Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Petrol vs diesel at Le Mans

My compadres over at the Ten-Tenths sportscar forum are all a-twitter at the moment about equivalency formulae between diesel and petrol Le Mans Prototype cars. I've tried to stay out of the discussion because it seems like one of those threads where no-one really hears what anyone else is saying and it all ends up being a bit pointless.

But it's an important issue that impacts the future of Le Mans sportscar racing. The perceived problem is that the current rules format favours diesel-powered cars unfairly. In theory, ACO Le Mans rules are supposed to offer teams and manufacturers the option of running different fuels, none of which offer an advantage over any other, thus encouraging innovation and use of alternative fuel technologies.

In reality, there are two teams running cars with diesel engines, and both those teams appear to be running significantly faster than any of their rivals. As a result, many people are saying that the rules favour diesels. The one point I made on the aforementioned forum thread was that it just so happens that the only two teams running diesels are the only two Le Mans entrants in the prototype class who can effectively be considered "manufacturers".

So is the apparent pace of the Peugeot and Audi diesels down to their engine or their HUGE AMOUNT OF FINANCIAL RESOURCES??? This is a question that will be answered in 2008 (maybe) and 2009 (certainly), when Acura step up their ALMS prototype project to the LMP1 class. It will be the first time EVER that a factory Audi will have been challenged by a petrol-powered prototype from a manufacturer with a legitimate shot at winning Le Mans. Until then, Audi and Peugeot's closest rivals will be privateers such as Pescarolo, Creation, Zytek and Courage, all of which run petrol engines and all of which operate on a fraction of the budget of the two big diesel teams. It's like comparing apples and oranges, something that some of my friends over at 10/10ths seem to be missing.

The elephant in the room here is Porsche. Despite running very close to Audi in the ALMS all year, they believe that the current engine equivalency formulae in LMP1 are so tilted in the favour of diesels that they are considering delaying their entry into LMP1. Personally I think Porsche should suck it up and get on with the job. If it becomes clear that petrol engines are being unfairly legislated against, I'm sure the ACO will make adjustments.

The numbers seem to indicate that any adjustment is either unnecessary or would need to be tiny. Last year, Pescarolo ran a 3:30 on the Le Mans test weekend, and a 3:32 in qualifying, with Audi doing vice versa. So performance was close prior to the race itself. In the race, Pescarolo lost by four laps. Audi's 27 stops gave a total of 2700 litres of fuel taken onboard. In 2007, Audi's fuel tank will go from 100 litres down to 81 litres, giving 34 pitstops. So if both teams run the same pace with the same fuel economy this year, Audi's seven extra stops will cost them an extra 11 minutes, which is equal to three laps. What this means is that the change in fuel tank size has gone a long way to levelling the playing field, and that really it seems as though petrol performance is only about 0.25% below what it should be (at Le Mans at least) in order to produce a straight fight against diesels.

We'll know in 18 days. I'll be watching very carefully from my pitlane grandstand seat how many laps diesel teams are getting on one stint versus what the petrol cars get.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Midweek Menu - Week 21

Open wheel racing has two of its biggest events this weekend: the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. The Isle of Man TT also starts.

  • All-Japan Superbikes - Autopolis, Japan
  • Rocky Mountain Rally - Calgary, Canada (Canadian Rally Championship)
  • Spanish CEV - Catalunya, Spain
  • Cavan Stages Rally - Cavan, Ireland (Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • Zulu Rally South Africa - Durban, South Africa (African Rally Championship)
  • AMA Motocross - High Point Raceway, PA
  • Freedom 100 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indy Pro Series)
  • Indy 500 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indy Racing League)
  • Isle of Man TT - Mountain Course, Isle of Man
  • Jim Clark Memorial Rally - Kelso, Scotland (British Rally Championship and Irish and British Tarmac Rally Championships)
  • Rolex GT Series Challenge - Lime Rock Park, CT (Rolex Grand Am GT Series)
  • Carquest Auto Parts 300 - Lowes Motor Speedway, NC (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Coca Cola 600 - Lowes Motor Speedway, NC (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • City of Mansfield 250 - Mansfield, OH (NASCAR Craftsman Trucks)
  • World Series by Renault - Monte Carlo, Monaco
  • GP2 - Monte Carlo, Monaco
  • Monaco Grand Prix - Monte Carlo, Monaco (Formula 1)
  • Porsche Supercup - Monte Carlo, Monaco
  • Rally di San Marino - San Marino (European Rally Cup - Southwest)
  • World Superbike - Silverstone, England
  • Grand Prix of Japan - Sugo, Japan (FIM Motocross)
  • INA Croatia Delta Rally - Zagreb, Croatia (European Rally Championship
  • ADAC Reinoldus Langstreckenrennen - Nurburgring, Germany (VLN Series)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Grand Am - get your act together

I spent the weekend down at Laguna Seca at the Grand-Am Rolex Sportscar event. I wrote four pieces: a qualifying report, a report for the GT race, an interview with Porsche factory driver Pat Long and a report on the Daytona Prototype race. In addition to the two races I wrote about, I watched the two Koni Challenge events. Of those four races, THREE ended under a yellow flag.

There are not many things I can think of that are more unsatisfactory than a race ended under yellow. But to see 75% of the weekend's races end that way was terrible. It seemed to me that Grand-Am officials were far too quick to throw full-course cautions when local yellows would suffice. Yes, they utilized local yellows on a couple of occasions, such as a car spinning on track. But will somebody please tell these people about the step between the static yellow, and the full-course caution... it's called a waving yellow, and it's used for a situation that requires a driver to not just be cautious, but to actually slow down. A stalled car in the middle of the track is a good example of a situation where this would be necessary. Ultimately, the car may need to be retrieved, in which case a safety car may be needed. But sometimes a car can get going again. By this time, Grand Am would have sent out the safety car, when it was not required.

To make things even worse, when a safety car was utilized, it stayed out at least two laps too long. Generally, after the hazard was cleared it would be two more laps before the field was released. In a race where seven (YES, SEVEN!!!) cautions were called, that equates to a loss of an additional 14 green flag laps, or more than 15% of the race. There were 30 laps run under yellow, which theoretically could have been just 15. Having extraction equipment in different parts could also have helped, instead of needing the one crew to scramble from and to the pit lane each time.

All in all, it was a pretty pathetic show, and added to the impression I got as a member of the media that the ALMS are light years ahead of Grand Am when it comes to professionalism. From a press conference where the drivers showed up 15 minutes late, to a press room where race notes and results seemed to take hours to be distributed, I was very unimpressed.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Northwest 200

In the world of motorcycle real road racing, there's three races that are the "crown jewels": the Isle of Man TT, the Ulster Grand Prix and the Northwest 200.

The Northwest, first of the three each year, was held a couple of weeks ago, and produced some absolutely cracking racing. Anyone used to watching the Isle of Man TT will find the Northwest an entirely different spectacle. Despite the fact that both run on extremely fast public roads over a distance much longer than permanent circuits, the TT's "against the clock" format takes the sting out of the racing. The Northwest on the other hand has all riders start together, so when two riders are side by side they are racing for position. The same situation on the TT could mean anything, depending on where the riders are in relation to each other in the start order. The Northwest's format doesn't just make things more exciting for spectators, it also seems to inspire the riders to push that much harder.

I've noticed that there seems to be an increasing level of interest in the real road racing scene from the powerhouse teams of British Superbike, with many of the top teams signing the quickest riders from the roads to ride their highly-developed, big-budget machinery. This year was no exception. HM Plant Honda had multiple TT-winner John McGuinness; Stobart Honda brought in experienced Welshman Ian Lougher; MSS Discovery are running with Michael Rutter, not just on the roads but in BSB too; AIM Yamaha's Steve Plater is also doing both the roads and BSB; and Hydrex Honda signed likeable Brit Guy Martin for their roads campaign.

Joining these top teams were all the other top riders from the real road racing scene: New Zealander Bruce Anstey, Australian Cameron Donald, Scotland's Keith Amor, and the best Irish riders such as Adrian Archibald and Ryan Farquhar.

The weekend featured 1000cc superbikes and 600cc supersport bikes each running two races, supported by a superstock race and the 125s, 250s and 400s all running together in one final race. The first superbike race was abbreviated after a couple of red flags and when all was said and done John McGuinness grabbed his first Northwest superbike victory, despite being confused as to whether the race was actually over or not. The second superbike race was absolutely riveting, coming down to a race-long dogfight between McGuinness, Rutter, Martin and Plater. Plater's no-nonsense style allowed him to clinch victory, after Martin "nerfed" McGuinness off the road. Plater has not been particularly successful in BSB these last few years, so his prowess in the NW200 must be a source of satisfaction for him.

Next up is the fearsome Isle of Man TT. My good friend Peely is flying out from California next Friday to see the TT for the first time. I had to decline the invite given my plans to go to Le Mans, but I'm really looking forward to hearing from him what it's like. Perhaps he'll let me post some photos up here!

Like London buses

You wait seven months for a race at a local track, and then two come along at the same time. Last time I was at either Laguna Seca or Infineon was for the American Le Mans Series last October. If I hadn't got my fix at the Long Beach ALMS race in April I'd probably be going nuts right now, especially with my Le Mans trip just around the corner...

This weekend sees the Rolex Sportscar Series at Laguna, and the AMA Superbike Championship at Infineon. I went to both last year since they didn't clash but have to sacrifice one this weekend. Since The-Paddock wants me on-site to report on the Rolex event, that's where I'm headed. Luckily I can check out the Superbikes twice this year, when they support MotoGP at Laguna in July, and again for a stand-alone event at Laguna in September.

Last year I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the Rolex race, mainly due to the mellow crowd and the close racing. The cars were still silly and slow, but a day in the sun watching sportscars is never a bad day. Hopefully this weekend will be a repeat, although I'll be burdened with the task of reporting on the event (not a bad thing since it's free admission, all access, a spot in the media center and the opportunity to interview some great drivers).

One final note: there was a fun spot on the morning news on a local TV network, featuring an interview with Steve Rapp, rider for the Attack Kawasaki team in the AMA's Formula Xtreme class. Although most of what was covered was aimed at viewers who didn't know anything about the sport, it was very cool to see our beloved bike racing get some mainstream coverage.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 20

We're really into the height of the racing season now. A diverse mix of events this weekend:

  • FIA GT - Bucharest street circuit, Romania
  • British F3 - Bucharest street circuit, Romania
  • DTM - Eurospeedway Lausitz, Germany
  • F3 Euroseries - Eurospeedway Lausitz, Germany
  • AMA Motocross - Hangtown, CA
  • V8 Supercars - Winton, Australia
  • Fujitsu V8 Series - Winton, Australia
  • Rally d'Italia Sardegna - Sardinia, Italy (WRC and Junior WRC)
  • Swedish Touring Cars - Mantorp, Sweden
  • AMA Superbike - Infineon Raceway, CA
  • Bluewater Gran Prix - Parker, NV (Best in the Desert series)
  • Utah Grand Prix - Miller Motorsports Park, UT (ALMS, IMSA Lites, Formula BMW USA, IMSA GT3 Cup, Speed World Challenge, Star Mazda)
  • South Swedish Rally - Ljungby, Sweden (European Rally Cup - North)
  • World Supermoto Championship - Pleven, Bulgaria
  • World Touring Cars - Valencia, Spain
  • International GT Open - Valencia, Spain
  • MotoGP - Le Mans, France
  • Quaker State and Lube 200 - Lowes Motor Speedway, NC (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Australian Superbike - Symmons Plain, Australia
  • US Sportscar Invitational - Laguna Seca, CA (Rolex Grand Am Series)
  • Olympus Rally - Olympia, WA (Rally America Championship)
  • British Superbike - Snetterton, England
  • Toledo ARCA 200 - Toledo Speedway, OH (ARCA/Remax Series)
I'll be at Laguna Seca reporting on the Grand Am event for on both Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, May 14, 2007

About damn time....

My Le Mans tickets arrived. That means that I'm definitely going, LOL!

The drama to get these tickets was more than I expected. We knew that we wanted seats in the stands directly above the pitlane, since you can get a great view of pitstops all the way along the pitlane, and it's as good as any other for a view of the start. When I "applied" to the ACO for these tickets they were sold out. In a state of panic I then contacted and picked them up at a premium price from them. Two weeks later the ACO comes back to me to say that the stands were now available. Alas, it was too late, so we had to suck it up and deal with the extra cost of having bought through a broker.

To be fair, JustTickets did send them via overnight international, quite a cost on their part, after I told them we'd be leaving significantly earlier to start our vacation in France.

By the way, the picture is of me and my dad eating dinner at the legendary Stella Bar on the outside of Tertre Rouge corner at Le Mans in 2004, during the Thursday qualifying session. Only 29 days until I'll be doing the same again!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hamilton breaks more records

I was all set to write a post about World Superbike after another gripping pair of races, but it's going to be Formula 1 instead. I watched my friend Jeff marry his lovely partner Becky yesterday and he told me he'd be relying on my blog to keep him posted on the Spanish Grand Prix since the hotel they were staying at didn't have Speed Channel. Funnily enough, Jeff is a motorcycle guy, being the proud new owner of a Ducati 1098S Tricolore, but apparently he was more concerned with F1. Not a bad idea on his part, given the relative lack of performance of the Ducatis in World Superbike this year. So with apologies to my fellow bloggers who do a better job of covering F1, here goes....

I didn't watch the F1 race (so far this year I've only watched the Australian Grand Prix), but the most significant aspect of the race didn't need watching: Lewis Hamilton now leads the Formula 1 World Championship, with 30 points and is the youngest driver ever to do so. He's also the only F1 rookie to take podiums in his first four races.

Alonso guaranteed he wouldn't win after an optimistic first corner move on Massa, and now trails his team-mate by two points, one point ahead of the only man to win two races so far, the afore-mentioned Massa. Kimi Raikkonen sits in fourth with 22 points.

It's clear that one of these four men is going to win the championship, but the question is, which one? Alonso and Raikkonen are probably the fastest men out there, but Hamilton has shown remarkable pace and, even more impressively for an F1 newcomer, consistency. The thing that has to be scariest to his rivals is that he is only going to get better. That fact alone has me thinking that he'll be the first ever F1 driver to become world champion in his rookie year. It's a bold prediction, perhaps, but I don't think Formula 1 could ask for anything better. It's always been a form of motorsport that needs personalities, stories and heroes. Hamilton is already all three.

Okay Lewis, you've convinced me - I'll watch the next race. How huge would it be for him to win in two weeks time? The win itself would be remarkable, even if it would be expected fulfillment of potential. But the fact it would be at the spectacular Monaco circuit would make it the stuff of legends. That would be too good to miss.

Friday, May 11, 2007

TV coverage - the good, the bad and the downright ugly

TV coverage can make or break a motorsport championship. I watched the second round of the Australian Rally Championship last night, which is produced by the same folks who do the WRC coverage, with the same style of graphics, same music, same editing style and an overall similar feel. The goal is clear: regardless of what happens in the rally, MAKE IT COMPELLING...

They have succeeded. Despite an absence of flame-spitting WRC cars, replaced instead by tamer Super 2000 and Group N machinery, and even with a runaway leader, I was very entertained. Quick edits, smart, diverse camerawork and an excitable commentator all helped, and the show was put together in a manner that allowed me to keep track of what was going on.

In contrast, MotorsTV's coverage of the Le Mans Series race at Valencia was a disaster. Many on the sportscar racing forums are decrying the lack of spectator-friendliness of this series, and a piss-poor TV package is not helping. Unlike the ALMS, which provides excellent trackside commentary, internet radio, position indicator lights on the cars and numerous live-timing scoreboards at the track and online, it seems as though the LMS exists just for the competitors, and the TV coverage is one more example of this.

The MotorsTV highlights show had a wonderful opportunity to pack 6 hours of action into a tight 90-minute presentation. Instead, they took three segments of the race, stuck them together and called it a day. Tough luck to the viewer if something happened in the time between those segments. For an endurance event, it is vital that the viewer or spectator know what's going on, because it is often hard to see unless you follow closely over a long period of time. This is impossible if one moment you're watching action from lap 70, then a second later, it's lap 170.

As much as I like Mark Cole, an extremely knowledgeable commentator, he needs to be teamed with an entertaining co-commentator. He needs to function more as the expert, and sit next to someone like Martin Haven or John Hindhaugh, who can provide some excitement. Even his normal partner of Carlton Kirby is a little better. But when it's just Mark and David Leslie, or even worse, the pillocks they dug up for this weekend's event, it makes a potentially interesting event rather dull.

The top racing championships have it right - MotoGP for example does a great job, with good graphics, excellent camerawork and a solid commentary team. But the Aussie Rally folks prove that you don't need to be a major worldwide championship to have a great broadcast package. In fact, for smaller championships it might actually be even MORE important to have exciting, compelling TV shows.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 19

Plenty of rallying this weekend, but in terms of history and credibility the Northwest 200 has to be the weekend's most significant motorsport happening:

  • Jordan Rally - Amman, Jordan (FIA Middle East Rally Championship)
  • Carlow Stages Rally - Carlow, Ireland (Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • International Manx Rally - Douglas, Isle of Man (MSA Tarmac AND Gravel Championships)
  • Rally Vodafone Transiberico - Estoril, Portugal (FIA Cross Country World Cup e.g. think Dakar)
  • Fiat Rally Turkey - Istanbul, Turkey (European Rally Championship)
  • Rally of Whangerai - Whangerai, New Zealand (FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship)
  • Porsche Supercup - Catalunya, Spain
  • GP2 - Catalunya, Spain
  • Grand Prix Telefonica de Espana - Catalunya, Spain (Formula 1)
  • World Superbike and Supersport - Monza, Italy
  • Adenauer ADAC Rundstrecken Trophy - Nurburgring, Germany (VLN series)
  • Japanese Le Mans Challenge - Sugo, Japan
  • Grand Prix of Germany - Teutschenthal, Germany (FIM Motocross)
  • All-Japan Superbike Championship - Tsukuba, Japan
  • Dodge 500 - Darlington, SC (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Diamond Hill Plywood 200 - Darlington, SC (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Buckle Up Kentucky 150 - Kentucky Speedway, KY (ARCA/Remax Series)
  • Northwest 200 - Portrush, Northern Ireland (Irish real road racing)
Note that the Japanese Le Mans Challenge starts up again, albeit with a thin field of 11 cars.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

BTCC + Thruxton = a good laugh

This picture illustrates two things: first, that the British Touring Car Championship is good again; and second, that Thruxton is a fantastic place for racing.

The BTCC has had its fair share of ups and downs, and each "down" has seemed to precipitate a switch of basic regulations. In the late 1980s, when spectators got confused about mid-pack drivers winning the overall title, the series switched to 2.0 litre engines that formed the basis of the massively popular Super Touring rules package. By the end of the 1990s, that package had attracted manufacturers in droves, who drive up costs to the point where it was no longer financially viable for them to be there and hence left, leaving a few shabby privateers. Rules changed again to a proprietary set of "BTC Rules", primarily aimed at bringing in smaller cars and less expense. It was never as popular with fans as the Super Touring rules, and manufacturers for the most part stayed away.

With the FIA's new Super 2000 ruleset, essentially an updated, more tightly controlled Super Touring spec, the BTCC saw a chance to satisfy two goals: to bring in more manufacturer interest as well as continue to keep the series affordable for the all-important privateer cadre. This year is the first proper year of S2000 rules, and although there are no significant new teams in the championship, the racing is tighter than ever and attendance is up.

Last year Team Dynamics and SEAT were easily the best of the bunch, but this year Vauxhall and Team RAC are both showing equal levels of competitiveness, whilst a number of privateers in ex-works machinery are able to get into the mix - Mike Jordan and Mat Jackson are good examples of this.

Back in the 90s the series had factory involvement from Audi, Volvo, Ford, Renault, Nissan, Honda and Alfa Romeo. Given two or three years, I don't see it unlikely that we'll see a similar amount of manufacturer interest.

And so onto Thruxton... When I was growing up in the UK, Thruxton was the second closest race track to me (after Castle Combe), yet we didn't often go there. It seemed like there just weren't many events worth checking out, and we'd sooner see touring cars at Silverstone. Thruxton had limited facilities and somewhat of a lack of atmosphere. However, after watching the British Superbikes and BTCC at the track, it's clear that there's plenty of people who disagree with my previously-held opinions. I'd like to go back there on a big race weekend to see how it might be different. One thing is for certain: it's a really fast track with loads of passing places, plenty of run-off, and no annoying "mickey mouse" sections brought in to alleviate safety concerns.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Stefan Bellof

A question was raised on the Ten-Tenths sportscar forum the other day about people's favourite Porsche sportscar teams. This got me thinking about all those great Group C teams of the 1980s, like Kremer, Brun, Joest and Obermaier who ably backed up the factory team from 1983 onwards. So I hopped over to the site that has a fantastic archive of photos and entry lists from sportscar races, and started browsing through their Group C archives.

So many great cars and evocative liveries and so many great names. One driver in particular stood out as I looked over the entry lists, the late Stefan Bellof. There are very few drivers in the world who would be more deserving of the unfortunate title of "greatest talent lost before his time".

There was no doubt that he was one of the fastest drivers of his generation, winning the German FF1600 title and nearly winning German F3 despite only competing for half a season. He had a tremendously competitive year in Formula 2 before being drafted into the Tyrrell Formula 1 team. Even though the car was perhaps the slowest in the entire field, the young German managed to give Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell a run for their money when the rain fell at Monaco in 1984 and levelled the playing field. He even scored two points finishes in 1985, grabbing a staggering 4th place at the US Grand Prix. It was widely believed that he had signed for Ferrari for the 1986 season, and I personally feel that that would have been the catapult to stardom for him. It's quite possible that he could have ended up alongside Senna or Prost in the McLaren team in '88 or '89. Who would have owned the title of "most successful German F1 driver of the 20th century" had Bellof lived?

His sportscar career was equally spectacular. Although he failed to finish during both his outings at Le Mans, he clinched the 1984 World Endurance Championship ahead of illustrious factory Porsche team-mates such as Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass. He won numerous races and showed that raw natural talent that team managers dream about.

In 1985 the factory Porsche team replaced him with Hans-Joachim Stuck, perhaps knowing that his Formula 1 commitments would make it more difficult to focus on his sportscar career. He had a number of outings for the privateer Brun outfit and it was in a Brun Porsche that he lost his life at Spa-Francorchamps on September 1st, 1985. His car was slower than the factory machines, but his sheer speed found him dicing for position with Jacky Ickx's Rothmans Porsche 962. Impatience got the better of him, and he collided with the other car at the brutally fast Eau Rouge corner, taking both cars into the armco where they caught fire. He was pronounced dead one hour later.

I tend to think of the loss of Bellof in the same way as I think of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. All had huge talent, and all had so much more to give to the world.

All were 27, too.

**LAST MINUTE EDIT**: I forgot to mention when I posted this yesterday that Stefan Bellof holds the record for the fastest EVER lap around the Nurburgring's Nordschleife circuit, set in a Porsche 956 in 1984. The fact that the 23-year old record still stands today is incredible...