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.