Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Suzuka 8 Hours footnote

A quick note to follow on from my post about motorcycle endurance racing...

I tracked down the Japanese TV coverage of last weekend's Suzuka 8 Hours, and discovered something truly kick-ass: THEY DO AN OLD-SCHOOL LE MANS-STYLE START!!! That's right, they line up on the opposite side of the track, and run across to their bikes, which are being held for them by a mechanic. They have to start the bikes themselves. Damn cool...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Endurance racing, on two wheels

It's a crying shame that motorcycle endurance racing is not more popular. As one of the top three annual races comes around this weekend, the Suzuka 8 Hours, it once again pains me to see that so few people care, and those that do must suffer with very little coverage.

The FIM World Endurance Championship is the pinnacle of motorcycle endurance racing. This series boasts the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Bol d'Or and the Suzuka 8 Hours, along with six hour races at Qatar and Albacete and a 24 hour race at Oschersleben. It's a short run, with just six events, but entry lists are always large, featuring some very professional teams and a number of riders who have made a name for themselves in the top levels of bike racing.

What should make endurance racing appealing to fans is the fact that the bikes are more closely-related to street bikes than a typical superbike. They still have all the trick parts that one would expect to see on a superbike like quick shifters, switchable engine mappings, top-of-the-line suspension, custom swingarms, lightweight adjustable racing controls and hi-tech dash displays. What's cool though is that they have lights, and they have engines that are designed to last longer than two 45-minute sprint races. For a streetbike rider looking to have the most race-rep bike on the block, they should be looking at endurance bikes, not a typical superbike, for inspiration. The piercing light beam of an HID xenon endurance headlight is ten times more bling than MotoGP-style coloured pinstriping on wheels or powder-coated tyre valve caps.

One particular bit of endurance kit is actually even more exotic than its equivalent on a world superbike: the quick change systems. This allows wheels to be changed in a matter of seconds, and includes brake calipers that open up like the pincers of a crab to make room for the new wheel. These highly developed systems are ferociously expensive but critical to the success of top-running endurance racers.

The Suzuka 8 Hours is possibly the most important race on the calendar. It's here where the world championship meets up with the Japanese Superbike championship, itself a highly-competitive series. Bikes in the JSB are often fitted with parts that haven't yet made it to MotoGP, never mind the World Superbike Championship or other top domestic series like those in Britain and the USA. The Japanese manufacturers will use JSB teams to test new innovations, so it's no surprise to learn details such as how the Honda superbikes in JSB are far more developed than those in the AMA championship.

Since the 8 Hours is such an institution, the manufacturers take it very seriously, often bringing in special riders from around the world to run in it. In the past this has included Valentino Rossi, COlin Edwards, Daijiro Kato, Nori Haga, Alex Barros, Aaron Slight and Doug Polen. This year sees the arrival of James Toseland, Carlos Checa, Yukio Kagayama, Ryuichi Kiyonari, Steve Martin, Warwick Nowland, Norick Abe and Jamie Stauffer, to name just a few of the stars.

So it's got bling-laden bikes, some of the top names in racing and provides eight hours of entertainment. Why, then, does the Suzuka 8 Hours (and the FIM Endurance Championship as a whole) get so little attention? To answer that, I need to reflect on my experience this year covering the Japanese SuperGT series. Japan is lucky in that it has significant support on home soil for its own motorsport activities. JSB, SuperGT and Formula Nippon are all very well-attended and get good coverage in their domestic media. As a result, not much time is spent on promoting these championships beyond Japan. If you're not in Japan, finding information, news or photos becomes very difficult, especially as web search engines have difficulties cataloging Japanese websites.

The problem for the Championship is actually a bit different, and one shared by car endurance racing: due to the length of the races, it takes some clever marketing on the part of organizers to keep trackside crowds engaged. The ALMS has done a great job of this with Radio Le Mans, and a similar setup for endurance racing would be a big help. Streaming it on the web might attract more of an international audience too. It doesn't help that the current TV package for FIM World Endurance is pretty poor, and doesn't really do very well at telling the stories of the race.

I honestly believe that endurance bike racing could be much better marketed and promoted, because I think as a sports entertainment product there is a lot of potential. Now that the FIM has officially taken control of the promotional aspects of the WEC from World Superbike organizers the Flammini brothers, we can expect a change. I hope that it is for the better.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 30

A couple of major races this weekend, including the Spa 24 Hours and the Suzuka 8 Hours:

  • World Touring Car Championship - Istanbul, Turkey
  • African Heritage Cross Country Rally - Limpopo, South Africa (FIA Cross Country World Cup)
  • Spanish CEV - Valencia, Spain
  • DTM - Zandvoort, Holland
  • F3 Euroseries - Zandvoort, Holland
  • Allstate 400 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IN (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Kroger 200 - Indianapolis Raceway Park, IN (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Powerstroke Diesel 200 - Indianapolis Raceway Park, IN (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • British Touring Cars - Snetterton, England
  • Porsche Carrera Cup - Snetterton, England
  • Formula Renault UK - Snetterton, England
  • Coca Cola Suzuka 8 Hours - Suzuka, Japan (FIM World Endurance Championship, All-Japan Superbike Championship)
  • Grand Prix of San Jose - San Jose, CA (ChampCar World Series)
  • Champcar Atlantic - San Jose, CA
  • Formula BMW USA - San Jose, CA
  • Faugheen 50 - Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland (Real road racing)
  • GP of Czech Republic - Lokey, Czech Republic (FIM Motocross GP)
  • 24 Hours of Spa - Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium (FIA GT Championship)
  • British Formula 3 - Spa Francorchamps, Belgium
  • SuperGT - Sportsland Sugo, Japan
  • AMA Motocross - Washougal MX Park, WA

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Enge situation

I feel bad for Tomas Enge. The likeable Czech driver admittedly pulled some very boneheaded moves at the Lime Rock round of the American Le Mans Series, but his dismissal from his team for on-track contact with another car at Mid-Ohio last weekend seems like a serious case of overkill.

Enge has always been known for his no-holds-barred, old-school driving style. An article by Malcolm Cracknell on Daily Sportscar compared him quite rightly to the late Gilles Villeneuve:

"Both could legitimately be accused of over-driving at times, both undoubtedly cost their respective teams extra outlay for repairs, but both were/are good, old-fashioned drivers with, we’d suggest, not an ounce of malicious intent between them."

At Lime Rock he made a number of questionable passes on both backmarkers and cars with whom he was racing for position, and caused both Risi Competizione Ferraris to crash, as well as one of the Tafel Motorsport Porsche GT3s. He accepted responsibility for the accidents and was placed on probation.

His team, looking to appear upstanding, supported the decision of the officials, and pledged to fire Enge should he incur any more penalties. This, in retrospect, was a bad move: a botched call by the officials would now require the team to either fire their driver for doing nothing wrong, or go back on their word and appear two-faced.

Unfortunately, the call at Mid-Ohio was a bad one. Enge was involved in what can best be described as a racing incident. He was racing closely behind the Risi Ferrari of Mika Salo, but being careful to not try any aggressive moves. Coming into a corner, Salo was suddenly balked by a prototype car, causing him to slow suddenly, and Enge ran into the back of him. It caused minor damage to the Risi car, requiring them to pit. Hardly Enge's fault...

Officials, conscious that the spotlight was on Enge's driving, chose to impose a 5-minute stop-and-go penalty. This punishment hardly fitted the crime, and seemed to be vindictive more than anything else. Sadly, the penalty forced the team to fire Enge on the spot. He got out of the car after the minimum 45-minute stint and was dismissed there and then.

What is worse to me was the behavior of Salo. Following the incident with Enge, he came back and deliberately punted him off the track, causing both cars to spin. Salo admitted afterwards that it was revenge, pure and simple, but had the gall to accuse Enge of "playing" with powerful, dangerous cars. Salo's maneuver copped a two-minute penalty.

So let's dish out some blame here, because no-one smells of roses in this one:

  • Enge, for his idiotic driving at Lime Rock that got him in this mess in the first place
  • Petersen White Lightning, Enge's team, for making a pledge that basically took their ability to make personnel decision out of their hands
  • Salo, for inexcusably dangerous driving that should have been far more heavily penalized than Enge's innocent racing incident half a lap before
  • ALMS race officials, for inflicting a penalty that had absolutely nothing to do with what happened on track, and for not giving Salo a larger penalty
  • CBS Sports pitlane reporters for stirring the pot. Their interviews with those involved should have been much more tactful rather than looking to rile up their interviewees
The departure of Enge is a big loss. He's an exciting, fast, characterful driver who's good for the series to have. Hopefully another team will pick him up soon.

Monday, July 23, 2007

MotoGP at Laguna Seca - third time's a charm?

Apologies for focusing on MotoGP in the last couple of weeks, but with the third edition of the Red Bull US Grand Prix happening yesterday, it's somewhat on my mind.

The Laguna Seca round of the World Superbike championship was a fan-favourite for many years, and although it had its problems (expensive hotel rooms, local cops more interested in writing tickets than assisting with traffic flow etc.) it was always a fun event.

The switch in 2005 from WSBK to MotoGP turned a weekend attendance of 90,000 into something more than 150,000. This caused some very significant problems, and although I enjoyed my first dose of the fabulous 990cc bikes, it was a shock to the system to see how much of a zoo the event had become.

Promises made for changes in 2006 convinced me to come back, but I was once again burned by a disastrous failure in the shuttle bus system for those who had arrived in cars. Added to this was an unprecedented heat wave that would have turned even the most perfectly run event into a trial by fire.

This year I once again chose to skip finding a hotel, and instead took in the more mellow Friday, stayed home on Saturday and returned on Sunday. I drove on Friday, not relishing the prospect of a total of 240 miles of freeway riding, when I knew that the shuttle bus for those in cars would work fine (it did). Riding on Sunday turned out to be a great way to go, with easy access, unhindered by cars, and relatively decent parking.

Once inside, with our leathers and helmets locked to the bike, we found the atmosphere to be more relaxed and more mellow than in the previous two years. Lines for food were pretty short, there were plenty of bathrooms, the track had provided misting stations should it get hot, water was a universal $2 as opposed to $4 last year, the vendor area was easy to walk around, and finding a spot above turn two for the race didn't require us to set up three hours early.

We watched morning warm-up from my new favorite spot at Laguna, the outside of turn 6 (see photos). Then we switched back to inside and made our way up to the Corkscrew for the AMA Superbike qualifying session. After that we wandered around the vendors, grabbed some cheese steaks for lunch (and found a seat in the lunch tent where we could enjoy them), then had a leisurely beer at the Sierra Nevada tent. With an hour to go before the race we scoped out some empty grass on the hill and drank water whilst we waited for the start.

Although the race was a bit processional, and lost some sting with a first turn collision between local boys John Hopkins and Nicky Hayden, we still enjoyed it, and chose to stick around for the AMA Superbike race. When that turned into a Suzuki whitewash, we headed for the bike, got out of the track with no problems, hit a bit of traffic on the freeway before hopping onto some backroads that avoided the worst of it. The sun was shining, we weren't stressed out by the day, and the ride home was not bad, despite the last 90 miles being on the freeway.

It felt like the glory days of Laguna Seca playing host to World Superbike. This is the first MotoGP event where I left looking forward to next year.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Indianapolis - goodbye F1, hello MotoGP

It's a funny old world sometimes, and the latest goings-on with Indianapolis Motor Speedway are no exception.

It seems like Tony George has once again shown himself to be a businessman at heart, choosing to not pursue a Formula 1 grand prix, and its $9 million fee, and instead host MotoGP, which will cost only 1/4 of that amount. There's little doubt that there will be just as many attendees for MotoGP as for Formula 1 - despite this nation's preoccupation with Hardly-Ablesons and other decrepit cruisers, the sportbike fans are widespread and loyal. In fact the sportbike industry is growing at a record pace whilst the cruiser market is actually shrinking. The percentage of people who ride sportbikes who also follow MotoGP is quite high, and the opportunity to see a MotoGP race for those riders closer to Indianapolis who cannot afford the time or money to get to Laguna Seca will surely be grabbed.

This is all good for MotoGP, their organizers Dorna, IMS, Tony George, US motorcycle racing fans and the US motorcycle industry. It's not so good for anyone in the US with an interest in Formula 1. The inability of all parties to retain a USGP in one place for an extended period of time is hard to figure out, and all the usual excuses just don't seem to wash with me.

Lack of interest from fans is often quoted as a big issue. I'll concede that interest in F1 in the US is much lower than in the rest of the world, but the bottom line is whether there are enough fans to allow the venue to make money and enough US TV viewers to justify the costs to networks (and their sponsors) to actually show the race. Since it has always been on network TV, I find it hard to believe that money is not being made by TV companies.

However, the staggering fee charged by Bernie Ecclestone to a venue may very well be the most significant issue in the failure of F1 in the US. For an event that costs $9million, and draws 120,000 - 150,000 spectators, each spectator would need to spend between $60 and $75 for the track to just break even on that one expense. Factor in the additional staffing costs (450 staff per day), supplies, accommodation, local fees for police, permits, taxes etc., and each fan is going to need to spend much more. I'll admit that additional income from sponsorship, merchandising, food and drink sales, luxury suites, parking and kickbacks from the City for the additional sales taxes the event generates all help. But the bottom line is that IMS can have just as much income from MotoGP, whilst spending $7million less for the privilage.

These venue fees are theoretically supposed to cover costs for the series. It costs money to transport an international racing series, especially via air on tight time schedules. I used to work for a freight forwarder that did just that, so I know the expenses involved. But the massive discrepancy between what MotoGP charges and what F1 charges indicate that the venue fee in F1 is a profit center, whilst in MotoGP it is a reimbursement of expenses. The sad thing for US fans is that Bernie can get that money from another venue in another country - the list of countries who want F1 is very long, and populated with a lot of heavily-funded plans. Bernie believes the US doesn't offer anything that he can't get from another country. Some of the top teams in his series might have a different opinion, especially Mercedes and BMW. It's this that could ultimately be the biggest fallout for F1 from the USGP issue.

I am aware of the fact that IMS was hoping to host both events, but the more favorable deal from MotoGP surely helped put things in perspective during negotiations with Formula 1. Had MotoGP not been on the table, I don't think the F1 deal would have seemed as stinky as it turned out to be.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 29

Highlight for me this weekend is MotoGP in my backyard...

  • V8 Supercars - Queensland Raceway, Australia
  • Fujitsu V8 Supercar Series - Queensland Raceway, Australia
  • Honda 200 - Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course, OH (Indy Racing League)
  • American Le Mans at Mid-Ohio - Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course, OH
  • Indy Pro Series - Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course, OH
  • IMSA GT3 Cup - Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course, OH
  • Red Bull USGP - Laguna Seca, CA (MotoGP)
  • AMA Superbike - Laguna Seca, CA
  • Kells Road Race - Kells, Ireland (Real road racing)
  • World Superbike - Brno, Czech Republic
  • Mobil 1 GP von Deutschland - Nurburgring, Germany (FIA Formula 1)
  • GP2 - Nurburgring, Germany
  • Porsche Supercup - Nurburgring, Germany
  • Japanese Le Mans Challenge - Motegi, Japan
  • West Edmonton Mall GP of Edmonton - Edmonton, Canada (Champcar)
  • Champcar Atlantic - Edmonton, Canada
  • British Superbike - Mallory Park, England
  • World Supermoto Championship - Bishopscourt, Northern Ireland
  • Busch Silver Celebration 250 - Gateway, IL (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • AMA Motocross - Thunder Valley, CO
  • Grand-Am Rolex Sportscar Series - Barber Motorsports Park, AL
  • Isle of Man International Rally - Douglas, Isle of Man (Irish Tarmac Rally Championship and British Rally Championship)
  • Las Vegas Terrible's Cup III - Las Vegas, NV (SCORE off-road racing)
There you have it, this weekend's action....

Thursday, July 12, 2007

John Hopkins nudges a very big boulder down a very long hill

With last year's MotoGP silly season rather tame, it's only fair that this year's game of rider merry-go-round should start early and with a bang.

That bang is the move of John Hopkins from Suzuki to Kawasaki, which is expected to be officially confirmed this weekend at the Sachsenring. Although this may seem like an odd move for the extremely fast American, given the comparative performances of the two Japanese manufacturers, it seems as though money was the motivating factor. As detailed by the blogosphere's top MotoGP writer Kropotkin, Kawasaki feel, perhaps rightly, that their bike is far better than it appears, and simply needs some kick-ass riders to help it achieve its potential. They don't come much more kick-ass than Hopper, who I firmly believe is the quickest of the four Americans in MotoGP.

If Hopkins wanted a change, and didn't want to be on a slower bike, his options were rather thin. He could hope to replace his countryman Colin Edwards at Yamaha, but would then be alongside Valentino Rossi, surely not an ideal situation. He could aim for Loris Capirossi's seat at Ducati. Or he could go to the green team. I'm guessing that Ducati couldn't satisfy his financial demands, so he went green. When all the facts are considered, what seems to be a move backwards, or at best sideways, actually could be very shrewd.

Another move that's looking likely, according to Motorcycle News, is Marco Melandri to Ducati. Melandri's performance on the Gresini Honda this year has been even more underwhelming than that of Nicky Hayden, and it's clear that the RC212V is not the bike to be on at the moment. Ducati are clearly tired of Loris Capirossi, who has been unable to adapt to the new bike, but would love to have at least one Italian on the team.

That leaves Capirossi and one Kawasaki rider looking for a ride, with seats open at Suzuki and Gresini Honda. How this will play out is now open to pure speculation.

  • Will James Toseland revise his demand for a factory ride in order to stay in the Honda fold on the Gresini bike?
  • Will Suzuki rush Ben Spies into their MotoGP program?
  • Will either or both Kawasaki and Suzuki run a third bike next year? If so, will it be in-house or with a satellite team, and who will the rider be?
  • Will Roger Lee Hayden's wildcard ride at Laguna Seca in two weeks be good enough to bag that potential third Kawasaki seat?
  • Where will unemployed senior riders Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards end up? Could we see Colin back in World Superbike, taking James Toseland's seat at Ten Kate Honda? Or will he be moved within the Yamaha organization to the Tech 3 team (unlikely unless they ditch the Dunlop tyres)?
It's all fun speculation for right now, but who doesn't love a lively silly season?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Open cockpits - a risk worth taking?

Motorsport is so safe these days. Or so we're led to believe. I believe we may very well be in the same place as we were prior to the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 in which both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed. Prior to their accidents, Formula had had no race weekend fatalities for twelve years, and everyone involved with the sport felt that safety was at a high enough level that there would never again be a death in the sport. Sound familiar? Ask anyone in Formula 1 for example if any major changes could be made to improve safety and you will probably get an answer that goes something like this: "no"...

The accidents of Robert Kubica in Canada and Ernesto Viso in Magny-Cours (and come to think of it, Katherine Legge's Champcar crash at Road America last year) were as much examples of how luck plays a part as how strong the cars are these days. I have little doubt that improvements in safety cell technology saved all three drivers' lives, but there remains one huge risk factor to open-wheel drivers, and that is a situation where the top of the head makes a direct, high-speed impact with something immovable. Viso's crash showed this most visibly: once the car was airborne and upside-down it landed on the top of a concrete wall. Had it made the impact six inches further forward, it would have been his head that took the brunt of the force as opposed to the roll hoop and surrounding safety cell structure.

The collision between Alex Wurz and David Coulthard at the Australian Grand Prix this year is another example of how objects are still able to get into the cockpit and make contact with the driver. The vectors of that impact were such the Wurz was uninjured, but the fact remains that cars without roofs introduce an additional safety risk factor that is not present on those with roofs.

Open wheel motorsport is not the only place where this is an issue. The plans of the ACO, organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, call for the elimination of open-topped cars in their top class by 2010. Whilst their reasons for doing so are varied and include responding to the majority opinion of fans who prefer the aesthetics of closed-top prototypes, the safety benefit is worth noting.

There are numerous ways to address this safety issue. Concrete walls played a major role in the crashes of Kubica, Viso and Legge, and repositioning, redesigning or simply removing such walls would be a good start. The addition of a lateral roll hoop to these cars would be a major step forward in risk alleviation, but would be an aesthetic challenge that would no doubt incense fans of F1, Champcar, GP2, IRL or anyone else who might implement the idea.

So I'm not going to advocate for any changes right here. Instead, I'm simply going to suggest that sanctioning bodies are ignoring a major safety concern in just the same way that things were ignored prior to Imola 1994, and that discussion of this topic by the powers-that-be should be happening right now. The clock is ticking before we have another fatality.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Le Mans marketing disaster

Look at all the people in this photograph. This is the pitwalk on the Friday afternoon at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Thousands of sportscar racing fans descended on the pitlane, as teams made their cars available for viewing (from behind the safety of prehensile barriers). This is the kind of thing sponsors live for. It's the perfect opportunity to hand out posters, collector cards, promotional materials and other swag, all emblazoned with the sponsor's logo.

So how many of the 54 teams do you think were doing this? Maybe 75%? 50%? 25%? Surely at least 10%? No. Only two teams had ANYTHING to hand out, and only one had a human being making direct contact with the public. As such, The Fastest Lap Blog's Award for Best PR Effort at Le Mans goes to the Flying Lizard team. More about them in a moment....

In the meantime, here's a message for all the teams at Le Mans that missed out on the award: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU ALL DOING???? This is top-level racing, with many millions of dollars invested, and only one team is able to put together any semblance of a PR effort! European sportscar fans constantly complain about lack of promotion in FIA GT and the LMS, and I finally witnessed this in person. As a regular attendee of ALMS events, I'm used to mandatory autograph sessions, free posters from every team distributed all day long in front of the teams' rigs, scoreboards around the track and the excellent Radio Le Mans to keep me abreast of on-track developments. I'm also used to seeing tie-in promotional events in local cities, TV advertising, magazine and newspaper promotion, ticket giveaways on local radio stations, and a wealth of marketing campaigns from associate sponsors when the ALMS comes to town. Sponsors look for value, and one indicator of this is the number of people reached per dollar spent. At Le Mans, that number could have been dramatically higher for any team that wasn't the Flying Lizards, and what's even more infuriating is that this is a highly-targeted, pre-qualified audience. I KNOW that many of these teams have commercial directors or marketing individuals, and to them I say "do your job". It was a piss-poor performance, and they should all be ashamed of themselves.

As for the Lizards: they went to the trouble of hiring a marketing contractor specifically for Le Mans, a fellow by the name of Shane. He was out front of their garage during the pitwalk, handing out cards promoting all the Lizard merchandise that was available at a booth they were sharing with Radio Le Mans. A double-whammy then, since they got many, many mentions during the Radio Le Mans broadcast, and seemed to be doing a roaring trade in their new line of clothing that featured (guess what?) the fantastic (and newsworthy) new livery. They were in fact one of only a handful of teams who even had merch, the others being Audi, Pescarolo, Peugeot, Corvette and Aston Martin. That's some very impressive company to be in, and they were the only small team in that group.

Shane took the time to chat with us for a while, and he was pleased to meet up with other folks from the SF Bay Area. The Lizards are our "home team", based up at Infineon Raceway, a mere 35 miles from San Francisco. We got an invite to visit their workshop and were made to feel vested in the team's success. Guess who we cheered for in the GT2 battle?

Job done, Lizards - you may not have finished the race, but your other successes at Le Mans were in many ways even more notable.