Sunday, April 22, 2007

Authenticity and Entertainment

Authenticity, or purity, is a tricky concept. Difficult to define, and seemingly almost paradoxical. On the one hand, it can be much valued and actively sought out, and yet on the other, it is something which is so often very deliberately compromised precisely to make something more appealing, more attractive.

As a teenager growing up in the early 1990s, I was a heavily into the 'grunge' music scene of the time. Within that scene, great store was put by the supposed 'authenticity' of the music, in sharp contrast with the heavy rock music of the late 1980s. There was a strong sense that the music should be as pure, as unadulterated as possible. That excessive production, and compromises in the direction of radio-friendliness were to be looked down upon. It was a scene that was disdainful of bands that were thought to be careerists, of those who made compromises, of those who weren't, in the idiom of the time, for real.

Yet, looking back, it all seems rather strange. Bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were looked down upon while acts like Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr were inexplicably feted. Almost every young grunge fan, though, could agree that Nirvana were the real thing. Which is a little odd, looking back upon it, because listening to their breakthrough album, Nevermind, now, what strikes me most about it is how produced, how polished, it sounds.

It would be tempting, but to my mind, wrong, to conclude that music is always compromised in the name of commercial imperatives. There's still plenty people prepared to plough their own furrow, they just don't sell many records (actually, that's not entirely true - Joanna Newsom's Ys, Arcade Fire's Funeral and, going back a way, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing have all been remarkably successful while sticking firmly to their creator's original vision.) OK, you might be wondering, if you are still with me, what does this have to do with motorsport? (And no, I'm not just trying to outdo Mark Hughes, who got the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reagonomics, banking regulation, capital flows and the homogenising effects of globalisation into an article about customer cars this week).

Well, just as there are tensions between art and commerce in the music industry, so the same is true of sport. In fact, I think its particularly true of motorsport because, on television at least, it is so dependent on there being a close contest for its appeal. A one-sided football match can still make good viewing (look at Man Utd's game against Roma the other week). Michael Schumacher, or whoever, disappearing a minute ahead up the road tends to have casual fans reaching for the remote.

In motorsport terms, I'm with the purists. I was horrified when, a few years ago at the height of Michael Schumacher's dominance, people who should have known better were seriously talking about introducing weight penalties, reverse grids and other such wheezes to peg back the then-dominant Ferraris. To my mind, penalising success in this way is anathema to what top level sport should be about. It is like deciding to make Carl Lewis run 105 metres, or widening Brazil or Italy's goal posts in the World Cup, or making Roger Federer play with a wooden racket. If someone does such a good job, or is so superlatively talented that they are able not merely to win, but to dominate and humiliate their rivals, then this is what they should be allowed to do. A processional race may be dull, but an artificially close one is meaningless. You may as well go and watch wrestling.

I have to confess that, for a long time, I was ambivalent about safety cars (which could nullify a big lead) and single lap qualifying (too much of a lottery). I've sort of been won round to the concept of the safety car in F1 (it hasn't been used in the way it so often is in US open wheel racing, as a cynical means of enlivening a processional race) and single lap qualifying was at least the same for everyone. The two race engine rule, with its 10-place grid penalty for anyone forced to change power unit in the middle of a race weekend could theoretically spoil a championship fight, but the introduction of the 19000rpm rev limit has made this far less of an issue than it used to be.

On the whole, Formula 1 has avoided the worst efforts of those who seek to compromise the sport as a pure contest in the name of television numbers. The much trickier question is whether there is a place for such measures elsewhere in the sport. Two touring car series races last weekend gave me pause for thought on this matter. The British Touring Car Championship has been in the doldrums for a long time now, but this year has seen perhaps the best grid, and certainly the largest entry for a very long time. WIth a series which mixes manufacturer teams and professional works drivers, on the one hand, with clubman drivers in driver-prepared cars at the other extreme, it is inevitable that there will be some bending of the rules to make it easier for all to compete. Hence, local semi-manufacturer efforts from Vauxhall and Team Dynamics (Honda) are able to run BTCC homologated super2000 cars, while privateers have been allowed to continue to run the obsolete local BTCC-spec cars which should, in theory be faster than the S2000 tourers.

Some might consider such confused rules to be the kind of thing that purists like myself would frown upon. In this case, though, it strikes me as an eminently sensible way of keeping both the works teams at the front end and the privateers at the back content, and ensuring that there's a decent and varied grid to keep the spectators happy. I would normally be against the success ballast which is used to even out the field and prevent any one car/driver combination dominating proceedings. However, while F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport, nobody would pretend that the BTCC is. There are some good drivers in the field (mainly in the works teams, but Matt Jackson has been pretty damned incredible in a second-hand family-run BMW s2000 car) but there are also a lot of wealthy amateurs. This is primarily about providing good wheel-to-wheel motorsport every other Sunday through the summer. About hooking impressionable young kids on the sport. It is, in other words, about entertainment. And it doesn't really pretend otherwise. On the generally short and narrow British tracks, even the slowness of the S2000 touring cars isn't a big problem. The WTCC cars may look lost in the big open spaces of Zandvoort and Curitiba, but round Donington or Knockhill, they've got power aplenty. In fact, if I have a real complaint about the BTCC (unecessary uses of safety cars at Rockingham aside) it is that the clerks of the course are far too lax on frankly unacceptably bone-headed driving. Which, because everyone watches it on television, ends up filtering all the way down to local kart meets. Not that I'm bitter...

Meanwhile, over at Hockenheim, Europe's most successful and, on paper, its most interesting touring car championship was kicking off. The DTM has big, high-tech, powerful cars, with V8 engines generating 500BHP and a host of serious racing drivers at the wheel. Even the worst of them, the useless progeny of Messrs Lauda and Ickx, would probably be quite capable of running reasonably near the front of the BTCC. There's none of this reverse grids nonsense, and no weight penalties for those who have the temerity to win races.

And yet....the race was a real disappointment. OK, the fact that those of us watching in the UK have to tolerate the yabberings of Carlton Kirby doesn't help, and nor did the fact that 4 cars were eliminated in a very nasty first lap crash. But that wasn't all. There was just something a bit too slick, a bit passionless, about the proceedings. Perhaps its the fact that, like the Aussie V8 series, its not so much a genuinely open race series as an advert for the two car companies that provide all the vehicles. With just Audi and Mercedes participating in the series, there is a strong incentive for the series organisers to ensure that neither team establishes an upper hand. Each manufacturer has agreed to run an identical number of 2007, 2006 and 2005 spec cars, and each even appears to have agreed to run one female driver each. Mercedes, mind you, at least had the sense to pick up someone who is quick, rather than merely pretty. Audi would do well to see whether they could tempt Katherine Legge away from Champ Cars.

The fundamental problem, though, was a new and ridiculous rule that each driver must make 2 pit stops during the course of a 1 hour race. It was quite clear from the pace of Paul Di Resta, who held off pitting until very late in his 2 year old Mercedes, that the outright quickest strategy would have been to do the whole race on a single set of tyres. So why force drivers to pit twice? What on earth is the point? There does seem to be a myth abroad among series organisers that pit stops are somehow exciting, but I honestly cannot fathom where it came from. Indeed, Hockenheim gave a classic illustration of why they are not. Matthias Ekstrom went from 4th to win the opening round without passing a single car on the track. It wasn't the first time this has happened either - Gary Paffett used to pull this trick even in the days when there was only one mandatory pit stop. A perfectly reasonable thing for the teams to do - they're in it to win - but it would have been much more interesting to see whether Ekstrom had it within him to pass Spengler and Di Resta on the road.

The DTM, unlike the BTCC, is potentially a world class racing series. It has big, powerful cars, and drivers with major titles to their name (Jamie Green and Di Resta are Euroseries champions, Adam Carroll and Alex Premat were serious runners in GP2 who were perhaps just a whisker from making it into F1 and Mika Hakkinen...well, I don't need to say). It doesn't need silly gimmicks and artifice to spice things up, and it certainly doesn't need to be ruined by endless pitstops. Here, unlike in the BTCC, the purists really ought to win out.

post script - For those who are interested, to my mind the outright best 'grunge' album ever made was the Screaming Trees' Dust. Chances are, you haven't heard of it. Which goes to show that a pretty face counts for more than genuine musicianship.... Superunknown wasn't bad either.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The black round things

Interesting race at Bahrain, eh? I don't mean interesting as in exciting, in the breathless, wheel to wheel action sense (although David Coulthard, of all people, did his best to oblige with a drive from the back in his Red Bull) No, the point of interest, for me, is that I had assumed this season would be about Ferrari and Mclaren, and by extension, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. And yet in Bahrain, both of the established stars, the men we assumed would dominate the sport now that Michael Schumacher has taken his leave of absence, were overshadowed by their team mates. Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton qualified 1-2 and finished in the same order. Raikkonen trailed in third, while Alonso ended up unable even to keep the rather promising BMW of Nick Heidfeld behind.

I can't see things staying that way all season, but then, a few weeks ago, I'd have had a hard job believing that as early as Bahrain, Alonso would end up being outpaced by Lewis Hamilton. It does rather appear at this early stage in the season that we might have a genuine four way battle for the world championship on our hands between both Mclaren drivers and both Ferrari drivers. How each team handles what could prove to be a very delicate situation could be one of the points on which the season turns. Bahrain also served to illustrate that tyres could also be crucial this year, even in this post-Michelin era.

As a long time follower of the Champ Car World Series, I have to say I've never been a great fan of the 'red tyre rule'. This, for those not so interested in moribund American single seater series as I, is the rule by which Bridgestone bring 2 types of tyre to each race (the 'black sidewall tyre' and the softer 'red sidewall tyre') and each driver is required to run both at some point in the race. It always seemed gimmicky, and when combined with Champ Car racing's overfondness for the use of full course cautions, it can sometimes contrive to turn races into lotteries.

I was therefore rather disappointed over the winter to discover that a version of this rule has been adopted in Formula 1 this year. The requirement for teams to use both the 'hard' and the 'soft' tyre during the course of every race struck me as the kind of artifice that F1 would do well to avoid. More than anything, it seemed a cynical attempt to keep the commentators talking about tyres after the end of the tyre war, so maximising the publicity for Bridgestone. On closer examination, the rule does make a certain amount of sense, though.

Given that the rules require Bridgestone to bring 2 types of tyre to every race, the requirement to use both types of tyre in the race does have the significant logistical advantage of reducing the number of tyres brought to each meeting. Which given that all the tyres have to be shipped out from Japan, represents a significant cost saving for Bridgestone (and in environmental terms, of course, is of rather more consequence than painting the globe on the side of your car).

At Bahrain, we saw an intriguing hint that the rule might play a significant part in this season. In Champ Car racing, everyone uses the same chassis, so in theory, everyone is in the same boat, relative to each other, when it comes to tyre choice. In Formula 1, however, it is entirely possible that one team may have the fastest car on the hard tyres, while another team has the best car on the softer tyres. At Bahrain, this appeared to be the case, and it added considerably to the quality of the race. On the soft tyres, especially once the track had rubbered in, the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen clearly had the legs of the Mclarens of Hamilton and Alonso. Indeed, Alonso's Mclaren was so unsettled on the softer tyres that Heidfeld's BMW ended up getting past him on the track - the only passing manouvre between the top 6 to take place on track all day.

Come the final third of the race, though, and the switch over to the harder tyres, the situation appeared to reverse. Suddenly, Hamilton began to pull away from Raikkonen and start reeling in Massa, while his team mate Alonso was right onto the back of Heidfeld, and had he been able to find a way past him, might quickly have pulled up to Raikkonen's gearbox.

This could be very good news for the season as whole. With the tyre war ended, there is a danger that Grands Prix, especially under the sprint/stop/sprint/stop format, simply involve the car/driver combination that is fastest in qualifying racing off into the distance on Sunday and everyone following on behind in formation. It is not a formula which does anything to increase the likelihood of different cars being fast at different points in the race.

The tyre war between Michelin and Bridgestone did this to a degree. Sometimes, one tyre-maker would have a better tyre for qualifying, and another would have a better race tyre. Other times, one would have a tyre which worked better on a rubbered-in track, and the other on a green track. The effects of this were limited, but at the very least, last year it resulted in considerable variation in the performance of the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris and Michelin-shod Renaults from one race to the next.

Think back a couple of years to 2005 though, and there was notably more overtaking. Hell, there was even overtaking at Monaco. Why? The one tyre rule. Because drivers were forced to run the same set of tyres for the whole race, really significant variations in performance could emerge through the course of the race. A driver might be quick in the early laps, but kill his tyres in the process, struggling seriously as the race progressed. Indeed, this is pretty much exactly what happened in Monaco, with Fernando Alonso struggling and ultimately failing to hold off the Williams pair of Heidfeld and Webber as the race neared its conclusion.

Thinking back much further, to the days before refuelling, races could end up as nail-biting tortoise and hare battles between drivers hoping to take advantage of track position to do the whole race on one set of tyres, against others intending to make up time lost in the pits with the advantage of fresh rubber. With fuel stops thrown into the mix, a no-stop strategy is never going to be effective (although it did net Mika Salo points for Tyrrell in 1997) but back in 1987 it led to two classic duels - at the British Grand Prix between non-stopping Piquet and his team mate, Nigel Mansell, and in Monza, where it was Senna who attempted to go the whole race on one set of tyres, and Piquet who eventually chased him down after stopping. Sadly, while I've never been a fan of fuel stops, it seems that they are here to stay in F1. It doesn't yet seem to have dawned on the powers that be that such stops actively discourage passing on the track, as passing at the stops is almost always the safer option. Formula 1 has been the poorer over the last decade or so for it.

That said, with what just might be a four way battle for the world title, and perhaps even a six-way fight if BMW can make big strides in the month long break before the late-spring flurry of races that begins with the Spanish Grand Prix, this could still be a very interesting season.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Up against the ropes, but still fighting...

I've never been one to hide my own prejudices and preferences. Everyone has them, so I figure its as well to be upfront about them. And I've always preferred the Champ Car series to the IRL. To my mind, its more of a purist's formula, something a little closer to what I think the essence of motor racing is really all about. And I don't much care for oval racing....

Its been hard, though, to ignore the fact that the series has been looking far from healthy for a few years now, and over the winter, its occasionally looked like collapsing entirely (Bill Sheets summarises the problems well on his blog).
Just days before the start of the opening race, many teams had not announced their drivers, and after talking of having 25 cars on the grid this year, Kevin Kalkhoven was forced to concede that, at Las Vegas at least, there would only be 17. Even now, many of the drivers are on 2 or 3 race deals and its far from clear whether Halliday, Junquiera or Legge, for instance, will see out the season.

Last weekend, the first race of Champ Car's new spec-formula Panoz era began round the streets of Sin City. Las Vegas, as it turned out, gave both the doubters and the cheerleaders plenty of ammunition. To see the track was to feel that one had stepped back in time, to an era before obsessive safety precautions, when street circuits could be fast and challenging. The circuit had long straights, elevation changes, a couple of really quick corners and even a pair of underpasses. It brought to mind nothing so much as the F1 street races of the late 70s and early 80s. If even this correspondent feels that the chicane before the underpass was a little too hairy, it nonetheless has to be acknowledged that this was a proper racing circuit, and that is not something that can be said of every place that Champ Car has gone street racing in over the last couple of years.

The basic problem with the track was its location. People come to gawp at the greatest monument to sheer, shameless excess and bad taste on the planet. People come to gamble. People do not come to watch motor races. Its been proven before with Bernie Ecclestone's unsuccessful F1 races in the early 80s that Vegas is not the best place in the world to run a race. Street races succeed in places where there is a little less going on, where the race is more of an event. In Vegas, its just one more distraction. That, and the fact that the spectators were not afforded the best view of the track, meant that the race day crowd was pretty thin. A shame, because while Champ Car might have awful TV ratings, its one strength in recent years has been its ability to pull in a crowd.

On TV, though, the track looked great. It helped that the new cars looked fantastic. Visually, they're half way between GP2 cars and the old Lola Champ Car chassis, and perhaps something of an acquired taste, but what's important is how they go. And on the evidence of the first race, they're a vast improvement on the old Lola. They look faster and certainly much more nimble, and having taken a lead from GP2, the new cars generate much more of their downforce from underbody aerodynamics, and so can run much closer together. The result was some serious GP2-esque wheel to wheel racing in the early stages.

The big problem was that, as perhaps was to be expected with a new car that has had minimal testing, reliability was woeful. Several cars went out with what appeared to be gearbox/electrical problems, and the battle for the lead was ultimately decided by the refuelling problems which appeared to afflict most of the teams over the course of the race. I'm sure that the teams will soon get on top of the refuelling, but it is much more important that the other car reliability problems are sorted out. There are only 17 cars on the grid right now, and at street circuits you can usually count on 2 or 3 falling by the wayside in accidents. If half of the rest fall out with mechanical failures on a regular basis, then we could see as few as 7 or 8 cars actually making the finish.

To be fair, GP2 suffered equally serious problems with their cars when the series first started in 2005, with clutches burning out at the start and brakes going away entirely by half distance. The teams and the chassis manufacturer quickly got on top of these, and to my mind its now the strongest single seater racing series outside of Formula 1, and the best to watch of the lot. Champ Car is unlikely to challenge GP2's strength any time soon, but in terms of spectacle, the cars are in many ways like more powerful GP2 cars, so there's potential there.

With the driver deals being done very late, I had serious worries about the quality of the field this year, but to some extent, these appear to be misplaced. After the initial flurry of full course caution periods, the race ran uninterrupted for 3/4 of its length, and despite this, all those who didn't encounter mechanical or other woes finished on the lead lap. This is not something you would have seen in F1, where admittedly the differences between the cars is much greater, but it does suggest that there's nobody really slow in the field. Sure, Junquiera was lapped, but he had particularly severe fuel woes. Legge was almost lapped too, but she had been locked in battle with Tristan Gommendy until her brakes gave out towards the end leaving her about 3 to 4 seconds a lap slower than she had been.

There were notable performances from a trio of drivers who have underperformed in the last year. Bruno Junquiera, who had been comprehensively outpaced by Bourdais at Newman Haas last year had his Dale Coyne car right up among the front runners. Paul Tracy, who hasn't looked the equal of Bourdais since 2003, and who was pretty seriously outpaced by AJ Allmendinger last year, was back on the front row and might have beaten Will Power to the win had he not had problems with his fuelling rig. And finally, Alex Tagliani, who was fairly anonymous at Team Australia last year, was right back in the thick of it in his first race for the newly merged RSports team.

It was unfortunate that both Newman Haas cars and Justin Wilson's RSports car fell by the wayside, because it gives the impression that Will Power's maiden win came about largely through luck. In fact, he had the pole, the fastest lap, and most probably would have won the race regardless of what happened to the established stars. Given the sheer domination of Sebastien Bourdais over the past couple of years, this can only be a welcome development. Power came on increasingly strongly during his rookie year, and now that Newman Haas vast experience with the old Lolas is no longer in play, he and Team Australia just might be serious contenders this year.

The biggest problem on the driver front is that Champ Car is still a largely American based series with a largely European driver line-up. The success of NASCAR (to my mind one of the great mysteries of the racing world) shows that for any racing series to succeed in the US, they're going to have to have first rate American drivers in the field. The two Americans in the field are not exactly the most convincing either. Graham Rahal has been compared to Lewis Hamilton, in that he is a young driver going straight into a top team, but I'm afraid that on the basis of all I've seen so far, Rahal may not even be in the same class as fellow racing scion Marco Andretti, let alone Hamilton. Its early days, but Alex Figge certainly doesn't look like he'll be the man to re-establish Champ Car racing in the minds of the US public. Drivers who spin under full course caution probably don't really belong, and the best that can be said is that his father's Pacific Coast Motorsports team has also brought the far more promising Ryan Dalziel into the series.

There's no getting away from the fact that this is a series which is meant to be America's premier open wheel racing series (and certainly its premier road racing series) and yet the field has just 2 Americans, compared to no less than 4 Britons and 3 Frenchmen. If it carries on going this way, perhaps Messrs Kalkhoven, Gentilozzi and Forsythe might want to consider moving the series over to Europe too.

Its become something of a cliche to say that this is a make or break season for Champ Car. However, with the new car, and with challengers to Bourdais' supremacy beginning to emerge, I think its fair to say that this time, it really is make or break time.

(ps - Finally, a quick plug for these guys, who are podcasting the whole Champ Car season).

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

GP2 2007: Back down to earth?

If F3000 never had much success when it came to discovering new talent (just 2 F3000 champions ever went on to win Grands Prix), the early signs are that GP2 may be doing rather better. In the first two years, we've had Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton make the jump to F1 with serious teams, and Nelson Piquet Jr is waiting in the wings at Renault.

The question is whether the category can keep up this remarkable run of form as it goes into its third year, the last with the current car, at Bahrain in just over a week's time. Picking out favourites for the title seems a little more difficult than in the first two years. Last year, there were several established front-runners going into their second full season in the category and, in Lewis Hamilton, a standout F3 champion who looked like he might prove a match for any of them. This year, its hard to pick out anyone so obviously promising from among the sophomore drivers (the entry list, by the way is here). Reigning champions ART have two second year drivers, in Michael Ammermueller and Lucas Di Grassi. Both looked competent enough in their first year, given that Di Grassi was not with one of the more highly rated teams and Ammermueller had come straight up from Formula Renault, but neither man has so far done anythint to suggest that they are in the same class as Hamilton or Rosberg.

Luca Filippi, the former Euro F3000 champion is also back for a second year, but while team boss Dave Sears reckons he's quick, and he's topped the timesheets in testing on occasion, he didn't really do anything to suggest he was really from the top drawer last year. Andreas Zuber is back for another season but he is yet another driver who was neither fish nor fowl last year - winning a race on one occasion, but frequently looking utterly anonymous next to team mate Gianmaria Bruni at Trident. The same can be said of series returnee and former Spanish F3 champion Borja Garcia and of the rest Nicolas Lapierre has already failed to grasp too many opportunities and neither Javier Villa nor Jason Tahinci are likely to bother the top half of the grid.

What, then, of the newcomers? British F3 champion Mike Conway and fellow front runner Bruno Senna are both making the step up this season. Conway, in particular, has impressed me in the past when he used to race in Formula Renault, but I can't help but think that neither appeared to be in the same class as 2005 champion Alvaro Parente. What the Portuguese driver would give for a recognisable surname eh? Talking of recognisable surnames, Kazuki Nakajima, son of Satoru, the man who partnered Bruno's late uncle at Lotus some 20 years ago, is among those graduating from the Euroseries this year. He's got a Williams test drive too, though one can't help but feel his Japanese nationality and Williams' Toyota engine deal must have played a part (ironic really, because 20 years back, Williams lost their Honda engine deal in part because of their refusal to employ his Dad). His fellow countryman Kohei Hirate is also making the step up, and is probably marginally the quicker of the two new Japanese drivers (his testing contract is with Toyota...) but one can't help thinking that he hung around for a long while in Euro F3000 without achieving much.

A couple of potentially very quick drivers are making the jump over from the Renault World Series. Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado may be best known for receiving a multi-race ban after running down a marshal at Monaco, but he is quite possibly a much better prospect than Ernesto Viso ever was. Former Spanish F3 champion Andy Soucek is also a driver very much worth watching. Either of these two, who have much greater experience of racing powerful single seaters than most of the debutants, might make a good each way bet for this year's title.

What is perhaps most striking though, is the list of drivers not in this year's championship. There's no place for Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta, nor for his close rival, teenage prodigy Sebastien Vettel. While, for Vettel, a World Series driver and a BMW testing contract doubtless softens that blow, one suspects that Di Resta's drive in a 2 year old Mercedes DTM car alongside fellow Scot, Susan Stoddart might justifiably leave him feeling a little hard done by.

Renault World Series champion Alx Danielsson was talked about as a candidate for the BCN drive, but that never materialised (the seat has now gone to Sino-Dutch driver Ho Pin Tung, who deserves his place more than many on the grid) and Alvaro Parene remains stuck in career limbo. British F3 championship runner-up Oliver Jarvis has had to go off and ply his trade in Japanese F3, and will have to console himself with the thought that this did Adrian Sutil no harm and Spanish F3 championship winner Ricardo Risatti is yet another driver who didn't get the second BCN drive.

The upshot is that the field of promising young talent is neither as promising nor as talented as it should be, or as it was in the first two years of the category. This might just open the door for one of three drivers I haven't mentioned yet to take the title.

Ex F1 drivers Antonio Pizzonia, Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano have borken the mould by getting paid drives from teams with corporate sponsors who are keen to wrest the title away from ART. Some have suggested that it is unfair to allow ex-F1 drivers to compete against the up and coming drivers. Personally, I think this is nonsense. Ivan Capelli and Roberto Moreno both won the F3000 series with prior F1 experience, and their presence provides a very useful barometer of the overall talent level of the series. Suffice to say that if the young guns can't beat the likes of Pantano and Pizzonia, they probably don't deserve to be too far up the F1 team bosses' wish lists.

The contrasting motivations of the 3 ex F1 drivers are intriguing in themselves. Pantano has been around seemingly forever, and must surely be keen to win a title of some significance. For him, F1 can surely no longer be a realistic possibility - he was was mediocre in his single season with Jordan, and left that team under something of a cloud.

Pizzonia, by contrast, probably does still harbour F1 ambitions but he is very much in the last chance saloon in this regard. He showed pace on occasion both in his drive at Jaguar and in his one-off races with Williams, but he was far too inconsistent to merit a full time frontline drive. Only a serious show of dominance in GP2 is likely to revive interest among the F1 team bosses, but its just possible that he is capable of it.

Timo Glock, by contrast, is still very much a young hopeful. He showed a fair amount of promise in his one-off drives at Jordan despite being seriously inexperienced at the time, and was pretty quick in the unfancied Rocketsports Champ Car in 2005. Most importantly, though, he was capable of giving the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nelson Piquet Jr a fright in the ISport GP2 car last year, and he remains with Paul Jackson's team for his second full season of GP2. At the risk of looking very foolish at season's end, he's my tip to become the third GP2 champion. Its just a shame he's not up against the sort of opposition he should be.

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