Wednesday, July 30, 2008


An extremely important topic is under discussion today on the Midweek Motorsport podcast: have there ever been any major motorsport champions who had beards at the time of achieving their championships?

It appears that the answer is no, making me wonder whether having extensive sideburns is causing me to be slower at trackdays than I otherwise would be.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Onion meets Jalopnik

How the fuck did I miss this? From the depraved mind of Evo columnist and Top Gear script editor Richard Porter, Sniff Petrol is like The Onion for the automotive world. I've already wasted many minutes this afternoon trying to catch up. One of my favourite features is David "Crazy D" Coulthard's column in which he's talking like Ali G. Check it yo...

The annual US MotoGP review post

Since 2001 I haven't missed Laguna Seca's July motorcycle race weekend, with four years of World Superbike followed by 4 years of MotoGP. The transition from WSBK to MotoGP in 2005 was a tough one. On the one hand we were totally excited to see those amazing bikes and to have the biggest bike racing series there is in town. On the other hand we were shocked at the mind-numbing price gouging both in Monterey and at the track. The massive crowds only added to the misery making getting in and out of the track difficult, as well as getting around once there. Nicky Hayden's debut win helped make up for much of the negatives but I couldn't shake the feeling that something had been lost

The following year promised much but delivered little. Hayden won again, but it was less exciting, whilst the brain-frying 110 degree heat, coupled with a disastrous shuttle bus system for people who came in cars made for what was basically a shitty day. We had even foregone the usual plan of going for two days and staying in Monterey, gunshy of the hotel prices.

In 2007 we skipped the shuttle bus drama by riding in, although it turned out that they'd figured out the buses by then. It was this year that it seemed like Laguna Seca had finally gotten the hang of things, and the only major disappointment was the race, which turned out to be rather tedious.

This year again promised a dull race set against a backdrop of a well-run and easy-to-attend event. Anyone who watched the race knows that we were wrong on the first assumption, and I'm happy to say we were right about the second one. For the fourth year in a row we chose a different transportation option, going with the expensive (but worth it) VIP car parking pass. Getting in and out of the track was a breeze, and we were able to offset the cost of the pass by bringing our own food and beer, which wouldn't have been possible if we'd ridden or parked offsite and taken the shuttle.

Attendance was slightly down this year. In 2005 all 54,000 tickets sold out. For '06 the total available fell to 48,000, once again sold out, a feat repeated in 2007. This year there were 1,000 tickets left on the table - not bad at all. It felt busy, but it felt nice (see pic of me enjoying a drink above turn two!) and I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed the day, so much so that I might consider returning to the two-day plan for 2009.

And what about that race? Valentino Rossi proved once again why he is the greatest rider of his generation and perhaps the greatest ever, and Casey Stoner showed an almost Gibernau-ish indignance after being beaten fair and square by the Italian. It was certainly popular with the crowd... check out this shot of their reaction as he crossed the finish line to take the win:

Monday, July 21, 2008

A racing companion

For most people (particularly men) who follow motorsport, it's a lonely pursuit. Unless they have equally enthusiastic friends who are into the sport, they're forced to find internet forums where they can have rewarding, meaningful discussions and engage in discourse about their hobby. I can imagine this could get frustrating.

Luckily for me, that's not the case. When I first met my partner K nine years ago, there was little indication that she had any interest in any sport, never mind motor racing. She didn't even have a TV, let alone cable and she'd never seen the Speedvision channel. A typical situation could have developed where one partner learns to tolerate the interests of another, but in this case something strange happened.

Straight off the bat, she developed a fondness for my cranky but lovable Alfa Romeo Milano. This was a good start. Then she began to come to races, beginning with a trip to the Wine Country Classic historic races at Sears Point. That weekend was brutally hot and could so easily have turned her off racing forever. It didn't, perhaps because historic racing presents such a friendly, low-key environment or maybe because she was able to witness first-hand my enthusiasm.

When I bought a motorcycle she was envious, having had a certain amount of experience in hanging out with the messenger biking crowd here in SF, as well as having learned to ride many years ago. It wasn't long before she was also on two wheels again. As my interest in motorcycles grew, so did my interest in motorcycle racing, so she was able to share in the process of learning about this new side of the sport.

It wasn't too hard a sell in 2002 when we went to Italy for three weeks to convince her that we needed a night in Milan (to ensure a visit to the Alfa Romeo museum the next day) and a night in Modena so we had time to visit Ferrari. She loved the Alfa facility (which felt more like a private collection) but was less excited about Ferrari, which was more of tourist trap.

Back in the US my interest in rallying began to increase, and before long I'd had a chance to go to the WRC event in Sweden which convinced me to learn how to co-drive. My first event saw K come along to work as a timing marshal. Despite the fact she stood on the side of a mountain in pouring rain for hours on end she continued to enjoy rallying. It was at this point that she revealed her mother had been a co-driver many years back. Aha! So it's in the genes! Now everything started to make sense....

Late in 2003 we both went to the WRC event in Wales. This was surely going to be the make-or-break moment. As we stood in freezing fog on the Rhondda stage on Sunday morning, with her favourite driver Carlos Sainz out of the rally two days prior, could she still muster excitement and enthusiasm? The answer came from behind a tightly-drawn hooded rain jacket... "yes!"

Pretty soon she was joining the annual pilgrimage to the July bike race at Laguna Seca, initially World Superbike, then MotoGP for the last four years, each year educating whichever newcomers had joined us that year.

It was only a matter of time before she came with me on the ultimate racing trip... a visit to the Le Mans 24 Hours. Sadly, the gods decided that since she was clearly able to cope with wet motorsport events, it would rain like the devil on Le Mans in 2007. Once again she kept her chin up, and was rewarded with a great time and apart from the first and last couple of hours, a dry race (and a dry pitwalk on the Friday, evidenced in the picture below). It was quite a step up from our annual Le Mans weekend barbecues back in San Francisco which she'd taken to leading the arrangement of.

She was even brave enough to come to see NASCAR this year. She got a very good look at Michael Waltrip:

So, where to next for my racing partner-in-crime? Well, after we take the plunge of actually becoming married, she can look forward to a little high-speed action herself, perhaps beginning with an autocross and then moving to some track days, now that we have a car worthy of such pursuits. If past experience is anything to go by, I should be ready to start buying tyres on a regular basis, as she proceeds to become equally excited by engaging in some on-track fun as I have been.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Audi, building their brand

Last week I took part in something called the Audi Driving Experience. This was a totally free event up at Sears Point. Let me say right off that this was a clear attempt to sell some 2009 Audi A4s, but beyond that it was clearly much more, and hints at the very clever approach that Audi have in regards to building their brand.

The day began with complimentary breakfast in the main area of their purpose-built Audi Experience complex at Sears Point. We were split into two groups and each went to a classroom for a briefing on what to expect and a quick overview of the new A4. We were told that we would be "test drivers" of the new A4, a car that many car magazines have yet to drive.

Next up was an autocross. We paired up with another attendee and each of us got one lap of the course in each of four cars: a Mercedes C300, Lexus IS250F, BMW 328xi and the A4 3.2 Quattro. All four cars were four-wheel-drive, with similar engine sizes and spec levels. To be fair, the Audi was the spendiest at an MSRP of $48,000 compared with the $38k Lexus, the cheapest. Chris, my partner for the morning and I chose well by starting with the Merc before progressing to the Lexus, then Beemer then Audi. Funnily enough, that was also the ascending order of perfomance, and Audi clearly did a good job of proving that the A4 is the best. Despite its horsepower advantage over its rivals, I found that the Quattro system was the best of the 4WD drivetrains, with no annoying chatter of the outside rear wheel under hard acceleration out of corners, something that the Merc and Lexus were especially guilty of.

A couple of things to note here. Firstly the two guys running the autocross course were familiar to me: former Mitsubishi USA factory rally driver Lauchlin O'Sullivan, who lives here in San Francisco and who I know pretty well; and Ramana Lagemann, former Subaru USA factory rally driver. Secondly, it was a great reminder of just how much fun an autocross is. Both Chris and I were not afraid to really cane the nuts off the cars. Other participants were a bit more timid. I came away resolute to get my Subaru STi to an autocross soon. It will also be an ideal introduction into performance driving for my fiancee K, who is itching to get the Scoob onto a track day soon.

After the autocross it was over to the pitlane, where we set up in some more A4s. More rally drivers were in attendance here including a former Production-GT class rival, Stephan Verdier. We were led onto the track by an instructor in a TT and each got five or so laps, with the instructor leading us around by means of example and through walkie-talkies installed in each car. It worked very well and I thoroughly enjoyed my laps. The A4 was a decent car to have beneath me too: predictable, with decent grunt and a nicely setup chassis that was soft enough for road conditions but stiff enough for a few harmless laps of Sears.

What became obvious throughout the morning was that Audi are one of the most brand-aware car manufacturers out there. They know that BMW owns the "best German sport-sedan" title in the minds of the public and their inferiority complex has led them to put a lot of dollars into efforts to prove themselves sportier. This is why it's Audi who have the last eight Le Mans wins (yes, 2003 was a Bentley-badged Audi) and why they spend millions of dollars every year on initiatives like the A4 Driving Experience. I think it works. If someone were to ask me what the sportiest German car manufacturer is, ten years ago there's no doubt that BMW would be the answer. These days I'd probably be just as likely to say Audi. If I was offered either a BMW M3 or an Audi RS4, I'd probably take the Audi. It would be a tossup between an RS6 and an M5, but the fact that a car like that can come close to the amazing M5 says loads. It was an S4 that was so very nearly my next car back in March, not an M3. And BMW's reticence to leverage their F1 efforts, still hiding behind the "Sauber" moniker whilst Audi are loud and proud about their dominance at Le Mans, is helping tip the scales Audi's way too.

I've always imagined my next car would be an Audi S-something. Their investment in brand-building through sportscar racing, along with giving me the keys to a new A4 for the morning have done nothing to undermine that prediction, that's for sure.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Been kinda quiet...

Yes, it's true, I've been very neglectful of this blog for the past couple of weeks but I've compiled a decent list of excuses to justify my lax approach:

  1. I got engaged to my longtime (9 years) partner K. Despite the fact that being so very anti-wedding we've decided to do a low-key thing at City Hall, we still wanted a party. So instead of a stuffy, expensive wedding reception, we're throwing an engagement party at the end of August. This is taking a little bit of planning to put together, so I've had slightly less spare time than usual. Look for a blog post very soon that will talk about how K is everything a male racing fan could ask for in a wife...
  2. There's a term in baseball, "the dog days of summer", which refers to that period which exists after the excitement of the early stages of the season and before interest rises towards the end of the season. This coincides with the end of summer, when the days are long, hot and (since most baseball stadiums are in cities) muggy, sticky, hazy with pollution and generally unpleasant. I find the middle of the racing season shares some similar characteristics. All of the pre-season questions have been answered, any surprises that might be thrown up have done so, and we're still a long way from the end so we're not quite at the "nail-biting tension" phase. As a result, finding something interesting to write about is more difficult, and I'd rather not write than write drivel.
  3. WRC is on a break and MotoGP is about to do the same.
  4. Let's face it, in the summer the last thing you want to be doing is sitting inside working on a laptop (unless you're in windy and cold San Francisco like me, in which case, sometimes you do, such as right now!)
How does all that sound? Convincing enough?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Watch out

Timekeeping has always been an integral part of motorsport, and as I've become more interested in watches lately I've become much more aware of how closely linked the two industries are. These relationships seem to always be win-win: watch manufacturers gain credibility by associating themselves with the glamorous, sporty and hi-tech image of motorsport; and racing series, teams and drivers gain credibility by associating with the precision craftsmanship and luxury image of high-end timepieces. Just flick through the pages of British motoring magazines to see what I mean - ads all over the place for TAG-Heuer, Oris, Chopard, Breitling and more. Often you find watch reviews in their editorial too. In fact, American weekly rag Autoweek ran a feature on auto-inspired watches last month.

So where can we find these relationships? Generally in three areas: "official timekeeper" roles, sponsorship and endorsements and naming rights.

Official timekeeping deals are usually done with a race or with a racing series. In exchange for providing hardware and manpower to help run timing and scoring, a watch manufacturer sees their name notated on every timing caption on TV. In addition they often get to use the name and branding of the series on their products. Back in the 80s I can clearly remember seeing the Longines name during every Formula 1 broadcast before it was replaced by TAG-Heuer. Another big timekeeping deal right now is MotoGP's association with Tissot, which has spawned a MotoGP watch. The blingiest of all the Swiss watches, Rolex, is official timekeeper at Le Mans, as evidenced by the big Rolex clock hanging above the pitlane entry.

Watch manufacturers have long had a sponsorship presence in motorsport. What caught my eye most recently was Oris' name on Williams F1 cars. The deal with Williams has resulted in a lovely range of WilliamsF1 watches too. Breitling, best known for their aviation-inspired chronometer watches, were all over the Bentley Le Mans efforts in 2001, '02 and '03. A spin-off watch range resulted (a bit gaudy for my taste, I have to admit). Sponsorships do not just come from high-end luxury Swiss manufacturers: mid-range Italian watchmaker Breil sponsor the racing operations of Ducati Corse.

The biggest area of interaction between watchmaking and motorsport is in endorsements and naming rights. There's a myriad of watch collections out there with famous racing names on them, from the Chopard Mille Miglia to the TAG-Heuer SLR to the Panerai Ferrari to Jacques Lemans' mid-priced F1 range. Many top racers also lend either their name or image to watches including Nicky Hayden (Tissot), Kimi Raikkonen (TAG-Heuer) and Michael Schumacher (Omega). Even Marcus Gronholm has a watch endorsement, although in his case he's gone for Japanese maker Orient. For a more tenuous racing connection, look no further than Steve McQueen's association with the utterly cool Heuer Monaco, the watch he wore in the movie Le Mans.

The racing / watch dynamic is extremely interesting and really comes with only one downside... cost. Most of the watches I mention above cost at least $1500 and can run up to $6000 in some cases. Ever wondered why there's so many emails in your junk mail folder with the subject line "Replica Watches" or something similar....?