Monday, August 25, 2008

The 2009 Rules: A Blessing or a KERS?

If last weekend's European Grand Prix made one thing abundantly clear, it is that the sport is in dire need of rules changes to make overtaking if not easy, then at least a little less contrary to the laws of physics than it is at present. Here we were on a brand new track which is wide, features several slow corners at the end of long straights and plenty run-off area to play with should drivers fancy a gamble, and yet still the racing was processional, and nobody seemed able to pass anyone else.

I have heard it said that it is the very fact that the cars are so closely matched in performance that militates against passing at the moment. In the second part of qualifying, where the cars are all on the same fuel load, just 0.9s separated fastest man Sebastian Vettel from 15th placed Nelson Piquet, so there is no doubt that little separates the fast guys from the tail-enders right now, at least over a single lap. I'm not convinced, though, that this lies at the root of the overtaking problem. After all, there was a reasonable amount of passing in the supporting GP2 races. While the gaps in GP2 are larger, I suspect this has much to do with the greater variation in driver ability than anything else. After all, unlike in F1, the cars are all built to exactly the same specification, and while some teams may be better able to set up their cars than others, that surely can't count for as much as having a fundamentally different chassis in the first place.

The reason overtaking has become so difficult in F1 over the last few years has, to my mind, less to do with how closely matched the cars are, as the fact that the current design of F1 cars massively militates against overtaking. The cars are on a knife-edge aerodynamically, immensely sensitive to 'dirty air' coming off the back of a car in front so that following the car in front closely through corners is all but impossible. Braking distances are so short that a pass under braking requires a courage bordering on foolhardiness and in any case, the fuel/tyre stop pattern of the modern Grand Prix is such that a driver is usually better advised to wait until the pit stops to pass the guy in front.

It's a problem which the FIA are finally coming round to recognising, and attempting to address with what is being talked about as the most major shake-up of the F1 rulebook in over 20 years. Years ago, FIA Head Max Mosley might have talked of the need to see F1 as a "game of high speed chess" but at last, perhaps, wiser counsel is beginning to prevail. The question is, have they got it right?

The biggest, and perhaps the most talked about change is the introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) which use energy generated under braking, which would otherwise be wasted, to be used to provide additional power for the car. The rules for KERS are remarkably complicated. The KERS units will be limited by the rules to 60Kw and storage capacity for the device is limited to 400Kj. This means that a driver will be able to call upon an additional 80BHP for about 6 seconds a lap. It could help to promote overtaking, as it can be seen as a kind of "push to pass" button as used in A1GP and in Champ Car last year. The trouble is, that as it can only be used for 6s or so a lap, it is likely that every driver will simply hit the button on the longest straight, where the additional power will give the greatest advantage. Push to pass is, itself, no panacea for the problem of overtaking, but one can't help feel that this is probably not the solution. I have to confess I'm disappointed too that the rules are placing artificial limits on how efficient the device is allowed to be - no matter how much energy the teams may be able to get the devices to reclaim from braking each lap, they will not be allowed to claw back more than 400Kj. How this is supposed to meet the other objective of KERS - spurring improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency - I fail to see.

Much less talked about, but arguably of more significance, moveable aerodynamic devices are being allowed back into the sport (like KERS, it's not in itself a new technology. Mclaren had a KERS system back in 1999 before it was banned and adjustable wings go back to the 1960s). It will be possible for drivers to adjust their front wing angle by up to 6 degrees, a maximum of twice a lap. The idea is apparently to improve overtaking opportunities by enabling drivers to dial in more downforce at the front when in the slipstream, enabling a driver to have more confidence in the car under braking. I can't help thinking that the change might have wider application that that. It would be possible to change the oversteer/understeer characteristics for specific parts of the circuit - perhaps running more front wing angle through the twisty bits at the end of circuits like Hockenheim and Silverstone. It will certainly add an intriguing new variable to car set up. Whether it will help overtaking is another matter...

Perhaps the biggest changes, but also the most difficult to analyse as a layman, are the changes to the aerodynamics rules. Many a race fan has complained about the profusion of aerodynamic extrusions - 'chimneys', 'horns' and 'barge boards' on the grounds that they're aesthetically unappealing. Maybe I simply have a very unusual sense of what is beautiful, but I always rather appreciated them myself. To my mind the designs made the cars look like immensely intricate paeans to the laws of physics - shaped exactly as they were because that was what the wind tunnel insisted upon - no matter how counter-intuitive it looked. It is undeniable, though, that the profusion of 'upper body' aerodynamic pieces has made the cars still more sensitive to running in turbulent air, and I'm perfectly happy to see them go if it is going to mean better racing.

The decision to allow lower ground clearance on front wings, on the other hand, is a positive development both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of improving overtaking. The 50mm ground clearance of the front wings on current F1 cars just looks wrong, and on top of that, drivers report that the change made cars notably more sensitive to running turbulent air (though this is in part because teams tried to claw back the lost downforce by developing ever more complicated upper body aerodynamics - see above...) Presumably, the idea is that by banning said upper-body aero pieces, the lower front wings can be lowered without cornering speeds getting out of control.

At the same time, the rear wings are getting taller and narrower. I rather like the look myself, although Autosport's resident F1 design expert questions whether the effect might be to make the cars less aerodynamically stable and more sensitive to turbulent air (and consequently less able to run closely to the car in front) than they are at present. My degree not being in aeronautics or physics (I was a software man) I don't have the faintest clue whether this is the case or not. I hope the FIA have done their sums right, but it wouldn't be the first time that they hadn't.

What seems like a backward step even to an ignoramus like myself is the decision to reduce the maximum size of the rear diffuser on the 2009 F1 cars. Downforce generated by underbody diffusers is much less affected by turbulent air, and cars which rely to a greater extent on downforce generated by the underside of the car (such as the first generation GP2 car and the Panoz Champ Car raced last year) tend to be consequently much more able to run closely together. I only hope that the change is not sufficient to undo all the good work brought about by other changes to the rules.

Slick tyres will ensure the cars look more like proper single seaters than they do with the silly grooved tyres but whether it will make much difference to the racing is another matter. Drivers such as Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve always insisted, at the time that slicks were kicked out of F1, that the change resulted in the cars having much less 'feel' than they did previously, so I suppose it is possible that their reintroduction will enable drivers to push that little bit closer to the absolute limit without going over it, but that said, guys like Alonso, Kubica or Hamilton don't look to me like they are struggling with the tyres they have at present...

Will it all work? I'm in no better position than anyone else to say, really. I certainly hope it does, because, though F1 was never about constant wheel-to-wheel action in the way that some rose-tinted misty-eyed old guys insist it once was, it was rarely as processional as last weekend's European Grand Prix. And if none of the above works? Guys like Flavio Briatore might agitate for reverse grids or weight penalties or some other such nonsense that benights touring car racing these days.

Me, I've no time for any of that. There should be no penalties for success at the top level of international motorsport, any more than Usain Bolt should have to start a couple of metres back from his rivals at the next Olympics. I do recall, though, a rule change a few years back that led to overtaking at Monaco, only to be carelessly cast aside for reasons unclear. Restricting drivers to one set of tyres per race led to some of the most intensely fought individual races in years. Now there's a control tyre, there seems even less reason not to bring it back. Failing that, how about water sprinklers by the side of the track?

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Street Fighting

A new circuit beckons for the F1 circus this weekend, when the teams head to Valencia for the first time. This is something of an event in itself. Since the millennium, there have been just four new race circuits appear on the F1 calendar: the wonderful Otodrom Istanbul, the opportunity missed that was the Indianapolis road course, the uninspiring Shanghai Circuit and the deathly dull castle in the sand in Bahrain.

The Valencia circuit, though, is something altogether rather different. A street circuit in the heart of one of Europe's major cities, in fact the first F1 street race than I can recall being held in Europe, and the first new street race in F1 in a very long time. Having seen footage of the recent International Open GT race there, it would appear that the drivers will have to acquaint themselves with running very close to concrete barriers for much of the lap, to a degree matched only by Monaco, where speeds are much lower. To be honest, what I've seen of the circuit has not exactly convinced me that this is a classic F1 venue in the making - it seems to lack any absolutely standout corners and overtaking, while not Monaco-impossible does not look like it will be easy.

It is, though, something different in an increasingly homogenized F1 world. Drivers appear to be more enthusiastic about the place than about the other new track on this year's calendar, over in Singapore and it perhaps has the potential to shake up the established order and allow drivers and teams who have not been having such a great year a chance to shine. It's intriguing enough that I'm looking forward to it, and I'm not alone.

Back in the 1980s, F1 used to make regular trips to street circuits for the US Grand Prix. The circuits themselves ranged from the interesting (Long Beach), through the more-or-less adequate (Detroit), to the deathly dull (the endless 90 degree turns of Phoenix and the plain silly Las Vegas circuit which was hastily put together on a disused parking lot). What made the races interesting is that, as at Monaco, these street circuits appeared to play to the strengths of different drivers, and indeed cars, than the road circuits which, then as now, make up the majority of the F1 calendar. Keke Rosberg established a particularly strong reputation as a street circuit master. It didn't seem to matter what he was driving. Whether he was in the nimble but underpowered 1983 Williams Cosworth, or the following year's more powerful but evil-handling Williams Honda, none seemed able to touch him around tracks like Detroit and Las Vegas.

Later on, when F1 went to Phoenix, where it was greeted with utter indifference by the locals, Tyrrell's new young hotshot Jean Alesi grabbed the world's attention by pushing Ayrton Senna very hard for the 1990 race, ultimately finishing second in the underpowered Tyrrell 018. The peculiar characteristics of that track, with its long straights and second gear 90 degree corners also probably helped to explain one of the most bizarre grids in the history of the sport (again at the 1990 race). An Osella in the top 10? A Eurobrun ahead of a Ferrari? How about Pierluigi Martini's Minardi on the front row, and just a few hundredths away from a shock pole position?

It is tempting to speculate who, in particular, might shine at Valencia this weekend. Mark Webber might well be one to watch, given he has always gone well at Monaco, where the walls also loom close. The Williams might also be well worth keeping an eye on - they have been disappointing of late, but they do seem to go better at tracks where mechanical grip is more important than outright aerodynamic efficiency. Of the title contenders, Lewis Hamilton must start the weekend as the favourite, given the way he ran away and hid at Monaco and was the man with the pace at Montreal, a track not unlike Valencia in some ways.

It may be that the Valencia race this weekend is something of a harbinger for the future of F1. After all, another street race will follow in Singapore in a few weeks, and Bernie Ecclestone has made no secret of his desire to have more races in or near to major population centres. Street races in Paris, and even in London have been rumoured, although the sheer logistical nightmare of putting on an F1 race in either location is such that these are likely to remain pipe dreams.

I'm more than a little ambivalent about whether this is a direction the sport should be pursuing. I've always been a fan of what the Americans call 'road circuits' and would hate to see such as Spa, Silverstone and Monza replaced with dull grid lay-out street races. It's a road that American open-wheel racing, especially Champ Car, has already gone down, and to my mind it is a travesty that there are IRL races at the tedious St Petersberg and Belle Isle street tracks, but not at such classic venues as Road America, Road Atlanta or Laguna Seca. That said, in the unlikely event that Bernie and London mayor Boris Johnson somehow contrive to put together a deal for a race around central London, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Iconic Cars - The Final Part of the Series

My first two choices for my series on iconic racing cars from my youth were, in many ways, polar opposites. The Porsche 962 was stunningly, conspicuously successful, where the Metro 6R4's competition history was a story of opportunities missed and what-might-have-been. The 962 had a kind of elegant simplicity about it's design where the 6R4 looked like it could have come straight off the set of Mad Max - all wildly flared wheel arches and giant spoilers. And, of course, while the 962 as a race car, the 6R4 was a rally car.

My final choice falls between all these stools. Both a rally car and a racing car - successful, but never to quite the extent that it could have been, and a car whose beauty, or otherwise, was always very much in the eye of the beholder. The early 1980s saw the replacement of the old Group 1-6 system for rally, sports and touring cars with three new categories - Group C, for sports prototypes, Group B, which was principally a category for ludicrously overpowered rally cars and Group A, for both rally cars (following the death of Group B, it became the premier rally category from 1987) and touring cars. For me, the archetypal Group A touring car was Ford's Sierra RS Cosworth.

In its early years, Ford's Sierra was something of a problem child for the blue oval. It's then deeply unconventional appearance (since emulated by most of the motor industry) meant that sales were never as great as for its predecessor, the Ford Cortina. Attempts to go racing with it were not entirely unsuccessful, but Rudi Eggenberger's Sierra XR4TIs were rarely any kind of a serious threat to the then-dominant Schnitzer BMW, RAS Volvo and TWR Rover teams in the European Touring Car Championship. There was success in the UK with Andy Rouse's machine picking up the BTCC title in 1985. The XR4TI would not win on the international stage, however, until its final appearance at the last round of the 1986 ETCC at Estoril.

The car that replaced it - the RS Cosworth - had been on the drawing board since Stuart Turner had taken over at the helm of Ford Motorsport Europe in 1983. However, its gestation period was long, not least because of considerable difficulties in finding a gearbox that would cope with the engine's power. There was even a long tug of war between the engineering team and the marketing men over the Cosworth's distinctive "table top" rear wing. The team developing the car insisted it was necessary to counter the considerable aerodynamic 'lift' generated by the car at 180mph and above, while those responsible for selling the road-going versions required by the FIA's Group A homologation rules felt it would be a significant obstacle to selling the necessary 5,000 units.

The car eventually took to the race tracks at the start of the first ever World Touring Car Championship in Monza, but in a farcical turn of events, the two works Sierra Cosworths were disqualified for running the wrong fuel injectors, which left the field open for BMW to score a 1-2-3-4-5 on the international debut for it's M3. The result, however, did not stand, as all the BMWs were excluded for an infringement relating to the thickness of their roof metal, leaving a doubtless baffled Allan Moffat to claim victory in his Holden Commodore.

As it would turn out, the Sierra Cosworth was not immediately competitive anyway. Niggling gearbox and turbo problems caused a number of non-finishes early in the year, while the early Cosworth produced only 340BHP or thereabouts - which was enough to enable the lighter BMW M3 (with around 300BHP) to get on terms with the Cosworth in terms of sheer pace. Ford, though, had an ace up their sleeve in the form of the Evolution version of the car - the RS500 Cosworth. Aston Martin built the required 500 evolution cars, and once they were race-ready, Ford were unbeatable, at least in terms of outright pace, which was not entirely surprising as the power output of the RS500 was reckoned to be in the region of 470BHP. The latter part of the season saw 4 straight victories for theEggenberger Cosworths in the final four races. It was enough for them to clinch the Teams' Championship, though the driver's title went to BMW man Roberto Ravaglia.

The Sierra Cosworth was conceived as a touring car racer, but it would turn out to be a pretty handy rally car as well. The sudden cancellation of Group B, following the death of Henri Toivonen on the Tour de Corse in 1986 saw the 500NHP 4WD monsters replaced with much more sedate Group[ A machinery. The thing is, Lancia aside, no manufacturer had gone to the trouble of building and homologating anything specifically intended for Group A rallying at such short notice. The 2 wheel drive Sierra should never really have been a competitive rally car, but in 1987, it proved good enough to score podium places on the 1000 Lakes and RAC Rallies. Better suited to tarmac rallying than it ever was to mud or gravel, the car took a single outright World Rally win on the 1988 Corsica rally, in the hands of Didier Auriol.

At a national level, the car was more successful still. Jimmy McRae took back to back titles with his Sierra Cosworth in 1987 and 1988, and the sight of the whale-tailed Ford, rear end out at all kinds of angles, became common place in UK rallying through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Jimmy's son, Colin, cut his teeth on a Sierra Cosworth as well, picking up a 5th place with one as far back as 1989 on the New Zealand Rally. Only when Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi emerged on the scene with their 4WD machinery did the 2WD Cossie fade from competitiveness.

However, in my mind, and I should imagine, that of anyone around to witness it, the Sierra Cosworth is inextricably linked with the glory days of the British Touring Car Championship in the years from 1988 to 1991. OK, so I've said before that one of the things that makes a touring car series interesting is a variety of vehicles, but to be honest, that's of secondary importance to the quality of the machinery itself. Some teams were able to extract as much as 550BHP from their privateer RS500 Cosworths and the sight of these machines, which had far more power than grip, being driven on the limit was far superior to anything the modern 2 litre formula has to offer. Especially when it involved drivers of the calibre of Andy Rouse and Steve Soper. Certainly, I'd be far more interested in seeing what the likes of Fabrizio Giovanardi could have done in those cars than in the underpowered, overly grippy modern Super 2000 cars (if you're curious, there's some admittedly rather poor quality footage on Youtube: see and

Unfortunately, the success of the Sierra Cosworth was ultimately the undoing of Group A as a touring car formula. Put simply, nobody seemed inclined, or able, to build a top category Group A car which could take the fight to the all conquering Fords. The BTCC ultimately abandoned the Group A ruleset for the Supertourer formula at least in part because the BBC was supposedly uncomfortable about broadcasting what was effectively a fortnightly Ford advert. In the German series, the Sierra was dominant in 1988, before rules changed pegged back its performance in 1989 and banned it altogether come 1990. In the Australian series, it was a front running car as late as 1992 - some 6 years after it had first made its debut, though there, more modern machinery from Nissan and Holden eventually brought an end to its dominance.

Ford's Sierra Cosworth may have missed out on the first (and for many years, only) World Touring Car Driver's Championship but it remains for me the very zenith of the Group A touring car formula - and one of the iconic race cars of the 1980s.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Two 'til the end?

It has been an odd year for the GP2 series. The first year with the second generation GP2 machine has not provided quite so much of the close, wheel to wheel racing that made the championship's reputation in its first few years. One suspects that Dallara have simply got the trade-off between aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip wrong with this year's car and that the drivers are encountering the same problems running close together in "dirty air" that the big boys have long been used to in F1. Let's not get it out of proportion, though. There were overtaking manoeuvres at Hungary in the GP2 races last weekend, and that is more than can be said for the Grand Prix after the first 3 laps were in the book.

In each of the GP2 title race has boiled down to a 2-way fight. In 2005, it was Heikki Kovalainen fighting it out with eventual winner Nico Rosberg. A year later, Nelson Piquet was the Lewis Hamilton's sole serious opponent, and last year, it was Timo Glock and ART's Lucas Di Grassi who were still fighting it out as the series entered it's final rounds. After the Magny Cours race, at which all the other major title contenders self-destructed, I wondered if this year was going to prove an exception and Giorgio Pantano was going to have it all sewn up with several races in hand. Two further feature race wins, at Silverstone and in Hockenheim, appeared to confirm that the title was going to the Italian single-seater veteran.

However, a single disastrous weekend in Hungary, where Pantano fell victim to an over-aggressive piece of defending from Romain Grosjean in the feature race has been enough to enable ISport's Bruno Senna into contention. Bruno Senna appears to be adopting the same steady and consistent approach that wasn't quite enough to bring Di Grassi the title last year. He may have won just one feature race, set against Pantano's impressive four wins from seven, but he has been racking up podiums (not to mention a sprint race win) with such consistency that he is just seven points behind in the title race. Had the dogcatcher at Istanbul been doing his job properly, the gap might be even smaller.

Given that, for the last 3 years, the GP2 champion has ended up graduating to Formula 1, the question must be asked - what are Pantano and Senna's chances of making the step up? Pantano, I'm afraid, I simply can't see being picked up by an F1 team next year. He had his chance in F1 back in 2004, and to be brutally honest, he looked rather out of his depth. He's been racing in GP2 and it's predecessor, F3000, since 2001. His best result remains his second overall behind Sebastien Bourdais, all the way back in 2002. There's no doubt that he's matured into a very competent single seater racer, but after his messy year with Jordan, I doubt he'll get a second chance at F1.

In the case of Bruno Senna, the answer is more complicated. There have been rumours that Toro Rosso is taking a serious look at the Brazilian, not least because of his highly marketable name. To my mind, though, he has been good, rather than exceptional, thus far in GP2. He's been consistent, but on the other hand, he's hardly been the consistent race winner that such as Glock, Hamilton, Kovalainen and Rosberg were in GP2. In normal circumstances, I'd say we'd seen enough of Ayrton's nephew to say he wasn't quite F1 material. In his case, I'm not quite so sure though. Unlike almost all his rivals, he did not spend his teens in karts, and he only began racing in 2004. As such, there's a fair argument that he has more room for future improvement than anyone else at a similar level. Certainly, he has come a long way from the rather underwhelming driver I saw in a Formula BMW race at Knockhill four years back.

So that's the likely title contenders out of the way. What of the rest? At the start of the year, I had predicted that GP2 Asia champion, Romain Grosjean, would take the title. Oh well. Grosjean, to be fair, has looked as quick as anyone this year, especially in race conditions, but has shown this year that there are still a lot of rough edges to be smoothed away if he is to make the step up. In Spain, he qualified poorly but looked quicker in race trim than anyone else - and was the only driver who seemed to be able to overtake with the new higher downforce cars, but he threw away what should have been a sprint race win with a plain stupid move on Kamui Kobayashi. There have been mistakes, too, in Monaco, Magny Cours (though he really should have won the feature race) and the other weekend in Hungary. Lack of attention to yellow flags cost him what would have been a fine feature race win in the wet at Hockenheim. Perhaps, in the knowledge that he is with one of the best teams on the grid, the more he falls behind, the more desperate he gets, and the more he falls behind.

He can at least console himself with the thought that he is not Luca Filippi. The young Italian's lack of pace has been utterly baffling. This is, after all, a man who won races with Super Nova last year, looked quick in the GP2 Asia series with the inexperienced Meritus squad and was signed up in 2008 for ART - the most successful team in the series. Yet he has been nowhere all season - scoring just one point for ART before walking out and moving over to Arden after Silverstone - where he has been no more competitive. About the only comparable mystery has been the way British F3 champion Marko Asmer has looked so utterly out of his depth since he walked into the Fisichella Motorsport drive in France.

What, then, of the rest? It says something about the lack of stand-out drivers in this year's GP2 field that the man who lies 3rd in the title chase is Lucas di Grassi - despite the fact that he missed the first 3 rounds of the championship, only stepping in when Campos and Ben Hanley parted ways. He's done a good job this year - much more so than he did when he was fighting for the title last year with ART in my opinion - but the door to F1 probably shut on him when he didn't make the impact he really should have done last year. Though if Alonso walks out on Renault, their options might be limited...

Alvaro Parente, of course, won the first race, but has looked pretty anonymous since then. To be fair to him, it is not clear that SuperNova is capable of making a GP2 car run as quickly as some of their rivals, but his form has been rather erratic. That said, he is in his first season of GP2, and unlike Grosjean, he didn't have the luxury of doing the GP2 Asia series as a warm-up. Discounting those who raced in that series, he's done better than any of the championship's other freshmen. His credibility would, I think, be intact if he could come back and win the series next year.

The same cannot be said of a lot of other drivers having rather up and down seasons. Karun Chandhok has been intermittently fast, but has never really matched the pace of his ISport team mate Senna, suggesting that the world will have to wait a little while longer for a really first-rate Indian driver. Russia, too, would appear not yet to have found it's man. Vitaly Petrov has been decently quick, and had no problem disposin of Hanley, but it took the arrival of Di Grassi to mark Campos out as a race winning team. Javier Villa's progress appears to have reached an abrupt halt and gone into reverse. While his team mate Pantano has been racking up the feature race wins, Villa has not even been able to continue his Sunday sprint-race winning streak. Andreas Zuber has recovered, to a degree, from a massively disappointing and frustrating 2007 season, but hasn't really shown the kind of pace that marks him out as something special. The same can be said, to a considerable extent, of Mike Conway, who has been consistent over at Trident, but has never quite been on front-running pace.

Pastor Maldonado, on the other hand, has been as maddeningly inconsistent as ever. He could be accused of being a one-trick pony, but when that trick is lapping Monaco several tenths quicker than anyone else, it makes you stand up and pay attention. Sadly, he's also had more than his fair share of very silly mistakes, and there have been times when he has really been pretty anonymous. On the other hand, his drive through the field to 5th from the very back at Hungary was one of the stand-out performances of the year.

So not a classic GP2 season, by any means, but it does seem that we are once more set for an intriguing denouement to the championship. My money is on Pantano, but there is little doubting that ISport will be doing everything within their power to win a second driver's championship.

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