Sunday, September 30, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere

Those with a long memory would have known that there was always a good chance that the first race at the heavily revised Fuji Speedway was going to be very, very wet. Back in 1976, the first Japanese Grand Prix had been held in atrocious conditions, which, notoriously, were so bad that title contender Niki Lauda abandoned his car after just a few laps because he thought it too dangerous to continue. A few years later, a round of the World Sportscar Championship went ahead on a track so wet that the big international teams all packed up and refused to race. The local boys, being perhaps more used to the vagaries of the Japanese weather, had the day to themselves.

The 1976 race was a championship decider. This time round, it was not mathematically possible that the title could be settled in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but the result leaves Messrs Alonso and Raikkonen with only little more than a mathematical chance of coming away with the driver's crown. Neither man can really win the world championship, with Hamilton requiring only a pair of 4th places, but Lewis could still lose it, especially if it were to rain in Shanghai and this time it was his Mclaren that went off the road.

Certainly, if he does win the world title, the Japanese Grand Prix will be a pretty fine illustration of why he deserved it. In atrocious conditions, he put in a drive of control and accomplishment while his double world champion team mate went into the wall trying to keep up. As for Ferrari... the tyre fiasco was frankly the perfect illustration of where they have gone wrong this year. The car looked to have the pace, and Raikkonen and Massa both put in solid, aggresive drives in difficult circumstances...but what on earth were they doing starting on Inters? Leaving aside the fact that, had they read their email, they would have known they could not start on those tyres, the rubber was plainly not up to the job anyway. Judging by their performances under the safety car (a spin apiece), they would have ended up going straight off the road had they still been on inters when they began racing. A fantastic opportunity was thrown away by poor team management. How they must be hoping Ross Brawn will elect to return...

Behind all this, or, as often as not, in front, the race provided a rare opportunity for those whose talent exceeds the performance of their car to show what they could do (or, just possibly, to show how good the RB3 is in the wet...). The super-smooth Jenson Button used his famouly delicate inputs to claim a fine 6th spot on the grid in a Honda that frankly has no business being there. Had he not lost his nose early in the race, who knows what he might have achieved.

If Button was disappointed, Mark Webber must have been absolutely livid. The perennially luckless Aussie had his Red Bull in second place and appeared to have the pace to give Hamilton something to think about when rookie Sebastien Vettel ran into him and eliminated them both from proceedings....under a safety car. Vettel was distraught and could be seen crying, head in his hands, after climbing out of his wrecked Toro Rosso. Webber, who was sick into his helmet in the early laps and really not well enough to race, must have felt even more violently ill by the end of the day.

Let's not forget, though, that until that moment, Vettel's own performance was remarkable in its own right. His run to third place (he had led briefly) certainly didn't look like the work of a 20 year old with just six starts to his name in a tail end car. As someone who, up to now, had wondered quite what either Red Bull or BMW saw in Vettel, I feel I got an answer on Sunday. In years to come, we may remember his Fuji performance as his 'Senna in the wet in a Toleman' moment, rather than for the tragic error which brought it to an end.

The odds on rain in Valencia, where the GP2 series was being decided, must have been rather longer. Nonetheless, that's what they got. I've said before that it would be a travesty if the uninspiring Lucas Di Grassi beat Timo Glock to the title, and I must confess that when I realised the conditions were to be a wet/dry lottery of a race, I wondered if this might be precisely what would happen.

As it is, it was Di Grassi who lost out. Stuck on the wrong tyres at the beginning (as was Glock) he was caught out when he emerged on slick tyres and skated off into retirement in the turn 2 gravel trap. One might call it bad fortune, but in a season where Glock had been plagued with poor luck, it seemed only reasonable.

Timo sealed the title with a win in the Sunday sprint race - his fifth of the season. Had it not been for myriad misfortunes, he might have won twice as many. The big surprise ofthe weekend, though, was that Vitaly Petrov won the feature race - and from the front, outpacing his more experienced team mate in the process. I have to confess I would never have fingered him as a race winner at the beginning of the season. After all, there have been an awful lot of wealthy, but fundamentally pretty useless Russian kids in single seater racing over the last few years (see Victor Maslov, Sergei Zlobin and anyone who ever had anything to do with the Russian A1GP team) and I assumed Petrov was simply the latest of these. You don't win a race on a damp track on slick tyres without being pretty handy though, and Petrov has laid down a marker that he may be a man to watch if he comes back for another season next year. With Mikhail Aleshin showing some form in the Renault World Series, we could at last be seeing something of a breakthrough for the backwater that is Russian motorsport.

If nothing else, the weekend gone has shown that you don't need overtaking working groups, reverse grids, ballast systems, push-to-pass buttons or any of the rest of that nonsense to make single seater racing exciting to watch. You just need a wet track. Now, Bernie.... Howabout scrapping this night race lark in Singapore and demanding that they install some trackside sprinklers instead?

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Monday, September 24, 2007

A Muddled Formula

The other week, I was clearing through my things when I came across some photos I had taken as a kid at Donington Park at a World Sportscar Championship round, some time in the late eighties or early nineties. Aside from the awfulness of the photos (I want a Nikon D80, but there's a lot to be said for my Fuji S9000 when set against an old Miranda ME-Z), there were a couple of other things that struck me. The first thing was that those old Group C cars really were incredibly good looking machines. They were perhaps the last serious racing machines to be truly aesthetically wonderful. The Sauber-Mercedes 'silver arrows' are to my mind, perhaps as close as we'll ever come to the platonic ideal of a racing car.

The other thing that hit me was that the photos clearly show that there was a really big crowd there that day. It was no one-off either, I remember pictures in Autosport from the Brands Hatch sportscar race showing the spectator bank at Paddock Hill Bend absolutely thronged with people. Yes, this may come as a surprise to younger readers, but there was a time, not so very long ago, nwhen sportscar racing was very big indeed, particularly in Europe.

How things have changed. I happened to catch TV coverage of this year's Silverstone Empire Trophy 1000kms LMS race the other weekend, and whatever else there might have been, crowds of people there certainly were not. A few faces dotted the perimeter fence and the grandstands, but here was Britain's premier sportscar event, and I'd be surprised if there had been much more than a thousand paying spectators in total - a small fraction of what a typical British Touring Car race brings in.

It's not hard to see why. The race itself was a foregone conclusion. If the oddly named Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs kept running, they would win. As it happened, only one of them did make it to the end - the other falling foul of overly fussy rules about running with damaged bodywork. But who were they racing against, exactly? Peugeot is a major car manufacturer with past experience at the top level in F1 and World Rally and yet only once a year, at Le Mans, do they come up against anything remotely resembling opposition, when Audi brings out its R10 diesels.

The rest of the time, they do the European series while Audi does the ALMS. Behind them are a series of rich, enthusiastic amateurs in 'off the shelf' prototypes. The quickest of these, the Charouz Racing Lola, was 3s off the pace of the Peugeots in qualifying, and a good deal more fragile to boot. The truth of the matter is that in reality, there are not four but five categories, LMP1, LMP2, GT1, GT2, and an invitation class for the French car maker's diesels. Its a situation aggravated still further by rules which tilt in favour of diesel power plants, which remain unavailable to the privateers who make up the bulk of the field.

So why were things so different in the 1980s? Two words. The Porsche 956/62. Sure, in a way, things weren't so different. The Rothmans-backed works cars were usually the quickest around, at least in the years before TWR and Sauber got their act together, but it wasn't always that way. The Porsche 956/62 was that rarest of things - a genuinely effective first rate turn-key racing car. In addition to the works cars, the factory sold chassis to pretty well anyone with the cash to buy one, and any reasonably adept racing team with a pair of quality drivers could run at a competitive pace.

The proof of this lies in the fact that customer teams like John Fitzpatrick, Brun, Joest and RLR/GTI Engineering were on occasion capable of beating the works in a straight fight. In fact, had many of the cars not been crewed by pay-drivers, teams like Kremer and Obermaier racing might have been in a position to offer a serious threat as well. Two examples stand out in particular. Joest's 1985 victory at Le Mans, ahead of the works team, where they simply out-paced the factory team was perhaps key to their later being charged with the job of running the works cars; And Walter Brun's out-of-the-blue performance at the same race five years later. Many remember the crushing disappointment of pay-driver Jesus Pareja when his Brun 962 expired just minutes from the end of the 24hr race, while running second. Not so many recall that, but for an electrical problem in the early morning, two wealthy businessmen in an outmoded car would have been vying with the leading works Jaguar for outright victory!

Indeed, the decline of the world sports car championship could be said to have been down, in no small part, to the fact that the Porsche 962 slowly became simply too old and outmoded to enable the private teams to compete. Ultimately, the 3.5l era arrived and the cars were simply outlawed. Lola and Euroracing had a go at creating a customer prototype for the atmo era, but it was never cheap or reliable enough, and the attempt failed (beautiful car though, the T92/10, and there's an interesting story or two for another time...)

In a nutshell, the problem is that creating a reliable, high performance turn-key sports car that is simple enough for a private team to run competitively is really not easy. And the current kings of sportscar racing don't seem much inclined to try. Audi would never let customers buy their R8s, only borrow them, and they were forbidden from making any modifications. As for Peugeot, their 908 is simply not yet a sufficiently reliable car to go around hawking to customer teams, even if they were inclined to allow it.

The result is that most teams are reliant on cars built by relatively small concerns, such as Zytek, Courage and Pescarolo. These cars aren't bad, but they simply don't run trouble-free in the way that Audi's R8 used to (and to a large extent, its R10 still does). Neither are these cars quick enough to compete with the works Peugeots, although how much of that is down to rules which have simply handed things to the diesels on a plate is hard to determine. The lack of any true contest (at Silverstone, even the Peugeots were clearly not actually racing each other) is serving to drive all but the most dedicated of fans away. Without spectators or a public profile, the big sponsors will stay away, and without their money, teams are almost entirely reliant on money from wealthy older gentleman-racers to fund operations. On occasion, a professional is brought in to partner these guys, but that so often merely results in the frustrating thought that if only the car were driven entirely by people who knew what they were doing, it might be competitive.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a racing category aimed at rich amateurs with interesting machinery but a) Shouldn't the premier sportscar category be aiming a little higher? and b) If that is the road we are going down, why are Peugeot being allowed to come in and rain on everyone's parade?

Now those of you who are keen on your sportscar racing (and I count myself amongst you on a good day, else I wouldn't bother writing this), there is the argument that while European sportscar racing is a bit of a mess, the ALMS has been providing really rather close racing. You'd be right, but its been achieved only by messing around with the rules so as to create an artificially close contest between two categories of car which should not be in direct competition - the Audi R10s in LMP1, and the Porsche Spyders (and to a lesser extent, the Acuras) in LMP2. Had that not been the case, I rather doubt that even Penske would have been within a country mile of the Audis. And remove Penske and Audi from the mix, and the ALMS actually looks a good bit more sparse than the LMES. The moribund GT1 category is a case in point. So, come on, Audi and Peugeot. Race each other or take your toys away and let somebody else play...

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Remembering Colin

Colin McRae first made an impression on me back in 1990, on the supposedly 'Mickey Mouse' Chatsworth House stage at the RAC rally. To my knowledge, it was the first time that Colin had gotten hold of a pukka Group A car, and certainly the first time he had rallied one on a round of the World Rally Championship.

Yet his utter confidence was immediately apparent. He had the big Sierra Cosworth 4x4 more sideways, closer to the edge, than any of his rivals. Even at this early stage of the rally, the rear of the car was already looking rather battered, victim of the young McRae's over-exuberance, but nonetheless, his performance that day stood out. It seemed almost foolhardy. After all, his vastly more experienced father, Jimmy, had crashed out on Stage 3. He kept it up, too, and his battered RED-run Sierra finished up 6th, the best British finisher that year, and as it happened, the bes result by a home driver since his father had brought home his Sierra Cosworth in 3rd in an attrition-hit 1987 event.

It is easy to forget just what a poor state British rallying was in when Colin McRae emerged on the scene in the early 1990s. There hadn't been a British winner in a round of the World Rally Championship since Roger Clark won the RAC Rally in a Mark II Escort back in the early 1970s. Every year, there was the forlorn hope that one of the British favourites - Jimmy McRae, David Llewellyn, Gwyndaf Evans, Russell Brookes or Malcolm Wilson, might upset the apple cart. The results, though, tell a different story. In 1988, there were no British drivers in the top 10. A year later, only the exclusion of Per Eklund's Lancia promoted Malcolm Wilson into 10th, and in 1991, when McRae fell off the road towards the end of the event, the best British finisher was Louise Aitken-Walker, again only just on the fringe of the top 10.

1993 marked the year in which British rallying's fortunes began to take a turn for the better, and naturally, it was Colin McRae who led the charge. After driving selected events for the Subaru team in 1992, McRae found himself with something much more like a full-time drive with the team. The early season produced merely average results in the ageing, and heavy Subaru Legacy, but New Zealand marked the birth of a new era, in more ways than one. The 1993 New Zealand rally saw both the debut of Subaru's Impreza, perhaps the most successful line of rally cars of all time, and the first win for Colin McRae, who would go on to become Britain's most successful rally driver, at the wheel of the Impreza.

After that, successes came thick and fast, both for McRae, and for British rallying more generally, as Subaru's other protege, Richard Burns, rose to prominence. In 1994, Colin became the first British driver to win the RAC Rally in over 20 years, and a year later, despite a bad start to the season, he took the world title. Amazingly, though Colin McRae would go on to become one of the sport's winningest drivers, the 1995 title would remain his only World Championship win. He would come close on a number of occasions, twice losing the title by 2 points or less, but he would never quite get to the top of the table again. Why? Its an oversimplification, admittedly, but McRae never entirely ridded himself of his early reputation as 'McCrash'. He did get more consistent over the years, but he was always a shade more accident prone than rivals like Makinen, Burns, Sainz or Gronholm.

Perhaps it was the flip-side of his speed. After all, when he wasn't falling off the road, he won an awful lot of rallies, and often in cars, such as the early Ford Focus, which didn't really belong on the winner's rostrum. In a one-off comeback drive at the Rally Australia in 2005, he ran as high as second in the unloved Skoda Fabia WRC before it broke on the final day of the rally.

In competitive terms, we had probably seen the best of McRae. His final full championship season, in the Citroen Xsara, was something of a disappointment. Whether it was that McRae, a monoglot, couldn't communicate effectively with the French engineers, or that he simply didn't get on with the Xsara, or that his wild, spectacular style simply wasn't suited to the latest, most technically advanced generation of WRC cars, which required more precision that was in his nature, I don't know. What I do know is that McRae failed to win a single rally in a car that Sebastien Loeb nearly took to the World Title in his first full season. After that, he split his time between odd WRC appearances, attempts at the Dakar Rally, and even at Le Mans in a GT1 Ferrari. In terms of the record books, then, his death might not have been as important as that of compatriot Burns, who was still at the peak of his ability when he was hit by cancer.

There is more to life than the record books though. It goes without saying that Colin McRae will be sorely missed by his family and his friends. Usually, the harsh truth is the wider world can absorb the death of one man easily enough, no matter how important he might have been. The British rallying world, though, will feel McRae's absence very keenly indeed. It is not just that he was the first British world rally champion, it was the fact that he was a real enthusiast of, and ambassador for, the sport.

At a time when British drivers seem to be struggling to make any impression on the sport, he provided considerable assistance to a man I reckon to be amongst the best of them, Kris Meeke. The computer games which bear his name (and very playable they are too - Colin McRae Rally 2 helped me stay sane through my finals some years back) helped to introduce thousands of mainly young fans to the sport of rallying in a way that brings out much of its fundamental appeal. At a time when so many top racing drivers appear to be in it only for the money, and to consider the actual driving something of a chore, McRae was noteworthy for his willingness to run pretty much anything that took his fancy in local club events up and down the country. Over the years, I can remember him turning up in his own Metro 6R4, in a Mark II Escort and, at one demonstration, in his own home-built buggy. I can't see Fernando Alonso doing a sport in the Thoroughbred GP Series in an old Mclaren...

Six years ago, two British drivers vyed for the World Title in one of the most open and close fought world championship battles I can recall. It is a crying shame that neither man is with us any longer.

End Note - Neil over at Fastest Lap has done a particularly good piece on McRae - The Meaning of Legend which captures exactly why he will be missed.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lawyers at Dawn

Here's an amusing twist on a very old cliche. With only their native wit, fighting for honour, and armed only with the sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, the Italian Ferrari team do battle with the duplicitous, underhand, scheming English Mclaren team. With the allegations against them of industrial espionage involving many members of the team, and even of sabotage, it is as if Machiavelli were alive and well and had recently upped sticks from his native Florence to sample life in Woking.

Except, of course, its all a bit more complicated than that. Until now, I have avoided writing about the Mclaren/Ferrari spy scandal because a) I don't know anything more than you do about it, b) In all honesty, I find it rather tedious, and c) I was rather hoping it might all just be a passing frenzy anyway. If one thing has become clear in recent weeks, it is that it certainly isn't going to just blow over. It now looms large over the most close fought world title battle in some years, and threatens to deny us the final denouement in the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.

Until last week, I had assumed that, essentially, all we were looking at was a conspiracy for private gain between Messrs Coughlan and Stepney. Now, it appears that there is strong evidence that there were others in on it all. Including, it would appear, the drivers. Why else would the FIA decide to write specifically to Alonso, Hamilton and De La Rosa, demanding that they disclose all that they know of the affair?

How does this tally with Mclaren's seemingly convincing demonstration that no part of what they found out was incorporated into this year's Mclaren MP4/22?. It strikes me that there is one compelling explanation that has been mostly, though not entirely, overlooked. There is one part that is necessarily common to the Mclaren and Ferrari - and indeed every other car on the grid. The control Bridgestone tyres.

What if Stepney had passed on some vital piece of information on how to get the best out of them to Coughlan? What if this information had enabled Mclaren to get the jump on all the other teams switching over from last year's Michelins? There's still an awful lot to be explained. Could information on how to set up a Ferrari for the control tyres really be readily transferred to a Mclaren - an entirely different car? And even if it could, why take the chance of letting the drivers in on what the team was up to? They must know that drivers tend to move on over time, taking a team's secrets with them. Surely Coughlan must have known that one day, sooner or later, De La Rosa or Alonso might find it useful to use such information against the team?

And what on earth does all this have to do with Italian Magistrates apparent investigation of Mclaren for sabotage? Or the white powder in the fuel tanks at Monaco? Or Mclaren's involvement of Renault in the whole tawdry affair?

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that I stole the line on the 'sword of truth' from the opening statement of Conservative politician Jonathan Aitken in his suicidal libel action against the Guardian newspaper back in the mid 1990s. I'm not suggesting that the end result of this whole process could be Jean Todt's imprisonment for perjury, far less that Ferrari have been involved in selling weapons to totalitarian states in the Middle East, but rather simply that Ferrari are not necessarily whiter than white themselves.

For starters, there's the question of why it might be that Ferrari would have knowledge worth stealing about the Bridgestone Control tyres anyway. The team have always been close to the Japanese tyre manufacturer, and they fought many title campaigns together. It is claimed that the control tyres are unrelated to those used by Ferrari in previous seasons, but most observers note their similarity to the rubber used by the Scuderia in their successful 2004 title campaign. And that's before one even considers the possibility that Bridgestone might have fed them with inside information.

It's worth asking why Bridgestone supply the control tyre in the first place? After all, almost all the major teams were running Michelins at the time that decision was taken. Surely the greatest fairness to the greatest number would be achieved by using the French manufacturer to supply control tyres? Unless, of course, Ferrari 'persuaded' the FIA to do otherwise.

It seems more than mere coincidence, too, that it should be Mclaren that is feeling the heat from the FIA this season. Leaving aside the (admittedly interesting) question of any animus between Ron Dennis and Max Mosley, there does seem to be something of a pattern here. Last year, Renault were battling with Ferrari for the title, and the controversy centred around their previously unremarked upon 'mass damper' system (and let's not forget the ludicrous penalty given to Alonso for 'blocking' Massa in qualifying at Monza). Going back a little, to 2003, both Mclaren and Williams were fighting with Ferrari for the title. What happened? Both teams got thrown off their stride when Michelin's tyres were declared illegal. Coincidence? Perhaps, but there's an old saying: Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a conspiracy.... Could it be that Mclaren resorted to espionage only because they considered they were already playing on a queered pitch?

So what's going to happen tomorrow? If I knew that, I'd tell you now. The word in the paddock, though, is that any punishment is likely to centre on Mclaren as a constructor, rather than its drivers. This might seem hypocritical (the FIA want to punish the team without interfering with the battle between Alonso and Hamilton) but in a weird kind of way, it makes sense.

There is no implication that this year's Mclaren was in any way illegal. They were not running a bigger engine, or wider tyres, or lower ride height, or anything that necessarily gave Alonso or Hamilton an unfair advantage over their rivals. Indeed, spying on one's rivals in the manner that Ferrari allege isn't even explicitly against the rules (though it is probably contrary to both English and Italian law). Such a law would, after all, be all but impossible to enforce, especially given the reality that designers, engineers and the rest regularly switch between different teams, taking their secrets with them. It may even be the case that inter-team espionage is commonplace - that engineers regularly talk to each other about what they're up to - and that Mclaren's only crime is to be the ones who got caught.

The team are instead being charged with the rather nebulous offence of 'bringing the sport into disrepute'. I've complained in the past that this breaks the legal principle that there shall be 'no crime without law' but the result of such a vague charge (apart from the difficulty of refuting it) is that it is genuinely difficult to know what the punishment might be (Mclaren are, to my mind, sure to be found guilty, as one thing I have noticed over the years is that the FIA does not lose cases in its own court). A decision to throw Mclaren out of the championship, or even a decision short of that which severely interferes with the world championship battle, would, to my mind be utterly disproportionate to the alleged offence

Common sense requires that no decision is taken tomorrow which disrupts what has been the most close fought championship I can remember. Common sense, though, is something which appears to have left the building some time ago...

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

Now here's a confession. I'd usually think of myself as a racing purist, but I really like the British Touring Car Championship. I know, I know. They use reverse grids, success ballast, rules that are arbitrarily tweaked to ensure parity between the manufacturers, and the back half of the grid is full of wealthy amateurs who really should have no place in a serious racing series.

But still, I like it. The racing is usually pretty close and there are a serious number of potential race winners in the field. There are the full works teams of SEAT and Vauxhall who will always tend to win out over the course of a whole season thanks to their considerably greater resources. Behind them, though, are a good number of semi-works and private efforts that can win races.

West Surrey Racing have been in the business seemingly forever. They ran Ayrton Senna in Formula 3 back in the early 1980s, and these days they run a very effective customer BMW touring car team. Lead driver, Colin Turkington has won on a number of occasions with their s2000 3 series, and even young ride-buyer Tom Onslow Cole has emerged on top on one occasion.

Darren Turner

Team Dynamics were the only private team to win BTCC races in the Super Tourer days when manufacturers were spending serious money on the series. These days, they continue to impress as the only private team to have built their own race-winning s2000 car from scratch. Their Honda Civic Type-Rs might look decidedly odd, but they haven't half proved effective. Both Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden have won with them this year, even if they have not been able to repeat the level of dominance they achieved with their loophole-exploiting BTC-spec Honda Integras over the previous two seasons.

The series uses enough standard parts, and has enough restrictions in place on testing and development, that a couple of very small operations have proven quite successful at this level too. Mike Jordan, the late-fortysomething former GT racer, has run consistently towards the front of the field in a two year old ex-Team Dynamics Integra. SEAT Cupra champion Mat Jackson has won with a family-run ex Andy Priaulx BMW (in marked contrast to the complete lack of success enjoyed by Martyn Bell in another ex-Priaulx BMW, thus showing the importance of the driver at this level). Former Clio-cup front runner Adam Jones has also run near the front on occasion in an old SEAT Toledo run by WTCC privateer frontrunners GR-Asia. That's, by my count, about 10 potentially race winning cars. Really not a bad score by any count, and more than most series can boast. I suspect that only the WTCC and NASCAR do better on that score, and the WTCC only because they have a very silly weight penalty system in place and NASCAR because the caution-period rules leave that series a virtual lottery.

Adam Jones

So it was with some enthusiasm that I jumped on an early morning bus to get to my local circuit, the 1.3m Knockhill track, to see the series 'in the flesh' for the first time in several years. For those of you not familiar with the eccentric Fife venue, Knockhill is a very short circuit, and even a BTCC car can lap it in around 53s but it is not without its challenges. The blind downhill switchback of Duffus Dip is one, while the 3rd gear slightly off-camber Clark (I refuse to call it Carlube Corner) can also catch out the unwary. Even the equally appallingly named Real Radio Hairpin presents its own difficulties. With the longest braking zone on the circuit, it presents the best passing opportunity the circuit has to offer, but with its steeply uphill exit, the correct line is far from obvious, and many drivers tried various different approaches over the weekend.

As it turned out, the three BTCC races were not absolute classics, and I usually seemed to end up stood in the wrong place to see the action. Knockhill is not the easiest place in the world to overtake (ranking alongside the Brands Indy circuit in this regard) but the racing was certainly close. Darren Turner took victory in the first two races, though Gordon Shedden looked threatening in race one until coming off the worse in a move at Real Radio which put him out of the race. The third race was a touch more hard fought at the front, with Honda drivers Jordan, Neal and Shedden shuffling the lead between them before the local boy took advantage of his circuit knowledge (he's a race instructor at Knockhill by day) to pull out in front. Down the field, there seemed to be almost nothing to split the SEATs (including privateer Jones), the Vauxhalls, the WSR and Jackson-MSport BMWs and Jordan's Honda. In short, the rule makers appear to have done a very good job of equalising the front wheel drive and rear wheel drive cars, the private BTTC-spec cars and the works s2000 cars.

Fabrizio Giovanardi

As it turned out, one of the most hard fought battles of all was for the honour of not finishing last, with series-newcomer Alan Taylor and perennial backmarkers Martyn Bell and Fiona Leggate having their own private scrap down the field. Only the other Kartland MG driver, Jason Hughes, appeared to left entirely on his own with nobody to play with. In the circumstances, it was a shame that Chris Stockton's rather pretty Lexus (give or take a couple of Daily Sport logos, anyway) had blown an engine on Saturday and taken no part in the day's races.

Fiona Leggate

So what makes this series work from a spectator's point of view? Firstly, I think, the relative simplicity of the cars provides something of a level playing field between the well organised privateers and the works cars. Secondly, costs have been kept down enough to allow a reasonably sized field to be put together (in stark contrast with the dying years of the Super Tourer formula). Thirdly, the fact that the series now runs to the same rules as the WTCC means that there are plenty of second hand S2000 spec cars around for those willing to try their luck (hence the massed ranks of Seat Toledos and Alfa 156s, although these were largely missing at Knockhill).

Mike Jordan

The other thing that the series gets right is that it realises that it exists mainly for the benefit of the fans. There are few other series where it is so easy to wander through the paddock and look in on the teams as they prepare and repair the cars. The three-race format gives the spectator plenty of value for money and the drivers are much more willing to interact with the spectators than in most other series of any note.

Downsides? They still haven't sorted out the support package. One make racing remains as dull and monotone as it ever was, and the BTCC support races are all one make races. At Knockhill, this was made the worse by a very sparse Porsche Carrera field and the absence of the at least reasonably quick Formula Renaults. There was one unexpected upside, though. As a keen observer of young talent coming up through the ranks, I really do think we're going to be hearing a lot more of double FBMW-winner, Marcus Ericsson in the years to come.

Marcus Ericsson

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