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, 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

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)
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
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?


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?