Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Back to Basics

The other weekend, I happened to find myself in conversation with an American who had come over to Scotland on the subject of sport. I mentioned that a local boy (Dario Franchitti) had won the Indy 500 last year and, for all that he was an expert on baseball, American football, ice hockey and basketball, the name meant nothing to him. As he explained "In the US, these days, motor racing is NASCAR." He wasn't a fan. "It just seems to be this weird thing that's inexplicably popular in the Southern States. White trash with pick-up trucks and huge beer guts love it. The rest of us try to ignore it." On balance, I should therefore probably take it as a compliment when he added "You don't strike me as a typical kind of motorsport fan."

I have to admit I rather share his view of NASCAR. In the end, I just can't get all that excited by oval racing, and even less so by the safety-car infested crash-and-bash version that is represented by NASCAR. It's a series that hasn't really taken off anywhere else in the world, but the other day I happened to catch the Speedcar World Series for the first time. The Speedcar Series involves cars with tubular spaceframe chassis and big primitive 600BHP V8 engines and 4-speed H-Pattern gearboxes. Make no mistake, these are essentially NASCAR stock cars in disguise. What piqued my curiosity is that unlike in NASCAR, they are racing on road courses.

And as it happens, they're not bad to watch either. The cars are softly sprung, have huge amounts of power and little in the way of aerodynamic downforce. As a consequences, they slide around a lot more than one is used to seeing in modern circuit racing. I can't help thinking that this is probably as close as modern racing gets to the spectacle of 60s touring car racing, where the likes of Brian Muir and Jackie Oliver used to manhandle huge American V8 muscle cars like the Ford Galaxie and Mustang around the twisting undulations of British circuits like Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. The organisers also have the right idea when it comes to the format of the races. No refueling, no 'compulsory tyre stops', no unnecessary use of the safety car - just 45 minutes of old fashioned wheel-to-wheel racing.

The field consisted of a rather strange combination of washed up Grand Prix drivers and middling mainly European touring car drivers. In fact, a line-up which included such as Christian Danner, Gianni Morbidelli, Ukyo Katayama and Stefan Johansson made me wonder if I was watching Grand Prix Masters with a roof. Then you realise that the Lauda in the field is not Niki but his mediocre son Matthias. And you ponder for a while over who exactly Fabien Giroix, David Terrien or Nicolas Navarro are (they're French GT and Touring Car drivers of little consequence). As for what Hasher Al Maktoum is doing there, apart from being well connected with the Bahraini ruling family, whose money is almost certainly involved somewhere along the line, it is hard to say.

We were treated to a proper race at the front though. Appropriately enough, it was the two Grand Prix winners in the field who dominated proceedings. Former Sauber team mates Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert occupied the front row and ran away into the distance. Alesi led the early stages, only for Herbert to sneak ahead under braking at around half distance. The mercurial French-Sicilian was not done though with Herbert, though, and on the last lap he dived back into the lead under braking for turn 9. Herbert, too, was not inclined to give up easily, and ran side-by-side with Alesi through the long, tricky turn 13/14 complex, emerging alongside Alesi on the run down to the final hairpin. Only Alesi's superior track position into the last turn finally settled the matter. For those familiar with racing lore, it was just a little reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve's epic dice with Rene Arnoux in the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix.

Somehow, Speedcar seems the natural home for these two aging former GP stars. Both Alesi and Herbert were drivers of the old school, whom one suspects might have been more successful in an earlier, less technocratic era. They were not known for their encyclopaedic technical knowledge and Alesi, in particular, was always a man who relied on his seat-of-the-pants feel for the car rather than being a thinking driver. Anyone who has ever seen Johnny Herbert throwing historic Jaguars around will know that he too is well at home with more primitive cars - perhaps more so than he ever was with complex modern F1 cars.

If I have reservations about it all, it is over the question of how much any of it really matters. The field is made up of drivers whose real glory days are long gone, and others who are not professional racing drivers in the real sense at all, and who have almost certainly paid through the nose for the privilege of going up against names from F1's past. How much, really, did either Jean Alesi or Johnny Herbert really care who won that seemingly nail-biting race to the finish in Malaysia? Either way, they would doubtless cash their appearance money and head on to the next venue. The nagging thought occurred to me as I watched the race's dramatic denouement - maybe this is just a show. Maybe they're just putting it on for the crowd. Perhaps, though, that it too cynical. In the end, they're racing drivers - competitive people. Give people like that half an opportunity and they'll race. I like to think so. It certainly looked like it. Much more so than those big old stock cars ever do when they're going round in circles. I like to think even the American baseball fan I was speaking to might have understood.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Known Unknowns

That was a breath of fresh air, wasn't it? Whether it was the sight of Fernando Alonso ragging his ill-handling Renault in hot pursuit of Sebastien Bourdais in the closing laps, the rear end hanging out over the kerbs, or Heikki Kovalainen's inspired move on Alonso into turn 13, two laps from the finish, this felt like a race.

Sometimes you can end up feeling jaded, and wonder if the magic has gone. After too many line-astern processions last year, and talk of Ferrari domination this year, I was not as keyed up about the new F1 season as I have been in the past. Hell, I didn't even stay up to watch the race live (though in my defence, I'd just come in from best-man duties at a friend's wedding at 2am, and collapsed straight into bed). What I saw in Melbourne this weekend helped to reawaken my interest, though.

I'm not talking about the accidents. Jonathan Meades may once have opined that the unspoken appeal of all motorsport was gratification of the appetite for crashes, but it ain't so. Rather, what gripped me was that this was a race which was hard fought all the way down the field. Maybe not at the front, but elsewhere down the order, the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen had to force their way up through the pack - though both made themselves look rather foolish in the process. Fernando Alonso showed why, whatever you may think of his behaviour last year, he is still a very formidable force, throwing the Renault around like a man born to it. In keeping a double world champion behind him in the closing stages, Sebastien Bourdais demonstrated that, while he may lack the outright pace of young team mate Sebastien Vettel, he's picked up considerable racecraft in his time in Champ Car. So Lewis Hamilton ran away with it serenely at the front? Well, we'll see if he can do it again in Malaysia. I wouldn't put too much money on it.

What the weekend didn't do, however, is answer the many questions all race fans have been asking over the winter. Let's start with the big one. Is Mclaren going to be a match for Ferrari?
It's hard to know, as Ferrari and their drivers made such a dog's breakfast of the Melbourne weekend. First there was Raikkonen's fuel pressure problem in qualifying, which relegated him to 15th on the grid. Then Massa became the first victim of the traction control ban, losing the back end of his Ferrari at the first corner on the opening lap and falling behind even Raikkonen.
Raikkonen made steady progress up the field, only to throw it away by going off at turn 3 not once but twice. And to cap it all, both Ferraris went out with engine failure. Mclaren must feel their chances of stealing back the constructors championship are off to a good start. So we're left with two contradictory fragments. On the one hand, Raikkonen's mid-race pace, and the way he was all over the back of Kovalainen, suggests that had he qualified at the front, he might have disappeared off into the distance. On the other hand, Massa, in the other Ferrari, qualified behind both Mclarens and a BMW. A sign that the new F2008 isn't the car to beat after all? Or that the Brazilian is lost without traction control?

Talking of traction control, is the standard ECU and the loss of traction control and intelligent 'engine braking' going to make a difference to the racing? The initial evidence appears to be positive - there were more mistakes from drivers, and the cars appeared to visibly slide around rather more than they did last year. Appearances may be deceptive, however. Cars may have lacked grip more because of an unusually 'green' track than because of fundamental changes to the cars' electronics. And the driver errors might have had more to do with the intense heat in Melbourne over the weekend and a degree of race-rustiness from the winter break than anything else. The jury, I think, is still out.

If the loss of driver aids appeared to make some guys look rather foolish, then few looked more out of their depth than Nelson Piquet Junior. Is this a sign that the scion of the Piquet family has just been found out - that he isn't really up to F1 standards? Well maybe. But maybe not. He did, of course, qualify only 21st, but even Fernando Alonso could not get the difficult Renault any higher than 13th on the grid. Piquet had the lion's share of the team's problems in practice and got little running in on a track he had never been to before. And let's not forget that Piquet is a man who gave Lewis Hamilton a run for his money in GP2 a couple of years back - which you can't imagine Ricardo Rosset or Gaston Mazzacane having been able to do. It's early days. That said, few really great drivers look so hopelessly out of their depth on their debut...

There's a couple of other newcomers, or near-newcomers over whom question marks still hang. Sebastien Vettel looked mighty in second qualifying, but that was about the last we saw of him. His Toro Rosso never took to the track in Q3, and then he was eliminated on the opening lap in the race. Testing has tended to suggest that he has the measure of the Red Bulls, but then testing tended to suggest that BMW were in trouble. Vettel's pace rather put Sebastien Bourdais in the shade. A shame for the 4 times Champ Car champion who has waited so long for his F1 chance - who looks like he might just have been paired up with the next big thing. Thing is, though, that Bourdais is convinced that he could have been through into Q2 had he not been caught out by the yellow flags during his qualifying run. An excuse, or an explanation? Time will tell, though if Bourdais doesn't want to be written off as a nearly-man, he will have to make an impression quickly.

Where do Williams stand in the scheme of things? Pre-season, the talk had been that they would be leading the chasing pack behind Mclaren and Ferrari, but in Melbourne Rosberg found himself outqualified by both Sauber BMWs and a Toyota. He dealt with the Toyota easily enough in the race, but never quite looked the equal of the BMWs on pace. Was this the result of a Friday practice session lost to car problems, or a sign that the Williams just isn't quite on the pace of the BMWs? Maybe Malaysia will give us a clearer idea.

Then, perhaps most intriguing of all, there's the question of quite where BMW stand in the pecking order. Robert Kubica surprised us all by grabbing a front row slot at Albert Park. It probably would have been pole had he not gone off onto the grass at turn 12 on his fast lap, too. Ah, we nodded sagely...the effect of a light fuel load. Well, sort of. But not that light. Kubica came in for fuel a few laps before pole-man Hamilton did, but then but for his error, he would have been a couple of tenths quicker than him in qualifying too. It does rather point to the possibility that, over a single lap if not over a race distance, the BMW might be right on the pace of Mclaren and Ferrari. Which will certainly make things interesting at some of the tracks where overtaking is more difficult.

I'm left with the impression that Melbourne gave us pointers. We learned what the questions are, but we have not found out what the answers will be. We are in the terrain of Donald Rumsfeld's known unknowns. A good thing we've only a week until Malaysia and a chance to find out more.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Formula 1 2008: Raikkonen for the double?

It seems to have crept up almost unnoticed on me this year. Maybe it was the endless spy-scandal shenanigans. Maybe it was Max Mosley's weekly pronouncements on the future of the sport, and Bernie Ecclestone's desire to drag the sport away from its traditional heartland and towards any country or venue which will put up the money, regardless of whether there is any local interest. The end result was that I had come to feel a little disillusioned with F1 over this winter.

We're heading into Spring though now. New life, new beginnings, and perhaps most importantly, warmer weather. Enough to affect a change of mood, and sure enough, I find myself as intrigued as ever as to what is going to happen this year - what the season will bring. This is not intended to be a complete who's-where kind of preview. If you want one of those, there are plenty websites which will provide. The Guardian have produced their usual amusing guide for the casual fan, and a host of websites and blogs will get you up to speed on who is driving for whom, and when the races are taking place. Instead, I'm going to run through some of the main talking points of the new season, and see if I can avoid getting things as wrong as I did last time, when I confidently predicted that "the idea that Lewis Hamilton will be keeping Alonso awake at night is probably still more far-fetched"...

Advantage Maranello?

On recent form, we're probably overdue a season in which the Scuderia run away and hide, leaving all their rivals embarrassed and perplexed. They did it in 2002, and again in 2004. Since then, things have been rather more close-run. They were nowhere in 2005, and narrowly lost out with Schumacher in 2006. Last year, they came home with the title by the narrowest of margins, helped immensely by Mclaren's shooting itself in the foot in the final two races.

This time, the signs are that they are going into the new season with a sizeable advantage. Their biggest rivals last year, Mclaren, must surely have been destabilised by the $100m fine handed out to them in the wake of Spygate, and the likes of Renault, Williams and BMW look unlikely to make the quantum leap required to challenge for outright victories. On top of that, their pace in testing, especially at Bahrain, has been ominously fast. About the only chink of light for those who don't particularly want to watch a season-long redwash has been that they seem to lack the single-lap pace of the Mclarens.

Last year, to the surprise of many, Felipe Massa was able to keep Kimi Raikkonen very honest, and for much of the first half of the season actually appeared the quicker of the two. However, there has been little indication from winter testing that Massa will prove capable of repeating the feat now that Raikkonen is fully ensconced within the team. Mark Hughes, of Autosport, observed that Massa seemed harder hit than most by the banning of traction control, and as such, may prove the first casualty of the end of driver aids.

Mclaren on the back foot?

A $100m fine. An operating loss for the first time in years. Talk that the new factory may be bright and shiny but is hardly conducive to building racing cars. An acrimonious split with their double world champion driver after just a single season. Are Mclaren in trouble?

It's true that their testing pace has not quite been the equal of that of Ferrari. Certainly it is possible that with two talented but inexperienced drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, they may want for the kind of technical feedback which Fernando Alonso was able to provide. On the other hand, there are reasons to hope that the Woking team may be able to put up a fight against the Ferraris. For one thing, Lewis Hamilton seems quietly confident that, despite Ferrari's superior winter testing pace, he still has a package which will enable him to challenge for the title. As a team, they are much more likely to be pulling in the same direction, now that Alonso has left for Renault and that should at least bring a measure of calm following last year.

Perhaps most importantly, though, observers of winter testing reckon that, over a single lap, Mclaren might have the fastest car of all. Combine that with the pace of a Lewis Hamilton, and that provides the team with a formidable starting advantage. The car may be harder on its tyres than the Ferrari, but if Mclaren can start enough races from the front, given how hard it is to overtake in Formula 1 these days, they might still be in with a shout.

Last year I rubbished the suggestion that Hamilton would offer any threat to Fernando Alonso. It would be tempting to say the same to this year to those who think that Heikki Kovalainen, whose debut year at Renault was hardly stellar, will seriously challenge the Englishman. I'm not so sure. It's a lot easier for a novice to shine in a fundamentally good car than in a problem-child car like last year's Renault. See, for example, Jenson Button's impressive 2000 showing at Williams in comparison with his disastrous second year with the awful 2001 Benetton. Let's not forget that Kovalainen came into F1 with a very strong junior record, and lets not forget either that in the second half of 2007, once Renault had sorted out some of the worst of the car's problems, Kovalainen actually went very well indeed. In the wet at Fuji, he was, along with Hamilton, one of the star performers. The battle between the two sophomore drivers could be closer than you think.

The prodigal son returns

They say you can never go home again. After a stormy season with Mclaren, Fernando Alonso will find out the truth, or otherwise, of that old adage. Renault and Alonso were a giant-killing act in 2005 and 2006, taking on the better-resourced Mclaren and Ferrari and winning. Now he's back with them again, but it remains open to question, whether having previously spurned them for Mclaren, they will be able to rebuild that kind of chemistry again.

All that said, if I were a team boss, and I were simply looking for the best all-rounder in the sport today, I would, perhaps slightly hesitantly, get on the phone to the Spaniard. Not as unflappable as Raikkonen, nor perhaps as outright quick as Hamilton, he had immense knowledge of car-setup, a relentless race pace, and when his head is together, a formidable racing brain.

The question, though, is whether Renault can provide him with a car which will enable him to take the fight to Mclaren and Ferrari. On current evidence, the answer would appear to be that they can't. No other team had got to grips so well with the Michelin tyres, and one year on from the switch, they still appear to be struggling with the Bridgestones. On top of which, they are simply not funded to the same level as Mclaren, Ferrari, BMW or Toyota, and perhaps it is beginning to show. If nothing else, this year will be an interesting test of the question of how much difference a mere driver can make in today's technology-led F1.

In making that judgement, much will depend on his pace relative to team mate and newcomer, Nelson Piquet. The son of the 3-times World Champion has a somewhat mercurial reputation. Incredibly fast on his day in GP2, there have been constant suggestions that he lacks the application needed to succeed in F1. Whatever Alonso may want, Piquet doesn't seem the sort to give way to his team mate. Winter testing, though, rather suggests that this will not become an issue in practice, and Piquet may be in for a rather character-building year alongside the double world champion.

Fighting for Bronze

Far from taking the fight to Mclaren and Ferrari, Renault may find that they are constantly looking over their shoulder, fighting a rear-guard action against a gaggle of teams locked in combat to claim the title of 'best of the rest'. Long-time Formula 1 fans like myself will doubtless be pleased to see that the winter has seen an apparent resurgence of form for the Williams team.

With F1 increasingly a marketing and PR operation for many teams, it is heartening to see that Williams - a team of racers which exists only to compete in F1, are still able to take the fight to the car manufacturers, soft-drinks magnates and billionaire businessmen. Thus far, they have looked closer than anyone else to threatening Mclaren and Ferrari, and their pace over long runs, in particular, has been very impressive.

If the team have a weakness, it is probably that second driver, Kazuki Nakajima is not truly ready for F1 yet. In his debut year in GP2 he was, on occasion, very quick, but he was not exactly a model of consistency. His driving style, all opposite lock and Ronnie Peterson slides, was fantastic to watch, but is hardly the way to get the best out of a modern F1 car. Another year in the category might have been a better bet, but it would appear that Toyota were anxious to propel a Japanese driver into F1 - if only perhaps to distract the home audience from the works team's dismal performances. Nico Rosberg, on the other hand, matured into a fine and polished performer after a shaky start in 2006, and is likely to be able to extract whatever performance there is from the rather pretty FW30.

BMW have been curiously disappointing in testing over the winter, but it seems hard to believe that they have forgotten all that they learned during 2007 (hard, but not impossible, look at what happened to Honda last year). In Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica, they have a solid driver pairing, though Kubica's brutal style has been curtailed more than most by the traction control ban, and Heidfeld has not been at home with the new F1.08, which apparently does not suit his driving style. That said, it's not all gloom. They may have been slow elsewhere, but their stunning pace in Valencia hints that, while it may be too much to hope that they can make the last step towards being outright title contenders, it would be unwise to write them off in the battle for 3rd place yet.

The other team which just might be in the running to take the fight to Williams, Renault and BMW is Red Bull. Last year, they proved that Adrian Newey is not, in himself, a magic bullet, destined to instantly catapult any team he works for to instant success. The RB3 showed flashes of real promise, especially in the wet, and especially towards the end of the season. What it was not, however, was either reliable or a consistent rival for Williams or BMW in terms of pace.

Mark Webber, who has made a career out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, must be hoping that Newey's influence is beginning to make itself felt at Red Bull. Testing form, though, has been inconclusive, suggesting that they might be within reach of BMW, but will struggle to take the fight to Williams or Renault. On balance, what this probably means is that Webber might just have a car that he can launch into the top 10 in qualifying, but that both he and veteran David Coulthard (who, despite scoring more points than his Aussie team mate, was never really a match for him last year) will be squabbling over the scraps in terms of points in 2008. Those, who, like me, suspect that Webber would be every bit as quick as say, Felipe Massa in a Ferrari, will have to hope I'm wrong.

Rising Sun, Setting Sun?

Time was that, while Toyota were making a royal mess of running their F1 team, Honda were doing a pretty good job with the shell of Craig Pollock's old BAR team. Well times change. Honda had an awful season in 2007, scoring points only thanks to Jenson Button's sublime wet weather performances and a hefty slice of luck. The early season testing suggests that 2008 is going to see more of the same is in order this year. For Jenson Button, this means immense frustration, as he watches fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton's meteoric rise, while his own career remains stuck in limbo (perhaps he should set up a self-help group with Mark Webber). For Rubens Barrichello, it guarantees what is more than likely his final season will be something of a sad end to a long and often impressive career.

The parallels between the travails of Honda and Toyota are intriguing. Both had an opinionated, 'difficult' star designer. Both fired their man for reasons that seemed to have more to do with company politics than their job performance. Toyota have now been nearly two whole seasons without Mike 'rottweiler' Gascoygne and it will be interesting to see if they are at last able to turn things around. Perhaps rumours that head office in Japan are considering pulling the plug and going off to Le Mans with a hybrid will be enough to spark some kind of a revival. Testing pace has been hard to read. Trulli pulled out a single lightning fast time at Barcelona last week. Does this mean that they've been sandbagging all winter? Or was last week's time a headliner-grabber set with an underweight car? Only time will tell.

Perhaps of most interest will be whether GP2 Champion Timo Glock can follow in the footsteps of fellow title winners Hamilton and Rosberg and establish himself as a real name to watch. Being stuck in a Toyota perhaps puts him at something of a starting disadvantage, but regardless of how far he is off the absolute pace, if he can keep Jarno Trulli honest, he will have established himself as having earned the right to be on the F1 grid. It might prove to be one of the more intriguing intra-team rivalries, and, if recent seasons are anything to go by, about the only reason to pay any attention to Toyota.

B-Teams and backmarkers

For much of last year, one thing you could be certain about was that the first six cars to be knocked out of qualifying would consist largely of Spykers, Toro Rossos and Super Aguris. Toro Rosso, in particular, may have reason to hope that this will not be the case in 2008. Thus far, Sebastien Vettel, in what is effectively the old Red Bull RB3, has more than matched the pace of the 'works' team's RB4. Whether this is an indication that Toro Rosso is doing a very good job, or that Red Bull is in significant trouble, is hard to tell. In any case, Toro Rosso have been known in the past to put in stunningly fast times in testing, only to sink back into anonymity the moment the season starts.

Also of interest down at Dietrich Mateschitz's B-team is the question of whether, after years of domination in Champ Car, Sebastien Bourdais can prove that he really deserved that F1 break all along. Early testing form suggests that the doubters were perhaps right - Vettel has been consistently faster. That said, Bourdais is enough of an old hand to know that being fastest in the winter is neither here nor there, and he might perhaps be biding his time. That or Vettel really is as good as the likes of Mario Thiessen think he is...

The other B-team, Aguri Suzuki's oddly named 'Super Aguri' squad, look likely to take a big step backwards this year. Hamstrung by a lack of funds, they've been absent from testing virtually all season. Last minute investment from Magma ensures that they will be on the grid, but such niceties as the loss of traction control and electronically adjustable engine braking will be new to them - and other teams have encountered their fair share of trouble in adapting their cars.

More fundamentally, for reasons that are rather lost on me, they're stuck running last year's Honda chassis. Quite why the team didn't opt to go their own way in developing the 2006 chassis with which they regularly embarrassed the works squad last year, I don't know. Sufficen to say that if an experienced, well funded race team couldn't do anything with last year's RA107, it is highly unlikely that an ad-hoc group of ex-Arrows mechanics will have any more luck. A trying year is in prospect for Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, if indeed the team aren't forced to ditch them for pay-drivers.

Last, but, for once, not least, is Force India, formerly known as Spyker, formerly known as Midland, in turn formerly known as Jordan. With Giancarlo Fisichella, a man who seems every bit as adept at squeezing pace out of bad cars as he is out of bottling it in potentially race-winning cars, and with Mike Gascoygne out to prove a point to old employers Toyota, they might do rather better than expected.

Indian businessman Vijay Mallya has given the team a serious cash injection, which will at last enable them to run a proper development programme. With a bunch of guys from the old Jordan team who still know how to run a racing team, if only they had the money to do the job properly, they could begin to make progress up the grid. At the very least, they should comfortably have the beating of Super Aguri. Early indications suggest they might embarrass Honda as well.

The final point of interest is the intriguing question of how hotly-tipped newcomer Adrian Sutil will fare. There were times, early on in 2007, when he looked very impressive indeed. Later on in the season, however, other than a particularly inspired drive at Spa, he looked disinterested and wasn't nearly as far ahead of Sakon Yamamoto as a promising young star ought to be. This year is make-or-break time. With the advantage of incumbency, he really has to beat Fisichella...

So, set the alarm clocks for 3am (if, like me, you're in the UK, anyway), and let's see what happens...

A final word

Several of us motorsport bloggers, including Clive at Insight F1, Alianora at La Canta Magnifico, Christine at Sidepodcast and Keith from F1 Fanatic are writing for a new Formula 1 site, F1 Pitlane. Check it out and let us know what you think.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The damage done

A commonly told morality tale in the history of war, or at least in fictional accounts of it, is that of two bitter enemies who fight a brutal and bloody war of attrition, and at the end of it, the nominal winner sadly surveys the horrendous damage and devastation they have sustained and is forced to ask: Was it all worth it? In what sense have we really won?

It's a rather melodramatic way of looking at the recently ended US single seater conflict between Tony George's Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series (nee CART) but it there's some truth in it. The recent developments have been billed as a 'merger' between the two series, but in truth, it has been game, set and match for the IRL. The unifited series will be called the IRL, they ill use the IRL's cars, the IRL's engines and will race (mostly) at IRL';s venues. The CHamp Car teams able to raise the budget to compete at all will be at a huge starting disadvantage and outgoing Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais thinks even Newman Haas, the dominant Champ Car team of the past five years, will struggle to be half way competitive. So make no mistake: IRL won. But at what cost?

This article provides an excellent precis of the causes of the IRL split, and the differing visions of the IRL and the then CART series. Fundamentally, the IRL was founded on Tony George's vision of an authentically American oval racing series, with lower budgets and less complex technology than the CART series, as he considered that the series had become too international, too expensive, and lacked home drivers. Yet, ten years on, the cars are built by the Italian Dallara firm, the engines come from Japanese car giant Honda, the leading teams, Chip Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Rahal-Letterman are all relatively recent converts from Champ Car, and for the past two years, both the Indy 500 and the IRL title have been won by foreign drivers (British drivers, as it happens). Tony George's IRL won the battle in the end, probably because it always held the trump card in the form of the Indy 500, the one truly well known race in US single seater racing, but in order to do so, the IRL had to become a virtual clone of the series it was seeking to usurp.

So is it simply a matter of 'as you were' with the unified series being essentially the same as the old CART series that dominated the US racing landscape through the 1980s and 1990s? Sadly, that is far too optimistic a gloss to put on matters. The old series had real star drivers, a huge international following and was without question the most important series outside of F1. When top CART drivers went across the Atlantic to race in F1, they did so in the top teams of the day. Michael Andretti partnered Ayrton Senna at Mclaren in 1993, Jacques Villeneuve went to Williams in 1996, and Juan Pablo Montoya did the same 5 years later.

It's a marked contrast with the state of things today. Reigning Champ Car series champion Sebastien Bourdais has taken a ride with tailend Toro Rosso in F1, while IRL champion Dario Franchitti has joined fellow front-runner Sam Hornish Jr in deciding that his future lies in NASCAR. While its rivals divided and fell in the 21st Century, the US stock car series has emerged from its deep south roots to dominate the US motorsport landscape today (though, to be fair, it has it's own problems). The split was immensely damaging, not just for Champ Car, which has now folded, but for the surviving series too.

Can the IRL, with its main rival extinguished, now recover? Much depends on what happens this year. With its move to include road and street circuits on its calendar, as well as short ovals and superspeedways, the series can with some justification claim to be the most complete test of a single seater driver's versatility. If the most competitive Champ Car teams successfully make the switch, it will have the strongest line-up of teams that any US single seater series has had since the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the news that Forsythe Championship Racing will fold having been unable to raise the budget to compete in IRL hardly bodes well. One hopes that Minardi Team USA, Newman Haas and Team Australia don't go the same way.

On the other hand, set against these strengths, the series is sorely lacking in star drivers. Racing afficionados may know that Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Justin Wilson and Will Power are real talents, but their names will mean nothing to the wider US public. The closest thing that the series has to a household name is Danica Patrick, who has never actually won a major race, and who is famous chiefly for being female. There's Marco Andretti and Graham RAhal, but one suspects that while the surnames may mean something, their first names probably will not.

This will inevitably take time to correct. A good first step would be to stop the flow of young US talents towards NASCAR. Two good junior series, in the form of Formula Atlantic and the Infiniti Pro Series should help, though the former, in particular, is dominated by foreign drivers whose European junior careers have stalled. Attracting back AJ Allmendinger, who was a real star in Champ Car and is now also-ran in NASCAR, would be an encouraging sign.

I hope they succeed. With ever more drivers coming up through the junior single seater ranks and only 22 slots on the F1 grid, there is a desperate need for a viable alternative (and NASCAR, with its emphasis on turning left, spurious safety cars and bumping and boring just doesn't cut it for me). I want the newly unified series to succeed. I'll not pretend that I was ever other than a Champ Car partisan in the single-seater wars, but more than anything, I thought it important that there was a merger. It's going to be a long hard slog, but fingers crossed, they just might do it.

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