Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Behind the Scenes

Last week I got an invite from Shell to get up close to the Ferrari team on the Saturday before the British Grand Prix. I couldn't take up their offer, unfortunately, owing to prior, more mundane commitments that weekend. Northampton is a long way from Edinburgh. A shame, because the opportunities for the ordinary race fan to get into the pitlane or paddock these days are very limited.

Nigel Mansell - Ferrari 640 - 1989

It wasn't always so. The other day, while clearing out, I stumbled upon some photos I had taken as a 10 year old kid, armed with my first camera, while wandering up and down the pitlane at the British Grands Prix of 1988 and 1989. Officially, the pits and paddock were off-limits to fans even then, with the Paddock Transfer and Pitlane Walkabout ticked having been phased out for no good reason that I can discern. In reality, though, it wasn't too difficult to get in and have a look at the cars up close and watch the preparations being made for Sunday's race. You just waited until the on-track action was over for the day on the Saturday evening and then wandered down the circuit to the pitlane. Nobody tried to stop you, no matter if you had no business being there.

Andrea De Cesaris - Rial - Silverstone 1988

Looking at those photos now, it's striking how much the sport had changed in the intervening couple of decades. There is far less by way of high-tech equipment in the garages, even those of the top teams like Mclaren and Ferrari. No need for banks of computers simply to fire the engine up, no arrays of TV monitors perched on the garage roof, and no bulky refuelling rigs requiring pit crews to be kitted out in expensive helmets and flame-proof overalls. Indeed, some of the smaller teams of the day, Osella and Rial, appear tnot to have crew members kitted out in 'team apparel' at alll. Their garages look like small, provincial car repair shops of the day, aside from the fact that the mechanics are working not on Ford Fiestas or Austin Metros, but on not-quite state of the art F1 cars. I've seen modern Formula Ford teams which appear more 'professionally' kitted out.

1989 - Benetton

Then one Saturday evening, in April at Donington Park, we walked up the hill from the Craner Curves to the pitlane to find security guards at the entrance, demanding to see the passes we didn't have before they would give us access. Since then, I've never managed to get anywhere near the inside of the F1 paddock during race weekend. When I had a look at Spa last year, the security appeared on a par with what I'm used to dealing with at the entrance to Parliament, which at least has rather more reason to fear uninvited guests.

Derek Warwick - Arrows 1989

It's a shame, because I think one of the things that drew me towards the sport as a child were those evening walks up and down the paddock, seeing the mechanics burning the midnight oil, watching cars being dismantled and rebuilt, smelling the race fuel as engines were fired up from time to time. It gave the impression of a big, complex battle that was about so much more than running a car around for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. And it gave a feeling of being up close to the action. When I was 7 years old, the Renault mechanics even invited me to come and sit in Derek Warwick's car while my father took photos - still the closest I've ever become to being an F1 driver!

As I write, I'm reading that the FOTA 'dissidents' have done a deal with the FIA and FOM and the breakaway series is no more. Quite what this deal involves remains unclear. One of the things which FOTA had been emphasising in their press releases on their renegade series was how much more 'fan friendly' they intended it to be - sensibly priced tickets, races at circuits that fans actually want to go to, rather than Grands Prix in countries with no interest in the sport, funded by authoritarian regimes in search of some good PR, that sort of thing. Whether this announcement means that there will be a US Grand Prix and no more wasting time on the Bahrain scalextric track, I rather doubt.

One thing that the sport's organisers could do to make the sport more fan friendly is to allow race-goers to get behind the scenes at races, to get into the paddock and the pitlane and see the work that goes into preparing a Formula 1 car up-close. I've heard it said that, these days, the sport is simply too big and it would be impractical to let the fans anywhere near the paddock. Certainly this is the line given by more than one team boss when pressed. With all due respect, I'm not convinced. The crowds at your average GP now are no larger than they were in the late 1980s - considerably smaller at some of the aforementioned races in countries where nobody's interested anyway. Teams are bigger now, but that means it would be all the easier for them to employ the minimal security needed to ensure that the more light-fingered spectators aren't tempted to try to run off with 'souvenirs'.

The other argument I've heard is that letting us mere race fans in would spoil the 'exclusive' atmosphere of the F1 paddock as a place where the movers and shakers mix - it's status as the sport's inner sanctum. Such an attitude highlights what is wrong with the grudging way in which the sport has treated race-going fans for too long.

Ultimately, the sport is reliant on the fact that people want to come see it, want to watch it on television, want to follow it. Without that, it wouldn't exist, at least not as anything more than a small private members club for the independently wealthy to play at being racing drivers. The corporate sponsors might pay the bills on a day-to-day basis, but those blue-chip companies are only there because the sport has a high media profile with millions of followers across the globe. Setting up the paddock club and barring access to all but wealthy corporate guests will only serve to drive those fans away over the long term. Treat the diehard fans with contempt and eventually they might stop coming through the gates altogether. And their kids probably won't bother watching the sport on TV. And then the paddock really will be an empty place.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Racing on the Radio

Sport isn't suited to radio coverage. It's all about the drama of the moment - the visual impact of moments of sublime skill. The inspired shot at goal, the intense squabble over a set point in tennis, the overtaking manouvre that leaves your heart in your mouth.

Its appeal is essentially visual. Hearing a man shouting "he shoots, he scores" is at best a poor substitute for seeing it happen and at worst, just plain irritating. Hearing Jonathan Legard or Maurice Hamilton, as was then, telling you that Fernando Alonso has just passed Schumacher round the outside at 130R is a poor substitute for seeing it happen.

There's an exception to every rule though. My stepfather enjoys listening to the test cricket coverage on Radio 4 as he works. It's not a sport I've ever really understood, but I can well understand why it might work as well over the radio as on the television. It's a long, drawn out battle that ebbs and flows. Occasionally, someone early in the batting order might go out for a duck, or an LBW might do for a key player, but the drama lies in the fact that it's happened, not, principally in the way its happened. There's long stretches where nothing in particular is happening, providing commentators with time to get diverted into the back story to the game, the characters involved, and reminiscences of past matches.

There's a certain similarity with long distance sportscar racing, something which was not lost on the Radio Le Mans team last weekend, as John Hindhaugh sought to explain to his American co-commentator what 'Leg Before Wicket' actually means. A 24 hour race isn't about wheel-to-wheel dicing and spectacular passing manoeuvres. It's about strategy. Finding a second or two a lap, every lap, for lap after lap. Going an extra lap between fuel stops. Most of all, it's about keeping out of trouble. In consequence, it works just as well, if not better, on the radio, as it does on the television.

From this, you will gather that, in spite of what I said here last year, I once again failed to make the trip to La Sarthe - something which has been on my 'to-do' list for getting on for a decade now. Real life, sadly, getting in the way once more - this time I found myself in Parliament on the day I should really have been on the Eurostar heading south. The Saturday evening, after a day's hillwalking, I stuck Radio Le Mans on in the background and while it isn't like being there (although I've always said that much of the thing about seeing motorsport in the flesh comes in the sound - so maybe I'm not missing much with those silent diesel Audis and Peugeots), it felt much more like being there than my usual experience of watching the racing on the television.

Perhaps it's because it was like listening to the radio commentary at the circuit (for English speakers, Radio Le Mans is the at-circuit commentary, but thanks to the internet, its possible to listen anywhere in the world. The unspoken truth of endurance racing is that relatively little happens on the track much of the time, so the time is not spent telling the listener who is passing who or who has run a touch wide out of Arnage, or whatever, but rather of trying to give the whole story of what is, after all, an immensely complex race - 52 cars, each with 3 drivers, in action for a whole 24 hours.

So we had the diversion of a lengthy debate between Jim Roller and John Hindhaugh regarding whether quick F1 drivers made good endurance drivers - interrupted, amusingly, by an interview with Aston Martin driver and former Super Aguri man Anthony Davidson. As an aside, the fact that the race was eventually won by former-F1 men Alex Wurz, Marc Gene and David Brabham, and that current F1 man - Sebastien Bourdais - seemed to be amongst the very quickest and most consistent drivers in the field and probably would have won the race had that car had an entirely trouble-free race. As it was, they found themselves a lap back and the team decided to instruct the two Peugeots not to race each other.

Aside from that, we had plenty interviews with both those competing in the race and with other characters from the racing world who were along for the weekend, including Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, whose brother was competing in the race for the first time. Speculation as to whether the two Franchittis might team up with cousin Paul Di Resta for a combined assault on the 24 hour race was quite intriguing. The Andrettis came close to winning the race with a family team, but so far as I can remember, nobody has actually gone the whole way and won teamed up with a brother or father.

Le Mans a race that is both one of the most intriguing events in motorsport and yet not one which, once the initial novelty of seeing prototype sportscars on the television has worn off, actually provides much in the way of visual spectacle. As such, it is absolutely ideally suited to radio coverage. OK, so I'm sure it's not quite like being there - certainly, the sight of an Audi or Peugeot through the Porsche curves must be quite something these days, even if the sound is decidedly uninspiring - but it left me feeling much closer to the action than I ever do when sat watching a Grand Prix of a Sunday afternoon. Next year maybe I'll finally get down to La Sarthe and see for myself.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Who's Up? Who's Down?

If ever there was any doubt that you need the right machinery to be in with a shout of victory in Formula 1, this season has rammed the point home. Does anyone honestly believe that after 10 years of racing, Jenson Button has suddenly made a quantum leap forward? Or that Lewis Hamilton has simply forgotten how to drive since he won the title last year?

No, the truth is that Button was always a quick driver, he's just rarely had the car to show it, while Hamilton is doing as much as he can with one of the worst cars ever to come out of Woking. It's a reminder that in F1, all you can ever be sure of is how a driver compares to his team mate - the only man on the grid going into battle with exactly the same equipment. The fact that the pecking order among the teams has shifted so radically this season, with Brawn and Red Bull seemingly having produced the quickest cars, only serves to make this more apparent.

With that in mind, though, what is it possible to say of the drivers' form book this year? Who has been doing a really good job and who has been below par. Put another way, if Rubens Barrichello opts to hang up his helmet at the end of the season, who would be top of Ross Brawn's wish-list when it comes to finding a replacement this year?

Perhaps its not a question at the forefront of his mind right now. After all, there can be no doubt that his de facto number one, Jenson Button has been doing a fantastic job with what he has this year. A man who has always seemed best, relative to his team mates, when in a good car, he's won six out of the first seven races and Rubens Barrichello has never really looked like getting on terms with him in terms of pace. Combine the incredible ability to bang in quick lap after quick lap in race conditions (which did for Barrichello in Barcelona) and there can be a little doubt that this is a man who is making up for lost time, seizing an unexpected opportunity which has fallen into his lap at a time when it seemed his career was all but over. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Rubens Barrichello. He's not been much slower than Button, and he's had the lion's share of any problems going Brawn's way, but it can't be denied that he simply hasn't looked as quick as his team mate. In the Autumn of his career, he's finally got hold of a title-winning car without having Michael Schumacher as a team mate, but it still doesn't look like it's enough for him to become world champion.

In fact, if anyone is going to challenge Button for the title, it is more likely to be Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber than his team mate. Received opinion would have it that Vettel has been the quicker of the two this year, and he has outqualified Webber 7-0, but I'm not sure it's as simple as that. Vettel has almost always been fueled lighter than his team mate, and their fuel-corrected pace has actually been pretty close. Furthermore, while Button's season has been error-free, Vettel has thrown away points at Monaco, at Melbourne (where he was at least 50% responsible for his collision with Robert Kubica) and, perhaps, with his small slip on the opening lap at Istanbul Park last weekend. I doubt he'd have beaten Button either way, but I wonder whether he might have finished ahead of his team mate. That's not to do Vettel down, he's young, inexperienced, and it's perhaps no surprise that he's still making mistakes under pressure. And let's not forgeet either that he did a fantastic job in very difficult conditions in China. More than that, he's been pretty much the first driver to go up against Mark Webber and not come off second-best. Webber, after all, pretty much finished off the F1 careers of Antonio Pizzonia, Justin Wilson, Christian Klien, and, in a way, David Coulthard. He might not have done enough to establish himself as the next Michael Schumacher, but he has proven those who wondered whether he was really a front-running race driver wrong.

What, though, of those without potentially race winning cars? How, for example, are the three world champions in the field acquitting themselves? Of the three, Kimi Raikkonen has probably got his hands on the most competitive car, but to be honest, he's been the least convincing. In contrast with last year, he's been a shade quicker than team mate Felipe Massa in qualifying, but too often, he's looked rather lacklustre in the race itself. Maybe he's overperforming in qualifying, but in China and in Turkey in particular, he just didn't look interested. Even at Monaco, where he scored Ferrari's only podium finish of the year, I'm not convinced he was as quick as Massa.

Fernando Alonso is an interesting contrast. The 2009 Renault looks pretty hopeless - Piquet has struggled to get the car out of Q1 - and yet Alonso has consistently managed to drag the car into the final top-10 run-off. Of course, one could retort that he has the weakest team mate of the three champions, but perhaps it is only Alonso's pace which makes Piquet appear so out of his depth.... That he has had the least by the way of real results of the three is more a reflection on Enstone than on Alonso.

The reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, slots somewhere in between the two. There have been occasions when he has really transcended the limitations of the Mclaren - at Bahrain, for example and, until his self-inflicted disqualification, in Australia. The pressures of trying to perform in an uncompetitive car while under fire in the press for his behaviour in the stewards' room at Australia does seem to have got to him from time to time though. He put in a very error-strewn race in the wet in China, and threw away perhaps his best shot at a top-3 finish all year when he went off the road in qualifying at Monaco. There's no doubting, though, that he's still quicker than Heikki Kovalainen.

What of the rest? Jarno Trulli has impressed me this year. He's always had a reputation as a good qualifier, but this year, his race pace has been impressive too, when the Toyota has been on the pace. He might have won in Bahrain had the team called their tyre strategy right, his drive from the pack to score a podium in Melbourne was impressive, and, come to that, he did a solid job on his way to being 'best of the rest' in Turkey. By contrast, I've been a little disappointed by Timo Glock. I'd expected that, in his second full season, he'd carry on his upward momentum and begin to beat Trulli on a regular basis. It hasn't happened though, and only at Monaco, where both Toyotas were hopelessly off the pace anyway, that he appeared the quicker of the two.

He's not been as much of a disappointment as Sebastien Bourdais though. I'd argued for his retention at Toro Rosso here at Motorsports Ramblings earlier this year, but I can't help but think I've called it wrong. Certainly, I didn't expect him to be outpaced by the inexperienced Sebastien Buemi, a man whose junior record didn't exactly suggest he was a future star. Perhaps Buemi is better than his GP2 record had led me to think, but I can't help but feel that Bourdais ought to be beating the new boy on a more regular basis than he is.

Over at BMW, Robert Kubica has done a good job of keeping a lid on his frustration at the uncompetitiveness of this year's BMW. Had he been a touch more patient, he might have taken a lucky win on strategy in Australia, but since then he has largely had to be content with beating team mate Heidfeld more often than not. One can't help but wonder whether he's on the phone to Ross Brawn right now, asking if there might be a seat at his team next year.

Perhaps the hardest drivers to assess are Kazuki Nakajima and Nico Rosberg. That Rosberg is quicker than Nakajima is fairly straightforward to ascertain - but whether Rosberg is transcending a very average Williams, or whether Frank's team is being held back by an average number-one driver and a number two who has no real business being there is very hard to tell. Rosberg demolished Alex Wurz in terms of pace when they were teamed up together a couple of years back, but by that time, Wurz was perhaps so race rusty that it's hard to know how much that really meant. After all, there were rumours circulating that Rosberg was offered a seat alongside Hamilton at Mclaren at the end of 2007, but turned it down on his father's counsel because he didn't believe that Rosberg Jr. could match the Briton. What Williams need to do, of course, is find someone else to place alongside Rosberg, but that will be difficult for as long as they are reliant on Toyota to provide cheap engines...

Of course, I'm hoping that someone, maybe Red Bull, maybe Ferrari, maybe Toyota, develop a car over the course of the season which is capable of giving the Brawn of Button pause for thought, but if they don't, there are still plenty intra-team rivalries to keep an eye on.

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