Monday, July 28, 2008


Both the National and the World Touring Car series were in action in the UK this weekend, at two of Jonathan Palmer's circuits - with the WTCC boys at Brands Hatch and the British Touring car series fighting it out at Oulton Park. Both Brands Hatch and Oulton Park are great circuits for tin-top racing. They may not be wide enough or have sufficiently long straights to really suit modern single seaters, certainly anything more powerful than an F3 car, but they're absolutely ideal for less powerful cars which are capable of running door-to-door. The question which struck me, though, is distance aside, which race should the discerning motorsport fan have been at last weekend?

Me, I was at neither. Oulton Park is the nearer venue and its 4 hours away from where I live. I'll wait until the BTCC makes its annual trip north of the border later in the month to Knockhill. Now I guess there is the perfectly reasonable argument that, given the all ten rounds of the BTCC take place in the UK and the WTCC comes to Britain only once a year, so if you had the choice, you would really have had to have been down in Kent last weekend. So maybe I should rephrase the question. Which is actually the better series?

I'm just old enough to have seen the old World Touring Car Championship which ran for a single year in the late 1980s and, like the current incarnation, grew out of the old European Touring Car Championship. That series, in marked contrast with the current World Touring Car championship, was notably different from the British national series. Where the BTCC has always consisted of 15 to 20 lap sprint races, the European and World Touring Car championships were made up of 500km endurance races with driver changes. As a result, the races seemed somehow more significant as events, though, to be fair, they were rarely closely fought. It was usually a question of whether the fast but fragile Eggenberger Sierra Cosworths could outlast the slower but more durable Schnitzer BMW M3s.

These days, though, the two series are much more similar. Both run to a format of multiple sprint races, both use the now nearly ubiquitous 'super 2000' ruleset and both make use of reverse grids and weight penalties to attempt to even things out between the cars and, by extension, the drivers. There doesn't on the face of it, appear to be much of substance differentiating the world championship from its provincial rivals. And personally, I actually prefer the British series.

The Case for the WTCC

Let's start with the plus points of the WTCC. As a World Championship, it does visit some great racing circuits: As well as the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit (not on the BTCC calendar this year), there are rounds at Monza, Brno, Imola, Pau and Macau. On the other hand, for a World Series, it doesn't half visit an awful lot of uninspiring autodromes. Why Valencia? And if you're going to make the trip out to Japan, why go to Okayama, the oversized go-kart track formerly known as Aida? Even Snetterton isn't quite so yawn-inducing a venue as Oscherleben, a circuit of which GT racer Ray Bellm said, in explaining why he would not be racing there "I'm not going because I race for pleasure."

The UK has some great race circuits - Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Donington, the balls-out quick Thruxton and the tight, undulating Knockhill, but on balance I would probably concede that the WTCC does just edge the BTCC in this respect. Not least because the BTCC sadly does not make full use of the opportunities available to it in the UK. No race on the Silverstone or Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuits, and impractical as it may be, I'd love to see a BTCC race at Britain's very own bijou-Nordschliefe, Cadwell Park.

One area where the WTCC does have an undeniable edge over the BTCC is in the quality of the driver line-up. The WTCC is full of touring car legends, including former BTCC champions Yvan Muller, James Thompson, Rickard Rydell and Alain Menu, not to mention the man dubbed 'the Michael Schumacher of touring cars' - three time world champion Andy Priaulx. Add to that no less than four former F1 drivers - Monteiro, Tarquini, Larini, and the inspiring Zanardi) and it's clear that the one thing the world series doesn't want for is quality drivers. OK, so there are some time-servers and ride-buyers at the back, but that goes for almost any racing championship short of F1 these days (and it used to be true of F1 too).

The BTCC has a smattering of drivers with really first-rate resumes, including multiple former ETCC champion and current reigning BTCC champion Fabrizio Giovanardi, former Mclaren tester Darren Turner and fans' favourite Jason Plato. In contrast with the WTCC, though, most of the field have come up through the one-make saloon ladder in the UK. It might be my single-seater bias, but I somehow can't persuade myself that the likes of Tom Chilton, Colin Turkington and Gordon Shedden are quite in the same league as those who have picked up wins in F3, F3000 or GP2 I suppose British F3 winner Stephen Jelley could be considered proof I'm wrong, as he's looked pretty uninspiring alongside Turkington in the Team RAC BMW. Against that, I would counter that Jelley spent 3 years in F3, often with the best equipment, and rarely looked a serious threat to the front-runners.

The case for the BTCC

So if I accept that the WTCC has the best drivers, and on balance, the best circuits, why do I still insist that the BTCC is actually the more interesting championship? Firstly, there's the question of the cars. I'm of the view that there should always be plenty of variety in the machinery in touring car racing, and the WTCC's field is made up almost entirely of BMWs, SEAT Leons and Chevrolet Lacettis. OK, so there's a single Honda Accord and a pair of desperately uncompetitive Ladas, but the race-winning has all been done by just three marques this year.

Contrast this with the British Championship. The title itself is, to be fair, fast turning into a straight battle between the full works teams of Vauxhall, with their locally homologated s2000 Vectras, and SEAT with their diesel Leons, but there are plenty of other teams and cars capable of winning races. The privately entered BMWs of West Surrey Racing and Mat Jackson's family run team have both picked up wins. The same is true of Team Dynamics' self-developed Civic Type-R s2000 tourer. The BTCC also allows privateers to run old BTC-spec cars, and while most of these are uncompetitive, the pere et fils Jordan with their Honda Integras have threatened the big boys on occasion. Away from the competitive end of the grid, there are also old SEAT Toledos, a privately run Chevy Lacetti, an MG ZR, an old-shape Civic Type-R and earlier in the year even a pair of pretty, if unreliable, Lexus IS200s. The very fact that the BTCC is a less expensive, less professional series actually ends up counting in its favour as I see it. It allows privately run teams to run competitively, if not quite on championship winning pace, to a much greater degree than in the WTCC. Having said that, the difference should not be exaggerated. The independent WSR BMW of Colin Turkington got a wild card entry in a couple of WTCC races last year and finished in points-paying positions on both occasions. At their home track, Brands Hatch, they even looked like an outside bet for the win.

My fundamental reason for preferring the BTCC, though, is what I consider to be a more sensible rule set. Both series use weight penalties to peg back the most competitive car and driver combinations and, while I've never been particularly enamoured of this concept, the BTCC system is much more sensible than the WTCC system. In the BTCC, the top five in the world championship carry ballast in the first race of each weekend. The ballast never exceeds 45kgs, and it comes off the car for the second race, where the ballast is instead transferred to the top 5 finishers in the opening race. Thus, if a championship contending driver is hamstrung by a weight penalty in the opening race, he nonetheless has the opportunity to make it up in the second race of the weekend, although as the BTCC does not reverse the grid for the second race of the weekend, so he may still have his work cut out. For the final race each weekend, the BTCC does use a reverse grid system, but very sensibly, decides exactly how many slots on the grid will be reversed by lot, after the end of the second race. This avoids the problem, so common in many series running reverse grid races, of drivers deliberately aiming to finish 8th, in order to secure pole for the following race. It's a system which works well, and while I wouldn't be in favour of it being adopted by any truly world-class series, for a TV-oriented national series, its a reasonable compromise between racing purity and the need to keep things entertaining.

Contrast this with the WTCC - a series with more professional teams and a significant number of first-rate drivers, where such 'performance balancing' shouldn't really be necessary at all. Rather than do away with it, though, the WTCC uses it to a far greater degree than the BTCC. The WTCC imposes a penalty of 1kg for every point that a driver scores in the championship, meaning that once a driver starts to get ahead in the championship, he carries a penalty for the rest of the season - or at least until the effect of the penalty is sufficient to allow his rivals to eat into his title lead. It seems to be a rule set designed to ensure that no driver, no matter how good, can possibly ever build up much of a lead in the championship. In the BTCC, at least, it is difficult, but possible, for a sufficiently competitive car/driver combination to build up a substantial points lead, as Matt Neal did for a couple of years in the Team Dynamics Integra and Giovanardi is doing this year for Vauxhall. The end result is that luck plays a much bigger part in determining who walks away with the title than it should. It is testament to Andy Priaulx's abilities that, despite all the fiddling with the rulebook, he has still been able to claim the title in every year of the WTCC's existence thus far.

Common problems

To be fair, there are certain problems that beset both series. Both the BTCC and the WTCC have made, what to my mind, is the mistake of allowing turbodiesel cars to compete against normally aspirated 2 litre petrol cars. These have such a significant straight line speed advantage as to make it immensely frustrating for anyone in a petrol engined car to race against them. The number of times a faster petrol machine has got stuck behind one of the diesel SEATS and remained there, because of a 5-10mph straightline speed disadvantage is beyond count. As only SEAT use diesels, and as they have a 2 litre petrol machine to hand as well, I would simply ban diesel cars from s2000. Let diesels race at Le Mans, if we must - although they still sound deathly dull.

Come to that, there has never been an entirely satisfactory answer to the conundrum of equalising performance between front and rear wheel drive cars, although this appears to balance out over the course of the season - at least in the BTCC where the works cars are all front wheel drive. In the WTCC, where BMW runs a works team, it is perhaps no coincidence that they have walked away with the championship every year thus far. This one is harder to solve, for the simple reason that most manufacturers either have front wheel drive or rear wheel drive cars and not both. Banning rear wheel drive machines would remove BMW from the equation, and that would wipe out half the grid in the WTCC and get rid of the most serious private operations in the BTCC.


The WTCC is the series with the greater potential. It is a global series, and the quality of drivers and teams that it can attract reflects this. However, to my mind, it is stymied by a rulebook which turns it into a virtual lottery, and by the fact that it is too expensive a series for privateers to be competitive, while only three manufacturers are involved - with the result that the field looks very samey. If I were running the WTCC, I would scrap the nonsense of success ballast and reverse grids, lengthen the races to distinguish the world championship from the various national s2000 championships and refocus the series on Europe where the vast majority of both the teams and the drivers come from. So the results might be a shade more predictable? Perhaps, but I doubt it would turn into a tedious procession - there are simply too many quality drivers and teams for anyone to establish an unassailable advantage. Until that day, however, I'd really rather watch the BTCC.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Domenicali's Dilemma

After winning the German Grand Prix, a journalist asked Lewis Hamilton if he was surprised that Felipe Massa didn't defend his second position more strongly than he did. "All I can say is that, if that had been me, he would never have got past." he came straight back. It was a response which has left him open to accusations of arrogance - which were duly and predictably hurled about the internet - but I can't help but think he did no more than speak his mind, and come to that, that he was probably right.

It's hard to imagine that Hamilton - or Alonso or Kubica for that matter, would have made it so easy on the run down into turn 4. I know that back seat drivers are a pain in the arse, and I know that it's easy to be an armchair critic, but even as the move was taking place I was thinking "No, Felipe, don't leave a gap down the inside. Lewis will nail you if you do that." And sure enough, he did.

The thought must be going through the mind of Ferrari manager Stefano Domenicali's mind that last weekend was merely the latest of a number of occasions on which Ferrari had been let down by its drivers. It's always difficult to be certain, but my impression is that Maranello has produced the fastest car through the balance of the season so far, and yet Mclaren and Hamilton are clear at the top of the driver's championship and hard as it is to believe, BMW's Robert Kubica is snapping at their heels.

Kimi Raikkonen was hired at great expense to fill the shoes (as it were) left vacant by the departure of Ferrari lynchpin Michael Schumacher and after a year and a half at the team, he had failed to establish even that he is consistently quicker than Felipe Massa. There have been days, for sure, when he has looked absolutely imperious. Think of his performance at Magny Cours before an exhaust failure stymied his challenge, or of his win at Barcelona earlier in the year. On other occasions, though, Massa has easily had the measure of him - think Bahrain or Istanbul, and at Hockenheim last weekend, as at Monaco in the rain earlier in the year, he was almost embarrassingly off the pace.

Maybe, with a world title in the bag and a huge fortune stashed away, he simply isn't really interested any more. Maybe he has never really gelled withthe Ferrari and its control Bridgestone tyres in the way he did on occasion with the Mclaren and its Michelins. Or maybe he is simply not as good or as quick as we thought he was back in his Mclaren days. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that at a reported $30m a year, he hasn't been great value for money.

If Felipe Massa was always unofficially considered to be the Number 2. driver at Ferrari then a case can be made that he's exceeded expectations. Despite initial doubts that he would cope with the loss of traction control, he's generally looked quicker than Raikkonen this year. Call me a skeptic, though, but he just doesn't look like world champion material to me. He's always had a reputation for being fast (though only once did he ever appear to be any kind of threat to Michael Schumacher when they were teamed up in 2006) but equally he's never been able to entirely shed a reputation for silly errors. This year he went off at turn 1 at Melbourne after getting a little too enthusiastic with the throttle, spun out of second in Malaysia and spent so much time in rotation at Silverstone I was half left wondering whether he thought he was doing ballet, not racing. Hockenheim highlighted another weakness: He's never been much of a wheel-to-wheel racer. The way Hamilton breezed past him was more than a little reminiscent of how Raikkonen sailed past Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap of the Japanese Grand Prix back in 2005. And if there is one thing that any aspiring world champion doesn't want to hear, then surely it is comparisons with Fisichella...

The decision Domenicali is left facing is whether his team would be best served soldiering on with its current pairing, or whether they should be looking around for replacements. Earlier in the week, Clive Allen found himself wondering whether in Lewis Hamilton, the sport has another Michael Schumacher, another Ayrton Senna on its hands - a driver who is head and shoulders above everyone else. If that really is the case, then I think Ferrari really need to be casting around for potential replacements now. Mclaren appear to be getting their act together as a team, and if Hamilton is bringing another 2 or 3 tenths of a second a lap to the party on his own, then if I were running for Ferrari, I would be looking for someone who might be able to work the same magic. And I can't persuade myself that either of their existing drivers fit the bill.

The trouble is, the other options appear to be decidedly limited. Fernando Alonso has shown he was capable of matching Hamilton when they were teamed up together last year at Mclaren, and he's doubtless getting rather fed up tooling around in this year's underwhelming Renault. On the other hand, if he could only barely match Hamilton in his debut year, what chance does he have against the Brit now he's more experienced? And is Alonso really a Ferrari man? The disintegration of his relationship with Mclaren last year revealed him as a decidedly temperamental man, willing, if necessary, to go to war with his own team if he feels things aren't going his way. He would certainly be a radical change from the imperturbable Raikkonen or the team-focused Schumacher.

So if not Alonso then who? Of the current young guns, two stand out as having, potentially at least, that extra something which would enable them to take the fight to Mclaren and Hamilton. They are the young German (much touted as the 'new Schumacher' in his homeland) Sebastien Vettel, who has been doing incredible things with the hitherto uncompetitive Toro Rosso, and BMW's Polish star Robert Kubica, who has been perhaps the standout driver of the year thus far.

The trouble is that both of these men are firmly contracted to other teams. For sufficient cash, it would doubtless be possible to buy off Red Bull or BMW, but can Ferrari be so confident of what they are getting as to justify the expenditure? After all, might they be feeling that they threw a little too much money in the direction of Kimi Raikkonen? Of the two men, Robert Kubica is the one who has done more to establish his credentials (he is, after all, a Grand Prix winner and led the driver's championship earlier this season) but that would mean paying off BMW. The German team would doubtless demand an awful lot of money for letting go of their prime asset - and all that would not merely be money which Ferrari were losing, but money which a team fast emerging as a serious threat to them would be gaining. It might not cost Ferrari quite so much to prise Sebastien Vettel out of his Red Bull contract, but he is rather more of an unproven quantity. Sure, he looked mighty in the wet at Fuji and China last year, and he has sometimes got that Toro Rosso far further up the grid than it ought to be, but on the other hand, would the next Michael Schumacher really lose the F3 Euroseries title to Paul Di Resta?

Williams team leader Nico Rosberg is another possibility. Nonetheless, I can't shake the suspicion that, while Keke's son may be good, he hasn't got that extra something which marks him out as really special. After all, in his debut season, his head went down, and he found himself comfortably outpaced by Mark Webber. Last year he looked rather impressive against the floundering Alex Wurz, but this year he seems to have made an awful lot of mistakes (I've lost count of how many Williams nosecones he's trashed). For me, the final nails in the coffin, if it is true, are rumours that he was offered the Mclaren drive alongside Hamilton this year, but turned it down because he lacked the confidence to go head to head with Woking's golden boy. Not, in my view, the attitude of a born winner.

The eccentric option, as it were, would be Rosberg's former team mate Mark Webber. Webber has been around the sport for a good long while now, and on the face of it, it could be argued that he hasn't achieved much. That may be so, but then he has never had the car to do the job. Sometimes, especially in qualifying, where it is perhaps easier for a minute or so of sheer inspiration to make up for a vehicle's limitations, that hasn't mattered so much. Back in 2003, he put a Jaguar on the front row in Malaysia. A fortnight ago, he repeated the trick in a Red Bull. A couple of years back, he was in serious contention for an outright win in a Williams at Monaco, before the car failed (as it so often did that year). More than any of the other experienced drivers on the grid, he strikes me as the man most likely to really get the job done given a top car. Of course, a few years ago, I would have said the same thing of Giancarlo Fisichella (who continues to impress when stuck in an uncompetitive car) but Webber seems a man more likely to keep his head under pressure, more likely to really work at getting the most out of a front-running car than Fisichella ever was.

One thing is clear though. Stefano Domenicali's predecessor, Jean Todt, never really had to think about who drove the red cars. There was no doubting that, with Michael Schumacher at the wheel of one of their cars, if they weren't winning, it was unlikely to be down to the limitations of the man holding the steering wheel. Now, though, Ferrari cannot be so sure, and they face some difficult decisions on that score...

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Monday, July 14, 2008

No Room At The Inn

I didn't see it, because I was busy watching Lewis Hamilton giving a wet-weather driving master class to rank alongside Ayrton Senna's magnificent 1993 European Grand Prix win and Jackie Stewart's domination of the 1968 German Grand Prix, but I'm told that this year's Wimbledon Men's Final, between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, was one of the all time classics of the game. In order to get to that final, Nadal and Federer had to come out on top in a knock-out tournament with 126 other competitors, any of whom could, in theory have won.

Contrast that with Formula 1. At the moment, there are just 20 slots on the F1 grid. and just 4 to 6 of those seats are likely to provide a realistic shot at winning a Grand Prix. OK, so the outstanding talents usually, though not quite always, find their way into the best drives once they have got their foot in the door and secured an F1 drive in the first place (Alonso didn't take long to come to the world's attention even at Minardi, while Raikkonen impressed from the outset at Sauber). There is though, a strong element of luck involved in determining who gets a shot at F1 in the first place. It's a fact which has come to play an ever bigger role as the junior single seater series have burgeoned at the same time as the number of cars on the F1 grid has decreased and drivers careers have tended to become longer than once they were. It is all the more of a lottery for the fact that a good number of the great F1 drivers were merely good rather than outstanding in their time in the sport's lower echelons. After all, what did Michael Schumacher ever really achieve in F3000? And wasn't Nigel Mansell pretty uninspiring in F3?

As a way of illustrating the point, I've attempted to put together a list of 20 British racing drivers who, on the evidence available, might make a decent first of an F1 opportunity if it presented itself. I'm not claiming that all 20 of them have a particularly strong claim to an F1 seat - they don't - but I do think few, if any of them, would be an embarrassment in the Zsolt Baumgartner or Gaston Mazzacane sense of the word. It is not a nationalistic or patriotic point I'm trying to make here. Britain may produce disproportionately many racing drivers, given its history, but I'm sure a similar list of German, American, Spanish, Brazilian or Italian drivers could be put together by someone more familiar with those national racing scenes. I have simply stuck to what I know...

The Current F1 drivers

Let's start with the easy bit - the 3 men already here. Grand Prix winners, Lewis Hamilton, David Coulthard and Jenson Button. Are they all from the very top drawer? No. Hamilton? yes Button? Maybe, Coulthard? Not quite, in my view, but you don't win 13 Grands Prix without doing something right. To this list, I would add recently redundant former Super Aguri man, Anthony Davidson. He generally outpaced his more experienced team mate Takuma Sato (and this despite the fact the team was essentially built around him) at least in the latter half of 2007 and Mark Hughes, for one, reckons he's at least as quick as Jenson Button.

Going Stateside

A number of British drivers, faced with a lack of opportunities to find paid work in Europe, have chose to up sticks and ply their trade on the other side of the Atlantic. Amongst them is former Minardi and Jaguar man Justin Wilson, who now races for Newman Haas in the IRL. OK, so he was outpaced by Mark Webber at Jaguar during his time there in 2003. That said, he was very much the new boy in the team, while Webber was the established team leader. Furthermore, he seemed to get closer to Webber in his last couple of races for the team, and perhaps had everyone woken up to how quick the Australian was, Wilson might still be in F1. Other than Davidson, he's to my mind the British ex-F1 driver most deserving another shot.

Former IRL champion, Indy 500 winner and current front-runner, Dan Wheldon is another man who would definitely be on the list. Rumour has it that he was seriously considered for a role at BMW, but turned the German team down when he was told any testing role would not automatically lead to an F1 drive. You can see this one from both sides. Thiessen was doubtless mindful of the sport's experiences with US champions like Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi and didn't want to find himself saddled with a man who could not adapt to F1. Wheldon, as a tIRL champion, probably felt a testing role beneath him. If Wheldon is in, then an equally strong case can certainly be made for reigning IRL champion Dario Franchitti. A former Autosport Award winner, he seemed destined for F1 at one time, but his European career stalled and he went off to the US. He may be struggling in NASCAR right now, but then so is Juan Pablo Montoya. My final Stateside choice is a slightly eccentric one, Foyt Racing Enterprises driver Darren Manning. OK, so he appeared to fluff his big IRL opportunity with Ganassi a couple of years back, but since then he has worked small wonders with the unfancied Foyt team and this, combined with his gutsy showings in the unloved Reynard Champ Car back in 2003, is enough to earn him a place on my list.

Bubbling Under...

These days, it seems that GP2 is the established finishing school for wannabe F1 drivers. While there are, on the face of it, no really first-rate British drivers in the field just now, I reckon all of this year's British contenders have shown enough flashes of promise that they wouldn't necessarily be out of their depth in F1. Mike Conway may only have won one race in his year and a half in the category, but he has been both the victim of more than his share of bad luck, and he has not been driving for one of the big teams. He was quick around Monaco, which is always a sign that a driver fundamentally has the talent. He was a good bit quicker than Bruno Senna when they were teamed up in British F3 too. Ben Hanley had a difficult few races at Campos before he found himself dropped from the team but a man capable of winding up 2nd in the competitive Renault World Series last year can't be too far off the pace, and you never know what he might be capable of with the right breaks, with a team he feels at home with. Adam Carroll has been floating around in GP2 as something of a troubleshooter for teams struggling to get to the root of their problems. He's probably too much of an old-fashioned, scruff-of-the-neck racer to fit into modern F1, but I'm sure he'd be great to watch. And nobody else has made Fisichella Motorsports look remotely competitive in GP2 in a while...

Silver Arrows

One of the peculiarities of Mercedes' approach to motorsport is that they seem to spend so much time and money on promoting the junior careers of various drivers only to cut the strings - or rather shunt them sideways into the DTM, just when their single seater career looks to be really going somewhere. Take Jamie Green for example. He beat Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica to the 2004 F3 Euroseries title, but didn't have the support to move on up to GP2 the following year. Rosberg, of course, whom he had beaten to the 2004 title, went on to become GP2 Champion and earn a drive with Williams. It's much the same story with Dario Franchitti's cousin, Paul Di Resta. Winning the 2006 F3 Euroseries was not enough to persuade anyone to fund a run at the GP2 title, and he too has been plying his trade in the DTM ever since. On the subject of DTM drivers, Gary Paffett has often been talked about as a potential GP driver and I've heard it argued he's one of the sport's great lost talents. Others, who've seen him testing for Mclaren, reckon he's not quite got it. Chances are, we'll never know.

World Cup Stars

The so-called 'World Cup of Motorsport', the A1GP series has suffered from a rather patchy driver line up, since it came into existence back at the end of 2005. On the one hand, ex-F1 drivers such as Narain Karthikayen, Jos Verstappen, Alex Yoong and Ralph Firman have featured, but on the other hand, the Lebanese and Indonesian entries, in particular, have been utterly out of their depth. In the light of this, it is hard to assess just how quick and Robbie Kerr and Oliver Jarvis really are. There has been no doubting, though, that they have been consistently near the front throughout their time in A1GP, and that's enough to earn both of them a place in this list. It's probably too late for Kerr, but Jarvis just might go further in the sport yet.

Wild Cards

Every now and again, a driver seems to just slip through the cracks and disappear without trace. That's not quite true of Ryan Sharp but things do seem to have gone rather quiet for him since he fell out of GP2 half way through 2005. OK, so he only ever scored a couple of points but 1) he was often monumentally unlucky and 2) he was driving for DPR - hardly the most competitive team on the grid. He's been doing a good job in the JetAlliance Aston Martin GT alongside Karl Wendlinger and he's worth a punt. Fellow Scot Ryan Dalziel (there do seem to be a lot of Scots on this list...) never really got the breaks that his talent deserved. Twice runner-up in Formula Atlantic, he spent some time in Grand Am and in ALMS but what impressed me was the pace he was able to show with the inexperienced Pacific Coast Motorsports team last year in Champ Car's messy swansong season. To the best of my knowledge, he's out of work now, but that's no reason to leave him off my list.

Some drivers, of course, make the leap straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1. Ayrton Senna, for example. Or Mika Hakkinen. So it's not a bad idea. While I don't see anyone in the current crop of F3 drivers who seems ready for such a drastic move, I do think that Oliver Turvey shows just enough promise to make it onto my 'fantasy grid'. OK, so he only has one win to his name, but British F3 has been unusually competitive this year, and he's managed to do this whilst preparing for Finals in his engineering degree at Cambridge. The kind of background knowledge which could prove very useful in this increasingly technical sport...

Over to you...

The more eagle eyed amongst you might have noticed I've only included 19 drivers. That's because I'm interested to know who you think I have unfairly left out. By way of explanation, I ought to add that the reason such as, for example, Allan McNish is off the list is that I've tried to stick to drivers still young enough to make a decent fist of F1. McNish is undoubtedly still quick, as anyone who saw this year's Le Mans will know, but at nearly 40, I can't see him getting back into F1. The other obvious omission is Ralph Firman, whom I have left off because, though he may well be as quick, if not quicker, than several of the names on this list

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Monday, July 07, 2008

A Race At The Park?

I'm noticing something of a pattern developing where the really unexpected F1 stories have a habit of breaking while I'm on holiday and catching me unawares. A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in a bar in Bordeaux, leafing through a copy of Le Monde and wondering whether Juan Montoya was could possibly be walking out on Mclaren to go stock car racing or whether my rusty A-level French was a lot worse than I thought.

Last Saturday morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Ceilidh Place up in Ullapool (A place I do recommend should you ever find yourself in that part of the world) and leafing through the famously parochial Press and Journal (a rather peculiar semi-national newspaper which, it is said, though probably apocryphally, reported the sinking of the Titanic with the headline "Aberdeen Man Lost At Sea") when I stumbled upon a story that the British Grand Prix is to move to Donington Park from 2010. My first reaction was to wonder whether the paper had just got it wrong.

Now I rather like Donington, and the last time I went to a Grand Prix in the UK, it was to the sole previous post-war F1 race at Donington, where I stood in the rain at the bottom of the Craner Curves and watched my childhood hero Ayrton Senna drive arguably the finest race of his life. Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that Donington is not the place for modern F1 cars.

Put simply the track is too tight, too twisty and lacks the long straights needed to enable overtaking in today's Grand Prix cars, at least in the dry. The only really slow corners on the track, the Melbourne Hairpin, the Esses and Goddards, all lack the kind of long straights which enable a driver to pull off a pass. A 21st Century F1 car might look absolutely incredible through the sweeping Craner Curves, but the vagaries of aerodynamics are such that a following car would never get close. There is little chance that Raikkonen, Alonso or Hamilton could emulate Senna's fantastic first lap pass of Karl Wendlinger there, not because they lack Senna's ability, but because their equipment simply wouldn't allow for it.

There is talk that the circuit will be extended, by a half a mile or so, but Simon Gillett's talk on during the ITV coverage last weekend of building in a "second Craner curves" leaves me fearing that what Donington's bosses have in mind is the addition of a further technical, twisty section which will do nothing to alleviate the problems with passing. A substantial programme of track widening may help a little, but is unlikely to deal with the fundamental problem.

Of course, it is entirely possible that such concerns are academic, and that the announcement that the British Grand Prix will head to the Derbyshire circuit is nothing more than another move in the long running war of attrition being fought between Bernie Ecclestone and the BRDC over the upgrading of Silverstone. After all, it wasn't so long ago that stories were circulating that the British Grand Prix would be off to Brands Hatch (another wonderful race track sadly utterly unsuited to modern F1 as anyone who has watched the processional A1GP races there will know.) Furthermore, the financing of the whole Donington venture sounds woefully opaque and the question of quite what they have up their sleeves that Silverstone cannot match remains unanswered. And that's before we even get onto the question of planning permission.

Having said all that, while I'm not convinced by Donington as an F1 venue, it remains a great race track, with a variety of corners and gradient change and enough passing places for categories such as the British Touring Car Championship and less powerful single seaters - there have been a number of really rather entertaining F3 races here. One of the most memorable races I ever saw there was - of all things - a one make race for old-model Renault 5s that cascaded through the Craner Curves three, sometimes four abreast (it probably helped that the cars weren't worth much - club drivers who fear the cost of a write-off tend not to be so carefree...)

The circuit also played host to the first ever visit of the German Touring Car Championship to the UK back in the early 1990s. It may not have been a classic race (I was keeping my fingers crossed for a Steve Soper victory but the Audi 100s of a young Frank Biela and an aging Hans Stuck were simply too quick for the BMW runners. Nonetheless, it was a sight well worth seeing - not least because by that time the big banger Sierra Cosworth's were gone from the British championship and the race represented the only opportunity to see really big, powerful touring cars in the UK (oh, and Gerd Ruch's weird Ford Mustangs, which were certainly big, though they didn't seem very powerful, or at least not very quick).

Donington was also the scene of some very memorable Group C races in the late 1980s and earl;y 1990s. Given the size and power of late 80s sportscars, you might wonder how they can race around Donington when lighter, more nimble F1 cars would, in my view at least, seriously struggle. The answer lies partly in the fact that the aerodynamics of sportscars, especially of that era, was much more primitive and did not make close running through fast corners nearly so difficult and partly in the very different nature of the racing. Where single seater racing is to a significant extent about wheel to wheel racing and passing on the track, sportscar racing, especially in the Group C era, was much more down to slick pit work and fuel economy. A lack of overtaking opportunities on the track never quite mattered so much.

It is perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years Donington has been best known for hosting events like the old FIA Sports Car Championship, the ill-fated European Le Mans Series and, perhaps most successfully, the FIA GT Series. Ironically, it has now lost the blue riband sportscar and GT races to Silverstone - the very circuit which has supposedly lost the GP to Donington. Its the wrong way round, all told. F1 cars need the fast wide open spaces of Silverstone to be seen to their best effect, while I for one would much rather watch sports and prototype cars through the sweeping Craner curves than the equally exhilarating but less spectator-friendly Maggots/Becketts complex.

My worst fear, though, is that something similar to the A1-Ring fiasco might befall the Donington circuit. The A1-Ring was a moderately interesting, if unexceptional circuit in Austria, located near the site of the old Zeltweg track. Its owner, Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz had grand plans for the venue and commenced a complete rebuild of the venue a few years back. Then, with work already underway and the circuit dug up, planning permission fell through and the track was left unfinished. To my knowledge, it has not been used for any form of racing since.

Donington is one of Britain's great national circuits - along with Brands Hatch and my own personal favourite, Oulton Park. It is not, though, a circuit suited to modern F1 and plans to upgrade it do not seem to be built on firm foundations. Sadly, I can't help but feel that plans to move to the British GP to Donington are little more than a stalking horse for plans to move the race out of Britain altogether, and that there is a real danger that not only could Britain lose its Grand Prix, but that if the Donington management team are not careful, we could lose one of the country's great race circuits too. I only hope I'm wrong.

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