Monday, May 31, 2010


At first, you hear only the distant sound of a car engine, straining against its rev-limiter like a dog against its leash, interleaved with the low crackle of the exhaust on the over-run. For a minute or two it echoes across the valley, but doesn't seem to be getting any louder, any closer. Then, suddenly, it appears. Rear end fish-tailing slightly as the tyres struggle for purchase on the damp tarmac, it rounds the tight 90 degree left-hander and its barreling straight towards you, at an ever increasing velocity. Building from 30mph to nearer 100 in the space of a few seconds. Then just as it seems its never going to slow down, that a tonne or more of Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. 10 rally car is going to come ploughing straight on through the barbed-wire fence and make mince-meat of you, the driver jams the brakes, the front of the car dips under the force being applied, and the car is pitched into an elegant four-wheel drift through the left-hander you are standing on the outside of, tearing up a chunk of turf from the inside verge as he goes. And then he's on his way again, banging back up through the gears, the sound of the engine becoming steadily fainter as he disappears down the narrow sing;e-track road, into the distance. There'll be another one along in a minute...

Keith Cronin

I struggle to think of any other sport where a spectator, watching the event live and in person, has less insight into what is actually happening, less idea of who is in the fight for victory and who has little chance of winning, than in the case with rallying. On each stage, you see the cars for just a few seconds, and perhaps two or three corners at the most. Even if you have an intuitive feel for their pace over those two or three corners, you cannot know whether it's representative of their performance over the stage as a whole, which might be fifteen miles long, and consist of hundreds of corners. Watching the penultimate stage of the Jim Clark Rally last weekend, I had literally no idea who was in contention for the win, and who was minutes or more off the leader's pace, with no realistic chance of victory. I had no idea, until I got back to the ceremonial finish area in the village of Duns, that Gwyndaf Evans, a man whom I remember seeing in action in a lurid-pink coloured Sierra RS Cosworth in the late 1980s, had finally broken his Jim Clark Rally duck and won the event in his Mitsubishi Lancer.

Gwyndaf Evans

So why did I bother to make the trip? And more to the point, why was I joined by what I would guess, based on the evidence of a single stage (Wedderburn, in case you're curious), was a larger crowd than any other motorsport event in Scotland bar the BTCC and British Superbike rounds at Knockhill? The answer, in short, is that there is no other form of motorsport that has such an immediate, visceral, visual impact - that lets you get so close to the action, and which is so obviously a challenge for the driver. It may be every bit as difficult to get a really good time out of a low-powered single-seater but it doesn't look half as much of a challenge as getting the quickest possible time out of a 300BHP rally car on a damp single-track road on cut slick tyres. And 80 or 90mph might look very pedestrian on the wide open expanses of Silverstone, but it looks pretty bloody hair-raising on a narrow, pot-holed country lane with an eight foot stone wall on one side and a ditch on the other.

One thing that did surprise me though, was how much more entertaining the National-class event that ran behind the British Rally Championship counter that was the main event. While the main event was contested by Group N and Super 2000 cars (though the only competitive Super 2000 car, Craig Breen's Fiesta, had gone out of the event by the time I was watching), the National event seemed to serve as a kind of graveyard for top-line rally cars from the past thirty years. Damian Cole won that event in an ex M-Sport Focus WRC, but he was pushed all the way by Simon Mauger in, of all things, a Mk. 2 Escort which was far and away the most spectacular car through the bit of the Wedderburn stage I saw, the combination of rear wheel drive, a thirty year old chassis and bundles of horsepower on a by then rather wet surface looking a real handful.

Simon Mauger

Even if the cars hadn't been as spectacular as they were, there was something very refreshing about the sheer variety of the machinery. Rather than endless Subaru Imprezas and Mitsubishi Lancers, there was a Focus WRC, a Skoda Fabia WRC, several very quick Mk. 2 Escorts and, yes, a lot of Mitsubishis and Subarus. There was even an ersatz Metro 6R4 (though it had been entered into a previous rally as a 'Metro 4R2', reflecting the fact that it was in 2WD and had a 4 cylinder engine.) I appreciate that such an approach could hardly be expected to work in the big-money world of the World Rally Championship, where such open and free technical regulations would soon get out of hand. But if the people running the WRC really want to reconnect with fans, to create a real spectacle, how about mandating rear wheel drive?

Damian Cole

(All photographs author's own.)

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Electric Dreams

The other week, I found myself flicking through an 'annual progress report' which my electricity company had deigned to post to me. You know, the kind of corporate bumf which I would normally send straight to the bin, but something in this one caught my eye: a project being undertaken by the founder to develop an electric car.

Now that, in itself is no great novelty. There have been electric cars for years - milk-floats and those tiny little runabouts that look like nothing so much as over-glorified mobility scooters. This, though, looked rather more interesting. Using a Lotus Exige as a base car, a team of engineers (ex-F1 engineers, according to the publicity material) had been set the task of building an electric car capable of doing 0-60 in 4 seconds and topping out at around 125mph. This, unlike any electric car I've heard of before, besides the massively expensive Tesla Roadster, is nudging into the kind of territory where you could race these things.

Now a part of me recoils in horror at the very idea of electric car racing. Motorsport, for me, is about the noise, about the smell, of big, powerful petrol-engined racing cars. It's part of the reason that, for all their technological sophistication, I can't work up much enthusiasm for Peugeot and Audi's diesel endurance racers. And if diesels are bad, electric racing cars are worse. There is simply no getting away from the fact that Ecotricity's Nemesis sounds like a London tube train under acceleration.

Put it down, if you like, to the fact that I'm my parents' son, and back in the late 1960s, while my father was dabbling about with a Formula Junior, my mother was wandering about bare-foot and studying for a degree in ecology, but another part of me is half in love with the idea of electric racing cars. You can read an awful lot of invective on the outer fringes of the blogosphere about how the notion of global warming is some giant government conspiracy to.....well... that's the problem. I've never really seen a coherent explanation of quite in whose interest such a conspiracy would be. But even if climate change turns out to be a storm in a teacup, there is still no getting away from the fact that the stuff we use to run almost all of the world's vehicle fleet today - oil - is going to run out some day, and perhaps sooner than is commonly realised. And if we want to go on having the kind of personal transport the car provides, that means finding another fuel to run them on.

Now what does all this have to do with motorsport? There is a perfectly reasonable argument that, regardless of what the future of motorised transport is, motorsport can continue as a fossil-fuel powered sport. As Mark Hughes pointed out in Autosport a few weeks back, the fact that we nowadays do not use horses as everyday transport has not killed off the Grand National. There is a vital difference, though. Horse racing never did really have any impact on the use of horses as an every-day form of transport. By contrast, at least in its early years, top level motorsport played a great part in driving forward the development of the motor car. These days, a Formula 1 car is so far removed from anything you might drive on the street that it no longer really fulfills this role to a significant extent (though some of the work on electronic driver aids and semi-automatic gearboxes in the early 1990s may have filtered down onto road cars) but electric cars are at a much earlier stage in their development. Where work to eke more power out of a given capacity of internal combustion engine has long since run up against the law of diminishing returns, I can't help but think that the competitive pressure of top-level motorsport could do much to accelerate the development of the electric car.

I'm not suggesting that the Formula 1 World Championship should switch to electric motors in the near future. Apart from anything else, F1 cars really need at least 700 or so BHP in order to be in any way challenging to drive, and no electric motor and battery combination that could fit in a racing car comes close to being able to provide that kind of power output for the duration of a 2 hour Grand Prix. And yes, there is also the sound problem. An F1 car shouldn't sound like a high speed milk-float. But electric motorsports series do already exist.

The EV racing cup is scheduled to begin next year and while, at least for now, they are not attracting the kind of media interest or, more importantly, money, that might drive a real quantum leap in the performance of electric vehicles, but for now, a really big money electric racing effort is not needed and might even be counter-productive to the growth of this form of racing. The small start-up engineering firms and enthusiastic amateurs can begin the process of developing these cars, leaving the big players to come in later when the racing is competitive enough and, crucially, the cars are fast enough, to ensure a real spectacle.

It's not just cars. If anything, electric motorcycles, being lighter, are a more realistic prospect. Last year, a race for electric motorbikes was held for the first time on the Isle of Man TT course, and while the times are not, for now, troubling the petrol powered bikes, they're not embarrassingly slow. The race was won last year by Rob Barber at an average speed of 87.7mph - a long way from the 135mph laps being turned in by the big boys, but considerably quicker than the kind of speeds which were achieved in the first 30 or so years of the event. Given another ten years, and investment from one of the really big players, it's possible that they might not be nearly so far from the pace of the petrol bikes.

I might, of course, be completely wrong. Perhaps electric cars will turn out to be one of history's dead ends - like Betamax or Minidiscs. Maybe the cars of the post-oil age will be powered by biofuels (by the by, a fascinating conversation between two great technophiles, Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross, made mention of work being done by biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter to genetically engineer algae which can be turned into diesel). But would I bet against the 2025 Le Mans 24 hour race being won by a battery powered car? No I wouldn't.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking Ahead

Formula One, it seems, is doomed to live permanently in the immediate future. Those at the front never really stop to bask in the glory of their successes, while down the field, the focus is always on how to claw one's way closer to the front, tomorrow, next week, next year. It might seem sad in a way, this inability to stop and smell the flowers, to enjoy the moment, but it's an immensely competitive world, and anyone who lets their guard down, who isn't ruthlessly planning for the next race, the next season, will quickly fall behind. After just six races and two months, already teams and drivers are beginning to turn their focus to 2011. And vultures are beginning to circle around those who have been judged to be under-performing.

In truth, there are really only eight seats in Formula One that offer a driver a realistic shot at winning races on a regular basis right now - two apiece for each of Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari and Mercedes. As such, those teams hold all the aces when it comes to selecting drivers, and in recent weeks, there have been persistent rumours that one or another of the big four is considering a change to their line-up for next season.

Looking most precarious at the moment is Ferrari's Felipe Massa. The Brazilian had surprised many over the past three seasons by matching and latterly generally beating the highly-rated Kimi Raikkonen. The arrival of the more focused Fernando Alonso, however, seems to have stopped Massa in his tracks. Autosport publish a handy ready-reckoner chart before each race, taking the fastest single lap from each driver over each Grand Prix and averaging them out to show how far each driver is from the ultimate pace. It's most useful for comparing the performance of team mates, and what it shows is not good news for Felipe - he's been an average of four tenths of a second a lap off the pace of Alonso thus far this year, a far bigger performance gap than separates any of the other pairings in the big four teams.

Why? It's really hard to say. Perhaps Massa was flattered by comparisons with Kimi Raikkonen, who had seemingly lost interest in F1 after sealing the world title in 2007, and who was perhaps never quite so quick as was thought. Maybe he's not quite the same driver he was before that horrific accident in qualifying at Hungary last year. Equally possibly, Alonso's determination to get the whole team behind him, something which Kimi Raikkonen was never really interested in trying to do, has pulled the rug out from under Massa. A team which had taken Massa to its heart perhaps in part because they had found Raikkonen such a cold fish, now, in Alonso, have someone who can really lead them in the way that Schumacher used to. Leaving Massa a little surplus to requirements. And the trouble is, that with the competition between the top four teams so intense, Ferrari really can't afford to have one of its drivers feeling lost, lacking in confidence, unsure of himself. Not if it's costing him four tenths of a second a lap, anyway.

Mercedes, too, are wrestling on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to driver choices for 2011. When they announced that Michael Schumacher would be returning to F1 with the team, it looked like they had pulled off a remarkable coup. Rather than running a line-up of Rosberg and Heidfeld, one which looked a little uninspired when their major rivals had the likes of Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel on their books, suddenly they were being led by a seven time World Champion, probably the single best driver of the last twenty years.

Except he just doesn't seem quite the man he once was. Yes, Rosberg's points lead over him owes much to Schumacher's misfortune - the mechanical failure at Sepang, the first lap chaos at Melbourne, the penalty for that moment of silliness at La Rascasse last weekend. But still... does anyone really think that the Schumacher of old, the one who so dominated the sport for more than a decade, would find himself being matched by Nico Rosberg? A man who, with all due respect, has not one Grand Prix victory to his name? Schumacher himself admits that after three years away, it's taking him time to get back into the swing of things, but that's not something he seemed to need when, with almost no previous experience in an F1 car, he rocked up at Spa one August day in 1991 and stuck a Jordan 191 further up the grid than the car had ever been in the hands of its regular drivers. So do Mercedes hang on in the hope that he'll come good eventually? Or do they start casting about for a younger man who has the hunger to take the fight to Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari?

The question though, is, if not Schumacher, then who? About a fortnight ago, Mark Webber's career looked to be hanging by a thread, and he might have jumped at the chance to drive for Mercedes next year. Beaten by his team mate in the opening races, he'd compounded his problems with a series of silly, unforced errors which cost him points in Australia and in China. Then came the strongest week of his racing career; back-to-back victories at Barcelona and at Monaco where he plain outpaced his young superstar team mate and didn't put a foot wrong. Now he's leading the driver's championship and being talked about as a possible replacement for Massa at Ferrari - if they can persuade him to leave. He might make a very good partner for Rosberg at Mercedes, come to that. Surely, though, the man that Mercedes must really want is Webber's team mate, the 'new Schumacher', Sebastian Vettel. Surely anyone with pretences of putting together a 'German superteam' must need the country's rising star, the man who nearly won the World Championship for Red Bull last year, on board? Except why would either Webber or Vettel want to give up a drive in the dominant, Adrian Newey designed Red Bull?

Far more likely to be interested in situations vacant at Mercedes or Ferrari is Renault's Robert Kubica, to my mind, the one really great, first rate racer who is not currently signed to one of the big four teams. with a realistic shot at the World Title over the next couple of years. He's frequently dragged the Renault R30 far further up the field than it really belongs - a 2nd at Australia, a front row grid slot and podium finish at Monaco - and he actually looked disappointed he hadn't won!. All this in a car his team mate Vitaly Petrov has rarely troubled the points with. As in 2008, while obvious title contenders are busy spiking their guns, he looks like he just might lead a sneaky, insurgent campaign for the driver's crown in a car that's far from championship winning material.

Further down the field, there will be others wondering whether a change might do them good, and unlike the big four, they might well not wait until next year before making the switch. Take Sauber: They've been curiously disappointing all year after looking quick in winter testing, only once looking like they might score points (at Barcelona). And surely I can't be alone in wondering whether their driver line-up of Pedro De la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi isn't part of the problem, whether they've really been getting the most out of the car.

De la Rosa has never struck me as anything more than a good journeyman, a man with enough testing experience perhaps, to be useful to a team struggling to re-group after being sold down the river by former owners, BMW. Kobayashi, on the other hand, has thus far been a crushing disappointment. There's been no sign of the feisty self-confidence and pace he displayed in his two races at the end of the season with Toyota last year. Perhaps last year's Toyota was better than we realised, or maybe he's just not at home with the Sauber, but the precise reasons matter little, the team just can't afford not to get the most of what they have.

Maybe they will be tempted to try to steal away one of a number of solid, talented drivers currently wasting their efforts in machinery that's four or five seconds a lap off the pace at the back at the field. Virgin's Timo Glock and Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli might be putting a brave face on it, and maybe they really believe that in a year or so, their new teams will be snapping at the heels of the likes of Sauber, but I can't help but think one or more of them could be tempted away to try to sort out Sauber.

Failing that, if the team must run an unproven GP2 racer of uncertain pedigree, there might be others at least able to get stickers on the sides of the bare white car. Pastor Maldonado has never struck me as quite the real deal, but he might be worth a shot, especially if he comes with pots of Venezuelan Oil cash. Then there's Sergio Perez, the current GP2 Series leader who, by the by, looked mighty at Monaco in the GP2 feature race last weekend, and who has a long-standing relationship with the Mexican telecoms giant, TelMex. Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, but I'd be surprised if De la Rosa and Kobayashi both see out the season at Sauber.

Talking of people with reasons to fear for their jobs, watching the action from Monaco last weekend, I got to thinking that if I were Sebastien Buemi or Jaime Alguersuari, I might not be feeling to secure at Toro Rosso right now. It's not that either of them are doing particularly badly with the Toro Rosso this season - they've both looked solid enough, picking up points here and there and not doing anything silly. But neither has done anything to persuade me that they're potential future World Champions. People the Red Bull team proper will be interested in. Whereas, watching Daniel Ricciardo, the latest of a long line of Red Bull junior drivers, dominating the field in the Renault World Series race at the weekend, I had the uncanny feeling I was watching the new Sebastian Vettel doing his stuff... Surely Red Bull are going to want to get him into an F1 car sooner rather than later... Next year, perhaps....

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, May 10, 2010

GP2 2010: Winning down to an ART?

Is GP2 beginning to suffer the same fate that eventually befell the old F3000 series it replaced? In its last years, the most promising young talents opted to give it a miss, leaving the road clear for one or two quick drivers signed to the one or two genuinely competitive teams to dominate a grid of also-rans.

Arguably, that is exactly what happened last year with Hulkenberg and ART. Yes, the young German's performance appeared impressive, but who exactly was he beating? Essentially a collection of middling junior racers with the deep pockets needed to pay for a year in the midfield of the most expensive sub-F1 single seater series there is. Meanwhile, a number of ostensibly more promising junior talents spent their time in the Renault World Series, or F2, or the F3 Euroseries, rather than spend silly money on a ride with a middling GP2 team which, no matter how quick the driver might be, could serve only to destroy a young star's reputation. I'm still of the view that such as Alvaro Parente and Andy Soucek were every bit as quick as Bruno Senna or Giorgio Pantano when they raced in GP2 a couple of years back and were held back only by the fact that SuperNova couldn't engineer a car that could consistently match those of ISport, Racing Engineering or ART. Of course, I might be completely wrong. Fathoming the ultimate pace and potential of racing drivers based on their junior series results has long felt more like predicting the movement of the stock exchange by looking at the entrails of rabbits than a science.

It's not quite like that. There is some correlation between a driver's junior formula record and his ultimate potential. Look at how Hamilton or Kubica stood out in GP2 and World Series by Renault respectively. But on the other hand, what on earth is one to make of the star performer in Barcelona last weekend, Sam Bird. Until now, there's been absolutely nothing about the youngster's performances in three years of Formula 3 to suggest he was anything more than a more-or-less competent deep-pocketed kid who, even with a seat at ART, would be unlikely to do any more than, say, Pastor Maldonado managed with the second-string ART seat last year.

But instead, we got a feisty, aggressive performance in which he single-handedly demolished the notion that it is impossible to overtake around the Circuit Di Catalunya in a current-iteration GP2 racer. He put in the kind of performance that we got used to seeing from Hamilton at his most inspired, back in 2006, passing car after car after losing his front wing at the beginning of the feature race, and coming through from 9th to finish 4th in the sprint race, despite damaging his steering in light contact with Dani Clos' car. Was it a one-off or will he be able to do it regularly? And how much of that performance was down to Bird's talent, as opposed to the legendary engineering nous of ART providing him with a car that could do things, find grip on parts of the track, that nobody else could?

We might get more of an idea when they get to Monaco tomorrow, a circuit where the input of the man holding the steering wheel counts a little more, and the work of the engineers and their lap tops matters a little less. Maybe Bird is better than we realised. He wouldn't be the first racing driver in the history of the sport to look underwhelming in over-gripped, under-powered Formula 3 cars, only to come into his own when given something with a lot more horsepower to play with. On the other hand, I can't help but remember than, before he went off at the first corner of the opening race, Jules Bianchi had gone half a second faster than his team mate in qualifying...

Of course, Sam Bird didn't win either race, with the first going to former Renault World Series front-runner, Charles Pic while Formula Master champion Fabio Leimer converted pole in the sprint race into victory on Sunday morning. While I expect that Leimer will not be a consistent front-runner (even if he's faster than I think, and wasn't simply the beneficiary of a clear run on a reverse-grid race, I'd be surprised if Ocean Racing Technology can provide him with the equipment to win regularly), Pic and Arden might be more of a threat. After some years in which Arden has appeared to drift, with team owner Christian Horner seemingly preoccupied with running the Red Bull F1 team, the former F3000 title-winners appear to have been getting themselves on a firm footing again. And Pic is probably the most promising driver they've had on the books since they ran Bruno Senna back in 2007.

Who else might be worth watching? Well despite his failure to score, and despite his race performances being overshadowed by those of his team mate, it would be a fool who wrote off Jules Bianchi. He did, after all, secure pole position by a margin of three tenths of a second last Friday and while he struggled to pick up results in the GP2Asia series over the winter, he did look quick, especially under race conditions. Moreover, he absolutely dominated the F3 Euroseries last year, more so even than Hulkenberg, and with an ART seat, he at least arguably remains championship favourite, in spite of his failure to score last weekend.

The stars of the GP2Asia series, of course, were ISport, and, particularly, Davide Valsecchi. ISport and, particularly, Valsecchi, looked a shade underwhelming at Barcelona last weekend, and it is possible that neither driver nor team is as on top of the newer car as it is at home with the older Dallara GP2 machine used in the winter series. That said, they've shown that they can get the job done, and Oliver Turvey, while never looking super-quick, picked up a decent haul of points and deserves credit for picking up points for 5th in the sprint race in a car which looked decidedly out of sorts. He's a smart guy, and it wouldn't entirely surprise me if he, rather than Valsecchi, emerges as ISport's best prospect over the season.

Dani Clos' inability to pass him in a seemingly much faster Racing Engineering machine in Race 2 was rather disappointing, but he at least had a better time of it than his team mate, Christian Vietoris. After picking up a second-row slot for the feature race, he fell victim to the chaos at the first corner and was eliminated from the opening race. From a lowly starting slot in the sprint race he too seemed unable to pull off much in the way of overtaking, and he could finish only 18th. Nonetheless, that first qualifying performance suggests he might be a name to watch as the season progresses.

Giacomo Ricci seems intent on demonstrating that his late-season GP2 Asia form reflects genuine pace. DPR haven't looked like front-runners in the main series for years, but a combination of Ricci's turn of speed and Andre Herck's millions appear to have effected a genuine change of fortunes for the erstwhile tail-enders.

Regular readers may remember that I have long reckoned Swedish teenager Marcus Ericsson to be a bit special, ever since I saw him making everyone else look amateurish at a Formula BMW race at Knockhill some three years ago. He didn't really show it last weekend, though he did pick up 8th on the grid in a SuperNova car that is probably some way from the class of the field, and he was around a second faster than his team-mate, Josef Kral. I'd be surprised if he didn't threaten the regular front-runners on occasion later in the year.

Sergio Perez was one of a talented crop of drivers in British F3 a couple of years back. He didn't really distinguish himself in GP2 last year alongside Edoardo Mortara but, back for a second season and with the benefit of knowing the tracks (British F3 stars have a relative disadvantage in comparison with Euroseries F3 drivers in that the Euroseries visits many more of the tracks the GP2 series takes in over the year) he may do rather better now, driving for the Barwa Addax team which, with Vitaly Petrov at the wheel, provided the closest thing to real opposition to Hulkenberg last year, and he might even be a good outside bet for the title himself.

It is noticeable that many of the drivers who have appeared semi-permanent features of the GP2 grid in recent years have moved on. Gone are Spaniard Javier Villa, Italian Luca Filippi Austrian Andreas Zuber. Each showed flashes of pace during their time in GP2, but none ever looked like mounting a serious title challenge and I doubt any of them will be much missed. Lucas Di Grassi and Karun Chandhok have moved on to better(?) things at last, with Virgin and HRT. The exception is Pastor Maldonado. At 25, and having been comprehensively overshadowed by Hulkenberg at ART last year, I can't help thinking that this ship has already sailed, and that the F1 paddock has already made up its mind about the mercurial Venezuelan. Even if he were to win the title, he might find that, like Giorgio Pantano before him, he is left with nowhere else to go. Having been outpaced by Luis Razia at Rapax last weekend, this may in any case be a moot point.

So, who's going to win it? Hard to say for sure. At this stage, I see no standout performers likely to stamp their authority over the series in the manner of Hamilton in 06 or Hulkenberg last year. If he's as good as the hype suggests though, the field looks reasonably clear for Jules Bianchi to follow in the footsteps of his ART predecessor Hulkenberg and win the title at his first attempt. And with a Ferrari test contract in his pocket, he's not badly placed if he can get the job done.

Labels: , , , , , , ,