Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Review: Crashed And Byrned - The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw

Some years ago, I found myself talking to an elderly relative about his time as a football talent scout for, I think, Blackpool, in the North East of England. I wondered if he had ever run into Paul Gascoigne in the course of his work: "Oh yes" he told me "Saw him when he was 8 years old. Incredibly gifted, a real natural. But it was clear even then that he wasn't right in the head." I asked if the club he worked for had ever tried to sign him. He shook his head. "No, he looked like he would be far too much like hard work. We'd never keep him on the rails. I didn't think he would ever make it as a professional player." History, I suppose, has proven him both right and wrong in his judgment of Mr Gascoigne.

You might be wondering why I bring the story up. The answer is that I was reminded of it while reading Tommy Byrne's recently published autobiography, Crashed And Byrned - The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw. I'm not suggesting that the two are especially similar. Byrne may have had a wild side but the book does not suggest a man as fundamentally troubled as Gascoigne. It's more than they were both incredible natural talents who, perhaps because of their upbringing, or perhaps because of their innate disposition, were cursed with a self-destructive streak which made it difficult for them to make the most of their otherworldly abilities. Byrne may never have been as troubled as Gascoigne, but while football clubs are well used to handling and reining in wayward kids from difficult backgrounds, the moneyed world of professional motorsport was not.

Written with one of the best motorsport journalists of our time, Mark Hughes, this is a book which I had been looking forward to for a while, and it is certainly a driver biography quite unlike any other I have read.

Byrne came from a poor Irish family in a rural village outside of Dundalk. The early part of the book, recounting adventures from his childhood, will have a familiar ring to anyone who had read accounts of growing up poor in Catholic Ireland in the 1960s and 70s. Certainly, it is a world away from the upbringing of the man whom Hughes considered his only real rival in terms of outright pace, Ayrton Senna. Nonetheless, there's a curious parallel early on in the book. Both had their earliest driving experiences at the wheel of a tractor. However, while Senna picked this up on his millionaire father's vast cattle ranch, Byrne did so while helping out at a nearby farm whose owner had realised that the local kids provided a cheap (i.e. free) workforce to help him get the harvest in.

Byrne gets just one lucky break to get him started on the motorsport ladder, when his mother inherits a bit of farmland and he persuades her to borrow £3000 against it to buy Byrne an elderly Crossle Formula Ford. It's hopelessly uncompetitive, even in the backwater of Irish Formula Ford racing, but its enough to bring him to the attention of Mondello Park Racing School, who give him loan of a Royale for the 1978 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. In a field of several hundred, and on a track he has never seen before, he finishes in the top 10, in a car which was far from truly competitive. From there on in, he secures drives on talent alone - he has to - he certainly doesn't have the money to pay for rides.

The next four years of Byrne's career is the story of a meteoric rise through the ranks, achieved on a shoestring budget. Formula Ford 1600 champion in 1980, FFord 2000 champion a year later, and British F3 champion in 1982 with Murray Taylor Racing. It's told in Byrne's conversational, scattergun style, with co-author Mark Hughes adding occasional background commentary to move the story along. It's immensely readable, and provides an intriguing insight into the racing world of the early 1980s. It says much for Byrne's talents behind the wheel that he never paid for a drive. In F3, in particular, he scraped by from race to race, absolutely dependent on the wins to get the money together for the next race.

This part of the book also gives a flavour of what was perhaps both Byrne's greatest strength and his undoing - his sheer bloodyminded front. Here he was, racing for free in F3 where drivers are usually expected to bring the budget to the team, and he threatens to walk out on them unless they gave him a new chassis, engine and race engineer. He got the chassis, and sure enough, he was instantly right back on the pace - old engine and race engineer notwithstanding. But still, how many young, inexperienced drivers would have had the nerve to demand what he did from a team so clearly struggling for cash?

By late 1982, Byrne was a Grand Prix driver. After Derek Daly had been snapped up by Williams, Teddy Yip's ailing Theodore team were in need of a replacement, and following a standout performance in that year's British GP F3 support race, the team alighted upon Byrne. The car, and more particularly, the team, were a lost cause, and Byrne found himself no more able to get a competitive result out of it than Daly had been. He raced 5 times for Theodore, making it through qualifying only twice, and crashing out of both those races.

Then came the Mclaren test on which both Byrne and Hughes consider his career to have hinged. A prize for winning the British F3 title, Byrne was invited to test for the team alongside Thierry Boutsen, Stefan Johannson, and two men who subsequently disappeared into obscurity, David Scott and Quique Mansilla. By all accounts, Byrne was the star of the test - a second a lap quicker than Boutsen, who went on to have a successful F1 career and win 3 Grands Prix. Suggestions that the timing was faulty and he was actually faster still, and that the team were so nervous that Byrne would write off their car that they didn't give him full throttle, if true, indicate his performance was more impressive still. It wasn't enough to get him a race drive, and as he'd walked out on Theodore at the end of the 1982 season, Byrne was left without a seat for 1983.

The book takes an altogether different turn from here on in. Byrne's confidence, it appears, was always built on shaky foundations, and following the knock-back from Mclaren, he lost focus and his career went into a downward spiral. Three years later, he wound up racing in the US, driving for a succession of underfunded Indy Lights teams, and working on the side as a hired gun in the US IMSA series. There is more than a hint of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing about it, and a cast of grotesque characters such as could have come straight from a Carl Hiaasen novel.

There's Marshall Robbins, the manic-depressive multi-millionaire who is utterly convinced that he will win the 1992 US Presidential election, and who pays a succession of stooges to follow him around. Then there's Orchio, the Mexican bisexual playboy alcoholic who liked to celebrate team victories by hiring gaggles of prostitutes for team orgies and then trying to have his way with his driver - enough to make Max Mosley blanche, I don't doubt. He even ends up teamed up with Motley Crue's Vince Neal in a final, shambolic run at the Indy Lights Championship. It's gripping, comic stuff, but there's an underlying sadness about it all. Here is a man who just might have been one of the outstanding talents of his generation, wasting away in obscurity in the backwaters of the US racing scene, unrecognised, driving for any lunatic who'll pay his bills.

If I have a gripe with this book, it is that at just under 200 pages, it is too short. Too much is passed over without explanation. This may be in keeping with what one suspects is Tommy's hyperactive, attention-deficit personality, but it does sometimes leave the reader thinking - wait? Where is he now? Who's he driving for? I've heard it said that that the book was cut back considerably at the behest of the publishers, and had originally been rather longer. If so, it's a shame, because I suspect the longer book would have been a better read.

Of course, the book's central point is that Byrne was a great talent, in the same kind of league as Villeneuve, Senna or Prost, who was overlooked because an elitist sport couldn't get past his poverty-stricken background and his Irish urchin sense of humour. I'm afraid, even by the end, I'm not completely convinced. I can't help but think that a man as hair-trigger and temperamental as Byrne was probably not quite the complete package as a potential F1 World Champion. He might have had the talent, but did he have the application? The patience? Did he bring the same kind of intensity to his racing that, for example, Senna did? After all, while none may have come from the kind of dirt poor background that Byrne did, Messrs Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, who between them have won every F1 title this decade, were not born wealthy - they got where they did through sheer talent. What did they have that Byrne didn't? Luck, maybe, but one can't help but think that they also had a calmness, a focus on the job that Byrne lacked.

The sad thing is, we'll never know now. Not for sure. What Crashed and Byrned did persuade
me was that this was a man who was unfairly overlooked - someone who had done enough to merit a decent shot at F1, but who never got it. Why wasn't he banging on all the teams' doors after he won the F3 Championship in 1982? Why did he walk out on Theodore without another drive in place? Might he have got further had he hired a proper manager to promote him? This book might not answer those questions - they are unanswerable, but it is a racing biography quite unlike any other. I highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

If at First You Don't Succeed... GP2 In Review

When Giorgio Pantano made his F3000 debut, back in 2001, Juan Pablo Montoya was just beginning his Grand Prix career at Williams and Fernando Alonso was a fresh-faced teenager doing remarkable things with a hastily put together Minardi. Lewis Hamilton was still racing karts and F1's newest winner, Sebastien Vettel had not long turned 13 years old. Save for a single, rather disappointing season with the failing Jordan team in 2004, he's been plying his trade in F1's premier feeder category every year since.

Last weekend, at his 7th attempt, he finally lifted the title, and became the GP2 series' fourth champion. Pantano had been competitive throughout his time in F3000 and GP2, but had never quite looked like a potential title winner before. The closest he had come was all the way back in 2002, when he wound up second, behind Sebastien Bourdais though only after Enge was stripped of the title following a positive test for marijuana - a drug which it is hard to imagine could improve a racing driver's performance. The question is, though, did Pantano win because he finally came good, or because the quality of the opposition he faced was rather lower than in years past?

The answer, I suspect, is a mix of the two. Giorgio Pantano was undoubtedly, for the balance of the season, the quickest driver in the field. The fact that he was driving for Racing Engineering, a team which, until now, have not been true front-runners. His four feature race wins illustrate the point that, over the course of the season, nobody was as consistently quick as Pantano. But for misfortune in Spa and Valencia and a silly mistake exiting the pits at the final round at Monza, Pantano could easily have won 7 of the 11 Saturday afternoon races this year. He still continued to make those unforced errors though - at Spa, at Monza, at Valencia and at Monaco he cost himself points with moments of madness. If he were a young gun of 21 or 22, that might be understandable, but at nearly 30, it seems to point to a more fundamental limitation in Pantano as a driver.

Giorgio Pantano

Champion at the 7th attempt. Giorgio Pantano.

So who was he up against? Well, the answer to that question perhaps explains the degree of cynicism, at least among those who might otherwise sign up a GP2 champion for F1, that remains about Pantano. In fact, the only man to win more than one feature race all season was Brazilian Lucas Di Grassi, who joined the championship only at the fourth round, after Ben Hanley and Campos Racing had parted ways. After a 2007 season with ART in which Di Grassi proved slightly disappointing, he went some way to repairing his reputation, looking like a serious title contender for a while, despite missing the opening six races. On balance, he was my choice for driver of the season, not least because his team, Campos, were hardly among the front-runners in the past. While Pantano peppered his season with a number of small errors (including the mistake at Spa which cost Di Grassi any remaining chance of the title) it is hard to point to any similar mistakes on Di Grassi's part.

Of course, the man who did take the title fight to the final round was Ayrton's nephew, Bruno Senna. He's talked of as the man most likely to move up to F1 next year, though one can't help but feel that his name plays no small part here. Bruno didn't do a bad job in his second season in GP2, but didn't really stand out in the way that Hamilton, Rosberg, Glock or Kovalainen did. There were days when he was imperious - Silverstone in the rain on Sunday morning springs to mind - but in the end, he won but one of the 11 feature races, and was only able to add one sprint race to that tally. Given he was driving for ISport, the reigning champions and arguably the best prepared team on the grid, it seems fair to say that more would be expected of a potential F1 star. That said, unlike more or less everyone else on the grid, he didn't spend his teenage years in karts, and perhaps has more scope for improvement than most of his rivals.

Bruno Senna

Senna was too inconsistent to take the fight to Pantano.

Before the start of the year, I had predicted that Romain Grosjean would end up running away with the championship. He seemed to have it all. He had dominated the GP2 Asia series, and he was signed up with double champions ART. In the event, it didn't work out that way. The year started badly, with his qualifying down in 11th for the opening race at Barcelona. Come the race, though, he looked far and away the quickest man on the circuit, and despite the fact that the new GP2 cars were clearly not as conducive to overtaking as the old ones, he clawed his way up to 5th. The Sprint race should have been his for the taking, but following a safety car, he screwed up his entry to the final chicane, allowed Kamui Kobayashi a run on him and then practically had the Japanese newcomer off the road in retaking the lead. It was a stupid move which earned him a drive through penalty and cost him a points finish - probably a win. That was just one weekend, but it was somehow reflective of a season which yielded just two wins. He always seemed quick on race day, but his qualifying was erratic and there were just too many mistakes.

So what of the rest? I have to confess to being more than a little surprised to discover the unpredictable Pastor Maldonado had climbed to a comfortable 5th place in the drivers' standings by the season, snapping at the heels of such as Grosjean and Senna in the points tables. Sometimes he was anonymous, and other times, most particularly at Monaco and whenever he found himself on a wet track - his performance in the rain at Spa on Sunday morning springs to mind. Perhaps a sign that, while he may be mentally fragile, his innate car control is of the highest order.

Pastor Maldonado
Maldonado came on increasingly strong in the second half of the year.

Sebastien Buemi took over Javier Villa's role as the master of Sunday morning sprint race wins - he picked up 2 wins and another 3 podiums. He's talked about as a potential F1 driver, but in all honesty it's hard to see why he'd be a better bet than Bruno Senna. Arden may not be quite the force that they were when the scooped one F3000 title after another, but they're still a competitive race team, and I wouldn't hire a man who had never even won a GP2 Feature race.

Of the rest, Alvaro Parente showed himself, on balance, the most promising of the complete GP2 rookies (i.e. those newcomers who had not raced in GP2 Asia). He won the opening race, which turned out to be the highlight of his season, but intermittently, he ran at or near the front for much of the rest of the season. His greatest weakness seemed to be an inability to get to grips with qualifying on occasion - twice he made the front row, but twice he was as far back as 21st on the grid. Whether the lion's share of the blame lay with him or with SuperNova was never entirely clear. His team mate Andy Soucek's form was similarly up and down. Vitaly Petrov was the season's other Feature race winner, picking up the pieces after Pantano ran out of fuel in Valencia. He looked a much improved driver this year (as indeed his performances in the GP2 Asia series had hinted he might be) and certainly the best racer ever to come out of Russia. Whether he is potential F1 material in another matter.

If the above drivers were the cream of 2008, then there can be little doubt that nobody had a worse year than Luca Filippi. Widely touted (not least on these pages) as a potential title contender with ART, the wealthy Italian never really figured all season. He was unable to get any kind of a handle on Grosjean and parted ways with the team for Arden. There, he was scarcely any more competitive - only at Valencia did he get anywhere near the pace, and there he ended up disgracing himself by running his former team mate off the road and out of the race. If his family put up the money, it is possible he could redeem himself next year, but I would imagine the F1 teams will already have written him off. He ended the season 19th, with just 6 points to his name.

Ho Pin Tung
China will have to wait a little longer for a truly first rate race driver. Ho Pin Tung was an also-ran.

If Filippi was desperately underwhelming, Marko Asmer's year was worse still. The Estonian who had dominated the 2007 British F3 championship seemed utterly lost at Fisichella Motorsport when he joined the team mid-season. A BMW tester, he clearly knows roughly what to do with a racing car, and his inability to climb off the back couple of rows of the GP2 grid all year was something of a mystery, at least from the outside looking in. FMS may have looked a bit of a mess this year, but it is worth remembering that Adam Carroll was able to pick up a 2nd row starting position with the team in Turkey.

At the very back were the usual suspects. Christian Bakkerud appeared no more convincing than last year, and after injuring himself at Monaco, he made way for Andy Soucek at SuperNova. Michael Herck looked out of his depth at DPR, and none of the various lost souls who drove the second BCN Competicion car had any real business being in GP2.

I suspect that, in the fullness of time, the 2008 season will not be remembered as a classic year for GP2. In the first three years, the series had at least one - and in 2005, two standout drivers who looked like real F1 material. This year, one couldn't help feeling there was nobody in the Vettel/Hamilton/Kubica class, or even at the level of Rosberg or Glock, come to that. The racing wasn't helped by a new chassis which didn't seem as well suited to wheel-to-wheel racing as the old GP2 car had done, being too sensitive to turbulence and dirty air from a car in front.

2009 might be a different story though. The GP2 series organisers have shown before that they are willing to tweak the chassis rules, and one hopes that they might spend the winter working out how they can improve overtaking in the series. More importantly, though, there are some really promising drivers looking at moving up into the GP2 series next year. Niko Hulkenberg, F3 Euroseries Champion elect and the latest prodigy of one Willy Weber will be one to watch. Oliver Turvey and Sergio Perez, currently battling it out for the British F3 championship, both have tests lined up, and rumour has it that the man who beat Vettel to the 2006 Euroseries Crown, Paul Di Resta, might be returning to single seaters after 2 years marooned in the DTM. 2008 might not have been a classic year, but the average GP2 race was still the best place to see big powerful single seaters really racing. Here's hoping 2009 will produce a crop of real talent.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Breath of Fresh Air

Das Deutschlandleid for the winning driver. Il Canto Degli Italiani for the winning team. A combination we have heard often enough in recent years. This time, though, it was different. Michael Schumacher is two years into his retirement, and Ferrari no longer have a German driver on its books. Seemingly from nowhere, 21 year old Sebastian Vettel took the wet weekend at Monza by storm, seizing pole position on a soaking Saturday and running away into the distance on Sunday afternoon, the expected challenge from Heikki Kovalainen simply never materialising.

Sebastian Vettel - Youngest GP winner ever
F1's newest and youngest winner, Sebastian Vettel.

In the annals of surprise results, I find it hard to remember anything that compares with Vettel's win at Monza. Sure, Olivier Panis' victory for Ligier at Monaco in 1996 or Johnny Herbert's win for Stewart at the Nurburgring 3 years later had been still greater upsets of the form book, but these had been races of attrition where honours went to the last man standing. This, though, was a man driving a car which had never finished higher than 4th, a team which had gone into the year as backmarkers, taking the pole and winning from the front. The expected frontrunners didn't drop out - there were 19 finishers from 20 starters despite the atrocious conditions in the early laps - they simply didn't have the pace to live with the young German in the Toro Rosso. Perhaps the closest parallel would have been Damon Hill's near victory for Arrows in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix, though he, of course, did not quite make it home to the chequered flag first. To find a similar result, you'd really have to go all the way back to his team boss Gerhard Berger's victory for Benetton at the Mexican Grand Prix in 1986. Even that was arguably less of a surprise, the Benettons had dominated the Austrian Grand Prix earlier that year before falling foul of electrical maladies. On reflection perhaps the closest parallels were Michele Alboreto's last hurrah for Tyrrell (and for Cosworth's venerable DFV engine) at Detroit in 1983 and James Hunt's maiden victory for the eccentric Lord Hesketh's racing team at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1975.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and Vettel's win was not quite the inexplicable result that it might first appear to be, nor necessarily an indication that he is the Second Coming - of Michael Schumacher or anyone else. Mark Hughes wrote an interesting piece on the hype surrounding Vettel recently. We shouldn't be too surprised - F1 is an engineering discipline subject to the laws of physics and nothing happens for no reason. In truth, Toro Rosso have been making significant progress in recent races, and while they may not be on the tail of Mclaren or Ferrari, they have been giving BMW and Renault serious pause for thought. In Valencia, Vettel topped Q2, while two weeks later at Spa, Sebastien Bourdais headed the timesheets in Q1. At both Grands Prix, they showed well on race day too. One way of looking at Toro Rosso, and the angle being hyped by much of the media, is that they are the core of the old Minardi team. Perennial backmarkers who would go years without points. Another, and I would argue, much more accurate way of looking at them, is that they are a tight-knit experienced squad of racers with an Adrian Newey-designed chassis mated to the best engine on the grid. Put that way, it's almost a surprise that they haven't outrun their sister team all year and scored rather more points than they have.

Another fact worth remembering is that the recent Red Bull chassis have been consistently quick in the wet. Newey's creations may lack the sheer aero-efficiency of a Mclaren or Ferrari but they are clearly driveable, forgiving machines. Vettel, too has always appeared to be at his best in the rain. Remember that Mark Webber was chasing Lewis Hamilton down in last year's soaking Japanese Grand Prix before he was hit by - yes - 3rd place Sebastian Vettel. I remarked at the time that we might later remember that race as Vettel's "Senna in a Toleman at Monaco" moment rather than for the egregious error which ended it. It was not just the Japanese race. Both Vettel and Webber picked up solid points in Monaco in the rain earlier this year. Come to that, it was no chance happening which put 3 of the Red Bull empire's cars on the front row at Monza this weekend. Only David Coulthard, who would appear to be coasting towards his retirement, missed out, and he blamed traffic.

To illustrate that - good as his performance was - this was not a victory built solely on individual genius, the luckless Bourdais began the race proper 2m 44s behind his team mate, and finished it 2m 40s back, picking up the second fastest lap along the way. OK, so Bourdais had little to lose and perhaps Vettel could have gone still quicker had he needed to, but it is clear that the Toro Rosso is a very solid performer in the wet. Thanks to the vast experience of their Chief Engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, it is probably a better car in the rain than the Red Bull.

None of that, though, is intended to take away from a remarkable, mature performance from F1's newest and youngest winner. Many drivers of greater years and considerably more experience might have crumbled under the intense pressure of being in with a shot of a first win for both driver and team in such difficult conditions.

Mark Webber
Red Bull's Mark Webber may present rather more of a challenge to Vettel next year.

In a season dominated by arguments about the impartiality of the stewards, the apparently fractious relationship between Mclaren and the FIA, the doings of Max Mosley and all the rest, fresh-faced uncomplicated Sebastian Vettel's victory for Toro Rosso was a real breath of fresh air for the sport, as well some return for the vast resources that Dietrich Mateschitz's Red Bull company have poured into seemingly every branch of the sport. Next year, Vettel will move to sister team Red Bull alongside Mark Webber, a man not noted for being beaten by his team mates. That will be a real year of reckoning for F1's newest star. Toro Rosso may face a reckoning of their own - their victory last weekend is bound to reignite the row over customer chassis in F1. For now, though, he and the entire Toro Rosso squad can bask in the glow of a fairytale win. For him, for Toro Rosso, for the sport.

All photos author's own.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Being There...

Standing on the banking at Pouhon on Sunday afternoon, with just five laps to go in the Belgian Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen leads by around 2 to 3 seconds from Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren. In the normal course of events, there would be little prospect of this changing before the chequered flag. There's little to choose between the combination of Mclaren /Hamilton and Raikkonen/Ferrari around Spa and it looks like this will be the order in which they finish. Or will it? The chill wind suddenly blowing over the circuit, the dampness in air and the menacing clouds overhead though, they threaten a wild card. If there's a wet track in the dying laps, all bets are off. It's not a question of if but of when. It will rain, but the question is - will it rain before the chequered flag falls?

Felipe Massa
Felipe Massa in action during Friday free practice.

We all know how it ended, of course. A scrappy moment at the chicane, a fine out-braking manoeuvre at La Source, a grassy excursion for Hamilton at Fagnes and then finally Raikkonen goes into the wall at Blanchimont and that settles it. At least until the stewards saw fit to interfere and hand victory to Felipe Massa, who hadn't really figured all afternoon. My point, though, is not to go into that farce in any detail. Others have said all there is to be said on the matter. Rather it is to illustrate one of the many little things that you can only fully appreciate by actually being at the race. Those watching on television might have known that there was a chance of rain, but only those who were actually standing in the hills in the Ardennes could actually feel it.

Of course, if a better appreciation of the local weather conditions were the only thing to be said for going to a Grand Prix, then I for one would have stayed at home, saved myself a fortune and tuned in to ITV on Sunday afternoon. An awful lot of people, though to be fair, mostly people who are not fans of the sport, could not understand why I was going to the effort of camping out in the rain in Spa when I could simply have watched the race from the comfort of my own living room. "Surely you don't see as much if you go to the track? Isn't most of the action happening somewhere else?". Ironically, a lot of the people who ask me this are football fans who go to matches regularly. I can't say I am, but I have been to a few games with my brother over the years, and one of the things that struck me was how much harder it was to follow what was happening on the pitch when the TV director is not doing the work for you.

Nick Heidfeld
Nick Heidfeld had the edge over Robert Kubica for once.

One of the big things, for me, about going to a Grand Prix is what I suspect is the biggest part of the appeal for football fans - the atmosphere and the sense of being at an event. From the moment that the thousands of fans come pouring into the track early in the morning, waving (and sometimes wearing) flags and wearing the colours of their favoured team or driver, through the morning support races, to the driver parade and the final build up of the driver parade, it builds a sense of anticipation that can't easily be replicated on the television.

Another benefit is the chance to swap stories with other race fans in an atmosphere which is a good deal more friendly and relaxed than you will find at any football match. Whether it was the Danish vet who had come to her first Grand Prix to see Kimi Raikkonen in action, or the guy in the tent next to mine who had been coming to Grands Prix since the early 1970s, and was hoping for a Lewis Hamilton victory I found plenty time in the evenings to talk to other race fans about the sport.

Crowd Scene
Spectators awaiting the race start at Pouhon.

In my view, F1, far from being a sport which only works on television, is one which can only be fully appreciated by watching trackside. The wide-angle shots used by television directors kill the sense of speed that is such a vital part of Grand Prix racing. Walking along the path that takes you from the Bust Stop down towards Stavelot on Friday morning during free practice, something that really struck me was just how quick the cars were, and watching them into the braking zone at Les Combes in the afternoon, the rate at which they could slow down - the sheer power of the brakes on a modern F1 car, took even me, a seasoned F1 fan aback somewhat. Things have certainly progressed on this score since I last went to a race, back in 1999. Then there's the noise. Either my hearing has been dulled, or the cars are not quite as loud as they used to be (someone I spoke to on Saturday evening at the campsite agreed with me that they are rather quieter these days, at least off-throttle) but they still make a formidable racket running flat out, which is enough in itself to generate a frisson of excitement in any real race fan.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton on a damp track on Saturday morning.

Being up close to the action (even within the constraints of modern circuit design, with its high fences and its acres of run-off which tend to keep spectators a little too far back from the track) also gives a chance to observe F1 drivers practicing their art in a way to a degree which is difficult to replicate on television. Through the fast left hander, Pouhon, a corner which to my mind is rather more of a challenge in a modern F1 car than the flat-out Eau Rouge, it was notable that on Friday morning, Piquet and Nakajima were struggling a little - taking too much kerb on the inside and losing time through the exit as a result. Interestingly, it was these same two drivers who appeared to have most difficulty hitting the apex at Bruxelles/Rivage (or whatever the hairpin after Malmedy is called these days).

Giancarlo Fisichella
Up close with Giancarlo Fisichella

You have to be looking carefully - there aren't wild differences in the lines being taken by any of the drivers (the same was not true of the Porsche Supercup drivers in wet practice on Friday evening, who were trying all kinds of lines through Rivage) but differences could be seen. Nick Heidfeld seemed to be earlier back on the throttle than anyone else and there appeared to be a particular smoothness to Lewis Hamilton's approach into Rivage. Regular readers of Mark Hughes Trackside View column for Autosport will know that watching the drivers' approach through free practice is one of his favourite pastimes. Appearances, though, can sometimes be deceptive. On Saturday afternoon, it looked to me as though nobody was quicker into Rivage than the Toyotas of Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli. And yet neither driver made Q3. Was this because they were losing time elsewhere in the lap? Or was it something about the engine note, or the lines they were using, which created a false impression of how quick they were really going? I don't know but it does show up the limits of observation.

Timo Glock
Glock entering Bruxelles

There is much that I could complain about when it comes to how modern Grand Prix races are run - from a spectator's point of view. The fact that you can no longer get anywhere near the pitlane or paddock in the evening after the races - something I used to do all the time as a kind in the late 1980s. The way that almost all of the really good vantage points are reserved for grandstands where seats cost upwards of £300. The ludicrously expensive camping and plenty else besides. Thing is, in the end, none of this seriously affected my enjoyment of the event on the day. It did help, though, that I didn't hear about the nonsense in the stewards' office until Monday morning. I certainly don't intend to leave it another 10 years before I go to my next Grand Prix.

All photos are author's own. More here.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Those who can, do....

....And those who can't, write about those who can. Or perhaps they teach.... I've been writing about motorsport here for nearly three years, and I've been following the sport since I was a small boy in the mid 1980s. From time to time, though, I'm forced to confront a slightly awkward question. How much do I, or any of my fellow armchair critics really know about the nuts and bolts of actually driving a racing car?

If I'm honest, the answer in my case, is not very much. Only what I've been able to pick up from observation alone over the years. For reasons that needn't detain us here, I've reached my 30s without so much as possessing a driving licence. Many of the big name F1 journalists are much the same, at least in so far as they have little or no first hand experience of motor racing. Nigel Roebuck, to my knowledge, has never raced, and the one time he drove an F1 car, he spun it in a straight line. Koen Vergeer, the Dutch racing journalist, admits that he was terrified out of his wits the one time he tried karting, while Autosport Grand Prix editor Edd Straw's efforts in the clubman Ginetta G20 championship have (at least when I've seen him in action) involved his trundling around at the very back, several seconds off the pace.

Of course, this isn't true of every racing journalist. Denis Jenkinson co-drove Stirling Moss to victory on the Mille Miglia in 1955 and was a pretty decent motorbike racer in his own right. Mark Hughes, Autosport's F1 writer, was a handy club racer and once got to test a Leyton House F1 car. The late Paul Frere was successful both as a journalist and as a racing driver, picking up a podium at Spa for Ferrari back in the mid 1950s though it could be argued he was a driver first and a journalist second. Nonetheless, it remains true that an awful lot of people writing about motorsport have very little experience, if any of actually racing themselves.

My own racing experience is limited to occasional racing of hired karts - the most serious of which were a couple of races in a local open-entry series for Honda Pro Karts based near Edinburgh. I'm sure it doesn't in any way compare to driving a powerful single seater, but I do think that racing karts, of any description, can help to give a lay person some insight into the racing driver's art.

For one thing, it gives you some understanding of why overtaking is so difficult. In a kart, there's no problem with turbulence, or dirty air, yet still it is no easy task to pass someone who is even a second or two slower a lap. Why? Because the guy in front can stick to the racing line - the fastest way around the track and being 2 seconds a lap quicker might equate to being only a couple of tenths quicker round any given corner, which is not usually going to be enough to get past if you're forced to go the long way around.

On the flip side, karting can give you a real feel for the pressure situation of having someone faster breathing down your neck, and looking for a way past. Now it seems to be turned around. Passing might seem very difficult when you're the one following, but when you're the one being hunted, it doesn't feel quite the same. Do you focus solely on the track ahead? Or do you keep an eye on where your pursuer is? Do you keep to the fastest line, or do you cover the inside line into slow corners, trying to block off the obvious passing opportunities? Again, when you have only 12BHP and are doing 50mph, it's all a lot easier than it is for an F1 driver, but it does give you an impression of why, even at somewhere like Monaco where passing is all but impossible in a modern single seater, having a faster car behind can put a driver under immense pressure. Mind you, I would say that, having twice spun out of the lead of a karting final with a quicker guy following close behind...

It is also possible to get some insight into what is often called racecraft from karting. Related to the point about overtaking, it is possible to unnerve whoever is in front of you by - as it used to be called - "selling a dummy" to him. Take a corner where the only way past is down the inside under braking. It often (but not always) pays off to try a couple of attempts down the outside on preceding laps to fool the driver in front in to staying out wide, leaving you free to take the preferred, inside line into the corner and take the position. It's a trick which I've pulled off myself, and one which I now recognise when I see it in racing (it tends not to work at F1 level, where all the drivers are wise to this sort of thing, but I've seen people pull it off in other categories of racing).

Another way in which karting can give an understanding of the world of the racing driver is in how physically exhausting it can be. I've heard more than a few people question whether racing drivers really need to be physically fit. How hard can driving a car for a couple of hours be? they ask. After twenty minutes in a kart, my arms were pretty much finished, last time I raced, and I felt shattered. Perhaps I'm just unfit? Maybe, but my team mate in that race, a keen triathlete and former Cambridge University athletics team member looked nearly as tired. Contrary to the opinion of the man in the pub, racing drivers do need to be in good physical condition.

Karting endurance races, too, have their own challenges which are in a way common to all forms of long distance racing. I took part in my first team endurance race last month (this in rather dull single engined karts). Our team did not have the quickest drivers, but we put our heads together early on and the most experienced guys on the team impressed upon the others the need to avoid losing time through spins or collisions. We were also careful to time our driver changes to avoid getting caught up in traffic where we could. In short, consistency was more important than outright one-lap pace. The result? We won by 209 laps to our nearest rivals' 207.

Kart 4

Indoor karting (actually one of my team mates during a recent 2 1/4 hour enduro race.)

In what other ways can karting give you an insight into motor racing? Well, one thing I learned the hard way was how much tyre temperature affects the level of grip you have. A few years back, after working up to taking a fast right hander flat out in a Honda Senior ProKart in the heats, I tried to do the same on the opening lap of the final, and slammed backwards into the tyrewall with considerable force (enough, as it happened, to break the kart's back axle). Which led to another little insight which anyone who has ever been in a car accident will likely already know. Crashes Hurt.

I'm not going to pretend that racing hired karts helps you understand what life for an F1 driver is like any more than playing knockabout football at the local park helps you understand the ins and outs of international level soccer, or entering a local fun-run gives you insight into what life for professional marathon runners is like. On the other hand, in the same way that someone who has played a bit of amateur football will have a deeper understanding of the game than someone who has never done more than sit on the couch in front of the TV with a beer on a Saturday afternoon, karting does give you more of an insight into the life of a racing driver than simply tuning in to the ITV coverage. With that in mind, I'm most intrigued by Alianora's recent moves to set up a motorsport bloggers' kart meet in January...

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