Monday, March 26, 2007

Bloggers are always one step ahead

Not wishing to blow my own horn, but it seems I beat mainstream US racing magazine Racer to the punch on suggesting franchising as a way to address the issues with NASCAR's current qualifying system. You can see the article here.

Not that there's anything wrong with Racer, far from it actually - I recently subscribed to it, after being pleasantly surprised at the high standard of journalism from an American magazine. I have one other US subscription, and that is to Road Racer X, a great motorcycle racing rag.

Friday, March 23, 2007

F1 snooze and the racial minority issue

I just want to mention that there was more excitement on the final lap of the Sebring 12 Hours than there was in the entire Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix. Another Ferrari walkover, and it looks like Kimi Raikonnen is ready to take over where Michael Schumacher left off. So much for his inability to unite and motivate the team.

Nice to see a driver with African heritage on a Formula 1 podium (actually on any podium, really). Quick, name ten successful black racers....? Bill Lester, Willy T. Ribbs, Lewis Hamilton, err, uhm... Why is that? Why is there so little racial diversity in motorsport? Is it down to cold hard economics e.g. racial minorities in western countries where motorsport is at its most popular tend to have less access to the level of funding needed for success? I'm sure this has something to do with it, but how come in the world of motorcycle racing, which requires a smaller budget for success and where talent tends to carry more weight than funding, do we see a similar situation?

Weekend Menu - Week 12 (a little late)

It's been quiet around here lately as I try to juggle a bunch of other things, but here's the weekend's racing:

A1GP - Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City
Perth V8 400 - Barbagallo Raceway, Western Australia (V8 Supercar Championship)
Food City 500 - Bristol Speedway, TN (NASCAR Nextel Cup, featuring the debut of the "Car of Tomorrow")
MotoGP - Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
FIA GT - Zhuhai, China (first round of the championship)
Homestead-Miami Indy 300 - Homestead Raceway, FL (first round of the Indy Racing League)
Indy Pro Series - Homestead Raceway, FL
AMA Supercross - Indianapolis, IN
Australian Superbike - Winton Raceway, Australia
Grand-Am Rolex Sportscar Series - Homestead Raceway, FL
Construct Corps 250 - USA Intl. Speedway, FL (ARCA Remax Series)

Friday, March 16, 2007

SuperGT preview

Regular readers of this blog know that I report on the Japanese SuperGT series for Check out my season preview here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 11

Formula 1, ALMS and Japanese SuperGT all kick off this weekend:

  • Sebring 12 Hours - Sebring Raceway, FL (first round of the ALMS)
  • Oman International Rally - Muscat, Oman (part of the Middle East Rally Championship)
  • Atlanta 500 - Atlanta Speedway, GA (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Nicorette 300 - Atlanta Speedway, GA (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • John Deere 200 - Atlanta Speedway, GA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Speed World Challenge - Sebring Raceway, FL
  • IMSA Lites, GT3 Cup and Star Mazda - Sebring Raceway, FL
  • AMA Supercross - Orlando, FL
  • Rally of Kent - Ashford, England (MSA Gravel Rally Championship)
  • SuperGT - Suzuka, Japan
  • ING Australian GP - Albert Park, Australia (first round of the FIA Formula 1 Championship)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

MotoGP and AMA surprises

If this weekend was anything to go by, we're in for an interesting season of motorcycle racing: Ducati's incredible top speed performance at the Qatar MotoGP was just one of example of how the formbook was upset. Back here in the USA, a privateer team won the Daytona 200 (and also came second), whilst the man who's won the AMA Superbike championship six times crashed out of the Daytona Superbike race.

The incredible power of Ducati's 800cc MotoGP bike took everyone by surprise, and will certainly have their rivals scratching their heads. It didn't matter whether Casey Stoner was behind Yamaha's Valentino Rossi coming onto the start/finish straight, because he had the power to ride past him on the throttle and be in front by the line each and every lap. Bridgestone played their part in this too, providing a tyre that could deal with the Italian bike's fearsome acceleration.

It has to be said that Ducati won't have such dominance at every track - the main straight at Losail is particularly long, unlike tracks like Jerez, Donington and Laguna Seca. However it is clear that everyone else needs to do some work.

If there was any good news for Yamaha it was the 800cc M1 (still without an official name) seemed to handle very well, especially on the brakes. Last year's front end issue appear to be gone (and have turned up in Honda garages). Even though Honda's Dani Pedrosa was able to pass Rossi on the straight, the incredible braking performance of the Yamaha ensured Rossi found the apex of the first corner first each and every time.

A shout must also go out to Suzuki's John Hopkins, who struggled through the pain of a fractured hand to take fourth. If Suzuki can eke out a little more performance, Hopkins could certainly be the top American this year, challenging for podiums, and maybe even wins.

Down at Daytona, the Superbike race gave '06 champ Ben Spies his first win at Daytona. Most surprising though was the competitiveness of the Hondas and Kawasakis. Even though the Kwaks both crashed, they were running much better than last year. Honda meanwhile seem to have gotten to grips with their new traction control system and bagged 2nd and 3rd for their efforts. Yamaha also showed some promise as Eric Bostrom led for a while before suffering a tire failure. All in all, the 2007 season already seems to promise much more exciting racing than 2006's snoozefest.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

We now move to the new Blogger

Typically I avoid Beta releases of anything, and have waited as long as I could to switch over to the new version of Blogger. Alas, this morning I was bullied into finally making the move, warned that I would only be able to access the old version on one more occasion. White flag flown, I followed the instructions, which included setting up a Google account. Not being a worshipper of Google (quite the opposite in fact, I feel their monopolistic ways will ultimately be extremely bad for the internet) I was very unhappy about this requirement. Oh well...

Good news is that posts will now come with labels, allowing anyone to see only posts that are in their particular interest categories.

Additional bad news is that the interface that allows me to add these labels seems to work sporadically, so I've only been able to label my more recent entries...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 10

A diverse list of national and international racing events this weekend:

  • AMA Superbike - Daytona Speedway (first round, and also features the Daytona 200 race)
  • Rally Mexico - Leon, Mexico (rounds of the WRC and Production WRC)
  • San Felipe 250 - San Felipe, Mexico (part of the SCORE desert racing series)
  • MotoGP - Losail, Qatar (first round of the MotoGP championship)
  • Sam's Town 300 - Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NASCAR Busch series)
  • UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400 - Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Safari Rally Kenya - Mombasa, Kenya (part of the FIA African Rally Championship)
  • World Touring Car Championship - Curatiba, Brazil (first round of the WTCC)
  • AMA Supercross - Daytona Speedway
  • Mayo Stages Rally - Castlebar, Ireland (part of the Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • NZV8s - Teretonga Park, New Zealand
Highlights of the weekend are undoubtedly the first rounds of MotoGP, AMA Superbike and the WTCC. Oh, and my trip to Hollister Hills OHV park to go dirtbiking on Sunday, LOL!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

NASCAR's Mexican debacle

I've been left with a rather bad taste in my mouth after watching Juan Pablo Montoya's maiden NASCAR victory this weekend. The fact that it was on a road-course was appealing to me, so I was looking forward to seeing something new.

It all started rather well, with most of the top road-racers (Boris Said, Scott Pruett, Ron Fellows, Marcos Ambrose, Adrian Fernandez and Montoya) running near the front, with some close racing. Bear in mind that the first race of the Aussie V8 Supercar season was still fresh in my mind, with it's dramatic V8 stock car action, so comparisons were inevitable.

As the race progressed I began to become aware of how dog-slow these cars were. Those being driven by oval racers were especially pokey, but even with a quick road-racer behind the wheel these things just looked rather boring. I had hoped to witness an Aussie-style race full of door-banging action at speeds that would seem far too high for such big, unwieldy beasts.

The worst was yet to come: Montoya's car suffered a fuel hose failure during a pit-stop, requiring him to make an additional green-flag stop. This put him back in 21st position, from which he started to fight back. Right around now a series of seemingly endless yellow-flag periods begun, certainly helping the #42 car in its quest to regain the lead. Finally he got back up to second position behind his team-mate Scott Pruett at another of the unnumerable restarts. Team boss Chip Ganassi had moments before told ESPN2 that their were no team orders except "don't crash into your team-mate." So what does Montoya do? He tries a "there's no way you'll make it" pass on Pruett and takes the poor guy out. Montoya ended up in the lead, Pruett in 17th.

My irritation with this race was due to a number of reasons: firstly, it was clear that Montoya was the quickest car out there, and had a number of laps remaining to make that pass. Instead he let his impatience get the better of him. I expected much more from such an experienced driver.

Secondly, it's all very well trying a risky pass, but you never do that to your team-mate - you always hold a little something in reserve when they're involved.

Thirdly, Montoya made everyone else in the field look stupid by carving his way back from 21st. I don't believe this was good for the sport because it basically showed how average the rest of the drivers were.

Fourth, in any other form of motor-racing, this pass would have incurred a drive-through penalty. The fact it didn't leads me to believe that NASCAR were colluding to make sure Montoya got the win (it's newsworthy, and would help attract the interest of Latin-American race fans).

Fifth, Montoya's crew-chief had been making deals with crew-chiefs of competitors as the fight-back was progressing, basically saying "you have no chance of beating Juan, how about you move over to let him by so no-one gets into any drama?" By my estimation, racing is supposed to happen on the track, not as a result of conversations between crew-chiefs. If these deals hadn't been made, perhaps Montoya might have taken longer to hit the front (if he made it at all) and we'd have had a more realistic result. I don't believe this win was a legitimate one, and that can only be a bad thing for NASCAR.

I watched this race with as open a mind as possible - I wanted to be captivated in the same way that the Aussie racing holds my attention. Instead I saw what appeared to be a bunch of amateurs driving slow cars, with a winner that had to resort to cheating and collusion to take the victory.

Friday, March 02, 2007

V8 Supercars Preview

One of my favorite forms of motorsport, Australia's V8 Supercar Championship, begins its 2007 season this weekend. This year I'll be paying extra attention since I'm planning on going to the legendary Bathurst 1000 in October, and will get to see these cars "in the flesh".

Last year's championship was extremely tight and went right down to the line between top Ford driver Craig Lowndes and hard-charging youngster Rick Kelly in a Holden. It was eventually decided in a controversial incident that saw Kelly get caught out under braking and ram Lowndes off the track. Lowndes' steering was damaged to the point where he could no longer mount a credible fight, a bigger handicap than Kelly's drive-through penalty.

The stage is thus set for another huge year. V8 Supercars continues to increase its professionalism and global audience, and this year shuld be no different.

One of the top two Ford teams last year was Triple Eight Engineering, who won Bathurst, took second in the team's championship and second and tenth in the drivers table. They have retained both their drivers for 2007, Lowndes and young driver Jamie Whincup. Whincup started 2006 with a bang by winning one of the 250km races in the season-opening Clipsal 500, but his form faded as the season progressed. He is still a potential race-winner even if he won't necessarily be ready to push for the title. However, his team-mate Lowndes will be in line for a shot at the championship. One final note on 888 is that they have switched sponsors from the now-defunct Betta Electrical to bright-red Vodafone colours.

Triple Eight's main rival in 2006 was the Toll HSV Dealer Team. Although not strictly the "works" Holden team, these guys managed to be the top Holden outfit. They won the teams' competition and their drivers ended up first and fourth. This year they, along with the other Holden teams, will have to grapple with the new Holden Commodore VE car. It has yet to prove much quicker than the old VZ, but that will most likely change as time goes by. Of its two drivers, champion Rick Kelly is widely regarded as the weaker driver, and team-mate Garth Tander's bad-luck at Bathurst and Sandown are really what took the title away from him last year. No doubt he'll be looking to correct that this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see him finally get his first title...

The Ford team that ended up actually doing better than Triple Eight in 2006 was Ford Performance Racing. Their drivers, Mark Winterbottom and Jason Bright, came 3rd and 5th respectively. Bright struggled with inconsistency, but when he was on, he was REALLY on. Winterbottom was the opposite, with fantastic consistency but no dominating performances (consider him the Mikko Hirvonen of V8s - young, consistent and gaining speed). This year Bright has left to drive in his own team and is replaced by Steven Richards, another driver who has been a solid top-ten runner for many years. He brings good experience and a cool head, but not that magic outright speed. The cars should run well, as the team is operated by Prodrive, the same guys who are behind the Subaru WRC team and the Aston Martin Le Mans squad. Look for Winterbottom to pick up speed this year, and possibly be a surprise title-contender towards the end of the year.

The Holden Racing Team, owned by multiple championship winner Mark Skaife had a terrible 2006, marred by bad luck, accidents and freak failures. The fact that they were only the third-best Holden team was almost unbelievable, and there are hopes that the new VE, and a new year, will bring a change in fortune (a scandal involving Skaife's status of owner has dragged into 2007, so perhaps that bad luck continues). The driver line-up remains unchanged, although that's probably a good thing: Skaife is once again joined by Rick Kelly's brother Todd, who showed good pace throughout 2006 but was hampered by a couple of bad round results early on. Technical support is provided by Tom Walkinshaw, best known for masterminding Jaguar's success at Le Mans and for his Arrows team in F1 in the 90s. If HRT can shrug off the bad luck, pay a bit more attention to car prep, and develop the VE quickly, they could be in with a chance again. However, I'd pick Kelly over Skaife as the team's best hope for the title.

Another team whose success was much lower in 2006 than in previous years was Ford team Stone Brothers Racing. After a string of titles with Marcos Ambrose and Russell Ingall, they just couldn't put it together. They brought in the very talented James Courtney to replace Ambrose who had left for NASCAR, but despite Courtney's success in other forms of motorsport worldwide, he took a long time to get to grips with the V8 Supercar. Third at Bathurst was the highlight for him, as he started to challenge towards season's end. A pole position at the opening round of 2007 bodes well for this year, and, like Winterbottom, he could be surprisingly well-placed as the season builds to its climax. His team-mate Russell Ingall was outpaced in 2006, his consistent approach that won him the title in 2005 not working in the more competitive environment a year later. If he returns to his old approach of pushing for wins he could once again justify the nickname of "The Enforcer", even if he may not actually be in line for the overall crown. The sheer engineering ability of SBR will continue to be a major asset. Let's see if the drivers are worthy of the cars they're given.

One of the better of the "second-division" Holden teams in 2006 was Tasman Motorsport, owned by Greg Murphy's father Kevin. Their lead driver, New Zealander Jason Richards, is very talented but was crippled by a power-steering-related failure at Bathurst, that cost him a good five championship spots. He returns for 2007 and will be joined by fellow Kiwi Greg Murphy. "Murph" made the somewhat poor decision to leave the team that became the Toll HSV team just before their ascension to true greatness. He languished for two years with Kees Weel's Supercheap Auto concern, a project that promised much but could never deliver. There's hope that Murph could begin his journey back to the top with his new ride, and Tasman are hoping that his superstar status will help move them from mid-pack to front-runners.

Two Holden teams that are banking on the development of young drivers are Garry Rogers Motorsport and Larry Perkins Racing. GRM have always looked to youth and will stick with Dean Canto and Lee Holdsworth for another year, both of whom have developed well. Perkins' hand was somewhat forced when his two experienced drivers, Paul Dumbrell and Steven Richards both left for other teams. Instead, he will be running his son Jack, along with one of the top youngsters from the Fujitsu series, Shane Price. Look for these teams, both run by legends of Aussie racing, to run mid-pack year-long.

Ford's mid-pack crew will probably be Dick Johnson Racing and WPS Racing. Neither team have changed their drivers for 2007, and neither looks to have made any changes that will see them improve their position in the middle of the grid. The brightest hope here is Will Davison, who will once again be part of veteran Dick Johnson's team. As 2006 unfolded he ran quicker and quicker and although his points didn't reflect it due to being caught up in some crashes (not his fault) he's a decent talent. It's also worth noting that DJR picks up Jim Beam title sponsorship.

Joining DJR and WPS halfway back will be the Supercheap Auto Holden team. They have brought in Paul Dumbrell who moves from the Perkins squad to join Cameron McConville. Both drivers have moved on from being hopes for the future to being solid, experienced members of the V8 fraternity. Sadly, this team is the not the place for them to show their talents, as Greg Murphy found out to his cost for the last two years.

The final team worth mentioning is the Fujitsu-backed Britek team, owned by top driver Jason Bright. He's made the bold move of leaving a front-runner, Ford Performance Racing, to drive with his own organization. Thus far, Britek have struggled near the back of the grid, so it will be interesting to see if Bright's exceptional ability can turn things around.

Other changes to look for in 2007 include a new qualifying format that echoes Formula 1's knockout system. After 15 minutes, twelve teams are knocked out, then another ten leave at the 30-minute mark, making for a 10-car final period. The old "top 10 shootout" remains for the two endurance events. Look also for changes in the points structure. Whereas previously all positions paid points, that is now limited to the top fifteen, and the spread between the first five increases to make a win more important. Organizers are hoping to make teams push harder for points and wins rather than "settling" for a poor, albeit points-paying, position.

One final change is the host TV broadcaster to Channel 7. Only Neil Crompton remains from the old Channel 10 crew, which is good because he's a terrific commentator. For US fans of the series the change should be met with concern, as Speed Channel will need to renegotiate their deal to show the races during winter months.