from the front row lockout back in Bahrain. Trulli does jump one place thanks to good free practice pace.

Other big movers are Nakajima, Alonso and Sutil. Kaz and Fernando have jumped 4 places as well, with definite improvements being shown in the Williams allowing the Japanese driver to show his worth. Some of this will have been down to the excellent 5th place he scored in qualifying at Silverstone, where the team brought a new specification of the rear diffuser. Alonso, meanwhile, seems to have found some pace from the Renault at last, although it needs a bit of running before it’s properly wound up and ready to challenge. A decent run this weekend at the Nurburgring will have helped him no end with decent free practice pace, good speed in Q1 and being able to come on strong in the race with the fastest lap.

Non-movers, apart from the top 5, are Raikkonen, Hamilton, Piquet and Bourdais. You could say that in terms of their careers, the latter two seem to be heading that way. Le Seb seems to be on his way out (there’ll be a blog post on that soon), while people are still amazed that Nelson is STILL in that Renault. I thought Silverstone would be the last straw, but then when have we ever believed or taken anything that Flavio’s said seriously? Lewis now looks like he has a car which is on the pace once again as his performance at the weekend showed. Topping 2 practice sessions, making Q3 and getting a rocket start thanks to his KERS system meant he could have been in contention for the win had he not cut his tyre on Webber’s front wing, effectively ending all chances of a good race. Still, the new diffuser seems to have done the trick, but it’s rather ironic that it’s Kovalainen who came away with the points and his car wasn’t fitted with said diffuser.

Finally, let’s look at Sutil. The Force India has suddenly received a injection of pace and it was clearly evident at the weekend as Adrian got as high as P2 in Q2 and to the same point in the race. But fate, and Raikkonen, interfered once again and for the 3rd time in his career the chance of a points finish was snatched from him. Contact with the Ferrari damaged his front wing and ruined his race. But it hasn’t disheartened him and I’m sure that in the races to come this season he’ll have more chances to shine. Still, a jump of 3 places has gotten him off the back row, which means progress is being made.

With Hungary next on the calendar, it will be intriguing to see if Button and co can stop the current Red Bull steamroller. With Webber now seemingly hitting peak form in the best car he’s ever driven and Vettel taking over 2nd place in the championship, the boys from Brackley need to do something quick. Otherwise, it’ll only be a matter of time before Jenson’s chance for the championship is gone. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Puma Pride

Just a very quick courtesy post to let all you guys know my fan report is up on the Puma Motorsport website and has been for a bit now. There’s 2 seperate pages – one which contains my written report, which has had one or two little sections chopped and changed (Don’t worry, I said they could if need be), and the other with my two interviews with Kubica and Heidfeld. You can find them both here:

The report:
http://www.pumamotorsport.com/2009/07/puma-uk-fan-reports-from-silverstone/

My interviews with Rob and Nick:
http://www.pumamotorsport.com/2009/07/our-fan-reporter-interviews-robert-kubica-and-nick-heidfeld/

Please do leave a comment on the site with your opinion on it. Of course, you can also do that here if you wish as well ;)

Saturday, 4 July 2009

A matter of hot and cold

While I was at Silverstone, I remember overhearing on the circuit radio that all weekend the Brawns of Button and Barrichello had been struggling in the colder conditions, while it seemed the Red Bulls were relishing it. Not to mention those new parts having something to do with it. During the race, Button could only manage 6th while Rubens scored a podium behind the RBRs.

Afterwards, it got me thinking - maybe both drivers suit different conditions. We know Jenson to be the smoothest driver on the grid. He never turns the wheel more than he has to and is very precise in his cornering technique, whereas Rubens is just that little bit more aggressive. Looking at the season so far, all of Button's victories (not counting Malaysia) have come when it's been dry and more importantly, sunny and hot. His more dominant ones have been in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco when the skies were blue and the temperatures fairly warm.

So here's my theory: Jenson prefers it when it's warmer because the heat helps him get his tyres up to temperature as quickly as everyone else while still maintaining his smoothness and precision, therefore being able to manage them better, make them last longer and run at the front at a stronger pace. Meanwhile, Rubens's aggression means the higher temperatures don't do his rubber any good which means they go off quicker and he drops off the pace of his seemingly more dominant teammate.

But look at Silverstone as a prime example of how the tables turned. Button's inability to perform as well as he could have done was probably due to the fact that it was overcast and colder than it had been earlier in the season. Without being aggressive, his tyres wouldn't have been able to come to him as quickly as he would have liked. Rubens, on the other hand, probably relished the lower temperatures as it meant he could still drive as hard as he normally would, but get help from the colder track to keep his tyres at a good temperature meaning he could stay on the pace of Vettel and Webber that little bit better.

It was also evident back in China that the Brawns didn't like it when the sun was hidden by clouds and it got cold and wet, as Der Seb and Mark ran away with a 1-2. Malaysia's really a 50/50 since even though it did get to monsoon levels of rain, the race is known for it's unbearable humidity, which might have been the reason why Jenson was able to drive back to the front as he did as the heavens opened. Mind you, Webber was really on a charge in the rain and had the race continued for a few more laps, it's very likely that considering the pace he was on, it could have been him on the top step instead.

Going into the German GP at the Nurburgring, the early weather forecasts predict it to be partly cloudy but with around 70% humidity, which should suit Button more than Barrichello. Personally, I feel Rubens should win at least one race this season, but as long as it stays warm, it looks like it might just be Jenson's championship to win or lose. Well, unless the Red Bulls have anything to say about that, which undoubtedly I'm sure they will.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

So Nick, about your beard…

DSC00441

First things first – yes, that is me outside the Brawn GP motorhome. I look an idiot, especially with my glasses, don’t I?

So, how was my weekend at Silverstone? Freaking. Awesome.

…What? You want me to actually tell you about it? Oh, go on then!

It was probably one of, if not THE best, experience of my life. This is something I could only have dreamed about. Meeting up with Tim Stedman, the Puma correspondent I’d be with for the weekend, it was a 2 hour drive down to Silverstone. Thankfully the traffic wasn’t as hectic as it would be on Sunday morning. The first big thing on Saturday was the Renault garage tour. But before that, I managed to get professional pics taken with Romain Grosjean, team test driver and then Fernando Alonso! Tim spotted him coming out of the garage straight after practice had finished and I shook his hand and everything. Now that to me was freakin’ awesome :D Back with the garage tour, I got to see mechanics working up close and personal on 2 R29s which was something else, as well as the engineers monitoring the telemetry on the super-computers they bring to every race. Also seeing the mechanics take the double diffuser off the car was pretty special to witness. Plus, I got to hold the steering wheel! OK, it was empty of its electronics, but it was cool to hold an current F1 steering wheel in my hands and play with the buttons and paddles. Also venturing out to the front of the pits to look at the main bodywork, the front nose and wing section and engine and sidepod covers. Still can’t believe how thin the shark fin is – it’s literally the thinnest piece of carbon fibre I’ve ever seen up close!

Qualifying was viewed at the beginning of Hangar Straight, which was probably a mistake picture-wise. Everyone knows how fast an F1 car is, but trying to take a snapshot of one going by at high speed is something of a fine art. I eventually had to wait for the car to come into my field of vision and then take the pic. Most of the shots I took were blank track but I did manage to get some cars on camera. Afterwards, it was time for the BMW driver interviews, but before that I found out after the event that straight after qualifying, the “Brawn Boys” (Jenson, Rubens and Ross) had been signing autographs at one of their merchandise stands. I’ll speak more on this in a bit.

It was so surreal when I walked into the BMW motorhome because as I was moving through, I turn to my right and who do I see standing right there looking up at a TV screen? Robert goddamn Kubica, that’s who! I thought “Jesus christ! It’s Kub!” Getting to interview both Kub and Nick was brilliant. I only got 3 questions with Rob but I got in 9 with Heidfeld, including the crucial one about his beard! He says he got fed up with shaving one day and when there was no PR or events to cope with, he just stuck with it. Mind you, both did look a little fed up with how things were going with the team and the car right now. Can’t blame them to be honest. But they’ve now become a favourite team of mine.

The Formula BMW hospitality was great too, but it began with a bit of a glitch with the TV feed for the FBMW race. A quad bike ran over the cable and snapped it. The announcer brought it in the said cable to show us he wasn’t lying! After a press conference with the top 3 from that race and some food, Kubica, Christian Klien and Mario Theissen were interviewed on stage. What was really funny was watching Rob get his phone out and play with it, and Klien all the while trying to concentrate on Mario while he was talking but getting ever so distracted by what Kub was up to. Shows F1 drivers are still human after all!

Saturday out of the way, Sunday was less eventful but still enjoyable nonetheless. The Santander stand was the main hub of activity for myself, taking part in the pitstop challenge and the simulator. I didn’t do all that well with the wheel gun on the pitstop, as most of the time the wheel nut was flying off the end and it was up to me to test my reactions just to keep hold of it. Also managed to get grease on my face somehow! The simulator was interesting and more my kinda thing, what with my passion with sim racing. The front half of a McLaren with a proper replica F1 steering wheel too was what I had to work with. I got 2 laps and messed up the end of my practice lap which meant I wasn’t at full speed going over the line. Still, a 1’15 put me 3rd on the board of times for the day. The fastest time over the whole weekend was a 1’06 by someone called “heikki”. Hmm… (Sorry Amy)

Afterwards, I received a call from the lovely lot over at Sidepodcast, who were in the middle of their pre-race live show The Parade Lap. I chatted with them for a good 10 minutes and really had a laugh. Also, my purpose on the day was to interview fans about their British GP experience. I ended up chatting to two Ferrari guys, two BMW ladies, a pair of guys who supported Renault and Red Bull and two girls who were Hamilton fans and had Union Jacks draped around them. But I guess a highlight of the day was spotting and getting a picture with two Page 3 girls – Amy Green and Nikkala Stott. You probably have no idea who they are, but let’s just say… I know of them, OK? Ahem, where were we?…

Our spot for the race was the Luffield B grandstand, which was a much better spot for pictures. I did have a brief scare when I thought all the pictures I’d taked on Saturday were missing from the camera but thankfully that was just a misunderstanding thanks to the camera itself. I personally found the race rather uneventful but still a great experience to see a GP for real again (my first GP being Silverstone ‘05). With Vettel a worthy and rather dominant victor, while Hamilton decided to treat the home crowd to some post-race donuts, I had one other event which also made my day. I met up with F1Wolf after the race and had a nice brief chat with him. Someone who I knew through SPC, I got the chance to meet and talk to. Now how’s that for connectivity!

If I may, I’d like to go back to the subject of those driver signings I mentioned earlier. These were something I’d been looking out for over the entire weekend but there was no information posted up about them at all. If they are something that is only done on a Thursday or Friday on the GP weekend, I find that rather disappointing. This means fans don’t get to meet and greet their favourites and get autographs or pictures with them. If there are going to be such signings, there needs to be clear info on who, when and where right when fans have just gotten through the gates. I was rather disappointed not to come away with something like a signed picture or poster, but I did get Kubica and Theissen to sign my autograph book and got pics with all 3 of the BMW guys after their appearance in the FBMW tent.

So, that’s it really. My Fan Report should be up sometime next week now. It was going to be the end of this week but there were complications sending my written report. But I’m confident that it’s all gonna be good and that the finished and edited video that goes with it will be awesome, if a little cringe worthy having to watch myself on camera. But I have to say a massive, massive thanks to Puma Motorsport for everything last weekend. Without it, I wouldn’t be sat here telling all of you about my experience. If I ever get to do something like this ever again, I will be truly thankful as so far, nothing in my life has ever come close to my weekend at Silverstone. To them, and all of you guys for continuing to follow my work, I say – thank you very, very much.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Question time

NOTE: Read the end of this post for an update

As you’ll have seen in a blog post I did last week, I am going to be attending the British GP next weekend thanks to Puma Motorsport, as a guest of one of the 5 teams they supply. Well, I’ve now found out which team that’s going to be – Renault. Now, it does seem a little ironic that all this time Nelson Piquet hasn’t been my favourite driver in the world (far from it, actually) and now I have to sit in the same room as him, asking him and Fernando Alonso questions. Still, good experience and all that.

After hearing this news, I thought to myself – this is all about getting an insight to the fans as to what goes on behind the scenes at a GP weekend. So in a way it would seem maybe a little selfish if I only asked questions that I wanted answers, like why Piquet is completely and utterly…oops, almost forgot where I was going with that one…anyway… So, after a bit of thought, I decided to include some questions from other F1 fans that I associate with on the web, particularly Sidepodcast.

So, to anyone who happens to read or know about my blog, if you do have any questions for Fernando and Nelson that you want answering, then please leave them in the comments. I will compile a list of them and print them off to take to Silverstone. I will ask if we keep them sensible and realistic and nothing like “Nelson, why are you so rubbish?” or “Fernando, why do you hate Lewis Hamilton?”. While it may be a great experience for me, this is still serious business.

So, get thinking and I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

EDIT: Have found out that it will be the BMW drivers, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld that I will be meeting and not Alonso and Piquet like I first thought. All questions are now for Robert and Nick instead. Also, if you have any for Anthony Davidson, then please do post them too. Thanks!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

13 – the unlucky number?

After weeks of speculation, we finally found out who is joining the 2010 grid (hopefully) alongside all 10 existing teams. We have USF1, which to me was a forgone conclusion anyway, Campos Meta 1 which I thought had an outside chance but wasn’t a favourite to get there, and Manor Grand Prix, who I had no clue who they were at all at first until I linked the words Manor and F3 eventually found that it was the same Manor Motorsport that gave Lewis Hamilton his first break in the Euro F3 series before he switched to ART and went on to bigger things. In fact, I don’t think any of us even knew they’d lodged an entry. In an interview with John Booth, team director, Autosport’s first question to him literally was “You kept this quiet…”

But despite this, there is unfortunately still the ongoing feud between the FIA and FOTA, one which I’m pretty sure all F1 fans such as myself probably got tired of just after it began. Here we are thinking “Oh look, Ferrari are throwing their toys out the pram again, just because it’s not going their way”. It’s true. Every time something has worked against Maranello, they kick up a stink and make some preposterous statement which will change their stance in F1 unless their demands are met. Frankly it’s getting ridiculous, but then again that’s politics for you. Sadly, F1 does not know the meaning of the word democracy, and you can see why.

It’s plain simple – the current F1 grid comprising of 10 teams has seemingly been split into 3 groups. There are those who want to stay in F1 provided their requests are met, those who are appealing against such a decision by the FIA to put them on the entry list because of a supposed contract that ties them in for the next couple of seasons, and those who just want to race in F1 no matter what happens. Williams and Force India, the latter of the 3 groups it seems, probably are better off in the short term, aka next season, in staying out of FOTA. By avoiding getting caught up in the issue of the day, it means they can focus on what F1 is truly about: the racing. Having said that, there is a downside to it – any decisions on the rules would go ahead without any input from either of them, meaning they would have no say at all as to what is and what isn’t allowed in F1. It would simply be a case of “Take what you’re given, don’t like it? Tough.”

Since Bernie and Max announced there would be 13 teams on the grid for 2010, I can’t help but feeling maybe the laws of superstition has crept into the sport. Like it’s the metaphorical black cat that’s crossed the path of the sport and bringing nothing but bad luck, bad fortune and a bad image. Back in the days when we had 26 car grids before, there was never this much politics. There were politics to some extent, but not to the level that we faced the threat of all the teams walking away from F1 to start their own series with their own rules. Sure, we had that in 1982 but that was a different era. Nevertheless, the FISA/FOCA war can be related to in the current arguments of the day. What strikes me is the fact that the teams had an occasion in the past where they had the opportunity to shape the rules to how they wanted to, as granted by Max. But did they take it? Did they heck. Now look what the result is some years later.

I guess now F1 isn’t truly that without some kind of political controversy or scandal to throw the whole thing out of balance. I fear that we shall never go back to the days when all it was about was the greatest drivers in the world in the best cars in the world and it simply being a matter of getting up, driving the car, having a glass of champers afterwards and then going home. Right here, right now, in 2009, that isn’t happening. If I’m honest, I don’t think it ever will ever again. Shame that, could have seen pre-qualifying come back.