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.