Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dakar is upon us

I'll be the first one to admit that writing about motorsport is definitely more difficult during the winter, with subject matter limited to silly-season newsbites, year-end reviews and previews of the next year's racing. But buried deep within the winter-racing news-sphere is the shining light of the Dakar Rally, arguably the toughest racing event in the world.

What started as a bunch of crazy Frenchman spending the first two weeks of the year racing through the Sahara has now turned into a massive event, with global media exposure and entry lists heaving with racing's glitterati. This year's iteration includes former World Rally champions Carlos Sainz, Miki Biasion and Ari Vatanen, NASCAR regular and Baja 1000 winner Robby Gordon, ex-Formula 1 driver Ukyo Katayama, Yvan Muller (one of the world's fastest touring car drivers), 1980s Group C sportscar pilot Jean-Louis Schlesser and a host of WRC drivers from past and present such as Markku Alen, Freddy Loix and Simon Jean-Joseph. The entry list even includes the son of legendary French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul, who has an extensive racing resume in his own right.

The course usually follows a similar format: two easy days in southern Europe, a ferry crossing to Morocco, some rocky stages in the Atlas mountains, then the meat of the race in the sand-dunes of Mauritania and Mali. The final few days are through more verdant parts of sub-Saharan Africa before the weary competitors view the mirage-like image of Dakar's Lac Rose (Pink Lake), which is the site of the finish.

Life on the Dakar is best described as like being part of a huge military exercise, where adverse conditions, lack of sleep, poor food and constant threat of injury or death are the norm. As the race moves into the toughest desert stages, entrants find it ever more difficult to stay on schedule - one minor mechanical failure can easily necessitate a night in the dunes waiting for an assistance vehicle to arrive. This will put the racer in the agonizing position of having to leave the next "bivouac" (Dakar's military-style name for rest-stop) almost as soon as they have arrived in order to get back on track.

To be honest, the daily TV coverage doesn't really do justice to the huge challenge of the event. Charley Boorman, whose circumnavigation of the globe on motorcyles with fellow actor Ewan MacGregor was chronicled in the TV show "Long Way Round", entered the 2006 event and brought along the LWR crew to record the experience. There doesn't exist a better chronicle of what the Dakar is really like. The resulting TV series, "The Race to Dakar", remains one of the most compelling docu-dramas I've ever seen, and I can only hope it ends up being broadcast in the USA.

Which brings us to the status of Dakar in the United States... After two years of daily coverage on the Speed Channel, the race moved to the Outdoor Life Network in 2005. OLN dipped their toes in the water with five one-hour documentary-style shows, as a precurser to more in-depth coverage in the future. Pleased with the reception to the sport they switched to daily recaps in 2006 - by utilizing much of the same crew and production values as their Tour de France coverage, they were guaranteed a reasonable level of quality. At the same time, it definitely appeared as though they were unclear on the true nature of the race. We had a daily giggle as presenter Kirsten Gum's beautifully-trimmed hair became ever flatter and nastier before finally retreating under a Dakar baseball cap, never to be seen again (at least until the Tour de France in July).

There's hope that OLN (now renamed "Versus") will be able to spread the word of the Dakar to more mainstream sports fans in the USA. The presence of a NASCAR driver helps, as does a significant number of Americans in the motorcycle class, some of which are part of KTM's big-budget Red Bull effort. It also helps that off-road racing and rallying have never been more in the public consciousness than they are now, thanks to the defection of top X-Games star Travis Pastrana to the sport. Pastrana's high-profile helped rallying nab a place in the X-Games in 2006 and his nail-biting win over 1995 World Rally champion Colin McRae sealed the deal. Rallying is beginning to be hot property in the US, and its most extreme form, the desert racing of the Dakar, is surely not far behind.

The Dakar Rally starts on Versus TV on January 6th at 12:30pm Pacific.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Toyota: not very good

It was announced last week that Toyota will become the world's biggest car maker in 2007.

So why the hell can't they build a car that will win a Formula 1 race? Or one that can win Le Mans? Or the World Rally Championship?

In fact, Toyota's motorsports success has been rather limited lately. Apart from being the truck to have in the NASCAR truck series and a similar amount of success to Honda and Nissan in Super GT, Toyota have been very unimpressive. Come to think of it, they couldn't even manage the creation of a GT2 program in the ALMS without running into political and financial problems.

You don't have to be big to be successful (look at Saleen for example) and conversely being big doesn't guarantee success.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fastest Lap Goes Legit!

I'm excited to say that in 2007 I'll be moving beyond the blogosphere into the "legitimate" world of motorsport journalism. has asked me to join them as their correspondent on the Japanese Super GT series, as well as local reporter for sportscar racing in California. I'll be working for them at the ALMS events at Long Beach and Laguna Seca, as well as the Grand-Am Rolex races at Laguna. I'm really pleased that my writing will be able to reach a wider audience, as well as getting the opportunity to get closer to the folks who matter in sportscar racing.

Of course I'll still be posting here on a regular basis on everything from WRC to MotoGP to V8 Supercars to desert racing....

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Kris Meeke faces the reality of racing

British rally driver Kris Meeke has hit a wall in his quest to put together a WRC program for 2007.

"Any budget I could raise would be to do a World Rally Car," he reiterated, "and I am just starting now to, if I am completely honest, to lose a bit of motivation in the whole sport, because if you come flashing a cheque book you are brilliant and exciting and they want you to drive. If you come asking what is available without that, you are not so exciting and they don't want you to drive. It is a game where money talks. This time of year, money decides what kind of meetings you have and who you talk to and that decides what car you drive and where you drive it.

Welcome to racing Kris.

It's a sad state of affairs when someone talented like Kris has to sit back and watch slower drivers (but drivers with big sponsors) like Manfred Stohl just sidle into another full year in the WRC. As a serious musician I know how he feels: I've seen plenty of less-talented artists get record deals and go on tour because they've got the funding to secure top-level management and agents. Money talks in the 21st century, and the WRC is one of the worst offenders in motorsport in this regard (ChampCar is very guilty of this too). It's also struggling with a credibility issue, given the lack of depth in talent.

Right now, there's perhaps five really gifted drivers in top cars. Everyone else in a full-time WRC ride is there because of funding. They're good - no doubt about that - but not THAT good, and there's other better drivers who aren't there who should be: Jari-Matti Latvala, Gigi Galli, Guy Wilks, Toni Gardemeister, Francois Duval, the list goes on. The WRC needs these top drivers. When a waste of space like Matthew Wilson spends every rally in tenth or worse we never see him and he contributes nothing to the spectacle. Put Toni Gardemeister in that car, and you'd simply improve the overall competitiveness of the leaderboard.

And for heaven's sake, if Subaru don't replace Chris Atkinson with Travis Pastrana in 2008 they're just asking for a flaming bag of dogshit on their doorstep.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Cars and bikes: Racing's dividing line

There are those who follow motorcycle racing. And there are those who follow auto racing. Yet it seems to me that the place on a Venn Diagram where the two regions intersect is populated by only a handful of petrolheads. I'm not talking about people who are mad for sportscar racing who watch the occasional MotoGP race. Or even the person who'll watch a day of motorcycle club racing and then catch a Formula 1 race when he or she gets home.

I'm talking about people who would just as easily travel to another continent to see a bike race as they would to see a car race. And vice versa.

Why is that? What is it about two sports that are so very similar but end up being so segregated? To answer the question I turned to two passionate groups of racing fans: the members of the Bay Area Riders Forum; and a diverse group of auto racing fanatics at Ten Tenths.

The bike racing crowd were quick to point out the forms of car racing they're interested in, and were equally quick to identify NASCAR as their least favourite form of 4-wheel sport. But it became clear that followers of motorcycle racing, used to the large amount of passing and variety of racing lines in their sport, are easily bored by car racing. Those who showed an interest in Formula One admitted that the source of their interest was purely the remarkable technology. Rallying was popular amongst bikers - perhaps because like bike racing, extreme levels of control are very evident (it's harder to identify how close to the edge a car is in circuit racing).

On the other side of the fence, the impression I got was that until you're actually a motorcyclist you can't appreciate what motorcycle racing is all about. The car racing fans often spoke of simply not being into bikes. This somewhat woolly apathy reminds me of my own position on bike racing before I was a rider. I found it difficult to tell one bike from another and I had no grasp of important concepts such as "superbike", "2-strokes" and "Grand Prix". These days, Dorna (MotoGP rights holders) and Flammini (World Superbike organizers) have both done a good job of branding and marketing, but it doesn't change the fact that to an untrained eye, all racebikes look alike.

Bike people may also point to similarity in cars: how different does an IRL car look to a Formula 1 car? Compare black and white photos of two different Le Mans prototypes and identification becomes difficult for all but the most eagle-eyed spectators.

As with any sport, to know it is to understand, and to understand is to enjoy. If you don't get stuck in and start learning, you'll never be into it. My hypothesis is that most people who follow racing are quite happy in their own corner of the racing diaspora. You can be entertained for hours by simply being a follower of open wheel racing. Or NASCAR. Or bikes. Or sportscars. It's safe to say that there's few people who feel the need to broaden their racing world because they simply don't need to.

So it seems that racing generalists like me are a rare breed. I think it's safe to say that most racing fans are specialists in their own area, and that's a good thing because any racing series needs a core group of fans who care only about that one form of racing. I think this is most obvious at club racing and grassroots events, so I hope to get out to some of those meetings next year just to get a reminder of what racing passion is all about.

Friday, December 15, 2006

British Rally Question

I'm compiling my 2007 calendar of international motorsport and I'm wondering if someone can answer a question...

Why does the MSA, the governing body of motorsport in Britain, have three different national rally championships? There's the British Rally Championship, the National Gravel Rally Championship and the National Tarmac Rally Championship.

And whilst we're on the subject, why is the Connacht Sligo Stages Rally in Ireland a round of the British Tarmac Championship and the Irish Gravel Championship?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Aussie V8s' dramatic finale

The Australian V8 Supercar season is over, and its conclusion was nothing short of incendiary. As I'd mentioned before, Ford's experienced Craig Lowndes, a 3-time championship winner, trailed Holden's 23-year old phenom Rick Kelly by a mere seven points. These aren't seven Formula 1 points - in V8s, a sprint race win is worth is 107 points, so you can see how slim the margin was.

In Race 1, Lowndes was able to claw back four points.

In Race 2, despite the efforts of Kelly's team-mate Garth Tander to block Lowndes (which earned him a controversial late race drive-through penalty), Lowndes pulled back the remaining three points. This set up a thrilling conclusion with both drivers even on points and next to each other on the grid.

Now, for the sake of anyone who hasn't seen this yet but plans on watching it (I'm thinking those in the USA with Speed Channel) I'm going to describe the action in the race but not name the drivers. Let's call them Ayrton and Alain instead. Scroll down for the key.

Ayrton got a good start and nearly claimed the lead, whilst driver Alain got boxed in. However, he still managed to get into third and slotted in behind Ayrton. On lap 2, whilst TV was replaying the start, Alain got a run on Ayrton coming into the tight hairpin before Siberia corner. As both braked, Ayrton moved over a little, whilst Alain couldn't quite slow up enough, and Alain nudged the back of Ayrton. Ayrton missed the apex and slammed into the leader of the race, causing both to spin. Alain emerged unscathed and took the lead. Meanwhile Ayrton ended up being hit solidly in the right front and started losing 4 seconds per lap. The inevitable question was raised: would Alain incur a penalty? Sure enough, Alain was issued a drive-through, and returned to the track ten seconds behind the limping Ayrton. Before long, Ayrton was in to replace his tyres, and it was clear that the damaged steering arm would destroy any tyre after 5 or 6 laps. For the rest of the race Ayrton bounced in and out of the pits, whilst Alain gradually moved up the order.

Ayrton's team were hurriedly preparing a post-race protest, since they felt Alain's punishment was not sufficient. No sooner had Alain crossed the line and taken the title provisionally than Ayrton's protest was lodged.

In a hearing yesterday, the protest was dismissed and the result stands.

Although I have more to say on the topic, I don't want to spoil it for any US readers, since it's a MUST SEE race. Perhaps after it has finally aired over here I'll revisit the controversy, because it raises a lot of questions about how V8 Supercars applies its rules.

If you don't mind knowing who won, scroll down....

Driver A is Craig Lowndes. Driver B, and this year's V8 Supercar champion, is Rick Kelly. Since I'm a Holden fan, this pleases me, although the Aussie blogosphere is full of angry Ford fans venting frustration.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A1GP is fun

I watched my first A1GP race last Wednesday, the opening round from Zandvoort. I have to admit that I was rather entertained! Typically I'm not a big fan of open-wheel racing, but I got rather caught up in the nationalism of the whole thing, and was saddened when Team GB ran off the track in race 2 and when Team USA finally succumbed to the pressure of the Germans.

Yes, the cars are kind of silly-looking. And yes, the drivers are generally unknowns, pulled from various lower-level national open-wheel series such as Formula BMW or Formula Renault. But that doesn't really matter very much when you've got Canada battling against the USA, Britain up against Germany and India and Pakistan fighting for the same piece of land. Err, I mean track...

It's been said that spec-racing is a growing trend in motorsport. Audiences want close racing, and cars that are equal usually help achieve this goal. Even when cars are unequal, organizers work to address this. Japanese Super GT and the World Touring Car series both have an active ballast-handicapping system, and the American Le Mans Series implemented an unwieldy system of its own to equalize Corvette and Aston Martin in 2006. The result was as expected: close, unpredictable racing.

A1GP goes one step further, by actually removing the importance of who a driver is, and instead making it about the country. It's a rarely-used approach in motorsport (Michelin Race of Champions and the MX de Nations come to mind as other examples), but utterly compelling.

The long-term viability of a series that lost tens of millions of dollars in its first season is certainly questionable, but for now it's still going, and I'm looking forward to watching round two on Speed Channel this Wednesday.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Buy an LMP2 Le Mans car

What does it cost to buy a Le Mans prototype car? Take a look at this brochure from Rollcentre Racing, who are selling their Radical SR9 LMP2 car. It completed a full season in the Le Mans Series as well as the 24 Hours. Although very fast, it had numerous reliability issues which Rollcentre's Martin Short assures potential buyers have now been fixed.

The list of retail prices for spare parts is especially interesting. In MY world, $1700 for a new engine for my motorcycle is a LOT of money. In Shorty's world, that's peanuts and would barely cover the cost of an ECU for a power steering system. In fact, it's only one third of the cost of a clutch for the Radical...

It's useful to occasionally stop and think that motorsport is a game for the very rich. Very few people are making money in this business.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What is the legacy of WRC 2006?

With the completion of Wales Rally GB, the 2006 season of the World Rally Championship is over. How will it be remembered? After all, every season has a different complexion...

And then there were those great years in the late 90s when McRae and Makinen were fierce rivals, but had to fight against the likes Sainz, Didier Auriol and Juha Kankkunen.

On paper, 2006 was an exceptionally close battle between Gronholm and Loeb. In reality, Loeb needed four fewer events to reach his points total than Gronholm did. And what of the supporting cast? Solberg and Subaru were nowhere to be seen whilst a lack of truly competitve entries enabled drivers who previously struggled to 10th-place to get on the podium (stand up Manfred Stohl).

No, instead this may well be the year remembered for the breakout of two future champions, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo. Hirvonen showed that he's now learned control, pacing and strategy to go with his lightning Finnish speed. And Sordo's first year in a WRC car showed how incredibly quick he is although he'll need to go through a Hirvonen-style year of becoming a more well-rounded driver to eliminate silly mistakes like those he made in Finland (ouch) or Cyprus (twat).

Although I can't say for sure how we'll look back on 2006, there's very little doubt in my mind that the 2009 or 2010 WRC season will be remembered for an epic battle between Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo.

Friday, December 01, 2006

News grab-bag

  • MotoGP world champ Nicky Hayden rode the last round of the season with a broken shoulder. He has now taken time out from the testing schedule to have it fixed. Makes his title seem even more impressive!
  • Top two drivers in the Australian V8 Supercar series Craig Lowndes and Rick Kelly go into the final round at Phillip Island separated by 14 points. Remarkable given that they both have more 2900 points each. Should be an absolute cracker of an event...
  • Word has it that Henning Solberg will be driving for Ford's Stobart team in next years World Rally Championship.
  • The AMA Superbike series will have two pasty new faces next year with the arrival of Brits James Ellison and Chaz Davies. Ellison will ride for the factory-supported privateer Corona Honda team in the Superbike class, whilst Davies will be riding in one of the 600cc classes for Celtic Racing.
  • Our favorite MotoGP mechanic Liam Shubert, who left San Francisco last year to pursue his dream of working in MotoGP, has been promoted within the D'Antin Pramac team. He's now their Parts and Logistics Coordinator.
  • Britain has another great white hope in Formula 1. Except he's black, which is a good thing for the sport. Lewis Hamilton, who won this year's GP2 series, has grabbed the second seat at McLaren.
  • Although we don't "do" NASCAR here, it's worthwhile to note that this year's Nextel Cup championship was won by rallying fanatic and former Race of Champions participant Jimmie Johnson.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Racing in 2006 reaches its final chapter

There are only four events left on my motorsport calendar for 2006: the WRC Wales Rally GB, the final round of the V8 Supercar series in Australia, and two rallies here in the US, the Wild West in Washington and the Reno Rally in Nevada.

I'll start working on my global motorsport calendar for 2007 soon, and will post it up on a website somewhere in case anyone wants to download it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


In the last few days we have been watching Charley Boorman (of Long Way Round fame) in his new adventure show, Race to Dakar. It chronicles his assault on the 2006 Dakar Rally, from prep to race, and focuses not just on his experience but on those of his team-mates and support crew.

I've been watching the Dakar for 4 years now, since Speed Channel first showed it on a daily basis. It's compelling on many levels. Firstly there's the race itself: basically, who's winning. Secondly, the environment is spectacular. You can't fail to be moved by the dramatic North African ergs, seas of Sahara dunes and dense sub-Saharan bush. Thirdly, the endurance required of all people involved in the rally is amazing. Watching humans who are being pushed to their limits is always intriguing. Finally, there's the massive scale of the operation. Moving that much stuff in those kind of conditions is a huge feat, one that puts a Pink Floyd tour to shame.

TV coverage tends to not focus so much on the last of these factors, so it was extremely revealing to watch the footage that Charley and his crew captured. My partner and I met when we were crew managers on what used to be called the California AIDS Ride, another event that is an example of logistical achievement. The premise of that event was a bicycle ride that had 3000 riders and 600 support crew travelling from San Francisco to LA in seven days. What we saw the Race to Dakar guys experience brought back some vivid memories: very early mornings, camping in the cold, very average food, lack of sleep, lack of hygiene, long hours, dust, sunburn, you name it... In an environment like that, even the smallest thing is difficult. For us it could have been something like running out of clean ice at a pitstop area. For them, a cracked lower wishbone on a support vehicle 250kms from the bivouac disrupted their entire plan.

When I watch Dakar 2007, I'll be watching through new eyes. In the past I longed to work on the event, and even went so far as to apply (and be soundly rejected by organizers ASO). I've changed my mind. There's other ways to get your logistical jollies - stage rallies and desert racing comes to mind. I've always fancied a trip to Baja. I'm getting on a dirtbike for the first time next month, so that should indicate whether I'll end up at Baja as a rider, crew member or volunteer...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Aston Martin's renaissance continues

In a very rare event, I stepped foot in a movie theater on Saturday evening. Typically I despise going to the cinema, with the long lines, overpriced food and drink and lack of beer (except at The Parkway). However, I'll never miss a Bond movie....

Casino Royale proved to be an exceptional example of the genre, and in my mind the best Bond movie of them all. In much the same way that Batman Begins showed the humanity behind an action hero, Casino Royale exposed Bond as fallible, reckless, sensitive and human. The character has shaken off all the ridiculous debonair baggage and is no longer a cartoon: best line of the movie is when Bond orders a vodka martini and is asked by the bartender "shaken or stirred sir?" His response: "Do I look like I give a damn?"

I highly recommed it.

So why am I writing a movie review on a racing blog? Once again, Aston Martins feature prominently in a Bond film. In this case it's a DB5, and the new DBS high-performance variant of the DB9. The DBS was staggeringly attractive and the perfect car for the role, and got me thinking about Aston Martin. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that in addition to making gorgeous cars, Aston are experiencing a bit of a purple patch at the moment.

Time for some Googling... we're after some sales figures for Aston:

1992: 42
1999: 622
2002: 1551
2004: 2400
2005: 4000
2006: 7000

That is an amazing growth cycle, which I reckon can be attributed to four major factors: management, product positioning, new cars and racing (see, there had to be some racing connection).

Aston is currently owned by Ford, as part of its Premier Automotive Group, alongside Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover. Ford's takeover in 1993 heralded major reinvestment, including a new factory in Bloxham. The arrival of the hugely-experienced Dr. Ulrich Bez as CEO in 2000 and the opening of the new Gaydon headquarters in 2005 further reinforced the company's stability, providing expert leadership and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities respectively.

Interestingly enough, Ford has chosen to sell Aston Martin to raise capital, and is expected to make between $600 million and $2 billion from the sale. Bez is reportedly putting together a deal to make a bid, which would perhaps be the best long-term bet for the security of the company.

It would be impossible to put a value on the marketing exposure achieved from the positioning of Aston Martins in James Bond movies. Aston's darkest days in terms of sales were the period during which none of their cars were featured in Bond movies (1987-2001). The return of Aston Martin to the 007 franchise was in 2002's Die Another Day, and coincided with the release of the exceptional new Vanquish. The Vanquish is seen by many as the first of the great new Aston Martins and it was only fitting that it should be James Bond's car of choice.

Following the Vanquish, Aston Martin went on to release the DB9 and the V8 Vantage. Moving away from the Ford switchgear found in the Vanquish, both cars succeeded in being something truly special. Exhibit A: the clocks on a DB9 are pure art. Exhibit B: the first time I saw a Vantage up close I was blown away by the quality of craftsmanship and componentry. Thankfully, complaints from sportscar anoraks, who rue the day that Aston stopped building cars by hand at Newport Pagnall, can finally be silenced.

Finally, there's Aston Martin Racing. Nothing imbues a brand with performance cache more than racing success. Compare a brand like Lamborghini with Panoz. Panoz have consistently gone racing since they started making cars in the mid 90s, whilst Lamborghini (despite their deeper history) have very little racing heritage. People who Panoz cars can never really be labelled posers. Lambo owners on the other hand can. Was I impressed by the bloke who drove past me yesterday in a white Diablo roadster? Not really. If it had been a Panoz, that would have said much more loudly that the owner was a "car person". Thankfully, Aston Martins have that racing heritage, and it's no longer a dusty 50s heritage or kooky 80s Group C piece of history. It's bang up-to-date, with road-car derived racers that look and sound fabulous, and that actually win.

For quite some time there haven't been any new exotica that I've truly wanted in the same wayI wanted a Lamborghini Countach when I was ten. The new Ferraris are a little odd, Lamborghinis are big, pointy and really just overgrown Audis, Porsches continue to be boring and ubercars like the Pagani, Koenigsegg and Bugatti Veyron are just ridiculous. But an Aston... well that's classy, cool, fast and somewhat impervious to the attention of NBA stars and platinum-selling rockers who'd sooner buy a Bentley Conti GT with 20" chrome rims.

You need to know about cars to want an Aston Martin. I'll take a V8 Vantage in British Racing Green please.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The top 25 racetracks

After careful scientific analaysis, based on the criteria I mentioned in my last post (history, distinctiveness, quality of events, trees and gradient) I present the top 25 racetracks in the world.

1. Spa-Francorchamps
2. Brands Hatch (GP circuit)
3. Le Mans
4= Bathurst
4= Nurburgring (Nordschleife)
6= Isle of Man Mountain Course
6= Laguna Seca
8= Brno
8= Donington Park
8= Imola
8= Monza
12. Monaco
13= Macau Guia Circuit
13= Mosport
13= Road America
13= Road Atlanta
13= Suzuka
18= Cadwell Park
18= Sears Point
20= Daytona
20= Indianapolis
20= Oulton Park
23= Dijon
23= Fuji
23= Sachsenring
23= Silverstone
23= Sugo

Okay, so it ended up being 27, not 25, but that's statistics for you...

What do you think of this list? What's missing?

Here's those that didn't make the cut: Assen, Bahrain, Catalunya, Croft, Estoril, Fontana, Hidden Valley, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Interlagos, Istanbul, Jarama, Knockhill, Eurospeedway-Lausitz, Lime Rock, Long Beach, Magny-Cours, Mid-Ohio, Miller Motorsports Park, Misano, Montreal, Twin-Ring Motegi, Mugello, Norisring, Nurburgring (Sudschleife), Okayama, Oran Park, Oschersleben, Paul-Ricard HTTT, Phillip Island, Portland International Raceway, Pukekohe, Losail, Queensland Raceway, Sandown, Sebring, Sepang, Shanghai, Snetterton, Surfers Paradise, Symmons Plain, Thruxton, Valencia, Virginia International Raceway, Watkins Glen and Zandvoort.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What makes a race track great?

It being rather a slow motorsport news week, I'm going to turn my attention to the subject of race tracks. Specifically, what makes a great track great?

To be fair I should say off the bat that I'm going to ignore oval tracks - anyone who's been here before will know that we just don't do that kind of racing here - there's plenty of other excellent blogs that do.

Most people who follow motor racing will agree on those tracks that represent true greatness: Spa, the old Nurburgring, Brands Hatch GP circuit, Bathurst, Monza, Le Mans, Laguna Seca, Monaco and Suzuka to name a few.

What do these tracks share in common?

History: For a track to be one of the greats it must have history. It could be argued that Laguna Seca loses out here, but when we talk history we're talking quality not quantity. Yes, a track like Snetterton has been around longer than Laguna, but the Californian track has played host to the classic Can-Am battles of the early 70s, the epic 500cc GP bikes in the 80s and early 90s, and all manner of top flight sportscars and motorcycles more recently. Among the greats who have had success at Laguna are Rick Mears, Mark Donohue, Wayne Rainey, Klaus Ludwig, Bobby Rahal, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Allan McNish. That's a lot of history right there. At any track you can't fail to think of all the legendary drivers and riders who have raced there in the past. Graham Hill IS Monaco, Monza sings of Fangio, and the spirit of Daijiro Kato is ever-present at Suzuka.

Exceptional track features: I've never been to Spa, but I know that Eau Rouge is probably on e of the top 10 corners on a racetrack anywhere in the world. The Nurburgring has all manner of exceptional features, but its 14 mile length and 155 corners are remarkable enough already. Brands Hatch has a couple of crazy corners, most notably the scary downhill, off-camber Paddock Hill bend and equally scary Dingle Dell descent and rise. Anyone who's spent any time on Gran Turismo will vouch for Suzuka's remarkable 180R corner. Is it flat in 5th? Do I lift just a little? These are questions that in real life are matters of life or death. And don't get me started on Bathurst's Dipper or Laguna's Corkscrew.

Trees: Call me weird, but the presence of trees indicate the passing of time, and therefore age, history and all that goes with it. Think about the sterile new F1 tracks like Sepang, Shanghai or Bahrain. There are no trees because any that were there before were removed during construction. This is why the ongoing construction at Le Mans will change the atmosphere of the place because it involves some tree removal. The other thing that trees will do is diffuse the sounds of racing, which heightens the thrill of being there. Spectators on rallies are well aware of this fact. With no trees, the sounds of all engines in a race meld into one background drone. Trees will keep out that drone sound so that you only hear the cars or bikes that are in the immediate vicinity.

The big events: Regardless of their past, important tracks host important events. Each of these tracks has one event each year that stands above all others, and is held in high regard amongst racing enthusiasts the world over. Consider the Le Mans 24 Hours, Suzuka 1000km, Brands Hatch World Superbike, Bathurst 1000, United States MotoGP, Nurburgring 24 Hours, Spa 1000km and the Italian F1 Grand Prix.

Danger: The world's safest tracks are generally the most boring. The inverse is also true. Brands Hatch, Bathurst, the Nurburgring and Suzuka are still considered to be pretty dangerous. Before the intervention of draconian promoters and governing bodies, the same was true of Monza, Spa and Laguna Seca. They still retain a greater element of risk than most contemporary tracks. A venue yet to be mentioned scores VERY highly in this area, the Isle of Man TT Mountain course.

Gradient: Although not all these tracks have significant gradient changes, a hilly track will always be more interesting than a flat one. Brands Hatch, Bathurst, the Nurburgring, Spa and Laguna all have some of the biggest hills in racing, so it's no coincidence that they are considered amongst the best circuits in the world. Others that are exceptional in this regard include Sears Point, Cadwell Park, Dijon, Imola and Sugo.

So there you have it - some thoughts about what make a race circuit great. Perhaps a top 25 list in order next...

Friday, November 03, 2006

My fridge is faster than your racecar

My friend Chris and I were having a friendly chat the other night about how fast our motorcycles are (a common topic when motorcyclists get together). In the grand pantheon of fast vehicles, sportbikes definitely offer the best performance for the money, faster than most race cars, in terms of acceleration. A typical middleweight bike like mine or Chris' will hit 60mph in a touch over 3 seconds.

But then it was time for a little bump back down to earth. One of us suggested a fridge free-falling would accelerate faster. Time to break out some old high school physics and a calculator...

If I remember correctly, gravity produces an acceleration of 9.8m/s2. Every second, a body acted on by gravity will increase its speed by 9.8 metres per second. That's 22mph. Sadly that means that after three seconds, our free-falling fridge is already 66mph, 6mph faster than our bikes, which require an additional 0.3 of a second to hit 60. By the time we're at 60mph, the fridge is doing 73.

Of course there's no account made for air resistance in our hypothetical situation, so if anyone knows what the expected resistance would be, I'd love to know. It would need to impede our falling kitchen appliance by 19% to give the bikes a chance.

So there you have it. My fridge is faster than your racecar.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tribal Council

As we approach the end of the racing season, it's time for me to reflect on what I'm going to do differently next year.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, followers of racing who live in the US no longer need to rely on Speed Channel for TV coverage of racing. With the right software, and the right source, it's possible to watch British Touring Cars, DTM, British Superbike, Le Mans Series, FIA GT, GP Masters, V8 Supercars, Irish Road Racing, Japanese Super GT and more.

This creates a problem that I've discovered as I've attempted to keep track of racing series throughout the year: too much to watch.

So time to "refocus" (good corporate-speak there) my racing viewing.

As mentioned yesterday, DTM leaves the list, for the numerous reasons mentioned. Also voted off the island is FIA GT. I love a good endurance race, but apart from some cool cars, the series is devoid of other attractions. I'd watch 30-60 minute cutdowns, but I can't sit through the 3 hours of a typical FIA GT race. I might watch the first race of the season to see what new cars might have shown up, but that's about it.

Formula 1 will once again not be part of my viewing since it's just downright boring. Less boring, but also of little importance, are the two American open-wheel series, Champcar and the IRL. I'll tune back in to them once they become one.

On the two-wheel side of things, despite some good scraps, the AMA support classes will not make it onto my list in 2007. This won't change until the AMA finally bans factory teams from the stock classes. Supersport and Superstock should be reserved for the privateer, whilst Superbike and Formula Xtreme should allow factory efforts.

I've decided to add the 250cc MotoGP support class to the list. As MotoGP itself moves to smaller engines, 250s will become even more important as the main feeder series. It also features very close racing, another good reason to watch it.

Also making it onto my list is the V8 Supercar development series. I watched the Bathurst races and was rather entertained. I'll check out the first couple of rounds in 2007 to see if that continues.

The ALMS will get my viewing time again, as long as it's on Speed Channel (the network coverage is unwatchable). The ALMS' European counterpart will also stay on the list, mainly due to its true endurance pedigree and significant crossover with Le Mans itself.

I tried to watch some Speed World Challenge races this year but found them dull. Despite some great cars, it smacks of being a little half-assed, and more of a series for rich amateurs and factory teams who want to beat up on them. It will stay off the list.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

DTM - not so exciting

I won't be watching the DTM next year.

I've really tried hard - I've watched many DTM races over the past 4 years. I love the hugely trick cars, and the superstar driver line-up. But something about the series consistently leaves me cold. I've tried to figure out what it is, and can only come up with wildly speculative and frankly bizarre reasons...

I don't care who wins. Not that I'm not cheering for any particular driver - being British I had to root for Jamie Green this year and Gary Paffett last year - but it's just that when they win I don't feel like much has been achieved. This is strange, given the hugely talented drivers in DTM. Perhaps I feel like it doesn't actually matter who wins because this is all some corporate plaything for Audi and Mercedes, who would allow the game to progress regardless of who was watching. The presence of spectators or fans is irrelevent.

Which brings me to another point: many comparisons could be drawn between DTM and Australia's V8 Supercar series. Both feature very expensive, highly modified saloon cars, racing to effectively spec rules with significant factory backing behind every team. But you get the impression that in Australia, the fans are hugely loyal to their brand of choice. If a Holden fan was to bad-mouth Ford in a bar, a fist-fight would seem a logical, expected outcome. Can you imagine two Germans, one an Audi fan, one a Mercedes fan, scrapping over the honour of their chosen marque? I don't see it. Once again, it doesn't seem like it really matters who wins.

Perhaps the generally austere, clinical approach that Germans are known for having simply extends into their domestic racing series. Everything is very efficient, no-one does anything particularly crazy, and a win is seen as a fulfillment of a requirement rather than a good old-fashioned bettering of one's opponents. Even if there is a robust move on-track that results in two cars taking each other out, you'd never expect a dust-up. You'd expect a calm press release saying that driver X was running a careful race and was involved in an incident and that the team is disappointed but looking forward to the next round. In Australia, things are very different. You only need to remember Eastern Creek 2003: Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife came together resulting in Skaife's retirement. When Ingall came round on the next lap, Skaife ran onto the track waving his fists. Ingall in return swerved towards him at high speed. Now THAT'S racing passion! I only know of one such incident in DTM, and it resulted in the perpetrator, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, being fired the next day. Way to spoil the fun, Audi.

Now this might be the craziest reason of all, but I find the telecasts of DTM to always appear "washed out". The MotorsTV coverage has poor colour and poor resolution, and the Speed Channel versions aren't much better. Add to this that it seems DTM races are run in cloudy or rainy conditions more frequently than other series, and the whole thing comes across as a bit "grey". A significant component of racing is the visual excitement, and bright colours only help serve this. Think about how much more dramatic MotoGP bikes look in the flesh than on TV - the dayglo colours really enhance the drama, colours which don't translate well through TV. Humans have evolved to respond to bright colours, so a racing series that features predominantly silver cars racing in cloudy conditions and broadcast with poor colour capture is going to suffer in the excitement department.

I'm of the opinion that a championship that is decided anytime before the last round has been dominated. This year DTM fell into this category (along with World Superbike, the WRC and the Le Mans Series). It was obvious before the penultmate round that Bernd Schneider would be champion, so I didn't watch the final two races. The way the points system is structured in DTM makes it very difficult to come back from a poor result and effectively decreases the pool of championship contenders. F1 is guilty of the same crime. It seems like the system used in FIM motorcycle championships is a nice balance: 25 for a win, 20 for second, 16 for third, 12 for fourth down to 1 for fifteenth.

So it's goodbye DTM, hello to.... well, I'll go over my winners and losers in the competition for my racing TV time tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Best Motorcycle Picture Ever

Check this out.

This is everything that makes these guys fucking heroes: commitment, determination, utter control even as the bike wants to go in the wrong direction, knee down courage. Wallpaper-tastic.

Maybe I could win a world title whilst sitting watching TV

In all the excitement surrounding the finale of the MotoGP season, it should be noted that the World Rally Championship also crowned its champion this weekend.

In an unsatisfactory turn of events that sadly wraps up an unsatisfactory season, Sebastien Loeb took the title whilst sitting on his couch at his home in Switzerland.

After Loeb's mountain bike accident sidelined him for at least two events, Marcus Gronholm had to pick up a minimum of 36 points to take the title. With his win in Turkey, he needed 26 points from the three remaining events, and therefore at least third in Australia. Sadly (for the championship's sake) he rolled less than 5km into the first stage and lost 11 minutes that he couldn't claw back despite massive attrition in the WRC field, and a series of determined drives by the Finn.

A decidedly sleepy-looking Loeb appeared via satellite for the post-event press conference.

Next year doesn't show much promise of improving the field, unless Subaru goes ahead with its B-team idea. There's no decision on whether the OMV Peugeot Norway team will continue or whether the lame-duck Red Bull Skoda will be back. Suzuki had originally planned a 2007 debut, but that has been delayed to 2008. Citroen return as a full factory team (did they ever really leave?) and no doubt their new C4 will dominate. The one part of 2007 that should be interesting is the debut of two new events and the return of a another, those being Norway, Ireland and Portugal (only for them to go away again in 2008 - for god's sake, someone please please explain that to me!).

On a more positive note, Mikko Hirvonen took a much-deserved win at the Australian round of the WRC. I've always rated him very highly, and remember fondly the image of him in a 2002 Focus, loud pedal all the way to the floor, hitting a series of three yumps halfway through the Fredriksberg stage at the Swedish Rally in 2003. You can only really know how hard a driver can go when you see it up close, and I'll never forget that. Throughout 2006 he's tempered his massive ability to go fast with the aim of finishing rallies and racking up points. In Australia he put them both together to stay ahead of a charging Petter Solberg and take the victory. Well done Mikko!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Where Rossi went wrong

Now we've had a day to reflect on Nicky Hayden's maiden MotoGP championship, it's interesting to consider what went wrong for Valentino Rossi this year. A look at some statistics shows some interesting trends:

Ignoring his first year in the premier class, Rossi has 98 GP starts. He didn't win 42 of them (which means he won 56, a staggering figure in itself). Of those 42 non-wins, nearly 1/3 of them were this year.

To prove the point, here's the percentage of races he didn't win, by year:

  • 2001 - 31%
  • 2002 - 31%
  • 2003 - 44%
  • 2004 - 44%
  • 2005 - 35%
  • 2006 - 70%
Even more incredibly, of his 11 non-top 10 finishes since 2001, nearly 1/2 of them were in 2006. This really shows how awful his season was. The question is, why?
  • In Jerez, he was involved in a first turn crash, precipitated by his low qualifying position. This was blamed on poor development on the Yamaha over the winter. Blame Yamaha.
  • In China, he retired with tyre problems. Blame Michelin, or perhaps blame Yamaha, after only being able to qualify 13th on a mean-handling bike, and perhaps using up ALL of his tyre to get up to third in the race.
  • In France, he retired with engine problems. Blame Yamaha.
  • In Holland, he had a massive practice crash but fought back to 8th in the race. Still, a huge bag of points were lost to Hayden who won the race. Blame Rossi or maybe blame Yamaha for giving him a bike where he was forced to push harder than normal due to a continually wretched chassis.
  • In the USA, he retired with engine problems. Blame Yamaha.
As you can see, Yamaha had a big hand in Rossi's failure to clinch the title. He still managed five wins, four seconds, a third and a fourth, a combination that could be expected to be sufficient, unless your rival is the ultra-consistent Nicky Hayden.

When all is said and done, to win in any professional racing series you need speed, luck and reliability. Although he had the first, this year he was missing the second and third. You can't control luck. You can control reliability. Shame on Yamaha.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Nicky Hayden - MotoGP World Champion

On a day that even the most hardened American motorcycle racing fan couldn't keep from shedding a tear, Nicky Hayden won the closest, most dramatic MotoGP season in recent memory (certainly the most dramatic of the now-defunct 990cc 4-stroke era).

Many congratulations to Nicky. You da man!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Honda - Answer for your crimes

For all their might and power, Honda sure know how to mess things up.

I have to admit a certain degree of personal animosity here, as my Honda CBR600rr sits in a shop awaiting a new engine, after the current 10,000 mile example inexplicably failed. So much for Big Red's bulletproof reliability...

Unsurprisingly in times such as this you start pondering all the other crimes committed by the perpetrator of your own misery, and for Americans there can be no greater crime than the absolute shambles the Honda MotoGP team made of their rider management at Estoril. I talked in depth on the subject here, and there's further insight on it at this blog.

So then my thoughts turned to how Honda runs its Superbike programs worldwide. Oh, that's right. THEY DON'T. In actual fact, the only factory Honda superbikes are those in the British Championship. Guess who won that this year? Yep, Honda. Not by a country mile, but there's no doubt that factory involvement won them that title.

Over here in the US, American Honda is very much on their own. Given the trick parts that the British team gets, there's little doubt that they would be on pace with the rocketship Suzukis. Alas the American team has had develop the bike from scratch and still don't have traction control.

In World Superbike, Honda, along with the other major manufacturers, still have an ongoing vendetta against the organizers. None of the top teams running Japanese bikes are factory teams, although they are supported by the European importers. Once again, the Honda teams have had to beg and grovel for the trick parts, and have only very recently gotten traction control.

What baffles me is that, given the time and investment required for the trick superbike parts that are supplied to the HM Plant team in England, why not make them available to top teams? Surely Honda want to see Hondas winning? (Actually, maybe that's not true given the kamikaze Pedrosa MotoGP disaster...)

If I sit here long enough I could probably come up with a whole host of other Honda crimes, but for now I'll stew in the juices of missed superbike opportunities, a mismanaged MotoGP program, and a supposedly reliable bike that's about to slash my life savings in two.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Grab bag of racing news

Time for some racing amuse-bouche...

Michael Schumacher did not win the F1 World Championship on Sunday, but his team-mate became the first Brazilian to win a Brazilian Grand Prix since 1993.

Speaking of Brazil, Alex Barros will leave World Superbike after just one year and return to MotoGP with the hopelessly underfunded D'Antin Pramac Ducati team. Hopefully this means that our friend Liam's job will be safe.

There was a V8 Supercar race this weekend in Surfers Paradise but I don't know who won, because I still haven't finished watching Bathurst. I've been waiting for my Australian friend to come round to watch it with me, but our schedules appear to be incompatible.

The Kronos Citroen World Rally team will return to a red livery in this weekend's Rally Australia. Apparently the sponsorship deal with Gauloises was only for 13 rounds, which seems rather odd to me. So the Xsaras will once again look like the old factory team cars. Which they are. The charade is over. Kronos Citroen was never anything less than a full factory effort...

Many rumours of new cars in the Le Mans Series both here in the US and in Europe. These include six Audi R10s for Europe; Zyteks in both series; Creations in both series; up to 8 Corvettes in the LMES; Bobby Rahal running a Porsche in GT2 in ALMS; Martin Short's Rollcentre team running a Pescarolo in Europe; Lister using a Pescarolo tub for its new prototype; up to 8 of Porsche's RS Spyder Evo running worldwide; at least 2 new Radicals joining the LMES; and Peugeot coming to Sebring (although maybe not to race, just to test).

There's rumblings about the FIA GT series being in trouble. Not sure why this is yet, but if I hear anything I'll post it.

In an interesting coincidence Rolling Stone just ran an article about rallying, highlighting the exploits of Travis Pastrana, who just this weekend secured the Rally America title.

In AMA Superbike, the silly season is almost complete. Jason Pridmore retired, so Aaron Yates will probably take his place at Jordan Suzuki. His factory Suzuki seat goes to Tommy Hayden. Hayden is replaced at Kawasaki by Jamie Hacking. Hacking's Yamaha Supersport and Superstock ride goes to Ben Bostrom who was left unemployed after the departure of Ducati. Meanwhile, Yamaha will enter Superbike with Eric Bostrom and Jason DiSalvo.

All for now...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Laguna Seca ALMS report

This weekend's trip to the ALMS finale at Laguna Seca as everything I hoped it would be: great cars, good weather, very close racing and a large (but not too large) crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend was meeting the guys from the Creation team. I've always been a big fan of the plucky British team, and the Discovery documentary about them further proved the point. So after practice I followed the car back to their garage, and found team owner Mike Jankowski gesturing onlookers into the garage. This was highly unusual - in the high-powered world of prototype racing, there's always a (small) barrier between the cars and the people. So I got a nice close look at the car, and then got talking with Mike, a very friendly and likeable chap. Later on I met driver "Quick" Nic Minassian, and had a chat with Ian Smith, the chief engineer. Even later still, the small, low-budget team beat the multi-million dollar Audis to the front row of the grid, alongside fellow small British team Zytek. This was extremely satisfying to watch!

Raceday was busy, but nothing like the outrageous crowds that Laguna sees for MotoGP. Prior to the race, the grid was opened up to spectators, and we were lucky enough to be right next to the pits. The second car along was the Creation and my father and partner got to meet Mike and see the blue rocket up-close. The ALMS' tagline is "for the fans" and this race meeting really proved it: mandatory autograph sessions for all drivers, open paddock, the grid walk and the fantastic Radio Le Mans commentary made for a great day's racing.

A number of awkwardly-timed safety car periods conspired to make the race itself exceptionally tight, the first one prior to the leaders lapping any cars. The first few laps were thus completely irrelevant, and ensured a carbon copy second start. As the race progressed it was interesting to see the see-saw between those on a conventional strategy (Zytek, Audi #2 and Creation) and those who pitted early (both Porsches and Audi #1). The race unfolded clearly, and I had none of the confusion that often accompanies long races such as this. Perhaps the radio commentary helped in this regard, or perhaps it was because we were sitting above the pit exit and could see who pitted when and whether they lost laps or not.

By the time we got to the final stints, the #2 Audi had a healthy lead over the Creation, which had to do a final splash-and-dash stop and lost second as a result. Audi's stingy fuel consumption once again bought them victory (as did two penalties for the Zytek which was the fastest car out there). I believe that Creation might have been in a stronger position had Jamie Campbell-Walter been the second driver instead of Harold Primat, but his funding no doubt allowed the event to happen for them, so I can't complain too much.

Bring on 2007! After a number of races with small grids in 2006, next year should be bigger, closer and more exciting, as proved by the final two races of the year, both of which looked much healthier.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

World Rallies Commission - A logic-free zone

I'd love to know what the FIA's World Motor Sport Council is smoking. No sooner do they release the 2007 calendar for the World Rally Championship, featuring three new rallies, then they reveal the 2008 calendar with all three replaced!

They haven't even run Rally Norway, Rally Ireland or the Rally of Portugal and they're booted off the schedule. It's so weird. I for one thought that the pairings of snow rallies in Sweden and Norway and rain rallies in Ireland and Great Britain were inspired, and made for a nice cost-cutting measure.

But now they've added rallies in South Africa and Jordan for 2008, which are extremely expensive to get to. Aside from the cost of air freight, administrative procedures such as customs clearances, posting bonds and local transportation are far more costly than in any European country. Of course the lack of restrictions on cigarette advertising surely has NOTHING to do with their inclusion....

I'm all for globalizing the sport, but it has to be done in a considered and careful fashion, and replacing rallies which have only appeared on the calendar for one year seems to be the wrong way to go.

Even more insane is that the third event that will displace the 2007 rookie events is the return of the Cyprus Rally, which was removed due to the cost to teams of replacing all the bits that get broken on cars in the notoriously rough event. Will somebody please explain the logic of this to me, because I can't come up with a single reason.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

300 million Americans agree: Dani Pedrosa's a little bitch

Well, I suppose I'd better comment on the Nicky Hayden / Dani Pedrosa crash at last weekend's Portugese round of the MotoGP championship. In some ways I'm loathed to do so, because it is so abundantly clear what happened and who is to blame. In addition, a look at some of the main motorcycle racing websites will find many editorials on the topic - try here, here and Toby Moody's page at

The one thing about this situation that I've always felt is that I don't believe Honda have ever been 100% behind Nick Hayden. The got him in the beginning because they didn't want Yamaha to get him. Since then he's ridden in the shadow of Valentino Rossi, then wallowed in a couple of seasons with average team-mates and a slightly below-par bike. Then he had to ride in the (tiny) shadow of the sponsor's golden boy. Even though Repsol's sponsorship is merely pocket money for Big Red, Honda has never assigned a role of subservience to Pedrosa despite his inexperience, flaws and questionable demeanor. Given that behavior by the team, what happened on Sunday was inevitable.

Let me put it this way:

Some parents of teenagers believe that it's not possible to lay down the law with their children. They feel that the rebellious temperament means they're going to do what they want anyway, so better to stay friends with the kid than alienate them AND have them break the rules. The theory goes that it's better for them to learn from their mistakes than from the words of their parents.

Then there are parents who are willing to be the bad guys, who are willing to threaten the kids with being grounded for a month if they borrow the car without asking. Sometimes the threats will work, the kid stays home and perhaps it's during one of those times that the kid might otherwise have taken the car and gotten killed by a drunk driver at 2am in front of a 7-11.

It's a nice idea, that of self-governance. But people are stupid, and when you remove the rules that stupidity has some extra room to show itself.

That's about all I have to say.

Actually, one more thing: although we need Dani to be in tip-top form to ride for second place behind Nicky and ahead of Vale at Valencia, I'm hoping that once the season is over he contracts a really bad case of that African disease where river worms breed underneath your skin. Or that he accidentally talks to the girlfriend of a steroid-popping wrestler in a bar and finds himself with a pair of black eyes and cracked ribs. Or that he has one of those infections that makes you need to pee all the time, and when you go it burns really bad. Nothing serious, just some discomfort to make up for the sleepless nights Nick Hayden is probably having in the run up to this weekend's race.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Racetrack maps

I was sent this earlier today.

It's an interactive map of racetracks in the United States. Strangely enough it appears as though Sears Point (Infineon Raceway) is missing...

Elves in the World Rally Championship

Watching the Rally of the Turkey yesterday, my partner and I joked again about how Chris Atkinson's co-driver, Glenn MacNeall, looks so much like Hugo Weaver as the Elven Lord of Rivendell, Elrond, in Lord of the Rings.

It's not so apparent when he's got his helmet off, but here they are...

Glenn MacNeall, rally co-driver

Elrond, Elven Lord

Friday, October 13, 2006

British Superbike Rewind

This was the first year I got to see the British Superbike Championship, and I found it utterly compelling. We had a championship fight that involved three riders that went down to the last race, and unlike the AMA and WSBK series, the lead changed hands multiple times. These kind of see-saw title fights are simply fantastic, and I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for the last round to show up.

Although the standard of teams is very high, only two were ever a factor in the championship, GSE Airwaves Ducati and the HM Plant Honda factory team. Both had top-shelf factory bikes and extremely talented riders.

On the Ducati side was Gregorio Lavilla, winner of the 2005 title, and Leon Haslam, son of former GP winner Ron Haslam. Honda had last year's runner-up Ryuichi Kiyonari and Karl Harris, who had moved into the factory team from the Red Bull satellite squad.

Shane "Shakey" Byrne returned to BSB after two miserable years in MotoGP, joining top Suzuki team, Rizla Suzuki. After a dominant BSB season in 2003, many expected him to be right at the front all season long.

Other top riders who had the potential to do well included Michael Rutter on the Stobart Honda, Scott Smart on the Vivaldi Suzuki and Red Bull Honda's youngster, Johnny Rea.

Lavilla set the pace early on, although Kiyonari notched up a terrific win in the wet at the first round at Brands Hatch, as did Scott Smart at round two. Still, Lavilla won 7 of the first 10 races. The tide started to turn at round 6, Mallory Park, where Kiyonari beat Lavilla fair and square. He repeated the feat in the first race of the next round, and Lavilla crashed out of the second race.

With all the drama surrounding the two front-runners, many people were forgetting about Leon Haslam, who was quietly picking up a raft of second-placed finishes. When Lavilla had engine trouble and a crash at Knockhill, and Kiyonari failed to finish in race 2, things suddenly started to go Leon's way.

Moving onto Oulton Park and Croft, Kiyonari was the man to beat. Only a torrential downpour in Croft's race two disrupted things, as Leon took his first win of the season with one of the most inspired rides I've ever seen, taking 10 seconds out of the leader, Karl Harris, in the last 3 laps.

Lavilla temporarily stopped the rot at Cadwell Park with a win, only to have Leon score his second win in race two after Kiyonari had a mechanical failure.

By now you can see how things ebbed and flowed all season. The penultimate round at Silverstone saw Leon finally get some bad luck as he crashed in race one. This put the top three within nine points of each other going into the final round, a double-points affair at the mighty Brands Hatch GP circuit. With changeable conditions all weekend, anything could happen. It was Lavilla who was removed from the chase first, after a silly lowside in race one. Haslam had been shadowing Kiyonari all race, but a red flag ruined things for him, and he admitted later that it had been bad strategy on his part to not push to stay in front given the likelihood of a red flag.

In race two, Haslam needed a win for himself and a third or worse for Kiyonari. He fulfilled part one, but a loyal Honda team-mate gifted second to Kiyonari and he took the crown. The young Japanese was clearly overwhelmed, but can be happy that he deserved it by winning more races than anyone else. Haslam's consistent approach paid dividends but was ultimately not enough.

The prize for "most up-and-down season" surely goes to Shakey Byrne, who managed to sneak a win at Knockhill, a podium at Oulton but had two ferocious accidents that crippled his quest for the title.

It was a great year of racing, and I can't wait for the next one, especially if Chris Walker returns to BSB. Anyone here in the US who hasn't checked it out should definitely pick up Duke Video's season review DVD when it comes out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fastest Laps

Looking at my site statistics, it seems like a lot of people end up here with Google searches for fastest lap info - surprising, given the name of this blog LOL!

Seems to me that there's room in cyberspace for a website that catalogs fastest lap times for tracks, broken down by vehicle type and whether it was a race, qualifying, practice or testing lap.

Anyone know of such a site?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

World Superbike Rewind

Despite domination by Ducati's Troy Bayliss, the 2006 World Superbike season was one of the best yet. This was mainly due to the quality of the field, as good as the championship's previous heyday of the late 90s through 2002. The list of top riders this year was remarkable: former WSBK champions Troy Corser, James Toseland and Troy Bayliss; MotoGP refugees Alex Barros, Ruben Xaus, Fonsi Nieto and Roberto Rolfo; World Supersport champions Fabian Foret, Karl Muggeridge and Andrew Pitt; and top Superbike regulars Chris Walker, Regis Laconi, Nori Haga and Yukio Kagayama.

What's more, this fabulous cast of characters found themselves on a wide variety of top-quality machinery. The lucky ones were even benefitting from cast-off MotoGP traction-control technology. One thing that all bikes continued to share however was Pirelli tyres. In 2004 the motorcycle press was predicting doom and gloom after the decision to switch to the Pirelli control tyre - but it turned out to be a genius move, as a diminished grid in 2004 provided infinitely more compelling racing than the humdrum 2003 season.

After a dominant 2005 on the Suzuki, Troy Corser was expected to be the primary rival to Troy Bayliss, who returned to WSBK after an average three years in MotoGP. Preseason tests confirmed Bayliss' position as the man to beat. But come the first race of the season in Qatar, Bayliss seemed off the pace, outclassed by Honda's new signing James Toseland, as well as Yamaha's Haga and the Suzuki pairing of Corser and Kagayama.

As the year progressed, Bayliss quickly got onto the pace, and then starting setting it. The surprise was that it wasn't Corser who was his main rival. Perennial WSBK runner-up Nori Haga showed speed and consistency, as did Toseland, and by the end of the year only those two who were within reach of Bayliss.

Along the way a number of other riders grabbed a win or two. Suzuki madman Yukio Kagayama had already won in 2005, and added to the tally in 2006, most notably with a double win at Brno. Yamaha's Andrew Pitt also garnered a win, his first since his days in World Supersport. A win had been expected from MotoGP star Alex Barros from day one, but it took until the penultimate round for him to deliver it. Perhaps the most special win of the season was the first ever for British favourite Chris Walker. In addition to the significance of it being his first win, the fact he did it in the rain from last place coming out of the first corner made it even sweeter for his legions of fans.

When all was said and done, it ended as expected: Troy Bayliss became the 2006 World Superbike champion, with three races in hand. The battle for second went to the very last race and saw James Toseland pip Nori Haga for runner-up.

So what does the 2007 season hold for WSBK fans? There's not much that has been decided yet, but we do know that Bayliss stays at Ducati, Toseland stays at Honda and Haga stays at Yamaha. Corser moves from Suzuki to Yamaha and is replaced by the mercurial MotoGP star Max Biaggi. Leaving the paddock for good are Frankie Chili and Norick Abe, who both retire. Amongst the riders sniffing around for a job are Karl Muggeridge, Andrew Pitt, Chris Walker and former champ and AMA reject Neil Hodgson. Some juicy rumours put Ducati's British Superbike rider Greg Lavilla on the factory team, Neil Hodgson on a satellite Ducati run by Carl Fogarty and a less satisfying rumour that sees Alex Barros return to MotoGP with Kawasaki or Ilmor. Whichever of these turn out to be true, one thing is for sure: it's going to be another terrific year for World Superbike. Only one thing could make it any better: a return to the USA...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

ColinWatch 06

Latest Colin McRae news...

Colin's replacing Seb Loeb for the Rally of Turkey, and I'd bet he'll be in Australia too, after doing so well there in the Skoda last year.

The rumour of Col getting a ride in NASCAR are not going away either...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Mid-Ohio Debacle

First off, congratulation to Ben Spies, the factory Suzuki superbike rider who won the AMA Superbike championship here in the US on Sunday. He beat team-mate and 6-time champion Mat Mladin fair and square and Mladin knew it. Spies was rather overwhelmed by the occasion but Mat was, for once, gracious about it.

On a more sour note, the events leading up to the afternoon's headline race were pretty poor, and there's a lot of people I'd like to point the finger of blame at.

From what I can understand (I've avoided bike media for the last few days until I've watched the WSBK races), a large amount of rain had led to reduced practice time for all classes, and as a result the factory superbike guys refused to ride in the special qualifying heat races.

If I was to go to a trackday, and it was pouring with rain, I wouldn't ride. My bike is too valuable to me, and I would have little to gain. However, if I was to come to work and there was a huge network failure (which I'd be responsible for fixing) I would get to work, even though it would be time-consuming, frustrating work. Which of these two situations more closely resembles that which the AMA riders encountered on Sunday? I'd say the second one. These guys are paid handsomely to go out there and race. It's their job, and they know it's not the safest one out there. You don't see utility company workers packing up and going home when the lines are down in a storm - they're out there hanging off utility poles trying to get the power back on, a dangerous task, but part of their job. So, for all you professional AMA superbike riders who read this (you know who you are): DO YOUR DAMN JOB, and stop being a moaning fool. Go watch Leon Haslam's win in torrential rain at Croft in British Superbike earlier this year and watch how he struggled to get on his Ducati because his giant brass BALLS were in the way.

Where are you going, AMA? Come back here, I'm not finished with you yet... What the hell is going on with a rule that permits "provisional" entry into the main event? That kind of rule allows behavior like the riders exhibited on Sunday to happen. Here's the deal: you don't qualify, you don't race. And if the big-money, crowd-pleasing factory teams don't field any bikes, they get fined. That's how it should be. If that's too harsh, then any rider whose entry is accepted but who doesn't get a qualifying time starts at the back. If multiple riders start at the back, their position is determined by championship points. If points are even, it goes to best result this season. If that's even, then pull names out of a hat.

These guys are paid very well for two reasons: one, to win for their team; two, to put on a show for the fans. If they refuse to do either, they've failed. If they wanted a safe job they're more than welcome to sign up with my old temp agency and answer phones at a downtown law firm.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reflections on Petit Le Mans

Due to my lack of TV- and laptop-related viewing on Sunday I'm unable to talk about the three different Superbike championships that raced this weekend, two of them for the final time this season. I can assure you however that comments are coming, especially given the pathetic behavior by so-called "profesisonals" at Mid-Ohio that I've heard a little about...

So today seems like as good a day as any to cogitate on this year's Petit Le Mans, which took place on Saturday at Road Atlanta.

I'm pleased to say that I only missed 15 minutes of the nine hours whilst I ran out to get milk, distilled water and flowers at the local store. A remarkable thing happens when you watch / listen to a long endurance race: you get sucked in. As the race ebbs and flows, the fact you've seen enough of it to spot said ebbing and flowing unlocks a whole new level of understanding and complexity that the casual observer would certainly miss.

So whilst Joe Blow would have certainly spotted the dramatic destruction of Guy Smith's Dyson-Lola, he would have missed how Creation were constantly battling the need to change tyres at every pitstop. He would definitely have missed the gradual move up the leaderboard by Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing Lola, which crossed the line in a magnificent third despite a late charge by mutant-nocturnal-ninja-creature Jamie Campbell-Walter in the Creation.

All in all it was a fabulous race, full of drama, and enhanced by my usage of the Globecast 0157 commentary allied with Speed Channel's visuals. We even got to hear my partner's name read out on air after she asked a question about the aforementioned Lola that had been converted into a 10,000-piece carbon-fibre jigsaw puzzle.

Kudos go to the Zytek team for a great second place, at the expense of the terrifically boring Audi freight-train, which suffered suspension failure on the second-placed car ten laps from the close of the business.

I'm feeling all "predictory" about next year's Le Mans season (as well as focused on the topic given the upcoming ALMS race at nearby Laguna Seca), so look for such a post in the next few days.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Petit Le Mans is tomorrow

The third prong to sportscar "triple crown" (on the Le Mans racing side of things anyway) happens tomorrow: the Petit Le Mans. Race duration is 10 hours or 1000 miles, and most importantly the winners of each class get an automatic selection for next year's Le Mans 24 Hours. There is one caveat however: you gotta be running in ACO-spec. This means that if the Aston Martins take the weight break that has been handed to them by IMSA all year, and win, they don't get the pre-selection. This is not the end of the world for them, since they already have one entry for coming second in the 24 this year, and a second entry is almost 100% certain. It is also an issue for any teams running cars that are not legal LMP1 or LMP2 cars, for example the Lolas that Highcroft Racing and Autocon Racing have - they are actually older LMP675 cars and would have been ineligible to run in the 24 this year or any of the Le Mans Series races (the ALMS chose to "grandfather" them in order to boost its entry numbers.)

Not to keep harping on about the same thing over and over, but a 28-car entry at PLM is pretty poor, yet officials, media and even Radio Le Mans are all saying it's no big deal, the racing is great, the crowds are good, car count isn't important, the technology is fascinating, blah, blah... Well call me selfish but I want more cars in the ALMS. If the European series can get 45 entries, why can't we? Everyone is saying the LMS and ALMS are going from strength to strength, but until I see more entries I'm going to be skeptical. The old adage in sportscar racing is that you can't believe anything about new cars until they line up on the grid.

All that being said, I'm looking forward to the race tomorrow, and will be tuned in to Speed Channel and Radio Le Mans all day. I'll even forego a night of boozing tonight so I can wake up early to see the start!

(photo credit: American Le Mans Series)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Touring car update

It's a while since I've mentioned any of the touring car series, so time for a quick update...

British Touring Cars: Against all odds, SEAT's Jason Plato remains in contention going into the final round, thanks in part to a bizarre crash from championship leader Matt Neal at Brands Hatch. He snuck up the inside of Vauxhall's Tom Chilton two laps from the end of the third race, and found his car launched into the air after a wheel-on-wheel piece of contact. This unceremoniously dumped him into the gravel trap.

It seems like Neal's Team Halfords have it all their own way this year, so I'm hoping Jason Plato can pull it out of the bag. I like Jason, mainly because he's never afraid to speak his mind, regardless of how un-P.C. his comments might be.

World Touring Cars: A while back I wrote about how great this series is, and it has continued to be really, really close. As if to prove my point, the top two drivers in the championship (Andy Priaulx and James Thompson) both scored nothing at the last round in Turkey, giving Gabriele Tarquini and Rickard Rydell a chance to get back into the title fight. With four races left to go, the top 14 drivers are all mathematically capable of taking the championship. Realistically, it's the top 9 that could do it, with a spread of 14 points and 40 points on the table from Valencia and Macau.

German DTM: Although Audi's Tom Kristensen was very much in contention most of the year, a dismal run at Barcelona has given leader Bernd Schneider an 18 point lead with only 20 points remaining. Odds are that Bernd will take it at the next round at the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans. Now, I'm not afraid to admit to being wrong, so I'll refer you to this post. I didn't include Schneider in my list of 5 favourites to win, yet he's once again on form, which always spells misery for his DTM rivals.

Aussie V8 Supercars: The legendary Bathurst 1000 is just around the corner...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

WRC bombshell

I'd never wish ill-fortune on anyone, but we have an interesting twist that follows on from my general bitch session about Rally Cyprus being boring.

Sebastien Loeb has broken his arm.

The poor fella, who suffers no issues during WRC events, has now managed to really make a mess of his run for the WRC crown by crashing his mountain bike. He'll miss Rally Turkey for sure, and time will tell if he's fixed by Australia at the end of October.