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:

My interviews with Rob and Nick:

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.