Wednesday, June 27, 2007


There appear to be an awful lot of stories doing the rounds in the F1 paddock at the moment. Whisperings that leading teams are unhappy with one or more of their drivers, and, come to that, rumours of drivers decidedly unhappy with their teams.

Of course, in an environment as intrinsically competitive as Formula 1, when the results aren't coming, it is natural that the leading players will be desperately seeking to understand why this should be. Inevitably, some will wonder if a key player who is a weak link in the chain - a chief designer, a driver or a team manager who isn't pulling his weight. It is human nature, too that the last person that most F1 people will think of as the weak link is himself. You can be sure that while the rest of the world might think that Ralf Schumacher isn't doing a very good job at Toyota, or that Honda is being terribly managed, Ralf and Nick Fry will be convinced that the blame lies with others.

So, what are the stories doing the rounds? Ralf Schumacher seems as good a place to start as any, as an awful lot of other questions might hang on his future. Schumacher, who is widely rumoured to the second-highest paid driver on the F1 grid, has not had the best of seasons at Toyota. He has scored just 2 points all year, compared to his team mate Jarno Trulli's 7. More importantly, he has looked off the pace when compared to his team mate all year. He was outqualified by the two Spykers at Monaco, he made a silly mistake which put him out on the first lap at Indianapolis. Come to that, even in the races where he did score points - Australia and Canada - his performances were hardly outstanding. In Australia he threw away 7th place, allowing Nico Rosberg past him on a track where passing is normally all but impossible. In Canada, he may have made the points, but on a day with such a high attrition rate, his team might reasonably have hoped for better than 8th place.

Toyota's problem is this: Given that they're paying for him anyway, and given the extreme difficulties in enforcing performance-clauses, is there any point in getting rid of Schumacher Jr before his contract comes up at the end of the season? He may not appear to be doing a very good job, but it has to be said that the Toyota does not appear to be an especially good car. It is not clear, either, who would take his place. The team could draft in test driver Franck Montagny, who would probably be competent, but he wasn't so good that Renault thought him worth keeping - and that despite his nationality... And if not Montagny, then it is unclear quite who they would go with. Kazuki Nakajima has links with the team, but surely lacks the experience necessary to do any better than Schumacher - besides which, he has looked unexceptional in absolute terms in GP2, and wasn't as quick as, for example, Paul Di Resta in F3 last year.

So, chances are, Ralf Schumacher will keep his drive until the end of the year, but that this might well be his final season in the sport. Next question. Who might replace him in 2008? If some of the wilder rumours are to be believed, the answer to this question could be.....Kimi Raikkonen

At first glance, this might appear to be rather far-fetched. Haven't Ferrari paid him some unimaginable sum to be his lead driver until the end of 2008? On closer inspection, though, perhaps it is possible. Its hard to avoid the conclusion that the Raikkonen-Ferrari marriage has got off to a rather rocky start this tear. Ferrari have been decisively outpaced by Mclaren in recent races and the question must be there in the back of Jean Todt's mind - Is it the drivers?

Felipe Massa had, on balance, been quicker than Kimi Raikkonen this year, despite the pre-season assumption on the part of most observers that he was the de facto Number 2 at Maranello. This has been seen by some as a sign of remarkably improved form from the previously rather mercurial Brazilian, but what if it isn't so much that Massa is quicker than we thought he would be, as that Raikkonen is slower?

If that were so, then it would suggest that, with a driver of the calibre of an Alonso or a Hamilton, Ferrari might be able to mix it with Mclaren without having to find improvements in the car. The trouble is, though, if the team believe that neither Massa nor Raikkonen are their best options, who else on the grid might do a better job?

If paddock gossip is anything to go by, it would seem that the Ferrari management have alighted upon the promising Williams driver (and the other GP2 champion) Nico Rosberg. Working on the assumption that Alex Wurz hasn't forgotten to drive in the years since he was last a full time racing driver, it does rather appear that Rosberg Jr is getting the Williams much further up the grid than it really deserves to be. Of course, the same thing appeared to be true of Mark Webber at Jaguar, and he's never really looked quite so quick since, but if Ferrari become convinced that Kimi Raikkonen is not the answer to the conundrum of replacing Michael Schumacher, they may as well try someone else.

So if Rosberg goes to Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen would be in line for being shuffled off to Toyota (if retirement doesn't seem the more appealing option) and Williams, who would struggle somewhat with meeting Raikkonen's fees, might well go chasing Adrian Sutil.

But what if that's not what happens. What if Ferrari decide that the best way to take on Mclaren's seemingly invincible driver line-up is to snatch one of them. Mclaren would probably be very reluctant to let either of them go - the biggest advantage of having the two quickest drivers on the grid tied into long-term contracts is that the best on offer to any putative rival is the third fastest driver on the grid. Ron Dennis will remember well that, whatever his other problems at the time, when he had Senna and Prost in the late eighties, the other teams never posed much of a threat.

The problem is that the drivers themselves might not see it that way. Both Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton might feel that they are drivers of the kind of stature that deserves undisputed no.1 status. They can't both have that at Mclaren, so if a vacancy were to open up at Ferrari at the end of the season, would Ron really be able to keep hold of both his young charges?

There's one final thought, which I haven't heard aired this season, but which I can't write off as entirely fanciful. Remember what Alonso said at the end of last season, after he had won his second world title? He said that "3 world championships is a good number. It's what Senna got, it's what Piquet got, it's what Lauda got. I don't want to be a racing driver forever." Fernando has never enjoyed the fame and attention that has come with being a double F1 world championship and neither does he appear to be revelling in the challenge posed by his rookie team mate this year. He must know, too, that given time, Hamilton is only likely to get better. Could it be that, if he were to win the title this year, he would simply walk away from the sport, job done, still only in his mid-twenties? What would that do to the driver market?

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Champ Car and GP2 - Observations From The Opening Races

The vultures are circling over a few Grand Prix drivers at the moment. Ralf Schumacher is widely thought to be out of favour at Toyota as his contract comes up for renewal. Alex Wurz's qualifying pace in the Williams has been so awful that his considerable racecraft has proven insufficient to make up for it. Heikki Kovalainen is probably out of the danger zone at Renault after a couple of good North American races and a strong performance in Spain, but both the Toro Rosso drivers could be considered to be under threat, as perhaps, is Spyker's Christijan Albers, who has been comprehensively outpaced by Adrian Sutil. Sutil, is, of course, one of the names which comes up when talk turns to who might replace these men, but he could only fill one of the available seats, and it looks as though there may be rather more available than that.

Formula 1 team bosses, therefore, might do well to pay attention to what is happening in the two other big single seater road course series - the Champ Car World Series and the GP2 series. For the rest of us, they're worth following in themselves. These series feature 600-750BHP cars on slick tyres with, by F1 standards, limited downforce and much greater mechanical grip - and there's no traction control or similar electronic gizmos either. Aside from the spec-chassis nature of both championships, they come very close to a purist's vision of what modern single seater racing should be about.

There were a couple of notable milestones the other weekend at Portland. Newman Haas took their 100th Champ Car victory since they entered what was then the CART series in 1987. Unsurprisingly, it was Sebastien Bourdais - responsible for more than a quarter of those 100 wins, who took the chequer first, racking up a hat trick of wins in the new Panoz Champ Car in the process.

Perhaps less expectedly, the Portland race was also the first Champ Car race in several years to go the entire distance without a single yellow flag. Leaving aside a couple of drivers who ran out of fuel in the closing stages, there were no retirements either. As such, the race offered an unusually good guide to the overall competitiveness of Champ Car at the moment.

The picture that the race painted was, on the whole, good. The new Pacific Coast Motorsport Team's cars were three and two laps adrift, respectively, but none of the rest of the field fell more than one lap down in the whole of the course of the race - a race which, lest we forget, is more than a hundred laps long. What the race did seem to show was that the introduction of the new chassis has not made a great deal of difference to the relative competitiveness of the teams. The fact that Alex Figge was running at the back might be put down to the fact that he doesn't really belong at this level, but Ryan Dalziel was only a lap further in front in the other PCM car - which suggests that this new team still has a good deal to learn.

Much closer to the pace, but still behind all but the PCM cars, were the Dale Coyne cars of Bruno Junquiera and Katherine Legge. Again, its unlikely to be down to the drivers - Junquiera was a race winner when he was at Newman Haas, and while Legge's record in Champ Car is patchy, she had actually just passed Junquiera when she ran out of fuel. Jan Heylen did a fantastic job to get onto the tail of Paul Tracy (before he too ran out of fuel) in his return to the series, replacing the luckless Matt Halliday at Conquest.

Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that there are no more than five, perhaps at a push, six, potential race winners in the series. Sebastien Bourdais is head and shoulders above all of them - and it is notable that it is he, specifically, and not Newman Haas, in general, who has been making the running in the opening races. However, one should not forget 2007 race winner Will Power, who has been a consistent front-runner at Team Australia, nor his former team mate, Alex Tagliani, who appears to be enjoying something of an Indian Summer at RSports. The other two drivers who at least look like they might be capable of winning races this year are two ex-F1 drivers: Robert Doornbos at Minardi Team USA who has taken to Champ Cars like a duck to water, and Justin Wilson at RSports, who looked to have the race at Portland in the bag when he came into the first pit stops with a 20s lead.

You might wonder why I haven't mentioned either of the Forsythe Championship racing guys. Well, I might be wrong, but I can't help feeling that Paul Tracy is long past his peak now. He was reasonably convincing at the opening round, but still couldn't catch Will Power, and on his return at Portland, he was absolutely nowhere. Worse still, he was openly pondering retirement - hardly the talk of a driver who fancies his chances of adding to his 2 Champ Car titles. And the other Forsythe driver? Well, for as long as the team keeps chopping and changing its driver line-up, I just can't see Servia, Martinez or Dominguez winning races. How all concerned must wish Allmendinger hadn't taken the NASCAR dime (including, perhaps Allmendinger himself, given how awfully his NASCAR season has been going).

In the end, while a team boss might be tempted to test Will Power, and maybe even Simon Pagenaud, to see what they can do, Sebastien Bourdais is probably the only serious candidate for an F1 drive in Champ Car right now. The question is - will anybody offer it? Toro Rosso have tested him, perhaps Toyota might want to try him out. Unlike many knocking on the door of F1, he would be a seriously experienced safe pair of hands - and he just might be seriously quick as well.

So if there's only one guy who really looks up to the job in Champ Cars, how are things over in GP2, where the opening five races have seen five different winners. Ron Dennis remarked earlier in the year that he didn't see any of the current crop of GP2 drivers as being potential F1 front runners, and with one exception, he may well be right.

For while there have been five different winners, Timo Glock has emerged as far and away the front-runner in the series. He won the second race at Barcelona, but would probably have won the first as well had it not been for a dodgy pit call, and might well have added victory in race 1 at Bahrain had he not damaged his steering in a first corner incident. In Monaco he qualified an unusually lowly 7th, but was able to fight his way up to 3rd on a circuit where passing is all but impossible. He's hardly emerged from nowhere, either. He was quick when deputising for Pantano at Jordan, despite being very inexperienced at the time. His performances in Champ Car were good, and perhaps even better with the benefit of hindsight (nobody else did anything much with a Rocketsports drive, did they?), and once he got together with ISport last year, he was as near as makes no difference a match for Lewis Hamilton in GP2. I'm still amazed that BMW were more inclined to call Sebastien Vettel when a vacancy unexpectedly arose at the US Grand Prix at the weekend.

The rest? Pastor Maldonado looked absolutely stunning at Monaco, but as Martin Haven remarked, he's the Goran Ivanisevic of motorsport - you never know which Maldonado will turn up on any given occasion. Certainly he hasn't looked like scoring points, let alone a win, on any other occasion. Nicolas Lapierre finally broke his duck and won a race in Bahrain, but doesn't look like the great white hope for French motorsport that he (and Premat) did in his F3 days.

The most promising of the other winners, to my mind, have been Luca Filippi and Bruno Senna. Senna doubtless has found his path to the top smoothed by a family name which will open a lot of doors, but there's still no getting around the fact that he has been astonishingly quick for a guy who, unlike most of the rest of the field did not spend his teenage years going round in circles in karts.

Filippi was a man I singled out as a potential front runner last year, but he never seemed at home at Fisichella Motorsports, and was out after just a few races. Pantano's late season wins for FMS suggest this wasn't all about the team, but Pizzonia's struggles there this year do rather hint that its not the easiest place for a driver to make an impression. At Supernova, he's finally living up to the promise that I thought I saw in him, and making British F3 champion Mike Conway look rather ordinary in the process. I'd tip him as the man most likely to get between Glock and the title this year. Although, on balance, I rather doubt anyone will do that.

Others worthy of mention? Andy Zuber has been very quick in qualifying in the other ISport car, and just might be able to take the fight to Glock if he can ever get off the line in Race 1. Mikhail Aleshin was pretty impressive in his debut with ART, and of all people, Vitaly Petrov has suddenly emerged at the front of the midfield. Amazing what a good, experienced team mate can do for a young driver, eh?

Still, if we're looking for potential F1 drivers, my money is on the BMW tester. What price a Glock/Bourdais pairing at Toro Rosso next year?

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Mountain Kings

I suppose, in the end, its a simple obsession with speed, and, in particular, with the delicate balance between speed and control. I've never been particularly interested in motorbike racing - I watch the Moto GP sometimes, but I've never been more than a casual follower of the series, and I would struggle to explain exactly what the difference is between a Grand Prix bike, a Superbike and a Superstock Bike. There was no way, though, when an old friend invited me over to watch the Centenary Tourist Trophy races on the Isle of Man, that I could ever turn the offer down.

Sidecar 19 - Ballacrainie
Sidecar action at Ballacrainie.

For me, much of the appeal lay in the circuit itself. Older racing fans can get dewy eyed at the mere mention of the old Nordschleife, the monstrous 14 mile circuit which Jackie Stewart christened 'Green Hell'. The TT Mountain Course, however, is over twice as long, at 37 miles. It is not length alone, though, that makes the circuit so special, so much as the fact that it is made up entirely of public roads. How many of us race fans have not, at some point, daydreamed about making a race circuit out of the sweeping A-roads nearest where we live? Well, if the roads are really good in your area, and if you thought big, you just might end up with something resembling the TT course. Chances are, though, that it wouldn't feature anything so challenging as the downhill switchbacks at Union Mills, so spectacular as the bridge at Ballough which sends the bikes airborne, or so downright frightening as the mountain section.

No 34 -Ice Valley Senior TT - Ginger Hall
Up close to the action during the Senior TT at Ginger Hall.

There are a couple of additional bonuses for spectators. Unlike almost any other motor race I can think of, it is possible for spectators to try their hand at a substantial section of the course for themselves. The race is held on public roads, and this year, for the duration of the 2 week event, the mountain section, which runs for 12 miles between the Ramsay Hairpin and Creg-Na-Ba was made one-way. Combined with the absence of any speed limits on open roads on the Isle of Man, this presents a rare opportunity for ordinary race fans to see what they can do on a real race course (and to find out how much they value their lives and limbs...) I'm not a biker myself, but a friend took me round at what he considered a rather sedate pace (still over 100mph in places) in his car and that was enough to give me some small flavour of what is is that the likes of John McGuinness, Ian Hutchinson. Dave Molyneux and Bruce Anstey had to contend with.

Sitting on the wall watching the bikes
Watching the bikes at Bradden Bridge, Tuesday.

The other almost unique virtue of the Mountain Course is the sheer variety of places to watch the race from. So it was that I watched the Monday afternoon sidecar race from the beer garden at the Railway Inn, Union Mills, thinking that there really can't be any much more civilised way to enjoy one's motorsport. For a change of scene on Tuesday, I picked a spot in a church graveyard at Bradden Bridge (a quaint little Methodist place offering TT and Teas - for what its worth, another church put on a 'Mad Sunday Service') to watch the supersport race, and the embankment at Quarterbridge for the Centenary Parade.

Centenary Parade - Quarterbridge
An old Norton sets off on a lap of the track during the Centenary Parade on Tuesday.

So what is the appeal of watching the TT? Well one major plus is that it is possible to get very close to the action indeed. At Union Mills and at Ballacrainie, it was possible to get with a few feet of the track (from a safety point of view, it helped that this was a few feet above the track). After too many trips to Knockhill for the BTCC over the years, it is also a very pleasant change to among such a knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic crowd. In particular, I must single out two elderly gents I spoke to at Ballacrainie who had been coming for over 40 years and had seen John Surtees win in horrendous conditions in 1959. What impressed me most was that as the Supersport Race began, one of the men turned to the other and said "forget the good old days, these are the good old days, these are the riders who matter now". Its hard to recall having encountered such enthusiasm for the present day among older F1
fans, for example.

Dave Molyneux - Parade of Champions
Dave Molyneux, 13-times Sidecar winner at the TT, demonstrating an older-vintage machine at the Parade of Champions.

Maybe it is simply the fact that I don't normally watch bikes, but the other thing that struck me was how much easier it was to tell apart those who were really on it. In particular, John McGuinness' ultra-smooth lines, and gentle throttle control at Ginger Hall really stood out during the Senior TT on Thursday. It was easy too, to tell who was really quick during the Supersport 600cc race on Wednesday, simply from how early they were able to get onto the throttle through the fast 90 degree corner at Ballacrainie.

John McGuinness - Winner - Senior TT
John McGuinness on his way to winning the Senior TT.

Are there any downsides to watching the TT? As someone used to circuit racing, I have to admit that the fact that riders went off at 10sec intervals sometimes made it very difficult to work out exactly what was going on. Especially when the noise from the bikes often made it hard to make out the radio commentary. Undoubtedly too, you don't see as much on track action as at short circuit events. If 14 laps at the old Nordschleife for a Grand Prix leaves you feeling short-changed, then bear in mind that the 200+ mile Senior TT, the longest race of event, sees the riders come past just 6 times. Of course, the fact that there are 70+ runners in most events, and that they don't all come past at once, does ensure that you're not spending too much time twiddling your thumbs.

There is, of course, a dark side to the TT. In its 100 year history, over 200 riders have been killed at the event, the last of those, Marc Ramsbotham, crashing fatally on the final lap of the Senior TT last Friday. It is not that the organisers of the TT don't care about safety, but rather that a race on a 37 mile road course, complete with telegraph poles, trees, concrete walls, sheer drops can never be safe, in the workaday sense of the word. It might be possible to engineer a racing car in such a way to enable Robert Kubica to come away from a near aircrash like shunt with only a sprained ankle but no safety equipment can entirely protect a rider falling from a bike at 150mph.

There are those who would argue that a race which has killed so many riders, which has resulted in so much death, should be stopped. That, though, would be to ignore the wishes of the very people such do-gooders are trying to protect - the riders themselves. These days, the TT is a standalone race, not part of any world championship. No rider is unaware of the risks they are taking, nor is any rider forced into competing against their will. As David Jeffries, who was killed in 2003, put it "No-one is forcing me to go, I'm doing it completely off my own back. I enjoy doing it. There are so many things in life that you aren't allowed to do for some pathetic reason that some bloke in a suit has decided because it's dangerous or some other reason". Or, as Walter Scott put it "One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name".

If you're a racing fan, you owe it to yourself to make the trip at least once - to see racing as it used to be - a modern form of gladiatorial combat, dangerous, frighteningly fast, and utterly spectacular. Get over there before the Health and Safety Inspectors or the Insurance suits kill it off forever.

All photos are author's own. Photos may freely be copied and reused, providing attribution is given.
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