Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Greatest Racing Eras – Group A Touring Cars (1982 - 1994)

The start of the 1992 Australian Touring Car race at Mallala (Image: IBC Holdings)

Starting a new series of blog posts, I’m taking a look at some of what I consider to be the greatest eras of motorsport. They’re also my favourites as well, in case you couldn't tell. First off, we start with the great Group A touring car category.

Ah, tin-tops. Everyone who’s anyone and a motorsports fan loves touring cars. It’s really a great way of relating back to what you drive in real life. Watching now, you see a Civic, Vectra, 3 Series or Leon and recognise it instantly, even see it on the roads today, unlike GT racing where those kinds of vehicles exist but aren’t commonly seen on the roads. Modern day touring car racing definitely has its roots, and I believe one of the major contributions to it was the Group A era.

The FIA introduced Group A for both rally and touring cars in 1982, the same time that Group B was conceived (which we’ll cover in another blog post). But for the tourers, it marked a replacement to Group 2 for modified touring cars, while Group N took over from Group 1 for standard touring cars. The regulations stated a minimum of 2500 road versions of the chosen vehicle had to be manufactured in order for it to homologated according to the Group A rules.

The European Touring Car Championship adopted the class first in 1982, followed by the ever popular and world-renowned British championsip a year later. At first, cars such as the V12 Jaguar, BMW 635CSi and Rover Vitesse which were the early big guns across Europe. 1984 saw the new tin-top phenomenon sweep to Germany, with the 635 asserting itself as the dominant vehicle of choice, while the Tom Walkinshaw-run Jags took the Euro title. Japan and Australia caught the Group A bug in 1985 with the BMW continuing its success in the Far East, while Volvo set about conquering Europe with the 240 Turbo, claiming Euro and German titles. Australia had Holden and Ford battling together with Volvo and BMW with giants such as Peter Brock, Dick Johnson and Jim Richards.

By 1987 the FIA decided to stage the first ever World Touring Car Championship which also saw the emergence of 2 legendary machines – the BMW M3 E30 and the iconic Ford Sierra RS500. In their Texaco livery, the Rudi Eggenberger-tuned Fords ran away with the Teams title while Italian Roberto Ravaglia claimed the name World’s Best Touring Car Driver in his M3. But after just 1 season, the series was scrapped due to the FIA fearing it would take away money from Formula 1, the premier racing series in the world, and so they discontinued it on the count of being too successful!

The biggest shake up in the class’ history came when Nissan began a program running the R32 Skyline GT-R, with four-wheel-drive and over 600hp. From it’s first race in 1990 at Winton Raceway, it was clear that the opposition had good reason to be very worried. It competed in the Spa 24 Hours and took a victory in 1991. But by this time, the Sierra and M3 had been the main forces in Group A events across the world. Now it was time for the Japanese to step it up a notch. The governing bodies could see the advantage it was gaining and allowed power gains for the other cars while the GT-R was told to put on weight.

1991 was their first full campaign and it was a straight walkover, with Jim Richards taking his second straight title ahead of teammate Mark Skaife. The Holden Commodore, Sierra and M3 fought as best they could, but could not overthrow them. So for 1992, seeing that despite adding as much weight as they could to the Nissan, the final verdict was to scrap Group A at the end of the season. Nissan managed to go out on a high with Skaife winning the GT-R's 3rd straight title, while Jim Richards took its last ever win at the Australian GP support races at Adelaide. By this time the world’s championships had moved on. The BTCC had switched to their own 2-Litre formula in 1991, and the end of 1992 Germany got rid of it too for their own 2.5L format. Slowly but surely, the category was dying out, and Japan's touring car series was the last to let go at the end of 1993.

While it was great fun while it lasted, those who were around in that time cannot forget how glorious the racing was. My favourite championship of the era had to be the Aussies. Growing up, I watched video tapes of the 1990 ATCC and Bathurst 1000, instantly planting memories of some great cars and racing. Since, I’ve been able to look at the ‘91 and ‘92 series and look back with great pleasure. The Nissan GT-R of 1990-1992 has now stuck with me as one of my favourite cars of all time. As has the Holden Commodore VL of 1990. Also, who can forget the RS500 and the M3? All 4 were the main weapons of choice in Australia and it was a series that became a main contributor to my love of tin-tops.

Would I like to see something similar return in the future? Depends. If they can get it right, then it’ll be a hit. But I think right now the current touring car series formats, such as the S2000 class for BTCC and WTCC and Germany and Australia coping fine with their own championships. So the touring car world is moving along nicely now, but I feel that it probably couldn’t get back to the hype and the intensity that it reached during this magical time of tin-tops.

Next time – The monsters of Group B rally

Monday, 27 April 2009

F1 2009 Super Season Grid – Post Bahrain

Jenson Button is back to winning ways with victory in Bahrain, but has his efforts over the weekend allowed him to retain his average pole position on the 2009 Super Season Grid? Well it's that time once again, and as you've already seen in an earlier blog post, the field is so, so close now with the spread as close as a fraction over 1 second! Believe it or not, it wasn’t Rosberg or JB who ended the weekend the fastest man on average over the whole weekend. Nope, it was in fact, surprisingly, Lewis Hamilton for McLaren with an average time of 1’33.676. So, has it helped the reigning World Champion move up the order? Let’s find out:

  1. Jenson Button – 1’34.008  +0.000  Non-mover
  2. Nico Rosberg – 1’34.047  +0.039  Non-mover
  3. Rubens Barrichello – 1’34.132  +0.124  Non-mover
  4. Mark Webber – 1’34.350  +0.342  Non-mover
  5. Timo Glock – 1’34.447  +0.439  Non-mover
  6. Sebastien Vettel – 1’34.511  +0.502  +1 place
  7. Jarno Trulli – 1’34.560  +0.552  +2 places
  8. Heikki Kovalainen – 1’34.584  +0.575  -2 places
  9. Kimi Raikkonen – 1’34.607  +0.599  -1 place
  10. Lewis Hamilton – 1’34.618  +0.609  +3 places
  11. Felipe Massa – 1’34.642  +0.633  +1 place
  12. Robert Kubica – 1’34.665  +0.657  -1 place
  13. Kazuki Nakajima – 1’34.674  +0.666  -3 places
  14. Nick Heidfeld – 1’34.825  +0.817  Non-mover
  15. Fernando Alonso – 1’34.872  +0.864  Non-mover
  16. Adrian Sutil – 1’35.091  +1.083  +1 place
  17. Sebastien Buemi – 1’35.124  +1.115  -1 place
  18. Nelson Piquet – 1’35.218  +1.209  +1 place
  19. Sebastien Bourdais – 1’35.237  +1.229  -1 place
  20. Giancarlo Fisichella – 1’35.370  +1.362  Non-mover

As it turns out, it has helped Hamilton. In fact, he’s the biggest mover in the grid by jumping 3 places from 13th to 10th. I reckon this was mainly down to topping FP1 and making the top 10 in qualifying. So it definately shows the MP4-22 is slowly but surely moving up the grid with the oncoming updates every race. At the head of the grid, Button retains the average pole, but has only managed to move away by 8 thousandths from Rosberg with Barrichello, Webber and Glock completing the top 5. They are all non-movers along with Heidfeld, Alonso and Fisichella, who remains at the back of the pack.

In the midfield, Vettel has made up one slot after a solid weekend’s work, as have Massa, Sutil and Piquet. Trulli is the second biggest mover, shifting up 2 places, while Kovalainen goes down 2.  Biggest loser is Nakajima who sinks 3 places and out of the top 10. The field gap has closed up by about 2 tenths which means the upgrades brought by Force India and the like have helped.  With Ferrari, BMW, McLaren and Brawn all reportedly bringing updates to their car for Barcelona, as I’m sure the majority of the grid will be too, we might just see the field either tighten up further or start to widen up.

That’s all for the Super Season Grid this time. Spain will be where the season really begins as it’s F1’s return to Europe and the chance to gauge just how the current crop of F1 cars really stack up against each other. Bahrain was the first completely dry race on a proper racing circuit, but the temperatures there are higher than those usually experienced at the European races. But we’ll have to wait and see whether the former “big 4” teams can reassert any of their former authority at the front. See you after Barcelona!

Let's "C" now, which one?

Image: flickr.com

OK, I've a bit of a dilemma here. I quite fancy purchasing one of the new World Sportscar Review DVD which available from Duke Video now. I saw them featured in Autosport and right now I'm tempted to buy one. I'm a massive Group C sportscar fan and it's my favourite era of sportscar racing with such classic race cars as the Porsche 956 and 962, Jaguar XJR-9, Toyota TS010 and my all-time favourite the Peugeot 905B. Admittingly the latter 2 don't feature in any of the DVDs I'm looking at but they are 2 of my best-liked machines from the category.

So, which one to buy? Well, that's the problem - I can't decide! So, after a rather helpful suggestion from Christine and Mr C at Sidepodcast, I am going to put up a poll asking you lovely lot which one you can recommend me to buy. The original toss-up was between 1985 and 1988, but do you think there's a year which is worth looking at as well? Whichever one comes out the winner is the one I will buy with my own money from Duke Video - and that's a promise.

So, direct your attention to the right-hand side of the screen, scroll down to the poll and vote which one you think is the best year of WSC racing!

Friday, 24 April 2009

They can haz F1 race here?

As good as the current F1 calendar is, there are fans who will say "This circuit should be on there" or "They should hold an F1 race here". I'm just the same, if I'm honest. There are circuits which I would love to see Lewis, Jenson, Webber, Sutil and co thundering around. So, I think to myself "What circuits would I truly love to see F1 cars race on?" Well, I'll share them with you:

1. Road America
If the US Grand Prix were to ever make a comeback, this is the circuit I would champion to host it all the way to the final announcement. Set in the pristene surroundings of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, this is one of a select few circuits left in the world which have remained unchanged since they first opened. Home to many IndyCar/ Champ Car races, America's favourite single-seater series is the closest there's ever been to an F1 race there. Speaking from experience of racing it virtually, it is a glorious track. I adore the way the course winds and undulates through the trees and the elevation changes really make it feel so natural, unlike all the modern Tilkedromes we get these days. There's plenty of nostalgia there and in some ways you get a real sense of that when you drive around it. It's long sweeping corners tied to winding high-speed sections, and it is one of the most fantastic courses in the world. I love it. Please, Bernie, regardless of the size of the town, please bring F1 back to America here!

2. Macau
OK, I know this is a favourite with many people who follow the Macau Grand Prix. The city, nestled in the hills of Hong Kong, is another superb example of a circuit which needs to have F1 cars screaming through its streets. As Martin Brundle once described it, it's "Monaco with Silverstone tapped on the end of it for good measure". He's not wrong there. It really is a track of two halves. There's the high speed section which speeds past the Mandarin Hotel and down towards Lisboa, where it changes into this endless snake of complex turns. It's almost like you're constantly bombarded with 90 degree corners for some 2 or 3 minutes. But that's what makes it so awesome. It really is like Monaco - one momentary lapse of concentration and you're in the barriers. The most famous corner here is definately the Melco hairpin, a corner so tight that a permanent yellow flag is waved there because passing there is simply impossible. Regardless, it's such a jewel of a circuit.

3. San Luis
This is a relatively new circuit - it was only opened late last year - but my god it's epic. How can I describe it? Well, think of a mountain situated next to a beautiful lake with a racetrack draped around them and that sums it up adequately. Located in Argentina, it hosted it's first race, the final round of the FIA GT championship near the end of 2008. It was a huge hit, although I'm mystified as to why it was dropped from this season's calendar. I think it was money issues, but I'm not entirely sure. A real shame since this circuit reminds me of El Capitan from Gran Turismo 4. It really is a beautiful location and an amazing layout. Should F1 ever consider an Argentine GP once more, I'd like to think something can be arranged.

So there's 3 to start with. Right now I can't think of any others which really stand out for me. But if I could see an F1 car run around either of these places, I'd be happy. I'm sure everyone has different opinions and choices on where they'd like to see the F1 circus stop at. Then again, Bernie's always looking at new countries to visit so maybe it's not likely to happen any time soon. Ah well, a man can dream...

As close as you like

Today's Free Practice sessions threw up something rather amazing. Not the fact that Force India's on the rise, or that Alonso once again decided FP2 was a good time to put his Renault near the top of the timesheets, but something else. As those of you who follow my blog will know, I have started conducting a Super Season Grid, tracking the progress of the 20 drivers in the F1 championship and seeing who is fastest on average throughout the season. I decided to save myself some time after the GP to enter the Free Practice times into the spreadsheet I use and see where everyone stood after the first day of on-track action.

Now, we all know that the form book from 2008 has been torn up for 2009 and completely rewritten and that everything has closed up that little bit more, but just take a look at the average order of the field after FP1 and 2:

  1. Rosberg - 1′33.783
  2. Hamilton - 1′33.821
  3. Button - 1′34.064
  4. Barrichello - 1′34.208
  5. Webber - 1′34.252
  6. Kubica - 1′34.272
  7. Vettel - 1′34.300
  8. Trulli - 1′34.326
  9. Heidfeld - 1′34.349
  10. Nakajima - 1′34.390
  11. Sutil - 1′34.392
  12. Alonso - 1′34.439
  13. Fisichella - 1′34.534
  14. Glock - 1′34.549
  15. Massa - 1′34.577
  16. Kovalainen - 1′34.633
  17. Piquet - 1′34.693
  18. Buemi - 1′34.748
  19. Raikkonen - 1′34.749
  20. Bourdais - 1′34.860
Wanna know the gap between Rosberg and Bourdais right there? You ready?

1.077 seconds.

That's how close it is on average. Believe it or not, this is what came out as the result when I entered the times into the spreadsheet this morning. Just think - back in 1992 the field gap was some 6 seconds. Now, according to this it's closed up by 5 seconds. Who said these new rules weren't going to work? After 3 weekends full of brilliant racing, it just goes to show that, no matter how they look, these new cars ARE making the difference they were intended to. I for one am thrilled at that and can only hope it gets better and better.

World Series, here I come (again)!

Image: automobilsport.com

For the past two years now, I have been an attendee of the British leg of the Renault World Series, which to motorsport fans and drivers is kind of like GP2 but not exactly as well known or popular. But it's still spawned Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel as F1 stars, so it must be doing something right! But still, this is an event that is a great place for any motorsports fan in general to attend. Simple answer - it's free! Yup, that's not a typo. Renault genuinely do give away tickets to these events absolutely free. Who doesn't love a free day out anyways?

So what's it all about? What can you actually see there? Well for a start, there's the main event which are the 2 World Series races of course (1 on Saturday and 1 on Sunday). Then to go alongside that, there's a full program of support races from the Clio Cup, Formula Renault and my personal favourite, the Megane Trophy. Have you seen one of those things?! It's quite simply, as I put it, a standard Renault Megane that's overdosed on steroids. It's such an awesome looking car with huge flared wheel arches, a massive protruding rear wing and a chassis so low to the ground it's unbelieveable. Couple all that to the same howling V6 that the WSR racers use and it's literally heaven on wheels in my book. I absolutely adore the series and the new car, based on the new Megane Coupe, looks stunning. Cannot wait to see that this year!

Apart from the racing, you get some lovely demo runs on track as well from some historic Renault race cars from F1, Le Mans and rally. I should point out the rally car is an R5 Maxi Turbo which is usually driven by Jean Ragnotti, a rally driver and probably professional madman. The guy's skills in a rally car are simply jaw-dropping. He can literally drive a front wheel drive Clio on a rally stage like it's rear wheel drive. Search him YouTube and you'll know what I'm on about. But the big event of the day, apart from the WSR races, has to be the 2 F1 demos, usually showcasing a year old F1 machine in this season's colours. So judging by the pictures I've seen of Renault's roadshows, it's going to be an R28 in that white, yellow and orange paint scheme the current R29s are running around in.

Off track, there's a pitstop challenge, various racing simulators, a driving experience in Clios and plenty of merchandise to have a browse at. Plus, because of the open paddock at Silverstone, across the bridge and behind the pits, you can look at the teams working on the cars and take pictures. There's also a pit walk which takes place before the WSR race, but I've missed it on both occasions and I am determined not to miss it this year! In 2007 the event was held at Donington and last year and this year, as I've just mentioned, it's run at Silverstone. Another good thing is that the tickets allow you to use all of the circuits facilities, which means you can watch the on-track action from the grandstands. Last year, we watched the WSR on the back row of one of the covered grandstands on the pit straight. Lovely and cool, and just about in view of the big TV screens showing the action.

There's a few people from Sidepodcast who don't have the cash to make Goodwood, where another meet-up is going to take place I should imagine, who will be attending the World Series event too, so if you're reading this I hope to see you at some point during the day. As for me, I'll be attending with my dad and some of his friends from when he worked at Toyota, who are a riot to be with. Peter and Gareth have gone with us on both occasions and the latter is such a hilarious guy to be with, especially in the car travelling to and from the circuit. Both times on the way back he has made me laugh so much it's made me cry. That's how much fun I have at these events.

If you think a free day's racing sounds too tempting, then direct your attention to www.worldseriesbyrenault.com, click the event you're interested in, click the icon in the corner for free tickets, fill in the form and they'll be with you within 6 weeks. If you've never been, I can thoroughly recommend it if you haven't got the money to go to somewhere like Goodwood on the same weekend. A great alternative, if you ask me.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

So you wanna be a virtual racing driver?

Anyone who knows me will know that as much as I enjoy real racing, I am a sucker for a good racing game, be it console or PC. They're practically all I play on my 360 and if I see a simulator at a show or race event, I just have to have a go and prove my worth. Either way, if there's a racing game and it looks good, then I'll play it. Although I have to admit I am longing to become a regular PC sim racer in the future. I just don't have the equipment necessary or up to standard - yet.

It is a plan of mine to have a proper desk in my room with a decent spec desktop PC with a bigger processor and good graphics card to get started. In terms of controls, I have a Logitech Chillstream joypad which is pretty much an 360 controller with an internal cooling fan that keeps your hands cool and sweat free. Why can't all controllers carry that? It is such a small feature, yet so useful. It's not uncommon for some gamers' hands to get a little clammy in the heat of battle. I for one can testify to that, as unpleasant as it sounds. I did have a wheel, a Logitech Driving Force Pro which was originally made for the PS2 game Gran Turismo 4 but is still a decent starter wheel and dead cheap to pick up now, but...well...let's just say it broke.

The wheel I've been so desperate for for a long time now is the Logitech (see a pattern here?) G25, which has a clutch pedal and a seperate shifter with the option of switching from a sequential to a H-pattern setup. There are of course paddles on the wheel but I like the fact that it covers all the bases in terms of how you want to shift gears. Trivial, I know, but that shows just how popular the wheel is. I've only tried the wheel once, at the Autosport Show on a sim racing pod that had RACE 07 running. I can still remember the car and circuit - a Caterham on the Brands Hatch GP layout. I did 3 laps and had a very big moment on one corner which somehow I was able to save.

Racing with a wheel is obviously a lot more realistic than doing so with a controller, but in my mind the G25 is the best one out there at the moment. Apprently they're already working on the successor, the G27, news of which I read on VirtualR.net, so just what changes there are from the 25 will be interesting to see. In terms of games, rFactor stands out as the premier racing sim for me more than the others. There may be others that claim to have better physics and be more realistic, such as Live For Speed, but I like rFactor because of the sandbox nature of it. It's pretty much a base for modders to basically create what they want. That's what I love about it. You get F1 mods, touring cars, rally, sportscars, GT, road cars, single seaters, NASCAR - you name it and it's probably available as a mod for rFactor. Image Space Incorporated, the game's developers, are already well underway and screenshots are coming through every week it seems. Graphics-wise, it looks great and I'm following them on Twitter, so any updates will come through there and on VirtualR.

There's an online racing series I've been following for a while called Formula Sim Racing. Right now, it's run using rFactor and the CTDP F1 2006 mod this season (I think - the cars look like they're from that mod). They run a rather nifty 7-tier system which allows drivers to progress from Amateur, with races at 50% of the length of the real race, all the way up to the World Championship with full length races and some of the best sim racers on the planet. Looking at some race replays and broadcasts on PSRTV, it looks really competitive and my kind of racing. I would love to race in that series and take part in the hard slog to progress up the ranks to the WC. It will take a lot of work but I'd really appreciate the shot at running at least one race. Hopefully I can do that sometime in the future. If you fancy having a look or finding out more, then visit www.formula-simracing.com

For now the 360 is my hub for racing games, with GRID and Race Pro dominating my racing gameplay. The latter received an update from Atari and Simbin which went online yesterday and fixes some online and offline gameplay issues, bugs and glitches. It's been long awaited but at last it's out and players can run online without any problems. Well, I probably wouldn't say every bug has been fixed, but the most noticeable ones I assume have been sorted out. Nevertheless it's the most realistic racing sim I've played on a console physics-wise. Sure the graphics aren't as good as GRID's for example but I've not played a racer on the console that feels better or more true to real life. Plus when you get a decent field of 12 players online, the racing can be simply brilliant. You do get some idiotic French and Germans, I've found, but I'm a member of RaceDepartment, a sim racing community that prides itself on clean, fun and professional sim racing.

So my advice? Well if you're a PC racer, get something like rFactor, GTR2, GTR Evolution, GT Legends or Live For Speed. All are great sims and all have thriving online communities. It only takes a bit of effort to find them. As for consoles, the new F1 game is coming, but not to the 360 or PS3 until next year, but the PSP and Wii will get one based on this season later on this year. Apart from that, GRID and Race Pro are great as is Forza Motorsport 2, which I haven't played for a whie but is still a golden oldie for the 360. Project Gotham Racing 4 is also fun if you don't want a racing game that's too simulated but too arcade. It's a nice balance and has half-decent graphics to boot. But to get started, get yourself a PC or laptop that has a good processor and graphics card. You can get gaming laptops and desktop systems which are pricey but give you what you want and more. But don't go mad and spend a fortune!

So who knows - get into it properly and I may be sat on the virtual grid next to you one day ;)

Their name is Lola, they are a race team...

Allan McNish drives Lola's 1995 prototype F1 car at Silverstone (Image: forix.net)

No doubt those of you who avidly follow Autosport Magazine's ever-popular website will know that yesterday the world renowned and world-famous race car manufacturer Lola made it known their considerations for a re-entry into Formula 1. It certainly came as a completely out of the blue announcement and pretty much shocked myself and my closest friends who associate with F1 in the same way I do. Certainly the last time we heard Lola and F1 associated together, it wasn't for anything good.

For those who are unaware of the Lola Group and what they do, they are pretty much one of motorsport's most productive race car constructors and have been for some 40 years. But when it comes to F1, their record isn't as glistening as it may be in other formulas such as IndyCar/Champ Car or sportscar racing for example. Despite the Lola Mk4, run by Reg Parnell's team, taking pole position in the hands of John Surtees on its first F1 appearance, the company have never seemed to get F1 and success to go hand in hand together. In fact their only victories came in partnership with Honda from Richie Ginther and Surtees respectively. That relationship soon ended and we didn't see the name Lola in F1 again until the 70s.

At that time, double world champion Graham Hill, father of 1996 world champion Damon, commisioned them to build a car for his new Embassy Racing team. While it looked more like a Formula 5000 car than F1, it was never really successful and the partnership only scored 1 point in its entirety. It quickly ended after 2 seasons and Lola disappeared off the scene once again until 1985, when a new partnership with Carl Haas, one half of the successful Newman/Haas/Lanigan IndyCar team (as it's now known), came to be for his Beatrice Foods-backed F1 team. Patrick Tambay and 1980 champion Alan Jones drove for them for two seasons with the best results being 4th and 5th respectively in Austria in '86.

After this came a link-up with Larrousse which resulted in Aguri Suzuki scored an amazing 3rd place at Suzuka which sent the Japanese fans wild. But it still wasn't enough. The partnership ended before the 1991 season, and they weren't seen again until 1993 where they tried another project with Scuderia Italia which, despite the Ferrari engine, failed miserably. Then came the infamous saga in 1997 when, after building the 1995 prototype as pictured above, they made a beeline for the 12th spot on the F1 roster. They successfully secured it, but the investors were impatient in wanting the car finished quickly. As a result, it was literally a case of going from the drawing board straight into building it, with no CFD and a miniscule amount of wind tunnel testing. The car was rushed to Melbourne without even turning a wheel and when it came to qualifying, the fastest time between the two drivers (Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset) was some 14 seconds off pole man Jacques Villeneuve. Thus, they failed to qualify and seeing this, their title sponsor Mastercard upped sticks and left along with all the other sponsors they had, leaving them broke and unable to continue. The cars turned up at Interlagos 2 weeks later, but the covers on them were never taken off and that was that.

But just because they haven't been a success in F1 doesn't mean they're a failure in general. Lola's cars have been some of the best around in the lower single seater formulas and other series such as IndyCar/ Champ Car and sportscars. Not only that, but they have been the designer of cars for Formula Nippon, Formula 3000 and A1GP which have all been great looking cars that still provide great racing. Their sportscar record isn't the most successful but Lola have made some recognisable favourites including the T70, the Lola-MG EX prototypes and more recently their own LMP1 closed prototype and Aston Martin's new LMP1, which managed a sensational debut victory just a couple of weekends ago at the LMS season opener at Barcelona.

So can they actually last more than about 3 or 4 years in the sport without having to pull out? I say on this occasion: yes. Reason? Look at what they've done since the shameful 1997 pull-out. They've got brilliant facilities which have enabled them to produce some wonderful cars which, despite not being the best or the fastest, haven't exactly been flops. Plus by being the main supplier for 4 seperate one-make single seater series, they've still been keeping their hand in with Formula cars. All this under the guidance of Martin Birrane who, after taking over from Eric Broadley, has transformed the company dramatically.

At the moment they're only considering it, but with Bernie confirming there will be 3 new teams on the grid for next season, and with USF1 pretty much owning one of them already, Birrane has said himself that the facilities they've built up since '97 can easily be adapted for the development of an F1 car. The only other info we know is that should they go ahead with it, it's extremely likely they'll go with the "FIA engine" from Cosworth. Because of the cheap, cost-effective engine and transmission package the governing body can provide teams, new or exsiting, an easy way to either get started or stay in the sport without it costing the earth. Yes, I know the Cosworth engine is 4 years old and useless, but to be fair it's the only way for those new teams coming in who, despite the propsed budget cap set to be enforced for next season onwards, can't afford a customer deal with an existing engine supplier.

Perhaps the FIA can do as Renault were allowed to and upgrade the Cosworth unit to bring it up to spec with the current crop of engines currently under the engine freeze (which is set to finish at the end of 2011). That way these teams which decide to go with this package won't suck! As for Lola, well I do hope it all comes good. Personally, I think they build good and fairly quick machines. Whether their efforts will be good enough for the pinnacle of motorsport once again - well, it's early days yet, but I'd certainly like to think so, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Why are you still here?

Image: GPEuropa.net

Young talent these days is never really hard to come by, especially in racing. Those who initially impress in karting and the lower formulas can find themselves staring an F1 drive in the face. Some get there just on pure talent alone, like Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen. Some have their talents nurtured and supported, such as Lewis Hamilton. But there are also those who have greatness expected of them, and it's fair to say that greatness is not what Nelson Piquet Jr. has, at any rate.

The kid impressed in GP2 and A1GP, but since he stepped into an F1 race seat last season alongside double world champion Alonso, on his return to Renault after the fallout that occured at McLaren, it's been plain to see he hasn't shown anything significant that proves he is deserving of that drive. Despite a tough start to 2008 for the team, Alonso was still able to score back to back wins in Singapore and Japan and more points than anyone else in the second half of the season. Yet all Piquet really achieved was a lucky 2nd place at Hockenheim, all down to the strategy played by his race engineer. There's that and the reputation that he is utterly useless.

I don't know what it is with some drivers but when they make the jump from F3000/GP2 to the big time, something happens and their skills either get better and go from strength to strength or just disappear. Nelson most certainly falls in the latter. So far in his tenure at the top, he hasn't had one major success. Most of the time he fails to make it out of Q1 while Fernando managed to sail into Q3, and in the race he was usually the one who either suffered reliability problems or trundled round near the back of the field spending the afternoon racing with the Force Indias. 2009 hasn't been an improvement on last season so far, as the Chinese GP just gone has shown. His shenanigans on Sunday are a prime example of why his place in that team isn't deserved. With the wet conditions, similar to those of Fuji 2007 in my opinion, making things tricky enough for everyone out there, Nelson lost the car on the approach to Turn 5, skated across the grass and gravel and into a polystyrene marker board. Funnily enough, the nose of his R29 was broken by it, questioning resilience of such a machine. Anyway, he then almost became stuck in the wet sandtrap, but managed to haul himself out. Then comes the best part - it takes him around 30 seconds to a minute just to get the car going again. The anti-stall kicks in continously until Nelson is finally able to resume racing. Honestly, it made Richard Hammond's escapades in the R25 on Top Gear look good.

As if that wasn't enough, no sooner had the team replaced the nose on his car, that just a couple of laps later he dropped the car again under braking for the last corner, damaging the nose again in the process. Flavio Briatore's body language said it all. He certainly was not impressed. But this is what puzzles all us F1 fans - if Flavio can't tolerate Piquet's antics and misfortunes, why on earth is he still in that team? My guess is that he still maintains a close relationship with his father, 3 times world champion Nelson Piquet Sr. Flav joined Benetton in 1989, the same time that Piquet began his final 3 years of his career with the team. So my guess is that not only did he build and maintain a working relationship with the guy, but also a personal one which has pretty much lead to Jr getting the testing job and then the promotion to race driver.

I don't even think they're keeping him on because of sponsorship. From what I've seen, there's no evidence of any sponsorship links between Piquet and Renault. Nelson did mention in an interview with F1 Racing that he'd known Flavio since a young age. When asked about the first F1 race he attended and what made it special he said:
"My mum was friends with Flavio and Naomi Campbell - it was in July and there was a race in Austria. I was about 14 or 15. Flavio asked me if I wanted to go and I said "Yeah, sure!" You wouldn't believe it - it was just me and him on his plane. I stayed in his room, went with him to the track and he took care of me all weekend, like a father. It was really special, a great weekend. For him to be my boss 10 years later was really strange at first."
But in the same interview, he also mentions briefly that is not all "buddy-buddy" with him either. Talking about how supportive and fair he is, he said:
"Not always. He can be really tough and you need to be able to ignore the right things, absorb the right things and be able to judge everything."
Obviously there's some things which are right that he seems to be ignoring. You see, this is what gets me about talentless namesakes like him. He quite plainly and simply does not deserve to be in F1 any more. If I were Flavio, I would have cut my ties with him at the end of 2008. The 2nd place in Germany last year wasn't earned, it was just luck of the draw. The rest of the year he spent crashing, failing to make Q2 and breaking down all the time. I don't see any logic in keeping him in the team. Everyone predicted his head would be on the F1 chopping block either before or at the end of the season. Yet he's still there. That seat could be put to better use by promoting third driver Romain Grosjean or someone like Lucas di Grassi or Bruno Senna even. It just doesn't make sense at all. Hopefully Flavio will see some soon and do the right thing for both his team and in fact the rest of the grid. Then it'll be a case of "Nelson, you are the weakest link. Goodbye..."

Monday, 20 April 2009

F1 2009 Super Season Grid - post China

It's time for my second Super Season Grid and with Sebastien Vettel and Red Bull taking their first victory together, with teammate Mark Webber completing a great day for the Milton Keynes team, it's the chance to see whether the festivities has shaken up the order of the field a bit. The wet weather on the Sunday meant lap times on race day were some 20 seconds slower than those in the sunny qualifying, but nevertheless it was Barrichello who went away the fastest man of the weekend overall with an average lap of 1'39.637. So let's take a look at how the Super Season Grid lines up as we go into Bahrain:
  1. Jenson Button - 1'34.068 - +0.000 Non-mover
  2. Nico Rosberg - 1'34.099 - +0.031 +5 places
  3. Rubens Barrichello - 1'34.187 - +0.119 -1 place
  4. Mark Webber - 1'34.371 - +0.303 +1 place
  5. Timo Glock - 1'34.670 - +0.602 +1 place
  6. Heikki Kovalainen - 1'34.678 - +0.610 +7 places
  7. Sebastien Vettel - 1'34.729 - +0.661 -3 places
  8. Kimi Raikkonen - 1'34.754 - +0.686 +1 place
  9. Jarno Trulli - 1'34.795 -+0.727 -6 places
  10. Kazuki Nakajima - 1'34.802 - +0.734 +2 places
  11. Robert Kubica - 1'34.824 - +0.756 -3 places
  12. Felipe Massa - 1'34.858 - +0.790 +2 places
  13. Lewis Hamilton - 1'34.931 - +0.863 +2 places
  14. Nick Heidfeld - 1'35.005 - +0.937 -4 places
  15. Fernando Alonso - 1'35.053 - +0.985 -4 places
  16. Sebastien Buemi - 1'35.269 - +1.201 +3 places
  17. Adrian Sutil - 1'35.304 - +1.236 +3 places
  18. Sebastien Bourdais - 1'35.364 - +1.296 -1 place
  19. Nelson Piquet - 1'35.516 - +1.448 -3 places
  20. Giancarlo Fisichella - 1'35.605 - +1.538 -2 places
What a shake up! I was expecting a few position changes, but not as many as that! Anyway, let's look at the facts. Button is still the fastest man in the field bar his 3rd place yesterday and 5th place grid slot in qualifying. It seems his performances in practice were enough to help him stay at the head of this grid. Behind, it really is all change. No-one other than Jenson is in the same place they were after Sepang. It's Rosberg who is now just behind Button by about 3 hundreths ahead of Barrichello. Nico becomes the meat in a Brawn sandwich here. Mind you, he has jumped an impressive 5 places, but not nearly as impressive as Kovalainen. After actually managing to complete a racing lap on Sunday, his weekend's running has seen him shoot a whopping 7 places up to 6th. Brawn, Williams, Red Bull and Toyota are the only teams with both cars in the top 10, while Kovi and fellow Finn Raikkonen make up the numbers.

Biggest fallers outside of the 10 are Heidfeld and Alonso respectively. Even Fernando's super-light special in qualifying to get him on the front row doesn't save him from sliding to 15th, while Nick was quite simply nowhere the whole time. The driver who dropped the most was Trulli who, despite staying in the top 10, goes from 3rd to 9th. Other notable climbers are Sutil, who hauled himself off the bottom to 17th as teammate Fisichella takes up that uncreditable honour, and both Massa and Hamilton who moved up 2 slots each.

OK, so there's the grid - but we're not stopping there. I've also compiled a field spread for the teams as well. By taking the fastest time set by each car, regardless of driver, I can look at which team is on paper the fastest and who's lounging around at the back making up the numbers. I did this last year for the 2008 season and it proved that the Ferrari was overall fastest over the entire season, but only just with McLaren just a fraction behind. So, after 3 rounds, how does it look now? Well I have some average lap times for every team so let's take a look, shall we?:
  1. Brawn GP - 1'31.357 +0.000
  2. Red Bull Racing - 1'31.491 +0.134
  3. Toyota - 1'31.633 +0.277
  4. Williams - 1'31.826 +0.470
  5. Ferrari - 1'31.877 +0.520
  6. BMW - 1'31.896 +0.540
  7. Renault - 1'32.038 +0.681
  8. McLaren - 1'32.124 +0.767
  9. Toro Rosso - 1'32.633 +1.276
  10. Force India - 1'33.138 +1.781
Obvious who the fastest team on average is, isn't it? But with that great performance all-round, it's Red Bull who are now their main threat. The RB5 is an extremely capable chassis, designed by the great Adrian Newey, and with the man himself electing to say in England to work on a new double diffuser for the car, one has to suspect Brawn are going to be looking at them a lot more closely from now on. They know they're a threat, but if RBR manage to really start putting the pressure on in the next couple of races, especially when the circus begins its European season in Barcelona in less than 3 weeks time, it's going to be a battle royale. Right now, it's these 2 teams that look to be heading for the championship, with Toyota trundling along in the background in 3rd.

Behind, Williams is heading the midfield of sorts, but what really surprises me is behind BMW in 5th is Ferrari. Ferrari? FERRARI?! Yes, believe it or not, the F60 has been, on average so far, faster than Renault and McLaren. Yet, no points and 3 DNFs between Kimi and Felipe. I'm shocked at that for one. As for Macca, the "lie-gate" scandal's taking it's toll, and despite a double diffuser and new front wing, it hasn't help that much according to the averages. But then again, the dismal start they had in Australia and Malaysia is the cause of that. As ever, behind them are Toro Rosso and Force India staking claim as backmarkers already. I personally hope Mallya's team does make some progress up the pack. As I've said a few times already, it's the race where it's stronger and more consistent. Sutil has proven that in all 3 races, but I am still feeling sad for him after a cruel twist of fate sent him aquaplaining into the tyres and retirement just 6 laps from his and FI's first points finish. It was Monaco '08 all over again - except, without a Ferrari losing it and thumping him in the rear.

Well I'll wrap it up now. It seems these first 3 flyaways have really been shaking the order up, and if the rest of the season is anything to go by, then it's going to be a real barnstormer. So, goodbye for now, thanks for reading and look out for another Super Season Grid after the Bahrain GP coming up this weekend.

Friday, 10 April 2009

F1 2009 Super Season Spread - Post Malaysia

Starting from post Malaysia, I will be assessing the current grid and just how close or how spread out all 20 drivers are in relation to each other, on average. By taking an average of the fastest lap times of each driver over both race weekends so far, I was able to see who are the front runners, who are the midfield battlers and who seems to be struggling at the back. Think of it as a super qualfying session expanding over the entire season. So without further ado, here is the grid as it stands after Malaysia:
  1. Button - 1'29.320 +0.000
  2. Barrichello - 1'29.585 +0.266
  3. Trulli - 1'29.628 +0.308
  4. Vettel - 1'29.699 +0.379
  5. Webber - 1'29.732 +0.412
  6. Glock - 1'29.770 +0.450
  7. Rosberg - 1'29.790 +0.470
  8. Kubica - 1'29.857 +0.537
  9. Raikkonen - 1'29.918 +0.599
  10. Heidfeld - 1'30.137 +0.817
  11. Alonso - 1'30.156 +0.836
  12. Nakajima - 1'30.198 +0.878
  13. Kovalainen - 1'30.375 +1.055
  14. Massa - 1'30.481 +1.161
  15. Hamilton - 1'30.680 +1.360
  16. Piquet - 1'31.153 +1.833
  17. Bourdais - 1'31.198 +1.878
  18. Fisichella - 1'31.293 +1.973
  19. Buemi - 1'31.305 +1.986
  20. Sutil - 1'31.347 +2.027

Brawn are clearly the fastest of the field with Button top of the pack, Rubens backing him up. Behind it's a scrap for best of the rest of the frontrunners with both Toyotas, Red Bulls, Rosberg, Kubica and Raikkonen covered by around 3 tenths. Next, it's another half a second covering 10th to 15th with Heidfeld seemingly heading the "midfield" despite his second place in Malaysia. Both McLarens and Massa are somewhat of a surprise in here but it's no secret both the MP4-24 and F60 aren't up to scratch yet. The backmarkers are the 5 drivers who have filled the bottom of Q1 on both race weekends with Piquet, Toro Rosso and Force India claiming the rear of the grid as their own for now.

That's all from the Super Season Grid for now, but look out for the next one after the Chinese GP. Take care now!

A Force to be reckoned with, perhaps?

To me, one of the biggest leaps in terms of techincal advances has to be Force India. Say what you will but I think that while they're still considered the backmarkers of the field somewhat, they do have an ace up their sleeve in the form of that partnership with McLaren and Mercedes. The effects of it aren't really evident at the moment but I'm sure that behind the doors of Vijay Mallya's outfit at Silverstone there is some Woking magic being waved on the VJM02.

The team has certainly come a long way and been on quite a journey since Eddie Jordan cast his eyes on his cars rolling out of the garages in Phoenix, Arizona some 18 years ago now. From there they've won 4 races and changed ownership and name 3 times, from Jordan to Midland to Spyker and finally Force India as we now know it. But right now, they are far from the race-winning form that some people might have thought possible with the influence of Ron Dennis and McLaren alongside them. Oh sure, it's going to take something pretty special for them to taste the sweet nectar of success for the first time but with the right resources and some good know-how, it can be done. Mallya himself still believes an FIF1 on the podium at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix is achieveable. People can dream of course, and what's wrong with that? But somehow it does seem a little ambitious. Give them credit, this incarnation of the team's championship challenger is strides better than 2008's, which saw them firmly at the rear of the pack following Super Aguri's tragic demise prior to the Turkish Grand Prix.

Adrian Sutil has recently said it himself that the improvements to the car will come eventually and probably within the next few races. He says there is potential in the package they have, but one quote from the story stands out for me more than anything else contained in it:

"It's a difficult situation because there was not much testing as we built
the car in about 120 days, so it's hard to pick up."

4 months? 4 months?! Not even McLaren leave that amount of time to make their car. In fact at the time they launched the MP4-24 they were already some 2 months into design for the 2010 machine. One can't help but wonder why they didn't start working on it in 2008. Honda knew their season would be useless and rightly focused on '09 and look where their successors Brawn GP are now - topping both championship tables with Button on 2 race wins from the first 2 rounds. So why didn't the Force do this as well? Surely they must have known their car wasn't one to get them podiums or victories, so changing focus to this season would have been a logical step. Look at what it's done for Toyota, Williams and in some ways BMW.

I can see these guys scoring a few points but probably not regularly just yet. From what I've seen so far the car is lacking pace in qualifying which is why it hasn't made Q2 just yet, despite being fairly close on both occasions. In terms of race pace and reliability it's certainly quicker than a year ago and a heck of a lot more reliable. I blame the Ferrari engine for their dismal 2008. As I briefly touched on in my post about Maranello yesterday, the Mercedes-Benz unit is rock solid and very powerful, the best in the field. Sutil himself was close to scoring FI's first point in Melbourne with 9th place. This means the car seems consistent and has better longevity. While the pace isn't quite there, it's only a matter of time before that McLaren techincal wizardry shines through and enables this team to live up to one half of its name - a real Force.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Prancing Horse is falling at the first hurdles

In light of the new rules ripping up the original form book in Formula 1 and creating a brand spanking new one, it's clear to see that the teams that were considered the front runners and championship contenders last season have pretty much fallen from grace and found themselves dangerously close to the latter end of the midfield. McLaren have already admitted their car isn't up to scratch, but what of Ferrari?

Their start to what has so far been a thrilling 2009 season has been significantly less so. The proof is in the results - 2 races, 2 DNFs, 0 points. Massa and Raikkonen have had to sit and watch while the likes of Toyota, Williams, Red Bull and of course not forgetting Brawn GP have taken up the mantle as the new "Big 4" at the front with the ex-Honda squad leading the way with 2 victories. Looking at their rivals, it seems BMW are the ones coping with the new regulations the best. Already they've proved their car can run at the front given the right time and place and in some cases the right tyre compound. As for Renault, it's clear that their late season for from 2008 has vanished and while Alonso's getaway in Malaysia was simply astounding, it was down to his skills as a double world champion alone to hold off the chasing pack behind him along with the use of KERS as an aid. The car just simply is not up to scratch.

So what of the boys from Maranello? Why is it the first team to launch their 2009 contender finds themselves with nothing to show for their hard efforts over the winter after just 2 races? There's no denying they have the talent when it comes to personnel. Raikkonen is a world champion while Massa was one - for about 30 seconds. They have a 7 times world champion as an adviser and Stefano Domenicalli at the helm, someone who has worked with the team for over 20 years. I know for a fact he was Ferrari's commercial manager before being promoted to a more senior role. So if it's not the team it must be the car.

Reliability hasn't been something Ferrari have been able to lean on these past couple of seasons. It always seems like their cars have a tendancy of failing at the most inconvenient times. Suzuka 2006, Nurburgring 2007 and Hungary 2008 are 3 clear cases in point. While it could be said the Ferrari engine has been the most powerful, it's not the complete package that enables both the factory team and those that are customers to push on. The Mercedes-Benz unit is touted as the best all-round unit, which is probably why Force India and Brawn are partner and customer respectively. The trend has unfortunately continued for 2009. In Australia Massa had to park the car due to suspension problems while Raikkonen seemingly gave up the ghost sometime after a rather light but possible telltale spin into the wall which may have damaged the differential, the eventual cause of Kimi's DNF there. More car trouble arose for the Finn on Friday at Sepang when his KERS system's batteries caught fire and began to melt, causing the cockpit to fill with smoke and Kimi having to leap from his car rather hurridly. During the stoppage on the Sunday due to the heavy downpours, Ferrari themselves also revealed that had the race been scheduled to restart, there was a possibility they would have to retire Raikkonen after water was rumoured to have leaked into the car and caused internal damage.

So is it just a case of being too slow, or is it a lack of precision and common sense? Ferrari were the first to launch their car, as I've already mentioned earlier, but was this a mistake? We've seen that the likes of Red Bull and Brawn decided to work on their cars until the very last minute to try to exploit the rules as best as possible and for both of them it has paid off. There is always a gamble to take and a decision to make for all the teams when producing a car for a new season. Launching early means more track time at the risk of development work in the design studio while going late produces the opposite. From what we saw in winter testing, Ferrari virtually made no aerodynamic progress on their car whatsoever, or at least nothing significant that I could see anyway. So if they've launched early but not developed the car further to make it as fast as possible, what on earth have they been doing? Probably sat back sinking red wine and having extraordinarily long lunches, if you ask me.

It seems their trip to Bahrain hasn't done their car's pace or reliability any good whatsoever, and if it had, it wasn't as predominant as Toyota's and BMW's, and that is evident in their pace in the first 2 races. While they did top the time sheets on a couple of occasions out in the desert, it was fair to say they were not the dominant team there. Toyota had made huge steps to ensure the speed and reliability were up to scratch and the times showed that in evidence. Ferrari's mileage there was nothing compared to the Japanese team's. Glock and Trulli managed a total of approx. 4 race distances worth of laps in just 2 days, while the red cars didn't manage nearly as many.

Another factor could be their loss of focus on this season. If you'll quite clearly remember, they were fighting with McLaren for both championships last season while everyone else was clearly thinking of 2009 at that stage. BMW admittingly gave up on development of their 2008, but at a cost of Kubica losing out on a shot at the title. Honda, when they weren't pulling out of the sport, talked of nothing but '09 at their '08 launch, which made it clear they had no interest in succeeding that time around. Renault even reported they were done with it and decided it was time to switch focus, though that might have changed when Alonso eventually got into his stride with the R28. This may be the very reason why the former frontrunners are struggling. Preoccupied with trying to succed in 2008, they hadn't put enough attention into the new rules and only now are they paying for it in bad results and pace.

Ferrari seem to be pinning their hopes on the 3 teams running the controversial diffusers - Brawn, Williams and Toyota - being found illegal. But with the parts in question already being declared legal twice over by the FIA, it would seem stupid to change their minds. Team prinicipal Luca di Montezemelo has said it could cost Ferrari somewhere in the region of $20million dollars to implement such a diffuser onto their cars. Whether this is true or just an exagerrated figure, you can see what he means by it. Putting a new diffuser onto the car means a complete redesign of the underside. But with the world's economy not in the best shape and the FIA committed to reducing costs, you wouldn't have thought a team like Ferrari would be able to just use up money like that just to make their car that little bit faster. Raikkonen has said it himself that the outcome of this hearing at the FIA's Court of Appeal will be a deciding factor in this season's championship.

Perhaps Maranello is feeling the pressure right now. Their decision to run Kimi on wet tyres on the virtually dry track in Malaysia, despite the overhanging black clouds, proved ridiculous and somewhat comical. His laptimes fell dramatically as the tyres were torn to shreds and when the rain finally did come down, Raikkonen could clearly be heard on the radio saying "My tyres are completely destroyed". Right now, this is their worst start to a season since 1992, in which their car from that year has been classified by Autosport as one of the worst ever. Seems like at the moment, it's back to the good ol' days of comedy Ferrari, when the Italians thought they were doing something right when in reality, they're getting it very, very wrong.