Friday, April 28, 2006

Coming up on the May Day weekend

Okay, so May Day might not be a holiday for those in the US, but it is in England, where British Superbike will hold its Oulton Park races on Monday. Greg Lavilla has to be favourite to extend his 36 point lead in the championship, but his team-mate Leon Haslam is desperate to get on his pace. Naturally all the top teams will be looking to beat Greg, none more so than Rizla Suzuki, who have had an absolutely disastrous start to the season. James Haydon has fallen more times than a 3-year-old on a bicycle without training wheels, and Shakey Byrne's rule-breaking at Thruxton got him placed way down the grid for both races. This only compounded the team's woes after Shakey's bike was burned to a crisp at Donington. Talk about a bad day at the office...

Over on the loose stuff, both the WRC and the US Rally Championship are in action this weekend. The WRC heads to Argentina, albeit with a slightly light entry. Apart from the six manufacturer teams, there are only three other WRC cars entered for Gigi Galli, Gareth MacHale and Dani Sordo. Still, it will be interesting to see the gravel specialists back in the limelight in the second true gravel event of the year.

Here in the US, it's California's turn to host a top-level rally, with the legendary Rim of the World Rally, held in the Angeles National Forest. Travis Pastrana and Ken Block take time out from their Rally America schedule to learn the roads that will be used in the X-Games later this year. Up against the Vermont Sportscar stars will be California Rally Series regulars Leon Styles, George Plsek, Blake Yoon, Brian Scott, Randy Dowell and Wolfgang Hoeck. Co-driving for Wolfie is my good friend and former team-mate Piers O'Hanlon. Smart money would be on one of the locals to win, since they know the car-breaking nature of Rim roads.

Turning to two-wheeled series in action this weekend, Southern California is also hosting the AMA Superbike championship at the soulless, awful California Speedway. I've been there once to see the Japanese GT All-Star race in 2004, and found that the cars were definitely the stars, not the track. Ben Spies will be hoping to put one over on Mat Mladin again, whilst filling the role that Rizla Suzuki plays in Britain (e.g. underperformer of the year) is Ducati. However, Neil Hodgson nearly won here last year...

MotoGP is in Turkey for round 3, and Friday practice times are already indicating another "young Honda" race with Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner, Marco Melandri, Dani Pedrosa and Toni Elias leading the way. All are on Hondas and all are under 24. Rossi finished the day in 11th, whilst his team-mate Colin Edwards was sat in sixth.

Finally, two touring car series run this weekend, the World Touring Car Championship at Magny Cours and the DTM at the Eurospeedway in Lausitz. Due to technical problems I didn't see the first WTCC round from Monza, but the opening round of the DTM was very interesting indeed. Can Bernd Schneider continue his renaissance, or will Mattias Ekstrom challenge for the win? I'll continue to cheer for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, simply because he's so under-rated (look for an upcoming blog post about the world's most under-rated AND over-rated drivers and riders....) An interesting side-note: this blog has gotten a number of hits from people doing Google searches for new DTM driver Susie Stoddart. The fact that she's a fit blonde has nothing to do with it of course LOL!

Oh yes, one more thing - we'll be watching Aussie Marcos Ambrose compete in the NASCAR truck series again this weekend. After a pummelling at Martinsville, hopefully he can stretch his legs a bit at the longer Gateway track.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Part 3

After a whistle-stop visit to Le Mans in 1994, and a more extensive but slightly flawed trip in 1997, 2004 would be the year that we virtually perfected things. This time out the third member of the crew was my father's friend Doug, a scholar of all things "engineerey" and someone whose easygoing nature makes him a joy to travel with.

This time out, we'd splashed out a little, to make sure we ALL had grandstand seats, as well as a parking pass for the car. We'd found a homestay in the village of Mulsanne at one end of the track that put us no more than 15 minutes from the entrance to the car park, and 20 from the track gates. This was a massive improvement from the 50km drive we'd had in 1997. We also had a bigger, better car that we picked up when we flew into Paris from San Francisco on Wednesday lunchtime. We spent the afternoon and evening sightseeing in Paris, before leaving the next day.

Like 1997, we arranged to arrive on Thursday for the second day of qualifying. This year, the support race was an historic Group C / GTP race, and these were first out on the warm sunny evening. It took us back, to see these Jaguar XJR9s, Porsche 962s and other assorted Group C machinery lapping Le Mans. However, by the time the Audi R8s hit the track, it was clear that 20 years of technological development had made quite a difference! Thursday once again featured merguez for dinner, along with beers at the Tertre Rouge Bar.

Friday was spent initially at the pitlane walk, allowing us to get very close to the racecars, and a walk around the village of Arnage, traditionally one big party for Brits visiting Le Mans. The place was hopping, and was chock full of remarkable cars, from a Lamborghini Murcielago, to a bevy of TVRs to an Ariel Atom. We soon headed out into the countryside to look for the auberge where we had eaten in 1997 to get some lunch. Alas, the Sarthe region of France is rather large and our hunt proved unsuccessful. We did however find another nice little place to grab a bistec et frites, a French take on steak and chips. We didn't eat too much however, because our homestay hosts had recommended a superb restaurant for dinner, La Botte d'Asperges. We ended up being one of the few patrons that evening, but were treated to one of the most spectacular dinners I have ever been lucky enough to consume. I took many pictures as evidence but the flavours will never be forgotten.

For raceday this year we got up early to find a spot for the Group C race at 10:30. As great as it was, the level of prep and performance of these cars was slightly disappointing, leaving us with the feeling that we had gotten up unnecessarily early. It also left us with nearly 4 hours to kill before the start of the race. Time for a beer then....

This year's grid was 2 cars short due to attrition prior to the start, but the fight for the win would be very close between 3 different Audi teams, the speedy but fragile Zytek, and French favourites Pescarolo. We spent the first 3 hours in the grandstand, and were treated to quite a show, as one of the Audi UK entries and the Champion Audi both had accidents. We watched as they limped back into the pits directly below us, and were pleased to be in the thick of the action. As always, Radio Le Mans was in one ear, and I was able to keep Dad and Doug up to date. There was no doubt that the above-pits grandstand seats were fantastic, and also cheaper than those on the other side of the track.

As evening came we left the cozy grandstand to begin the slow walk around the track towards the bar. After leisurely pints there, we headed back to the grandstand as darkness fell. Our (now) usual spell in Mulsanne was next, conveniently close to our homestay, where we got a nice 2 hours of sleep before spending time at Arnage as the sun came up. It was 5am, or 9pm in California, so I called my partner who was hosting a Le Mans party for our friends back home. It was funny for them to be watching this bizarre event on TV and to then receive a call from someone actually there. They were cooking up the traditional merguez et frites, and drinking European lager and wine to honour the race. If I hadn't been at the track, I'd have been doing the same thing of course, as we do every year....

As daylight came we returned to the main area and went for a walk along the Porsche Curves, just in time to watch the plucky British Rollcentre Dallara get punted off in front of us by a Pescarolo. It looked serious, but luckily driver/owner Martin Short was okay - only damage was to his wallet, pride, ego and ambition. At this point we also witnessed the fabulous Beer Mountain campsite, guys who make me look like someone only mildly interested in racing!

As the day progressed we started to see how the race was going to play out. The supremely reliable Japanese-entered Audi was leading, but the rabbit-like British Audi was eating into the lead - a classic Le Mans chess game played out over a period of hours. After a roast chicken lunch, we returned to the grandstand to see how things would end up. We watched as the GT2 leader had problems and lost their lead. Then the GT1 leading Ferrari relinquished their lead to a Corvette. Finally, with an hour to go, Johnny Herbert got into the British Audi, determined to close down the two minutes to Seiji Ara in the Goh Audi. As the clock ticked down Johnny inched closer. When the flag finally fell at 4pm, Ara took the victory for himself, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello by less than 30 seconds. Once again I'd been blessed with a nailbiting Le Mans finish!

After the race, and some shuteye, we sat at a small bar in Mulsanne with some pizza and beer and watched England take on France in the European Cup. Needless to say, there were many people on either side watching, and the sound of engines was replaced by the sound of football fans.

In 2004, we did it right, and sampled the best that les 24 du Mans has to offer. In 2007, we do it all again, this time with Audi, Peugeot and Porsche all back with factory prototype entries. Let's see, only 414 days to go....

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Great racing last weekend

Anyone into either Superbike racing or Aussie V8s must have enjoyed the racing last weekend. Both AMA races, both World SBK races and the 3 V8 races turned out to be real nailbiters.

In WSBK, it did indeed turn out to be a "Battle of the Troys", as in each race Troy Corser ran out to a lead, only to be chased down, terrier-like, by Troy Bayliss, who took both wins. Behind them, Bayliss' Ducati team-mate Lorenzo Lanzi took 3rd both times but had to fight for it. Fonsi Nieto, Nori Haga, Norick Abe, Chris Walker and Yukio Kagayama all ran well, whilst anyone on a Honda was hating life: James Toseland, Alex Barros and Michel Fabrizio all suffered with balance issues.

As I mentioned on Monday, Mat Mladin finally succumbed to the pressure from rising star Ben Spies. Tommy Hayden looked good on the Kawasaki all weekend but was shoved off the track by local yokel Aaron Yates in race 2. Hayden's brother Roger Lee left the track in an ambulance with a broken tib-fib and is out for a few weeks. Neither of the Ducatis did well, with Ben Bostrom suffering from the flu, and Neil Hodgson suffering from not being on a Japanese bike...

We got the first taste of the new reverse grid rules in V8 Supercars at Pukekohe, New Zealand. The first race started with carnage as local boy Greg Murphy was punted into the wall on the first corner. For the reverse grid race 2, there was the predictable chaos, but the real drama was halfway through when John Bowe left the track at such speed that he broke the guardrails. A stuck throttle caused by some carbon fibre debris was apparently the cause. The race was neutralized whilst they banged in some wooden dowls and erected concrete guardwalls. When all was said and done, race 3 ended up being a cracker, as young hotshot Mark Winterbottom mixed it up with Mark Skaife and Craig Lowndes all the way to the end.

Oh yes, and there was Formula 1, as well. As I predicted, tight racing and no passing. Interesting, but the sheer action of the World Superbike races earlier made it look a little dull...

Comments on the BTCC races from Mondello may (or may not) be forthcoming, and a review of the Oregon Trail Rally is on its way, directly from one of the competitors!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Pt 2

Sportscar racing fans are, in general, a loyal species. They'll stick by a series with the thinnest, weakest grids in the hope that some exciting new entries are just around the corner. That was how things stood in 1993, with Le Mans grids that were struggling for any quality whatsoever. It could be said that 1997 was the first year that truly turned out a quality field, due in no small part to the FIA GT championship regulations, the fledgling International Sports Racing Series, and the IMSA World Sportscar series in the US. From each of these three championships came a wide variety of solid entries.

To wit... three of Nissan's new GT1s, eight Porsche GT1s, six McLaren F1 GTRs, two Lotus Elise GT1s, two Lister Storms, three Panoz GTRs, four Vipers, two Mustangs, two Marcos', eight Porsche 911s, and eleven LMP cars.

This was clearly a year to go, and luckily my father and I had planned on it during the running of the 1996 event. We were sitting outside our home in Sunnyvale, CA, in the sunshine, both disappointed to not be there. We vowed to go the following year.

We arranged to fly to England, meet up with my Dad's friend Steve, and fly on to Paris the next day. We picked up a goofy little rental car and proceeded to get snarled in Parisian gridlock, and get hopelessly lost in the process. Luckily we managed to get to the track in time for Thursday qualifying, which turned out to be a dry affair after unseasonably wet weather. Naturally we made sure to feast on merguez et frites (spicy lamb sausage and fries), an eye-opening affair for Le Mans rookie Steve. Here was an aspect of Le Mans that my Dad and I both knew and loved but had never actually shared, one of many such experiences that trip.

The closest hotel we could find was in Alençon, 50km north of Le Mans, which proved to be a bit of a pain in the ass. However, we made the best of it and enjoyed the more sedate atmosphere. It was easy to get tables at restaurants too. We hung out with folks from the TVR and Bentley owners clubs late into the night in the hotel bar every evening.

It was on this trip that we discovered the "empty day". Apart from a drivers parade in the town centre, nothing happens on Friday. So we headed out into the countryside and came across a small auberge in a tiny village that we would be unable to find again in 2004. This turned out to be one of those nearly unforgettable meals that come straight out of nowhere (I say nearly because I can't remember what I ate, only that it was awesome). Later that day, back in Alençon we had another slap-up meal at L'Escargot Doré (The Golden Snail). Meat was cooked in the middle of the restaurant on an open fire and carved to order. We were busy establishing traditions left, right and centre, and the Friday night gourmet meal was one of them.

Raceday came, albeit damp, and we headed to the track. Lunch was taken at the Tertre Rouge Bar: soft white baguettes filled with cheese and ham. We listened in to Radio Le Mans' last-minute entry changes before scouting out a place for the start. We ended up at the bottom of the hill as the cars decend from the Dunlop Bridge. Not a bad spot to watch the Nissans attempt to assert early dominance.

This year, we had grandstand tickets for the stands directly above pitlane. Unfortunately we only had 2, so couldn't use them whilst there were a lot of people in there. As things calmed down a bit we were able to take 2 people in, have one come out with the second ticket and then bring in a third. Sneaky! It turned out to be a a good place to watch from, as you can lean over the railing and watch cars in the pits directly beneath you. Another tradition established....

Dinner on Saturday was the roast chicken cooked on a spit, which provided good soakage for the beer at the Tertre Rouge Bar, our sunset / twilight destination. Again, my father and I were captivated by that magic time at Le Mans as the cooling air allows the sound of the cars to carry further than during the day. From Tertre Rouge, it's hard acceleration all the way to the first Mulsanne chicane, which is nearly out of earshot. Every now and then, there's enough gap between cars to listen to one car do that whole section, 50mph up to 210 and back down again in about 25 seconds.

Night-time was spent in the grandstand, watching the "routine" series of pitstops, followed by a drive out to Mulsanne Corner and Arnage, both new experiences for me. Mulsanne is remarkable for the glowing disc brakes as the cars brake from 200mph, and then accelerate off into the night towards Indianapolis. Arnage, at the other end of Indianapolis has its own vibe - more mellow, but with a great grass banking that allows good views of the cars as they roar out of the forest and brake for the slowest corner on the circuit.

After a couple of hours sleep outside a farmhouse in the car, we headed back to the main area for some coffee and croissants and to catch up on the activities of the night. We spent mid-morning back in the grandstand before it started to fill up, and then decided to watch the finish out at Arnage - we felt we could get a headstart on traffic by being away from the start/finish area. By now the weather was lovely, and we relaxed on the grassy bank of Arnage as the LMP1 Porsche of Kristensen ticked down the laps. This was the year that the reliable old prototypes beat all the GT1 rabbits.

Back to the hotel, we slept for a couple of hours before hitting another great restaurant for a crab dinner, sitting next to members of one of the teams. Next day we returned to Paris to catch a heavily-delayed flight to London before returning to California on the Tuesday.

1997 was the year we laid the groundwork for future trips. We figured out what could be done better and what would make a visit to Le Mans easier and more fun. It was also the year that two seperateLe Mans histories would become merged, as my father and I were able to put each other into our collective memories of Le Mans. That alone was worth the effort.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Why does everyone hate Mat Mladin?

6-time AMA Superbike champion Mat Mladin is a man most people love to hate. Fiercely competitive (like most Australian sportsmen), hugely talented, uncompromising and to-the-point, these are the kind of qualities that would normally engender huge respect from both those inside and outside the sport.

But when Mat Mladin fell from the lead of the second Superbike race at Barber Motorsports Park yesterday, I don't think I was the only one who laughed from sheer joy and satisfaction.

In the normal course of a racing career, a rider or driver will ascend as far as they can in the sport, before gradually going back down the ladder or retiring. Not Mat Mladin. After starting his career in Australia, he moved to the US series in 1996 and secured his first AMA Superbike title in 1999. For most superbike riders the world over, this is a sign that it's time to move to World Superbike or MotoGP. Once again, not Mladin. He chose to defend his title, which he did so successfully. Now, surely, it was time to move to the international stage. Not according to Modest Mat. He took a third title in succession in 2001, and again decided to stay in the US. Now it was time for people to start hating him properly, for the main reason of being a scaredy-cat for not going to WSB or MotoGP and for sticking around to cherry-pick in a series he was overqualified for.

Mat's reasons for staying in the US were two-fold. Firstly, superbike racing with a factory team in the US is MUCH more lucrative than going to WSB. I remember reading somewhere that top riders in the US make 4 times what their counterparts in WSB do. Mladin's second reason was that he was "too old" to go to Europe, learn the tracks and be competitive e.g. win. Well guess what Mat, everyone else has to do that too. Do you think any of the top guys in WSB knew all the tracks before they started in that championship? That's what international series are so important - they break down the level of comfort built up by riders in domestic series, in order to show who's really the best. And in this case, I think Mladin was scared of being shown up as not being the best. As it stands now, we can't say for sure whether he's the fastest superbike rider in the world, and as far as he's concerned, he'd rather we say "he might have been" than "he definitely wasn't". And the worst thing of all is that he'll actually say "I would have been", because he's so supremely arrogant (check out his response to being beaten to pole by Ben Spies: "good job, only 49 to go" - what a bastard).

And that's why everyone hates Mat Mladin.

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, Mat Mladin was beaten in a straight fight, and in the process was forced into making silly mistakes. As he chased down Ben Spies in race 1, he misjudged a pass around a backmarker and ran off the track, ending his chase and forcing him to settle for second.

In race 2, he was leading handsomely and had a harmless lowside. This was the moment that Mladin-haters have dreamed of - when he felt the pressure so badly, he'd crash out of the lead of a superbike race. Ben Spies is the real deal, Mat knows it, and he's panicking. It was only through a red flag and the bone-headedness of his oafish team-mate Aaron Yates that he was able to grab 3rd, after Yates ran Tommy Hayden off the track. Funny, reminds me of when amateur racer Anthony Fania did the same to Yates at Daytona in 2004. What did Yates do? Drop-kicked the poor guy on live TV.

But enough about the over-rated and under-talented Yates. We're here to hate Mladin today. And it's a good day to do so.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Pt 1

If you make one motorsport pilgrimage in your life, make it be a trip to Le Mans. There is nothing like it, and I feel I have to write about it as I plan my next trip in 2007. Since it's a subject very dear to my heart, I'll break it up into 4 separate entries over the next couple of weeks: one for my first trip in '94, one for the '97 race, one for the fantastic 2004 event and one for my planning for 2007.

I got into sportscar racing at the tender age of 10 when I went to Brands Hatch to watch the Group C cars do the 1000km. Throughout the late 80s I watched as year after year my father would head out to Le Mans with his motor racing friends to see the Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR9/10/11 and Saubers fight it out. Each year I promised myself that the next Group C race I would go to would not be at Silverstone, Donington or Brands - it would be at Le Mans.

Alas, my first trip to the 24 Hours was not until 1994, and even then it was not with my father, who had moved to the US. I planned the trip by myself and chose Airtrack as the tour operator of choice. I knew they had gotten my Dad there a couple of times, so would be a safe bet. My transportation choices came down to coach or charter plane, with about £100 difference. I splurged on the flight, not wanting to arrive at the track exhausted from a night on a ferry.

We landed around 1pm, and I got my first look at the place. It seemed dusty, utilitarian and dare I say it, a little run down. There was lots of cement and corrugated iron used in the construction of the facilities, and I was a little disappointed. It was also brutally hot, so I made sure to drink a lot of water (I don't think I ended up drinking any beer during the whole trip.)

I watched the start from the dirt mound on the outside of the first corner, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the track making sure to grab a merguez et frites at The Esses. By 8pm I was ready to meet up with my father's friend Martin at the fabulous Terte Rouge Bar. With the sun slowly going down, and the sound of the cars accelerating away down the Mulsanne towards Les Hunaudieres, it was a great place to hang out, eat les sandwiches de jambon et fromage and drink beer. So, actually, maybe I did grab a pint that year! The twilight spell at the Tertre Rouge has proven to be an enduring tradition, not just for me but for many other Le Mans regulars.

That year I was unable to get to either Mulsanne Corner or Arnage, due to my lack of car, so I spent the depths of night in the main general admission area, before finally taking a nap underneath the grandstands, as the soothing tones of Radio Le Mans in my headphones sent me to sleep... for 4 1/2 minutes, because that's how long it took for the damn Mazda RX7 to come around with its insanely piercing exhaust note.

By 6am, I had had enough sporadic rest to face the remaining 10 hours, and a cup of coffee and a croissant brought me back to life. I picked up a copy of Le Maine, a newspaper that shows retirements from the race overnight and settled in for the final push. After a lunch of roast chicken, hot off the spit, I watched in fascination as Jeff Krosnoff's Toyota broke down at the end of the pitlane whilst leading, with less than 2 hours to go. Finally, with 30 minutes remaining, Eddie Irvine took the Krosnoff Toyota from way back in 3rd, to underneath the rear axle of the second placed Dauer Porsche 962. The manic Irishman finally took the place at the last corner of the last lap, which is where I was standing.

An hour later I was on the plane home, dusty, exhausted, and voraciously hungry for my next Le Mans experience. For that, I'd have to wait three years, but next time I'd be back with my Dad...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Coming up this weekend

Another busy weekend coming up, although I should probably be getting used to saying that. My Excel spreadsheet of race schedules lists 7 major events this weekend (and the spreadsheet doesn't even include CART, IRL, NASCAR, Grand Am or the BRC). Going forward, most weekends have between 5 and 8 events listed, although curiously enough, the weekend of July 7-9 has nothing. Bizarre. I guess that's a good weekend to plan a couple of days of motorcycling up north!

Here in the US, Rally America travels to Oregon. I was originally scheduled to be co-driving in this event, but the ride fell through last week. Naturally Travis Pastrana and Ken Block will be fast here, but watch for Italian Alfredo de Dominicis and Australian Andrew Pinker to push hard. I have some folks to cheer for too. California Rally Series regular George Plsek is entered, as are a couple of guys I've co-driven for, Pat Moro and Barrett Dash.

AMA Superbike returns to action at the Barber facility in Alabama. Can the Ducatis, which have been strong in WSB and BSB, finally put one over on Mat Mladin? Mladin's team-mate Ben Spies will be in the mix, and the ever-faster Kawasakis of the Hayden brothers could spoil the party for the old guard. It's doubtful whether Honda have yet caught up in development so I'll predict the best for them will be 5th.

Over in Europe, the BTCC crosses the pond to Mondello Park, and you can be sure that Vauxhall will be determined to turn things around after a DREADFUL outing at Brands Hatch. SEAT are looking strong, whilst title defender Matt Neal is still looking for a bit more speed.

Down under, the Aussie V8s cross their own pond to Pukekohe in New Zealand. This is a happy hunting ground for Kiwi Greg Murphy, who missed the non-championship crash-fest in Melbourne after his own crash in Adelaide. As always, there's a raft of possible winners here, and my gut tells me that "Murph" might not have it all his own way this time. My outside tip is another Kiwi, Jason Richards.

As mentioned yesterday, World Superbike hits European soil for the first time this season at Valencia. The Battle of the Troys resumes but will recent development work on Alex Barros' Klaffi Honda put him into contention? Personally I hope so.

The Italians welcome the Formula 1 circus to the Imola track, where last year Michael Schumacher had his one moment in the sun as he pushed Fernando Alonso all the way to the chequered flag. Imola can produce some tight racing, but sadly not much passing, perhaps a good reason why Alonso staved off Michael in '05. If nothing else, watch for Kimi Raikonnen to pick up some points here.

Finally, the FIM World Endurance Championship gets to run their own 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend, but unfortunately they only get to use the smaller Bugatti circuit. Look for a team you've never heard of to win, probably with a few Frenchmen on board. Damn, how cynical is that?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

World Superbike back from the brink

Winter 2003-2004 was a dark period for World Superbike. The 2003 season was one of the dullest ever, with Neil Hodgson taking the title a number of races before the end of the season. The field was mostly on Ducatis, after a number of manufacturers took their racing money to go play in MotoGP. Furthermore, the series' organizers decided to implement a control tyre for 2004, the decidedly uncompetitive Pirellis which prompted the remaining manufacturers (except Ducati and Petronas) to clear off as well. Hodgson also left for MotoGP along with mercurial team-mate Ruben Xaus. Meanwhile, MotoGP was flashy, new, funded and full of superstars.

Fast forward to 2006... MotoGP has seen over $50 million worth of sponsorship leave prior to the start of the season, and its grid shrink from 22 to 19 bikes. Many of last year's MotoGP riders have left, including some big names, and most of them have ended up in World Superbike. WSB now has semi-factory entries from Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, augmenting Ducati and Petronas' factory efforts and the myriad of privateer Ducatis. In fact, this weekend at Valencia, the grid will number 34 bikes.

Rather than analyze who's who, let me just say that the reason for this remarkable comeback is two-fold. Firstly, the lack of factory teams and the elimination of "tyre favouritism" has actually made the series more competitive, more exciting and allowed a greater number of riders to potentially win.

Secondly, as MotoGP has hit difficulties, WSB is the next choice for both riders and fans. Let's face it, everyone loves Troy Bayliss, and everyone knows he's THE man when it comes to riding Ducati's superbike. So why not have him back where he's wanted? And racing fans know Alex Barros is really bloody fast (but kind of got the contractual shaft in MotoGP) so they want to see him come into WSB to offer some variety and challenge the regulars. And of course how can you not cheer for Noriyuki Haga? He's a madman on a bike. If you're British, you have the courageous lion-hearted hardman Chris Walker to cheer for. Spaniards will of course support Ruben Xaus, the ultimate example of the bin-it-or-win-it mentality, and 6 foot 3 inches of motorcycle racing mayhem.

WSB has personalities, some of them "damaged goods" in the eyes of the corporations that fund MotoGP teams. We can relate to them because they've been screwed by "the man". They ride the same bikes as we do (in theory) so we can relate to that too. And for the most part, they're likable chaps who can be relaxed in front of the camera because they're outside the pressure cooker of the MotoGP paddock, and in the friendly world of World Superbike. Here's to you, WSB riders, have some fun on Sunday, we'll be watching....

Monday, April 17, 2006

F1 Silliness

It's all abuzz in Formula 1 today, with the futures of Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher, Valentino Rossi and others being discussed. Apparently, we can expect an announcement on Kimi's future at this weekend's San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. If Kimi makes the move to Ferrari, does that mean Juan-Pablo Montoya's seat at McLaren is now safe (since the Woking team has already signed Alonso)? Rumour has it that JPM is not happy there, and is considering a switch to mid-pack runners Red Bull. And what of Michael? After talking about retiring at the end of this year, his rumour-mongering manager Willi Weber is talking of two-year extensions. floats the idea of Schumacher the elder heading back to Renault, where he spent much of his early F1 career. That would leave a seat open at Ferrari for MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi or current 2nd driver Felipe Massa. It would also have Giancarlo Fisichella and Renault's whiz-kid Heikki Kovalainen fighting for the coveted second seat.

When all is said and done, it would be nice to see Schumacher bow out gracefully at the end of '06, Rossi come to F1 to prove he is the greatest racer the world has ever seen, Kovalainen step into a full-time ride and Montoya continue to show how someone could make Nigel Mansell seem to be "not complain-ey at all".

As for the race itself.... who cares? The silly-season talk is often more exciting than the on-track action.

Friday, April 14, 2006

New Links

I've added links to all major racing series mentioned in this blog. I got tired of constantly putting the links in the text. Enjoy!

And now... a quiet weekend

After the flurry of racing activities last weekend, this one is a little more sparse. We've got British Superbike at Thruxton, the start of the FIM World Endurance Championship at Assen and ChampCar up in Portland.

BSB had quite a tumultuous weekend at Donington last time out, with a ferociously wet 2nd race that saw Scotty Smart take the win. The first race was a dry affair and featured the usual combination of Greg Lavilla leading Ryuichi Kiyonari home. It must be said that Hard Man of the Week Award goes to Rizla Suzuki's James Haydon, who fell not once, not twice but three times in Race 2 and still finished. The Donington coverage I saw was from Sky, as opposed to the Brands event which was from ITV. I have to say, I preferred the ITV commentary, since Sky's Keith Huewen is a bit of a rambler.

Thruxton may throw out some surprises: Karl Harris has shown pace in practice, so perhaps this is a Michelin track.

Motorcycling's equivalent of GT endurance racing is the FIM World Endurance Championship. It takes in the classics of the Suzuka 8 Hours, the Bol D'Or and the Le Mans 24 Hours, as well as 4 other events. I can't say I get too excited by this series, as these are not your top superbike teams or riders, but fair play to anyone who can ride for that long round a track on a bike. It all starts at the magical Assen track with a 500km "sprint" LOL!

I wanted to quickly comment on the Le Mans Series event at Istanbul, that 90 minutes into the race was shortened to 4 hours due to a lack of fuel from the organizer. To me, it's just one more reason why Istanbul should never host an international event again (even though MotoGP and Formula 1 are headed back there this year). The race itself saw terrific promise but ultimate failure for 2 British efforts, Rollcentre Racing and Creation Autosportif. They now have one more race before Le Mans to get things sorted.

I've been watching the British TV series "The Road to Le Mans" which is a behind the scenes account of Creation's assault on Le Mans from last year. I have to say, if ever the term "plucky" could be applied to anything, this team would be it. I love the attitude of Mike Jankowski, the owner, who's basically bankrolling everything. He's a perfect example of the die-hard sportscar fan turned team owner. He's gone from watching to being part of it, and although it's more painful emotionally and financially, you can see the glint of excitement in his eye. Great stuff, and I for one will be cheering them on wherever they go this year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rallying in the USA

As I was perusing this morning, the main online community for US rally, I was not surprised to see that many, many posts on their forum concern the "direction" of the sport in this country. A reasonable topic of discussion, given that we have only one factory team involved, two separate national championships, very few local events, a shortage of spectators and fans, and staggering insurance liability costs for sanctioning bodies.

However, all is not as bleak as it seems. Yes, it's true that having two competing championships seems to split those competitors with the budget to run a full national program, but it does mean that there are 17 full-on national events in the US. Compare this to the UK, where there are also two major championships, ANCRO and the BRC, which seem to split the competition. Ireland faces a similar problem, with a multitude of different championships to choose from.

The two contrasting series here are Rally America and the US Rally Championship. Three years ago, virtually all rally events were sanctioned by the SCCA. Then, on one fateful day at the Sawmill Rally, the deaths of two spectators changed the US rally scene forever. All regional events were cancelled in order to investigate the cause of the accident and prevent the same thing recurring. In the massive void, NASA, an upstart organization known mainly for track days and regional road-racing, stepped in to sanction a few events. It went well for them, and in concert with USAC they decided to sanction a championship of 4 events. Coincidentally, one of these was the Ramada Express Rally, which had always been outside the SCCA and under control of USAC. Another event was Rim of the World, previously an SCCA event, but organized by the same folks who organize Ramada. The other 2 events were east of the Mississippi. This series was chistened the US Rally Championship.

Meanwhile, the SCCA decided that rallying was just too expensive to insure and was impacting risk assessment for their other more profitable categories. In its place, an organization called Rally America took over. They had been providing live timing and scoring at all national events, so it was a natural progression for them to take the reins. Having deep pockets helped, and Doug Havir, the CEO and a banking millionaire, was willing to put his sizable wallet where his mouth was. The RA calender for 2005 was similar to the SCCA calender of '04, albeit without Rim. RA also agreed to sanction many smaller regional events, realizing that these events are critical to the success of the sport.

2006 sees the USRC expand to 8 events, and RA expand to 9. The USRC picks up Rally Tennessee, a second New York rally, this time on tarmac, the wonderful Prescott Rally in Arizona, and sees the return of the legendary Olympus Rally, a WRC event back in the 80s.

Pikes Peak disappears off the RA schedule to be replaced by 100 Acre Wood in Missouri, previously an event for regional winners to go head-to-head for the confusing title of Club Rally champions. Also joining the calender is the Reno Rally, positioned in December and therefore almost assured of snow.

So things don't look too bad for US rallying, at least not as bleak as some naysayers on Specialstage would have us believe. Perhaps the most exciting announcement however is that rallying will be part of the X Games in Los Angeles in August. This event, which Rally America is overseeing, will be invite only and will be sure to feature the biggest personalities from inside (and maybe outside) the sport. Look for supercross star Travis Pastrana, already big on the rally scene, to be the main draw here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Weekend Review Part 1

Sometimes real life gets in the way of the more important pastime of following motorsport, but I'm happy to say I have had a chance to watch the MotoGP race, the WRC event from Corsica, the opening round of the DTM and the 2 of the 3 BTCC races. The British Superbike races and Le Mans Endurance Series event will be covered later, hopefully tomorrow.

The 2nd round of the MotoGP season in Qatar was a cracker, and gives a better idea of how the season will shape up. After landing a surprise pole position in only his second race, Casey Stoner leapt out in front for the first 1/3 of the race, whilst a dogfight between Hayden, Capirossi, Rossi and Gibernau raged behind. Soon however, Casey's inexperience showed through as his tyres went off. He gradually slipped back down the field to end in a very creditable fifth. Up front Rossi and Hayden scrapped over the lead, with Hayden showing the first real indication that he can run with the Doctor. Hayden must be satisfied with his performance, especially as he was able to one-up his precocious young team-mate Pedrosa, who made Nicky look a bit silly at Jerez. Valentino, for his part, didn't attribute his less-than-dominant performance to the ongoing chatter problems and was actually very pleased with how his bike performed.

Capirossi ended up 3rd to retain leadership of the championship, ahead of Nicky. Gibernau was a solid 4th on the Ducati, whilst further down the field the young guns I talked about on Saturday, Pedrosa and Melandri, were arguing over 6th.

So it was a mixed day for both the elder statesman of the sport and those brash kids who will take MotoGP into the next decade.

In Corsica, Sebastien Loeb once again showed why he is the greatest tarmac rally driver of all time, as well as being one of the overall all-time greats. Unlike 2005, where he was completely dominant and therefore didn't have a chance to show his true mettle, this time he had to work for the win, and drive with his head. Marcus Gronholm was never far behind, but at the same time never close enough to pressure Seb. He was very gracious about it, though, complimenting Loeb's terrific performance, whilst at the same time saying he hopes to not have to be the gracious loser when the WRC hits the gravel in the next 3 rounds. Further down the field, the battle between Hirvonen and Sordo was especially exciting, both drivers showing their remarkable talent, by balancing outright speed against the need for points. It paid off for both - Sordo moves to 3rd in the title race and Hirvonen gets back into the top 8 after some poor early results.

I was glad that I didn't post a driver-by-driver preview of the DTM, because I would have looked a bit stupid. Many of the predictions I was making turned out to be totally wrong. I was expecting Susie Stoddard to be slower than Vanina Ickx (she wasn't); I felt Bernd Schneider was over the hill (he's not - he won); I expected Timo Scheider and his team-mate Frank Stippler to be dark horses (they weren't - they ended up mid-pack); and I predicted Green and Ekstrom would both be fast (they both retired after stupid incidents). However, I was spot-on when I said Kristensen, Frentzen and Hakinnen were all title contenders this year. Their 2nd, 3rd and 4th places respectively indicate both good form and good car speed, and if Green and Ekstrom can get back in it, this could be one of the closest racing championships in 2006.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A peek inside F1: The Concorde Agreement

Since I haven't yet finished watching WRC from France, DTM from Hockenheim, LMES from Istanbul, BTCC from Brands Hatch or British Superbike from Donington, I'll have to hold off on a weekend review. Look for it tomorrow. In the meantime......

I just received a VERY interesting document: it's the 1997 Concorde Agreement, the contract between the FIA, the teams and the commercial rights holders in Formula 1. This document is supposedly confidential but expires in 2 years and has been systematically leaked by all parties to suit their own agendas recently anyway. So I don't feel any remorse in reading and commenting on a supposedly "secret" document. So, in no particular order, here's some thoughts and notes on what I saw.

Over time, it's been the teams who have been complaining about not getting what they deserve, yet the first thing I noticed on reading the document was a clause that clearly shows all the Michelin-shod runners were in breach of the agreement at last year's US Grand Prix. In section 4.2 the teams agree to grant exclusive rights to the FIA to their performance. In the following section they also undertake to do nothing which may be prejudicial to the image and dignity of Formula as a high-class sport. Clearly refusing to run the USGP is a breach of contract.

There's intriguing definitions of the "power structure" in F1. Specifically it defines the role of the F1 Commission and the World Motor Sport Council. The Commission is comprised of:

*1 vote for each team in F1 for 2 or more years
*2 votes for European promoters
*2 votes for non-European promoters
*2 votes for sponsors (delegates chosen by teams)
*1 vote for FIA President
*1 vote for F1 Commission President

There's an interesting clause which merges 2 votes if they have a commercial interest in each other e.g. it's possible that once Toro Rosso has been in the sport at least a year, it may not get a vote, since Red Bull, already a voting member, has commercial interest in it. The Commission in turn has one its members on the WMSC, as does the commercial rights holder. The only other individual to serve on both bodies is the FIA President, currently Max Mosley.

Down in section 10, "Entries", it says that parties agree to endeavor to provide a minimum of 16 cars at an event. Initially it allowed for F3000 cars to make up a shortfall, but this has since changed to allow the FIA to nominate competitors to field 3 cars. No mention of who pays for that...

The contract is written in accorance with English laws, even though the FIA is French!

Of the 15 original teams listed on the agreement only 3 remain with the same name.

The penalty for missing an event is a minimum of $350,000 per car. Wow!

In regards to payments from the commercial rights holder of prize money, transportation costs and television revenue, the term "top ten competitors" and "top 20 cars" is often used. This is the first season for a while that there have been more than 20 cars, meaning that those tail-enders are really fighting hard for a LOT of money. It probably means that the most expensive team to run in F1 right now, in terms of out-of-pocket expenses, is Super Aguri, since they are also not running any significant sponsorship.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

MotoGP: Too old? Get out!

MotoGP rookie Casey Stoner's remarkable top qualifying time yesterday at the Qatar Grand Prix is just one more example of a changing of the guard in that series. Last season it became apparent that the older stalwarts of the series might be on their way out just as (coincidentally) a whole raft of young, extremely fast riders are on their way in.

The front row for today's Grand Prix features two of these younger riders, ironically sandwiching one of the oldest riders in MotoGP, Loris Capirossi. Capirossi also won the first race of the season, despite a very hard charge by another rookie, 250cc champion Dani Pedrosa. The other front row occupant in question is Toni Elias who, although not a rookie, finally finds himself on a very competitive machine, a Honda RC211V run by Fausto Gresini's Fortuna-backed team.

On the second row is Pedrosa and his team-mate, American superstar Nicky Hayden. Hayden is certainly not a newcomer to the series, but is still only 24, and can safely be regarded as part of the youth movement.

Of course there's always the exceptions that prove the rule. As previously mentioned, Capirossi is the man to beat at the moment, but at 33, and in his 11th season in the premier class, he's no spring chicken. Conversely, one of the other young Honda riders, Marco Melandri, finds himself down in 12th position. This is only guy to really give Rossi much to worry about last season unless you count Hayden's win at the one track that actually scares Rossi, Laguna Seca.

What of the "elderly" MotoGP refugees? Alex Barros could well be in the running for the World Superbike title. His underdeveloped Honda CBR has already given him podium places, and will have much improved parts and a more powerful engine by the next round. Meanwhile, Troy Bayliss has already returned to winning ways in World Superbike and looks favourite for the title.

And Max Biaggi sits sulkily on the sidelines waiting for the call to replace an injured rider. Hang on Max, the phone's ringing!!! It's Harald Eckl from the Kawasaki MotoGP team, who wants you to replace Randy de Puniet, who has an injured hand. Can you hold Harold, Max has a call on the other line... it's Ronald Ten Kate, who wants you to fill in for Karl Muggeridge on the World Superbike Ten Kate Honda. I guess we'll see Max on track soon enough....

Friday, April 07, 2006

Race tyres Sunday, sell tyres Monday?

Do you ever consider a tyre company’s racing heritage when you roll up to America’s Tire or wherever it is that you get your tyres from? I’m a complete petrolhead, yet racing heritage has very little to do with my tyre choices for either my car or my bike.

Or does it…? Would I put Hoosiers on my car? I don’t think so, they’re American rubbish that are known for sprint cars and midgets. Would I buy Goodyears? Probably not, because when I think Goodyear my knee-jerk reaction is that they are a tyre company of the past. Why? Because I don’t see them involved in racing. But hang on, they’re the tyre provider for NASCAR… True, but that’s not a selling point to me.

When it comes to the bike, what about Metzelers? They’re meant to be very good, yet I never consider them. Why not? Well, I’ve never seen their name in racing, so my subconscious reckons they must be “second tier”.

OK, OK, I give up. Yes, I clearly do make tyre purchase decisions based on racing heritage. So what are tyre companies up to these days?

Michelin: One of two suppliers to Formula 1, but leaving next year; supplier of choice in Le Mans / ALMS / LMES for top teams like Audi and Corvette; supplier of choice in MotoGP; supplier of choice in WRC, although under the BF Goodrich name.

Bridgestone: F1 supplier (only supplier from 2007 onwards); 2nd choice tyre in MotoGP; control tyre in GP2, ChampCar and IRL (as Firestone); supplier of choice in Japanese GT

Dunlop: Tyre of choice in British and AMA Superbike; 3rd choice tyre in MotoGP; control tyre in V8 Supercars, DTM and BTCC; usage in sportscar racing

Pirelli: Control tyre in World Superbike and Supersport; 2nd choice supplier in WRC; usage in sportscar racing

Yokohama: Control tyre for WTCC and Toyota Atlantic; usage in sportscar racing and Japanese GT

Goodyear: Control tyre in NASCAR and Star Mazda; supplier of choice in SCCA club racing

Other manufacturers involved in motor racing include Kumho, Avon, Hankook, Falken and, most notably, Hoosier, who provide the control tire in the Grand Am and Rolex Sportscar Series.

So what does it all mean? When listed out like above, it’s clear that Michelin have the highest profile in international motorsport. Coincidentally their tyres are amongst the most expensive when it comes to the street. Bridgestone are close behind, whilst Dunlop have chosen some high-profile “niche” markets, such as domestic superbike and touring car championships. Pirelli are a small step behind, mainly because unless they’re a control tyre, they tend to not be the tyre of choice in any form of motorsport in which they compete. Yokohama seem to be working hard to establish themselves as a big name in motor racing whilst Goodyear has found a place for itself in NASCAR which, let’s face it, is not bad place to be. The majority of people who follow one form of motorsport in the US will follow NASCAR and will thus perceive Goodyear to be the tyre company in racing.

How all this applies to Joe Bloggs who’s looking for tyres for his car or bike is hard to say. Motor racing does drive tyre development, there’s no question about that, and companies more heavily involved are likely to have higher quality street rubber. But many people are driven purely by price, and the smaller companies who are less involved in racing position their tyres at a lower price point in the market. Not everyone wants high-performance tyres, but even if you’re not after performance I think it’s safe to say that the best, safest and most durable tyres will always come from companies that race and race well.

By the way…. Bridgestone on my bike, Pirelli on our car.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A busy weekend

Despite being relatively early in the season, this weekend is pretty packed with racing. One terrific thing about this time of year is the great amount of uncertainty. Championships are wide-open, teams are still working on getting their cars or bikes sorted out and if you're in the northern hemisphere, the weather can be unpredictable (a recent German sportscar race at the Nurburgring was cancelled due to SNOW!)

The WRC is on the island of Corsica this weekend for the 3rd tarmac event of the year. This is obviously Sebastien Loeb's territory, but look for Marcus Gronholm to push him hard in the very quick new Ford Focus. Dani Sordo will also be looking to capitalize on his terrific run in Spain.

Valentino Rossi will be looking to bounce back from his terrible start to the MotoGP season this Saturday in Qatar. His Yamaha team have struggled with vibration issues, and this leaves the door open for other contenders such as Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri and Dani Pedrosa on the Hondas and Loris Capirossi and Sete Gibernau on the Ducatis.

The Le Mans Endurance Series starts where they finished up last year, in Istanbul. Although the field is thinner than usual (32 versus a typical 40), it should still give some indication as to who's done their winter homework. Check out my Le Mans preview for detailed analysis.

The British Touring Car season kicks off on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. This little track always produces door-banging action, and Matt Neal will have some stiff competition as he starts his title defence. Fast young guy Tom Chilton and WTCC champ Fabrizio Giovanardi are running for the Vauxhall team this year, and James Thompson returns to the series (this time alongside Jason Plato at SEAT).

Smart money will be on either Ryuichi Kiyonari or Gregoria Lavilla to take wins in the British Superbike series which this week visits Donington Park. Despite the apparent lack of pace of Ducatis in other Superbike championships, Lavilla and his team-mate Leon Haslam seem to have figured out how to keep up with, and often beat, the big 4-cylinder Japanese bikes. Outside bets could go to Karl Harris on the second HM Plant Honda.

After the cancellation of the Cherokee Trails Rally, the US Rally Championship gets underway in New York. Expect to see the Irish New York "Evo Tree" to bear fruit (check out the start list to see how many Irish and how many Mitsubishi Evos there are in the Northeast rally community). Tom Lawless and Seamus Burke will be out front fighting Subaru's top dogs Matt Iorio and Otis Dimiters.

Out in the Far East the Japanese Super GT series moves to the Okayama circuit, formerly known as TI Aida. In the opening round at Suzuka, Lexus took their first ever top level sportscar victory anywhere in the world. Due to the series' use of weight handicapping, both Honda and Nissan will be expecting it to be their turn this time. In GT300, Lamborghini will also be hoping to build on their first ever sportscar race win.

Finally, DTM starts up at Hockenheim. Check out my preview from yesterday.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

DTM Preview

It’s a new season for DTM, the premier German touring car series, and there are some notable changes. Since there’s very few different makes of car (two this year, with the withdrawal of Opel) it’s easy to get confused as to who’s who. So here’s a list of drivers with their number, team and sponsor:

Bernd Schneider, #2, AMG Mercedes, Vodafone
Jamie Green, #3, AMG Mercedes, Salzgitter
Mike Hakkinen, #8, AMG Mercedes, AMG
Bruno Spengler, #9, AMG Mercedes, Daimler-Bank
Jean Alesi, #10, Persson Mercedes, Stern
Alexandros Margaritas, #11, Persson Mercedes, Truck Store
Mathias Lauda, #21, Persson Mercedes, currently sponsor-less
Stefan Mucke, #17, Mucke Mercedes, TV-Spielfilm
Daniel La Rosa, #18, Mucke Mercedes, TrekStor
Susie Stoddard, #22, Mucke Mercedes, Auto Scout 24
Martin Tomczyk, #4, Team Abt Sportsline Audi, Red Bull
Matthias Ekstrom, #5, Team Abt Sportsline Audi, Red Bull
Heinz-Harald Frentzen, #6, Team Abt Sportsline, Veltins
Tom Kristensen, #7, Team Abt Sportsline, Siemens
Christian Abt, #12, Audi Sport Team Phoenix, Playboy
Pierre Kaffer, #14, Audi Sport Team Phoenix, Castrol
Frank Stippler, #15, Team Rosberg Audi, Audi S-Line
Timo Scheider, #16, Team Rosberg Audi, Audi S-Line
Olivier Tielemans, #19, Futurecom TME, Henk
Vanina Ickx, #20, Futurecom TME, Audi Zubehor

That’s it, 20 drivers, of which I’d say five are in with a shout at the championship: Hakkinen, Green, Ekstrom, Frentzen and Kristensen. Hakinen now knows the tracks and has already won once. Green can step out of Gary Paffett's shadow now that Paffett has moved to F1. He's got the talent to follow in Paffett's footsteps. Frentzen finally gets a decent car to show why he may actually have been the quickest guy from the old Sauber Group C team that featured a certain Mr. Schumacher. Kristensen is also a winner, he just needs to be a bit more aggressive. And finally, Ekstrom is surely the favourite. I mean, he can run in the top 6 of a WRC event just for fun!

With Opel leaving, there's some notable team changes. Team Phoenix have switched to Audi and run 2005 cars. They pick up Abt and Kaffer. Kaffer is Audi using Porsche's approach to factory drivers: young, fast and crashing someone else's car while they learn.

Joest have also left to run the new R10 in the sportscar world. Their loss is partially made up for by Rosberg moving from Merc to Audi with S-Line sponsorship. They'll run 2005 cars with the fast young Stippler and Timo Scheider, who can finally show his speed after years in Opels.

A new Audi team, Futurecom TME, arrives, run by Colin Kolles of Midland F1 fame. His best hope for success is the very fast Vanina Ickx, daughter of the legendary Jacky. Their major handicap is 2-year old cars.

Over in Mercedes, AMG again run 4 cars and pick up Spengler. Alesi moves to Persson after typically inconsistent seasons with AMG, where he joins Niki Lauda's son Matthias. Don't expect much from either driver. Rounding out the Merc challenge, Stefan Mucke's father's team will run Stefan, and newcomers Susie Stoddard and Daniel La Rosa - another team that will run near the back.

One other item of note is the drivers missing this year: The aforementioned Gary Paffett, Manuel Reuter, Allan McNish (returns to sportscars), Marcel Fassler (goes to the Swiss Spirit Le Mans team) and Laurent Aiello (retired).

It looks like being Audi's year - their flagship team, Abt, is the match of AMG Mercedes, and their second level teams are definitely stronger than Mercedes' customer teams. It would be nice to see a 3rd manufacturer involved, but the Aussies have shown that an expensive 2-make touring car championship is feasible if the racing is exciting.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Changes for Laguna Seca MotoGP

Famed motorcycle racing journalist Dennis Noyes has an article at about the traffic woes at the opening round of the MotoGP World Championship at Jerez, and it had me thinking back to the MotoGP race at Laguna Seca last year.

First off, securing hotel rooms for MotoGP in 2005 was no easy task and involved booking them in September 2004, the day the race was announced. Once down at Monterey, it was clear that there were a LOT more people there than at the World Superbike races in preceding years. Getting into the track on Saturday morning was very hard work on our bikes, and involved some riding on the shoulder whilst watching out for park rangers and police. If we had been in the 3 mile backup in a car, it would have taken much longer.

Once inside we met up with the other halfof our party who had arrived in a BMW M3. Luckily they came in the "wrong" entrance which was much quicker for cars and we all arrived at the same time.

Our first attempt to get from turn 2 to the vendor area, which involved going over 2 footbridges and walking perhaps 400 yards took 45 minutes. For the rest of the weekend we went the "long way round", out onto the perimeter road and in at turn 5. It was a sign that the number of tickets sold clearly exceeded the capacity of the track in its current form.

On the Sunday we took a shuttle bus, which took 45 minutes and was much easier. My partner didn't want to park her bike on gravel, which is what they do at Laguna, I didn't want to risk a stupid traffic ticket, and our BMW-driving friend didn't want to sit in 3 hours of traffic.

This year, things will be different. Supposedly. The number of tickets available will drop from 53,000 per day to 48,000, and plans are being formed for entrances specifically for motorcycles and shuttle buses. Most cars will have to park off-site. These are all smart moves, and have me changing my mind about skipping the event. It was bad enough last year that I decided to not come back. Now, I'm not so sure. Those bikes were certainly fantastic to watch...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Ambrose update

There's not many of us here in the US, but I'm a very big fan of the Australian V8 Supercar series. It's got great close racing, lairy-handling cars, huge variety of tracks, lots of manufacturer support, big grids and personalities galore to love or hate.

V8 Supercar champion from 2003 and 2004, Marcos Ambrose, was rewarded for his efforts by Ford with a season in this year's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, one of the 2 main feeders for the Nextel Cup. Ambrose has always been a big fan of NASCAR and now gets to "live the dream". He'll be driving this year for the Wood Brothers Team in the #20 truck.

Due to NASCAR licensing regulations, he had to sit out the first 3 races of the season, which were all on superspeedways. Apparently you have to prove to NASCAR that you can cut it on short-tracks and regular ovals before they'll let you out on the big tracks. So Marcos' first race was this weekend at the paperclip-shaped short track at Martinsville, VA. This track is known for it's bumping and banging action, as cars get caught in traffic jams, and accidents rarely involve just one vehicle.

Ambrose started the weekend by finishing first practice in 12th out of 36 trucks. Very impressive! He then went on to a 2nd best time in the rookies practice that would have earned him 3rd in the first practice! Now it was getting exciting. In qualifying on Saturday morning he could only scoop up 18th best, but still good enough to get into the field (he was one of 8 drivers not guaranteed a starting position due to something called "owners points").

This was the first Craftsman truck race I ever watched and I learned a few things:

1. When there's not a caution, the action is hard to find. Passes are rare and hard to see, with such big fields.

2. Accidents are frequent at short tracks, and when they happen they ALWAYS cause a full-course yellow, even if the car gets turned back around and rejoins the field.

3. These trucks are very fragile. They deform easily, and nearly always lose a radiator if there's any damage in front of the firewall.

4. Pit stop strategy is all over the place, and it's impossible to predict anything. This makes for a somewhat exciting race, albeit one defined by cautions and pit stops as opposed to on track action.

So how did Marcos do? He was running a solid 20th for a while, stayed out for a number of cautions to get up to 12th, then pitted and ended back in 29th before being involved in someone else's accident and spending 52 laps behind the wall. He was eventually classified 33rd. His on-track performance however gave everyone reason to smile, and his team are very pleased.

I found that the fansite at was the best place to keep track of Marcos' efforts.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Money, talent and safety

I have to tip my hat to open wheel journalist Robin Miller for his comments on Speed Channel's Wind Tunnel last Sunday in regards to the tragic death of Indycar driver Paul Dana. The gist of what he was saying is that motor racing is probably the only professional sport where you can buy your way into the top levels of the sport. Think about that one for a moment….

In my time as a co-driver in rallying I’ve seen a number of very rich people crash very expensive, well-prepped cars, simply because they were new to the sport. So far, at least in US rallying, this hasn’t resulted in any fatalities, and with Rally America taking over the old SCCA series it looks like they’ve adopted some sensible rules to address this: a driver must effectively compete in 6 full-length rallies in a 2WD normally-aspirated car before getting behind the wheel of a car with 4WD or turbos. Rallying is one of the more unpredictable, dangerous forms of motorsport and this kind of sensible rule-making contributes as much to safety as the Nomex suit or HANS device.

However, in the high-speed, high-stakes world of the Indy Racing League, it’s clear that their licensing restrictions are not tight enough. It’s a widely-held notion that Paul Dana was not experienced enough to be running in the IRL. So why was he there? The simple answer is money – he brought in a LOT of sponsorship money from an organization promoting the use of ethanol fuel. Bobby Rahal could have put 20 or more other drivers in that car who were better-qualified to compete in the IRL, but Dana brought the bacon, and got the ride. It ended up costing him his life. It’s obviously in bad taste to point any fingers in this tragedy but let’s just say that the IRL, Rahal and Dana himself were all complicit in allowing the deal to happen.

Luckily, in the majority of cases in motor racing, money will only get you so far. A team owner may choose driver or rider A over driver or rider B based on how much sponsorship they bring to the table even if B is faster. But if driver or rider C shows up with 10 times the sponsorship but 10% of the talent they will probably not get the ride. Invariably talentless no-hopers will struggle to secure sponsorship anyway.

Sadly, though, every now and then someone will slip through this elaborately woven net and the careful balancing of money, talent and safety goes badly wrong. If that happens on a twisty road-racing track with decent runoff and relatively low speeds, most of the time Mr. Moneybags Rookie Racer will get a fright, maybe some minor injuries, and go home. On a 200mph oval the outcome can be tragically different.

RIP Paul Dana and sympathies to the Dana family.