Friday, 23 December 2011

2012, The Sub Plots Take Shape....

Well, well, I am looking forward to 2012. Or just let me refine that, I am looking forward to great racing in 2012! While the year may be variously heralded as Olympics, City of Culture this and Titanic Quarter that, it as much as I always think – where is the great racing going to be? And as ever, there are just so many things to think about, so many great potential great individual performances, flashpoints, conjecture, interest and technology. Just two little parts of the menagerie were confirmed recently, and they show how the battle between team mates can be so intense, and so fascinating. And the key link in both, is 2013.


Surely you meant 2012? No, no, no! In two recent driver moves, the state of contracts in 2013 adds intrigue to the inter team battle. These are at the Toro Rosso and Force India teams. Here we have had the recent announcement of Jean Eric Vergene and Daniel Riccardo at Toro Rosso, and Nico Hulkenburg and Paul di Resta at Force India. These are four great drivers, and would be fascinating battles in themselves. But what adds some petrol to the bonfire is the driver situation at Red Bull and Mercedes.

At Red Bull, Mark Webber has signed another contract extension, and as a great fan of his attitude, plain spoken demeanour, effort(and he was an absolutely lovely guy when I had the opportunity of meeting him and a very brief chat!), I really hope he nets a World Championship before he stops Formula One. And with his fighting attitude, it certainly still is possible – look at the age of Nigel Mansell, and the struggles he went through, before he pulled it off! But it remains that in a car where Sebastian Vettel smashed plenty of records (although not as near a superior car as the Williams FW14B in my opinion), Mark was only able to win one race, seemed to struggle with the less durable tyres, and when Vettel did not win, Webber could usually not.  So the one year extension leaves Webber with all to prove in 2013. With Red Bull preferring drivers from within their own stable (of charging Bulls!), it means the battle between Riccardo and Vergene is potentially fascinating. The two are great drivers, and it will be great seeing them, and I’m glad they have both ended up on the grid, as they are just the kind of exciting, stellar young talent that is continually needed to sustain and strengthen the rich well of talent we already have in the sport. I have been excited to hear about the entry of Vergene, after his domination of British F3 and his competiveness in Renault World Series (honourably beaten by the talented Robert Wickens). I really feared that he might be relegated to a test driver role, which I always find disappointing as I think there should be more young talent in Formula One, and at times the lack of seats on the grid can mean a lack of driver changes and things getting a bit staid. Having said this, I think that Jaime Alguserauri, who really impressed me with his intelligent use of tyres this year, still deserves a seat. The problem is, many drivers still do – get those new teams on the grid! Personally I hope he can get his derrière in a Williams or a Caterham. But it looks like he will not be in the Red Bull team in the future, having had the strings cut by the parent mega-corporation, and now he has to cycle without stabilizers. I’m sure he will be very capable of this. But for Riccardo and Vergene, this prospect is tantalizingly open to them, if Webber does not pick his pace up. Predicting who will win in the tussle of the young tigers is almost impossible. In some ways Riccardo seems in prime position, as he has half a years experience in Formula One. To my mind during that truncuated run out he was outstanding. He was at HRT, up against Viantonio Liuzzi, the 2004 Formula 3000 champion, and still surely a decent peddler. Giving away half a seasons Bernie miles to the bestudded Italian, I watched Riccardo's progress closely, and I thought his performance was really good. After a couple of races to warm up, he outqualified Liuzzi four times and when he didn’t, it was often tight, a couple of tenths or thereabouts. By doing so, he may have permanently edged Liuzzi out of Formula One. His already impressive pedigree and knowledge of half the tracks puts him in a strong position. But, in the equipe de France  corner, we have Vergene, who lacks this experience, but does possess obvious natural talent, pulverising the competition in British Formula Three, and coming within a whisker of the Renault World Series. He has been touted as a special talent, and overcoming Riccardo would be a big first tick in the box of potential future champion. With the added interest of wither of both possibly fighting for a seat in Adrian Newey’s magic carpet in 2013, I will enjoy monitoring how things are progressing at Toro Rosso.

I also see a similar effect at Mercedes and Force India. One thing that has become apparent is that the 2012 Mercedes might be the cracker of a car the board at Stuttgart have been waiting for. The recent hiring of Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis, while potentially not having a full effect on the 2012 car, may make the 2013 vehicle a force to be reckoned with. Given that, I would posit that even after all the championships, controversies and records, 2012 is a vital year in the career of Michael Schumacher. Having done the hard slog of three years hard racing during his comeback, even at 43, would one expect Schumacher to hang up his helmet and retire to his sofa? Not a bit of it! If there is a championship winning car he will surely want it. But of course Mercedes will be under no contractual obligation to take him. If he doesn’t start beating Nico Rosberg more, or at least continue his upsurge of form in the second half of 2011, he could well be forcibly offered re-retirement. In that case, many drivers would want what could turn out to be a real plum seat, but one would think two prime contenders would be two men from another Mercedes powered team, Paul di Resta, with his Mercedes links, and the German Nico Hulkenburg, now managed by Schumacher’s long time manager Willi Weber. Both had impressive first seasons in the sport, Hulkenburg even sticking the Williams on pole during a memorable qualifying session in Brazil, and di Resta having some great races, especially in the first half of the year. So again, this will be a close battle, and it is hard to call a winner, and we have the added spice that the winner of it might find himself in the Mercedes in 2013 and give a real leg up to his career.

There are always a million different stories and sub plots to a Formula One race, and season, and it is always fun trying to spot them, or highlight them before the season starts. On the first look, the midfield ‘play off’ between the Toro Rosso and Force India drivers for a plum seat further up the grid will be one of them, and I very much look forward to taking a close look at it during 2012.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Sad Week for Motorsport

It has been a sad week to follow in motorsport, with the passing away of Dan Wheldon and now Marco Simoncelli in horrible accidents. They were both exciting, personable and greatly likable racers and will be sorely sorely missed. I hope the reaction to the accidents by the authorities is calm and meaningful, taking time to reflect on the lessons learnt, not ruining the sport, but implementing practical changes that improve safety. I read a comment many years ago from Stirling Moss comparing motor racing to tightrope walking (in that walking a tightrope wouldn't be exciting if it was done a few centimetres above the ground), and on one level I do agree, but I think motorsport should be always working to make the tightrope element NOT refer to injury or worse (and in todays enviroment letting it be so would be seen as disrespectful and a ridiculous attitude). It should be about losing time or places, losing rhythm, all about racing, what the fans have come to see, not the big accidents which I find (rightly) core motor sport fans detest. Of course as part of that core elements should persist - the cars should be very powerful, with more power than grip, and encourage variables to affect the car (for example tyre wear). None of these factors if impelmented correctly should make for fundamentally unsafe racing, neutering cars to make sure they don't possess these attributes is also in my opinion disrespectful to the sport, and of course leads us towards Stirlings 'tightrope off the ground' motorsport, which of course through being dull would threaten the future of motorsport in its own way. The rule makers have a constant challenge, avoiding this fate, while continually keeping a rein on the machines getting to the point where the tightrope goes beyond racing and threatens worse. I see that the new Indycar has 'bumpers' on the back wheels, although a purist, this is something I would have no problem with other single seater series looking at, as launching of cars appears to me to be happining more often in other open wheel series as well (with a large accident in Superleague last year coming to mind), and it is incrediably important to guard against as the consequences of a car launching can be severe, and if one got near the crowd, then the ramifications for motorsport would be potentially very high.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Hungry Man!

Really looking forward to a great weekend of watching motorsport - I am very interested in how the Grand Prix will go now Pirelli have said that they are going for even more 'edgy' tyre selections now the championship has been decided, and then after that the BTCC decider, now that could be explosive! I am out late on the Saturday but have no worries about staying awake for it all.....and this after a great Grand Prix and schintellating Bathurst last weekend. Bring it on!


Well well well, even mentioning the name seems to start the sirens rattling. Niki Lauda, countless British journalists, teeming internet forums, the clarion calls abound, Lewis Hamilton has monumentally lost it! But...I just don’t buy into this analysis, while conceding he has hit a big dip in the rollercoaster. But I think he has the talent and ability to pull himself out of the trough, and start cresting the rises again.

What informs this is my belief that we are dealing with the best potential of any driver on the grid. Potential isn’t everything of course, but if all drivers perform to their maximum, I can’t see anything better. Yes, as the experts say, Alonso is a magnificent all round driver. But who tied him in the championship (and made him look frankly silly at many points) in his first year? I think that either people have forgotten this, or enough time has not passed to put this achievement into perspective. Fort oh my goodness, it was an astonishing achievement! I think when Lewis Hamilton is retried it will form a key part of the narrative of his career, much more then it does now, when it has evaporated into the mist of 24 internet news and comment. But I think it was sensational, and to put it in its present context, if say Jules Bianchi or Jean Eric Vergene were announced right now as the second Ferrari driver, and tied on points with Alonso next year, then my goodness, my cap would be off to them, just after my jaw hit the floor! Of course, there is one very good argument why this should not be treated as gospel, that is implicit in much of the media coverage. This is the ‘flash in the pan’ theory, where we can hypothesis 2007 was a brilliant drive by a focused young man, eager to impress, and it has been all downhill since. Certainly you won’t find much argument from me to the proposition that Lewis drove better in 2007 to not win the championship than when he won it in 2008. But then....I thought he was absolutely magnificent in 2009, carrying a dog of a car round ahead of this teammate, being really competitive at the end of the year, and producing one of my favourite ever Formula One moments (when he crashed the car out of third place at Monza on he last lap, and when asked of it had been too chancy risking all for second place, started on a long explanation of how he was going to take second, and then in the last few corners would have taken the lead...born racer!). And then in 2010, again for my money he was absolutely brilliant, gunning what was for long stretches the third best car close to the championship. I thought last year he did so well to remain in contention for so long, and again was unfortunate that two incidents in a largely error free season came consecutively, at Monza and Singapore, giving more credence to the ‘Lewis is a wildman’ theorists then it should have.

Against these fine drives I will fully admit that 2011 seems a comedown, He has in the last few races been outraced (and sometimes even outqualified) by Button, and the mistakes have wracked up at a faster pace. But some of this stems I think from his instinct to attack, to want to win. We hear he is unfocused, but then from the same journalists hear that he made an exhibition of himself ‘chatting up’ Red Bull and Christian Horner in Canada, reportedly due to angst that Sebastian Vettel is storming ahead in the acheivement stakes. Not the sign of an unfocused driver to me! I admire the hunger, and even the semi paranoia, and think this will stand him in good stead, in what could be a viciously competitive next five years, with such a strong field of drivers. And I think this ‘reaching for the stars’ attitude explains many of the misdemenours this year, when the McLaren has simply been not as good as the Red Bull. Such an uncompromising pursuit of excellence led his idol Senna to three world championships after all. And I think he has ‘lost’ nothing. What sticks in my mind is the German Grand Prix. Simply put, I have severe doubts that any of the other drivers could have pulled of the coup de main of flat out driving, instinctive passing and speed on new and worn tyres that Hamilton did. And I just can’t in my mind apply that to any of the other drivers this season. For example, Button was absolutely magnificent in Japan, but I don’t think you can rule out the possibility that Alonso could have pulled off the same victory in the McLaren. And the same could be said of Hamilton and Alonso in the Red Bull. His drives in China, Australia and Spain were top levels as well. More mistakes have crept in, and he hasn’t been to the level of previous years, but his capacity to produce these high-level; performances makes me confident that when he has a more competitive car, his tendency to ‘reach for the stars’ will lead to wins, not flying into the hedge. And as for his focus and hunger, his obvious will to be back at the front confounds that.

Against this there is one cloud on the horizon. In more articles than I can remember, top journalists have referred to Lewis needing to ‘sort out issues in his personal life’ or somesuch. It is there I question whether these journalists are hinting at the problems of having a celebrity girlfriend based in the United States, or something more serious. I don’t know, but whatever way I hope it is sorted! Either way, Lewis does seem to be turning into a modern Nigel Mansell, drama at every turn, every press conference! But did it really hurt Mansell?  As long as he can get winning again I can’t see this having a long term effect. Neither can the rather spurious stories of his management not turning up to races – after all Vettel manages without such figures, and for goodness sake Hamilton is 26 now, and would such a free sprit appreciate having someone there trying to control him? He is, after all, already at his ‘family’ team.

I guess I have a big soft spot for a driver who creates constant drama, can pull off incredible victories, amazing passes, and chucks the car in the hedge on the last lap pursuing victory. Things are a longer game that the 24 hour media sometimes admit, and I would be stupefied if Hamilton never wins another championship, and that man Vettel had better watch out, as McLaren and Ferrari will be closer next year, and Mercedes the year after. I don’t think he is ‘finished’, and my best guess is that after some more public moping around, he will win one of the last four races, go into the off season in good spirits, and ne a mighty contender next year. And if he doesn’t, it will still be fund finding out, because he is such a passionate, explosive, attacking ten tenths racer, with so much ‘tiger’. Good luck Lewis!


Much of the reaction and comment over the Spa Grand Prix weekend was about the 20th anniversary of Michael Schumacher’s debut in Formula One, in the beautiful Jordan 191 at Spa. It was interesting reading, and listening, and recently I have been thinking back over his career, and is place in the pantheon of greats.

My assessment of Schumacher is bound around one thing, which has been little explored, and may be a personal peccadillo of mine, but I think is interesting. And it is this: did Schumacher improve the sport by being there? By that I don’t mean being the greatest driver ever, or his strengths or weaknesses, but did he in some way make the sport better by being there? If he had taken up a job as a mechanic in his home town would the sport have improved, or been massively hurt? It is there where things become murky.

Well the first certainty is that we would have been robbed of the early years, the fresh faced young German, in the gorgeous Jordan, and then the rough and ready manual gearboxed Benetton, fizzing and glistening with promise, when anything was possible. Socking it to the greats, racing with and beating Mansell, Senna, and Prost. Destroying Piquet and Patrese, fighting off an exceptional rearguard from the wily Martin Brundle in 1992. Racing, overtaking, smiling on the podium, defending, scrapping, fighting, winning. I must admit at the time, as a younger man myself, I was a TREMENDOUS fan of this vibrant young driver, rocking the established order. I couldn’t imagine him as part of the old generation of drivers, and was so excited about watching him grown, and be a champion, and continuing on....well you though he could be timeless (as it seems to have turned out). No question, the Schumacher of 1991-1993 brought another dimension to the sport, challenging the established order, propelling a Benetton that could quickly, with Ford engines, have run out of steam, and deservedly becoming one of the big beasts himself.

But...did this vibrant young man subsequently add to the sport? Did his being there make a significant contribution, even if you were not a fan of his, similar to, say, Fernando Alonso today? My contention would be that he did not. If you had taken Schumacher away from the late nineties and early noughties era of Formula One it would probably in my eyes have significantly improved the sport. In some ways it would have been lacking, but the sport could have made a virtue of it. There was discernibly a drop in quality of the field post Senna, Prost, Mansell, but sans Schumacher the field could have been flattened out, and the pressure of competition between Messer’s Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Montoya, Hill et al could have been close, competitive, and exciting, a field of equals racing hard. After all, late nineties Champ Car only needed fields headed by Zanardi, Vasser or Montoya to be absolutely riveting. The absence of Schumacher would also have taken away from the feeling that one side (in this case the Schumacher/Ferrari axis) was being unfairly favoured by the FIA. Perhaps we might have had a level playing field...?.... well, probably not, but maybe not quite such a jaundiced one either. All in all, it would have been a fitting response to the state of Formula One, an interim era between the big beats of the eighties and nineties and now. Of course we would have missed Schumacher’s wet weather skills and his ability to prostitute a car to do multiple qualifying laps in a race, flat chat, to pass people ‘at the stops’. Well, for the first, Jean Alesi and others would have provided their moments, and for the second... you can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned! I did not find it monumentally fascinating at the time....

And this is why I have enjoyed Schumacher more in his second incarnation. All the refuelling rubbish has gone, and he actually has to race, and finally I feel there is some sort of connection again with the young Benetton driver in the thick of the pack from all those years ago. His performances have been a lot better this year and he has....mostly....kept it clean, apart from reverting to the revolting old antics with Hamilton at Monza (and I make a distinction between this year and last, just ask a Mr Barrichello about that!). He is even only three points behind Rosberg at the time of asking in the championship. Although he is defiantly still a ‘but...’ driver! 

So, I enjoy him more since his comeback. But a lot of that is down to the different Formula he races in. Do I value him as an essential part of making Formula One great? No!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Big Business or Corner Shops

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, another of my ‘irrational’ beliefs I have long held (among many, but I guess life would be dull if we all followed the herd) is that car manufacturers are bad for motor racing. Yes CAR manufacturers, the people that churn out road cars by the million, and have a deep vested interest in high performance technology, and are the most relevant sponsors/investors in motorsport bar....not a lot! And look at all the motor sport programmes they have started over the years, producing many wonderful cars, like the Silk Cut Jaguars, the turbo Renault F1 cars, the Lancia Stratos, the DTM Alfa 155, Subaru Impreza, and on and on and on. None of these cars would have been produced without the involvement of their manufacturers, from concept to the much needed finance. So how on earth can it be a bad thing? Well if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then manufacturer power can ‘manufacture’ the excitement out of racing.

I take you to a shining exhibit of this, the BTCC. About 15 years ago, Super Touring was in the throes of conquering the world, and BTCC was in the vanguard. After the superlative title battle of 1992 (Soper/Cleland would probably merit a lot of OMG WOW LOAZ for the Twitter generation if it happened today!) and the early 1990’s adoption of Super Touring, the BTCC just exploded into a period of runaway growth, with foreign stars and over ten manufacturers, allied to masses of fans at the tracks and TV, with their fans entertained by full racing days, open paddocks and accessible drivers. I was one of them myself, three times having made the trip to Knockhill, and oh my goodness the full autograph books I came back with! Disparaging comments were made the excitement of a sterile Formula One compared to the BTCC, and the strength of Touring Cars seemed to have no end; there were even championships in the U.S., Australia, Asia and South Africa. At one point the German  were playing host to the insane, awesome  ‘old’ DTM and the STW for Super Touring, which was at about the level of the BTCC for a couple of years. There was even an excellent magazine set up around this time, exclusively to document the growth of Super Touring round the world, called, wait for it, Super Touring magazine! (And excellent it was too, does anyone remember it? Disappeared around 1997 if I recall?). At the time it seemed as if Super Touring would grow and grow and grow. If you’d told me then, that Super Touring Cars in 2011 would be limited to a declining two manufacturer world series, and isolated national level series in Britain, Scandinavia and South America, and the British series with NO manufacturers, I would have eaten my hat... What happened to stall the seemingly limitless growth and goodwill towards Super Touring? Simple, one word which I fear in motorsport – MANUFACTURERS!

There is a conceptual distinction which I feel is important. For my mind, the BTCC grid that has been on display this year, in fantastic races like the meeting at Croft last weekend, was vibrant, diverse and colourful. No manufacturer involvement, but I really didn’t care. Instead there have still been a wide variety of CARS, from a mix of teams, and a mix of old and new drivers. But instead of largely all of them being under the writ of car manufacturers, they were financed by an eclectic range of companies: (all now more visible in great looking HD, thank you ITV4!) Ebay Motors, Aon, Halfords, Dunlop, Airwaves...there were many (and that being a good thing because I always prefer more ‘freestyle’ livered series like NASCAR than series with rows of identikit ‘Noah and the Ark’ pairs of cars). So what is the difference between that and when manufacturers wrote the cheques? Well, I think large scale manufacturer involvement such as the BTCC has had to the point where they become reliant on it was ultimately destabilising to the series. Because there is a fundamental truth about manufacturers involvement in motorsport, that holds true for all series, no matter how rich nor grand. A manufacturer, lasting long in a series, is the exception not the rule, and for good reason. Manufacturers are different to most other types of sponsors. While the focus for say, ebay motors is to raise awareness (put your cheque in the post now you’ve had a mention on the blog guys!) or increasingly now, build ‘brand to brand’ relationships, it is different to manufacturers. Of course ebay motors want to be preferably emblazoned on the side of a winning BMW (indeed that would be usually one of the most exposed cars in the media) but it is not a bad reflection on the brand if they do not win, for it is very simple for the public to deduce ebay motors do not prepare and buy the car (now there’s an idea:!. Instead, they publicise their brand, make people interested, and increasingly in today’s world, do enough to make someone Google them, and the rest is up to how adept the company is. All good for them. But with a manufacturer, it is somewhat different. Even though in some cases it may not be of the most actual relevance (how does Toyota producing a race winning NASCAR full of antividean and largely standardised technology relate to their standing in their passenger car market?) on track performance is seen as relevant to a car manufacturers reputation, in the way it isn’t to a chewing gum company or a newspaper. I guess it’s like if there was a competition every year for who could build the most powerful super computer: the companies would have to entrust the building of them to specialist teams, and any innovations they made would take a long time and have little in common with mass market devices, but....if Sony, HP or Lenovo entered, it would be a big feather in their cap to win, and good for their image, in a way it wouldn’t be for Vanity Fair or Daves Cash and Carry. least the manufacturers who have success will be all happy and placated then? Of course not! For the manufacturers that win, for example Renault in Formula One, will find if this isn’t replicated on a consistent basis then the recognition of their technology by the public and the media will decline. It was a huge deal when Renault by immense efforts unseated Honda as the top engine dog in Formula One. It wasn’t when they were pulling off their seventh consecutive constructor’s title as powerplant to the winning car with weaker competition. The results based upside to being in motorsport will gradually decline over time, in parallel to those manufacturers who are becoming disenchanted and want out of the sport. And of course that is what happened to the poor old BTCC. Ford were successful with the Mondeo, Renault with the Laguna, Audi with the A4, Volvo with a series of cars. They got what they wanted...and left. Even doyen of the series Vauxhall has done the same, tired of racing themselves among manufacturer teams! But did the less successful manufacturers fill the wake they left? Not really. Look at some of the unsuccessful manufacturers who slipped away from BTCC over the years: Mazda, Peugeot, Toyota, the results didn’t come and they didn’t hang around long to see if they would. And why should they have, because their reputation would have been suffering in some way all the time? The same has happened in Formula One, with escalating costs, and not a chance for all the manufacturers to be successful. And I’m glad it has – I like personal, racing teams like Williams and Sauber, financed by sponsorship, not the dull and boring Toyota motor corporation doing not a lot. And look at the World Rally Championship, at the turn of the century cresting the wave of manufacturer involvement, and now in the worst of both worlds – during the recent barren years, thanks to only Citroen and Ford staying around, we had a situation where privateers could not win, but yet there were not a terrible lot of factory cars to choose from who would beat them in the final reckoning (with one particular brilliant driver taking the lions share, although that wasn’t the championships fault). I’ll explore this later in more detail, but....wouldn’t the WRC have been better banning manufacturer teams a while ago? I really really think they would!

Some people may see madness in what I say. But ultimately I want to see creative, dynamic, colourful, diverse and individualistic teams competing hard and fairly on the track, in series that has lots of cars, and a substantial number of them that can win. Ultimately, I put it to you all, I struggle to think of a single series where car manufacturer involvement has helped, or will help this, apart from sometimes creating little mini booms. If I was Alan Gow, when I wasn’t under verbal assault from Jason Plato and had some quiet time to think, I would be very proud of BTCC 2011, which fulfils these criteria and then some, and has just provided some wonderful racing and excitement at the fine racetracks we have in Britain. And if I were him that pride would lead me say to the car manufacturers if they are attracted by this spectacle: thanks, but no thanks.  In fact I would darn well introduce a rule outlawing manufacturer backed teams!  If the BTCC chooses the alternative, they may as well appoint Gordon Brown as the series boss. For the days of boom and painful bust, would be well and truly back.  Leave the car companies to their rightful place of buying banner ads on ebay, or arranging competition tie ins with Airwaves or Halfords. And let those boys do a proper job of financing some great, viable, exciting racing.