Monday, April 28, 2008

Reading the Runes

If this year's Spanish Grand Prix was in any way interesting, it certainly wasn't because of anything that was happening on the track. The Circuit De Catalunya is not a place at which modern Formula 1 cars can overtake each other, unless the car behind is several seconds a lap faster than the car in front. Hence, after the first lap was done, the only passing manoeuvres came when the delayed Nick Heidfeld came upon Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India, and a similarly out-of-position David Coulthard found himself behind Takuma Sato's Super Aguri. Towards the end of the race, we had Kubica, Hamilton, Massa and Raikkonen all circulating in fairly close proximity, but it was hard to get excited when one knew there was no chance of any of them actually swapping positions. As Keith Collantine pointed out recently over at F1-Pitlane, it's as much about the cars as about the track. We can only hope that the new-for-2009 aerodynamics and tyre regulations do something to address the problem.

If the Spanish Grand Prix was in any way significant, it was for what it seems to tell us about the rest of the season. One of the ongoing question marks about 2008 is just what the extent of Ferrari's advantage actually is. Everyone, it seems, is in agreement that Maranello have produced the best car on the grid. What is much harder to determine is just what margin of superiority they enjoy over the opposition. Winter testing suggested it might be huge. The Australian Grand Prix, on the other hand, left us wondering whether they had the quickest car at all. Bahrain, and in particular, Malaysia, will have reassured them on that score.

Those are odd races, though. Australia is a street circuit, and the track was unexpectedly 'green' owing to overnight rain. Malaysia and Bahrain are undoubtedly affected by the heat, while the latter was Ferrari's testing destination of choice over the winter. The Spanish Grand Prix perhaps gives us the most accurate picture we have yet had of where the teams stand relative to each other.

It's a circuit which all the teams test at constantly. Everyone on the grid will have a reasonable working set-up, and the drivers know the place like the back of their hand. On top of that, it's fairly typical circuit - not a Monza, a Monaco or a Montreal. If you're quick here, you really should be on the pace almost everywhere. It is as close as we get all year to a simple test of the relative out-and-out pace of each of the teams.

So what did it tell us? Well, it would seem that Ferrari are indeed a step ahead of their main rivals, but there isn't nearly as much in it as we might have thought. In qualifying, the Ferraris were a shade quicker than the Mclarens and the BMWs, but then they were also fueled a lap or two lighter than Hamilton or Kubica (Kovalainen's shunt leaving us unsure as to how much heavier Heidfeld and Kovalainen himself were, as a safety car intervened). Although the question of just how good a lap each of Hamilton, Raikkonen and Kubica strung together remains unanswered, the times tend to suggest that, on qualifying pace, the Mclaren and the BMW are much of a muchness, and within about 0.2s of the Ferrari.

Now a margin of 0.2s is interesting, because it suggests that, while Ferrari may be the team to beat, Mclaren and BMW are close enough that, should the Scuderia stumble, or should the track simply not suit their car, any of Kovalainen, Hamilton, Kubica and Hamilton might be in a position to take advantage. It may be Maranello's year, but we are not looking at a repeat of 2002 or 2004. A margin of a couple of tenths a lap is also the kind of gap that a particularly inspired bit of driving might be sufficient to overcome - especially when qualifying and track position are so crucial to the outcome of the race. In the modern era, it might be hard for even the best driver to overcome a performance deficit in their car, but if the car disadvantage is small enough, it is not impossible (just look at the variations in pace between team mates, which can easily exceed 0.2s).

All this, of course, counts for little if Ferrari's race pace advantage greatly exceeds their qualifying pace advantage. It has been suggested that, while the Ferrari F2008 struggles to generate sufficient heat in its tyres over a single lap, it is much much kinder to its rubber over a whole stint than the Mclaren and, especially, the BMW. Before the Spanish Grand Prix, I would have been inclined to agree, but I'm no longer so sure. After all, the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen were rarely more than 5 seconds or so up the road from Hamilton's Mclaren, and the BMW of Kubica had no difficulty staying on in touch either (that despite the fact that the BMW, in particular, had a reputation early in the season for eating its tyres). Now it could be that the Ferrari pair were taking it easy - not pushing as hard as they could have done - and certainly Kimi Raikkonen's fastest lap at the very end of the race hints that this was in fact the case. On the other hand, if the Ferrari duo were pushing only as hard as they needed to, wouldn't they have built up a slightly larger margin than they did. A five second lead, after all, is not going to be enough to allow a driver to stay in front in the event of even a brief off-track moment (and let's face it, Felipe Massa has had a few of those this year). If Massa and Raikkonen could have done so, surely they would have stretched the gap to a more comfortable 10 or 20 seconds?

The other major point of interest last weekend was, of course, the pace of former World Champion Fernando Alonso's Renault at his home race. After struggling to make the top 10 in Bahrain (despite a bit of attrition up ahead) Alonso shocked everyone by getting the Renault onto the front row, just a tenth of a second slower than Raikkonen's pole-winning Ferrari. OK, so he was fueled light (Joe Saward was particularly scathing of Renault's approach over at but he wasn't fueled as much lighter than his rivals as we might have feared. He pitted three laps before Massa and four before Raikkonen. Enough to explain how he was able to get ahead of the Mclarens and split the Ferraris, but not enough to explain the massive leap he and the team appear to have made since Bahrain, when he was 2 seconds away from the pole. On the admittedly very rough assumption that each extra lap of fuel slows a car by around a tenth of a second, it appears that Renault, at least when Alonso is behind the wheel, are about two or three tenths of a second a lap off the pace of BMW and Mclaren, perhaps even a little less.

It's hard to know if the Enstone team, whose budget is not in the same league as the three teams up at the very front, can keep up this rate of progress. On the other hand, in Fernando Alonso, they have, to my mind, probably the best all-rounder in F1 today, and there is little doubt that Renault is one of the most closely knit teams on the grid - a group of real racers who are able to go about their business with relatively little interference from the parent company. It will be a tall order for them to find race winning pace, but I wouldn't quite rule out the possibility.

We may not be on course for the epic season-long battle we saw last year between Ferrari and Mclaren. I can't help thinking that, over the balance of the season, Ferrari will prove to be a little too far ahead for that. On the other hand, when it comes to individual races, things could be a good deal more interesting this year. BMW's pace suggests that they really are close enough to the pace to pick up a victory if the cards fall right for either Heidfeld of Kubica this year. Mclaren certainly have race-winning pace, if the circuit suits them, and with Alonso at the wheel, Renault might at least be quick enough to crash the party whenever any of the big three teams stumble. I'm not sure we're in for a classic F1 title battle of the kind we saw last year, but, however dull the Spanish Grand Prix might have been as a race, it hints that we could still be in for an interesting season.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

GP2 2008 Preview - Winning down to an ART?

It struck me the other day that there probably really aren't going to be many seats available for young F1 aspirants come the end of the season. OK, so Rubens Barrichello might call it a day and create a vacancy at Honda, and his near-contemporary David Coulthard is tipped to vacate the Red Bull seat after 15 years in the sport - but nobody else really looks like they are coming up on retirement. Of course, it's more than possible that some of this year's grid will be given the heave-ho come season's end - Nakajima and Sutil might justifiably be feeling a little nervous right now - but certainly we are not looking at an awful lot of vacancies appearing. And certainly not at the business end of the grid.

All of which might well be weighing on the minds of this year's GP2 competitors. More and more of late, it is from the GP2 series that drivers have made the leap to Formula 1, and with the demise of Champ Car, not to mention the seemingly waning significance of the Renault World Series, that's the way we can expect it to stay. The odd F1 team might continue to take a chance on an F3 hotshot - as happened with Sebastien Vettel and Adrian Sutil, but for the most part, what opportunities do come up will go to the GP2 front runners.

All of which is one very good reason for F1 fans to keep close tabs on GP2 this year. Not the only good reason, though. The main reason to watch GP2 is that it has consistently provided the most exciting, close-fought single seater racing around. The cars have almost as much power as current Grand Prix cars, a touch less grip, and rely to a much greater extent on under-body aerodynamics to generate downforce, which enables the cars to run much closer together through corners than F1 cars can. The result is that overtaking is a much more regular occurrence than it is either F3 or Grand Prix racing.

Perhaps the most pertinent question, though, is whether there is anyone on this year's GP2 grid who might have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Rosberg, Kovalainen, Hamilton, Piquet Jr and Glock. On the evidence of the new GP2 Asia winter series, it just might be that ART man Romain Grosjean does have it. Without any previous GP2 experience, he went up against several second and third year drivers and dominated the championship.

In past years, there has always been at least the semblance of a title battle in GP2. Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen fought it out to the very last round in 2005. Lewis Hamilton always looked the favourite in 2006, but Nelson Piquet Jr. made sure he didn't have it all entirely his own way. Timo Glock was very much the frontrunner last year, but Lucas Di Grassi nonetheless took the title down to the wire - aided by a healthy dose of luck.

If somebody is going to take the fight to Grosjean, who will it be? My hunch is we may need look no further than his ART team mate Luca Filippi. Filippi endured a rather lacklustre start to his GP2 career with FMS in 2006, but began to look much more convincing last year with SuperNova. Now in his third year, and in one of the very top teams, it's very much make-or-break for the Italian, and the ART intra-team battle could be intriguing indeed.

It's easy to forget that last year, ART didn't actually win the title. ISport's new lineup doesn't really have anyone of Timo Glock's calibre, but Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok are both proven race winners. Senna remains something of an enigma: blindingly quick one weekend, and utterly hopeless and adrift the next. A season's experience and familiarity with the tracks may make the difference, or may not. Karun Chandhok came seemingly from nowhere to score some very impressive winners with the unfancied Durango team last year. If GP2 Asia is any guide, he has the pace, but will really need to work to iron out the errors which cost him a number of good results.

Who else might have it within them to make a challenge for the title? Well, it would seem foolish to write off Arden - they may not ever have won a GP2 title, but they have been consistent front-runners and were the team to beat in the last years of F3000. Lead driver Sebastien Buemi was the man who came closest to Romain Grosjean in the F3 Euroseries last year. In his sporadic GP2 outings last year, he seemed hindered by the fact he was constantly jumping from one single seater series to another, but that might work in his favour this year - as he'll at least know the tracks.

Italian veteran Giorgio Pantano will be back for a fourth year of GP2, and should provide a decent barometer for the overall quality of the field. It seems that the former Jordan Grand Prix driver has the pace to win races, but lacks what is required to challenge for the title. This year, he's paired up with Javier Villa at Racing Engineering. If the field really isn't as strong as in past years, perhaps he'll finally get another single seater title to add to his 2000 German F3 trophy.

I'd be surprised if anyone I haven't already mentioned wins the title this year, but there's plenty more drivers in the field who are worth watching, and might well win races. I've always reckoned Alvaro Parente to have been one of the more cruelly under-rated single seater drivers of the last few years, and the reigning Renault World Series champion finally gets a GP2 shot with SuperNova. The man who ran him close to the title last year, Ben Hanley, is also making the switch and is partnered with Vitaly Petrov, who is doing a fine job of dispelling the notion that Russian single seater drivers are always out of their depth on the world stage.

I was more convinced of Fisichella Motorsport's prospects when they add Andy Soucek on the books. News that his place is to be taken by Roldan Rodriguez doesn't exactly inspire optimism. On the other hand, Adrian Valles has shown well in the GP2 Asia series after a somewhat inconclusive initial period in GP2. Certainly the Force India driver's squad will benefit from the fact that they no longer need waste a seat on Jason Tahinci now that Petrol Ofisi money has been replaced by cash from Force India owner Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher brand.

After a year of anonymity with rather second-rate drivers, Piquet Minardi Sports have been flying in testing with the mercurial Pastor Maldonado and team mate Andreas Zuber, lest we forget, was really not all that far behind Timo Glock on outright pace when they were team mates at ISport last year. All the same, the Austrian driver must know that, going into his third year, he really has to get the job done this year if he is to stand a chance of progressing.

Others worth watching? Well Kamui Kobayashi does rather blow hot and cold, but he picked up two wins in the GP2 Asia series, so might be a good bet for a sprint race win or two. Team mate Jerome D'Ambrosio looked initially out of his depth in the Asia series, but he won the Formula Master championship against a very full field last year, and Former British F3 champion Mike Conway has switched to Trident Racing, and while his 2007 season yielded little in the way of results, he wasn't so very far off the pace of his old team mate Filippi in race conditions. Another man I wouldn't expect to be in the running for the title, but who might well win races. He was devastatingly quick at Silverstone last year - and this time round, he knows all the tracks.

In summary, while I can't help thinking the title race may not be as close as in past years, there's enough good, serious runners to ensure that the GP2 series will be worth watching. I'll certainly be tuning in to the racing this weekend. A final piece of news (at least for those of you in the UK) - good or bad, depending on how you look at it - is that ITV now have the rights to the GP2 series and will be broadcasting on ITV4. For those, like me, who came to love the commentary provided by Martin Haven and Gareth Rees on Eurosport, this is a shame in a way. But on the other hand, ITV has much greater potential reach, and it would be good to see the championship pick up the kind of audience that it really deserves to.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 14, 2008

Grand Touring

Back in the early 1990s, when the fantastic Group C sportscar category imploded thanks to a combination of spiralling costs and the 3.5 litre engine regulations which rendered many of the good, serious privateer entries obsolete overnight, there was much talk of how the future of sports car racing would revolve around racing versions of recognisable high performance road going sportscars from manufacturers like Ferrari, Porsche and Lotus.

Initially, this prediction seemed to be spot-on. Le Mans, the blue riband event of the sportscar world, was won by a nominally road-going Porsche 962 in 1994, and the following year, former F1 drivers JJ Lehto and Yannick Dalmas took victory at the wheel of a Mclaren F1 GTR, the very apogee of the road-going supercar. In the years that followed though, the thoroughbred sports prototype emerged once more into the ascendancy at the very top level of sportscar racing. It has been 10 years since a 'GT' car won at Le Mans, and that was the very heavily modified Porsche 911 that was so devastatingly fast it effectively killed off the FIA's first attempt at a World GT Championship.

GTs continue to form a class in the top level Le Mans Endurance and American Le Mans Series, but there they are really something of a sideshow to the Audi/Peugeot and Audi/Porsche/Acura battles in the prototype categories. The FIA GT series, though, has become a significant championship in its own right, attracting a mix of wealthy amateurs and jobbing professionals in Maseratis, Ferraris, Aston Martins, Corvettes and Lamborghinis. The racing is often close fought (thanks in part to deliberate attempts to balance any inherent differences in the machinery through weight penalties and engine restrictors) and the cars look and sound fantastic. If the series has a problem, it is that it has often struggled to attract full grids. Just as Group C racing eventually got to be too expensive, the same now seems to be happening with the powerful GT1 category in the FIA's GT Series.

Until last weekend, I've never actually seen GT racing up close though. It's a category that took off in the mid-90s, around the time that I moved away from the racing heartland of the North Midlands (Silverstone, Oulton Park and Donington Park were all within reasonable reach) to the motorsports backwater of Scotland. These days, though, the British GT series makes an annual trip up to Knockhill, my local circuit, and this year, I finally got round to attending the race.

Bamford/Griffin Ferrari

I was quite impressed with what I saw. I had always assumed that national level GT racing would consist of a tiny number of seriously competitive entries, and an awful lot of makeweights who would be there only to make up the numbers. In the days when the category ran to the same GT1 rules as the FIA GT series, that might have been the case. However, these days, under the watchful eye of series boss Stephane Ratel, the category runs to the same GT3 rules as used by the heavily oversubscribed European GT3 series. The result is a solid field with up to a dozen entries with a realistic chance of winning if the cards happen to fall their way.

Wilkins/Scott Viper

There was also a good variety of machinery: Ferrari F430s, Lamborghini Gallardos, Porsche 997s, Dodge Vipers, Aston Martin DBR9s and, most unusual of all, one of Klaas Zwaart's Ascari KZ1R sportscars. The mouthwateringly exotic race cars is one of the category's big strengths. The British Touring Car Championship might have more wheel-to-wheel racing, but I somehow doubt that SEATs and Vauxhall Vectras capture the imagination of your average 10 year old schoolboy in the way that the Italian exotica of the GT series does. For those who think such things unimportant, it's worth remembering that it is those 10 year old schoolboys who will end up the race fans of the future.

The field is largely made up of wealthy amateurs of varying ability, though the odd hired-gun and the occasional semi-professional driver add spice to proceedings. All too often, such a mix of drivers can be to the detriment of the racing, but the British GT series organisers have hit upon an ingenious solution to the problem. Entries in the FIA GT series must have two drivers, and each driver must qualify for and start one of the two races held on each weekend. Likewise, the driver change must take place between 23 and 37 minutes into the race. Therefore, any team running a professional or semi-professional driver may only use him to qualify for one of the races, and may not let him take more than about two thirds of the track time.

The impact of this was amply demonstrated at Knockhill last weekend. There was no doubt that the out and out fastest car and driver combination was Australian-domiciled Dane Allan Simonsen in the #23 Christians In Motorsport Ferrari F430. Sure enough, he took pole for Sunday's race by a tenth of a second from the #4 Chad Peninsula Racing Ferrari of Matt Griffin. The Saturday qualifying session, by contrast had seen Simonsen's team mate, car owner Hector Lester 0.7s away from pole and down in 5th. Griffin's team mate Peter Bamford had his time disallowed but would probably have been similarly off the pace.

Shovlin/Cullen Ferrari 430

Come the race, Simonsen and Griffin streaked away into the distance, but all the while, there was the thought in the back of my head - what will happen when they hand over to their team mates? As it happened, a collision between the Modena Team Lamborghini Tech9 Lamborghinis led to a safety car at around the half distance mark, and the entire field came in for their driver changes simultaneously. The Simonsen/Lester Ferrari remained at the front of the field, but with the lead that Simonsen, a former Aussie V8 driver with extensive GT experience, had built up now eliminated.

Simonsen/Lester Ferrari

When the safety car came in, it was the white Chad Peninsula racing Ferrari which began to fall backwards at a rapid rate, but in the hands of Lester, the Christians In Motorsport Ferrari was no longer the class of the field, and a hefty queue of cars began to build up behind the red #23 Ferrari. In the end, it was not the 22GT Aston Martin or one of the CR Scuderia Ferraris which emerged to challenge Lester, but rather the lone Ascari in the field, in the hands of the veteran Jones brothers, David and Godfrey. Towards the end of the hour long race, David Jones pulled out from the slipstream of the Ferrari under braking for turn 1 and swept into a lead he would not lose. The Jones brothers, who have been involved in racing since the early 1970s, had won their first GT race in many years, and, as far as I am aware, the first ever British GT victory for Klaas Zwaart's Ascari marque.

Jones/Jones Ascari

It may be a category primarily aimed at wealthy amateurs rather than professional racing drivers, but I do recommend checking out the British GT series if it visits a venue near you. As a purist, I do prefer to watch racing drivers skilled enough to make a living from what they do, but to be fair, some of the moneyed weekend racers of the GT series have been around long enough to have matured into decently competitive racing drivers. Come to that, the British GT series is simply not sufficiently high profile to attract the kind of sponsorship and manufacturer interest to fund teams made up entirely of paid drivers. Nonetheless, its a category with an interesting and varied entry list, some close racing, and a rule book which helps to ensure that there are plenty of potential contenders for victory.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Romain Conquest

For the first time in the short history of the GP2 series, we have a champion before the final round. Romain Grosjean clinched the title after 8 of 10 rounds on Sunday, despite retiring from the lead of the sprint race. Of course, it was only the GP2 Asia series, and it seems fair to say that the new championship is of the same standing, relative to the GP2 series proper, as the sundry 'winter' junior single seater series are to their Summer equivalents.

Romain Grosjean may only have won 3 of the 8 rounds which have taken place so far, but in all honesty, he looked far and away the quickest man at every race save the chaotic Indonesian round held at the crumbling Sentul track. Even there, where he was inexplicably lacklustre, he picked up a pair of solid 4th places.

It would be easy to point out that he was with the best team, but it is worth remembering that his team mate, Stephen Jelley, has so far failed to score a single point in the other ART car. Contrary to what some cynics would have you believe, motorsport is still about the driver as well as the car.

The cynics would be on firmer ground, though, in asking whether Grosjean really faced much in the way of serious opposition. The major players in last year's GP2 series, itself not the strongest field the category has even seen, have either moved on as Glock, Di Grassi, Pantano and Carroll have done, or fallen to an almost surreal combination of bad luck and silly errors. Luca Filippi, for instance, was a regular frontrunner for Supernova last year, but driving for new team QI Meritus, he looked quick in Dubai only to go out with car failure, was disqualified for a tyre infringement after winning in Indonesia, got caught up in someone else's accident in Malaysia and then triggered his own accident in Bahrain.

Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, driving for reigning champions ISport looked to have the pace to run near the front, though not necessarily to take the fight to Grosjean, but Chandhok made too many silly errors and Senna was all too often the victim of mechanical problems.

All of this left Kamui Kobayashi, who had not covered himself in glory in his two previous seasons in the F3 Euroseries, the winner of two sprint races. Of course, sprint races, with their reverse grids don't mean as much as feature race wins, but all the same, one wonders if perhaps he's another driver who comes into his own when given a really powerful single seater to play with.

Perhaps more surprising still is that former GP2 backmarker Fairuz Fauzy returned to the series and began winning races. OK, like Kobayashi, it was only a sprint race win, but on the other hand, he was a regular points scorer, and picked up a second place in the feature race in his home race at Malaysia - far and away his best result in a GP2 car. Enough to establish him as a serious F1 prospect? No, but probably sufficient to earn him the title of the best driver to come out of Malaysia so far. It was all so disorienting that it was almost a relief to see that at least Jason Tahinci was as hopeless as ever

The last man to stand a chance of wresting the title from Grosjean was Russian Campos driver Vitaly Petrov. After initially looking rather out of his depth in GP2, he gradually emerged over the course of last year as a fairly serious single seater driver. If Alex Shnaider still owned an F1 team, he might have been in there... All joking aside, he was, along with Adrian Valles, the closest thing the series had to an unexpected success story this winter. Sebastien Buemi perhaps also deserves honourable mention for his win in difficult conditions in the Indonesian Feature race, though one can't help feeling he's yet another Red Bull Junior driver who doesn't quite have it.

Further down the grid, Armaan Ebrahim, Michael Herck, Harald Schegelmilch, Alberto Valerio and Yelmer Buurman were all unremarkable. One had the nagging suspicion that given a decent car, Milos Pavlovic might have shown a good deal better, but BCN Competicion increasingly look like GP2's own Super Aguri and he got nowhere. David Valsecchi showed odd flashes of form, as did Diego Nunes in the usually uncompetitive DPR machine. And that was about it.

Come the summer, Romain Grosjean may face a rather sterner test. Andy Soucek, who was quick in the opening round ar Dubai before giving up his place at DPR will be back with the rather more competitive Fisichella Motorsport Team. Luca Filippi will be in his third season, and will be competing in another ART machine, rather than a QI Meritus car. Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna are both proven race winners and will be driving for last year's champions. Giorgio Pantano, who almost uniquely has carved out a career as a paid GP2 driver, will be back yet again, this time with Racing Engineering, and might finally go from occasional race winner to genuine title protagonist. And crucially, while the circuits in the GP2 Asia series were new to almost everyone, all of those potential front runners will have at least a year's more GP2 experience on the circuits they will visit when the GP2 series proper starts in 3 weeks time. It'll be well worth watching.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

David Leslie - In Memory of a Proper Racer

When I first heard on Sunday afternoon that a small private plane had crashed into a house in Kent, killing all on board, I couldn't help fearing that someone from the motor racing world might have been involved. After the deaths of Colin McRae, Steve Hislop and Bertie Fisher, it somehow seemed a distinct possibility. And so on Monday, looking up BBC News, it turned out to be the case. Sportscar team boss Richard Lloyd and Scottish racing driver David Leslie were amongst the five victims of the accident. Sympathy, obviously, goes out to the family and friends of all five men on board the plane. It was Leslie whose name meant the most to me personally, as a racing fan.

I first remember seeing David Leslie race as a kid attending the Donington 500km sports car race, back in 1989. Sportscar racing was a rather bigger deal back then than it is now, with works teams from Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota vying for honours. New to the field for 1989 were the works Aston Martins being run as a joint venture with the Ecurie Ecosse team. The Aston Martin AMR1 was never amongst the quickest C1 cars in its brief sports car racing career, but it looked absolutely fantastic in its clean white blue and red livery. In Leslie's hands, it picked up a 6th place at Donington too. A few weeks earlier, he had gone even better at Brands Hatch, finishing 4th paired with Brian Redman, despite the fact that the late 60s F1 star was by then well past his competitive best.

By that time, Leslie was already in his mid-30s with a substantial career behind him. While the likes of Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg were in F1 at the age of 20, Leslie didn't even switch to cars until the age of 23. He was a quick learner, though. In his second season in Formula Ford, he won not one but two National titles. In the following three years, he followed that up with title wins in the now defunct Formula Ford 2000 and Formula Atlantic Series. Thereafter, lack of finance to progress further caused his single seater career to stall somewhat, though he did claim pole at the opening round of the 1983 British F3 championship, ahead of a certain young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Da Silva...

From there, he took the well trod road into Sportscars. Scottish Businessman Hugh McCaig had taken it upon himself to revive the Ecurie Ecosse sportscar name of the 1950s and became one of the leading lights in the new Group C2 sportscar category during the mid-1980s. David Leslie, as a solid, promising and perhaps importantly, Scottish driver, was recruited to the driving strength. Their successes included winning the teams' title in 1986 and a second place in class in the 1987 Le Mans 24hr race. The team withdrew from C2 in 1988 in order to concentrate on their Aston Martin C1 project. That, however, was killed almost before it had begun, when the parent company ran into trouble and was bought by Ford. The American car giant already owned Jaguar, and could see little point in paying two of its luxury car brands to compete against each other in sports car racing.

David Leslie - 1953-2008
Leslie's Ecurie Ecosse C286.

Leslie would go on to drive for Jaguar at Le Mans in 1990 and 1991, but did not finish the event on either occasion. It was his, and McCaig's move into touring car racing in 1992 and 1993 with the Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall Cavaliers which brought him to wider attention though. McCaig always had a knack for ensuring that his cars were stunningly well turned out, and the Saltire coloured Vauxhalls were no exception.

More importantly, though, the Ecurie Ecosse Cavaliers were quick. Quick enough to embarrass the works team on occasion, and quick enough to allow Leslie to win the end of season TOCA-Shoot Out race at Donington in 1993 (a race perhaps best remembered for Nigel Mansell's messy appearance in a Ford Mondeo). At an age when most racing drivers' careers were beginning to wind down, Leslie finally got himself into a car which would enable him to take outright wins. From there, Leslie established himself as a significant force in British touring cars, driving for Vauxhall, Mazda, Nissan and Proton, taking 9 wins and scoring a best championship position of 2nd in 1999, behind Laurent Aiello at Nissan. He finally bowed out of the series at the end of 2003 after a fruitless couple of years with the Proton Impian.

Leslie's involvement in, and influence over the racing world was not limited to his driving. He played a key role in guiding some of the leading Scottish talents of a generation through their formative racing years. David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti and Allan McNish all acknowledge that Leslie provided invaluable help in furthering their careers. A Monaco GP winner, an Indy 500 winner and a Le Mans winner. Not bad for a small country...

After the end of his touring car career, he took up commentary for Eurosport, working alongside Martin Haven on their coverage of the World Touring Car Championship and the FIA GT series. A quiet, softly spoken man who might not initially seem an obvious candidate for the job of sports commentator. He came across more as a college lecturer than a media pundit (and technically, he was, as he lectured part time in Motorsports Management at Swansea). However, his depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport was nonetheless obvious from the start, and was complemented with an endearingly dry sense of humour. On at least one occasion, he dovetailed commentary duties for the FIA GT series with driving duties for Graham Nash Motorsport's Saleen S7R. "Sorry, got to go now, I'm driving in a few minutes..." Not something I've often heard from a commentator.

I only once met David Leslie, very briefly, at the Knockhill Speedfair in 2006. He was there running demonstration laps in his old Ecurie Ecosse (which he pushed notably closer to the limit than Jackie Stewart did his old championship winning Tyrrell. He came across, though, as a pleasant, approachable man, and to judge by comments made after his death by those from the racing world who knew him, the impression I was given was accurate.

Leslie also took the opportunity that day to race his recently restored 1977 title-winning Formula Ford Royale RP24. It says something about the man's genuine enthusiasm for the sport that he not only went to the trouble of restoring his old car, but raced it with considerable aplomb. Against opposition in much more modern machinery, and despite being slow in a straight line, he stood every chance of winning the race, before his engine gave up the ghost. How many other semi-retired racing drivers in their 50s would go back to their Formula Ford roots in this way? He was a man, who it seemed, simply loved racing. Neil, at Fastest Lap, tells his own story of his exploits in a Shelby Mustang at Laguna Seca back in 1997.

David Leslie 1953-2008
David Leslie in action in his restored Royale RP24 at Knockhill in 2006.

For some people, motorsport is about glamour, fame, 'chasing the dream', making piles of money or being in with the 'in crowd'. It's this mentality which drives ITV's interminable, tedious pre-race features. David Leslie, it seemed to me, was the very antithesis of this kind of attitude. A man for whom it was all about the racing, who in the words of Allan McNish "gave far more to motorsport than it ever gave back to him."

Photos are author's own.

Labels: , , , , , ,