Monday, February 26, 2007

Going Green?

First things first. On an F1 grid where grey, white, silver and red are beginning to dominate to a degree where, last year it was difficult to tell apart Spykers from Mclarens, or Hondas from Super Aguris from BMWs, Honda's striking new colour scheme will certainly make life a little easier for spectators.

Whether you see Honda's "we are the world" themed car as a tiresome marketing gimmick or a brave attempt to get the average racing fan to think about their impact on the environment and what must be done to tackle climate change probably depends on how naturally cynical you are. Personally, I see Simon Fuller, I see the man behind the Spice Girls and the promotion of David Beckham, I see school children in the press photos a la Michael Jackson in his creepy save the world phase. In short, I see an ocean of PR bullshit. Not everyone agrees, mind you.

That said, underneath it all, there is a question that is worth considering. With the reality of global warming accepted by almost all but a few free-market fundamentalists and their swivel-eyed fellow travellers, what, if anything, should F1 be doing to address climate change and (perhaps more importantly) oil depletion?

One perfectly valid answer is - nothing whatsoever. F1 racing's total contribution to world carbon dioxide emissions is negligible. The sport provides entertainment and enjoyment to millions across the world, and a whole season's racing uses less fossil fuel than a single transatlantic flight. In short, F1 provides a great bang for its fossil-fuel buck in terms of the number of people who gain enjoyment and pleasure, and environmental campaigners would do better to focus on more mundane, less high-profile, but much more important issues than a few guys in powerful racing cars.

That, of course, is not necessarily an answer that will satisfy everyone. Not least the car companies who are keen to be seen to be doing something about climate change without necessarily having to do anything practical or useful, like, say reducing fuel consumption on the cars they sell on an everyday basis to folks like you and I (well not me, actually - I don't drive - but that's another story).

With that in mind, the interesting question is: What could F1 do to help the fight against climate change when it is essentially a sport about getting to the finish line first - not doing so while burning the least fuel or producing the least pollution. Some suggest that F1 should follow the lead of IRL and adopt bio-ethanol. That, though, is gesture politics. Whether biofuels are worthwhile is much debated. Growing sugar-cane for fuel in Brazil appears to be energy-efficient - whereas processing corn for petrol in the US would seem to use almost as much fossil-fuel to produce as you get back from it in burning it. In other words, it is a waste of time.

If the F1 teams got into bioethanol, you can bet that they would be interested in improving its efficiency. That might sound like a good thing, but their idea of effiency is going faster. In other words, they would be looking at maximising bio-ethanol's energy density (how much bang you get for a given quantity) but would not be in the slightest bit interested in improving the efficiency of the fuel growing process. Saving on carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption in the processing of the raw crop won't make the car in the slightest bit faster. So the teams, and their fuel suppliers, won't bother.

So what could F1 do? One option would be to open up the rules to energy-recovery devices, making use of waste heat and waste energy under braking. These improve the overall efficiency of a car by extracting the maximum amount of useful work from the energy present in the fuel - whatever it is. If they were allowed into F1, then the boffins would quickly work to maximise their efficiency. Of course, in F1, that efficiency would be used to go faster, not to conserve fuel. However the lessons learned and the advances in technology could be used to improve the fuel consumption, rather than the performance, of ordinary road cars.

This brings me neatly to a more general point. If F1 wants to act as a testbed for the development of environmentally useful technologies, it could go forward by going backward. Those of us old enough to remember the mid 1980s turbo era will recall the time when the teams had to get through the race with a preset maximum fuel load. In 1984, when the rule was introduced, the limit was 220 litres. By 1988, in the final year of the fuel rule, that limit was down to 150 litres, and yet the drive to improve technology, particularly around electronic engine management systems, was such that the cars actually went faster all the same.

The downside of such an approach, for those who remember it (and in particular, those who remember the fuel-limited sportscar racing of the late 1980s) is that it encouraged drivers to drive by the fuel gauge, rather than at the limits of their abilities (although part of the genius of Alain Prost was his ability to go quickly while using less fuel than any of his rivals). The answer to this, though, could be to encourage fuel efficiency not by a total fuel limit, but by a fuel-flow limiter, as proposed by the late, great Keith Duckworth, nearly 30 years ago. This simply limits the amount of fuel that can be delivered to the engine at any one time. No danger of drivers cruising round to avoid running dry - there would instead be a limit to how "fuel-greedy" the engine could be at any point.

Whatever the fuel of the future is, whether it turns out to be hydrogen, biodiesel, bioethanol, or something we haven't even thought of yet, improving energy efficiency is going to be of key importance. Rules which encourage the teams to seek the maximum performance from a given amount of fuel are surely the most sensible way of getting F1 to contribute to the search for more enviromentally friendly engines. Better that than the greenwash of bioethanol, carbon-ofsetting, and selling pixels on the sides of your car. So Max, the ball is in your court.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Once in a life time?

Regular readers will know that I have always been a little sceptical as to the abilities of Ford's number 2 WRC driver, Mikko Hirvonen. Having been comprehensively annihilated by Petter Solberg at Subaru in 2004, he made little impression at Ford for much of last year, and his continued retention seemed, to put it mildly, odd. Sure, there was a win in Australia, but against a field so depleted that any other result would have been a profound embarassment. Stories that he got the Ford drive by waving a large cheque book at the blue oval seemed all too plausible.

So it was all the more surprising to see him win the inaugural Rally Norway last weekend, not by default, but by taking command from the first stage and plain out-driving his two biggest rivals. Sure, Sebastien Loeb's chances ended in a snowbank, and there may have been team orders in play on the final day of the rally to ensure a Ford 1-2, but remember why Hirvonen was in that position in the first place. Over the first two days, he had been plain faster than Marcus Gronholm, and had put enough pressure on Loeb to force him into a series of uncharacteristic errors, culminating in the trip into a snowbank that cost him any chance of a points finish. Malcolm Wilson may or may not have called the race off between his two charges on the final day, but it was through superior pace that Hirvonen ended up in front when the music stopped.

It was refreshing too, to see a driver so happy at having won a rally. With Subaru remaining far from the pace, we haven't seen Petter Solberg on the top step of the podium in a long while, and Hirvonen's joy at beating two of the sport's all-time greats in a straight fight was a marked contrast to his monosyllabic and furrow-browed team mate. So was this a once-in-a-lifetime performance? A day-of-days to rank alongside, say, Damon Hill at Suzuka in 1994? Hirvonen has on occasion been fast before, and sometimes too, he has been consistent, but he's never merged the two before. Perhaps, but perhaps it is a sign that Hirvonen is finally maturing as a driver - that while not great in the Loeb sense, he's nonetheless a professional who deserves to be taken seriously.

Rallying is not like single seater racing. Only the most exceptional drivers are on the pace straight away. Think how underwhelming Petter Solberg was in his first year at Ford. Or remember that Marcus Gronholm took part in his first world rally championship event in 1986 - and yet he only rose to prominence when he found his way onto the works Peugeot team at an age when many F1 drivers would be winding down towards retirement. Rallying requires experience, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Hirvonen was at his best on a rally which was new to the series, and so put everyone, grizzled veteran and wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, on the same footing. All the same, one wonders what Gigi Galli might manage to achieve if one of the works teams had the foresight to draft him in as a number 2 for a year.

I've been rather negative about the world rally championship on more than one occasion on motorsports ramblings over the past year. Credit where credit is due, though - the Rally Norway looks like the best addition to the series in a long, long while. Rallying thrives on variety, and now that in our globally warmed world, snow on the Monte Carlo is a fading memory, its good to see the Norwegian rally bring the quota of events on the white stuff back up to two. The added bonus is that the Norwegian rally has, if anything, better stages than the Swedish event. The Swedish stages are interesting enough, but often a little too monotonously high-speed. The Norwegian event, on the other hand, mixes Swedish style fast stuff with twisty, snaking forest roads which were more than a little reminiscent of a snow-covered Kielder. And surely, in time, the fearsome 44km Elvirum stage will become every bit as much a legend as Hafren or the Col de Turini.

Another reason to welcome the Rally Norway onto the calendar is that Scandinavian rallies always attract a good entry, With a relative dearth of full-time works teams in the championship, this is more important than ever. The eleven minute gap back to 8th place Jan Kopecky in his Skoda Fabia might suggest otherwise, but this was really one of the most competitive WRC events in a long while.

Daniel Carlsson joined OMV regular Manfred Stohl and Gigi Galli was out playing with his bright yellow Pirelli-shod Citroen, setting a fastest stage time along the way. Despite more than a few lapses, he ended up top Citroen, ahead of both the works cars and both the OMV Xsaras, in 6th. One place ahead of him, and recording his first ever fastest stage time into the bargain, was Stobart Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala. I first saw Latvala in action on the Jim Clark tarmac rally some four years back, where he caught my attention, looking noticeably more committed than any of the British or Irish regulars. This kid is one to watch.

His team mate, Henning Solberg was talked of, albeit mainly by his brother, as a dark horse for the victory. In the end, he was too inconsistent for that, but he racked up a few fastest stage times on the final day and claimed the 3rd, keeping Petter off the podium on the swansong event for the unloved Subaru Impreza WRC2006. Then there was Toni Gardemeister, who looked to be fastest privateer of all in his 2 year old Mitsubishi Lancer before losing time in a snowbank. Suffice to say that, after farcical events in Turkey and Cyprus, this new rally looks to have legs. And I wouldn't expect an entry list with anything like the same kind of strength in depth in Mexico next month.

However, if the WRC as a championship looks as fragile as ever, it is clear that some of the individual events are going to be very exciting indeed. Oh, and 10 or so years ago, I hitch-hiked round the south coast of Ireland, and I tell you, a rally on those roads is going to be something else again...

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The strange world of A1GP, customer cars and the importance of preparation

The recent Antipodean rounds of the A1GP series, at the narrow, twisty Taupo, and the dustbowl-ish Eastern Creek circuits, were both dominated by the German car driven by Niko Hulkenberg, and the elegant New Zealand entry, driven by Jonny Reid. It seems a little odd at first - Hulkenberg was good, rather than outstanding in German F3, itself a championship with nothing like the standing it once had, in the days of Schumacher, Wendlinger, Frentzen et al. Jonny Reid has, until now, been a relative non-entity in the world of Japanese F3. There is, in short, nothing in the CVs of either driver which would suggest they would be able to see off former Minardi F1 driver Alex Yoong, Would-be F3000 champion Tomas Enge, promising young French hotshoe Loic Duval or one-time British F3 champion Robbie Kerr for instance.

Nothing, that is, except for the fact that they both drive cars run by experienced GP2 operators SuperNova. Last year, it quickly became apparent that a DAMS-run machine was the passport to success, and France and Switzerland basically shared out the wins between them. This year, it is clear that veteran David Sears' boys have learned something about the odd-looking F3000 based Lolas that has so far eluded all the other teams.

There is nothing particularly unusual in this. In the first two years of GP2, the title has ended up in the hands of Frederic Vasseur's ART organisation on both occasions. In the dying days of F3000, predicting the champion was a simple matter of checking who the lead driver at Arden was that year. In the F3 Euroseries, ASM is a surefire passport to success, while over in British F3 in recent years, Raikkonen-Robertson Racing and Carlin have vied with each other to establish themselves as the leading team.

GP2, A1GP and F3000 all use, or used, ostensibly identical chassis, while in F3, theoretically one can use any chassis which meets the regulations, but in practice, everyone uses Dallaras. Yet despite this, there are clear differences between the teams. It wouold be easy to speculate that the differences are not as great as they seem, that the leading teams simply have the greatest access to the most promising drivers. While there may be a grain of truth in this, it can't be the whole story. In A1GP, for example, the New Zealand team are restricted to the not exactly over-flowing pool of New Zealand talent. And remember how Timo Glock went from being nowhere in particular to being a real frontrunner in GP2 when he moved from BCN Competition to ISport in the middle of the season. For sure, ISport needed Glock, as it turned out, but Glock certainly needed ISport as well.

What is easy to forget is that although spec-formula cars are relatively simple when compared with Formula 1 cars, they are still enormously complex pieces of engineering. If they weren't, then probably anybody would be able to buy a Dallara F306 for the price of a Ford Mondeo. The result is that modern racintg cars are really quite difficult to engineer - there's a lot of variables that can be adjusted, and they can affect each other in unpredictable, non-linear ways. To make matters more complicated still, what works at one track will most likely not work at another - and what works at any given track on any given day may not work at the same track a month later when the temperatures are completely different. While its all but impossible for anyone to understand all these factors perfectly, that doesn't matter. All you need is someone who understands them better than any of your rival teams do. As a result, a few good engineers can be worth an awful lot in the world of motor-racing - even when working with fundamentally the same raw materials.

This brought me back to thinking about customer cars in Formula 1. Last week's article got mixed reactions, with one commenter coming out firmly against allowing customer cars, and another two coming down in favour of them, and noting that it will almost certainly happen anyway. My first thought was that this would be very bad news for Spyker and perhaps for Williams too.

But on second thoughts, I'm not so sure. Its hard to know how big a part the fundamental quality of the car plays in ensuring how competitive teams are in F1. After all, in Champ Car last year, everyone ran the same Lola chassis, and yet the gap from the best teams to the worst was much the same as in Formula 1. Other factors clearly play a part. Look at last year's Toro Rosso, for example. Everyone knows that this was just a rebadged Red Bull RB1, and yet in the hands of the former Minardi crew that ran the team, it rarely ran anything like as quickly as it had done last year - even allowing for the engine rev-restrictions. In short, the team simply didn't have the experience or the technical strength in depth to engineer the car very well. And I wonder whether things would really be any different for teams buying off-the-peg customer cars from the big teams. After all, most teams might be happy to sell last year's car to Dave Richards or whoever, but they'd be far more reluctant to give them their current car. And even if they did, what are the chances that they would get the development parts? Or even the previous year's set up sheets? And how much use would these be, if the track temperatures were 10 degrees lower, or if the wind was blowing from a different direction, or if Bridgestone's tyres were markedly different from the previous year.

The example of the junior formulae shows that there is an awful lot more to running a succesful racing team than simply having the right chassis. Having an experienced, talented team in place to run that chassis is just as important - and probably all the more so in the more rarefied, complex world of Formula 1. If I were Spyker, I might be a little nervous right now. But, on reflection, I'm less sure that Frank Williams need worry about the boys at Super Aguri and Toro Rosso.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Customer Service

Every other year, it seems, come the first race, there is a dispute over some aspect of the season's new rules that threatens to derail the Grand Prix circus and leave the sport in a quagmire of court battles.

A while back, there was the threat of arbitration over the 2.4 litre engine rules that hovered over 2005. For those who can't recall the tedious details of this dispute, a couple of the manufacturers who had produced the best 3 litre V10s questioned whether the FIA had the power to change the engine regulations before the end of 2007 under the rules stability agreement signed by the teams. The FIA more or less claimed that they had the power to do anything that was deemed necessary on the grounds of safety - which rather leaves one wondering what the point of rules stability agreements are in the first place.

The same went with the rather more vexed question of the special dispensation to Squadro Toro Rosso to run rev-restricted V10s last year. All the more so because the right to run such engines was being decided on a case-by-case basis - i.e. the rules were not the same for all teams. In the event, the cars wee so uncompetitive that all bar Midland, who were rather preoccupied with their own survival, didn't really care. Going back a bit, there were the rows over Mclaren's trick braking systems, the detailed workings of the whole-race tyre rule and the question of what to do about the deliberate retiring of healthy cars to get around the two race engine rules. Back in 1982, there was even a strike over new driver contracts, led by none other than Niki Lauda. Not a natural comrade of Arthur Scargill, one wouldn't have thought.

These things tend rapidly to blow over, but this year, the arguments are over something rather more fundamental - the question of whether teams are required to run cars that they themselves have designed. And because of the implications it has for the survival of some of the lesse teams, it may all take a rather longer to sort out.

On the face of it, there is little to dispute. The rules state that teams cannot run a car bought from any other team. They must own the Intellectual Property rights to their own car - end of debate. This, of course, the two teams around whom the debate is centred - Super Aguri and Toro Rosso, claim to do. Nonetheless, few expect the Toro Rosso to look radically different from the new Red Bull RB3, or the Super Aguri to depart significantly from last year's Honda. Understandably, this is something which pleases Spyker, in particular, not one bit. Without a similarly close relationship with any of the major teams, they are going to struggle to produce anything which can outpace a late-model Honda or a rebadged Red Bull, especially with guys like Sato and Liuzzi at the wheel.

If, in their view, the new Super Aguris and Toro Rossos (which are being kept carefully under wraps at present) are 'customer cars', they intend to take the matter to court. What, realistically, though, are their chances of success? The actual Concorde Agreement rules are confidential, but reports suggest that the key question is over who owns the Intellectual Property rights to the car. It may be that there are provisions to prevent one team selling IP rights to a previous year's car to another team, but even if that is the case, then it may well be that only the most minor modifications to the old car would be needed to make the case that it is, in fact, a new car altogether.

After all, there have been a number of cars that have looked rather, how shall we say, similar down the years, and the FIA has declared each of them legal. Who honestly believes that the previous Toro Rosso was anything more than a 2005 Red Bull RB1? And what of Sauber's 2004 'Blue Ferrari'? Going back a few years, the similarities between the Briatore-owned 1995 Benetton and the Briatore-owned 1995 Ligier are rather striking. To my knowledge, the only entries that have ever been refused under the 'no customer cars' rules were the 1992 Andrea Moda (a reworked Coloni - they quickly reappeared with a Simtek/BMW cast-off) and Middlebridge Racing's attempt to run a rather striking looking year-old Benetton for Emmanuele Pirro in 1987.

If the FIA are inclined to accept a car's entry, then there is clearly little that any other team can do, short of going to arbitration against the FIA itself - something which risks leaving the team with a very powerful enemy, even if they are successful. And given the FIA's stated position on the legality of customer cars in 2008, it is pretty clear what Max Mosley's attitude towards the matter is.

So if it is going to happen anyway, does it matter? I'm agnostic on the point. After all, customer cars would not represent some absolute break with previous tradition. Such efforts were common enough until the major teams, under Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA umbrella, got them outlawed in the early 1980s. At that time, they were little missed. Customer cars were usually run at selected races by bit-part players, running rent-a-drivers in old Marches, etc. In earlier times, though, there had been some pretty serious non-works efforts in Formula One. Lotus, for instance, took their first win not with the factory team, but with the rather better prepared Rob Walker Racing team, who ran a Lotus 18 for Stirling Moss. For a year or two at the end of the 1960s, Frank Williams ran a pretty effective operation with a customer Brabham, and all kinds of people ran non-works Coopers through that decade. The aforementioned Walker even had plans to run a customer Ferrari for Moss in 1962, before his career-ending shunt at Goodwood put a stop to that plan.

Nonetheless, I'm far from sure that the experience with customer chassis elsewhere in top-line single seater racing has been entirely positive. Take Champ Car, for example. They have always allowed customer chassis, and back in the early 1980s, there was a wealth of different manufacturers, and plenty variety on the grid. Gradually, though, the biggest players - namely Reynard and Lola, became so dominant as to wipe the smaller players off the grid entirely. They made clearly better cars than any other manufacturer, and economies of scale were such that they were able to build them ever more cheaply than their competitors to boot. When Reynard's 2001 chassis proved less than entirely wonderful, everyone migrated over to the Lola chassis, and the series became a de-facto one-make championship. In the end, it didn't even do Lola any favours, as, faced with a de-facto one-make series, series bosses introduced a de-jure spec-formula, and gave the contract to make the cars to Panoz, as exchange rates meant they could do the job more cheaply.

A similar process led to a one-make series emerging in F3000 (Lola, before Dallara won the GP2 contract, there's nothing new under the sun) and IRL is already heading in the same direction, with everyone running Dallaras. Formula 3 isn't quite so clear cut, but its been a long time since anything other than a Dallara won a championship of any standing.

Could it happen in Formula 1? It might seem far-fetched, but given enough time, I think it could. Imagine that Mclaren, for example, make a couple of their cars available to a satellite team. Those customer cars don't win anything, but they do enough to wipe out any real opportunities for say, Red Bull and WIlliams to score points. A couple of years later, Red Bull find themselves wondering why they are spending so much money on designing their cars when they could spend considerably less on getting hold of some customer Mclarens. For Williams, pride is at stake, but in the end, in the face of extinction, Frank swallows his pride and buys some Mclarens too. The money coming in from Williams, Red Bull and the original satellite team enables Mclaren to invest still more in their design for the following season, and up their production facilities. Increasingly, the workds Renault, Toyota and BMW teams, or rather the shareholders in the parent companies, wonder why they are spending so much money finishing 10th behind a pack of Mclarens every other weekend. Uninterested in running Mclarens, they sell their factories to the leading GP2 teams, who are more than happy to buy customer cars - its what they've done all their lives, after all. A decade down the line from the rule change, F1 has become a spec-formula (and Ron Dennis richer than Croesus).

Would it really happen that way? Maybe not. Maybe F1 is different, maybe the sheer level of technical know-how involved would get in the way of the kind of volume-car manufacture undertaken by Lola or Dallara. But that does rather tend to be the way it works out (although the F1 engine market provides an intriguing counter-example).

So what reason could there be for allowing customer cars? Well, there was a reason. Jaguar pulled out of F1 a couple of years ago, and other manufacturer teams could follow (watch Toyota....) There won't be a soft-drinks billionaire around to buy all of them. The cost of establishing a Formula 1 team from scratch. In the last 10 years, only Toyota and BAR have done so, and only then with the resources of the world's second largest car manufacturer and a tobacco conglomerate, respectively. And look how wrong they got it, initially!

If new teams are to come in, there's a strong argument that it will only be possible by allowing them to run cars bought from other teams. Could Super Aguri have come into being in 100 days if they hadn't owned the rights to the old Arrows A23s? What chance would Prodrive have of building its own cars in time for 2008?

So what is the compromise solution? A championship for drivers, open to everyone, and a manufacturers championship open only to those who design and build their own cars? Perhaps, but as Joe Saward pointed out recently, the risk is that Mclaren, Ferrari and Toyota (who probably have the resources to do it) would run satellite teams, purely to take points off their rivals, and soon half the grid would be made up of teams running under orders not to race the 'A teams'.

No, to me, the best solution is simpler. New teams should be allowed to purchase year-old cars from rival operations (To my mind, though, they should not be able to buy from any team which finished in the top 5 in the constructors championship - this would provide a useful revenue stream to a team like Williams, for example, and prevent the big teams running strategic satellite teams). They should be allowed to continue doing this for up to 3 years, while they build up their operation. At the end of the 3 year period, though, they should be required either to enter their own car, or continue running with a 2 year old design (perhaps modified by the new team itself). The three year period coincides neatly with the period that any new team is required to be in existence for before becoming entitled to any FOM money - neatly solving two problems at once. That way, there is a route for equipes wishing to move up from GP2 or suchlike, but at the same time, no risk is run of heading down the Champ Car/IRL road. A perfect solution? Well, has anyone got any better ideas?

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