Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Lack of Support

Eurosport, the avid motorsport fan's not entirely reliable friend, showed the Porsche Supercup race at San Marino live for the first time last Sunday. The racing was reasonably diverting, though once Richard Westbrook was clear of Fabrice Walfisch, the result was never really in doubt. We might see both these guys turn up in works Porsches at Le Mans or Sebring at some point, I suppose, but the Supercup does rather have the look and feel of being a rich man's playground, a bit of an irrelevance.

Anyway, it set me thinking about the last time I had seen a Supercup race in full - as a spectator at the Belgian Grand Prix a few years back. Turning up late on Saturday evening as I did that weekend (I was hitch hiking down to the race from Scotland, and got stuck in Dover overnight), the Porsche race was the only support event I saw, and I can't help feeling that for £60 admission (and even this price was the result of buying cheaply from a tout at the gate), this was rather mean-spirited on the part of the organisers, Bernie Ecclestone, or whoever it is that makes these decisions. Is F1 now so precious that it can't countenance a proper support bill?

Last weekend, I went up to my local race track, Knockhill, to watch the Kirkcaldy and District Motorcycle Club do their stuff and for a tenner, I got a whole afternoon's worth of racing. I wasn't counting, but I think we got 14 races - less than a quid a race. For sure, it wasn't top level motorsport, but it was entertaining, sometimes close fought, and there was never dead time between races. And despite being all but unknown to the wider world, and despite the fact that temperatures weren't much above freezing point, the day drew a good crowd. F1's organisers could learn a lot from these enthusiastic amateurs.

It wasn't always like this. When I went to my first Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch back in the mid 1980s, there was a full support bill with rounds of the national touring car series, the F3 championship, historic racing, one make Renault Alpine racing and a counter for those rather eccentric Thundersports cars that essentially served as an opportunity for John Foulston to show off his incredibly quick ex Can-Am Lola.

Now? Well you get a GP2 race on Sunday morning, which is a good thing although we've lost the Sunday morning warm up, thanks to the FIA's parc ferme rules. Then there's the playboys in the Porsches and, uhm, for most of the European races, that's about it. Given what ticket prices are like these days, that really isn't good enough. (though, did James Allen say that basic admission at Imola this year was £30?! Must pay a visit some time in that case!).

Why aren't Grands Prix supported by their country's premier racing series? Why not a round of the DTM at the German Grand Prix? The strong Belcar GT series would be good at Spa and the British F3 championship still has reasonable strength in depth, and would sit nicely on the bill at Silverstone. Howabout outings for the Thoroughbred Grand Prix championship so casual fans can see what F1 cars used to be like? There are some really good quality international series which might benefit from the exposure that a GP support race would provide too, and help make a Grand Prix weekend a real festival of motor racing. A slot for the FIA GTs perhaps? The knockabout WTCC? Or the F3 Euroseries? The Australians, seemingly alone, have grasped this, and their Grand Prix is often supported by historics, Aussie V8 touring cars and Formula 3.

Hell, even celebrities in saloon cars would be better than nothing. Eddie 'the eagle' Edwards (Britain's famously useless ski jumper) provided great value for money in the wet round Silverstone in an Alfa 164 many years back, and I have a nagging suspicion that Ellen McArthur would make a fine racing driver, which I'd like to see put to the test.

So why won't it happen? One word. Money. I've heard that the Porsche Supercup guys pay an awful lot of money to appear on the GP support bill - an amount that other series simply wouldn't contemplate. Space for corporate guests in the paddock has priority over space for support race teams (one more reason to hate Red Bull's bloody energy station). Sponsors get upset when people who have paid far less money to back an F3 car, or whatever (or worse, in the case of TGP - sponsors have long since ceased paying anything at all) and still get the visibility of being at a Grand Prix. So it looks like its only going to happen if us race fans simply stop turning up at all, unless they get the support races sorted out.

correction - A1GP

You never know who reads your blog. A couple of weeks back, I wrote a review of the A1GP series in which I stated the cars had just 380BHP - despite the fact that the organisers have always said the cars have 500BHP. This was based on information I had received in response to a previous post which implied that the 500BHP figure was a "PR figure" only, and the cars' power output was significantly lower. Well since that post, I've been contacted by someone close to the A1 Team Malaysia, who also know's Lola's Rupert Manwaring. He assures me that the cars do indeed have 500BHP, pointing to the fact that they slide around an awful lot more than F3000 cars ever did, precisely because the cars have so much more power than F3000 cars ever did. The lap times are slow because of the relatively primitive aerodynamics and the rock hard tyres. So there you go. Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Big Open Single Seaters

Its subtle; You can't really see it unless you look very closely. Its not Ronnie Peterson in a March in the mid 1970s for sure, but its definitely there on occasion. Four wheel drift. With 600BHP, on worn tyres, the latest spec GP2 cars, with their emphasis on mechanical, rather than aerodynamic grip, conjure up the ghosts of an earlier era, a time when the laws of physics were less well understood - when the whole idea of inverting an aeroplane wing to keep something on the ground was a novelty in itself. Out of Valencia's many second gear corners, drivers are visibly wrestling with their cars, constantly having to apply opposite lock out of the corner, fighting their cars for all they are worth. Through the few faster corners, they drift, almost imperceptibly, but they drift....

Up front, a man with an awful lot to prove, uncharacteristically serene and in control. Nelson Piquet Jr was expected to challenge for the title last year, but whether through lack of application on his part, or a lack of experience on the part of his team, he never really got it together. And so the momentum and the attention switched to the other son of a famous father - the one who didn't have an F3 title to his name. Now though, he looks imperious, the class of the field. Perhaps, like his father, he's just happiest way out in front, a big gap back to the next competitor, with only himself to beat.

Behind him, two new names. Tristan Gommendy, already out of his car and wondering what might have been. Gommendy, who has been floating around the junior single seater ranks for years, was not at the top of anyone's list of those "most likely to" and yet there he was, on the front row in his first GP2 race. Then, after only two laps, his engine dies, and with a back row starting slot for the next day, his weekend is written off, and he must be wondering whether he's already lost his best chance of a real result all season.

Enjoying better luck, Adrian Valles even gets to lead the race for a while during the pit stops. Adrian who? A reasonable question, but that will be the Adrian Valles who finished second to Kubica last year in the Renault World Series, and who may just turn out to be Spain's next great racing export - he's perhaps not as well known as he deserves to be. Even with last year's perennial tailenders, Campos Racing, and despite a less than ideal pit strategy, he scores a fine podium at his home circuit in race one.

Down at the back, two big names having a really bad start to 2006. Nicolas Lapierre came into GP2 with everything going for him - a seat at Arden, a good showing in a competitive F3 Euroseries season, pole in the opening race....and then nothing. After a winter of domination over in A1GP, we wondered if it would be different this time and yet after qualifying, there he was down in 21st place. Come race day though, he's able to make amends, and to show why he still can't be discounted from this year's title race. In the first race he climbs up to 4th (albeit with a blackmark for his clumsy pass of Andreas Zuber, which took the Austrian out of the race) and come the second, he's on the podium, a lucky save, and he leaves Valencia second on points.

Less lucky is Northern Irish series sophomore, Adam Carroll. After being right at the front all through winter testing, he's unexpectedly off the pace in qualifying. He compounds his problems by screwing up his start, falling from 13th on the grid down to 21st with a lot to do. Carroll was always a great racer but Valencia is no easy place to pass at - a Monaco with run off areas and big Moto-GP style banked kerbs, if you will. Always a street fighter, the frustration of being stuck behind much slower cars begins to tell. Carroll 's driving seems wayward today, more rock-ape clumsy than merely combative. His pass on Fauzy relies more than a little on a bit of wheel-banging, and he ends his weekend with a barrel roll while fighting with Valles for the final point in race 2.

Just a few stories from the opening race. It might not have been a classic, but this is still shaping up to be a very close run season. The cars looked good on the tracl and there was plenty to keep the informed fan interested - and I haven't even touched on the fast South Americans, Viso and Lopez, or the contrasting fortunes of the ART boys, not to mention the success of first-time winner and former FRenault driver, Michael Ammermuller.


Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, just a few hours later, the Champ Car series got underway after a long winter break. Too long , perhaps. Mario Dominguez shows he is a little race rusty , on the way down to the first corner, misses his braking point and ploughs into his team mate, Paul Tracy. In the confusion, AJ Allmendinger, Oriol Servia and Bruno Junquiera are eliminated, and at a stroke, the main interest in the race is largely killed. Such is the way sometimes - most of the heavy hitters gone in one fell swoop. There was just about enough going on further down the field to keep one from falling asleep while watching the late night Eurosport coverage.

It doesn't take long for Bourdais to show that he has the legs of Wilson, or, for that matter, for the 2 F3000 champions past to show that they are the class of what remains of the field. By contrast with the GP2 cars, the Champ Cars look big and clumsy around Long Beach, prone to understeer, rather than oversteer. But perhaps that is just a side effect of the fact that, on a concrete-lined street circuit, the drivers can't take the same kinds of chances as their GP2 brethren.

Some of the newcomers don't seem entirely to realise this. Dan Clarke, who had not really done anything to stand out in a not particularly competitive British F3 field last year, is surprisingly close to the pace in the HVM-CTE car, but finishes only 11th after not one but two trips into the wall (the first of which, in particular, would have totalled a less inherently sturdy car). By way of consolation, he sets the third fastest lap of the race on his debut.

Dutchman Jan Heylen, by contrast, is the slowest, but the steadiest, of the rookies. As a result of being the only one to stay entirely out of trouble, he comes home the best of them in 7th place. He's pushed all the way by Britain's other new Champ Car driver, Katherine Legge. The centre of attention in more ways than one, Legge endures a mixed debut. At around half distance, she makes a careless mistake at turn 5 just as the safety car came out to deal with Pizzonia and stalled the engine. Suffering the indignity of a face-facing camera, we see a flash of an exhausted looking and anguished rookie, and my first thought is that she is in no fit state to be in a race car, either mentally or physically, and that the team should pull her in. Which goes to show why I'm not a team boss - as she went on to recover impressively and hustle Heylen right to the line. Perhaps, with rearward facing cockpit cameras a novelty, I'd simply overestimated the calm and composure of the average racing driver in action.

Elsewhere, Cristiano Da Matta attempts to rescue his career following the Toyota sacking and the PKV debacle, and drove well to 6th for underdogs Dale Coyne racing, and both Will Power and Antonio Pizzonia show flashes of pace, and more than a little inconsistency in their Champ Car debuts. If we don't lose most of the quick guys at the first corner next time out, this could be an interesting race series, if something of a shadow of its former glory.

All in all, in a weekend with no F1, there was still more than enough action for single seater racing fans to be satisfied - and some of it rather more interesting than this weekend's Imola encounter is likely to be.

Monday, April 10, 2006

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times - A1GP series review

Last weekend, the inaugural A1 Grand Prix series came to a close in Shanghai with, perhaps appropriately, a first win for an Asian driver in a major international single seater championship (unless you know better, and admittedly, only if one discounts Formula Nippon) thanks to Malaysia's oft maligned Alex Yoong. In the second race, Tomas Enge became the third former F1 driver to win in A1GP, taking victory for the Czech team - the eighth to win an A1 race.

In this week's Autosport, website editor Tim Redmayne has gone into considerable detail as to the trials and tributlations which, on occasion, have threatened to entirely discredit the new series. The spectator-free events at Dubai and Estoril, the cancelled race at Curitiba, the T-cars which turned up late and immediately had to be broken up for spares, and the unpaid bills which led to the impounding of the cars in South Africa. Less seriously, there were perhaps inevitably occasions when the driving standards were truly atrocious, although often the culprits were not newcomers thrown in over their heads, but old hands who should have known better (mentioning no names, but think 'orange' in particular....).

And yet, and yet..... It actually happened. A brand new international single seater category conjured seemingly from nowhere. When I first heard of the A1GP concept, I mentally filed it away alongside Premier 1 GP under "Walter Mitty goes motor racing" and expected that, given a couple of years, it would quietly go away without a single race actually taking place.

Instead, for the first time since the Tasman Series faded away in the early 1970s, us motorsports fans have something to keep us interested over the northern hemisphere's winter. In terms of strength in depth, A1GP cannot begin to match the Tasman Series at its height. That could boast drivers of the calibre of Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Graham Hill and Piers Courage (the subject of last week's column). A1GP, by contrast, had. at the front, a sprinkling of tomorrow's men (Piquet Jr, Premat, LaPierre, Jani) and sometime journeymen F1 drivers (Verstappen, Yoong, Firman and Enge). The real stars of the sport were either not tempted to come and play, or were prevented from doing so by their contracts with their regular teams. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that while the Tasman series used F1 chassis (albeit with 2.5ltr rather than 3.0 ltr engines), A1GP cars are rather funny looking ersatz F3000 cars with about 350BHP.

So who did well out of A1GP? Well France, obviously - a country that has had little to cheer about recently, outside of Champ Car and World Rallying circles anyway, as they won the series with the GP2 pairing of Lapierre and Premat. For those who, despite the best efforts of the A1GP organisers to get us to treat circuit racing like the world cup, care more for drivers and teams than nations, Lapierre in particular did much to re-establish his reputation after a disappointing year in GP2. Alex Yoong, as previously mentioned, did much to redeem himself after a torrid season in F1 a few years back (though those of us who remember his brief tenure in Champ Cars know that he really wasn't that bad) and helped Malaysia to an impressive fifth overall in the series - far and away the best result from a non-traditional motorsports country in the series first year. Talking of non-traditional motorsports countries, Ananda Mikola seemed to improve through the year, driving for Team Indonesia, and by the time the season ended, appeared to be a thoroughly decent peddler. By contrast, Pakistan, China, Russia and the Lebanon figured little, except when causing accidents in the case of the latter (though things improved a little when the distantly Lebanese teenager, Graham Rahal got in the car for the final two races).

To my mind though, the closest thing the series had to a real 'find' was Mexican Salvador Duran. His previous experience extended only to the not especially competitive National Class of the British F3 championship, but who came on increasingly strongly through the season, and -achieved a double win at a surprisingly wet Laguna Seca. One only hopes that, following on from his success he finds the budget to do something a little more interesting than the semi-club racing he did last year. Perhaps a Champ Car seat will appear mid season or something......

If one leaves aside the financial and organisational troubles though, could A1GP be judged a success? On one level, I suppose it could. The quality of the racing was generally good, certainly better than in the dying years of F3000, if not on a par with GP2. But on another level, its hard to avoid thinking they could have done better. I can't speak for other parts of the world, but here in the UK, there was a lot of hype prior to the Brands Hatch race, which attracted a good crowd, and then the series seemed to disappear from the mainstream press' radar altogether (Chris Balfe suggests over at Pitpass that the organisers simply got a bit complacent after the opening round success).

A big part of the problem, here in the UK, was the lack of free-to-air TV coverage. No doubt the decision to sell the rights to Sky was based on financial considerations, but this approach seems more than a little shortsighted. I can't believe that, given they have lost the rights to show just about every sporting event of consequence these days, the BBC wouldn't have been interested in picking up the coverage. In the long run, accepting that the TV rights wouldn't initially make any money would surely make financial sense. While few would bother taking out a satellite subscription just to watch a new motor racing series, plenty of casual fans might have tuned in on a Sunday afternoon, especially in the depths of winter, when Britain is not the greatest place to spend time outdoors. The series appeared to do rather well in a lot of Asian countries, on the other hand, where I'm told it was easier to find on the TV schedules.

With the casual fans would come TV ratings, and TV ratings are what really interest sponsors. The A1 business model is heavily dependent on the teams (or franchises, technically) being able to generate revenues from sponsorship, and this is only ever going to happen if sponsors see a series that people are actually interested in following.

Bringing in more sponsors should have a knock-on effect in improving the quality of the drivers, especially towards the back of the field. Teams that have more money can a) afford to pay professional racing drivers to come and race for them and b) no longer need pay-drivers to keep the bailiffs from the door (and while I've no inside information on the funding of A1GP teams, I cannot believe that Matthias Lauda was not paying for his ride with Team Austria - there is simply no other reason for him to be there).

What of the cars? As I've said, they're basically F3000 cars, and although their swooping lines and fins are not really to my taste, they do the job well enough. With 350BHP or so, they have enough power to keep things interesting, but not so much that the less experienced drivers are entirely at sea (well, not all of them anyway). My only complaint is that the tyres they run are simply too hard. The cars rely far too much as a result on aerodynamic, rather than mechanical grip, and that mitigates against overtaking. Put them on softer rubber, and if they then prove too easy to drive, take a leaf out of the GP2 organisers' book and dick about with the rear wing so they've got less downforce.

Any other gripes? Some serious motorsporting countries were either missing from A1 altogether (all the Scandinavian countries, for example, and Spain, who've only gone and produced their first F1 champion) while others seemed to run very half-hearted efforts (the aforementioned Team Austria, and Team Japan, who disappeared half way through the season.) If these teams can be brought in, and if they can sort out the TV rights, ensure the bills are paid on time, stop cancelling races at next to no notice, and put the cars on proper tyres, then next year A1GP might really be worth paying attention to.

Monday, April 03, 2006

"Piers Courage: Last of the Gentlemen Racers" by Adam Cooper - Book Review

Piers Courage: Last of the Gentlemen Racers - Adam Cooper

A quick perusal of the sports section of my local Waterstones is enough to confirm that there are an awful lot of racing driver biographies on the market these days. More than a few of them leave you wondering quite why they exist at all - What has Jenson Button ever really done to merit the printing of his life story? Or Rubens Barrichello? It seems that pretty much every half way successful racing driver these days (including some whose successes do not include such achievements as, say, actually winning a Grand Prix) has a biography or ghosted autobiography out, and an awful lot of them are glossy A4 books, plastered with photographs which read more like extended PR/puff pieces than considered biographies.

So what makes this image-heavy. glossy A4 biography of a man who never actually won a really big motor race a more interesting proposition? Firstly, it is well researched and well written. Adam Cooper may not have been around to witness Piers Courage's career, being just 5 years old when Courage was killed, but he's spoken to almost everyone of consequence who knew him to help build up a detailed story of his life and career.

Secondly, its a story worth telling. This tale of the racing exploits of the young heir to the Courage brewery fortune is an awful lot more interesting than the usual "karting/FFord/F3/F1" story of your average modern racing driver. Courage was never really found success in F1, and this is not the story of a true great killed before his time. Cooper concedes in the introduction that he was no match for Rindt or Stewart, and reading between the lines, one suspects that, even in a competitive car, he wouldn't consistently have matched Jack Brabham or Graham Hill either. In a way though, the very fact that he was not one of the true greats of the sport is what enables Cooper to capture the mood - the ambiance, of Grand Prix racing at the end of the 1960s.

It was a world very different from the ultra high technology, professionally managed, corporately controlled environment that is modern Grand Prix racing. Equally, it is a sport considerably changed from that described in Robert Edwards' book on Stirling Moss (which I reviewed here), a world where the gentleman hobbyist is already fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. Cooper takes the reader back to a time when motorsport was dominated not by the major car manufacturers (as it once was and once again would be) but by relatively small specialist teams, many of them operating out of little more than lock-up garages. A time when crashed chassis were not inevitably written off, but could be fettled back into shape by people like 'Tom the Weld', one of a number of recurring characters in the book. When teams were run not by large numbers of dedicated professionals, but by small bands of enthusiasts, many of whom may not even have been getting paid for the privilege.

The book traces Courage's story, from Eton schooldays, through his first fumbling steps into the world of motorsport, first in a Morris Traveller(!), then a Lotus 7, through Formula 3 and Formula 2, all the way to Formula 1. But though Piers may be the central character of the story, it is in fact as much the tale of a group of young racing enthusiasts all barely out of school, and eager to be involved in any way they can.

There are some magnificent little anecdotes in this book. Many of them concern the comings and going at the Harrow flat where numerous of Courage's friends and fellow drivers lived when not out on the road. At one point, one of the boys' mothers turned up and was horrified to find her son sharing his bed with a Hewland gearbox - "I wouldn't have minded if it was a woman" she is said to have said. On another occasion, we hear of a man who makes a living building 'replicas' of Lotus' new F3 car at a fraction of the price of the real thing. How does he do it? well he got a friend to smuggle the relevant bits out of the works down the road so he could measure them up, or, sometimes, simply steal them.

Amongst this crowd of privileged old Etonians lurks a more driven man, initially a saloon car racer, before moving briefly into F3 as a driver and subsequently discovering his metier as a team owner - with Courage at the wheel. His name? Francis Williams. Williams' exploits almost certainly deserve a book in their own right. He is forever wheeling and dealing, always trying to find the cash to fund his ambitions. On one occasion he is selling coke cans in the pits at Monza, after buying a crate in bulk in town. On another, he is said to be charging entry to the Harrow flat and running his own makeshift porn cinema (perhaps the origin of his nickname, Wanker Williams). Later he moves on to greater things, acting as the UK importer for Brabham and importing and exporting Porsche 911s from mainland Europe. Eventually he would establish his own Formula 1 team, running the private Brabham in which Courage scored two podium finishes, and the De Tomaso in which he would crash to his death at Zandvoort in 1970.

If the oil, grease and improvisation of late 1960s motorsport isn't enought to hold your attention, there's also a glimpse into an altogether different world of high fashion and the English aristocracy, related to Cooper by Lady Sarah Aspinall, then known as Sally Courage. The daughter of pre-war racing driver Earl Howe married Courage in a blaze of publicity in 1960s and worked as a model for Mary Quant - and yes, there are a lot of photographs in this book.

Quibbles? There is perhaps a little too much nonsense about the Eton school spirit for your left-leaning correspondent (though perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised, as Adam Cooper, too is a former public school boy). The suggestion that Courage had little help from his tremendously wealthy family is also somewhat disingenuous - they may not have paid directly for his racing, beyond buying his first car, the Lotus 7, but it was almost certainly their largesse which enabled him to survive (seemingly in some luxury too) effectively without any income of his own for several years, while he climbed the greasy pole to F1. There is also an inaccuracy regarding the reasons that Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired from motor racing after the Monaco Grand Prix in 1970. In the book, it is twice implied that he simply became scared of the risks involved in F1 and decided that he wanted no more part in it. In reality, the story was more complicated than that. Servoz-Gavin suffered injuries to his eye in an accident during the winter of 1969, and found that they had not healed as well as he thought they had. The result was that his peripheral vision was severely affected on one side, and he no longer felt safe driving at the limit (hence his failure to qualify at Monaco in 1970, the same circuit where he had started on the front row in only his second race two years earlier.)

What does this book have to say of Piers Courage, the man? In a way, not a great deal. You certainly won't find any deep, incisive analysis of what drove Courage, what his motivation was. This is fair enough though. While many of the world's most successful drivers have appeared to be psychologically complex, troubled even (Lauda, Senna, Damon Hill, Mansell) or had chaotic, turbulent private lives (Gilles Villeneuve, Prost, and yes, Lauda again), Courage appears to have been a straightforward, well liked chap. Perhaps a fine illustration of longtime motorsports man John Hogan's remark that "usually you'd far rather be stuck on a plane for hours with a team's number 2 than its number 1". Certainly none of the many people who knew him who were interviewed for this book appear to have a bad word to say about him. Maybe it is that old reluctance to speak ill of the dead or maybe it is just that, to borrow what Clive James said of Elio De Angelis "Unable to help being rich, talented and good looking, he did his best to make up for it by being a thoroughly decent man".