Saturday, September 30, 2006

GP2 in review - Hamilton at a canter......

If nobody quite knew what to expect in the first season of GP2 last year, then this time our hopes were high. Close fought racing between almost F1-quick single seaters with no electronic trickery or driving aids and most of the best aspiring young would-be F1 drivers at the wheel. With slick tyres this year, they edged still closer to the back of the F1 grid in performance terms - on occasion they might have been in a position to give at least the earliest version of the Aguri F1 car a fright in lap speed terms. In other words - more often than not the most interesting part of the Grand Prix weekend. I think its fair to say that GP2 entirely lived up to these elevated expectations this year.

At the start of the year, I predicted that the title battle would be fought between between Premat, Lapierre, Carroll and Piquet. Which shows how much I know. In my defence, I can only point out that, of the newcomers, I did single out Glock and Hamilton as the series debutants most likely to upset the applecart. Certainly I didn't expect Hamilton to take the championship by the kind of margin that he eventually did.

If the championsip battle was not as close fought as that between Kovalainen and Rosberg last year, the same could not be said of the individual races, some of which were very hotly contested indeed. The battle between Jose Maria Lopez and Timo Glock in the sprint race at Hockenheim stands out in particular, while the last lap of the feature race at Barcelona, where ART team mates Premat and Hamilton fought it out was a graphic illustration of how close it sometimes got.

In all there were 9 different winners in the 22 races this year. For sure, the feature/sprint race split, with the latter being run with semi-reversed grids, probably inflated this number a little (neither Andreas Zuber nor Michael Ammermuller ever really looked like winning a feature race) but there were still 6 different winners in the 11 feature races - not a bad total when compared with F1, or especially with this year's world rally championship.

With 5 wins, three of them in feature races, and a further 9 podium finishes, Hamilton was clearly the dominant force this year, and the way he dominated his second-year team mate, Alexandre Premat (who, after all, was not really any slower than Nico Rosberg last year, merely a little less consistent) indicates that he is something really rather special indeed. Whether or not he gets the Mclaren seat alongside Alonso next year, it seems pretty clear that this is a young man who is going places.

To my mind, the numbers are about right in placing Nelson Angelo Piquet best of the rest. Like his father, he seemed happiest when out in front, and never really seemed to have the same racer's instinct as Hamilton. Neither was he as consistently quick, but on the other hand, it was hard to evaluate the competitiveness of his team (Xandi Negrao never really figured in the other Piquet Sports car) and he perhaps didn't have as good a car as ART were able to provide Hamilton with. He also showed impressive speed in the wet at Hungary, winning both races, and wet weather speed is always a sign that there is something special about a driver. He deserves his Renault testing role, now that Heikki Kovalainen has been promoted to the race team for 2007. Whether he has the mental toughness and racer's instinct to be a really first rate F1 driver, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

There remains the tantalising thought that had Giorgio Pantano done all the races, or had Timo Glock started the season with ISport, rather than with BCN, with whom he never really seemed to gel, one of these two ex-Jordan F1 drivers might have given Piquet and Hamilton a serious run for their money. The numbers suggest they probably would not quite have been able to, but Glock, in particular, looked more than a match for anyone in the second half of the season. Certainly it is a mystery why he was quite so slow in the BCN Competition car, and does beg questions about the degree to which team, rather than driver ability, plays a part in a series where the cars are supposed to be identical.

Equally intriguing were the sheer number of occasional one-off outstanding performances that were witnessed over the course of the year. Franck Perera, for instance, might not generally have made much of an impression, scoring just 8 points all season - but he got all 8 of those at Monaco, where he started and finished 2nd, behind Hamilton. There was another front row start for him at the Nurburgring - just enough perhaps, to suggest that the Toyota junior driver might make rather more of an impression if he gets another run next year - but still very much against the run of form. On other occasions, Hiroki Yoshimoto, Tristan Gommendy, Adrian Valles and DPR boys Olivier Pla and Clivio Piccione all showed flashes of real front running pace (Gommendy's front row start at Valencia, Valles' podium at the same, Yoshimoto's performances at Imola and the Nurburgring and the DPR drivers' performance at Monaco. None though, were able to threaten the front runners on anything like a regular basis - though whether this boiled down to inexperience, the limitations of their team, or their own foibles as drivers was very hard to tell. Yoshimoto, though, does look a rather more sensible bet for a Super Aguri drive than either Yamamoto or Ide did.

There were a few notable disappointments this year as well. Arden failed to recapture the form that took them to so many F3000 titles, and perhaps have lost the momentum they had before team owner Christian Horner took up Dietrich Mateschitz's offer to run Red Bull Racing. Of course, it might be the fault of the drivers. I, for one, expected Nicolas Lapierre and fellow Frenchman Alexandre Premat to figure a little more strongly after their dominant winter double act over in A1GP, but Premat was rarely close to his team mate Hamilton, while Lapierre came no closer to actually winning a race than he did last year. He was at least a little closer to the front than he had been last year, though an injury at Monaco put paid to any kind of a serious challenge.

Another man to struggle despite high pre-season hopes was Racing Engineering No1 driver Adam Carroll. In race trim he was as aggressive as ever, but he was often off the pace in qualifying, seemed to be harder on his tyres than just about anyone else in the field (for which he often paid a heavy price in the longer feature races) and, in the first part of the season at least, simply made too many mistakes. Whether the problem lay with Carroll, or Racing Engineering (whose other driver, Jose Villa looked utterly lost after being talked about as the 'new Fernando Alonso' in F3 the year before) was hard to tell. Perhaps it was a combination of the two - Carroll has always struck me as being a 'seat of the pants' kind of racer, and he might have suffered for not having an experienced team mate to help get car set up pointing in the right direction. Champ Cars seems the obvious place for him, if you as me.

Of the rest, Ferdinando Monfardini occasionally impressed, Lucas DiGrassi had a reasonable mid-season run, Felix Porteiro looked like a driver who might shine given a little more experience, and that was about it. Jason Tahinci, Fairuz Fauzy, Sergio Hernandez and Vitaly Petrov, in particular, seemed to represent a waste of a good cockpit.

So, not a bad sophomore year, all in all - the series did a pretty good job of establishing itself as not only the most important European single seater championship outside F1, but as being at least as competitive and suffused with talent as the IRL and Champ Car series. With the big names once again moving on to bigger and supposedly better things, lets hope that 2007 proves as exciting.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Review - Archie & The Listers by Robert Edwards

One of the highlights of last year's World Touring Car Championship was Alessandro Zanardi's victory in race 2 at Oschersleben. Alessandro, as most of you will no doubt know, is not just any old ex-Formula 1 driver, ekeing out a living in touring cars. The Italian former Champcar champion lost both his legs in a truly horrific accident at the Lausitzring oval back in 2001. That Zanardi survived at all is a miracle enough, that, despite losing both legs, he returned to world championship level motor racing, is almost beyond belief.

Alex Zanardi, though, was not the first driver to overcome a significant physical handicap to go motor racing. Robert Edwards' book tells the tale of an earlier, and equally remarkable driver, Glasgwegian Archie Scott Brown, and of the sportscar manufacturer so closely associated with his name, Brian Lister. Unlike Zanardi, Scott Brown was not disabled by an accident, racing or otherwise, but was born with significantly deformed legs and right arm, the legacy of his mother having been infected with german measles during pregnancy.

Robert Edwards, unlike many who write books on motorsport, is no mere specialist, but has also written a number of books on history more generally, including most recently, 'White Death', on the Russo-Finnish war of 1939-40. This no doubt helps with the early part of the book. Edwards goes to some trouble to trace the Archie's family history in the early part of the book, and succeeds admirably in giving something of the feel of Glasgow in the 1920s, attitudes towards disability at that time (not as antediluvian as one might think, as there were many who had suffered serious injuries during the Great War), and his parents, Bill and Jay Scott-Brown. Bill had been one of the early pioneers of aerial warfare during the war, but was less successful as a businessman and slid into a long battle with alcoholism, while Jay was an altogether tougher character, and the book certainly attributes to her much of the credit for giving Archie the confidence to overcome the limitations of his disability.

Scott-Brown, like many upper middle-class kids growing up in the 1940s, became fascinated with cars, and specifically with motorsport, from early on. His father had built him a go-kart of sorts in the 1930s and by the mid forties, fuel-rationing notwithstanding, he was driving around in his father's old BMW 327

It was an airfield speedtrial meeting which was to provide the break for Scott Brown though. Competing in his MG-TD, he finished a very close second to one Brian Lister, who had been toying with the idea of getting the family engineering firm to construct a purpose-built sportscar to go motor racing. After that day's trial, he quickly came to the conclusion that he was never going to be the driver to extract the most from such a car, and so it came to pass that Archie Scott Brown became Lister's first, and for a long time, only works driver.

Brian Lister, though little more than a hobbyist, would turn out to be rather good at the art of car design. Lister engineering was a serious business, but they were by no means car designers, and the motor racing project was intended not so much as a profitable business venture in itself but as a way of promoting the quality of the company's engineering work. The two would quickly become one of the most successful partnerships in the history of sportscar racing.

With sportscar racing now a fractured and fragmented mess (ALMS, LMES, Grand Am, FIA GT, and then Le Mans running seemingly separately to all those championships) it is easy to forget that in the Fifties, sportscar racing was big news, attracting large crowds, big names such as Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, and major teams like Aston Martin and Maserati (OK, there's one thing that hasn't changed!).The story of how a small band of enthusiasts took on motoring's big names and won is remarkable - and would make a worthwhile book in itself. The story of Archie Scott Brown though is more interesting still - he is perhaps one of the most fascinating, if not necessarily the fastest men ever to start an F1 race. He never sought to draw attention to his disabilities,and many fans only became aware of them after his death, at a sportscar race at Spa in 1958. Unlike Zanardi, he was born that way, and never felt that it hindered his ability on the track in any way. Zanardi, by contrast remarked of his recent win in Turkey that "my legs didn't grow back, so its still tough and to win is such an achievement".

Lister at Knockhill
A Lister-Jaguar in action at the recent Knockhill Historic Speedfair. Photo - Author's own.

In part, this reluctance to draw attention to himself might have been pride, or simply modesty, but he had another good reason to keep quiet. On a number of occasions, he was actually barred from competing by stewards who feared that he would be danger to others. At what would have been his first world championship Grand Prix, he was prevented from racing by the stewards after setting fastest time in practice with his aging Connaught F1 car. At the time, this was portrayed in the rather jingoistic post-war British press as a dastardly foreign plot to prevent the Maseratis and Ferraris being beaten. In reality, the demands of event insurers and understandable nervousness following the then recent Le Mans tragedy probably had more to do with it. As it would turn out, Scott-Brown, who was never as at home in single seaters anyway, would compete in numerous F1 races for Connaught, but just one world championship event - the British Grand Prix of 1957. He would qualify mid-grid and retire early on. It would always be with the iconic Listers that he would be associated, winning scores of sportscar races in the mid-fifties.

It is not hard to see why some in the motoring press hailed this book as the motorsports book of the decade when it was first published in 1995. This is much more interesting a tale than the average driver bio - and combined with Robert Edwards enjoyable writing style and flawless research, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thoughts on Michael Schumacher

In amongst the barrage of statistical records that Michael Schumacher has claimed as his own, one fact that can easily be forgotten is the sheer length of his career. When Michael made his debut for Jordan, George Bush Sr was in the White House, John Major had only recently taken over as Prime Minister of Britain, the internet was little more than a toy for a small number of academics, and Nico Rosberg was barely out of nappies. Since then, he has competed in 247 Grands Prix over sixteen years - only Riccardo Patrese has taken more starts, and only Graham Hill's career has spanned a longer period of time (1958-1975).

His strike rate of 90 victories is a record which will surely never be beaten, and in addition, he also holds the record for the greatest number of world titles, championship points, pole positions and fastest laps. If greatness were about numbers alone, then there would be no question that Michael Schumacher has every right to be considered the best driver ever to have started a Grand Prix race. Only on his strike rate of victories per race entered is he beaten, and even then only by Juan Manuel Fangio. Yet, looking beyond the numbers, I would hardly be alone in wondering quite where Michael Schumacher stands in the pantheon of Grand Prix champions. Unquestionably, he is one of the greats, but the greatest? I'd argue not.

For one thing, there has been a willingness to break the rules which ill-befits a man who won so much, so frequently anyway. If there are questions marks about the manner in which he won the 1994 world championship, then there can be no doubt whatsoever about the cynical manner in which he tried to win the 1997 championship. You could point to the fact that Ayrton Senna did much the same kind of thing - and you would have a fair point if you did (although Richard Williams draws an interesting parallel with tennis in describing the difference between the two). The point, though, is that Stewart, Fittipaldi, Moss, Hakkinen, Clark, Fangio and countless others throughout the history of the sport did not.

Even the Senna comparison doesn't seem quite right. There was an intensity, a genuine antipathy, underlying the rivalry between Senna and Prost. It is perhaps not surprising that twice those passions boiled over and titles were settled in dubious circumstances (to quote the Autosport headlines of the time - Malice in Hondaland, parts one and two). The rivalry between Schumacher and Hill and Villeneuve was never of the same kind - few really thought either of the famous sons was any kind of equal to Schumacher, and one rather doubts that he had any great personal dislike for either man. His manouevres in Adelaide in 1994, and at Jerez in 1997, seemed coldly cynical.

Perhaps these could be written off as the youthful indiscretions of a man who subsequently matured into a one of the sport's finest champions. Well, perhaps. It would have been a lot easier though, if Schumacher hadn't indulged in the ridiculous qualifying gamesmanship at Monaco. Such a move, in the autumn of his career, seems senseless from the point of view of his own reputation and legacy, but it perhaps suggests that Jerez 97 and Adelaide 94 were not so much acts of immaturity as illustrations of a flaw in Schumacher's character.

None of which makes his achievements any less impressive, or his car control and sheer ability any less admirable, but it does go a long way to explain why many motorsports enthusiasts will always regard Michael Schumacher with a degree of ambiguity. There is more to it than silly anti-German prejudice, as Nicky Campbell suggested recently.

Martin Brundle suggested that it was a shame that Michael Schumacher is not doing a "farewell tour" next year, while Bernie Ecclestone has mischievously suggested that he might return with Renault next year (see the mixed reaction here.) Personally, I hope they are both wrong, and that he has no last minute change of heart. Formula 1 is no place for people with their mind only half on the job, going through the motions of a farewell tour. You can do that kind of thing in golf, or tennis, but not when there are a limited number of seats in dangerous high performance racing cars. By going at the end of this season, Schumacher leaves, if not quite at the height of his powers, then not far from it. Unlike numerous world champions before him, notably Graham Hill, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda, all of whom continued to race as shadows of their former selves.

In the end though, I am forced to concur with the late Denis Jenkinson, who remarked towards the end of his life that, while he knew Schumacher was a very good driver, he felt no real enthusiasm for him. I can't help feeling that when fans look back on him in years to come, it will be with admiration, but not with any great affection.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Street Racers

Giovanardi on Johnston Terrace

Over at, one of Joe Saward's favourite topics is the failure of Formula One to promote itself to the public properly. This may be true, up to a point, and certainly having on occasion tuned into a NASCAR race back in the days when they were on Eurosport, I can't help but think that if ever there was proof that marketing could make up for an underwhelming product, then the hugely popular American oval series was it.

However, one can't really claim that Formula 1 has too low a profile. It has substantial TV coverage over the world, it gets some prominence in the sports pages of serious newspapers in Europe and South America, if not in the US or Canada. Plenty people who have no interest in the sport whatsoever nonetheless know exactly what it involved, and will more than likely be familiar with the name Michael Schumacher, if not necessarily with any of the rest of the field. There is much that is wrong with the promotion of F1 - but it relates more to what happens to the fan once he is through the gates - and in particular, in my view, to the dire quality of the support package for many F1 races, than any lack of awareness of the existence of the sport.

Contrast that with many other motor racing series around the world. How many people, even in its home country of the US, really know what the difference between the Champ Car Series or the Indy Racing League is? How much of a celebrity is America's newly crowned IRL champion, Sam Hornish? And how many of them will even have heard of the French double Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais? No wonder Monsieur Bourdais hints so frequently that, in an ideal world, he'd really rather be in F1.

The situation is perhaps a little better in Britain, but maybe not so much. Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who came within a countback of winning a second title this year could almost certainly wander up and down the centre of any town in the UK for hours before anyone would recognise him. And how many people, other than regular readers of the specialist press, are aware that Britain is home to a double world touring car champion who looks like he has every opportunity to make it three in a row?

I suppose, in the case of the World Touring Car Championship and the Indy Racing League, there is at least the mitigation that these series are not aired on terrestrial television and take place, by and large, outside the UK, and the blame perhaps lies elsewhere (and come to that, the UK round of the WTCC got a very good crowd this year, despite the unseasonably appalling weather.) On the other hand, are our national series in any better state? When is the last time that there has been a decent crowd at a round of the British F3 Championship? There's been an intriguing battle between the (to my mind rather underhyped) Mike Conway and scion of the Senna family, Bruno, but only if you read Autosport or Motorsport News would you know.

One series which does know how to promote itself here in the UK is the British Touring Car Championship, and this was brought home to me the other weekend, when, ahead of the championship's annual visit to the small but deceptively difficult Knockhill circuit, a street display was run behind the back of Edinburgh Castle for 2 hours on the Thursday evening.

Smoking the wheels

Now, for a grizzly cynical motorsporting purist like myself, I have to admit that the sight of touring cars going up and down the rather narrow confines of Johnstone Terrace at maybe 80-90mph is not exactly overwhelming, and my main reason for attending was that a) it was an opportunity to try out my newly acquired Fuji S9500 camera (judge the results for yourselves) and b) it was five minutes' walk from my flat.

For those less familiar with the sport though, the sight of some of the more aggressive drivers showing what their cars can do might just spark their interest. There was a good crowd there, the teams were handing out the promotional gear, and the drivers were on hand to sign autographs and to simply chat with the fans (a particular thumbs up, by the way, to elder statesman Mike Jordan, who talked enthusiastically for some time). For people like me, it was a chance to see the cars up close, and to hear one or two tales of interest. Mark Proctor's travails in keeping his Honda Civic on the grid almost deserve an article in themselves and was anyone else aware that Gavin Smith is apparently bringing £500k of personal sponsorship money in exchange for his drive at Triple8 Vauxhall? I thought that was GP2 territory, moneywise.

Fabrizio Giovanardi

The point of events like these, though, is not what they can provide for the serious fan - but that they spread the word to people who might not have the faintest idea that there was a race happening 10 miles from their home at the weekend at all. People who might think it will make a good family day out, or a pleasant change from an afternoon on the terraces (and if my last experience of a football match is anything to go by, a pleasant surprise it would indeed be.) Sure, there are things that could be done better - a longer strip down which to run the cars would have enabled them to build up a rather more impressive head of speed (Holyrood Park anyone? People with very long memories might remember Autosport's April Fool which involved its transformation into a Grand Prix venue back in the 1980s). While they might not be of interest to the kind of obsessive fan who reads every word of the specialist press, such events will help to attract the casual fan. And events like these are much cheaper, and often a much better spectacle for the casual fan than the supposed "pinnacle of motorsport". But not if nobody knows about it.

Stopping Power