Monday, December 31, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test epilogue

Being on a winter break, I decided to revisit my Gran Turismo track test exercise, and managed to improve my times in all eight cars. Interestingly, some gained more than others:

  • M3 - 1'41.859 (-1.905) - gains 2 spots
  • Merc E55 - 1'42.453 (-1.203) - same
  • Evo - 1'43.095 (-0.238) - loses 2 spots
  • Subaru STI - 1'44.646 (-0.908) - same
  • Audi S4 - 1'46.762 (-1.191) - gains 1 spot
  • Volvo S60 - 1'46.921 (-0.463) - loses 1 spot
  • VW GTI - 1'51.634 (-1.735) - same
  • Acura CL - 1'52.035 (-1.509) - same
The main conclusion here is that the M3, which I described as being a more demanding and rewarding drive, had a lot more to give, whilst the Evo turned out to have very little extra depth - the time I got first time round was very similar to this time. I ended up spending more time in the Evo than any other car, because I couldn't believe that I couldn't do any better. Alas, I was wrong.

The Audi made a marginally better gain than the Volvo too, but was still tedious work.

The STi was still my favourite!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Lappies 2007

Time to hand out some gongs. I wouldn't be a legit blogger without coming up with year-end awards, so with slight apologies to Jimmy over at The Armchair Bike Fan blog, here we go....

Race Car of the Year:
Citroen C4 - In no other top international championship did a brand new car come in and be instantly competitive despite stiff competition. Some could argue for the Peugeot 908 in the Le Mans Series, but in reality it was short of real rivals, except at Le Mans where it flat out lost to Audi. The C4 won its first event (followed by many more), and went on to take one of its drivers to a world title.

Race Bike of the Year:
Ducati GP7 - The 2007 MotoGP regs were trouble for everyone bar Ducati. Somehow the smallest of all MotoGP manufacturers took the fight to the big boys and totally destroyed them.

Driver of the Year:
Lewis Hamilton - I'm boring. But to be honest, what clinched it was his epic drive in Top Gear's awful Lacetti in which he beat all other F1 drivers around the show's test track despite damp conditions. Sounds strange, but seeing something like that, where the driver is out of his element, simply hits home how incredibly good the guy is.

Rider of the Year:
James Toseland - Although he wasn't spectacular, he rode like a champion from the first lap of the season - always thinking, always focusing and never letting his emotions get in the way. His ride in the wet at Silverstone, along with a "do what you must" final race at Magny-Cours are just two examples of why he was a deserved World Superbike champ.

Race of the Year:
Petit Le Mans - Show me one other race where the ratio of winning margin is so small compared to the length of the race. Petit was an epic clash of Porsche and Audi, where those in the ascendancy went up against those that should win. For 10 hours the lead went back and forth and even going into the final lap, the victor was unclear.

TV coverage award:
Australia's Channel 7 for the Bathurst 1000 - The channel gave the event the kind of airtime it deserved, and did it in style with 150 cameras, 50 of which were in-car, and two cable-run cameras. The crowning glory was the commentary team who did an exceptional job over the four days.

Championship of the Year:
V8 Supercars - Another year of close racing, and the progression of the final four events was absolutely riveting as the four challengers each experienced the highs and lows of racing. The final race of the entire season was a suitably nail-biting affair.

And now for the fun stuff....

The Idi Amin Award for Benevolent Dictatorship:
FIA President Max Mosley for ignoring advisors, not listening to his constituents and suppressing the press.

The England Football Team Award for Cracking Under Pressure:
Marcus Gronholm, for having not one, but two potentially championship-ending crashes in events where second would have been sufficient.

The Heinz Baked Beans Award for Building Cars that Crush Like a Can:
Team Dynamics, for their energy-absorbing BTCC Honda Civic that saved Matt Neal from being squashed like lime in a tequila bar at Brands Hatch.

The McLaren Award for Innovation in Race Car Engineering:
Ferrari F1, for their wheel fairings, inert gas mix used in their tyres and the all the other bits that McLaren wanted to use...

The Monty Python "Always Look on the Bright Side" Award for Blind Optimism:
Petter Solberg and the Subaru World Rally Team, for their insistence that things will get better despite having a car that hasn't been anything approaching "good" since early 2004.

The Depends Award for Racing Beyond Your Years:
David Coulthard, for clinging to the hope that "being a good development driver" is good enough to retain a place in F1, despite 22-year olds being faster and better by a huge margin.

The Hara-kiri Award for Enduring Suicidal Levels of Disappointment
The Japanese Lamborghini Owners Club, who took a Murcielago to Le Mans, promptly crashed it in practice, rebuilt it from a whole new tub in two days then retired on the first lap of the 24-hour race.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 3

Belly full of pizza, I got stuck into the second half of my track test of the cars on my shortlist for purchase in 2008. An overview of this madcap idea can be found here and the first half of the test here.

Today's line-up was a little more difficult to put together, as four of the remaining five cars are not actually in the game. A little creativity helped solve that issue though, as you will see.

Mitsubishi Evo - Best time of 1'43.333 - Comparisons with the Subaru WRX STi are inevitable, as indicated by a thread I started on the NASIOC forum asking for people's personal opinions on the two cars. Straight out of the box the Evo felt exceptionally fast with more urgency in the lower part of the rev range than the STi. Curiously, the game reports its power as 316bhp, whilst US manufacturer figures are 271bhp. Quite a difference, and I'm not sure whether this is the manufacturer being coy, GT4 being optimistic, or a difference in spec between the Japanese and US models.

Through the corners the Evo has a more neutral balance than the Scooby. Whereas the WRX will pitch in tail-happy and drift the front on corner exit, the Evo will get into a constant four-wheel drift all the way through. It's the kind of handling that makes you feel like a driving hero, regardless of how much is actually down to built-in handling gizmos. This doesn't diminish the fact that it will dive into a corner, seeking out the apex like a missile on radar lock. The downside of this very quick steering is that it's harder to keep in a straight line on the straights, where a subtle weave is a common sight (a victim of the video game interface and certainly not what you'd expect in the analogue world). It's also worth noting that the brakes are very good, and have an edge over those on the 'Rex.

There's a problem though, and it's something I've read about in real-world road tests of Evos: it's all a bit easy. This may sound odd, but this car drives like a video game. Remember those old-school arcade racers where you never really needed the brakes and could only get into trouble when you hit the scenery? The Evo is like that. To verify my hypothesis I took the car out for a few more laps, this time deliberately driving like a hooligan, braking too late, turning in too hard, applying the gas too early, and generally being cack-handed. Amazingly I was still clocking times as quick as I had in the STi, and on my filthiest, most wretched lap I was faster than the Audi S4 had ever gone.

What happens in the Evo when you drive like this is that the four-wheel drift becomes the standard method of cornering, and will end up simply scrubbing speed all the way through the corner, leaving you with a low exit velocity. Each corner starts out by feeling amazing but ends up being disappointing. It's the antithesis of the M3 where a thoughtful, measured approach gives great satisfaction thanks to that perfect application of power from apex to exit. I can only guess that it's the Active Yaw Control that's to blame here, a piece of electronic trickery absent on the US-spec Evo VIII. In the real world, where hooligan driving comes with more consequences, and any Evo I drive will be sans-AYC, it might make for a better drive.

Volvo S60-R - Best time of 1'47.384 - There's no S60-R in GT4, but there is an S60 T5 Sport. A trip over to the tuning shop gave me the opportunity to add on the extra bits that Volvo added in the real world: sports suspension, better brakes, close-ratio gearbox and uprated turbo. In the real-world there's plenty of additional engine mods, but the turbo upgrade in the game brought me right up to the 300bhp that you find on the R. The one thing I couldn't change was the drivetrain, so I had to make do with front-wheel-drive as opposed to the R's all-wheel-drive.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much, but ended up pleasantly surprised. The big Swede proved to be damn quick, hauling itself up and over the crest at Laguna's turn 1 with gusto and making me hope the brakes were up to the job. The S60 is very stable in cornering - you'd expect a front-wheel-drive platform to generally tend towards understeer, but in this case the long wheelbase seems to help it keep the nose tight. "Keeping the boot in" works in many places around Laguna, especially turns 3, 9 and 10, where it felt like it was running wide but always "just" made it around as long as you steadfastly refused to back off.

In retrospect, the close-ratio gearbox with its default settings may not have been ideal and I found myself frequently having to change down as I was exiting corners. Perhaps reverting to the original tranny would have helped in that regard. Braking performance was acceptable - nothing to write home about, but by no means a disappointment like the M3.

One of the best things about the Volvo was the exhaust note, a raucous growl, the result of the asymmetrical number of cylinders (five) no doubt. This example obviously didn't sport the accoutrements of the R version, itself available with a spoilers'n'skirts treatment, which in my opinion does wonders for the staid looks. Best I could do was purchase a set of Enkei alloys in the Gran Turismo wheel shop. A reduction in unsprung weight was an additional advantage and may have helped the car ride the kerbing (particularly through the Corkscrew) better.

Acura TL 3.2 - Best time of 1'53.544 - Once again, the TL is not in GT4, so I drove a 2003 Acura CL Type S. It shares a platform with the previous generation TL, which ended up being carried over into the car I'm considering. All three sport the same 260bhp 3.2 V6 engine. So I think it's safe to make comparisons using the '03 CL instead of an '04 TL. It should also be noted here that the inclusion of the Acura on my list is definitely a wild-card choice. Performance figures are good enough, so I decided to include at least one contemporary luxury car for the sake of diversity. Who knows, perhaps I'll prefer the gadgets and leather of the TL over the manic nature of a Japanese rally-rep?

Initially the car is similar in feel to an M3 with smooth, seemingly effortless power delivery. On arrival at the first corner, the brakes did their job well, the nose tucked in neatly to the first of the two apexes and stayed there until I was ready to put the power down to exit. When I finally did so it obeyed well without any loss of front grip and bounded off towards the next corner. The pattern repeated itself all the way through the first lap. "This is going great" I thought. The car seemed pliant, willing, fast and controllable. Then, as I crossed the start/finish line I realized why: it was slow. It seemed fast, but much of that was down to the rough ride that kept the vibration motors in the controller rumbling away throughout the lap. I wondered if maybe I wasn't trying hard enough, so I attempted to put in a couple of flyers, only to immediately find the cars limits. It won't do anything abnormal, but when the Acura is within its comfort zone it feels like it's doing a great job. Sadly that's because the car is never going particularly fast or being dynamically challenged.

A definite thumbs-down, despite the fact it seemed so good. I want an honest car - the Acura makes slow feel fast (whilst the Evo and STi make fast feel slow...)

BMW M5 - There is no E39-model M5 in the GT4 and no BMW even remotely like it. The E60 M5 is completely different with a larger V10 engine and much more power. Instead, I drove a Mercedes Benz E55 AMG. Best time of 1'43.656.

I picked the Benz because, like the M5, it weighs 4000lb, is rear-wheel-drive, has a 5.0 V8 and makes more than 400bhp. It's an utterly terrifying car to drive. The power is monumental and you can almost feel the shove in the back, which keeps building. The massive brakes do their job well, considering they're stopping 2 tons of car and the car is surprisingly agile turning in to corners. However, like the M3 (the only other RWD car in the test), when you get it wrong there's no room for error. Where the Evo will cosset you and make you feel like nothing's wrong, the Benz will send you into the bushes faster than you could ever imagine. My worst "offs" of the whole track test were in this car, most notably at turn 3, where a skim of the gravel trap is the norm but a collision with the fence is what the Benz delivers. That same rear-wheel-drive dislike of trail braking that the M3 exhibited showed up again proving that you have to be deliberate in doing one thing after the other to avoid running into trouble. With speeds this high, that kind of trouble is literally around every corner, as you struggle to slow it down, turn it in, hit the apex and get on the gas without jettisoning yourself off the road, spinning, or worst of all in a game like this, driving like a granny.

Eventually, after 6 laps, I was able to make a mistake-free run, and the time produced was good enough for second-fastest. With some more work, I see no reason why the Benz (and consequently the M5) couldn't outpace the Evo.

Subaru WRX - Despite the presence of 15 different road versions of the WRX on GT4, none of them are equivalent to the US-spec non-STi version. All have power outputs in excess of 275bhp, whilst the regular WRX puts out 225bhp. Amazingly, this is the one car I couldn't end up including in the test. Based on times from the STi I can only guess that with a power difference of 75bhp, it's going to be a good 5 seconds a lap slower, perhaps in the 1'50 range.

The final scores

  1. Mitsubishi Evo VIII - 1'43.333
  2. Mercedes Benz E55 AMG (standing in for the BMW M5) - 1'43.656
  3. BMW M3 - 1'43.764
  4. Subaru Impreza WRX STi - 1'45.554
  5. Volvo S60 T5 Sport (standing in for the S60-R) - 1'47.384
  6. Audi S4 - 1'48.672
  7. VW GTI - 1'53.369
  8. Acura CL 3.2 (standing in for the Acura TL 3.2) - 1'53.544
The verdict
Last place goes to the Acura, which ended up being a big fraud, but perhaps in the real world this isn't such a bad thing. Driving some of the great Northern California roads and feeling like you're going fast whilst not endangering your license is worth a consideration. After all, its pace was virtually identical to that of the VW. Ahead of the Acura is the Audi, which delivered in the engine department with a lovely free-revving V6 twin-turbo, but was badly let down by a chassis that seemed to suck all the joy out of the driving. The opposite can said of the little GTI, which I'm placing sixth. It certainly had a zippiness to its handling, but going up and down the hills of Laguna Seca (and in the real world, San Francisco), I wonder if a bit more torque would help complement the fun-loving chassis.

Fifth goes to the Mercedes, doing a fine job of pretending to be an M5. To say it's a handful is a bit of an understatement. If you listed these cars based on difficulty to drive the Merc would rank as most difficult. Along with that comes the greatest satisfaction, but in this case the effort required is too much. The M3 strikes a perfect balance in that regard, whilst the Evo is the polar opposite.

Ahead of the Merc is the Volvo, which ended up as the dark horse of the test. I can't wait to get behind the wheel of an S60-R, because that lovely 5-cylinder engine (mated to a chassis that does well in FWD form and must surely be even better with AWD) made for a truly enjoyable drive. At this level, the only thing holding it back is a slight lack of spark or excitement, something that the third place Mitsubishi has in spades. For years I've lusted after an Evo, but now I'm in the position to buy one it's not the slam-dunk that it used to be. Questions about its reliability, fit and finish, cosmetics and now, it's handling, all have me thinking much harder about whether it's the car for me. Still, they're damn exciting.

And so to the final two cars. Both are incredibly involving, but in entirely different ways, the M3 being a more cerebral, rewarding drive whilst the STi offers immediate satisfaction along with characterful handling. Based purely on driving pleasure I have to give it to the Subaru, mainly due to the slight nervousness and reserve that the Beemer induces in the driver. In the real world, they're also very different. My budget will just about get me into a 2001 M3, whilst I can get an '04 or '05 Subaru. Maintenance and reliability are cheaper and better in the Japanese car, but the BMW brings with it a level of luxury and refinement lacking in the STi.

I'll post again with real world test-drive experiences in two months time. First thing's first, I need to replace my motorcycle! That's a much easier proposition, since I know what I want. Oh, and since I don't own Tourist Trophy...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 2

We're off to the track! Yesterday I outlined my plan to track test the nine cars that are on the shortlist for my next car purchase, and to do it on the Gran Turismo 4 video game. Today, I took the first four of them out onto the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Time to channel my wannabe Evo-mag writer side:

VW GTI Mk. V, 2 door, manual transmission- Best time of 1'53.369 - The first thing you notice about the VW is that it feels a bit sluggish, not surprising considering it's the least powerful of the nine cars on the list. Trying to gain speed as I climbed the front straight at Laguna was a chore, so I fully expected my first touch of the brakes to be equally disappointing. How wrong I was. As I executed the stopping for the Andretti hairpin, I found myself ending up well short of the corner. Lesson learned.

For low- and mid-speed corners, the little VW loves to dart for the apex on initial turn in, but if you carry even a little too much speed, that's quickly replaced by ugly front-wheel-drive ploughing understeer. As you can expect, backing off the throttle will solve the problem, happily without the lift-off oversteer that was so common on older GTIs.

There's no doubt the GTI is a nimble, fun car, but the lack of power and that nagging FWD understeer tendency definitely detracted from the experience.

Subaru Impreza WRX STi (JDM 2.0) - Best time of 1'45.554 - The game lacks an STi with the USDM 2.5 litre engine, offering instead a 2002 Japanese-spec 2.0 STi or the lightweight 2004 C-Spec STi. Of these two, the '02 seemed more like what I was looking at, especially as it sported the 2004 facelifted cosmetics for some weird reason.

The Impreza immediately feels much faster than the Golf as my first lap beat the best time that I was able to achieve in 5 with the VW. Corner after corner, the rally-rocket is afforded greater agility due to its free-revving engine that jumps in to solve any handling errors. Turned in too late? No problem, get on the gas and the car goes where you point it. In too hot? A quick lift of the throttle instantly rotates the back of the car in your favour. If you continue to push too hard towards the apex the car tends to a full understeery 4-wheel drift, as opposed to the Golf's ploughing.

The brakes are okay, but couldn't match the bite of the GTI and weren't helped by the massive speeds the car could quickly pick up. Acceleration out of the corners is magnificent, but correct gear selection is important, as a lack of torque made things difficult. This is perhaps indicative of the 2.0 engine - the 2.5 is supposed to be much better low down the rev range.

The STi is like an oversize go-kart, quick to respond, incredibly communicative, agile and fast as all hell. How the US version compares is to be determined in analogue, but I can't wait to have a go!

BMW M3 E46 Coupe - Best time of 1'43.764 - As the computer handed off control before turn 11, the car felt big, slow and heavy. Then I applied the power coming out of the hairpin and the Laguna Blue Beemer just pulled and pulled and pulled, before long eclipsing the highest speeds that the Impreza could attain. The shifting feels slow, perhaps due to turbine-like characteristics of the engine - you get the impression that there's a massive flywheel in there somewhere. The power delivery is so buttery smooth you hardly notice it until you reach brake markers and realize you're two gears higher than expected. A quick, panicky deceleration and it's time to get back on the gas as you pass the apex. Here is where the massive grip of the M becomes evident - pick your line and the car will stick to it come hell or high water. It's the proverbial "on rails" experience that makes Laguna's butt-clenchingly exciting turn 4 a joy to behold. Moments later however the BMW's major flaw comes through as you throw out the anchors for the difficult, misleading turn 5. You have all this speed, but very little with which to get rid of it, and the M3 made numerous trips into the gravel at both 5 and turn 2 as a result of crappy brakes.

Handling is more stately than in the previous two cars and demands a very different approach. There is certainly the feeling that it prefers that you brake in a straight line because it wants to steer from the rear wheels under power application, and trailbraking on corner entry causes unwieldy oversteer. It will turn in predictably but without the lightning sharpness of the STi or GTI and feels less twitchy as a result. Once you've got the hang of it, it's rewarding stuff, although finding the limit is much harder because its handling is so good (until things go wrong). This was also my experience in the E36 M3 I had a chance to drive a few years ago. It thus took more laps to put in a mistake free run. Once I did though, I killed the Impreza's time by 1.8 seconds.

This Beemer felt like a very serious, grown-up fast car. In the real world this is bolstered by the well-equipped interior and quality of finish inside and out. It faces the highest insurance quotes and one of the highest purchase costs on my list, so I envision a "head vs. heart" conundrum...

Audi S4 - Best time of 1'48.672 - This car is harder to find on GT4, since it's only available in the used car lot and only from time to time. I already had one in my garage, but specced up to 360bhp. First thing's first then, time to remove the chip, exhaust, racing clutch and racing suspension. Man, how I wish I could have kept them though...

...because the S4 was an utterly boring drive. The engine wanted to rev, but the chassis wasn't good enough to allow it to do so, demanding gentle turn in and prohibiting early application of power. What made things worse was that the rev-limiter was set too low, meaning the fun-loving engine ran out of room before it was ready, putting itself back into the low end of the rev range after a shift. Understeer was rampant, albeit in a 4-wheel drift pattern like the Subaru showed. Difference was that the Subaru would only resort to that behavior when it had run out of all other options. In the Audi you turn in a touch too fast and it immediately throws its hand up and says "sorry, too fast, back-off or we're making a reservation at the Understeer Motel for the next two weeks!"

Try as I might I couldn't improve my time. People talk about how the S4 is ready for modding and I see why - in stock form it's really not the sporting vehicle it claims to be. The engine note is somewhat flat for a V6 bi-turbo, and it certainly lacks visual excitement, going for style instead. Even with that approach, it kind of fails with its jelly-mould looks and lack of purposeful lines. Only a striking colour like the Nogaro Blue example I saw advertised locally can save its aesthetics.

So after the first day's competition, the scoreboard looks like this:

  1. BMW M3 - 1'43.764
  2. Subaru Impreza WRX STi - 1'45.554
  3. Audi S4 - 1'48.672
  4. VW GTI - 1'53.369
Tomorrow I'll look at the Evo VIII and fudge my way through the other four cars, none of which appear in the game...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test

Since we're in the off-season and racing news is somewhat thin on the ground, I think it's time for a little fun and games...

I've been lucky enough to be offered a new job starting in the New Year, and it brings with it a very significant pay increase. For years although I've had nice motorcycles I've always had old and/or difficult and/or ugly cars ('83 Golf GTI, '87 Alfa Romeo 75/Milano, '90 Subaru Legacy). So I've decided that I'm going to be spending a portion of my new paychecks on a car payment, and that for the first time in my life I'll have a nice, newish, fast, interesting car.

Numbers have been crunched, spreadsheets created, insurance quoted and classified listings scanned, and a shortlist of nine cars came out. It was easy enough to gather information on acceleration, insurance costs, fuel consumption and other pertinent details to help my decision, but until I start test-driving actual examples, it's hard to figure out how well each will perform, and impossible to determine their abilities at track days (until I'm the owner).

Then the idea came to me... I'll do the ultimate virtual track test, utilizing the amazing tool that is the Gran Turismo 4 video game on the Playstation. I've always loved this game, and am far enough in to be able to buy all the cars in question without emptying my virtual bank account.

The rules are simple:

  • Each car will be stock. No upgrades or modifications, and all must be on street tyres.
  • Each car will lap Laguna Seca in practice mode with no other cars on track until I feel that I've done as good a lap as possible.
  • Traction control will be set to 50% (default is 70%). If I was to turn it off, basic control of the car would become impossible and I'd spend more time struggling to play, than actually evaluating the cars.
  • Manual transmission must be used.
  • If a car is not in the game I will endeavor to find something suitably close for evaluation purposes.
  • Cars will be evaluated based on best lap time as well as handling and power characteristics.
  • As much as I'd love to use my Driving Force steering wheel, the game is actually harder with it. See the traction control rule. So I'll use the standard dual-shock controller.
Okay, let's look at the projected line-up:
Let the games begin!!!

(By the way, what do you think of my choices? Any other suggestions? Some cars that were considered but discarded include the Pontiac GTO, Nissan 350Z, Audi TT, Volvo V70-R and Mini Cooper S.

Budget is less than $25,000, and it must be fast, interesting and have rear seats.)

Race of Champions honors Colin McRae

We sat down to watch the Race of Champions last night, and there was no doubt that the spirit of the late Colin McRae was everywhere. All the drivers wore the Saltire on their arm and Colin's 1995 championship-winning Impreza was on display in the middle of the track for the second half of the event, driven there by his younger brother, Alistair.

It's going on 3 months now since Colin died, and I'm sure that like many people I still find it hard to believe that it ever happened. I think celebrity deaths tend to elicit a lot of initial shock that fades away rapidly, but in the case of McRae I get the impression that the motorsport community is still in the first stage of the Kubler-Ross "Five Stages of Grief" model, denial.

The Race of Champions did their bit to help the grieving process last night. Grab a tissue and check out this incredibly moving footage of the tribute:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pirelli adds to its roster

Way back in the history of this blog I wrote a post about whether I considered motorsport activity when choosing tyres for my bike or car. At the time I noted that Pirelli rarely seemed to be a tyre of choice, but that it was hard at work on securing control tyre contracts.

This somewhat follows Dunlop's lead, who supply the BTCC, DTM and V8 Supercars, whilst being available for sportscar racing and domestic superbike championships.

Last week Pirelli announced that they had come to an agreement to supply the control tyre for the British Superbike Championship. This is on top of their new deal to be the sole supplier in the World Rally Championship, as well as their existing contracts with World Superbike and World Supersport. One notable effect of this is that BSB teams will now be able to race as wildcards in WSBK, since they will all now be running the same tyre that the World series uses. This should make for an exciting few races each time WSBK goes to the UK. Last time that happened, a Brit wildcard won both races (trivia time... who did it, on what bike and with what team???)

There's no doubt that Pirelli is working harder than any other tyre manufacturer to expand their presence in top class racing. This time four years ago they were only ever seen on a few cars in sportscar racing and with a handful of bike racing teams. This has certainly changed. However, in championships with open tyre regulations, Pirelli continues to be an inferior choice, something that has not changed despite their control tyre activities.

I wonder how all this has affected their market share?

There's still Pirellis on my Subaru...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mad as a brush

The antics of FIA boss Max Mosley continue to astound just about everyone. He's now gone off and sued Britain's Sunday Times over an article penned by F1 commentator Martin Brundle in September, critical of the whole McLaren spy affair.

I know it's been said many times before by many other people, but this man simply has to go. There's no doubt that his antics have harmed the sport in the past year and I'm sure will continue to do so. I remember back when Jean-Marie Balestre was ousted - the sense of relief in the racing world was palpable. When Mosley is finally given the chop you can expect the same.

But what others are tending to miss is the fact that Max is not just in charge of Formula 1 rule-making. He's responsible for ALL FIA-sanctioned motorsport, and perhaps more importantly the organization's automobile advocacy worldwide. What concerns me is that if he seems this nutty in regards to F1 rule-making, what kind of an effect is he having on road-safety efforts? What bizarre schemes is he dreaming up, and which other safety advocates is he suing for daring to question his decisions?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What a difference a year makes

This time last year the top two teams in V8 Supercars were squabbling over the championship results after appeals had been filed. An incident during one of the races between the two championship contenders, Ford's Craig Lowndes and Holden's Rick Kelly, threw Kelly's championship win into doubt. On the forums insults were being hurled as supporters of the two drivers variously called the other one a "cheat", "sore loser", "cry-baby", "talentless" and other derogatory things.

The situation was quickly settled with Kelly's win upheld. Ford fans remained incensed.

The 2007 finale once again saw the same two teams battling, but with the other team-mates in the hotseat, Jamie Whincup for Triple 8 Ford and Garth Tander for Toll HSV Holden. After three races that seemed to indicate NO-ONE wanted to win, Tander came in trailing Whincup by 7 points. By the start of the third race of the weekend it was Whincup who was 7 points behind.

It was a true nail-biter of a battle. Passing was scarce, but the title was so finely-balanced that any small error from either driver could have had massive implications. There was hardly any unsavoury antics, except from Craig Lowndes whose pass on Tander was questionable at best, and it finished with no acrimony. Whincup did all he could but couldn't quite make back the 7-point deficit and graciously conceded to Tander. Both drivers behaved with dignity after the race, offering heartfelt compliments to the other. It was nice to see such class in a racing series that often allows emotions to get in the way of good sportsmanship.

Fernando Alonso

Just decide already. You bore me...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Thunderhill 25 Hours - A perfect end to the racing season

Earlier this year I wrote about the Britcar 24 Hours, an ostensibly amateur 24-hour sportscar race that had become well-loved by the entire racing community and was attracting big names who enjoyed its relaxed and laid-back energy.

This weekend I was able to attend an event which could lay claim to being the American equivalent to the Britcar 24 Hours, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The race had attracted more than 70 entries, from a Daytona Prototype and some Norma sports-racing prototypes all the way down to Spec Miatas and Honda Civics. Teams were generally amateur, and the vibe was friendly, grass-roots, supportive yet competitive.

Thunderhill is a terrific drivers track. I've done trackdays there both in cars and on bikes, and its diversity of corners and interesting gradients make it fun to drive on, whilst the huge amount of grassy run-off means it's incredibly safe. About 3 hours from San Francisco near the rural town of Willows, it is somewhat in the middle of nowhere, but this adds to the general feeling of camaraderie amongst everyone attending.

My friend Bob and I got there at about 4pm, with dusk approaching. My most recent 24 hour experience was at Le Mans, which starts at 4pm and doesn't get dark until 10pm, so it took some adjusting of my internal clock to deal with this. The race had kicked off at 11am, and by now the three prototypes had a healthy lead. We watched from a number of great vantage points before grabbing a warm cup of coffee and checking the scoring in the comfy clubhouse. With the leaderboard in hand we spent the next couple of hours wandering the pits and paddock, talking to teams, watching them at work and checking out pitstops. Drama was unfolding everywhere. There was the completely bare-bones effort from some local guys in an E30 BMW who had cracked an oil sump and were working feverishly to scavenge parts off a donor engine they'd brought in the back of a pickup truck. Then there was the big budget MER Mazda team (whose driver clients included Patrick Dempsey from "Grey's Anatomy") who had one of their five cars up on jackstands whilst they replaced the entire right-rear suspension, occasionally going over to a brand new MX5 they'd brought along to see how things were supposed to fit together.

Every now and then we'd see another car dragged into the paddock on the hook of a tow-truck, another victim of the night. Team members (or drinking buddies or work colleagues or family) would pounce on the cars, trying to figure out the problems in order to get their car back on track. It was motorsport at its most basic, survival of the fittest and survival of the most desperate.

The energy in the paddock was buzzing. Ten hours in, and the cans of Rockstar and Red Bull were disappearing from underneath RVs, whilst Gatorade and water remained untouched. The diversity of crazy marker lights punctuated the night like an Aston Martin's door mirrors at Le Mans. Barbecue grills smoked, generators hummed away, mig welding torches crackled and sparked, breath froze in the chilly night air and the constant background noise of straight-fours, V8s, inline-sixes and of course rotaries filled gaps in conversation.

Endurance racing, whether it's the multi-million dollar kind at Le Mans or the few-thousand dollar version at Thunderhill is essentially the same.

Unlike Le Mans, we opted for a proper night's sleep and returned the next morning, tea and croissant in hand, to find a gray, sad paddock. Rain during the night had hampered or ended many efforts. Crews who had retired had already vacated their paddock spot, whilst those still running were starting to clean up, given the three hours remaining. The wind howled across California's Central Valley, chilling everyone to their bones, as the 40 remaining cars pounded out the laps, covered in grime, trailing broken pieces of fiberglass and struggling for grip on the dusty, damp track.

With an hour to go the battle for third was truly on. MER Mazda number 92 held a slim lead over the factory-backed Honda Research S2000 effort, and before long the Honda took the lead. A final pitstop by the Mazda had effectively handed the podium spot to Honda. As we returned to the clubhouse for a final check on the scores, the Honda was leaving the pits. A pass under yellow had earned them a penalty, and the Mazda took full advantage, holding the spot all the way to the end.

As the final minutes ticked down, excitement returned to the paddock. People gathered on the pit wall to watch crews try to get their battered machines back on track for that one final lap, whilst the leader, the Parallax Racing Daytona Prototype, struggled with battery issues, praying for that checkered flag. The clock ticked over to midday and their prayers were answered. One by one, the cars crossed the finish line, and you couldn't help feeling that, even more so than at Le Mans, everyone who finished here was a winner.

What an event, and what a way to end what has been the busiest and most exciting season of racing spectating I've ever had. Wandering the paddock of Thunderhill at night stands equally with watching the sunrise at Arnage at Le Mans, cheering on shootout contenders at the top of the Mountain at Bathurst or watching in awe as the MotoGP field funneled into the Andretti hairpin at Laguna Seca.

Bring on 2008!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sad Indy 500 fact

I was just listening to Globecast 0157's NASCAR review show and their North American correspondent Declan Brennan revealed this very sad fact:

"Next year there will be more past Indy 500 champions racing at the Daytona 500 than at the Indy 500."

Despite this, NASCAR's TV ratings continue to fall, as do those of ChampCar and the IRL. About the only US motorsport gaining viewers is the ALMS, but how many Indy 500 champions will be in that next year, I wonder?

Weekend Menu - Week 48

This is the last menu of the season - there's nothing else on my calendar for 2007. I suppose I should start work on the 2008 version...

  • Wales Rally GB - Cardiff, Wales (WRC, Production WRC and British Rally Championship)
  • Big Pond Grand Finale - Phillip Island, Australia (V8 Supercars and Fujitsu V8 Series)
  • Henderson's Terrible 400 - Pahrump, NV (Best in the Desert series)
  • Dubai International Rally - Dubai, UAE (Middle East Rally Championship)
Th-th-th-that's all folks!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

World Superbike latest

Motorcycle racing always yields the silliest silly season, and World Superbike has already thrown up some surprising changes for 2008.

The plum job of being Troy Bayliss' team-mate at the factory Ducati team fell to Michel Fabrizio. Many question whether the young Italian has the raw talent necessary and fear another Lorenzo Lanzi situation. Jonathan Rea had been offered the seat but bizarrely opted for a role with Ten Kate's supersport squad. Strange.

PSG-1 Kawasaki are still looking for another rider to work alongside big-eared Frenchman Regis Laconi, but in the meantime they've entered into a technical agreement with Team Pedercini to supply Kawasakis to the former Ducati satellite team. Riders for that squad will be Vittorio Iannuzzo and probably superstock grad Ayrton Badovini.

Alstare Suzuki have lost both Max Biaggi and title sponsor Corona, but picked up Fonsi Nieto and Max Neukirchner instead, as they expand to three riders. Rumours of a Brazilian oil company coming on board persist.

Biaggi has ended up alongside Ruben Xaus at Sterilgarda Ducati, on theoretically factory-spec Ducati 1098Rs. I suspect a lack of technical skills in that team will hamper Biaggi's run for the title.

Another team expanding to three riders is Ten Kate Honda, who brought flying Turk Kenan Sofuoglu up from their supersport team, joining GP refugee Carlos Checa, and double British Superbike champ Ryuichi Kiyonari. I don't see any of them winning the championship (in 2008 at least) but Ten Kate are always a force to be reckoned with.

Yamaha continue with '07 riders Nori Haga and Troy Corser. Surely '08 will be Haga's year?

Two teams step up to World Superbike from elsewhere. Althea Honda (formerly Italia Megabike) will augment their supersport program by entering Roby Rolfo on a CBR1000 in superbike. Paul Bird Motorsport will move from British Superbike, seemingly as part of a world domination effort from Bird, who also runs one of the top World Rally teams. Riders are yet to be announced, but I'd keep my eyes peeled for Gregorio Lavilla, Steve Martin and/or Makoto Tamada.

Elsewhere, DFXtreme Honda, Alto Evolution Honda, Yamaha France and SC Caracchi have yet to announce their line-ups.

Down in supersport, Andrew Pitt is back, landing a plum job alongside Johnny Rea at Ten Kate. Althea Honda have Gianluca Nannelli and former Yamaha Brit Superbike rider Tommy Hill (who broke his leg in testing today). Speaking of Yamaha, their top WSS team, Yamaha Germany, brings in 600cc specialist Fabien Foret to replace the terminally injured Kevin Curtain, alongside Broc Parkes. The main Kawasaki team, GiL Motorsport, have another supersport star in Katsuaki Fujiwara, and have also signed the sadly under-performing Chris Walker, who will be running in his third different championship in as many years.

Notable riders still jobless and prospect-less include Sebastien Charpentier, Alex Hofmann and Lorenzo Lanzi.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

GPS versus the fuzz

Okay, not strictly racing, but certainly to do with cars going fast, and of importance to any of us who drive on public streets...

A traffic commissioner in Santa Rosa, about 50 miles north of us in San Francisco, has upheld a speeding ticket despite evidence from the driver's car's GPS unit that showed him obeying the limit within 100 feet of where he was zapped with radar.

The driver in question, a 17-year-old, had a GPS installed by his parents who wanted to keep track of his driving, fearing that his interest in racing would spill over into anti-social driving habits.

The data from that unit, which checks the cars speed and location every thirty seconds, indicated he was doing 45mph at the exact location where the police officer allegedly measured his speed with radar, which was determined to be 62mph. The limit was 45mph.

The controversy about this in my mind is two fold. Firstly, the officer was not able to categorically state where the car was when he pulled the trigger on the radar gun, so the speed could have been measured plus or minus 100 feet from where the GPS reported the driver was doing 45mph. I think it's pretty likely that if the zap was 100 feet earlier, he could have been doing 62mph at that point, which is probably why the citation was upheld. A 17mph deceleration is achievable within 100 feet. However, surely the GPS data introduces sufficient reasonable doubt to nullify the ticket.

Secondly, and more importantly, if this GPS data had been used by the court to overturn the case it would set an exceptionally dangerous precedent. If a civilian can use that data to defend against a citation, it's not beyond the realms of reason for authorities to use it to prosecute a case. When that day comes, every single one of us will have lost a significant piece of personal freedom. The next step would be mandatory tracking devices in cars and on bikes that report real time position and speed data. Quite worrying....

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lady Luck smiles

Two laps from the end of the penultimate round of the World Touring Car Championship in Macau, Andy Priaulx looked all but out of it. The British BMW driver, who won the championship the previous three years, had qualified badly and started the race in 12th. He had progressed only as far as 11th with 7 of the 9 laps complete and faced a serious problem....

Points standings going into round 21:

Priaulx: 81
Yvan Muller (SEAT): 81
Augusto Farfus (BMW): 71
James Thompson: 69

So with Muller leading race 1, and Farfus sitting in third, Priaulx was looking at being 10 points (a win) behind Muller, and 4 points ahead of Farfus. Making things worse, he was out of contention for 8th in the race, which would have put him on pole for race 2 due to the reverse grid rules.

"Stick a fork in him, he's DONE!", I thought.

Halfway through lap 8, fortune smiled on Priaulx in a very big way, as Muller coasted to a halt with a broken drivetrain. All was not saved though, because this elevated Farfus to 2nd and put him on 79 points, starting race 2 from 7th, whilst Priaulx still sat on 81, starting from 10th. Thompson was also now in the frame, potentially moving up to 73 points and starting 5th in race 2.

As the leaders headed into Macau's tortuous first major corner, Lisboa, on the final lap, Lady Luck didn't just smile on Priaulx - she stopped by his house in the middle of the night holding champagne and strawberries, wearing lacy lingerie, looking for a booty-call...

SEAT's Gabriele Tarquini attempted a very optimistic move on Augusto Farfus. When it didn't stick, he punted him in the back and turned him into the armco. Farfus' car sat motionless, battered, and his championship run looked over.

If nothing else happened, Priaulx was set to finish 9th, score no points and start 9th for race 2. He would stay on 81 points, Muller would do the same and Farfus would also not gain any points and stick on 71. Only James Thompson would make any ground, moving up to 75 points, and starting 6th on the grid. He would then need to come 2nd in race 2 to take the championship or win if Priaulx came 7th or 8th.

Lady Luck was not done though. As Priaulx answered the door and invited her inside, he discovered she'd brought her hot younger sister, Lady Disbelief.

The driver sitting in 8th was independent BMW entry Duncan Huisman. BMW bosses got on the radio and suggested Huisman let Priaulx past for 8th, thus getting him a valuable point, and more importantly pole position in race 2. Huisman did as he was told, and the championship became a formality at that point. Race 2 progressed as expected with Priaulx taking the win, and Thompson doing his best but unable to make up any ground in the standings.

I've always been impressed with Priaulx's WTCC and ETCC victories. He's fast, smart and has that winning spirit. This one though felt like a fluke. It should have been Muller's championship, and if not his, then Farfus'. Priaulx had struggled all weekend, and you can't have bad weekends n the WTCC.

Or maybe you can, if Lady Luck and her sister are feeling frisky...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 46

The last gasp of racing for 2007, and what a weekend it is. We're in the middle of the Baja 1000 right now, and there's V8 Supercars, Macau's annual racing fest, the WRC and the final NASCAR event of the year:

  • Macau Grand Prix - Guia Circuit, Macau (real road racing)
  • WTCC - Guia Circuit, Macau
  • Rally Ireland - Sligo, Ireland (WRC and Production Car WRC)
  • Ford 400 - Homestead-Miami, FL (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Ford 300 - Homestead-Miami, FL (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Ford 200 - Homestead-Miami, FL (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Spanish CEV - Valencia, Spain
  • Tasmania Challenge - Symmons Plain, Australia (V8 Supercars)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Automobile mag chooses the top 5 racing cars of all time

I was recently handed a copy of Automobile magazine. As a rule I tend to only read British car magazines (although I have a sub to American racing mag Racer), so I was quite surprised to find Automobile to be an enjoyable, engaging read, with a very high standard of journalism and interesting subject matter.

This issue's cover story was the 25 greatest cars of all time, broken down into five categories. This being a racing blog, the category of interest here was racing cars. Their choices were the Lotus 49, Porsche 917, Dodge Charger Daytona, Miller 91 and Auto Union.

An interesting group of cars.

Naturally I started to ponder my own list, and after quick consideration here's the five that come off the top of my head:

Porsche 956 / 962 - Whilst I agree that the Porsche 917 was a terrific car for it's power, speed and record of success, it was short-lived. The 956 and 962 were the dominant force in sportscar racing from 1983 all the way to 1989 and carried on racing for some time afterwards. They even won Le Mans in 1994 with a racing version of the road car version of the racing version, the Dauer 962. During that time period, these cars defined an era and brought massive success to the Porsche marque, due mainly to the innovative yet well-developed technologies that were utilized. The fuel-consumption constraints of Group C demanded new thinking from the Porsche factory, and the aluminium monocoque chassis was chief amongst the developments. The 917 burned bright and briefly, whilst the 956 and 962 burned just as bright but for a much longer period. For many, it's the archetypal endurance racing sportscar, and an icon of motorsport.

Lotus 25 - Although I agree with Automobile magazine that a Colin Chapman-designed F1 car should be included, I have to disagree with which one. Sure, the 49 was important for its use of the Cosworth V8, and the 78 was a major step forward in aerodynamic thinking, but I have to pick the 25, simply because its design paved the way for every single F1 car from that point to the present day. It was the first ever fully-stressed monocoque chassis, increasing stiffness threefold and halving weight. Further design details, such as the driver positioning and front suspension treatment, ensured that the 25 would be a winner. And win it did, with a 25% win rate in the hands of the legendary Jim Clark. I think it's safe to say that the Lotus 25 was basically the most influential F1 car of all time.

Lancia Delta HF Integrale - Although it would be tempting to put the Audi Quattro on this list, due to it being the first major 4WD contender in the WRC, the term "greatest" should not be confused with "first". Audi's early successes were due to a lack of viable competition, and once that competition showed up, Audi looked rather weak. They took 23 WRC wins with the Quattro. Lancia on the other hand managed double that with their Group A-spec Deltas, starting with the HF 4WD in 1987, and ending with the Integrale Evo 2 in 1993.

What made the Integrales special was that, like BMW's E30-spec M3, they were family-size road cars designed with sport as the primary focus, and as 4WD, turbo-charged 4-door rallycars, they paved the way for a new type of car. Subaru's Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi's Lancer Evo would be nothing without the Integrale. It has to stand as the greatest rallycar of all time, not least because it was true to rallying roots: taking your own, fairly normal car and trying to go as fast as possible from one place to another.

Audi R10 - Some (many?) might call this a controversial pick, but the R10 is possibly the most important racing car of all time. For any brand-new car to win Le Mans at its first attempt is a remarkable achievement. In fact, the R10 remains undefeated in long-distance endurance events, having won both Sebring 12 hour events, both Petits Le Mans and both Le Mans 24 hours races it has entered. But the most critical point is that it achieved all this whilst running on diesel fuel. Audi predicted that the future of racing would not lie with gasoline-powered vehicles, and set out to prove the point with the R10. Since the introduction of the car, the IRL has switched to a 98% ethanol fuel, the ALMS moved to a 10% ethanol mix and more alternative propulsion methods are showing up in racing everyday. None of that may have been Audi's idea, but the R10 showed that it was possible to win in motorsport without using regular gasoline, and as time marches on I believe that there will be little doubt that it is worthy to be considered as one of the top five greatest racing cars.

Spec Miata - The concept of low-cost, spec racing allows motorsport to be accessible to a much wider group of people, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the various forms of Spec Miata racing. For that reason alone, the Miata has to be considered one of the greatest racing cars ever. By its nature, racing is expensive, but nowhere does it say that it should be prohibitively so for the average person. A Miata can be purchased for less than $2000, modifications made to ensure rules-compliance for another $2000, and licensing, fuel, tyres and entry fees for that first race should come to another $1000. It is almost unbelievable that anyone can go racing for $5000, and even more remarkable that the car being raced can be driven home after a change of tyres. The Miata is racing for the masses, and that's perhaps as great an achievement as any of the other four cars I've listed.

Begin hurling your rotten tomatoes....

Friday, November 09, 2007

Winter viewing

One of the tragedies of the racing blogosphere is that Patrick's "Motorsport Ramblings" only features one post per week. He's a talented writer and clearly would rather dish up one excellent post than numerous mediocre ones, an honourable approach. This week he's hit on a fabulous topic: movies about racing. I strongly encourage you to go read it. As I mentioned in the comments of his post, my favourite racing movie is the "Dust to Glory" Baja 1000 documentary, produced by Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown (the man behind "The Endless Summer" and "On Any Sunday").

[tangent alert] Although I despise being in water, I love surfing movies, and "The Endless Summer" is one of the best (incidentally, another great one is one of Dana Brown's other movies, "Step Into Liquid"). Two more worth a look are "Riding Giants" and the PBS special "Mavericks", both of which feature a surf mecca round the corner from me, Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay, CA. [end of tangent]

Anyway, go read Patrick's post, then with the winter closing, go rent the following great auto-, moto- or racing-related movies:

There you go. That should keep you busy, unless of course you decide to watch the movies that Patrick loathes...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Government or the ALMS...

News broke yesterday of the remarkable career change of British politician Lord Paul Drayson.

After making gazillions in the pharmaceutical industry, Drayson moved into government in 2005 as a junior defense minister, and was dubbed one of "Tony's Cronies" for his closeness to Tony Blair.

This year Drayson has been racing alongside Jonny Cocker in a Barwell Motorsport Aston Martin DBRS-9 in the British GT championship. His run was noteworthy for two reasons: firstly, he came second in the championship, not bad for a politician; and secondly because the Aston ran on bio-ethanol, and became the first GT car to win a race using that kind of fuel.

The opportunity has come up for him to move to the US to take part in the ALMS with Barwell, Cocker and Aston Martin, although the exact details remain unclear. There's talk of the car being a GT2-spec Aston V8 Vantage, along the lines of a test car that was spotted at Goodwood circuit earlier this week.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Blogrush: bye-bye

Anyone interested in how well Blogrush performed in bringing new traffic to this site should know that it was absolutely useless. I have deleted it...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quote of the day by Valentino Rossi

After a crash in which he fractured three bones in his right hand, Vale joked "So I'm okay, but I was better before the crash!"

That's why this guy is such a superstar....

Friday, November 02, 2007

Airbags for motorcycle leathers

Motorcyclists in the future will look back on today as a very notable date in the history of motorcycling. For the first time ever, a motorcyclist was saved from injuries thanks to the deployment of a suit-mounted airbag system.

The system has been developed by Italian leathers manufacturer Dainese and is called "D-Air". Currently in the prototyping stages, it was being used by Italian 125cc rider Marco Simoncelli, who crashed in practice for this weekend's MotoGP event at Valencia.

It works through a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes, cold-gas cylinders and encoded GPS signals between bike and rider. Complicated onboard diagnostics systems prevent unwanted inflation.

Apparently we'll see this technology in street apparel in about three years, and hopefully it will prove to be successful in reducing the numbers of deaths and injuries amongst street riders. Something else to remember is that if Dainese have done it, you can sure other leathers manufacturers are hard at work on their own versions....

Weekend Menu - Week 44

A little late, but here's the weekend's racing:

  • Golden West Cycle Avi 150 - Laughlin, NV (Best in the Desert)
  • MotoGP - Valencia, Spain
  • SuperGT - Fuji, Japan
  • Desert 400 - Bahrain (V8 Supercars)
  • Dickies 500 - Texas Motor Speedway, TX (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • O'Reilly Challenge - Texas Motor Speedway, TX (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Silverado 350k - Texas Motor Speedway, TX (NASCAR Craftsman Trucks)
  • Rallye du Condruz-Huy - Huy, Belgium (FIA European Rally Cup North)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Japanese motorcycle racer

News broke today that the current champion of the All-Japan Superbike Championship, Atsushi Watanabe, is headed to England to join the Rizla Suzuki British Superbike team. This follows in what is turning out to be a grand tradition of top Japanese riders being placed in BSB, both to bag titles for their manufacturer bosses, as well as prime them for greater future success.

The first guy to do this was Suzuki's Yukio Kagayama. After success in Japan, Suzuki placed him with Rizla Suzuki in BSB in 2003, where his wild style and fun-loving, no-nonsense personality endeared him to fans, much like his good friend Noriyuki Haga in World Superbike. Kagayama had a great first half of the season before having a monstrous accident at Cadwell Park. A badly-broken pelvis and other assorted injuries kept him off the bike until 2004, where he took up where he left off. He finished third in BSB that year, and suitably primed for the world stage, Suzuki packed him off to WSBK's Alstare Suzuki team. His time there has proved to be up and down, but there's no doubting his raw speed, and the contribution BSB made to his development.

Following Kagayama from Japan to the UK was Ryuichi Kiyonari, who arrived in the UK in 2004, placed with the HM Plant factory Honda team by the Honda bosses in Japan. His first season was steady, paving the way for a serious title challenge in 2005. A broken ankle put him out for a few races in mid-'05, handing the title to Greg Lavilla. Kiyonari made up for it in both 2006 and 2007 by winning the BSB championship for Honda. Along the way he struggled to overcome the language barrier and was thus never able to capture the imagination of the fans like Kagayama or Haga have. With his work in Britain done, Honda have followed Suzuki's example and sent the fellow off to World Superbike, this time with the top-shelf Ten Kate Honda outfit.

Now Watanabe must follow in the footsteps of his countrymen Kagayama and Kiyonari. Apparently he is already hard at work on his English language skills, Suzuki learning from their experience with Kagayama how important it is that their riders can work with the media and fans. What we don't yet know is how fast he'll be. In the final round of the Japanese series, Honda brought Kiyonari in to ruin the party, and he took both wins. Watanabe could only manage 6th and 9th on his Yoshimura Suzuki, but to be fair was riding for finishes to get points, since he had a healthy lead in the championship and didn't need to battle for wins.

BSB has had a quick Japanese factory rider in its ranks for five years now, so it's nice to see that continue into 2008.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Boris Said - rocker in disguise

I was lucky enough to see Serj Tankian, lead singer of politico-rockers System of a Down, play a show last night in support of his debut solo record. So it's time for another lookalike post (the last one was here)

Serj Tankian - singer and activist:

Boris Said - sometime NASCAR driver and all around fast dude:

Loeb vs. Gronholm - mistakes

After two incredibly dull tarmac rallies, this weekend's WRC event in Japan was full of drama. As it has been throughout the season, Marcus Gronholm has made mistakes when we expected them, and Seb Loeb has made them when we haven't.

Things started as we've come to expect them: a fast young Finn took early control with the terrific Jari-Matti Latvala putting in some storming early times (albeit on roads that had been swept by the championship leaders in gradually improving weather conditions). Marcus soon moved to the front, with team-mate Mikko Hirvonen lurking in contention. It all went pear-shaped on SS4, the short Rikubetsu spectator stage, when Gronholm went wide on a corner and slid down a bank. What could have been an irritating time delay turned into disaster when it was deemed that the roll cage was too badly damaged to continue. This struck me as bad luck, since the off wasn't that dramatic. Hirvonen now led, with Loeb coming from behind fast. Meanwhile Gronholm was looking at turning a 4-point lead into a 4- or 6-point deficit.

Day two looked to be the day that Seb would either cruise to consolidate an easy second, or chip away at Hirvonen and eventually take the lead. Neither happened. Loeb's ultra-efficient co-driver Daniel Elena (who some of my rally friends called T4, the latest version of the Terminator due to his robot-like skills) called a "plus-plus" instead of a "minus-minus" on one corner, sending Loeb flying off the road and out of the rally. Everything was now even again. Behind Hirvonen, some unusual names were sneaking into the top eight, as Subaru managed to lose all three cars, making way for the likes of Henning Solberg, Luis-Perez Companc, and World's Worst Son Matthew Wilson, who makes a fool of his Dad every time he gets into his WRC car. This time however he was at the sharp end.

So as it stands right now here's how things look. Let's presume Seb and Marcus finish one-two in the remaining two rallies.

1. If Seb wins both with Marcus second, they will be tied on 120 points. Seb would win the title based on the "rallies won" tie-breaker (Seb would be at 9, Marcus at 4)

2. If Seb wins one and Marcus wins one, Marcus wins the title, 122 points to 118.

3. If Marcus wins both, it'll be an easy 124 to 116 victory for him.

What is actually likely to happen is that Loeb will win in Ireland, making Rally GB a must win for both drivers. Although Marcus ran a rally in Ireland earlier this year in which he came second, Loeb has done two Irish events, both of which he won. The stages share much in common with the first day of Rally Deutschland - narrow, wooded and fast. And we all know how well Seb does in those conditions.

So we can fairly confidently expect an incredible showdown in the Welsh forests, scene of so many epic championship-deciding thrillers. I was there in 2003 when it was Solberg vs. Loeb, but in that situation Loeb had been told to hold station in second to guarantee the manufacturer's title, thereby losing the driver's crown. It was still incredibly exciting stuff in the damp, fog and rain on classic stages with names like Brechfa, Resolfen and Rhondda...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Blogrush

I'm testing a new blog tool called Blogrush. It's in Beta stage right now. You'll see the Blogrush box to the right. Apparently, if you click on any of the blog entries listed in that box, it'll repay the favour by listing me in someone else's Blogrush box. And if another blogger signs up with Blogrush through this page I get even more exposure.

Might be a gimmick. Might be worthless. Or perhaps visitors will like having access to these posts from other Blogrush blogs. Let me know what you think, and I'll be keeping an eye on my traffic figures.

Who are the REAL racers?

Anyone who reads car magazines knows that the back page is usually reserved for something off the wall, be it commentary in "Racer" or memories of cars that are long gone like in "Evo". British TV car show "Top Gear" has an excellent companion magazine, and as I was reading through an issue back in the summer I came to their back page, which is called "Campaign for Real Racing Drivers (CAMRRD)". This is a play on words on the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The articles highlight racers who for one reason or another are endearing for being "real".

What makes a "real" racer?

Let me synthesize some of Top Gear's criteria with my own:

1. You party like a rock star and date many sexy women, because exceptional talent gives you that right, and most drivers in the 60s did it, knowing that they were good enough to overcome any ill-effects and their team didn't care because there's no such thing as bad press. Stand up Kimi Raikkonen, James Hunt, Barry Sheene and (lately) Lewis Hamilton.

2. You have a spectacular driving or riding style that may not be the fastest but makes it look like you're trying very hard. Your name is Colin McRae, Keke Rosberg, Norick Abe, Garry McCoy or Noriyuki Haga.

3. You showed incredible talent but died before that potential was fulfilled. Think of such losses as Stefan Bellof, Daijiro Kato and Greg Moore.

4. You can (and do) race many different things because at your heart you're a racer and it doesn't matter what you're sitting in or on, as long as you're racing. Probably the ultimate examples of this are Robby Gordon and Vic Elford, but there's also Travis Pastrana, Colin McRae, Valentino Rossi, and the man who won world championships in F1 and Grand Prix motorcyling, John Surtees.

5. You're not afraid to be yourself with the media and often use bad language on air. Who doesn't like watching interviews with Hans Stuck, Valentino Rossi, Tony Stewart, Greg Murphy or Eddie Irvine? And we certainly miss seeing Peter Brock, James Hunt and Joey Dunlop speaking on TV.

6. Your competitive streak is so strong that you often feud with other racers. Ayrton Senna was a prime example of this, but these days Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi stand out as having had the best feud.

7. You have been very successful in spectacularly dangerous but more esoteric events such as the Isle of Man TT, Pikes Peak or Dakar Rally. Joey Dunlop stands above all others in this category, but other notable (and alive) members of this group include John McGuinness, Stephane Peterhansel and Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima.

8. You've had a very bad accident, yet pushed yourself to amazing limits in order to return to the sport. Alex Zanardi lost both legs yet came back to race touring cars, Mick Doohan had doctors sew his legs together to accelerate recovery, and Colin McRae once famously threatened to amputate a finger to get back in his car faster.

9. You're a "people's champion", a racer that endears themselves to vast numbers of supporters, regardless of success (although usually there's significant success involved). At one time or another, the hordes have gathered in support of Peter Brock, Dale Earnhardt, Colin McRae, Nigel Mansell, Valentino Rossi and Joey Dunlop.

It's interesting how some racers such as Valentino Rossi, Colin McRae, Joey Dunlop and Peter Brock seem to fall into a number of categories. It also seems that being dead makes you appear to have been more of a "real" racer. Is this an example of the "rose-coloured spectacles" syndrome perhaps?

Regardless, motorsport needs racers who fit into any of these categories. For every one of these people, there's hundreds who simply follow orders, have no personality, drive consistently (and boringly), parrot PR-speak or simply show no imagination or verve in their racing careers.

Who do you think qualifies as a "real" racer?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 43

Things are rally starting to wind down now, with season finales for DTM and Rally America.

  • DMV Munsterlandpokal - Nurburgring (VLN series)
  • Rally Japan - Hokkaido, Japan (WRC and Production Car WRC)
  • World Series by Renault - Catalunya, Spain
  • UAE Desert Challenge - Aby Dhabi, UAE (FIA Cross Country World Cup)
  • Sam's Town 250 - Memphis Motorsports Park, TN (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Lake Superior Rally - Houghton, MI (Rally America)
  • Japanese Le Mans Challenge - Okayama, Japan
  • DTM - Hockenheim, Germany
  • Formula 3 Euroseries - Hockenheim, Germany
  • Skibbereen Fastnet Stages Rally - Skibbereen, Ireland (Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • Bass Pro Shops 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway, GA (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Easycare 200 - Atlanta Motor Speedway, GA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Spanish GT - Monteblanco, Spain
  • Rallye International du Valais - Martigny, Switzerland (FIA European Rally Cup North)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Live timing = more interesting

Shock horror: I watched an F1 race yesterday (Clive, you'd be so proud...)

Call me a fairweather F1 fan, you'd be right, but this race was rather important, and had the added bonus of not being at the bum-crack of dawn. When you watch live you can pull up the live timing and scoring from the Formula 1 website and I won't lie when I say that watching this was in some ways more interesting than watching the TV. I'm not trying to bash F1, but I say this to illustrate something that's critical for those involved in racing to realize:

Beyond the spectacle of cars or bikes moving fast, what draws people to racing is the competition, and a genre of racing that best highlights the competition is a genre that will be successful.

This is easy for some racing: World Superbike or British Touring Cars for example have constant action between leaders, and the battles are clear to see using nothing but TV as a communication medium. But in something like the American Le Mans Series, or even Formula 1, where large gaps open up between competitors, live timing and scoring can be a lifeline. As I watched the F1 race yesterday I was completely captivated by the scoring, letting out of whoops of joy every time a purple number showed up indicating a fastest sector time, or even seeing green numbers that showed a driver was putting in their personal best times. Such simple presentation made it much easier to follow how the race was unfolding, and instead of watching 90 minutes of cars that appeared to be one long unchanging train with large gaps, the subtleties of the drama became obvious.

Following the progress of young Lewis Hamilton as he clawed back from 18th place was much like what I'd been doing the day before, when I sat in the media centre at Laguna Seca watching the ALMS race. My focus was on the dramatic recovery of the Andretti-Green Acura which came from two laps down to just 30 seconds off the lead of the race in four hours. It was a picture best painted by timing and scoring, and the advantage of being in the media centre was that it was real-time, as opposed to the aggregated version that's online and is often delayed.

MotoGP timing is a model for many other racing series, especially in qualifying, where fast sector times are illustrated by coloured "helmets", and online users can check the progress of riders in real time, sector by sector.

Whatever the mechanism, any technology that more clearly communicates the competition is going to make for a more compelling product. It's an area I expect to see utilized ever more comprehensively. For any race series that wants to see the possibilities, NASCAR's system is perhaps the most highly developed, with GPS tracking in every car allowing for a computerized image to be presented, along with driver communications and timing that shows the progress of the driver in a plus or minus format over the current fastest time or leader. Fascinating stuff indeed, although perhaps edging into "information overload" territory. For now, Formula 1's simple yet effective system is for me the benchmark if for no other reason in that it made the race more enjoyable to watch. And that has to be the bottom line for any such system.

The Bathurst 1000: Day 4

Time to wrap up my Bathurst 1000 diary, with the big day itself.

Once again we were treated with lovely weather when we woke up, but we learned from yesterday that at Bathurst this means nothing. Rain gear was thus packed.

The previous evening we had scoped out some possible parking spots, since we figured that parking in the main area would make for a difficult exit. Instead we left the car on a nearby residential street with good access to exit routes, and decent proximity to the track. It proved to be easy to get to, and we found ourselves at a very crowded Murray's Corner again in time to watch the final Carrera Cup race. The battle between Bathurst 1000 entrants Alex Davison and David Reynolds was once again riveting.

We now had plenty of time on our hands before the start of the "Great Race". Feeling lucky, I decided to stop by the track betting shop to put some money on Greg Murphy and Jason Richards for the win. The odds seemed to be in my favour, 13:1, so I was looking at a nice $60 profit if the Kiwis could do the job.

We next headed for our seats in the grandstand. Due to being a bit late buying tickets, Ian and I were about 20 seats away from each other, but the people next to me didn't arrive until right before the start, so Ian hung out there for a while. There was a terrific flyover from an RAAF Hawk jet, some terrible singing from an Australian-domiciled Scottish crooner from the 70s and his wailing daughter before finally the cars came out one by one to the rapturous applause of everyone. The atmosphere was building in intensity, just like I'd experienced at Le Mans.

At 10:25 the grid had been cleared and the field headed out on the pace lap. There was drama before the race even started as Cameron McConville pulled off the track after turn two with engine failure (surprise, surprise, given that his team have the worst engine program in the championship). Would this delay the start? As the cars came around to form up on the grid it looked like it was a go. At 10:30 precisely, the lights went, the crowd leapt to its feet, engines roared and the 29 V8 Supercars dived into Hell Corner. Luckily there were no incidents in the first turn, but as my gaze turned to the big screen I could see the leaders exiting turn two and barely missing the stricken PWR car by inches. Race control saw this too and immediately scrambled the safety car. After just one lap of green flag racing, the field was under yellow.

It didn't last too long though, and soon we were back to racing. Ian and I had planned to watch the first hour or so, up to and including the first pitstops, at the bottom of the Mountain, then take the shuttle up to the top, so we saw the race settle into an early groove. Just before the stops, drama struck again as championship leader Rick Kelly had a tyre fail at the entry to the fastest corner in Australia, the Chase. He careened across the gravel trap, lucky to not roll, before crossing the track again, right in front of rival Craig Lowndes. It was very exciting to watch, as Bathurst bit back at one of the top cars. The subsequent stop took a long time and the car (now in the hands of Garth Tander) just managed to stay on the lead lap. Moments later the first legit stops occurred, and we watched on as crews did their amazing work. The only issue I saw was that Stone Brothers Racing brought in both their cars at the same time, causing quite a delay for Russell Ingall.

As the skies darkened we left the grandstands, grabbed a quick bite to eat (a roast beef and gravy sandwich, the worst of my Bathurst meals) and grabbed a spot on the shuttle. I tried to stay in touch with the race via radio but reception was poor, and as we got to the top and the signal came back in, the news came through that young Andrew Jones' Team BOC Ford had gone up in flames at the Chase. From our vantage point at Reid Park we could see the smoke far below. Time for another safety car, during which some teams opted to pit and others didn't. This split the race dramatically, making it difficult to tell who was in a good position.

We stayed at Reid Park until the green flag, then headed up to Sulman Park. The ingenuity of spectators was remarkable, as many had TVs powered off generators to watch parts of the race they couldn't see from their spot. These folks obviously had no plans to move for the entire 1000km, but with barbecues set up beside them there seemed to be no incentive to do so...

The atmosphere at the top of the Mountain was brilliant. Smoke from the 'cues drifted across the track, flags were waving everywhere, people were cheering, drinking, talking cars and generally having a great time. For a motorsport nut like me it was great to see so much passion for the sport in one place.

Just like previous days, we worked our way all the way across the Mountain, spectating, eating, taking pictures and chatting as we went. By the time we were down at Forrest's Elbow, another safety car had come out, somewhat resetting the race so everyone returned to a similar strategy.

It was around this time we realized that although the race was more than six hours long, our plans required us to not "dawdle" too much. It takes a lot of time to do what we did, and we started to make our way back up to the shuttle. As we walked, the skies continued to grow more menacing, but the rain stayed away.

Coming past McPhillamy Park we heard the news that Dean Canto had crashed heavily at Sulman Park. Being close by we headed that way to inspect the damage. Canto was dazed as he stumbled over the wall, and the car was badly damaged on the left side. Canto and team-mate Lee Holdsworth had been running extremely well, and it was a sad sight to see.

By the time we got to the bottom, the race had a little over an hour to run, and we reflected on how it had been rather tame for a Bathurst 1000. Apart from the Andrew Jones and Dean Canto incidents there had been none of the typical Mountain-top carnage. Then the rain started...

Jason Bright had been running very well with a strategy that had elevated him to third, punching far above his team's weight. He made one final green flag stop in which he went to slicks, but was still placed very well. As he came to the top of the Mountain twenty laps from the end, the cold new tyres and wet surface caught him off-guard and he crashed at McPhillamy Park, where the rain was especially heavy. He wasn't the only one: Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife both followed him into the gravel. The safety car was deployed, and the stage was set for a dash to the finish in variable conditions. This is what we'd come to see! Nail-biting, heart-stopping drama, with everything on the line. Up front Mark Winterbottom led rather comfortably ahead of Craig Lowndes, Steven Johnson, James Courtney and lone Holden representative Greg Murphy. The action continued to unfold as Winterbottom lost it going into the Chase and put what would have been a pretty easy win far out of reach. The four front-running cars spent the remaining laps going toe-to-toe. It was spellbinding racing, the kind of stuff you hope to see maybe once every couple of years. We sat there in our waterproof gear, anticipation building, rain coming and going and coming again as the cars slithered around, trying desperately to find grip. Positions chopped and changed right down to the final lap, as the winner crossed the line. You can read a proper race report elsewhere - I know some people who might read this blog who haven't yet seen the race, so I'll hold off on saying who took victory...

We dashed for the car in the rain, whilst others queued to get out of the car park. Our strategy worked, and what could have been a five hour slog back to Sydney in poor conditions took only three. Ian's wife Julie cooked up some delicious fried rice whilst we gabbed at 100mph about our tremendous trip to the Great Race.

It used to be that Le Mans was a race I'd plan on going to every four years. Time to start figuring out how Bathurst fits in, because one thing is for sure: I'll be back.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 42

We're getting close to the end of the year, and some championships are reaching their finales, most notably Formula 1 and the ALMS...

  • Lexmark Indy 300 - Surfers Paradise, Australia (ChampCar World Series)
  • V8 Supercars - Surfers Paradise, Australia
  • Pacific Forest Rally - Merritt, Canada (Canadian Rally Championship)
  • Daytona 8 Hours - Daytona International Speedway, FL (MOTO-ST)
  • All-Japan Superbike Championship - Suzuka, Japan
  • FIA GT - Zolder, Belgium
  • Belcar - Zolder, Belgium
  • Grand Prix do Brasil - Interlagos, Brazil (Formula 1)
  • Rally d'Antibes - Antibes, France (FIA European Rally Championship)
  • Monterey Sportscar Championships - Laguna Seca, CA (American Le Mans Series)
  • Star Mazda Championship - Laguna Seca, CA
  • IMSA Lites - Laguna Seca, CA
  • Speed World Challenge - Laguna Seca, CA
  • IMSA GT3 Cup - Laguna Seca, CA
  • Cheviot National Rally - Otterburn, England (MSA Tarmac Rally Championship)
  • MotoGP - Sepang, Malaysia
  • Subway 500 - Martinsville, VA (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Kroger 200 - Martinsville, VA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Romanian Rally - Baia Marie, Romania (FIA European Rally Cup East)
  • World Supermoto Championship - Athens, Greece