Monday, July 07, 2008

A Race At The Park?

I'm noticing something of a pattern developing where the really unexpected F1 stories have a habit of breaking while I'm on holiday and catching me unawares. A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in a bar in Bordeaux, leafing through a copy of Le Monde and wondering whether Juan Montoya was could possibly be walking out on Mclaren to go stock car racing or whether my rusty A-level French was a lot worse than I thought.

Last Saturday morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Ceilidh Place up in Ullapool (A place I do recommend should you ever find yourself in that part of the world) and leafing through the famously parochial Press and Journal (a rather peculiar semi-national newspaper which, it is said, though probably apocryphally, reported the sinking of the Titanic with the headline "Aberdeen Man Lost At Sea") when I stumbled upon a story that the British Grand Prix is to move to Donington Park from 2010. My first reaction was to wonder whether the paper had just got it wrong.

Now I rather like Donington, and the last time I went to a Grand Prix in the UK, it was to the sole previous post-war F1 race at Donington, where I stood in the rain at the bottom of the Craner Curves and watched my childhood hero Ayrton Senna drive arguably the finest race of his life. Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that Donington is not the place for modern F1 cars.

Put simply the track is too tight, too twisty and lacks the long straights needed to enable overtaking in today's Grand Prix cars, at least in the dry. The only really slow corners on the track, the Melbourne Hairpin, the Esses and Goddards, all lack the kind of long straights which enable a driver to pull off a pass. A 21st Century F1 car might look absolutely incredible through the sweeping Craner Curves, but the vagaries of aerodynamics are such that a following car would never get close. There is little chance that Raikkonen, Alonso or Hamilton could emulate Senna's fantastic first lap pass of Karl Wendlinger there, not because they lack Senna's ability, but because their equipment simply wouldn't allow for it.

There is talk that the circuit will be extended, by a half a mile or so, but Simon Gillett's talk on during the ITV coverage last weekend of building in a "second Craner curves" leaves me fearing that what Donington's bosses have in mind is the addition of a further technical, twisty section which will do nothing to alleviate the problems with passing. A substantial programme of track widening may help a little, but is unlikely to deal with the fundamental problem.

Of course, it is entirely possible that such concerns are academic, and that the announcement that the British Grand Prix will head to the Derbyshire circuit is nothing more than another move in the long running war of attrition being fought between Bernie Ecclestone and the BRDC over the upgrading of Silverstone. After all, it wasn't so long ago that stories were circulating that the British Grand Prix would be off to Brands Hatch (another wonderful race track sadly utterly unsuited to modern F1 as anyone who has watched the processional A1GP races there will know.) Furthermore, the financing of the whole Donington venture sounds woefully opaque and the question of quite what they have up their sleeves that Silverstone cannot match remains unanswered. And that's before we even get onto the question of planning permission.

Having said all that, while I'm not convinced by Donington as an F1 venue, it remains a great race track, with a variety of corners and gradient change and enough passing places for categories such as the British Touring Car Championship and less powerful single seaters - there have been a number of really rather entertaining F3 races here. One of the most memorable races I ever saw there was - of all things - a one make race for old-model Renault 5s that cascaded through the Craner Curves three, sometimes four abreast (it probably helped that the cars weren't worth much - club drivers who fear the cost of a write-off tend not to be so carefree...)

The circuit also played host to the first ever visit of the German Touring Car Championship to the UK back in the early 1990s. It may not have been a classic race (I was keeping my fingers crossed for a Steve Soper victory but the Audi 100s of a young Frank Biela and an aging Hans Stuck were simply too quick for the BMW runners. Nonetheless, it was a sight well worth seeing - not least because by that time the big banger Sierra Cosworth's were gone from the British championship and the race represented the only opportunity to see really big, powerful touring cars in the UK (oh, and Gerd Ruch's weird Ford Mustangs, which were certainly big, though they didn't seem very powerful, or at least not very quick).

Donington was also the scene of some very memorable Group C races in the late 1980s and earl;y 1990s. Given the size and power of late 80s sportscars, you might wonder how they can race around Donington when lighter, more nimble F1 cars would, in my view at least, seriously struggle. The answer lies partly in the fact that the aerodynamics of sportscars, especially of that era, was much more primitive and did not make close running through fast corners nearly so difficult and partly in the very different nature of the racing. Where single seater racing is to a significant extent about wheel to wheel racing and passing on the track, sportscar racing, especially in the Group C era, was much more down to slick pit work and fuel economy. A lack of overtaking opportunities on the track never quite mattered so much.

It is perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years Donington has been best known for hosting events like the old FIA Sports Car Championship, the ill-fated European Le Mans Series and, perhaps most successfully, the FIA GT Series. Ironically, it has now lost the blue riband sportscar and GT races to Silverstone - the very circuit which has supposedly lost the GP to Donington. Its the wrong way round, all told. F1 cars need the fast wide open spaces of Silverstone to be seen to their best effect, while I for one would much rather watch sports and prototype cars through the sweeping Craner curves than the equally exhilarating but less spectator-friendly Maggots/Becketts complex.

My worst fear, though, is that something similar to the A1-Ring fiasco might befall the Donington circuit. The A1-Ring was a moderately interesting, if unexceptional circuit in Austria, located near the site of the old Zeltweg track. Its owner, Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz had grand plans for the venue and commenced a complete rebuild of the venue a few years back. Then, with work already underway and the circuit dug up, planning permission fell through and the track was left unfinished. To my knowledge, it has not been used for any form of racing since.

Donington is one of Britain's great national circuits - along with Brands Hatch and my own personal favourite, Oulton Park. It is not, though, a circuit suited to modern F1 and plans to upgrade it do not seem to be built on firm foundations. Sadly, I can't help but feel that plans to move to the British GP to Donington are little more than a stalking horse for plans to move the race out of Britain altogether, and that there is a real danger that not only could Britain lose its Grand Prix, but that if the Donington management team are not careful, we could lose one of the country's great race circuits too. I only hope I'm wrong.

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Anonymous Boy Goerge said...

This is a great post, very informative lots of insight into the situation.

9:58 AM  

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