Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Ghost of ProCar

At any time, hundred of young racing drivers are plugging away in categories like Formula Renault, Formula BMW and Formula Ford, taking the first steps towards becoming professional racing drivers. In their early years, at least, most will be dreaming of F1 stardom. Most of them will fail. Despite the economic recession, there were 29 drivers on the grid at the last round of the Formula Renault championship at Donington. The odds are that, at most, maybe one of those 29 will ever make it as far as F1. Of the 20 champions that the British series has produced since 1989, just four have gone on to become Grand Prix drivers.

What, then, are the options for those convinced they have what it takes to pursue a life as a paid professional racing driver, but who has found the road to F1 closed off to them? While Formula 1 may be far and away the best paid field of motorsport apart, perhaps, from NASCAR, it is not the only way a racing driver can hope to be paid for plying his trade. There's the Indy Racing League, though it remains predominantly an oval series which perhaps isn't best suited to drivers who learned their craft on the road courses of Europe. There's sports car racing, but with the bulk of the field in both the European and American series made up of private teams backed by wealthy individuals, many of whom are to be found behind the wheel, the scope to find paid drives is limited. Audi, Peugeot and, probably Acura, will most likely be paying their drivers, but the vast majority of entrants in, for example, last weekend's Spa 1000kms, were probably paying for the privilege of being there.

There's always touring cars, although the days when the British Touring Car Championship consisted of major car manufacturers paying F1 veterans substantial money are now long gone. The World Touring Car Championship has a number of works teams and both longtime tintop specialists like Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu and Yvan Muller and ex-F1 men like Nicola Larini, Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro. In the end, though, racing 270BHP Super2000 spec touring cars seems a terrible waste of a professional racing driver's talents. The cars have too much grip, too little power, and the results are often determined by a hideously overcomplicated equivalency formula designed to enable petrol and diesel, front wheel drive and rear wheel drive cars to compete on an equal footing.

A far more appealing option, surely, must be the DTM series, which kicked off at Hockenheim last year. Big 4 litre V8 Audis and Mercedes with nearly 500BHP on tap, which can lap a shade quicker than an F3 car, these are proper racing cars. Ex-F1 men, Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all found a lucrative second career here, and while they have all now left, the younger Schumacher brother, Ralf, is plying his trade in a year-old Mercedes.

Among the front-runners in the series are a number of former single-seater stars whose path to F1 ran up against the buffers. Paul Di Resta, who nearly took the title last year, was the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries Crown in 2006. Jamie Green is another former Euroseries champion who never quite managed to line up a GP2 drive. Alexandre Premat wound up at Audi after winning in GP2 while Gary Paffett is yet another former F3 champion who couldn't get the backing together to carry on in single seaters. Reigning champion Timo Scheider has been a touring car man for a long time, but he too started out as a race winner in F3 and Formula Renault in the late 1990s. Compared to any other national touring car series in the world, both the quality and international flavour of the driver lineup is remarkable (there are almost as many British drivers in the series as Germans!) Tom Kristensen, who won on Sunday, has had a sportscar career which rivals that of Jackie Ickx.

And why? Because, in a way, it's not really a touring car championship at all. The series owes more than a little to the old ProCar concept. ProCar was originally a Grand Prix support-event which ran in 1979 and 1980. A single-make series for a grid full of BMW's M1s which attracted a grid full of current and recently retired F1 drivers. It is the later, stillborn late 1980s which the DTM most closely resembles, however. Bernie Ecclestone's brainchild, it involved 'silhouette' racers, with F1-derived V10 3.5l engines and carbon fibre chassis with saloon car bodywork. A single Alfa Romeo 164 Procar was built and lapped Monza very quickly, but the championship never saw the light of day.

The modern DTM race cars are, according to those who drive them, more like single seaters than conventional touring cars. As with the old ProCar concept, the saloon-car bodyshape masks a carbon fibre chassis and brakes, suspension and transmission which is much more thoroughbred racing car than modified saloon car. The championship is even, to a fair degree, international, with races in the UK, Italy, Spain and France. How much that has to do with the lack of decent racetracks in Germany is a matter for speculation...

The DTM has all the ingredients for a great race series and yet, watching the opening race at Hockenheim last weekend, I was not convinced. Yes, it didn't help that it happened to be a rather processional race. That can happen in any series, at least any where the rules are not deliberately manipulated to keep things artificially close. There was more to it than that, though. I couldn't help thinking I was watching, in essence, a high speed car advert for Mercedes and Audi.

The teams are all ultimately funded by, and operating at the behest of, these two manufacturers. When the race turned out to be something of an Audi benefit, one wondered whether the Audi drivers would really race each other as hard as they might race their Mercedes rivals. Timo Scheider tailed Tom Kristensen all race long (though Matthias Ekstrom had the race in the bag until the last moment) but never really looked like he would get past. Had Kristensen been a Mercedes man, might he have tried a little harder? Drivers with an eye on their long-term employment prospects don't risk taking their team mates off the road, and that's true across the racing world. In a series which consists, essentially, of two teams of 10 drivers, however, that can significantly stifle the racing.

My other problemwith the DTM is its use of mandatory pit stips. I know I'm beginning to sound like a stuck record on this subject, but pit stops are not, in and of themselves, interesting to watch. They break up the flow of races, make it difficult for those watching track-side to work out quite what is going on, and throw an unnecessary random element into proceedings. In A1GP, in particular, too many races have been decided by a botched wheel-change or a car that wouldn't fire up again. DTM seems not to have quite such problems on this score, but on the other hand, insisting on two mandatory pit stops over the course of a race of not much over an hour is absurd.

The problem of the racing being subservient to the interests of the manufacturers entering the cars can't easily be dealt with - he who pays the piper calls the tune after all. The pit stops, on the other hand.... Why not dump them. And howabout two half an hour races instead of a single hour long race?

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Blogger Lights 2 Flag said...

An interesting post.

I have been to DTM at Brands Hatch twice and must say it has been terribly dull on both occasions despite world class drivers such as Hakkinen and co being on show.

This year I'm giving it a miss. I don't recall any overtaking in either race and with compulsory pit stops it is confusing as a spectator at the track to know what exactly is going on.

I suppose I have been spoilt by the continual action when the BTCC comes to Brands Hatch!

Good luck with your blog.

Best regards,

11:01 AM  

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