Monday, April 30, 2007

Pitbox positioning

I've been thinking about pitstops lately, after watching the dynamics of a pitlane unfold in V8 Supercar racing.

For motorsports that require pitstops and have either pitstop windows or frequent full-course cautions, the possibility of a busy pitlane is to be expected. In these situations, is it better to be at the start, middle or end of the pitlane?

Initially I decided that a position at the start of the pitlane is the most beneficial. The biggest factor in deciding this is that right of way always goes to cars already travelling down the pitlane. If a car is coming, a stopped car must wait for it to pass. The crew member in charge of releasing the car will (should) always err on the side of caution. The car at the end of the pitlane will have the highest likelihood of having to wait for cars that have already stopped.

But hang on a moment.... The car in the first pitbox still has to wait for cars when it wants to leave - only this time it's those that have not yet gotten to their pit. Oftentimes cars will bunch up at pit entry, making departure for the car at pit-in even more difficult.

One good thing with having that first pitbox is that you're guaranteed not to be blocked in by a car that has already stopped in the pitbox before yours. This can make or break a race.

One other consideration: just like safety-car periods, pitstops always have a greater potential for gain for those at the back of the field. The worst place to be (in theory) is first (although obviously first is the place you always want to be anyway LOL!)

So what is my answer? Well, I'd say on-track strategy ultimately plays a much bigger role, and that hitting the pits when there's not much traffic is the ideal situation. Not always possible, mind you, especially if it's a usefully timed full-course caution period, but in V8 Supercars for example, I'd always choose to wait for the third lap of the pit window than the first. The biggest collateral gain with that is that an empty pitlane is a safe pitlane, and that's surely an important consideration that often gets ignored. Witness the chaos of a NASCAR pitlane during a caution period, and think about how many more stories you hear about NASCAR crew members who get injured than crew members in other forms of racing...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 17

Some bizarre crossover events this weekend, along with a few championships that begin their year:

  • Spanish CEV - Albacete, Spain (first round of the top Spanish motorcycle championship)
  • World Superbike / Supersport / Superstock - Assen, Netherlands
  • A1GP - Brands Hatch, England (final race of the season)
  • Quit Forest Rally - Busselton, Australia (Australian Rally Championship)
  • AMA Superbike - California Speedway, Fontana, CA
  • World Supermoto Championship - Castelletto di Branduzzo, Italy (first round of the championship)
  • Cookstown 100 - Cookstown, Northern Ireland (first race in the Irish real road racing season)
  • Kansas Lottery $150 Grand - Kansas Speedway (ARCA / Remax Series)
  • Kansas Lottery Indy 300 - Kansas Speedway (Indy Racing League)
  • O'Reilly Auto Parts 250 - Kansas Speedway (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Rim of the World Rally - Lancaster, CA (US Rally Championship)R
  • Rally de Canaria - Las Palmas, Canary Islands (FIA Southwest European Rally Cup)
  • ADAC ACAS H&R Cup - Nurburgring, Germany (VLN Championship)
  • Terrible's Town 250 - Pahrump, NV (Best in the Desert series)
  • Rally Matador Tatry - Puchov, Slovakia (FIA Central European Rally Cup)
  • AMA Supercross - Seattle, Washington
  • British Superbike - Silverstone, England
  • Aarons 312 - Talladega, AL (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Aarons 499 - Talladega, AL (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • VIR 400 - Virginia International Raceway (Grand Am Rolex Sportscar Series)
  • VIR 500k - Virginia International Raceway (MOTO-ST)
  • Star Mazda Championship - Virginia International Raceway
A few things to mention here... Firstly, interesting to see three entirely seperate sanctioning bodies together at Kansas Speedway (IRL, NASCAR and ARCA). I like to see that kind of thing, it's good for motorsport. Secondly, same thing at Virginia, except even more so. Star Mazda is usually aligned with IMSA and the ALMS, so they're kind of bridging a gap by running alongside Grand-Am. And how WEIRD to see a motorcycle race as part of that weekend. I would have thought that the infrastructure for two-wheeled racing is too different to run alongside cars (I'm thinking of air fencing versus tyre barriers for example). MOTO-ST is run by Grand-Am so the hook-up is not entirely surprising, but I hope that motorcycle safety isn't compromised by running with cars.

The Rim of the World Rally, which I've competed in a few times, is a shell of it's former self, after the Forest Service pulled their permit to run in the Angeles National Forest. It will now be a Superspecial-only rally, albeit one that will feature RallyMoto (another example of the motorcycle-car hookup). Funny, these coincidences...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Riding outside your class

I'm often quick to compare domestic superbike championships, usually in the context of the British and the American series, but one thing occurred to me today whilst reading a report on last weekend's AMA event at Barber in Alabama. The AMA championship is probably the only one in the world where superbike riders also ride in the support classes. I started thinking why this might be.

The primary difference with how the two championships work is financially: a rider in the AMA series can earn much more staying in the US than they could virtually anywhere else in the racingsphere, except perhaps as a top factory rider in MotoGP. Even the top riders in World Superbike are probably making less than their counterparts in the AMA. This is a common reason from US riders who seem reluctant to ride overseas.

In the USA, factory teams strive for success in all classes, since superbike is not viewed with quite as much reverence as in the UK or World championships, thus the importance of winning in support classes. Although you'll find indirect factory support in supersport and superstock in the British and World series, it's is much more prevalent in the USA. There's factory Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki efforts in Supersport, factory Suzuki and Yamaha in Superstock and Honda provides good support to the Erion Formula Extreme outfit.

Given that the support classes are taken so seriously, it's not surprising that the factories want their best riders involved. And given a rider's salary, they're only too happy to "tow the party line" and jump on small-bore bikes, stock bikes or both. It's not seen as a step down like it would be elsewhere, another major reason that it's rarely seen in BSB or WSBK.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Honda in trouble

I just took a look at the combined practice times for this weekend's MotoGP race at Istanbul Park in Turkey, and I am absolutely floored by the poor performance of Honda. By far the most numerous bike on the grid with six entries, they're currently in 5th, 9th, 10th, 14th, 16th and 18th. In contrast, Ducati are in 1st, 2nd, 8th and 13th.

How can it be that the manufacturer with the deepest pockets, and strongest history of winning can be in such a dire predicament? It reminds me of Toyota in Formula 1. Actually, it also reminds me of Honda this year in Formula 1. 2007 is turning out to be a tough year for the Big Red, unless you're in their SuperGT or World Superbike teams.

Questions abound about why the RC212V is such a dog. Perhaps they should see about "prototype-izing" a Ten Kate Fireblade, they might have more success. Actually, it seems that most of the Honda GP riders are bitching about lack of front end feel. Whether this is down to the new profile of the tyres, the smaller 16" front wheels being used in 2007, or the way that mass has been redistributed within the bike's chassis is unclear, but one thing is damn sure: riders who don't give a crap about the rear wheel's behavior but who live on the front (cough, cough, Hayden, cough) are in a whole world of hurt. I also wonder whether the higher corner entry speeds are requiring more commitment from riders who are unfamiliar with that kind of riding. Still, if that's the case you would think that 250cc graduates Melandri, Nakano, Pedrosa and Checa would be doing better. Only Toni Elias has shown any speed so far this weekend. It was a similar story pre-race in Losail, with Elias near the front and everyone else midpack, and Jerez, only difference there being Pedrosa running well and all other Hondas back on the 4th row or worse.

Honda now find themselves in the same place that Yamaha was this time last year, a place called Disarray City, whilst Ducati, whose budget is a tiny fraction of Honda's, are top dogs. Funny the difference a year makes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 16

I missed last week, so time to get back on track. This weekend is extremely busy - check out this long list of national and international racing:

  • GP of Portugal - Agueda, Portugal (FIM Motocross)
  • AMA Superbike - Barber Motorsports Park, AL
  • Rally Mille Miglia - Brescia, Italy (European Rally Championship)
  • Pirelli International Rally - Carlisle, England (British Rally Championship)
  • AMA Supercross - Detroit, MI
  • British Formula 3 - Donington Park, England
  • British GT - Donington Park, England
  • Belcar - Donington Park, England
  • Oregon Trail Rally - Hillsboro, OR (Rally America Championship)
  • F3 Euroseries - Hockenheim, Germany
  • DTM - Hockenheim, Germany
  • American Le Mans Series - Houston Reliant Park, TX
  • Champ Car World Series - Houston Reliant Park, TX
  • Star Mazda - Houston Reliant Park, TX
  • MotoGP - Istanbul, Turkey
  • Le Mans 24 Hours Moto - Le Mans, France (FIM World Endurance Championship)
  • Australian Superbike - Mallala, Australia
  • Monaghan Stages Rally - Monaghan, Ireland (Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • Indy Japan 300 - Motegi, Japan (Indy Racing League)
  • Troodos Rally - Nicosia, Cyprus (Middle East Rally Championship)
  • Bashas Supermarkets 200 - Phoenix Raceway, AZ (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Subway Fresh 500 - Phoenix Raceway, AZ (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Placemakers V8 Supercars - Pukekohe, New Zealand (V8 Supercars Championship)
  • British Touring Car Championship - Rockingham, England
  • Porsche Carrera Cup GB - Rockingham, England
  • Formula Renault UK - Rockingham, England
  • Kentuckiana Ford Dealers 200 - Salem Speedway, IN (ARCA Remax Series)
  • Swedish Touring Cars - Sturup, Sweden
  • International GT Open - Vallelunga, Italy
Busy, don't you think? Plenty of rallying; both US open wheel series; ALMS; British, Swedish, German and Aussie touring cars; all manner of bike racing; the list goes on. Have fun watching whatever racing you watch...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My first weekend as a sportscar journalist

I was down at the Long Beach Champ Car and ALMS event this weekend, in my first proper reporting gig for It was extremely interesting to see what the life of the motorsport journalist is like compared to attending a race as a punter.

I arrived early Friday morning and found my way to the media center. At Long Beach this was in the basement area of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, where they have a bunch of ballrooms and meeting rooms. John, the website's editor, had secured a couple of spaces in the internet and photo press room, which was arranged with rows of tables, each with power and internet. There was also wireless internet, a number of TV screens showing live TV feeds and live timing and scoring of whatever was on track at that moment. At the back of the room were tables with a whole host of media materials, including the gargantuan ALMS media guide (400 pages) and the latest official press releases from each of the championships competing that weekend.

My goal for the day was to cover ALMS practice and qualifying, and secure an interview with Greg Pickett, owner of the Cytosport team, who were running their first ALMS race. I headed out to the ALMS paddock, but on the way ran into the three drivers of the Intersport Creation LMP1 car. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out my rookie interview technique and I pulled out my voice recorder and asked Clint Field if I could have a quick word. He was very gracious, and we talked and walked. I was working feverishly to come up with follow-up questions whilst he was talking, realizing that I could review content later, but had to think of questions NOW! It all seemed to go very well, and as I entered the paddock I was ready for more.

For this event the paddock was seperated from the pitlane, so the cars were all "staged" prior to heading for the pits. This gave the public a tremendous opportunity to get close to the cars and drivers, and me a chance to get more interviews. My next victim was Ben Devlin, factory driver for Mazda's LMP2 program, and then Romain Dumas from the Penske Porsche team. This was all going very well, and I took my place in the grandstands for the practice session very pleased with myself.

After practice I went looking for Cytosport, and was eventually invited into their hospitality area. Greg spent about 15 minutes talking to me and I got a lot of great material for my article. He was very enthusiastic and I found that I didn't need to ask that many questions because he was happy to just talk about the project.

By now it was clear that a media credential provides not only access to media and team facilities but it also allows you to talk to people in a far more brazen fashion, since teams and drivers know that media coverage is important. At no point was I declined an interview, and everyone I talked to was very open and friendly.

I completed my articles, working for the first time against a deadline, and later in the day went to my first press conference, with the top qualifiers from each class. This went pretty much as I expected, and I found myself asking a question to Dindo Capello from the Audi team at one point, as I was seeking clarification on a couple of points.

On race day things started later, which was nice, but I knew that with a 5:40 race finish, I'd be staying late to finish the race report. Much of the day was spent deciding where to watch the race from. Street circuits are notoriously poor for having general admission viewing areas, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Long Beach quite different in this regard. I eventually settled for a GA grandstand with a view of turn 1 for the start, followed by a migration to an embankment across from the pits once pitstops were imminent. The plan worked well, and I made extensive notes as the race unfolded. I've never been so focused on what was happening at a race, especially with four classes to keep track of. In reality, LMP1 and LMP2 ended up functioning as one big class, GT1 only had two cars, and GT2 was a seperate story, so I wrote the report in two major parts. We eventually got out of the media center around 8:30, a long day to be sure, but exhilarating and fun.

I noticed that the sportscar media fraternity is populated primarily by older men, which shouldn't have surprised me. It's a less glamorous form of racing than open wheel, NASCAR or motorcycles, but it meant that John (who's in his twenties) and I (I'm just out of my twenties LOL!) stood out a little bit. John's got a bright future ahead of him - he's passionate and knowledgeable about the sport, a good writer and a good photographer. Since sportscar racing will always be there even as these older journalists leave, there will be a gap in sportscar journalism for people like John, particularly if they have good tech abilities like he does.

My next assignment is likely to be the Grand-Am event at Laguna Seca in May. I'm less interested in (and less knowledgeable about) that series, so it will present its own set of challenges. After that I'll be at Le Mans but as a tourist not media (by choice), then Grand-Am at Sears Point in August. I'll close out the year at Laguna Seca for the final ALMS event of the season. All good stuff to put on my journalistic resume!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Champcar - didn't suck

I watched my first Champcar race in a couple of years on Sunday, with the start of the new season and the debut of the Las Vegas street circuit. I'll be honest - I wasn't expecting much, with only 17 cars, virtually all of them piloted by pay-to-play drivers, and everyone in brand-new, potentially unreliable cars.

Things didn't start well, as the field struggled to achieve a single green flag lap. Graham Rahal got spooked by an aggressive move by Dan Clarke and crashed as a result. He obviously complained about Clarke's maneouver, but it seemed to me that it was a rookie mistake.

Once things got going, it was clear that a number of drivers were pretty competitive. Everyone was expecting good things from experienced Champcar drivers Seb Bourdais and Paul Tracy, but I was pleased to see Robert Doornbos, Will Power, Neel Jani and others on or near the pace of the quick guys. This bodes well for a reasonably interesting season.

I'm driving 500 miles to go to the Long Beach GP this weekend to report on the ALMS race for, and hadn't planned on sticking around for the Champcars. I may have changed my mind...

Friday, April 06, 2007

British Superbike is back

Quite possibly my revelation of 2006, British Superbike is a great championship to follow. What made it more compelling than it might otherwise have been was the tedium of its transatlantic cousin, the AMA Superbike championship here in the US. Race after race in the AMA put me to sleep, so it was truly refreshing to watch another national superbike class that was actually entertaining. On any given weekend, any one of perhaps six or seven riders were in with a shout. In the US, that number was really only two (and ended up being three).

The top two teams in BSB remain the HM Plant factory Honda team and the factory-supported Airwaves Ducati outfit. Further down the pecking order are semi-factory efforts Rizla Suzuki, Hawk Kawasaki and Virgin Yamaha, along with top Honda privateers Stobart.

HM Plant boast last year's title-winner, Ryuichi Kiyonari, and kick Karl Harris to the curb in favour of junior team graduate Johnny Rea. Kiyonari is undoubtedly capable of repeating in 2007 and remains one of the top three riders in the series. The question is, how long before Honda gives him another shot on the international stage?

Rea's major obstacle will be the switch from the Dunlops of the junior team to Michelins, something that has caused many more experienced riders trouble in the past (most notably Ben Bostrom, but Neil Hodgson and Noriyuki Haga also come to mind). However, his speed in pre-season testing seems to indicate that he's already oversome that issue.

Stepping into Johnny's place in what used to be called the Red Bull junior team and is now sponsored by, is Leon Camier, who won the British Supersport crown in 2005. It's safe to say he has the support of his family - they sold their house to kickstart his career back in 2000, when he headed to 125 grand prix racing. If he can maintain the pace of Rea from 2006, he'll be a constant threat for the podium.

Last year Airwaves Ducati had the strongest rider line-up with Leon Haslam and Spaniard Greg Lavilla. Haslam's season started slowly but picked up speed to the point that he was in contention for the title going into the last race. Lavilla on the other hand was untouchable to start with, but a series of errors and mechanical failures put him out of the running in the penultimate race of the season. As championship winner in 2005, he's proved he can do it, but with Leon growing in confidence every year, the competition gets stronger, not weaker. However both riders are equally capable of getting the job done this year.

The next strongest team has to be Rizla Suzuki, who have the most exciting new line-up. Returning from his years in World Superbike is Chris Walker, who considers the BSB championship to be unfinished business - he's been runner-up four times, most notably against Neil Hodgson back in 2000 in heartbreaking circumstances as his bike failed in the last race. He'll be quick, there's no doubt, but it's not clear whether the Suzuki is the bike to be on if you want to win the championship. It certainly wasn't for Shakey Byrne, who won on a Ducati in 2003 but couldn't mount a serious challenge last year on the Suzook. However, it's the bike to have in the US AMA series, so perhaps there's hope yet.

Alongside The Stalker will be last year's British Supersport champ, Cal Crutchlow. Like Leon Camier, he represents the future of British Superbike racing, and should be the perfect "yin" to Walker's "yang". The mixture of youth and experience has worked well for teams in the past and Rizla Suzuki will hope that'll be the case again. I'm expecting Cal to find an occasional podium during this first year, but not challenge for victories just yet.

The two Rizla refugees have split for other second-tier teams this year after both endured terrible injury-riddled seasons in 2006. James Haydon finds himself on a Pirelli-shod Virgin Yamaha, whilst Shane "Shakey" Byrne rejoins Paul Bird Motorsport's Stobart team, for whom he won the title in 2003. Now running Hondas instead of Ducatis, they struggled last year against the might of the factory-backed teams, waiting in vain for traction control systems. They'll have it for this year, but who's to say what new gizmos HM Plant Honda will get that Stobart won't. The life of the privateer team is a tough one, even with the decent level of funding that they have. Still, there exists the possibility that Shakey's bike will be close enough in performance that he'll be in with a shout. I certainly hope so.

One other notable rider returning to an old team is Scott Smart. Three years ago he was the next big thing after a great season on the Hawk Kawasaki. He nabbed a spot with Rizla Suzuki, at that point the team to beat, but he struggled mightily and lost the ride. Picked up by privateers Vivaldi, he did what he could and was always top-ten material and in 2006 achieved a spectacular win in the wet at Donington. He'll hope that a move back to Hawk Kawasaki can turn his stuttering career around. If not, we'll be hearing much more of him in the commentary booth of World Superbike, where it has to be said he does a very good job too.

It's all shaping up to be another cracking season. The only difference as far as I'm concerned is that the AMA championship is looking decidedly rosier this year. The question is this: how great will BSB look now when compared with the much-improved AMA Superbike? Whatever the answer is, it's a good year to follow superbike racing...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 14

This weekend's racing activities:

  • British Superbike - Brands Hatch (opening round of the championship)
  • Circuit of Ireland Rally - Derry, Northern Ireland (part of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship)
  • Las Vegas Grand Prix - Las Vegas street course, NV (opening rounds of the Champcar World Series and Formula Atlantic)
  • Japanese SuperGT - Okayama, Japan
  • PFG Lester 150 - Nashville Speedway, TN (ARCA Remax series)
  • Pepsi 300 - Nashville Speedway, TN (NASCAR Busch series)
  • British GT - Oulton Park (opening round)
  • British Formula 3 - Oulton Park (opening round)
  • Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix - Sepang, Malaysia (Formula 1)
  • Samsung 500 - Texas Motor Speedway (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
Also, I missed last week's Menu, so it should be noted that the following championships started their season last weekend:
  • British Touring Car Championship
  • Formula Renault UK
  • Posche Carrera Cup Great Britain
  • Spanish GT Championship
  • Australian Rally Championship
  • All-Japan Superbike Championship
  • VLN Series
  • FIM Motocross Grand Prix
  • Belcar
In addition the following championships were in action:
  • WRC
  • Junior WRC
  • World Superbike
  • World Supersport
  • AMA Supercross
  • NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series
  • NASCAR Nextel Cup
  • US Rally Championship
  • American Le Mans Series
  • Indy Racing League
  • Indy Pro Series
  • Best in the Desert
  • Fujitsu V8 Supercars

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The problem with split times

Once again, the pace of development in the world of communications has had a negative impact on the spectacle of motorsport. I'm referring to the usage of split-times in the World Rally Championship. Too often these days you hear about drivers "driving to the splits", effectively managing their time gaps so as to not go too fast or be overly risky.

I'll be the first to admit that rallying is very much about getting to the finish - I have many trophies from my days as a co-driver that prove that outright speed is not always necessary to achieve success! However, when a driver makes a decision about how hard to push on a given stage, it should not be influenced during the stage through communications from outside the car. The whole concept of driving to splits is inherently unfair, since it favours teams that are starting later (the top runners on days two and three when this practice is most often utilized) and teams with the budget for the kind of radio technology integration.

It used to be the case that as the end of the rally neared, anyone not in the lead would push like crazy to gain back time. This meant the leader had to do the same. These days that never happens, since the guy in second knows that the leader will be able to adjust his pace based on those split times. If you know your rival will push only as hard as necessary, there's no incentive to risk it all.

Even Formula 1 clamped down on excessive comms technology by banning pit-to-car telemetry. I see no legitimate reason for split-time communications to be legal (unless of course those in charge feel it's a safety issue by limiting how fast the cars will go - if that's the case then we live in sad, sad world).

The biggest losers in all of this are the fans, who can no longer witness heroic last-day fight-backs. Instead those final stages pass by like moves in a chess game: considered, informed and downright dull.

Monday, April 02, 2007

What happens when you crash out of Dakar

Now that I'm a card-carrying dirtbike / dual-sport owner, it's only right that I frequent the massivley busy forums.

I came across an interesting thread that details the experiences of one forum member who took part in this year's Dakar Rally. It pretty much confirmed what I already knew: when things are going right, Dakar is a challenging test of skill and endurance; when things go wrong, it becomes a mental trial of epic proportions. After watching Charley Boorman's "Race to Dakar" documentary, in which his cameraman endured days of drama after he had to retire, this served as further notice that you don't want to have to withdraw from Dakar, for any reason.

Further proof that Dakar riders are absolutely crazy: Isidre Esteve Pujol joins the list of top moto-rallyists to have a devastating accident. Unlike Fabrizio Meoni, Richard Sainct, Andy Caldecott, John Deacon etc., he survived, but may end up paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Fingers crossed for him that once the swelling subsides he'll regain use of legs.