Thursday, February 23, 2006

GP2 - A most enticing prospect.....

The organisers of the GP2 series have published the official entry list for the 2006 season, and for single seater purists, its really quite a mouth watering proposition. Some of the big names from last year have moved onwards and upwards, for sure, but that is no more than a sign of a feeder series doing its job properly.

2005 series winner Nico Rosberg is off to drive for Williams in F1, while Scott Speed, another front runner last year, will be driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso. Heikki Kovalainen and Neel Jani will be taking up testing duties in F1 and will not be coming back to attempt to claim the title, but several 2005 racewinners are coming back for more.

Alexandre Premat was, near as makes no difference, as fast as Nico Rosberg last year. He didn't win the title, at least in part because he made too many mistakes, but if he can marry some much needed consistency to his undoubted pace, he is probably favourite to walk away with the title this year.

Its highly unlikely he'll have it all his own way though. His partner in the crushingly dominant DAMS Team France A1GP team, Nicolas Lapierre, must be considered the de-facto number one at Arden, who ran Kovalainen last year and can justifably be considered kings of spec-formula single seater racing just now. Despite a disappointing time in 2005, he must be considered a serious contender this year.

Adam Carroll, it seemed, pulled off more overtaking manouvres than most of the rest of the grid combined last year, and certainly made a name for himself as a real racer. Back on the grid, this time with the ambitious Spanish team, Racing Engineering, he's got to be another favourite for the title.

Nelson Piquet Jr was a little disappointing last year. I had expected him to win the battle of the sons of famous fathers, but instead, while Rosberg walked off with the title, Piquet won just one race and could finish only eighth in the championship. On his day though, he was incredibly quick - witness his pole at the British race - and he knows that this year he has got to get the job done, if he wants to emulate his father's successes. He too should be worth watching.

If those four drivers are, in my view at least, the most promising of the series returnees, that's not to suggest that the others are all mere makeweights: Pla, Piccione and Bruni were all race winners, while Viso, Yoshimoto and, especially, Lopez, all also showed flashes of form on occasion.

There is a real possibility though, that the sophomore drivers will end up being beaten by one of a number of very promising newcomers. Of all of them, F3 Euroseries winner and McLaren protege, Lewis Hamilton looks to be the one to beat. On the one occasion I saw Hamilton race, some years ago at a BTCC support race at Croft in North Yorkshire, I have to admit he did nothing to catch my attention, but Ron Dennis is no fool, and his subsequent record suggests he is the real deal. Others making their way over from the Euroseries, and worth keeping an eye on, include Franck Perera and Macau Grand Prix winner Lucas Di Grassi.

Fernando Alonso's success in F1 appears to have opened the floodgates for up and coming young Spanish drivers. Of these, the one with the most substantial credentials is Renault World Series runner-up Adrian Valles, who unlike the F3 graduates, will have the advantage of substantial experience in high powered single seaters. Unfortunately, like fellow Spaniard and World Series graduate, Felix Porteiro, he will be driving for Adrian Campos' outfit, which was not exactly a front-running team last year. By contrast, teenage Spanish F3 graduate Jose Villa doesn't have quite the same kind of track record, but will be with Repsol backed 2005 frontrunners Racing Engineering, which just might give him the edge over his more experienced countrymen. The Spanish contingent is completed by 2005 returnee Sergio Hernandez, who showed occasional flashes of form last year, if not anything to suggest he'll ever have F1 bosses beating a path to his door.

Timo Glock, who unlike any of his GP2 rivals has not only already driven in F1, but has already scored points there (for Jordan back in 2004) has returned from across the Atlantic, where he had been doing a solid job in Champ Cars and is perhaps another dark horse for the world championship. Luca Filippi, the European F3000 champion who showed well in testing last December, is also worth keeping an eye on.

So who's missing? Given his dominance of British F3 last year and his frequent competitive showings in A1GP over the winter, its a shame that Portuguese rising star Alvaro Parente hasn't got a drive, not least because one suspects its more down to a lack of funding than any doubts about his ability. Likewise, the absence of F3 Euroseries frontrunners Loic Duval (off to take his chances in the insular world of Formula Nippon) and Adrian Sutil (one of Midland F1's test drivers, though how much testing he'll actually get remains to be seen) is disappointing. In an ideal world, it would be good to see Gary Paffett and Robert Kubica up against the likes of Hamilton, Premat, Glock and Piquet too, although they at least have worthwhile F1 testing roles instead. On the plus side, though there are only a couple of drivers who really don't belong at this level at all, and when one compares that to bottom half of F2 and F3000 entry lists over the years, that's really not a bad strike rate.

Of course, the most exciting driver line up in the world would be worth nothing if the formula was wrong, but GP2 showed that it had that very right indeed last year. Unlike F3000, they are only a few seconds slower than the cars making up the back of the F1 grid and with their greater reliance than F1 cars on 'ground effect' to generate downforce, they are somewhat more able to run together in close company (though winged single seaters will always struggle to a degree to do this). With 600 BHP and no traction control, these cars are really not a million miles away from the F1 cars of the early 1990s in performance terms, and from this year, they'll be on slick tyres too.

Never mind Bahrain, can't wait until Valencia.....

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rossi: The Real Deal?

On two wheels, the answer to that question is, without reservation, yes. I'm only the most casual motorbike racing fan, and don't profess to know a great deal about it. Having watched quite a few Moto GP races on Eurosport over the past couple of years, though, I'm well aware that he is a rider of quite exceptional ability.

If you believe last week's edition of Autosport, then he might well be the real deal on four wheels as well. "Rossi has pace to rival Schuey" their headline screamed (somewhere along the line, over the last 20 years, Autosport has gone from 'broadsheet' to 'tabloid' but that's for another time). "Analysis proves bike legend is within 0.6sec of Ferrari star" they gasped excitedly underneath.

Rossi would not be the first to make the leap from bikes to cars. John Surtees is the most famous example, and the only man to have won the World Title on two wheels and four - taking the 500cc world title in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960, before switching to Formula 1, and winning the world title for Ferrari in 1964. However, as Mark Hughes pointed out in his ever excellent 'Inside Line' column, this was achieved in the pre down-force era, when arguably the skills of motorcycle and car racing were more transferable - being both about mechanical grip.

There have been plenty others switch between bikes and cars down the years, though none were as successful in both categories as Surtees. Alberto Ascari and Luigi Fagioli and Tazio Nuvolari are among those who began by racing bikes, while Damon Hill started his motorsport career in dirt bike racing. World 350cc champion Johnny Cecotto tried his hand at F1 in the early eighties, but scored only one point, and found himself rather overshadowed in his second year in the sport by his talented young Brazilian team mate, Ayrton Senna.

Rossi, it is said, intends to emulate Surtees and make the jump straight from 2 wheels to formula one. And if he really is just 0.6s slower than Schumacher then perhaps this is achievable, but is he really good enough?

Lets look first at the claim that he is just half a second or so slower than Michael Schumacher. This claim comes from a test Rossi did in early February at Valencia, where he lapped in a 1.12.3 in a 'restricted' V10 Ferrari F2004. Schumacher's best time in the same car, at the same track, was a 1.10.2 However, that was achieved with an unrestricted V10 which Ferrari engineers reckon is worth around 1.5s over the engine Rossi was testing Et Voila - Rossi, veteran of, well, no car races, is within 6 tenths of the man who has won more Grands Prix than anyone else in history. Perhaps.....

Or perhaps not. The F2004 was, by pretty much whatever measure you choose, the class of the field in 2004. And yet, in February 2004, Webber got round Valencia in a 1.09.0. In a Jaguar. The 2004 Jaguar wasn't a terrible car by any means, and in Webber's hands it was quite competitive on occasion, but it was hardly in the same league as the Ferrari. During winter testing in 2004, ten different drivers got under the 1.10 barrier. Is it not reasonable to assume that on the day Schumacher set his 1.10.2, he might not have really been going for a time? And if he had, that perhaps he might have gone a second, maybe even two second quicker? In which case, the story becomes "Rossi about 2 seconds a lap slower than Schumacher" which seems less of an endorsement somehow.

There are plenty other variables we would have to consider before drawing any meaningful conclusions. For instance, was Schumacher on 'whole race' Bridgestones or '25 laps and in the bin' tyres. And what was Rossi on? What were the weather conditions on the days in question? Was the F2004 that Schumacher tested of exactly the same specification, engine aside, as the car Rossi was driving?

There's more. I know better than to believe everything I read on the internet, but I did see that someone who claimed to have been in the grandstands at Valencia that day had measured the decibel levels produced by the various cars and come to the conclusion that Rossi's engine wasn't restricted at all. And when you think about it - why bother to restrict Rossi's V10? Might they have decided to pretend the engine was restricted to make the time more newsworthy?

All of which tells us what every long time motorsports fan already knows. Testing only ever tells you so much, and testing times should always be read with a pinch of salt.

Don't get me wrong. We can tell something about Rossi from his lap times at Valencia: namely that he probably wouldn't be humiliatingly slow in a Grand Prix car, though not necessarily fast enough to deserve a place on the F1 grid. I remember reading an article by a journalist and club racer who managed to get a test in a Jaguar F1 car a few years back - just how many strings he must have pulled for that I don't know. He was around 10 seconds a lap slower than the team's regular test driver. He reckoned that, given a whole week behind the wheel of the car he might have narrowed the gap to 5 seconds, but he had no idea where the other 5 would ever come from. Rossi, on the other hand, is probably no more than 2 seconds off the pace, despite his four wheel racing experience being limited (as far as I recall) to a rather disastrous attempt at the RAC rally a few years back. Given enough time, he might well get to the point where he'd genuinely deserve a place in F1.

But does Rossi really intend to make the switch? F1 testing is expensive, and teams aren't usually inclined to let people do a lot of laps just for fun. Rossi, though, is a star, more so in some ways than even Michael Schumacher. Ferrari and its sponsors have been getting an awful lot of exposure out of the deal, if that is what it is. Rossi, meanwhile, gets to play around with some very good F1 machinery, just in case the endless MotoGP wins are getting boring - that might well be enough as far as he is concerned.

If he really intends to make the switch from 2 wheels to 4, he would probably be very well advised to do a season of GP2 before making the jump to Formula One. Johnny Cecotto did much the same back in the early 1980s, and the lower downforce levels and shorter races (not to mention the slightly lower overall talent level of the drivers) would give him a chance to learn about racing, as opposed to merely driving, a fast single seater. And of course, I do believe there's a Mr Todt over at a rather successful little squad called ART whom Ferrari might perhaps have a little leverage over when it comes to securing Rossi a drive.

Ferrari have shown that they can be eccentric when it comes to driver selection (Felipe Massa? Why?) but I still doubt they would be prepared to employ a driver who had never driven a car race before, no matter how close to Schumacher he might be able to get in testing. Could be that I'll be eating my words in 12 months time though.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Stirling Moss" by Robert Edwards - Book Review

Stirling Moss - by Robert Edwards

The highlights of the Moss legend are well enough known: The Mille Miglia victory in 1955. His win in a private Lotus against the then-dominant sharknose Ferraris at Monaco in 1961. His speaking out against the disqualification of his rival Mike Hawthorn, at Rheims in 1958, thus ending his own world championship campaign. The fact that he is widely regarded to be the best driver never to win the world driver's championship. Two of the finest journalists in motorsport, Nigel Roebuck and Mike Lawrence, would go further and identify him as the best of the lot, a contentious claim which Moss himself, who has always regarded Juan Manuel Fangio as the yardstick by whom all shall be measured, would never have agreed with.

However, as someone born some sixteen years after the Easter Monday crash which ended Moss's career, there was much that I did not know about his life and his racing career. This book does an excellent job of filling in some of the gaps. I may have been well aware that John Cooper built the first post-war rear wheel drive car to win a race, but I had no idea that Moss had been the man at the wheel. Nor of the extraordinary nature of that victory, against much stronger oppositon. Equally, while I knew that Moss had raced sports cars, I didn't know he had won the world sports car championship. Edwards' description of Moss's win at the Nurburgring in an Aston Martin in 1958, after his journeyman team mate had lost time hauling the car out of a ditch, illustrates a victory every bit as remarkable as any he achieved in an Grand Prix car.

He also succeeds in giving a flavour of the man himself which, refreshingly reads neither as hagiography nor as an affirmation of what the author describes as "the cliche that genius is necessarily flawed. It is interesting, also, to discover the root of Moss's animus with Enzo Ferrari - a simple matter of an early verbal agreement not honoured. He didn't think much more of Colin Chapman either, to judge by his remark that "I believe in God insofar as I don't believe its fair that I should be killed because a wheel falls off a car built by some ****** like Colin Chapman."

What the book is not, and does not pretend to be, is a blow-by-blow and race by race account of Moss's career. On the whole, Edwards' approach of instead describing selected races in considerable detail works well, and makes for a very readable account, even if on occasion, you find yourself thinking "wait a minute, when did he start driving for HWM?". There is, usefully, a full list of his race results as an appendix to the book (though it omits his early 80s British Touring Car comeback, something Moss himself is said to now regret).

If I have any complaints, they are firstly, that the book is too short, and would benefit from a little more detail and secondly that, like so many fans of historic motorsport, Edwards falls into the trap of needlessly denigrating the modern sport. In one place, he implies that nowadays, money is the only factor which dictates how a driver progresses and that this had somehow once not been the case. And yet in his own book, Edwards makes quite clear that Alfred Moss's purchase of a Maserati 250F for his son played a vital role in getting him noticed in F1. Say what you will about the likes of Monteiro and Albers, but neither have gone so far as to purchase their own car! The truth of the matter is that in one respect, Grand Prix racing hasn't changed all that much - poor kids from the slums in Sao Paulo or Calcutta don't and never have become F1 drivers. Money has always been necessary and it has never been enough.

I can't say whether this book will be of interest, or provide any new information to afficionados of 1950s motorsport, or diehard fans of Stirling Moss. Personally, though, I found this a highly enjoyable, informative read and enough to encourage me to go hunt down his other motorsport biograghy, his tale of the severely disabled, and very successful racing driver, Archie and the Listers.