Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Rise, Fall, Resurrection and Downfall of Donington Park

Some time back, I wrote a piece on my memories of Oulton Park, the nearest race track to my childhood home and a place at which I spent a good many Sunday afternoons as a child, watching assorted clubman racers getting to grips with the deceptively difficult Lodge/Deer Leap section at the end of the lap. Oulton Park will probably always be my favourite of the great British parkland circuits, but it was not the first.

That honour belongs to Donington Park, situated in nearby Derbyshire. That circuit first saw action in 1928, though it remained a motorcycle dirt track until local motorcycle racer Fred Craner organised the creation of a sealed-surface permanent race circuit in 1933. Until then, the only permanent race circuit in the UK was the banked oval at Brooklands and the idea of circuit racing did not yet really exist in Britain. Donington came to be indelibly associated with the awe-inspiring battles between the Auto Union and Mercedes 'silver arrows' of the pre-war era. This chapter of motorsport history will forever be tainted by the unavoidable truth that both teams were part of a Nazi propaganda operation, intended to underline German engineering superiority to a watching world. Leaving that aside for a moment, though, one can only wonder at the impact that the sight of a 600BHP+ 6 litre supercharged Grand Prix car must have had when they first appeared on British soil for the 1937 Grand Prix at Donington.

In his article on the 1937 race, When the Germans Came to Donington, Rodney Walkerley wrote "A few moments later, Manfred von Brauchitsch, red helmeted, brought a great, silver projectile snaking down the hill, and close behind, his teammate Rudolf Caracciola, then at the height of his great career. The two cars took the hairpin, von Brauchitsch almost sideways, and rocketed away out of sight with long plumes of rubber smoke trailing from their huge rear tyres, in a deafening crash of sound. The startled Pressmen gazed at each other, awe-struck. "Strewth," gasped one of them, "so that's what they're like!""

To put this in perspective, it should be remembered that it would be only with the advent of the turbo era in the early 1980s that Grand Prix cars would again equal, and eventually far surpass, the horsepower being generated by these beasts, and by that time, suspension, chassis and tyre technology had progressed a long way in making such power outputs relatively safe and controllable. Think, if you will, of a GP2 car on skinny crossply tyres, drum brakes and no aerodynamic downforce to speak of. If the intent behind the Nazis' race programme was shock and awe, it succeeded...

Of course, days before the 1939 British Grand Prix was due to be held, the Nazis went from fighting a propaganda war to a land war and Donington was requisitioned by the British military for use as a supplies depot during the war. And for the next 30 years, the circuit lay derelict, until being bought in 1971 by Midlands construction millionaire, Tom Wheatcroft, a race enthusiast who had already used his considerable fortune to set up a Formula 2 team and build up a collection of historic racing cars (which later formed the backbone of the Donington Collection, the largest single collection of Grand Prix cars in the world). Over the next six years, the circuit was completely refurbished and, despite a last-minute attempt to scupper the event by local ramblers claiming the circuit cut across a right of way, the first race on the new circuit took place on 27 May 1977.

The new circuit followed the same approximate route as the original 1933 layout, but omitted the long drag down to the old Melbourne hairpin where Wheatcroft had watched the Mercedes and Auto Unions as a teenager, once remarking "You had to be there to know what it was like. The W125 Mercs and the V16 Auto Unions were doing 170mph by halfway down the straight. The noise and the smell and the speed – we hadn't seen anything like it before." The highlight of the new circuit was the fast downhill sweepers of the Craner Curves, which led down to the big braking zone of the Old Hairpin, both fairly closely modeled on the 1933 circuit. Other sections, like the slightly off camber Druids corner, have elements to recommend them, but it is the Hollywood/Craner/Old Hairpin section which makes the circuit.

In 1985, the 'Melbourne Loop', which extended part of the way down the hill at the back of the circuit towards the old Melbourne hairpin was introduced to bring the circuit up to the required length for Grand Prix motorcycle racing, which Donington went on to host between 1987 and 2009 after which it finally moved to Silverstone.

If Oulton Park is associated in my memory with the Gold Cup F3 race and club saloon racing, then it is Group C sportscar racing and the latter day 'silver arrows' of Peter Sauber's Mercedes sportscar team which most immediately spring to mind. They were dominant at the two WSC races I saw there in 1989 and 1990, in much the same manner as the original Silver Arrows had been fifty years previously. The 1989 race which I watched on a bright summers day from the banking above the Craner Curves I still remember for the wealth of beautiful machinery that cascaded down to the Old Hairpin in the sun, Gordon Spice's privateer sportscars, the Lola-Nissans, a brace of Porsche 962s and the short-lived Proteus Aston Martins. A more beautiful collection of racing cars I don't recall ever having seen.

Aside from the spectator banking above the Craner Curves and the Old Hairpin, the circuit's other obvious spectator viewing point is at the back of the Esses, which gave you line of sight to not one but two of the circuit's main overtaking points, under braking for the Esses and for the desperately slow final hairpin at Goddards which leads onto the pit straight. Not places that a racing car looks especially impressive when circulating at speed on its own, but a great place to watch racing from, and consequently a good place to watch touring car races especially.

Over the years, I saw big-banger Group A Sierra RS500s, close fought battles between various cars from the early years of the 2 litre supertourer era, the 1987 Donington 500km World Touring Car race which seemingly nobody wanted to win, as one after another of the major contenders dropped out, finally handing victory to Roberto Ravaglia and Eric Van De Poele's BMW M3 after the A8 Sierras and Nissan Skylines all failed to go the distance. Another touring car race which sticks in my memory was the visit paid by the German Touring Car Championship some time in the early 90s on a very cold October day, where I remember being sat supping ultra-hot 'rocket fuel' curried soup as my fingers went numb while the big V8 Audis of Frank Biela and Hans Stuck dominated proceedings, perhaps appropriate as Audi began life as the other 'silver arrows' team, Auto Union.

My two most vivid memories of Donington Park, though, come from opposite ends of the racing spectrum. The first, on a hot summer's day, came watching club racing at the bottom of the Craner Curves, and in particular, a race for what were, even then, ancient Renault 5TLs, primitive hatchbacks barely worthy of the designation 'racing car', which had the mother of all battles over ten laps of the shorter Donington circuit, and who came four or even five abreast down the hill, swapping paint and positions every lap, showing that great racing emphatically does not require great racing cars.

The other came, I think, five years later, on a cold, damp Easter weekend at Donington's one and only post-war Grand Prix. I was a huge fan, at the time, of the mercurial Brazilian Ayrton Senna, but things did not look good for him that day. The Williams had locked out the front row and Senna was only fourth, behind the Benetton of Michael Schumacher. Except...except it was raining, and when Senna was around, rain was always a game-changer. And so it turned out to be. Despite a slow start which dropped him momentarily to fifth, he was diving down the inside of Karl Wendlinger's Sauber to grab third by the time the field got to where I was standing, by the Old Hairpin. A lap later, he was clear of both Williams, and as the afternoon wore on, he demolished the field, lapping all bar Damon Hill, who trailed a distant 1m 23s behind on what many regard as Senna's day of days, though the man himself never rated it as highly as his win eight years earlier in the wet at Estoril, as that day he did not have the benefits of traction control.

Now, of course, Donington lies derelict, the unintentional casualty of Bernie Ecclestone's high stakes game of poker with the BRDC over the future of the British Grand Prix and Simon Gillett's dreams of a debenture funded F1 race at Donington. It is a terrible shame that, at the time of Tom Wheatcroft's death late last year, his life's work lay in ruins. His son, Kevin Wheatcroft, to whom ownership of the circuit has reverted following the collapse of Donington Ventures Limited, says they are keen to ensure that Donington remains a working race circuit, but the sad truth is that there is probably vastly more money to be made from turning the circuit over to property developers and as such, we may have seen the last of a race track which hosted some great races, both before World War 2, and in its later, modern guise. I hope I'm wrong.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mid-Life Crisis?

You can never step in the same river twice. The old saying struck me with force last weekend when, at the end of a week's cycling around the low countries, I went back to Amsterdam for the first time in ten years. When I was younger, inter-railing my way around Europe, it was, along with Prague, my favourite city. A relaxed party atmosphere, legal dope, decorative burned-out hippies. What was there not to love?

Returning in a fit of nostalgia in my early 30s, though, I found the appeal largely gone. The coffee shops appeared noisy, unpleasant dives and in any case, the idea of getting stoned no longer really enticed me. The crowds of young backpackers swarming about the city merely made me feel, if not exactly old, then no longer really young.

I wonder if Michael Schumacher, returning to Formula 1 after a three year break at the age of 41, is experiencing something similar. Quite what the seven-times world champion was expecting of his comeback I don't know, but I can't believe he's happy at being outpaced by team mate Nico Rosberg at all four of the opening races. Rosberg, after all, has long been regarded as a good, rather than a great, F1 driver and more to the point, in his sixteen years racing in F1 between 1991 and 2006, Schumacher was never regularly outpaced by a team mate. Yes, there were odd occasions when Rubens Barrichello got his Ferrari absolutely hooked up right and was a shade quicker, most memorably and controversially, at Austria in 2002, but these were few and far between. Eddie Irvine outqualified the German in their first race together at Ferrari in 1996 but he would never do so again. Jos Verstappen, Johnny Herbert and JJ Lehto all found their reputation as up and coming stars founder against the rocks when they were paired up with Schumacher at Benetton, and he helped to finish off the careers of Piquet and Patrese at the beginning of his own time in F1.

For Schumacher, explaining to a curious world why he is being beaten by his young team mate is a new experience, and I don't doubt, not an altogether comfortable one. Of course, he has a ready explanation to hand. The car doesn't suit him, the weight distribution is wrong and the Mercedes W01 has an inherent tendency towards understeer that leaves him struggling. But that doesn't sound quite right. Schumacher, at the height of his powers, established a reputation as a man who could drive around problems that left others floundering. He succeeded, after all, in winning races with the hopeless Ferrari F310A, a car which in the hands of Eddie Irvine, appeared to belong in the midfield. And in 1994, he even picked up a podium at Barcelona in a Benetton that was, for much of the race was stuck in 5th gear.

It is perhaps a shade more complicated than that, though. Yes, Schumacher appeared able to coax performances out of less than fully competitive cars of which his team mates could only dream, but for most of his career, both at Benetton and Ferrari, he was the undisputed number-one driver, with considerable influence over the development direction of the car, even, in the days of the Bridgestone/Michelin battle, having influence over the way in which the tyres were developed. By contrast, he has now walked cold into a car whose development he has had no influence over, on control tyres that reputedly don't suit his driving style. Add to that the penalty of three years out of the cockpit and is it any wonder that he has struggled? Think of how difficult testers like Alex Wurz and Luca Badoer found returning to race seats after years on the side-lines as test drivers. They hadn't forgotten how to drive racing cars, but there seemed little doubting that those last few tenths of a second had gone missing.

But still, I wonder if Schumacher's advancing years are catching up with him. Physical fitness does not appear to be a problem in his case. Unlike Nigel Mansell's ill-fated 1995 come-back with Mclaren, Schumacher does not appear to find the demands of driving an F1 car in his forties to be too much for him, still looks relatively fresh at the end of a long race. But mentally, is he quite what he was? Have the years dulled that otherworldly sense of balance, that ability to identify precisely where the limits of adhesion lie? Are his reflexes quite what they were?

I wonder, too, whether he has the motivation required to succeed at the highest level in any professional sport. I don't know what his reasons for coming back are. A desire, perhaps, to become the first 40-something F1 World Champion since Jack Brabham scooped his third title in 1966? A lingering sense of regret that he was pushed into retirement by Luca Di Montezemelo's signing of Kimi Raikkonen, before he was truly ready? An urge to test his mettle against a new generation of F1 stars, Hamilton, Kubica, Vettel et al, widely perceived as being quicker than the men whom Schumacher vanquished in the late 90s and early 00s? Or was he simply bored, at a loose end and unable to think of anything else to do with his life?

It matters because, if he is privately conflicted, or ambivalent about his continued involvement in F1, then I doubt that he'll be able to summon quite the kind of undivided, absolute dedication required to win titles, especially when trying to drive forward a team which isn't quite on the pace. In a Red Bull, it might be enough for a driver simply to turn up and bang in the quick laps, but to get a team focused on closing down the gap to those faster than them requires hard work. I was struck recently by Renault engineer Alain Permane's description of Robert Kubica's ferocious work ethic when talking to Autosport's Mark Hughes

"He will be at the track until well after midnight, even if he's racing the next day. He wants to go through and understand everything. He's always making suggestions, always wanting to know what's happening. He's very demanding, always on your case."

Doubtless, years ago at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher would have been exactly the same. But can a 41 year old family man, with a wife and two children be quite so single-mindedly dedicated to the job in hand, to the exclusion of all else? Especially when he has nothing to prove, when he's already shown 7 times over that he's a World Champion. And is he prepared to take the same risks in the car that he once would have done? Watching the action in the rain of China, it was striking that a man once famed for his incredible wet-weather car control was struggling, and with a car which his team mate led much of the race with, finishing on the podium. He's old enough to be Jaime Alguersuari's father and motor racing is ultimately a young man's game.

Perhaps Michael Schumacher came back because the F1 paddock is his natural home. From the age of 21 until he was 38, that is to say, for almost the whole of his adult life, it was the central focus of his life. But now maybe, he's discovering the truth of the saying that, once you've left, you can never go home. Nick Heidfeld is waiting in the wings...

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Worth A Thousand Words

This week, something a little different. A bit of self-indulgence, a chance to bring together two of my passions, motorsport and photography.

Nigel Mansell - Ferrari 640 - 1989

Derek Warwick - Arrows 1989

My first camera, a tenth birthday present, was a Miranda ME-Z. With a fixed 35mm lens, I was disappointed to find that cars would appear as tiny dots in the distance, but in those days, before Bernie brought in security with the express intention of keeping people like me out, it was at least possible to get up close to the machinery in the pitlane.

Sixteen years later, came the digital age. The Fuji S3000, with its 1/2.5in sensor, fixed 80ISO and 3MP sensor now seems very primitive, but in 2004, it reintroduced me to the joys of motorsport photography. Here are some pics from various club meets at Knockhill.

Holding On!

On it!

Lotus 69

An upgrade to a so-called 'bridge camera', the Fuji s9000...

Jason Hughes

The Isle of Man TT provided some great photo-opportunities...

No 34 -Ice Valley Senior TT - Ginger Hall

Sidecar 19 - Ballacrainie

Sean Maher - Ballacrainie

Another upgrade - this time to a Canon EOS400D SLR, with an 18-200mm lens that produced notably crisper images than either of the old Fujis.

Simonsen/Lester Ferrari

Catching the moment...

Lotus in the gravel

I like the way it is possible to simulate the effects of black and white film with digital editing. Unlike my father or my art-college graduate brother, I've never had the patience for life in the dark room.

Bamford/Griffin Ferrari

Sam Hancock

I'd heard horror stories about the difficulties of photographing modern F1 from the general admission area. But at Spa it turns out to be reasonably easy to get close to the action and away from the catch-fencing...

Giancarlo Fisichella


Nick Heidfeld

I even risked taking the camera out in the rain...

Ho Pin Tung

TNCWC42 - panning

Capturing a sense of speed is a hit and miss affair...

BJ Toal

Daniel Lloyd

Joe Dickinson

And sometimes, racing cars turn up in the most unlikely places, like this Clan Crusader, which I stumbled upon while taking photographs in Newington Cemetery in the South of Edinburgh.

Final Resting Place

I'll be away out of the country for the next couple of weeks, for beer and bicycling in Bruges, Belgium. Back in May.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Going Through Church On Sunday

That, in case you are wondering, is Church, the fast right-hander before the chicane at Thruxton. The old Hampshire aerodrome is one of the relatively few British race circuits which I have never visited in the quarter century or so since I first went through the gate at Brands Hatch to watch qualifying for the 1985 European Grand Prix. I had never thought of the place as particularly interesting before, but as I sat watching the opening races of the British Touring Car Championship I began to revise my opinion.

Yes, it's not the most interesting looking circuit layout. From the right hander of Segrave which leads drivers out of the complex, it's essentially a long blast for a mile and a bit down to the chicane at Club. Yet, watching the touring car boys drifting through Noble and Church at between 120mph and 150mph, sometimes in a full-on four-wheel drift of a kind that one very rarely sees in front wheel drive cars, I began to see the appeal of the place. Leaving Rockingham aside for a minute, it is arguably the closest thing that Britain has to a high speed oval circuit, and with Silverstone long since emasculated, is almost certainly the fastest race track in the country (Silverstone has a faster lap record, but one should bear in mind that this record was set by Michael Schumacher in the all-conquering Ferrari F2004, while the Thruxton lap record is held by the rather less feted Earl Goddard, during a EuroBOSS race ten years back. It's fair to say that a modern F1 car in the hands of a professional driver would be frighteningly fast round the Hampshire circuit.

Yes, it's not quite an oval, but the way the cars followed and drafted each other through the series of fast, flowing corners reminded me of the best aspects of oval racing. And the chicane and the slow 90 degree corners near the beginning of the lap add overtaking opportunities which might otherwise be lacking and to my mind add to, rather than detract from, the circuit's appeal. The recent move by the circuit owners to build a spectator banking on the back stretch of the circuit is a big improvement too, providing spectators with an opportunity to watch drivers fight it out on the most demanding part of the circuit.

What, though, of the state of the series which kicked off last weekend? How has the recession hit Britain's most popular national racing series? The most immediate impact has been that a lot of corporate orange has been repainted sponsor-less white. Championship winning West Surrey Racing's BMWs have lost their RAC backing, while Halfords have deserted Team Dynamics, though the latter would appear to have some backing from the Honda works to continue to race their in-house developed Civic Type-Rs. The most telling sign that all is not entirely well in BTCC-world is that reigning champion Colin Turkington has not returned to defend his title because he couldn't find a drive. With teams not interested in drivers who couldn't either bring sponsors, or pay out of their own deep pockets, the Northern Irishman has been left high and dry. The works SEATS and Vauxhalls have gone, although both manufacturers maintain a presence on the grid through private entries, and just as West Surrey Racing continued to race its MG ZRs after the collapse of the Rover Group, Triple 8 racing are pushing on with their Vectras despite the loss of support from the troubled manufacturer.

Despite these losses though, there was some good racing, and while the back half of the grid appears to be made up of club racers with deep pockets looking for a bit of entertainment on a Sunday afternoon, there's enough competitive cars and drivers at the front to keep things interesting. Indeed, the variation in driver ability helps to show how important a factor it, as well as the machinery, actually is. Compare, for example, Paul O'Neill's third and fourth places in his ancient ex-Team Dynamics Honda Integra with what team owner and mobile phone entrepreneur John George was able to achieve with the same equipment. Equally, Mat Jackson and Fabrizio Giovanardi were a lot quicker than their inexperienced team mates. It's unclear whether Giovanardi, who has only a one-race deal with Triple 8, will see out the season, but at first glance, his dominant victories in races one and two suggest that he could well add another BTCC title to his CV if the money is found to enable to continue his campaign.

That, though, is to forget that the Vauxhalls have always been very quick around Thruxton, and Giovanardi's hit rate at the circuit is particularly high. Jason Plato's Chevrolet Cruze, a more modern machine, being run by the same RML team which runs the works cars in the World Touring Car Championship. And it is not only former champion Plato who might be able to take the fight to Giovanardi. Motorbase's Mat Jackson came close to winning the title a couple of years ago in his family-run ex-Priaulx BMW and Team Dynamics appear finally to have got their new-shape Honda Civic well and truly sorted, and Gordon Shedden took pole, while Matt Neal led until both Hondas shredded their tyres in the first race. The way that Neal progressed through the field in the second race suggests that he too could emerge as a significant title contender and I'd be surprised if Honda didn't regularly challenge for race victories later in the year.

In recent years, touring car racing has been tarnished by endless battles over the rules intended to equalise peformance between cars built to different rules. In particular, the WTCC has seen constant disputes over exactly what is required to ensure a fair fight between front wheel drive, petrol powered Chevrolets, rear-wheel drive petrol powered BMWs and diesel powered, turbo-charged SEATs. There are no diesel powered cars in the BTCC this year, but despite this, Alan Gow's TOCA organisation has arguable an even more difficult challenge on their hands. Not only is there the argument over how best to equalise front wheel drive and the theoretically faster rear-wheel drive cars, but there is the conflict between WTCC-spec S2000 cars, unhomologated BTC-spec S2000 cars (such as the Vauxhalls and Honda Civics), ageing BTC-spec cars (there are now only the two Techspeed Integras now, five years on from the move away from BTC-spec cars), the LPG-p0wered Arena Motorsport Ford Focuses and the two privately entered Vauxhall Vectras now running the standard-issue TOCA engine, a detuned turbo-charged 2 litre engine intended to provide more cheaply the same horsepower and all-round performance as the more expensive S2000-spec normally aspirated 2 litre engines.

It was impressive, therefore, that the only complaints to make the press last weekend concerned the long-ratio first gears that the BMW teams were forced to run in order to nullify the startline advantage the rear wheel drive cars had over their front wheel driven rivals. West Surrey Racing and Motorbase were rather upset by the fact that the first gear they were forced to run appeared not only to slow them away from the line, but to place a tremendous strain on their clutches. Certainly it sometimes seemed that the BMWs were actually considerably slower away from the line than their front-driven rivals. Given time, and perhaps orders for stronger clutches from Motorbase and WSR, I'm sure this can be sorted out. All in all, despite the sponsor-less cars, and in spite of the absence of the reigning champion, the BTCC still looks to be in reasonably good health, certainly when one compares it with the state of the series 10 years back, when the 'Supertourer' era came to an ignominous end with grids of just 8 or 9 cars. If nothing else, it certainly beats going to church on Sunday in my book.

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