Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Racing Through The Recession

The last few months have seen an awful lot of ink spent in the motorsport press contemplating the effects of the global economic downturn on Formula 1. Barely a week has gone by without news, or at least speculation, concerning some new cost-cutting measure or another, or rumours that a major team is in financial trouble, or a car manufacturer considering pulling the plug.

In truth though, the rest of the motor racing world is probably at least as badly affected. In the final analysis, motorsport is discretionary spend, nobody needs to race cars, and discretionary spend tends to fall away in hard times. The other week, I was down south paying a visit to my family and hearing tales of woe from my mother regarding the lack of sales at the trials bike importer where she works. What is true in the world of trials bike competition is almost certainly true of the club racing scene as a whole. People uncertain about whether they will be in work come summer are going to be cutting back on expensive hobbies like motorsport. I'll not know for sure until I have time to drop by Knockhill and catch the SMRC races at some point over the next couple of months, but I expect grids will be down on last year.

Of more interest to the casual racing fan here in the UK is how the country's premier racing series are coping with the downturn. The British Touring Car Championship, certainly the most popular and arguably the most prestigious of Britain's national racing series kicked off the other weekend at Brands Hatch the other weekend, and here the picture seems mixed. On the plus side, a championship which, a few years ago, was struggling to pull grids of more than 8 or 10 BTCC-spec cars had a field of 20 cars for its opener, and while it is difficult to judge these things definitively from the TV coverage, it looked as though Brands managed to pull in a decent crowd too.

Look a little closer, though, and it becomes clear that the BTCC has taken some big hits over the winter. The Triple-8 Vauxhall team is now the only full works team on the grid, with SEAT having packed their bags and handed over their Leons (but not the all-conquering diesel engines) to independent Clyde Valley Racing. Series runner up Mat Jackson is missing from the grid at present, and his website has gone awfully quiet since New Year. It would appear that with the withdrawal of sponsors Accident Exchange, there simply isn't the money to put his BMW on the grid. A shame, as he would surely be a potential title contender if he were. Team Dynamics have lost principal sponsors Halfords, and are effectively a one-car team, with Scot Gordon Shedden surely the team's only serious prospect now that the second car is taken by BTCC stalwart and longtime privateer David Pinkney, who must reckon buying a ride in a race winning team is better value than funding his own entry.

On the plus side, there are a few new entries. The aforementioned Clyde Valley Racing weren't exactly at the sharp end with their SEATS but they were at least within a second of being on the pace, though Brands is a very short circuit, so they'll have to find some time if they are to threaten the front-runners at all this season. In Adam Jones and Dan Eaves, they do at least have a pair of proven drivers. Also new, though it remains unclear whether it will prove to be anything more than a one-off entry, was the RML Chevrolet Lacetti. Ray Mallock's team haven't been around in the BTCC since Proton canned their BTCC effort, but with Jason Plato at the wheel, the team picked up a lucky win in race 3, and their driver lies 4th in the points table. That said, when a professional team like RML and a past champion with a media profile like Jason Plato can't be sure of raising the budget for a full season, it doesn't bode well for the championship's health.

Less promising is Arena Motorsport's efforts with self-built Ford Focus STs. In Tom Chilton and Alan Morrison, they have two drivers who can get the job done, but the cars would seem to be so hopelessly off the pace that it hardly makes any difference who is behind the wheel. The team will say that the opening race was effectively a test session, but sadly, I've never seen a car that slow out of the box go on to achieve much. Think, for example, of the hopelessly slow WTCC Focuses or Peugeot 407s of a few years back, or VLR's uncompetitive 307s. Of the privately built S2000 cars, only the Dynamics Hondas have ever been really competitive, and there have been persistent rumours that the team were quietly helped out by Honda themselves. Of the rest, I'm afraid that Liam McMillan's ancient SEAT and Martin Johnson's still older Astra Coupe are there solely to make up the numbers, while Nick Leason's BMW 120D goes only to show that a diesel engine is no guarantee of success in touring car racing.

If the works Vauxhalls aren't to have it all their own way, I think we're going to have to rely on the privately run BMWs to take the fight to them. They started well at Brands Hatch. Jonathan Adam, the Kirkcaldy based racer who impressed me when I saw him in action last year in the SEAT Cup, picked up a second place in his first race in the BTCC and can surely only improve as the season goes on in the Motorbase BMW. Rob Collard I've never thought of as more than a competent amateur, but he too won a race the other week, while Colin Turkington was consistently near the front. It might be a false dawn - the BMWs have always tended to run well around the Indy Circuit, and it is hard to avoid the fact that it was the SEATs that proved the most consistent threat to the Vauxhalls last year - or, come to that, that it was Mat Jackson's machine that was quickest of the BMWs. I hope I'm wrong - the BTCC has provided good, simple entertainment for the last few years and doubtless helped raise the sport's profile in the country more generally. It would be a shame if it lost its way.

Last weekend, it was the turn of the British F3 championship to get underway, with the traditional Easter Monday date at Oulton Park. The F3 series has to contend not only with the effects of the recession, but with the seemingly ever-multiplying options confronting junior drivers wishing to make their way to F1 these days. A number of those who might have been expected to make the jump to F3 this year have gone elsewhere. Formula Renault champion Adam Christodoulou is off to Star Mazda in the US, Alexander Sims has gone to the Euroseries, while Henry Surtees has joined a number of drivers opting for the new, and considerably cheaper FIA Formula 2 Championship (which would appear to be a more serious rival to F3 than to GP2.)

The result, last Monday, was that there was no obvious challenger to Red Bull's latest protege Daniel Ricciardo. Yes, Max Chilton and Walter Grubmuller grabbed a pole position each, but neither was able to convert that into a win. Both have been around in F3 for a while now without having previously much troubled the front-runners (Grubmuller was team mate to Marko Asmer back in 2007 and never won a race, while his Estonian team mate won the title) and one can't help but wonder whether their appearance near the front is a sign that the strength in depth of previous years simply isn't there in 2009.

It doesn't help that F3 has become terrifically expensive, in comparison with, for example, Formula 2 or Formula Master. In Autosport last week, in an interview with Ben Anderson, a number of the team bosses defended this both by pointing out that drivers get much greater mileage than in other series and that they learn to work with an engineer and develop a car - something which the Formula 2 approach of running the cars centrally makes impossible. It's a double edged sword, though. On the one hand, F3 might better teach a driver about the engineering aspects of the sport, but on the other hand, the very strictly standardised cars of Formula 2 ensure that the guys at the front are the quickest in the field, and not simply those who have the best equipment and the smartest engineer. Where the balance lies between the two must surely be influenced, to some extent, by whether drivers have the budget to do F3 properly.

Perhaps I've got it all wrong. Perhaps, in spite of their rather underwhelming starts, Formula Renault front runners from last year such as Adriano Buzaid and Riki Christodoulou, or the much hyped Formula Ford Champion Wayne Boyd, will come into their own. Or maybe I've simply underestimated the likes of Chilton and Grubmuller. All the same, I can't help but think that the F3 championship looks weaker than for some years, and I do wonder whether it is the global economic outlook, or the emergence of Formula 2 (leaving aside, for a moment, the American open wheel series, with their largely European driver line-ups), which has done the greater damage.

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6:34 AM  

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