Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Mad World

The other day, I was perusing the logs for Motorsports Ramblings when something caught my eye. Someone had been led to this site after entering the search term "What would happen to the plants in the world if it rained Red Bull?" I'm afraid that's a question I am not in any position to answer. If he or she wanted to know what happens to Red Bulls when it rains, on the other hand, the answer is that the improve dramatically. And it doesn't seem to hurt them when they're called Toro Rossos either. I've heard it said that there are no stupid questions, but I must confess I have my doubts.

Still, that was not the only moment of madness I encountered this week. I read on Monday at Grandprix that the Malaysian Government is involved in efforts to secure an F1 ride for Fairuz Fauzy. This would be the Fairuz Fauzy who looked utterly lost in GP2 in his two seasons in the category, and who blended into the midfield in the Renault World Series this year. Why on earth the Malaysian Government could possibly think that the country has anything to gain from placing the hapless Fauzy in Formula 1 I do not know. Fauzy was talked of as Malaysia's most promising young driver back in his British F3 days, but nothing he has done since suggests he would belong on the F1 grid. I can't help feeling that he would probably be even more out of his depth than Alex Yoong, who usually outpaced him when they drove together in A1GP. I can only surmise that he is being considered as a possible Number 2 driver at Spyker, or Force India, or whatever they are called this week. I can't help feeling that even they, however, figure that they can probably do better than Fauzy in what would appear to be something of a seller's market.

If that wasn't strange enough, the report that Roldan Rodriguez has backers prepared to put up nearly £8m to get him into F1 defies rational explanation. Rodriguez, who was probably previously best known for driving into Timo Glock on the warming up lap for the Belgian round of the GP2 series this year has done absolutely nothing to stand out until now, finishing 17th in the year's GP2 championship and being outpaced by previously unfancied scion of the Medley pharmaceuticals corporation, Xandi Negrao. Who thinks Rodriguez's potential represents a worthwhile investment at £8m, and why, is frankly beyond me. Still, the man has a testing contract with Force India, and therefore cannot be ruled out as a potential candidate for the drive next year. His pedigree is probably a good deal more promising than a number of the clowns who have had drives for tail-end teams in the past.

It wasn't all nonsense this week. I was pleased to see Andy Priaulx take his fourth consecutive FIA Touring Car title at Macau on Sunday, despite a rulebook which had seemingly been designed to guarantee we got a different winner this year. Priaulx, unlike many of his rivals, rarely, if ever, engages in dubious on-track moves, and suffered more than his fair share of bad luck. On top of this, the penalty given to rear wheel drive cars in the latter part of the season was such that it shouldn't have been possible for a BMW driver to walk away with the title. That he did is testimony to the Guernseyman's considerable ability behind the wheel of a tintop. As the only man to score a win with Honda's problematic Civic Type-R touring car, he excelled in the category pretty much from the moment he switched over from F3. One wonders whether he might now be winning F1 races had he not been older than most of the current F1 grid by the time he got himself into a decent F3 car.

The F3 race wasn't a classic, but in Oliver Jarvis, it had a very worthy winner. Jarvis was the man who won races for Carlin with a Mugen engine in F3 at a time when it was assumed that a HWA Mercedes was a basic requirement for success. In A1GP, he broke the GB team's duck after Robbie Kerr had spent nearly two years trying, and he has subsequently shined in Japanese F3, where he is currently marooned on account of not having the money to go racing in GP2. Marko Asmer's fine showing, qualifying second and setting fastest lap in the bargain - before eventually finishing 4th when a down on power engine left him struggling on the long main straight - showed that the British F3 champion remains a force to be reckoned with. If Force India were prepared to take a bit of a chance, and wasn't relying on a driver armed with pots of cash, it might do well to take a chance on either of these promising youngsters over such questionable prospects as Rodriguez and Fauzy.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Park Life

Over at Fastest Lap a while back, Neil asked an interesting question in a post on his recent trip to Bathurst. How many of the online motorsport community actually go to see races in person?

In my case, the answer is not nearly as often as I would like to. For the last eleven years, I have lived in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. It's a wonderful city in many ways, and despite the appalling weather, sky high property prices and countless other minor niggles, it regularly tops UK quality of life surveys as the best place in the country to live. It is not, however, very conveniently located for watching motor racing. Only the 1.3 mile Knockhill circuit, over the water in Fife is within easy reach.

That said, I have been to a good proportion of the UK's racing circuits over the years. At first, when we lived in the south east of England, my father used to take me to regular trips to Brands Hatch. Later, when we moved north, we would substitute Silverstone, Donington Park and Oulton Park. I've also been to a couple of race meetings at Croft. Do I have a favourite?

Yes, I do. The two and a half miles or so of tarmac that snakes its way through the Cheshire countryside at Oulton Park. For those of you who have never seen the place, Oulton is a relatively short, narrow circuit in the north-west of England, not far from the Welsh border. There's plenty of gradient change, some really tricky corners with odd camber changes and a pair of really big stops (although, yes, one of them is a chicane). Though on a much reduced scale, there is a certain resemblance to the majestic Road America circuit, as numerous graduates of the British Junior Formulae who have gone to ply their trade in the States have noted.

Older afficionados assure me that the place has been ruined by the appendage of ungainly chicanes at Foulstons and at Knickerbrook. I can't comment. I don't remember what the place was like before these chicanes were added. Though I went to several race meetings in the mid-1980s before Paul Warwick's tragic death led to the insertion of the Knickerbrook chicane, we usually watched the action from Old Hall or Lodge, and so I don't actually know what Knickerbrook used to be like. Whatever, much as I often moan on here about the bastardisation of great racing circuits, I think the essential features of Oulton Park have survived more or less unscathed. Old Hall, the downhill sweep of Cascades, the tricky blind corner at Lodge that leads into the dip at Deer Leap - they're all still there.

Too small to host major international events, the place is instead the ideal venue to watch F3 and the multifarious categories that make up the UK club racing scheme. The Blue Riband event was always the annual Oulton Park Gold Cup. This started out as a non-championship Formula 1 race - I understand that F1 journalism's eminence gris Nigel Roebuck's first taste of motorsport came from a family trip to such a race in the mid-1950s - but by the time I was a regular at Oulton Park, the Gold Cup was a round of the British F3 championship. This might sound pretty uninspiring, especially when compared to the kind of machinery that Nigel Roebuck would have seen on his first trip, but while an F3 car might look rather tame and unexciting on the wide expanses of the Silverstone GP circuit, it's ideally suited to the more confined Oulton Park. It helped that in the years when I was there regularly, British F3 was enjoying one of its strong periods, with Mika Hakkinen, Mika Salo, Alan McNish and David Brabham amongst the front runners. (There was also, as it happened, a guy by the name of Steve Robertson who hasn't done badly as a driver manager in the intervening years....)

Many of the races I saw at Oulton Park were minor club events, but were none the less entertaining for that. The Slick 50 Budget Saloon Car championship guys could always be relied upon to put on a show with their Rover SD1s, Hillman Avengers, Talbot Lotuses, et cetera. The Star of Tomorrow FF1600 races were always pretty hotly contested. Amongst the front runners there was a certain Louis Di Resta, whose son hasn't done badly of late (actually, Louis still races at Knockhill himself, as it happens). These, of course, were the days before single-make uniformity overtook the club racing scene. One of these days, I will get around to writing an article explaining exactly what is wrong with single make racing from a spectator point of view, but take it from me - it's less entertaining (although there was a certain surreal 'what the fuck?' factor to be had from watching people racing Ford P100s...)

Every now and again, there is talk in the press that Oulton might be sold off to housing developers. From a distance, it has looked in rather better health since Jonathan Palmer's Motorsport Vision people got hold of the place. I only hope I am right. It's a place I would miss more than any other circuit in the UK.

Endnote: Regular readers may know that this week's column is a little late because of my participation in the madness that is 'national novel writing month'. It is to that which I now return.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stranger than fiction

It's got action, drama, suspense and danger. In other words, it's got everything that a Hollywood scriptwriter is dreaming of. So why have films about motor racing been so uniformly awful?

I remember seeing the trailer for the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman NASCAR-fest, Days of Thunder as a 12 year old kid and thinking, even then, that it was all but guaranteed to be terrible. When I finally got round to watching it, years later, I must say that my suspicions proved to be on the money. Ridiculous, implausible 'racing action' melded together with an absurdly cliched love story so lacking in chemistry that it's frankly amazing that the lead actor and actress were actually married in real life. And that's leaving aside the question of how Kidman was supposed to be a 'top brain surgeon' at an age when most medical students would not yet be out of college.

OK, you might argue, Days of Thunder was a real rotten tomato of a film, but what about the others? The awful truth is, Days of Thunder is not even the worst example of the genre. More recently, we had the diabolical Driven. If 23 year old Nicole Kidman as a brain surgeon stretches credulity, a 55 year old Sylvester Stallone as a racing driver simply threw reality out of the window. The film was nominated for no less than 5 of Hollywood's ignominious Golden Raspberry awards (for worst screenplay, worst performance by a supporting actress, worst on-screen couple, worst picture and worst supporting actor - twice! in case you're wondering.) This after all, was meant to be the Grand Prix film that had Bernie Ecclestone's backing. Bernard, however, evidently knew enough about show business to spot a giant turkey when it came calling. and so the producers had to go running off to speak to the guys at Champ Car, who must have figured that any publicity is good publicity.

What of the rest? Talladega Nights, I am told, is a reasonably entertaining comedy if you like that sort of thing, but as someone with an abiding loathing of both Farrelly Brothers films and NASCAR, I've never actually seen it. Going back a few decades, John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix has achieved quite a reputation among motorsport fans of a certain age, though more for its innovative use of special effects than for the quality of the story or the acting. The film, which I have to admit I am not overly fond of, is a reasonable period piece, but as someone who grew up in the era of the onboard camera, the special effects have rather lost their sheen. That leaves a rather predictable plot, and one can't help noticing that at nearly 3 hours, this is a very long film, and it feels it.

To my mind, the best racing film ever made was Steve McQueen's vanity project, Le Mans. Unlike the movies mentioned above, it doesn't really even try to impose much of a plot on the event, and feels in places more like an art-house documentary about 70s sportscar racing than a Hollywood feature. The first half an hour or so features literally no dialogue. It was not especially successful at the box office. Steve McQueen may have been a major star, but the Le Mans 24 Hour race has never really meant all that much to the cinema-going public in the USA. The film is, by the way, quite possibly the origin of the famous quote "When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or just waiting" (it has been suggested that the line was stolen from something which Maurice Trintignant said). If you are at all interested in motor racing of the era. this is the one motorsports film I would recommend making time for.

So why don't they work? It's hard to say for sure, but I suspect that it is because they are essentially redundant. Name a really worthwhile sports movie? It's not easy. The problem is that there is very little that you can do in fiction that you can't do in real life. Why watch a film about Grand Prix racing when you can simply watch a Grand Prix? It is interesting that, just as there have been few successful films about motor racing - in fact, I'd say there has been precisely one - so there haven't really been many novels in which it features either. Years ago, as an impressionable 7 year old, I read Four Wheel Drift, a children's book set around Le Mans by Bruce Carter, but to be honest, I don't remember much about it. Some years later, I also read some of Bob Judd's F1 based novels, but found them far-fetched even in comparison to the kinds of thriller one typically finds at airports (Monza wasn't too bad, though).

As an aside, I'm currently participating in a rather hare-brained event by the name of National Novel Writing Month. Amongst other things, it's the reason this post is a day late. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. It will, of course, be of awful quality, but the point is to write something from beginning to end. I've attempted it twice before, but have never got beyond the half way stage. This year, I thought I would have a go at writing a "Dick Francis on wheels" to steal a line Murray Walker used to describe Bob Judd's books. Its early days yet, but I feel if there is one thing I'm learning, it's why successful authors don't generally write fiction about sport...

POST SCRIPT: Anyone see Nigel Roebuck's Top 10 drivers of 2007 in Autosport this week? I was amused to see that his list featured exactly the same drivers as mine, and in a somewhat similar order to boot! Do think he rather overestimated Kubica though...

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