Friday, December 29, 2006

A New Dawn?

It was a small piece of news really. A final piece falling into place, if you like. I was killing time over Christmas, checking to see if anything was happening in the world of motorsport and I read that Adrian Sutil had just signed for Spyker.

You might well ask: Who cares who drives for the Spyker team anyway? A fair question, I suppose. They haven't really been able to achieve much over the past couple of years, and I doubt that even Mike Gascoygne is going to be able to change that overnight. Nonetheless, the news that they had signed Japanese F3 champion and Macau frontrunner was pleasing. Not least because, for the first time that I can recall, the F1 grid would appear to be entirely made up of people who really belong there. The overall standard of driver on the F1 grid has, in my view, been steadily improving over the last few years - helped perhaps by the demise of the Minardi team and the recent purchase of Jordan/Midland by a consortium who harbour ambitions of turning it into a proper racing team again. But it is only now, with the replacement of the amiable journeyman Tiago Monteiro with Sutil, who looked blindingly quick in Friday practice last year, that there is really no dead wood on the F1 grid.

Look at it this way. Next year in two of the top teams, we will have two of the most promising debutants to appear in the sport in years - GP2 winner Lewis Hamilton and last year's runner up, Heikki Kovalainen. Going into their second full seasons in F1 we have 2004 F3000 champion Vitantonio Liuzzi and 2005 GP2 champion Nico Rosberg. The underwhelming Christian Klien has been shown the door and, with Webber in at Red Bull, a second chance has been handed to Alexander Wurz, whom I suspect may be a little better than he was made to look at Benetton. Anthony Davidson has been given a chance over at Super Aguri, who are beginning to look an awful lot more like a proper racing team these days.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, for the day when some of the current elder statesmen throw in the towel (and the clock must be ticking on the careers of Messrs Fisichella, Coulthard, Schumacher Jr and Trulli, though they are all Grand Prix winners, rather than mere makeweights) we have Franck Montagny over at Toyota and Nelson Piquet Jr at Renault. And just recently, Toro Rosso have been giving Sebastien Bourdais a proper try-out, perhaps with a view to ditching Scott Speed at the end of next season, or perhaps with an eye on promoting Liuzzi to the No.1 team when Coulthard retires.

I spend a lot of time complaining about the way the sport is run, and there is much about modern F1 to be unhappy about. But it really does appear to me that the overall standard of driving talent is as high as it has ever been. I can't recall the last time that I looked at an F1 entry list and found it so devoid of pay drivers, eccentric choices and guys chosen for a simple lack of available talent. When Grand Prix winners like Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher look like some of the weaker links in the chain, then something must be going right.

There is a myth, propagated in some circles, that pay drivers are a new phenomenon and that if you were to go back a decade or three, the likes of Baumgartner, Ide and Yoong would never have made the F1 grid. This is, of course, arrant nonsense. In the 1970s, the entire back half of the grid were little more than playboy dilettantes, there for their own amusement, and of no serious consequence. Go back to the 1950s and much of the field was made up of those rich enough to buy their own F1 car - and wealth alone has never made anyone quick behind the wheel.

Ironically, I suspect that it is the very fact that F1 is now so expensive that explains the absence of rich amateurs on the grid. Running an F1 car is far beyond the means of all but large corporations, and anyone looking to spend serious money putting a pair of modern F1 cars on the grid is going to want to make sure they are being driven to something like their full potential. That's not to say that drivers who can bring money to the table will be absent - but rather that they will have also to be reasonably quick in the bargain if they want a drive.

Perhaps later in the year, it will become apparent that I'm horribly wrong. Perhaps Davidson will look no more up to the job than the Japanese pay drivers Super Aguri ran in its No.2 car this year. Perhaps Adrian Sutil's performances in the Midland this year will turn out to have been more about low fuel runs and turning up the revs on the Toyota V8 than they were about a great new young talent. Maybe Kovalainen and Hamilton will turn out to have been terribly over-hyped. But for now, maybe its just the dawning of a new year, but I'm feeling optimistic...

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book Review - Mille Miglia by Mike Lawrence

Regular readers of this column will know that I am a great admirer of Mike Lawrence, author of one of my all time favourite racing books, Wayward Genius on Lotus founder Colin Chapman. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to happen upon a copy of a book he had written nearly twenty years back, telling the 30 year history of Italy's famous road race, the Mille Miglia.

In the very early days of motorsport, city-to-city road races were common throughout Europe (though they were never allowed in the UK). However, as early as the mid 1900s, racing cars had become too powerful for the primitive roads of the time, and the problem was exacerbated by the fact that braking, suspension and tyre technology did not advance as quickly as engine technology. This early part of motor racing history came largely to an end, at least in Europe, with the tragic 1903 Paris-Madrid city to city race, which was stopped at Bordeaux after the fatalities of several drivers and spectators. That was, more or less, the last of the great pre-war European city-to-city races (though similar events in South America would continue into the 1950s).

In Italy, however, things were different. Four men, aged between 21 and 34 were keen to do something to promote the motor industry around Brescia and had realised that a race from Brescia to Rome and back was, near as makes no difference, 1000 miles. Many European governments of the time might have baulked at the idea of so dangerous an event, but Italy under Mussolini was in love with the concept of modernism - and what could be more modernist in 1926 than a long distance, city-to-city motor race? (It is interesting to note that later, the fascist German government under Hitler would take a similar attitude to motor racing with its backing of Auto Union and Mercedes Benz in Grand Prix racing).

Mike Lawrence's book begins with a brief overview of the history of the event, correcting a few myths along the way. It didn't always run to the same route, it wasn't always exactly 1000 miles long, on one occasion it was simply 9 laps of a 101 mile circuit, and in any case, the race only really came to be legendary, at least outside Italy, long after it had taken place for the last time. As with everything that Mike Lawrence writes, its well informed, very readable, and one only wishes that he had given over a little more space - the summary of the event covers just 5 pages.

Thereafter the book is given over to 3-4 page summaries of each of the 25 races which took place between 1927 and 1957. There are some interesting nuggets in these reports. For instance, the fabled tale of Tazio Nuvolari chasing down Achille Varzi with his headlights off to win the Miglia in 1930 is almost certainly a myth. For one, Nuvolari was running 10 minutes down on the road, and so did not need to pass Varzi to win anyway, and secondly, at the time this is all supposed to have taken place, it would have been light anyway. The account of Rudolf Carraciola's win for Germany in a Mercedes SSK in 1931 is also intriguing - a victory against the odds for a foreign team.

Then there are the real oddities. The charcoal burning cars that ran during the 1930s owing to concerns about the security of oil supplies after Mussolini invaded Abbysinia, the category for bubble cars during the 1950s (they started ahead of the big sportscars too, which must have made life interesting for all concerned). Or the actually rather astonishing fact that in one of the immediate post-war events, one in every thousand cars in Italy was entered in the event!

The event, though, was dominated by the Italians. As well as Nuvolari and Varzi, who both won during the 1930s, larger-than-life opera singer Guiseppe Campari and double world F1 champion Alberto Ascari were also winners. The less well known Clemente Biondetti won the event no less than four times for Alfa Romeo, before succumbing to throat cancer. Nuvolari was another who battled against illness. In his fifties, and suffering from terrible lung problems after years of breathing exhaust fumes, he looked set to win the 1948 Mille Miglia for Enzo Ferrari's fledgling works team, only for a broken leaf spring to put the sickly and recently bereaved legend out of the event, within sight of the finish. He would never race at the top level again, and died five years later.

Perhaps the most famous legend of all though, is that concerning Lawrence's personal hero, Stirling Moss, who recorded the fastest ever Mille Miglia victory in 1955, at the wheel of a Mercedes 300SLR. Partnered by journalist Denis Jenkinson, the pair recced the route endlessly, in an attempt to make up for a lack of local knowledge. They are widely credited with having invented the concept of pace notes. While this is an exaggeration, there is little doubt that they refined their use to a much greater extent than anyone who had gone before. An elaborate series of hand signals were used to allow Jenkinson to convey detailed information about every bend and kink of the 1000 mile course. In 10 hours, Jenkinson and Moss made just one mistake. They won by the best part of an hour.

As Lawrence tells it, it was inevitable that the event would die a death. By the mid-1950s, it was living on borrowed time. With 500 entries, much of the field was made up of clubman amateurs, and alongside the likes of Moss, Fangio and Ascari, in top-line sportscars, it was inevitable that accidents would happen. In the final years of the event, there were several deaths of competitors - and more importantly - of spectators. That the death figures were lower than might have been the case had the roads been used for ordinary motoring that day was beside the point. The Catholic Church intervened, demanding the race be stopped, and in those days, it was a brave Italian government that openly came out against the Vatican. As Lawrence says in his conclusion, the real wonder was that the race went on for as long as it did.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that the story of the race as a whole might have been better told by focusing in detail on a few specific events, rather than the strict race-by-race approach that Lawrence takes here. For anyone curious to know more about the history of the Mille Miglia, I'd thoroughly recommend this book, but I feel the definitive story of the event remains to be told.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: To my knowledge, the book reviewed here, which was published in 1988, is not currently in print. However, Lawrence has subsequently produced two separate books - Mille Miglia 1927-51 - The Alfa and Ferrari years, and Mille Miglia 1952-57, The Ferrari and Mercedes years. I would imagine they cover much the same sort of ground.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

A Dose of Unreality

Sometimes, it feels like we're already living in the future. I don't mean that literally, of course. I am as aware as anyone that we live, as we always have, in the present continuous. What I mean is that so much that we take for granted, that has become so mundane that we barely think about it, would seem to someone from just twenty or thirty years ago like the wildest dreams of science fiction.

Imagine, for example, that we were to go back to 1970, and meet Bob Smith, a hypothetical motor racing fan. Slicks and wings were just beginning to make an entry into the sport, but such developments as turbocharging, carbon fibre monocoques and exotic alloy materials for engine blocks all lay a long way off in the future. As for active suspension, traction control, electronic engine management and the rest? Forget it.

The year before, Bob would most likely have been glued to his television set (or perhaps round at his neighbours' place watching theirs) as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to set foot on the moon. Their Apollo 11 craft's on-board computer, a truly state-of-the-art piece of equipment which NASA had handsomely funded Intel to go away and develop, had about 4k of something we might recognise as RAM, and about another 74k of hard wired Read Only Memory. Enough to put a man on the moon, but not enough to run any kind of a sensible electronic launch control system on a racing car.

My hunch is that while Bob would have been impressed, rather than particularly taken aback, by the aerodynamic and materials-science aspects of a modern F1 car, it would have been the electronics and computer software that would have seemed most alien to him. And then it occurred to me that, actually, there's something else that he might find much more mind-boggling.

Imagine, if you will, a race with real drivers, but one which involves non-existent cars, competing at an equally incorporeal track. The drivers, far from being lined up on the grid in their cars together, are each sitting in their own living rooms, quite possibly thousands of miles apart. Only the pedals, gear shifters and steering wheels have any physical reality. The rest exists only as 1s and 0s on a computer somewhere. And yet, every slightest steering input, every dab on the brakes, is transmitted in real time down each driver's phone line to a central computer, and information about every other driver's moves are sent back down the line, where they will appear, perhaps just a little way up the road, or perhaps menacing in the wing mirrors, on their screen. And yet not only is this all this possible in 2006, its easy and cheap. Much more so than even the most low-budget form of real racing. Tell all that to Bob, and he'll probably be imagining that we're all driving round in flying cars, strapping on jet packs and going off on holidays to Mars. Yet this is the mundane world of online gaming, or more specifically, the small but enthusiastic on-line simulation racing community.

Oh yes, and something which surprised even me, when I stumbled across it the other week. The organisers of these races are now after spectators. The Sim Touring Car Cup claims to be the first online racing championship to be "designed for broadcast from the ground up." Curious, I downloaded the 30 minute plus video of the first round of the series. It was a strange experience. On one level, it didn't look a whole lot different from the action replay footage that you see on all manner of computer games these days. Yet, to be fair, the race direction was actually pretty good, in terms of concentrating on where the battles were on track, and making the most of the almost infinite flexibility in terms of camera angles that the virtual world presents. There was also a full commentary, provided by a team of two commentators. Suffice to say that, while this does help to make sense of what is happening on track, it does illustrate the gulf between the man on the street and even the most irritating of professional presenters (James Allen, step forward...)

I can't imagine that this sort of thing is going to be troubling Bernie Ecclestone's FOM any time soon. The racing may actually have been rather closer than in any Grand Prix I've seen in a long time, but its rather hard to work up the same kind of interest in a race between a bunch of anonymous guys sitting in their bedrooms. Especially when the consequences seem so, well, inconsequential. The cars might have seemed to handle like proper touring cars (especially allowing for the fact that the website states that they are meant to be running on 'road tyres) but there was more contact than in any BTCC crashfest and the cars always seemed to bounce off the walls almost unscarred. And let's face it, there's something visceral, something firmly rooted in the physical world, about the appeal of motor racing to the typical fan. Its about speed, noise, the smell of castrol GTX, and a million and one other things that no computer could simulate.

Still, its an interesting concept. For one thing, you know that the drivers are in literally identical cars - something which can never be ensured in the inevitably approximate real world. Theoretically, every last detail of a driver's technique could easily be made available via telemetry, and there can be no excuses about getting duff set of tyres or an unreliable gearbox. Neither can there be any suspicion that a rival driver is winning because of his superior budget, rather than his superior throttle control.

I was intrigued as to how difficult the cars were to drive, and so downloaded a demo version of the simulation used in the game, Live For Speed. Suffice to say that, as an occasional Pro Kart racer in the past (2 4-stroke Honda GX160cc engines, giving about 70mph at full chat, in case you're wondering), I was a long way further back from the best times in this simulation than I've ever been in a kart. Its not as easy as it looks - and certainly not as easy as play station arcade games like Gran Turismo. The guys winning these simulation races are not without a certain level of ability. How much I would be hard pressed to say...

These are all just games for kids though, right? Perhaps, but it turns out that Alx Danielsson, this year's Renault World Series champion, is a fan of FIA GT series simulation GT-R. Juan Pablo Montoya once confessed a liking for Grand Prix Legends, and a cursory search on some of the Simulation racing sites shows that several race at a club level in karts, touring cars and hill climb events. Rather more significantly though, SEAT touring car racer and occasional Aston Martin sports car driver Darren Turner was reported in Autosport to earn most of his living testing simulators for Mclaren. The team is reputed to have tried Mika Hakkinen out on its simulator before he got back into a race car recently at Barcelona and clearly they wouldn't be paying a professional driver to test it if they didn't think there were some substantial benefits to be gained along the way.

All stuff that might baffle our Bob Smith from 1970. But the real irony is, we never did get to Mars, hell, we've never even been back to the moon.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

RAC Rally Reminisces

The world rally championship came to an end last Sunday with a win for Marcus Gronholm in the Welsh forests. I barely noticed. Time was, when the RAC Rally was something to really look forward to - a real event, but these days, it looks scarcely any different from all the other gravel WRC rounds, with its small number of stages, each repeated to minimise the surprises for the drivers.

Things could hardly have been more different back when I got my first taste of rally action, at Cirencester Park in 1986. OK, so it was only a Spectator-Sunday mickey mouse stage, but thanks to my father's determined attempts to get into areas normally forbidden to spectators, the spectacle was unforgettable. I can still remember the gruff roar of the normally aspirated Metro 6R4s of Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson, and Kalle Grundel's RS200 coming out into view all crossed up, looking for a moment like it was going to run straight into us. Thankfully it didn't, though it showered us with gravel, a timely reminder that perhaps we ought to stand back a little.

In those days, the event took place over five days and nights, and nearly 50 stages. The stages of Wales, the Scottish Borders and North East England all received a visit, in addition to the easy 'spectator stages' on the opening day. Such feared names as Kielder, Dalby, Hafren Sweet Lamb and so forth all formed part of the one event. I eagerly awaited the nightly updates from William Woollard and his team to see if my favourite drivers (Blomqvist in the RS200, and Malcolm Wilson in a Metro 6R4), were still in the running.

The following year, at Oulton Park, the brutally powerful Group B machinery was gone, replaced by relatively tame early Group A cars, such as the Lancia Delta HF and the Audi Coupe. They may not have been as entertaining to watch as a Gp B Audi Quattro or Peugeot 205 T16, but they still had to cope with the deceptively difficult Old Hall corner, and make their way through a hastily added gravel section at the end of the stage. Best to watch that year were the powerful but relatively gripless rear wheel drive Sierra Cosworths. That year, in an event of extremely high attrition, and admittedly only after the disqualification of Per Eklund's Group A Quattro, Stig Blomqvist brought his Cossie home in second, albeit four minutes behind the winner, Juha Kankunnen.
The event remained a long one. I remember that year having a stage guidebook and fold out map of the UK, showing where each and every one of the 47 stages were. There was even a service halt in my home town of Buxton, although when I went down there, there were only a handful of guys fixing battered Skoda Estelles, and no sign of the front running crews.

1988 I saw from Chatsworth, and was one of those increasingly rare snowy RAC events. It might have been more slush than the real stuff round the grounds of the stately home (though I remember it being very cold) but out in the forests, they had to contend with the real thing. And it was this which brought an end to Juha Kankunnen's efforts to take a first victory for a Japanese manufacturer in the rather pretty Toyota Celica GT4, as he slid off the road and handed victory to Markku Alen, who had himself earlier lost time with a similar mistake.

The first Japanese victory would have to wait another year, when the works Lancia team opted to give the event a miss. Surprisingly though, it went not to the Toyotas of Carlos Sainz or Juha Kankunnen, nor even to the Mazdas of previous winners Timo Salonen and Hannu Mikola, but to the hefty 4wheel steering Mitsubishi Galant of veteran campaigner Pentti Airikkala, who was more consistent than the Toyotas and plain faster than the Mazdas. The first non-Japanese car was Malcolm Wilson's front wheel drive Astra GTE all the way down in tenth.

1990 marked the start of a slippery slope, in my mind, with the event being cut from its traditional five days to four. Over the following decade, it would gradually be trimmed back still further, in the name of easing logistics and television friendliness, to just 3 days and a mere 17 competitive stages. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the decade, there was still much to enjoy. In 1990, I remember Colin McRae's Sierra Sapphire Cosworth emerging from the woods at Chatsworth, on the opening day, tail out wildly, whacking the dry stone wall as he came out, inflicting hefty damage to the body work. He would create a lot of work for his mechanics that year, and by the end of the event, his car looked good only for the scrapyard. Nevertheless, the event had been crying out for a home winner for nearly twenty years, and after the ultimately false promise shown by the likes of his father, Jimmy, Welshman Dai Llewellin, Russell Brookes, Malcolm Wilson and Mark Lovell, it was McRae Jr who finally took a home win in a Subaru Impreza in 1994.

Another regular feature of the event was the weird and sometimes far from wonderful machinery that some of the amateurs towards the back of the field would run with. Eastern European equipment was always popular with the low-capacity rally runners, and the likes of Norwegian John Haughland in his Skoda could make it go pretty quickly too. A works Lada effort in 1989 with the then-newish Samaras made less of an impact, though two of the Russian-crewed cars got to the finish. So too did Michael Kahlfuss' Trabant in 1992, albeit over 3 and a half hours behind the winner. My memory fails me in attempts to remember whether 17 year old Richard Tuthill was as lucky with his multi-coloured VW Beetle the year before. Sometimes, there were even relatively quick eccentric entries. Gavin Cox frequently picked up decent placings with his outsized Opel Monza (when did you last see one of those, well, anywhere) and eventually replaced it with the almost equally eccentrically chosen Vauxhall Calibra Turbo (although the works actually made a very half-hearted attempt to go rallying with those, too). Armin Schwarz shot to the rally world's attention with the equally cumbersome looking Audi 200 Quattro in 1988 and back in 1986, two ladies with very big cars finished well up, with Duns second-most famous motorsporting export Louise Aitken Walker in a Nissan 240RS finishing a few places ahead of Susanne Kottulinsky's Volvo 240 Turbo.

With rallying's popularity in decline these days, one can't help wondering whether the homogeneity, and let's face it, dullness, of the modern event plays more than a small part. Seventeen stages, most of them run more than once, might be a driving challenge, but it can hardly be said to be an adventure in the sense that the old events were. The TV companies have realised too - no more do we see the nightly updates on the BBC, or on current broadcaster ITV. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that organisers of next year's International Rally Challenge are reported in Autosport this week to be considering a traditional-style RAC Rally for next year. I can only wish them the best of luck...