Monday, December 31, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test epilogue

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

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

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

The STi was still my favourite!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Lappies 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the fun stuff....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final scores

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test

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

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

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

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

The rules are simple:

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

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

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

Race of Champions honors Colin McRae

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pirelli adds to its roster

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

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

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

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

I wonder how all this has affected their market share?

There's still Pirellis on my Subaru...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mad as a brush

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

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

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

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What a difference a year makes

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

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

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

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

Fernando Alonso

Just decide already. You bore me...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Thunderhill 25 Hours - A perfect end to the racing season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on 2008!