Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Busch turns right

The NASCAR Busch Series is in Mexico this weekend for one of its two road course events of the season. Both are outside the USA.

What's tantalising about this race is the number of drivers with strong road-racing backgrounds:

  • Marcus Ambrose - Australian V8 Supercar champion, and strong performer in last season's Craftsman Truck Series.
  • Scott Pruett - Known these days for sportscar racing, and has good experience at the Mexico City track. Was also very successful in CART.
  • Adrian Fernandez - Lots of success in US open-wheel racing, and now involved in sportscars. Is also Mexican (not sure if that helps or not).
  • Boris Said - Perhaps the most successful road-racer in NASCAR recently. Qualified on pole at this event last year. He's probably got the most stock car experience of the "road-course ringers".
  • Ron Fellows - Ron has been a NASCAR road-course ringer before as well as being hugely successful in sportscar racing, most recently with Corvette.
  • Juan Montoya - After a decent career in F1 that included some wins, Juan is reasonably capable of turning right, and has shown he's pretty damn quick in a stock car.
  • Michel Jourdain Jr. - Always "there or thereabouts" in ChampCar.
A few of these drivers will also be in the Grand-Am Rolex race too, so will have an advantage of increased track time.

Go Boris!

Weekend Menu - Week 9

The first truly busy weekend of the season:

  • Clipsal 500 - Adelaide, Australia (first round of the V8 Supercar Championship)
  • Fujitsu V8 Series - Adelaide, Australia
  • Daytona 500km - Daytona, FL (first round of the Moto-ST championship for twin-cylinder bikes)
  • Tour of Epynt - Llandovery, Wales (first round of the MSA Tarmac Rally Championship)
  • AMA Supercross - St. Louis, MO
  • Telcel Motorola 200 - Autodromo Hermano Rodriguez, Mexico (NASCAR Busch Series' only road course event)
  • World Superbike - Phillip Island, Australia
  • World Supersport - Phillip Island, Australia
  • Grand Am Rolex Sportscar Series - Autodromo Hermano Rodriguez, Mexico
  • NZV8s - Timaru Raceway, New Zealand
  • Laughlin US Hare Scrambles - Laughlin, NV (a motorcycle-only round of the Best in the Desert series)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Audi, Porsche and Acura - Go big or go home

Much has been made of the state of the American Le Mans Series in the past couple of weeks, especially since Audi's Dr. Ullrich announced that they were considering not running in the ALMS after Sebring.

The ALMS has been modelled on the ACO's four-class system since 2001, and for the most part it has worked well. However in 2006 IMSA, the sanctioning body for the ALMS, started fiddling with the previously unfiddleable ruleset of the ACO, organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, primarily to allow for closer racing and in turn attract more entries. They were successful in making the GT1 battles very close, and by bringing LMP2 closer in performance to LMP1 opened up the list of potential overall winners to something more than Audi. In retrospect this turned out to be a bad idea - Audi got upset, LMP1 didn't grow because it was cheaper to run in LMP2 where an overall victory was still possible, and the constant weight changes in GT1 discouraged entries who feared that being too successful would instigate performance balancing in their opponents' favour.

Imagine you've spent the money to either buy or develop an LMP1 car. The ACO never intended that you would be battling against LMP2s, but here you are battling against LMP2s, and facing the ignominy of possibly losing to a "slower" car. This situation was exacerbated by a heavyweight factory Porsche team choosing to enter the second division class, effectively "beating up on the small guys". For 2007 Acura have followed suit, turning LMP2 into a playground for factory teams (and possibly scaring off plucky privateers who used to fight for a class win in LMP2 on a smaller budget). To be fair, Acura have stated all along that they plan to step up to LMP1 in 2008 but it still raises the question of why they didn't start there in the first place.

ALMS, despite strong crowds and a good TV package, is in a similar (possibly worse) quandry to last year: not enough entries. If they can secure a title sponsor and some extra cash, perhaps they can "encourage" some European-based competition to join the party, especially in LMP1 and GT1. After all, this year's Le Mans series has 14 LMP1 entries and 8 in GT1. After Sebring, the ALMS will have just two in each.

What I'd like to know is:

  • Why has a lower class that's supposed to be for privateers ended up attracting (and allowing) factory entries?
  • Why has the ALMS increased the attractiveness of this class by offering larger restrictors that offer entrants the chance for an overall win?
  • Why, despite these seemingly obvious errors, are Audi scared of competing in the ALMS, effectively curtailing all the marketing value that such competition brings and undermining the investment made in developing the R10?
  • Why, given the potential absence of Audi, aren't more LMP1 teams looking at the ALMS where they could have a very strong chance of winning (Arena's Zytek project comes to mind)?
  • Why have Aston Martin pulled out of the ALMS (don't say money, because the major costs are developing and building cars, not running them, and they already had some sponsorship to partially cover those costs)?
  • Can Intersport score an overall win with their new Creation LMP1? (I hope so)
  • When will the ALMS secure a title sponsor?
  • Will IMSA rescind the restrictor changes in LMP2 to encourage Audi to return? (and will that be a good thing?)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

World Superbike Preview

There's really only one story when it comes to the 2007 season of World Superbike: Max Biaggi. Sure, we've had MotoGP refugees in WSBK before, most recently Alex Barros who secured one win on a Klaffi Honda last year. But this time, we've got a former champion on a bike that has the potential to win any race. Barros was on an under-developed bike with an under-funded team. He didn't even have traction control whilst all around him others did. Max's Alstare Suzuki will be extremely competitive, with all the best componentry that the racing industry has to offer; most significantly Mitsubishi traction control, Showa suspension and Brembo brakes. Whether all this will make Max a race-winner again is the huge question that will define the early part of the 2007 WSBK campaign. Certainly testing times have shown him to be on pace with the front-runners. After some rough seasons in MotoGP, he'll be hoping that his racecraft and thirst for victory will keep him there once the starting lights go out.

Alongside Max at the Alstare Suzuki team will be wily Japanese Yukio Kagayama. He'll be going into his third year with the team, albeit on a very much redesigned GSX-R. His inconsistent record has kept him out of the title fight thus far, but when he hits a rich vein of form, like he did in the middle of 2006, he's virtually unstoppable. He shouldn't be dismissed as a second-tier rider.

The rider who Max Biaggi has replaced at Suzuki, Troy Corser, has moved over to Yamaha, and will line up with Noriyuki Haga on the R1s. Despite some decent Yamaha Europe backing, this team has never quite been able to run at the front consistently and will be hoping that one small detail will allow them to make that step in 2007. The detail in question is the revolutionary variable intake tract on the new R1 engine. Yamaha's American colleagues have already made claims that it will instantly allow them to fight for wins, so Corser and Haga will be hoping that's true. Is it finally time for Haga to claim a WSBK crown? His legions of loyal fans will certainly hope so, and I'm happy to count myself among them. I find Corser's smooth, methodical approach to be less exciting...

Honda's hopes will once again rest with 2004 champion James Toseland and the mighty Ten Kate team. Like all the other Honda riders, he struggled in 2006 without traction control, a situation that has now been remedied. James did well to get the results he got, so this could very well be the package to take the fight to the dominant Ducatis. Other changes in the Ten Kate team include a new sponsor (Hanspree, makers of LCD televisions) and a new second rider, Roberto Rolfo. The gutsy young Italian takes the place of perennial underachiever Karl Muggeridge who moves to the Bertocchi team.

Kawasaki's top team, PSG-1, continue to grow in confidence, despite choosing to retain the two weaker riders from its 2006 three-rider squad. Gone is the bulldog agression of Chris Walker, who moves to British Superbike and the Rizla Suzuki squad, hoping to take care of some unfinished business. Left behind at PSG-1 are 250cc refugee Fonsi Nieto (another next big thing who wasn't) and owner of the ugliest ears in motorcycling, Regis Laconi. Both riders have significant achievements in their past but have failed to deliver with Kawasaki. They would probably blame the difficult handling of the ZX-10RR, and to be fair they wouldn't be the first. Despite being arguably the fastest of the Japanese 1000s, a slow-steering front end (due to a long wheelbase) have made it a bit of a pig on the track. Lack of success in World, British and American Superbike championships are evidence of its problems, and to be honest that is unlikely to change in 2007.

And so to the most successful of the factory squads, Ducati Corse. Current Superbike rules have allowed them much more leeway in engine development due to their twin-cylinder configuration, and with factory resources behind them this has made for a very potent package. Add in one of the best Superbike riders of his generation, Troy Bayliss, and it's unlikely that Ducati will lose its Superbike crown this year. It is true that Ducati have basically stopped developing the 999F any further, hoping for a rules change that will allow it to use either the new 1098 or a forthcoming 1200cc variant in 2008. Ironically, that change might make them slower, as the myriad of engine mods that have been afforded them so far would be rescinded, placing the team on an even footing with the 4-cylinder bikes. However, they seem willing to trade their exotic lightweight crankshafts and other one-off engine components for increased engine size. You know how the old saying goes... "there's no substitute for cc's".

It's worth noting here that Bayliss' team-mate continues to be Lorenzo Lanzi. It was widely expected that Lanzi's inability to fulfill the potential he showed in late 2005 would mean he'd lose his seat to Neil Hodgson. For some reason, Ducati stuck with the chrome-domed Italian, leaving Hodgson out in the cold, grimly awaiting Carl Fogarty's team to find sponsors to run ex-factory Ducatis. This never happened, and Hodgson and Fogarty now find themselves with no prospects for 2007. Which is a bit of a shame.

Outside the top five "factory" (the term is used loosely) teams, there are an additional four teams that could show their faces near the front of the field from time to time. In contrast to last year, where there was so much uncertainty, and so many new faces, it's a safe bet that the bulk of success will go to the top five factory teams, and not to these four. Still, we shouldn't ignore the likes of Steve Martin, Karl Muggeridge or Ruben Xaus.

The top privateer team in 2007 is likely to be the DFXtreme Honda team. Former MotoGP rider Michel Fabrizio will be back for a second year, whilst the place of the retiring Frankie Chili has been taken by former Foggy-Petronas man Steve Martin. Martin managed to beat the odds time and again on the dog-slow Petronas by qualifying well, but even his undeniable skills were able to do anything of note when it came to races. On a well-developed Honda he should be at least as fast as Fabrizio, and may even stick his nose into the factory battles on occasion.

Erstwhile privateers Bertocchi return for another year, but make a surprising switch from Kawasaki to Honda, and change their name to Alto Evolution Honda. For many years, Bertocchi were known for the being the second Kawasaki team in WSBK, but that is all set to change. Joining former Ten Kate Honda rider Karl Muggeridge will be up-and-coming young Aussie Josh Brookes.

Two other riders to watch out for will be Ruben Xaus on the Sterilgarda-Berik Ducati and Shinichi Nakatomi on the Yamaha France R1. Both teams are capable of troubling the top ten, although Xaus (who I referred to as mercurial in last years WSBK preview, and who maintains that persona) has the potential to make it to the podium from time to time.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

As the car crossed the finish upside down and on fire... became clear to me that every now and then NASCAR can be entertaining. If I put aside all my stereotypes and prejudices for just a moment, and reach for that zen place of being as pure a fan of racing as possible, it is possible to derive some pleasure from NASCAR.

When all was said and done, I realized that my attitude towards NASCAR form this point forwards will be very much like my approach to Formula 1. Both sports are undeniably huge, and both feature elements that I look for in any motorsport (close competition in NASCAR's case, and trailblazing technology in F1). However, both leave me a little cold. The difference between me as a racing fan this time two weeks ago and now is that I've added a form of racing to my list of genres that I understand but won't cancel things in order to watch.

For example, on Saturday March 17th, I will not be making any plans to do anything, because the Sebring 12 Hours in on. It's a "must-see" event for me. However, the weekend before, I won't be making time for the NASCAR race at Atlanta, and the day after I won't be looking to stay home to watch the Australian Grand Prix. But if I happened to be home doing nothing, and either of those races were on the TV, I could happily watch them and know who the drivers were and what was going on. I believe that makes me more of a well-rounded motorsport follower than I was before. My path to self-betterment continues....

Weekend Menu - Week 8

This weekend's racing activities globally include:

  • AMA Supercross - Atlanta, GA
  • TruckSeries 200 - California Speedway, Fontana, CA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Stater Bros 300 - California Speedway, Fontana, CA (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Auto Club 500 - California Speedway, Fontana, CA (NASCAR Nextel Cup Series)
  • Rallye Sunseeker - Bournemouth, England (part of the MSA Gravel Rally Championship)
  • World Superbike Championship - Losail, Qatar
  • World Supersport Championship - Losail, Qatar
  • A1GP - Durban, South Africa
  • Rally of the 100 Acre Wood - Salem, MO (Rally America championship)

Friday, February 16, 2007

NASCAR issues for newbies: Qualifying

Getting into a NASCAR Nextel Cup race can be either very easy or supremely difficult. This is because of something called "owners points". It rewards teams that have been consistent in the championship, by giving the top 35 cars at any given time a guaranteed spot in the race. Note that it's not top 35 drivers. A team owener can have a different driver every race, but it will still be about total points accumlated by that car so far that season. For the first five races of the season, total owner points for the previous season are counted.

Teams that go out each week and race are more likely to be in the top 35 than those that are "part-timers". Perhaps these teams don't have the budget for a full-season. Or perhaps they only enter those races that are in close proximity to their workshop. Whatever the reason is, their inability to commit to a full season carries a price, and that price is not being guaranteed a spot for the race.

There's a problem though: there's 51 teams that are full-time in 2007. So even if a team has committed to the whole season, they still may not get in. That's an awful lot of money, time and commitment at risk, since on any given day 8 or more full-time teams will be going home after qualifying. If there's a weekend where a lot of part-time teams entering, it can be even harder. This weekend's Daytona 500 saw 60 entries. Of those, 35 were guaranteed a spot. The remaining 8 spots were taken by 2 part-time teams and 6 full-time teams. Seven part-time teams went home, but a staggering ten full-time teams didn't make it in either.

And when a team misses out on one race, it gets progressively harder to get in in future. Say you're 36th in owner points, 1 point ahead of 37th. They make it into a race and you don't. In that weekend, they'll make enough points to put you into 37th. Now you're even further away from the magic 35th position. You'll have to qualify again next week. Say you miss again, you'll slip even further. Even if you do succeed in getting in to a couple of races, it takes time to get back into the top 35, and each time you miss out on qualifying you're back a step. As soon as you make it into the top 35, the chances of earning enough points at each race to stay there increase dramatically. Just like the modern American nightmare, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What makes it even worse is this: say you struggle through a season outside the top 35, you're guaranteed to have to qualify for the first five races next season. And as we've discovered, it's ever so easy to slip up and be playing catch-up constantly. One poor finish that drops a team outside the top 35 can sentence them to YEARS of heartache. And the less a team makes it into a race, the less likely it is that they will be able to secure sponsorship or good drivers, further adding to the downward spiral.

I've painted a grim picture, as I did on Wednesday about restrictor plate racing. So, just like Wednesday, I'll offer a solution. In this case, my solution comes from the home of Busch Series rookie Marcos Ambrose: Australia. The top stock car series down there is the V8 Supercar Championship. I talk about it frequently on this blog (they also have a second tier series, called the Fujitsu Development Series, which functions like NASCAR's Busch series). There are a finite number of spots on the V8 grid, but the teams which occupy those spots are always guaranteed a place, because each spot is franchised. To get onto the V8 grid you must buy a franchise. If a team goes out of business it may sell the franchise (which is a valuable asset) to another team or back to the governing body. Ownership of the franchise carries certain obligations, one of which is to show up at every race. If that's not possible, very large fines are levied, just like in the WRC when a manufacturer pulls out halfway through a season.

I suggest NASCAR switch to the grid franchise system. Yes, it locks out new teams from joining the championship, but if a team is sufficiently prepared to run at this top level, they probably have the money to buy out another team. There will ALWAYS be teams that are struggling and looking to perhaps get out, and cashing out their franchise makes leaving the series a more attractive proposition, than continuing on in lame-duck fashion. The franchise system protects a team's investment. The system could be tweaked slightly, perhaps to allow for 40 franchises and 3 open spots for any other team looking to enter.

Of course there will be critics of this idea that say teams that aren't performing well shouldn't be in a race. I agree, but by the same token, a team that has made the financial commitment to a full-time program shouldn't have their investment jeapordized. The current system shows too much inequity between those in the top 35 and those outside it.

One final option is a tiered qualifying approach. How about this?: the top 20 teams in owners points are guaranteed a spot. Teams 21-30 go through an additional pre-qualifying where they race for positions 21-28. The times of the slowest two go into a final pre-qualification with all remaining teams for the final 15 spots. This opens up extra spots and makes it less likely for a team to get stuck in the downward spiral situation I outlined above. Note that the final grid would determined by actual times, not by the grouping in which the time was recorded.

What do you think? Franchises, tiered qualifying or keep it like it is?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Weekend Menu: Week 7

Coming up this weekend:

  • Sandblast Rally - Cheraw, SC (1st round of the US Rally Championship)
  • Australian Superbike Championship - Eastern Creek
  • AMA Supercross - San Diego, CA
  • Daytona 500 - Daytona, FL (first round of the NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Hershey's Kissables 300 - Daytona, FL (first round of the NASCAR Busch Series)
  • GM Flexfuel 250 - Daytona, FL (first round of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Rally Norway - Hamar, Norway (round 3 of the WRC and round 1 of the Junior WRC)
  • NZV8s - Manfeild Raceway, New Zealand
  • Qatar International Rally - Losail, Qatar (part of the Middle East Rally Championship)

NASCAR issues for newbies: restrictor plate racing

I'm determined to understand NASCAR racing. I've always felt that it's not very "becoming" of a motorsports fan whose interest lies in road-racing, rallying and/or motorycles to also be into NASCAR. These are two entirely different worlds, and never the twain shall meet. However, if top sportscar guru John Hindhaugh can find something redeeming in NASCAR, then it's time I tried to do so too.

As I mentioned on Monday, despite its enormous success, NASCAR is struggling with a number of issues, none of which seem to be impacting its popularity but all of which help offer some insight into how the sport works. So I'm going to look at one such issue today: restrictor plate racing.

Engine air intake restrictors are used in many forms of motorsport. Reasons for usage vary: in Japanese SuperGT it is to retain parity and increase the chances of success for teams that are struggling (conversely, teams that do well are penalized with weight handicaps). In rallying, restrictors are used to limit performance. After the frightening speed of the Group B era, the FIA were determined that such speeds would never again be reached (they failed by the way, since current WRC cars are as quick as Group B was, albeit not as fast as they could be without restrictors).

In NASCAR, restrictors are used at two of the fastest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, to reduce performance. Without the restrictors, it's quiet reasonable that cars could lap at up to 220mph. With them, speeds are in the more reasonable 190mph range. "Sounds like a plan" you say. "What's the problem?"

The problem lies with the fact that the rules set make this a de facto spec championship. Cars are very, very similar and performance is equally similar. Engines tend to be the primary area where opportunities for performance gains lie, but when you plonk a restrictor onto the carbs most of those gains are nullified. Now you have 43 cars with almost identical performance. "That's going to make for exciting, close racing, surely?" you ask. It does. Too close. All 43 cars are now able to travel within inches of each other at 190mph, creating one big train. This train cuts through the air, allowing for speeds that would not otherwise be attainable and forbidding any car to step outside the train without incurring a massive aerodynamic penalty. Now all it takes is for one car to get a little loose, bump another car sideways, and you have the makings of a very, very big accident. This is what has happened numerous times since the restrictor plate was brought in.

Modern day NASCAR stock cars are pretty damn safe. They deform well, tend not to get airborne and drivers all wear HANS devices. But a time will come where that won't be enough, and a stationary car will be hit driver's side by a car travelling at 100mph or more. The driver will die. Case in point: the accident which claimed the life of Mark Porter in Australia last year. He was in a Ford V8 Supercar, a car built equally as strong as anything in NASCAR. Chances of a similar accident are higher when you have a situation like the one so commonplace at Daytona and Talladega.

What's the answer? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that alternate methods for slowing cars down are numerous and varied. In Formula 1 they went to narrower tyres, less aerodynamic aids and smaller engines. Until NASCAR moves on from it's 1950s technology (pushrod engines with carburettor intake) to modern overhead cam, fuel-injected units, options are limited. With fuel injection, a spec ECU would be the obvious answer, just as it is in Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype rules. For now, I'd probably lobby for smaller engines for these extremely high speed tracks. Right now, engines have a 5.9 litre capacity. If teams were required to use a non-restricted 3.5 litre V6 at these super speedways, you'd achieve close to the same speeds as you do with the larger restricted V8, but with greater diversity in performance and a reduced likelihood of these long trains of trouble.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I watched NASCAR

Yes, it's true. On Saturday evening I watched the Bud Shootout, primarily to cheer for top sportscar racer, stock-car interloper and all-round kickass dude Boris Said (right). I won't pretend it wasn't entertaining. The racing was close and pretty exciting, and a little studying beforehand meant that I was able to tell one car from another fairly easily (this is a somewhat important issue I've discovered when coming to a new racing series).

I learned about the bump draft. This is where two cars are in line and the one behind is going faster (due to drafting) and gives the one in front a little bump to transfer that speed and get them both going faster. How the car in front doesn't lose control in such a maneouver, I've yet to figure out.

I'm also still in the dark as to why one line around a corner may (or may not) be faster than another. Why would a driver choose to go high or low at any given moment? It's clearly not like in road-racing where you come in wide, try and get as early an apex as possible and then aim for the far curbing on exit. If I understood these things it might increase my enjoyment and make me more aware of what skills a driver is using to progress through the field.

A quick Google search on these topics brought me to a very informative blog called The Infield at That' Turns out that NASCAR seems to have a number of pretty significant issues that it is dealing with, creating rather a lot of controversy. There are many critics of the current qualifying system, a lack of franchise spots on the grid, usage of restrictors at high speed ovals, the afore-mentioned bump-drafting, the angle of banking, licensing of rookies, sanctions against drivers who get a bit physical after the race... the list goes on. Regulatory issues are a common thread no matter what area of motorsport you're involved in, but just as in Formula 1, they take on gargantuan significance in a massive money-maker like NASCAR.

As we run up to the Daytona 500 this weekend, I'm going to do a little digging on NASCAR's controversies, to hopefully bring a bit more understanding of this bizarre sport to both me and anyone else more used to watching cars or bikes go right as well as left....

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 6

Five significant motorsport events this weekend:

  • AMA Supercross - Houston, TX
  • ARCA Daytona 200 - Daytona Speedway, FL
  • Rally Tanzania - Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (this is part of the African Rally Championship)
  • Swedish Rally - Hagfors, Sweden (part of the WRC and the Production Car WRC)
  • NASCAR Bud Shootout - Daytona Speedway, FL (this is a non-points-paying race)

A trip to the Swedish Rally, part 4 - Sunday

Thanks for staying with me as I tell the story of my trip to the Swedish Rally. We're up to Sunday, Leg 3 of the event.

Since the concept of sticking with what works seemed to do well for our dinner plans, we applied it to breakfast too, and took in another smorgasbord at our friendly local cafe. We had to be up even earlier than the previous day because the first stage we were going to was the first stage of the day, SS13, Sagen. To make matters worse, Sagen was located a significant distance further than Fredriksberg, albeit in the same direction.

The drive out to the stage was event-free and after a left-turn off the main road we found a parking space in the quaint little village of Sagen. The access road continued through the village, and it turned out that it was the end of the stage too. We walked up the stage, which ended with a very tight downhill hairpin, and found a spot up above the hairpin. The view was fantastic - cars came down the hill from the left, before braking hard in front of us for that final corner.

We were early enough this time to see all three course opening cars, with their flashing lights and wailing sirens. It helped build the excitement as the minutes passed. I spent the time preparing to do some rudimentary timing and scoring. Since this was the first stage of the day I could be pretty sure that it would start on time, and with the finish line visible from our vantage point I was planning on recording stage times.

As we chatted with a pair of Norwegians, I checked my watch: 8:35am, the departure time for the first car. Seven minutes later the first car arrived, right on schedule - Kristian Sohlberg in a Group A Mitsubishi Evo. We watched as he executed a textbook "Scandinavian Flick" around the hairpin before crossing the finish in 7:25.

As each car came through we enjoyed seeing the different lines through the corner, as well as checking out who was recording fast times. The first really quick time was put up by Seb Loeb, and as it turns out only Marcus Gronholm was able to better the young Frenchman.

We stayed at Sagen until about 30 cars had passed through, because we had a date with SS15, Hara. This gave us about two hours to drive all the way back to Hagfors, then about 20km north, before parking and walking to the stage. By now we knew how tricky it was to stay on schedule, so we made sure to not dawdle. We also chose to take a back road out of Hagfors, to avoid the potentially busy main road to Hara.

The access road to Hara was much smaller than at other stages, and the further in we went the more treacherous it became. At one point we came to a very steep downhill that begged the question "will we make it back up on the way out?" Only one way to find out....

Once we'd reached the end of the line of parked cars we began another long walk to the stage. We ended up at a crossroads - from the road we came in on, the one to the left and the one going forwards were the stage, whilst to right the road ran off into the forest. We walked up the stage, as the route ran uphill into a clearcut area. Once again we had a good vantage point, watching the cars take the 90 degree left-hander, before charging uphill past us and over the top of the hill through a medium right.

During our wait for this stage to start, it began to snow. This may not seem very surprising - we were in Sweden during winter after all, but it was the first time it had snowed on us during a stage. Visibility was reduced, which was a bit of a shame, but it did provide some great wintry atmosphere, as we stood amongst the pine saplings and bonfires.

When all was said and done at Hara, we had one more stage on our itinerary before we would bid the Swedish Rally "goodbye". From Hara it was about 15km south to the village of Sunnemo, where we turned onto a very small country road that would take us to the Hagfors forest stage. The drive was beautiful - no other traffic, and lots of breaks in the forest. Check out the pics on part one of this story - they're from this road. As expected we eventually got to the end of a line of parked cars, and started the walk. This time we faced the longest walk yet, and wondered exactly how far we'd gone when finally we saw a gathering of people next to some emergency vehicles, that indicated a marshall point on the stage. This was at a right-hand hairpin at the end of a very fast section with a couple of yumps. After the corner cars headed slightly uphill, but spectating opportunities up there seemed slim. Instead we headed back down the stage, away from all the marshalls before finding an incredible spot on the outside of a very fast left. In retrospect this was a pretty dangerous place to be, and every time a marshall came by we were made to move back about ten yards. Of course we always moved back to within a few feet of the road.

Once the stage started we discovered that this was the most dramatic viewing spot we'd had throughout the whole event. Cars came by flat in fifth and didn't start braking until after they'd passed us, before the yumps. Each car that passed counted us down to the end of the event, which made for a bittersweet experience. Still, it was a great way to finish our visit to the Swedish Rally, and after the long walk back to the car we headed straight for Stockholm, and a date with a British Airways flight the next morning.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A trip to the Swedish Rally, part 3 - Saturday

In the third part of the account of my trip to the 2003 Swedish Rally, it's Saturday, Leg 2, and still bloody freezing...

Being 5am, it was still dark when my father and I woke for day two of the Swedish Rally, and we really only had one thing on our minds: breakfast. On the short walk back to the car from the pizza restaurant the previous evening, we'd passed a small cafe that promised a "smorgasbord" breakfast. This seemed like just the thing to fill the stomachs of a pair of rally spectators and boy were we right: juice, cold meats, bread, cereal, coffee, oatmeal, toast, pastries, even pickled fish (a Swedish staple). We crammed our faces with as much food as we could manage. It was something like the feeding frenzies in March of the Penguins, using the heating effect of metabolism as a defence against the arrid cold conditions. To make the scene even more quaint, the owner of the cafe was a wizened old man whose sole purpose in life seemed to be making sure that every customer left significantly heavier than he arrived. In our case, he succeeded.

The drive out to SS8, Fredriksberg, was a good 45 minutes. It was main road for the most part, until we turned hard right onto a smaller country road that ran alongside one of the long finger lakes that dot the area. At the end of this road a left turn across a bridge brought us past the entrance to the stage itself, and the top competitors were already lined up outside the FIA control zone. Our aim was to take the next access road, where we quickly found a line of cars parked. We figured we should park too, unsure of the distance to the stage. The twenty minutes we had in hand soon evaporated as the walk turned out to be at least 2km. Eventually we reached the stage, and followed the path alongside until we got to a break in the trees. As is common in many industrialized nations, when a major powerline cuts through a forest, a wide swath of trees are cut underneath, and where this particular line crossed the stage we were afforded a terrific view of three crests on a very fast straight stretch of road. We took a moment to note how warm we were in our multiple layers after the very brisk walk from the car, as well as reflect on how incredibly dry the climate was. Despite the snow, there's no moisture. It's too cold for anything to even come close to melting, so any dampness soon freezes to become completely bone dry. This made it remarkably easy to stay warm, more so than in a cold, wet environment like Wales where we ended up later that year.

Once again anticipation was building. This was, after all, only our second forest stage, and the sound of anti-lag crackling off in the distance through the trees is one of motorsport's greatest soundtracks. Cars took about three minutes to get from the startline to our spectator point, and each change in engine pitch made false promises of the car's arrival. Finally the understated white colours of Mikko Hirvonen's 15th-placed Ford Focus leapt out of the trees over a crest, engine momentarily bouncing off the rev limiter as the wheels left the ground. The effect was repeated milliseconds later as the Finn hit the second crest, and then again over the third crest right in front of us. A quick dab of the brakes as he returned to the trees and negotiated a tricky off-camber medium-right corner and then he was gone.

One by one, the top fifteen came through, slowest to fastest. My father and I took turns taking pictures of each other with a rally car in the shot. To the right is me and my co-star, Harri Rovanpera. After the Hyundai of Freddy Loix came charging through we were expecting the bright blue Subaru of Petter Solberg next. As the seconds ticked down to the completion of the one-minute interval there was no sound. Perhaps he'd gone off? Perhaps someone else had gone off and the stage had been halted? Then, with a couple of antilag pops, Solberg emerged from the treeline at high speed, right on schedule. It was then that the penny dropped... the Subarus are whisper-quiet. It was very odd, and somewhat unsettling every time we saw Petter or his team-mate Tommi Makinen throughout the event.

When all was said and done, the most impressive sight of the stage remained young Mikko Hirvonen in the factory Ford Focus. His commitment over the crests was beyond that of anyone else, and he clearly was a boy on a mission.

After all the WRC-spec cars had gone through we headed back along the trail to the road. Before we got there, we noticed a significant break in the stream of slower Group N vehicles, and concluded that the stage had been stopped for some reason. It later turned out that Juuso Pykalisto had crashed in the stage and Harri Rovanpera had run into his stricken car. Go to 1:45 of this video to see the accident (all drivers escaped with only minor injuries).

As we were starting to learn, time was now of the essence. The drivers had SS9 (Lejen), a service period and SS10 (Vargasen) to complete in the time we had to get back to the car, drive to our next spectating point, hop on the complimentary bus from the car-park to the stage and find a place to stand. Luckily we didn't need to get lunch, since we'd bought some sandwiches at a gas station earlier. I was starting to enjoy how spectating a rally was a form of rallying in itself, where navigation, careful driving and impeccable time-keeping were crucial.

We now faced a problem. All three of the morning's stages were east of Hagfors, and both afternoon stages were west. This meant that EVERYONE was going in the same direction on the same main road. Shortly after we passed the entrance to SS2 (Ramman), about 10 miles east of Hagfors, traffic started to get ugly. The pressure was increasing, and our decision to cut our losses and attempt only two stages was starting to look questionable. As we crawled along, cars started overtaking us, going into the lane of opposing traffic. These were no normal cars however. Check out this picture of Marcus Gronholm going by us. One by one the top rallycars passed us. It was enough to take our minds off the ticking clock, and before long we were at the intersection that was causing the traffic problems. After that, things went much more smoothly, and soon enough we were driving down the access road for SS11, Torntorp. Passing through gently rolling farmland, we parked by the side of a lake, and followed everyone else across a bridge to a bus pickup point. A steady stream of coaches were taking spectators the mile or so down the road to the stage. It was all very calm, well-ordered and comfortable. Our destination was the village of Torntorp. Nothing more than a collection of red-painted houses in the middle of an open field, connected by a road, it was temporarily home to the typical Swedish Rally crowd. Once again Norwegian flags, fires, sausages, vodka and rally-team jackets were the norm and everyone took time to enjoy each other's company as we waited for the stage to kick-off. We got talking to an English couple who were receiving real-time results via SMS, and were able to catch up on the morning's action: by now Marcus had stretched his lead to 35 seconds, and Markko Martin, Colin McRae and Petter Solberg had moved up into 4th, 5th and 6th, with the retirement of Rovanpera.

The very earliest signs of twilight were showing themselves as the first few cars came through. Some were carrying light-pods, the braver ones were not. The openness of the area allowed the cars to be in sight for longer than at any of the previous stages, which was highly enjoyable. A long fast left brought the cars out of the forest, before a few fast left-right curves past the houses, over a crest towards us and then a slower right, which took them back into the trees. My abiding image of Torntorp is of Toni Gardemeister manhandling the mighty Skoda Octavia through those corners, tail flapping around like an old Mark 2 Escort. His hard work was paying off, as he ended the day in seventh.

As darkness fell we returned to Hagfors. My dad was pretty tired but I was motivated to check out service whilst the cars were still there. Since they still had to run the Hagfors Sprint one more time, the timing would be perfect. Snow was falling by the time I got to the airport, and as I moved from one team's area to the next, the cold was starting to dull my senses. I was glad I'd gone to the trouble of seeing the top contenders in service, but was starting to get hungry, damp and cold.

Dinner was a repeat performance of the previous night's pizza and beer. It was hard to turn down such a cosy, tasty experience, and we ended up sitting with an employee of the Uddeholm steel company, sponsors of the whole rally. He was Nigerian, and told a remarkable story of how he came to be in Sweden, and what it was like to work there. After he left, and our glasses were empty, we called it a night, and turned our thoughts to getting a good night's rest. Leg three promised an even tighter schedule, three stages, and a drive back to Stockholm.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A trip to the Swedish Rally, part 2 - Friday

Yesterday I began the story of my trip to the Swedish Rally in 2003, a 5-day, 6500 mile, sub-zero trip to one of the most remarkable rallies on the planet. When I last left off, my father and I had just reached the town of Hagfors, the hub of the whole rally, halfway through Leg 1...

Once we reached Hagfors we decided to take a look at the service park which was located on the runway of the town's airport, thankfully closed to aircraft for the weekend. Although most of the cars were out on the stages, some of the crews from further down the order were still in service. The buzz in the air was palpable, and we picked up the results of the first three stages of the rally before heading into town to meet up with our house host.

Our accomodations for the next two nights consisted of a small cottage with one bedroom - basically a freestanding apartment. Our host Maria was leaving to stay with friends whilst we were there. She was happy to move out in order to make some money off the rally and we were happy to have a comfortable place to rest our heads.

Time had passed us by whilst we were finding the apartment and grabbing our burger lunch, so we dashed out of town to catch SS4, Malta. This was the closest forest stage to Hagfors and we were there in a matter of minutes. Luckily the rally had slipped slightly off schedule, so as we ran from the parking area across a snowy field to the spectator area, we were unaware that time was on our side. Moments later we reached the treeline, climbed a bank and found ourselves in the middle of a massive crowd of bundled up rally-goers. Flags were flying, fires were burning, songs of support for various drivers were being sung and everywhere was the delicious smell of sausages cooking. So this was what the Swedish Rally was like! We dashed across the road and staked out a spot on the inside of a medium left-hander over a crest, perhaps 30 seconds down from the start line. The sound of a helicopter was suddenly present, and then the unmistakable crack-pop-crack of the anti-lag system of a rallycar at the startline of a special stage. A roar of engine revs signalled the start of the stage, and the only clue we had of the proximity of the car was the helicopter - engine noise was bouncing off trees making it impossible to tell how much longer we had to wait.

The clock ticked. My heart raced. I hadn't been to a WRC event since 1986 and back then I wasn't anywhere near as passionate about the sport as I had become by 2003. The crowds cheered. Then the helicopter was overhead, the closest marshall blew his whistle and around the corner came a flying, barking, snow-throwing red monster, a Citroen Xsara in the hands of Sebastien Loeb. The car settled itself after the crest, cameras flashed, and then the Frenchman muscled the Xsara into the next bend, a right hander that emerged into a clearing. Then he was gone.

My father and I looked at each other, speechless. Nothing would ever be quite the same after that. A moment of irresponsible tomfoolery had gotten me infected with a powerful disease for which no cure existed.

Fifty seconds later it started all over again. This time the cheers were louder, the car faster and more sideways. This was Colin McRae, and there was no doubt that he was remarkably exciting to watch, like the energetic frontman of your favorite band putting on a superb show.

The next 45 minutes passed like a series of small sumo tournaments. Step into the ring, determined to withstand the inevitable power, and every single time get pushed out, landing on your ass, desperate for another go.

As we edged further down the order the cars slowed, the crowd thinned, the singing and chanting became less emphatic. Time to go, but the inevitable question was "go where"? A growing suspicion I had had during my lengthy preparations was now confirmed: you cannot watch every stage. How I had thought it would be possible I will never know, but as the crews headed off to SS5, Sagan (which was ultimately cancelled due to an accident involving Francois Duval), we returned to Hagfors. The final stage of the day was the Hagfors Sprint, located around a local sports complex. Not quite a Superspecial, since crews ran one-by-one, but a compact stage easily accessed by spectators. In fact, the ease of access turned out to be a guarantee of giant crowds. We struggled to find a decent spot to view the top runners and ended up next to the rowdiest group of Estonians you could ever hope (?) to meet. Once again the sausages were cooking and the fans were singing ("Tooooommy Maaaa-kin-en, Tom-my Mak-in-en"). The startline was visible from our vantage point, and we could see the crews lining up, now with huge banks of lights fitted the front of their vehicles. Finally it was time. With a flick of a switch Loeb illuminated six HID lights, turning the slate-grey twilight into a stark vision of bright, bright white before disappearing off around the back of the sports buildings. Two minutes later he arrived at our part of the stage, snow flying off the studded tyres, flames licking out from the exhaust and those piercing xenons destroying our night vision. It was a dramatic, visceral experience, our senses heightened by the bitter cold.

The completed passage of the top drivers freed up the crowds enough for us to move to another part of the stage, and we soon found a way to get very close to the actual stage road on the other side of the complex. Although these crews were slower, the proximity was thrilling and we watched a number of drivers (who were extremely talented in their own right) negotiate the tricky sprint.

Eventually the cold was victorious, despite our triple layers, laying claim to our toes first. Reluctantly we headed for the car, and five minutes later crashed out in the warm surroundings of our apartment. The physical demands of the day had taken their toll and we relaxed in front of the TV, before growling stomachs finally motivated us enough to seek out some dinner. Back into the egg-shaped Ford, we headed for the centre of the pretty little town. On one side of the town square we came across a pizza restaurant, crammed full of beer-swilling rally fans, ravenous from a day on the stages. We decided to get in line rather than try to find another restaurant, and were well-rewarded for the decision. Before long we found a place at one of the benches with a couple of other Brits, and we talked motorsport and drank Heinekins whilst we waited for the pies to arrive. When they finally did we made quick work of them, and sat in a warm, self-congratulatory glow of achievement. Before leaving we looked at the itinerary for Leg two, and started to formulate a plan for the day. We decided to aim high, confident in my father's driving skills and my navigational abilities, and planned for three stages. Sadly, they didn't include Vargasen, the site of "Colin's Crest", named for the incredible air that Colin McRae achieved at that spot in previous years. Still, we were going to head for Fredriksberg, one of rallying's most fearsome stages, up there with Finland's Ouninpohja and Wales' Resolfen.

A warm bed beckoned and an early morning loomed.

And people think F1 qualifying is complicated...

From the Speed Channel website:

"Daytona 500 qualifying is far and away the most complicated of any Nextel Cup race. Here’s how it works: Pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 is Sunday, Feb. 11. All the cars entered in the 500 will take two laps around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway tri-oval in an attempt to win the pole for the race on Feb. 18. But unlike a traditional Nextel Cup race, Daytona 500 qualifying only sets the top two positions.

Positions 3-39 will go to the top 35 in 2006 owner points and the two highest finishers in each of the Daytona Duel 150 qualifying races on Thursday, Feb. 15. Positions 40-42 in the Daytona 500 field will go to the fastest qualifiers who don’t make it in via the Duels, while the 43rd and final position is reserved for either a past champion, or the next fastest qualifier."

So many questions... The likelihood is that the top two spots will go to cars that were in the top 35 of 2006 owner points. That leaves 33 cars to take positions 3-39, leaving four spots for those winners and runners-up in each of the Duel races. But what if the top two positions of the pole qualifying are not from the top 35 of 2006 owners points? You now have to cram all 35 of those cars into positions 3-39, leaving only two open spots. So what happens to the second-placed cars from each of the duels? Are they S.O.L.? Does it then go back to qualifying times from the Pole Qualifying, like it says above? To me it looks like you could come second in a Duel, but have a slightly iffy Pole Qualifying time and not make it into the race.

Can a NASCAR expert illuminate the situation for me?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A trip to the Swedish Rally, part 1 - Getting there

It was -15 degrees celsius, dark, and we were in Sweden in February waiting for a bus, after travelling for eighteen hours. Anyone who has ever questioned my passion for motorsport finally had nothing to say...

Every year around this time I think back to 2003, when I journeyed with my father to the WRC Swedish Rally. As the days tick down to this year's Swedish, I'll do my best to recount that remarkable trip...

United Airlines had been offering incredible deals on trans-Atlantic airfare, and I managed to pick up return flights to London for about $250 each. A quick hop from London to Stockholm for a paltry $70 and the decision was made: we'd be going to the Swedish Rally. However, a lack of spare vacation days meant that we were going to have to arrive at the rally on the Friday morning, making for a very tight schedule: we'd be leaving San Francisco on Wednesday and would arrive back on home soil a mere five days later.

The only difficulty, as is typical with last minute trips to major sporting events, was securing accomodation. After a frustating couple of days contacting hotels in both the host city of Karlstad (70km from the stages) and Hagfors, site of the service park and central to the stages, I was still empty handed. Luckily the local tourist board had a list of homestays, and we ended up with a relatively cheap house for the three nights we'd be in Hagfors. Interestingly, the method of using a local agent to find a homestay has worked well for us at Le Mans as well.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm very thorough when it comes to trip-planning. My biggest concern was how we'd be able to find our way around, a crucial detail when you're up against the clock trying to get from stage to stage on an efficiently-run rally. In the absence of any decent maps of central Sweden I opted to print out some maps from the internet, and was able to superimpose the rally route and access roads from smaller maps on the rally's website. Suitably prepped, we were ready to go.

Nothing can prepare you for the sheer cold of Scandinavia in winter, and as the doors of the airport terminal opened in Stockholm we knew that this was going to be unlike any motorsport event we'd ever been to. As the clock ticked by we wondered if the car rental reservation that I'd made was for real. Finally the shuttle arrived and we ended up at Avis' office. The first car that we were given, an Opel Corsa, had its parking brake frozen in place, so we were given a different car, a Ford Ka. Although the car was smaller, it proved to be fortuitous, as the Ka performed magnificently over the next four days.

I had made arrangements to spend the Thursday evening with a friend of a friend in Stockholm, but the confusing nature of the city built on countless islands meant that we never made it, and ended up instead at one of the numerous "Formula 1" motels that dot mainland Europe. After checking in to the tiny room, we braved the cold in order to walk to the pizza restaurant across the street. As you might expect, a cold beer would be high on the list of "must-haves" after such a lengthy journey, so it didn't take long for us to discover the harsh reality of Swedish alcohol taxation. Heinekins were $9 apiece! It turns out that although $9 is expensive, it's not prohibitive for either me or my father...

Friday came early, since we had to get to Hagfors by lunchtime, a not insignificant task given the snowy roads, distance and possibility of crowded roads. We took advantage of the delicious free breakfast then hit the road. Once beyond the extensive sprawl of Sweden's capital we finally got a look at the beautiful Swedish countryside. The rolling hills were covered in a deep layer of snow, apparently no longer a sure thing in the Central Swedish winter these days.

Shortly before the regional capital of Karlstad, we took a right turn onto a smaller country road. Almost immediately the landscape became hillier, and the snow started to get thicker on the ground. We started to see evidence of the same kind of roadside snowbanks that the WRC crews would be using to their advantage on the actual stages. Fifty kilometers later we turned right onto a main road which five minutes later brought us into the town of Hagfors, home of the Swedish Rally's service park - which is where we were headed first.....

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Another fun racing blog to check out

Rob Ijbema, a blogger from the UK, is aiming to complete a painting of a racing car every single day. Check out his work here. His Dakar work is especially good...

Weekend Menu - Week 5

Five major events this weekend:

  • AMA Supercross, Anaheim, California
  • A1GP, Eastern Creek, Australia
  • Galway International Rally; first round of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship
  • Rallye Perce-Neige Maniwaki, Maniwaki, Quebec, Canada; first round of the Canadian Rally Championship
  • Parker 400, Parker, AZ; second round of the Best in the Desert off-road racing championship