Friday, March 31, 2006

WRC Prognosis

The World Rally Championship is a rather different beast this year and, despite many people moaning about its downfall, might actually be in better shape than ever.

I was lucky enough to visit the Swedish Rally in 2003, at a time when there were 6 factory teams. Four of them, Peugeot, Citroen, Hyundai and Ford were running 3 cars, making for a total of 16 factory entries in a rally which traditionally does not see much attrition. This year there were 14 manufacturer entries in the two classes.

I remember being surprised by the number of WRC cars being run by privateers such as Janne Tuohino, Juuso Pykalisto and Anthony Warmbold. There were in fact a total of 29 World Rallycars entered. This year in Sweden there were 26. It’s safe to say the amount of fast machinery hasn’t changed significantly in three years.

The biggest difference appears to be the level of driver talent. In 2006, the top 8 were covered by 9 minutes. Back in ’03 you would have to go back to 16th before you found a 9 minute gap. To me that says in 2006 there’s a select group of really fast drivers that make the others look slow.

I’ll be the first to admit that this year’s championship is likely to be a dogfight between Marcus Gronholm and Sebastien Loeb, whereas 3 years ago you had Makinen, McRae, Sainz, Burns and Solberg all in with a chance as well. So from that perspective, yes, the WRC is worse off. But this year, the “interlopers”, those drivers showing up on the podium, or ready to pick up the pieces when the superstars have problems, are much more numerous. Having so many stars like in ’03, no-one else had a shot. But this year, just look at the “second-tier” drivers who have stood on WRC podiums: Daniel Carlsson, Dani Sordo, Manfred Stohl and Toni Gardemeister. All of them were surprises and all of them made for a great story: Spain’s wonderkid, possibly the next Sainz, achieves 2nd in his home rally; a Swede, dropped by Mitsubishi, only to return in the same car, gets on the podium after a riveting battle; a former factory Ford driver cobbles together enough money to run a car that was always underachieving and gets 3rd in the first event of the season… This is all good stuff and is more in line with what rallying is supposed to be about – we’re talking about success against the odds, staying in the game and pure driving skill. This is not a case of millions of factory dollars buying podiums, and that can only be a good thing in the long run.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Le Mans 24 Hours Entry List revealed

It’s Thursday March 30th, so for those rabid Le Mans fans who hang on every word from the Automobile Club de L’Ouest, that means it’s the day that the entry list for the 24 Heures Du Mans is released.

And what a list it is too. Apart from a couple of small issues, it seems as though the ACO has actually done pretty well. I’ve followed this process closely for the last 3 years and have been consistently flabbergasted at some of the choices that have been made. Anyone remember the Spinnaker-Clandesteam in 2004? A former yachting team owner decides to buy one of the remaining Dallara LMP900 chassis and somehow gets an entry to Le Mans over a number of much more worthy teams. There were a couple of Saleens on the reserve list that year from good teams that would have provided some nice variety. Ultimately, too much time had passed by the time that Spinnaker made their inevitable withdrawal for any Saleens to actually make it.

And who can forget last year, when Zytek didn’t get an entry for their car, one of the few that could have been competitive against the Audis? Conspiracy theorists were quick to point out that the Zytek could also compete against the Pescarolos, who were heavily favoured to win and French….

Which brings us to 2006.

In LMP1, there are of course 2 entries for the Joest Audi R10 diesels. They’ll face stiffest competition from the Pescarolos, the brand new factory Zytek 06 and the Creation Autosportif DBA “Zytek-a-like”. Also in there are 3 new Courages, a Lister, a Dome and a Lola. Tasty!

LMP2 has the usual selection of Courages, 5 in fact. However, the winner in this “last man standing” class will most likely be one of the Lolas. Who wants to bet against the American Intersport team who came 2nd at Sebring? Let’s just hope team owner Jon Field doesn’t face any more criminal charges this year…

It has to be said that GT1 looks better than ever. We’ve got 4 Aston Martins, 3 Ferraris, 3 Corvettes, a Lamborghini and a Saleen, with the possibility that 2 of the Ferrari entries will end up being Astons. All these teams (with the possible exception of the Lambo team) are pro outfits.

Finally, GT2 is again stuffed full of Porsches, many of them run by top-notch experienced teams such as Petersen-White Lightning, Flying Lizard, and T2M. Mixing it up are 3 Panoz Esperantes and 2 Ferrari F430s which gave the Porsches some stiff competition at Sebring.

About all that’s left to mention are the missing entries. What a shame that Zytek didn’t get a second entry, which they wanted to run for Johnny Herbert and Guy Smith. Instead they have to run their one car with Danish “gentleman” drivers (e.g. drivers with lots of wedge). Creation also only got one entry, but their second entry is top of the reserve list and will surely get in. This is the car they bought from Jota and are converting to 2006 Hybrid specifications, like their existing DBA4. Since they’re running both in the Le Mans Series, there’s no doubt they’ll be ready when the first withdrawal occurs. The question is, who’ll be driving it? They’ve got Jamie Campbell-Walter signed but not in the #1 car. Could we see the Zytek factory hook up with Creation to put the afore-mentioned Herbert and Smith alongside JCW in this very quick car? The next month or two will prove to be very interesting…

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Now that introductions are over, time to get down to business....

In the red corner, weighing in at 5 factory teams, 3 strong privateer teams, 3 former World Superbike riders and two former GP riders, British Superbike!

In the blue corner, with 5 factory teams, 6 strong privateer teams, 3 former WSB riders (1 of them a former WSB champion), and 1 former GP rider, the AMA Superbike series!

Thanks to the wonders of peer-to-peer file sharing British Superbike can now be seen by American audiences smart enough to configure a BitTorrent client, without having to wait for a season review DVD. So with the first race of both championships in the books, it's easier than ever to compare the 2.

Both claim to be the most competitive domestic championship in the world, although the Spanish Formula Extreme championship and the Australian Superbike championship might have a thing or two to say about that.

How can one possibly compare the two? Let's take a look at some of the riders to start with:

BSB can claim former WSB riders Gregorio Lavilla (winner of the '05 BSB championship), Leon Haslam and James Haydon, all on competitive bikes. Also in there is multiple TT-winner Michael Rutter, former Honda MotoGP star Ryuichi Kiyonari and Aprilia MotoGP refugee (and former BSB series winner) Shane "Shakey" Byrne.

AMA's biggest star from outside the series is undoubtedly Neil Hodgson, who has won the BSB series himself, as well as World Superbike, even though it was in the woefully uncompetitive 2003 season. Hodgson has also ridden a season in MotoGP with the awful D'Antin Ducati effort. Joining Hodgson from WSB is Ben Bostrom and his brother Eric, both of whom have had success there, as well in the AMA series.

AMA has a number of home-grown superstars who have not shone outside the series, such as Mat Mladin, Miguel Duhamel, Jake Zemke and Tommy Hayden. In BSB, it seems that you're either a star from elsewhere, or an also-ran fixture. Of course there's always the young guns and you can find them on both sides of the pond.

When it comes to factory support, the BSB series appears more diverse with well-funded outfits running Ducati, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. In AMA, Yamaha has chosen to focus its efforts on the 3 non-superbike classes much to the chagrin of virtually everyone else. This has taken such terrific talent as Eric Bostrom, Jason DiSalvo and Jamie Hacking off the Superbike grid in order to beat up on the struggling privateers in Superstock.

Both series have a number of strong privateer outfits. AMA teams such as Jordan Suzuki are analogous to BSB teams like Stobart Honda: well-funded, professionally run and with strong riders. It's probably true to say, however, that the gap between factory teams and privateers is much greater in AMA, with many arguing that qualifying restrictions in AMA are too lax and allow riders into the race that are too slow. BSB represents a greater consistency in talent across the field.

Arguably, the most important issue is the quality and closeness of the racing. In BSB in 2005, Kiyonari's initial domination was gradually broken down by Lavilla to make for a nailbiting finish. In contrast, Mat Mladin dominated the AMA with only half-hearted efforts from his team-mate Ben Spies and new boy Hodgson. For '06 we've seen Lavilla and Kiyonari each dominate one of the first 2 races at Brands Hatch, whilst Mladin pulled off a perfect last corner move on Spies to win the first AMA race at Daytona.

For now, it seems both championships offer a lot, although BSB seems to have smaller, but better, grids. In terms of spectacle it allows spectators to much more easily follow the action with a limited number of easily-identifiable, well-funded, brightly-painted bikes all dicing. The AMA often seems like 2 races: 10 factory guys racing, followed by about 35 amateurs. A change in AMA rules to make Superbike riders ineligible for the Superstock class would surely convince some of the slower riders to stay in the "junior" category where they belong, and make for a closer, tighter race in Superbike.

Let's talk motor racing

For the past 25 years, motor racing (or auto racing as Americans prefer to call it) has been my main "hobby". And, due to my annoyingly obsessive nature, this means I tend to follow it very closely. Since most of the people I know aren't as interested in the many facets of the sport as I am, I tend to inflict my hobby on my partner. In the years we've been together she's become very interested too (and has even travelled to see a WRC event with me), but I fear that sometimes even she is bored by my motorsport rambling.

So where does one go, when regular communication with real people is not possible? Why the internet of course! I'm pretty sure that after a while, there will be a few folks who decide that my thoughts on the world of racing are worth reading, which I'm sure will provide some satisfaction.

What do I plan on writing about? Well most of the racing world is fair game but I tend to avoid following NASCAR and it's subsidiaries, drag racing, most open wheel racing and anything involving "dirt" bikes. Having said all that, don't be surprised to see me comment on the progress of Australian star Marcos Ambrose in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series, the latest reliability issue for Kimi Raikkonen in Formula 1 or the exploits of young American rider Chris Blais in the Dakar Rally.

What I will write about will include Le Mans, MotoGP, World Superbike, Australian V8 Supercars, World Rally, GT racing, touring cars, domestic motorcycle racing and the Isle of Man TT, to name but a few.

I like Eurocentric racing, but being a Brit in the USA means I tend to see continental forms of racing with a different eye. Hopefully that means my writing will be of interest to motor racing fans regardless of their country of origin.