Thursday, 26 January 2012

Cars and Tracks

Further to my post about 'Cars and Tracks' below, and what I see is a bit of a crunch, where Formula One has hit a ceiling with the amount of 'raw' pace the cars can have, on tracks where the spectators and marshals are still vaguly close to the cars, I lobbed in a question to the Motor Sport magazine podcast, this month with Pat Symonds, and was delighted to hear my question read out. Mr Symonds put the (far more well informed!) counter view to me, that new safety initiatives like SAFER barriers increase the ceiling for performance, and many of the things that are happening with energy recovery will be very exciting.

The question is at about 45 minutes in, and the podcast is at  and on iTunes. But do listen to the whole thing, the Motor Sport podcasts are always top notch, and actually make me look forward to long walks/runs (a minor miracle there!). And as for the magazine which just landed on my doormat with the Williams FW14B on the front and all the stories about Williams, it is really superlative even by their high standards!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Is It Just Me, Or....?

I would think everyone has it in life, but as I hurtle through the years I find the ‘is it just me’ moments are increasing, stopping me in my daily business, tapping me on the shoulder and having a little chat. One such moment came last week, with the budgies twittering that Bruno Senna was off to Williams (on the money again Joe Saward) and the subsequent announcement. And before you say it, the ‘Is It Just Me’ moment was not so much for the announcement of Senna getting the seat. I think he will do pretty well. A lot have forgotten he showed promise in GP2 and British Formula 3, and did well I thought given the ‘poisoned chalice’ of a seat midway through the season last year. No, he didn’t blow his teammate Vitaly Petrov away halfway through the calendar. Neither did Messrs Algusuari, Grosjean and Heidfeld to their dancing partners in similar situations in past seasons. Although it does frustrate me the way Williams have (again) insisted that a driver choice is ‘nothing to do with money’. Let them cling to that splintering liferaft if they must, but it doesn’t stop me hankering after the old Williams ‘no bulls**t’ philosophy. And never mind the days when they would fearlessly let a factory Honda engine deal evaporate, to avoid taking Satoru Nakajima (must write another blogpost about all that someday...). My faith wasn’t exactly at hands clasped, kneeling down, looking at the sky levels when I heard the ‘nothing to do with money’ comment. What really didn’t help was that I had played a game of ‘spot the sponsor’ bingo watching an interview with Senna on Sky News. On my cards I had Gillette, Embratel, Head and Shoulders, OGX.... a big list of all the sponsors that joined Renault once Senna got the race drive last year. Guess what, full house! I don’t think it would be ‘balderdash and piffle’ to suggest they did not move to Williams purely out of an altruistic desire to return Sir Frank’s men to World Championship glory.....

Indeed. But all such tomfoolery, while a bit wacky in places, is all TOO believable in the context of modern day Formula One. But what did give the ‘Is It Just Me’ moment was a number of comments from journalists and on forums that it was a really great thing to see the Senna name back in Formula One. And for that matter there were many of the same happy welcomes for Williams running the ‘retro’ Rothmans style livery last year. I come to this from being a fan who was very fortunate to get into Formula One during the Senna/Prost/Mansell/Piquet ‘golden era’, and even had the great fortune of seeing Prost and Senna race live. Even now, I still can’t truly believe what happened to Ayrton Senna that awful day in 1994, and question myself ‘did it happen’ when it comes up in writings about the sport. That year started with Ayrton Senna taking pole for the first race, and Nigel Mansell winning the last one, seemingly standard for the ‘golden era’, but in reality, amongst the various awful things that happened that year, the golden era was definitively shattered, the number two Williams evoking enormous sadness, as it marks the passing of the golden era, and the very last milestones of two superlative racing drivers. Notwithstanding the superb and dramatic championships Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve achieved in Rothmans livery, and the maiden race victories of David Coulthard and Heinz Harald Frentzen, I associate the Rothmans livery with sadness more than anything. Also, I’m not in the camp that said it was one of the outstanding liveries anyway – I thought what Rothmans did with the Porsche sportscars in the 1980’s was far more effective!

Therefore, I was a bit confused by the widespread acclaim of Williams bringing back the Rothmans livery last year, with some of the sad memories it engenders. Maybe it shows my age (or how young a tod I was when I started following motorsport!) that I can’t see it from the perspective of those who only remember that glorious morning in Suzuka Damon carried home the World Championship, the sizzling afternoon in Jerez Villeneuve faced down thuggery from Schumacher, and so forth. For me the livery I remember with childlike enthusiasm is the Camel/Canon one from the 1980’s and early 1990’s. My goodness, what a good looking vibrant car! It just really WORKED to my eyes. And it brings to mind one of the most dominant high tech and brilliant cars, the FW14B. And I was fortunate to see its successor the FW15C, race live (and see it again 18 years on at Goodwood a few months ago). For me this livery is prettier, and evokes great memories of an era where Williams blitzed everybody, took a massive tumble off the cliff for their Nakajima point of principle, and then relentlessly, determinedly fought their way back to the top, partnering with Renault to overcome the powerful starship McLaren International/Honda/Marlboro, while unleashing Adrian Newey on a top Formula One team for the first time. Fantastic! And this livery would also be appropriate to Williams’ strongly South American flavour. White, yellow and blue wouldn’t be totally incongruous to the mix of colours in the Brazilian and Venezuelan flags, and could be easily tweaked to satisfy ‘the corporates’ and purist fans nicely.

As for Senna going to Williams, it does make me feel a bit weird. I am very glad to see him stay in the sport, and love the Senna name being back on the leaderboard, but Williams.....not so much for memories of the accident, but maybe just because it is so sad thinking of all the great achievements Ayrton Senna could have had at Williams, and the sense of unfufillment with Williams and the Senna name. Maybe it would be more....comfortable, if Bruno was going to McLaren, where Ayrton Senna won so much, and left us with that wonderful memory of beating Prost one final time in Adelaide in the red and white McLaren. With Williams, sadly he never had the time (and with his brilliance and the quality of the team behind him, surely all it would have needed was time) to carve the same wonderful memories in the minds of motorsport fans all around the world. Maybe it is just nerves that Bruno is going to a team where the Senna name did not have success. Maybe this is something that will dispel as time goes on, and of course what would help is if he achieves really good results, and helps Williams get moving towards the front again. Indeed, if that happened, it would probably turn into a wonderful story, and be such a heartening thing to see the Senna name achieve success. But until then – ‘is it just me’?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cars and Tracks: Hitting the Rev Limiter, Or A Wipeout 2097 Future?

One thing I always puzzle over is the long term relationship between the speed of the great cars that grace our sport, and the tracks we are blessed to see them race upon (or the bland autodromes that are sometimes foisted upon us). Earlier I was watching grainy footage of the 1973 British Grand Prix (doff my hat to ESPN Classic) and it was so apparent there was a severe lack of runoff area on the track. Yes, it was probably too dangerous for the cars then. But oh my goodness, if it was dangerous with the big chunky cars of yesteryear, could you imagine racing on the same track with the lithe carbon fibre monsters of today?! The flimsy barriers, rough track, open grass would all have made the whole thing hairier than an Eskimo. Except of course, for one teeny fact....Silverstone ISN’T the same track as today. It does a great job of combining the old (airfield layout, Copse, Hangar Straight) and the new (Maggots/Becketts, Abbey, the new ‘stadium’ section) and all in a much safer environment. The helter skelter arrangement of flimsy barriers an agricultural long grass has given way to Armco barriers, gravel and neatly mowed grass, and through intensive research even some of that has given way to abrasive tarmac, tyre walls and SAFER barriers. So, though we have more power, grip, aerodynamics, tyre stickiness (just to match the bigger egos!) than 1973, the tracks have sprouted new safety facilities to ‘match’ the improved performance of the cars, when we spool back 39 years from 2012 to 1973. So on the face of it, very logical, and, as our dreary politicos would have it, ‘a sustainable development model.’ Or in layman’s terms, if the cars get faster, just have safer tracks and bigger run offs. Simple eh? But......

Exponentially where would it all end? If the cars kept getting faster, could new technology be invented, or the run off areas be extended, to maintain the symbiotic relationship between cars and tracks? Well yes......but only by making such a great acreage of run off areas that the spectators would need telescopes to see the cars! And of course, when we think about 1973-2012 in more detail, there have been many movements of the hand on the tiller to restrict speed. Engines, aerodynamics, mechanics, materials, tyres, electronics, have all been limited (but not those drivers’ egos!). If left unregulated, the speed of cars would be simply massive, and just not be able to race on the circuits we love. And indeed they have rarely exceeded certain limits – horsepower rarely hits over 1000 BHP, the cars frequently power down the straights at over 200 MPH, but rarely 250 MPH, and aerodynamic grip is continually ferreted away, before being clawed back by the genius designers. Things oscillate and reverberate, at some tracks we have new lap records being laid down, at others the records of 2004 and earlier stand firm. Truly, in terms of raw speed, if not ingenuity and refinement, Formula One is locked into a cycle of ‘hitting the rev limiter’, inching up to and then bouncing off it with regularity. But what are the likely consequences? 

Well, as we have seen, the constant rule changes are surely here to stay. Going ‘over the rev limiter’ in terms of pure raw speed and grip will endanger the tracks. But what will the long term effects be? Looking at the broad sweep of history, the rate of development of Formula One cars is striking, with a ‘breaking the mould’ innovation every decade up to the early 1990’s. The active suspension, computerised cars of pre-1994 are the last gasp of a more laissez faire style of regulations. After that, the emphasis is more on refinement, budget and ingenuity in limited areas, no better exemplified by the relentless Schumacher/Ferrari machine, remorselessly grinding its way through a succession of championships. Indeed, what is an (yet another) impressive thing about the genius of Adrian Newey is that his genius has won true in such different eras, smashing the competition with the legendary FW14B, loaded to the gumballs with gadgets in the laissez faire era, and cleaning up with the RB7 in a more dirigisme time. But, notwithstanding the obvious change in the environment, have we seen the full effects of this restriction on the regulations? Formula One is still very popular worldwide, with no challenge to its top motorsport status. And indeed, you could say, why should it be? Although not conclusively the fastest car in a straight line worldwide (a Bugatti Veyron tank could lay better claim to that!) nor the most technically innovative (sports cars would have their towels down on that deckchair!) but they are the fastest round a single, road race lap, and with Indycar struggling with a ‘specish’ car, A1 GP gone, sportscars and DTM still slower, and NASCAR still based on 1960’s technology, I do not see any change to this in the foreseeable future. But what would happen of a new series was able to challenge Formula One’s dominance of the hot laps? 

This could be a powerful challenge indeed. Being able to lay claim to Formula One’s pedestal as fastest over a single lap, and have more technical freedom, would be a blow to Formula One’s prestige, and call into question its brand image as a mainstream extreme sport, on which the patrons of Red Bull, Monster and so on find worthy for purveying an edgy, dynamic image to the worldwide viewers. Surely they would have a natural attraction to a genuinely faster series? But of course, to be genuinely faster, such a series would hit the same ‘rev limiter’ as Formula One, with the state of the modern tracks (optimised for Bernie’s circus of course) being a natural constraint. What options would a challenger series have? Go to non- Grand Prix circuits, where on average, run offs and barriers are even less? Race at an airfield with no fans? The alternatives are barren. Hitting the rev-limiter, and the decreasing intersection between the speed of cars and the space available on track, will surely define events in the future of the sport, and make it hard for people to challenge Formula One. But what if someone could truly break the mould?

It is pretty clear that a tyres on track Formula would find it hard to break through the ‘rev-limiter’ of natural constraints. So how could it break out? Well, this is again a matter for innovation and technology – let us hope the best at it will still be British! Could a ‘Wipeout 2097’ style anti-gravity series open up the potential for extra speed and innovation? Going to the air could open up new types of tracks, and allow for continued safety for spectators and day. It is of course a long way off. But anyone first told the concept of the Harrier jump jet usually says the same.....and it has already been in and out of service with the British Navy! Innovation can make the impossible possible.....

If it doesn’t, then Formula One’s dominance of the shrinking triangle of car speed, innovation and track safety will continue, although at the expense of slightly eroding its status as an extreme sport, and the fastest over a single lap. But what would truly blow this status apart is a new, hereto, unseen innovation that could widen this triangle, and would be a serious challenge to the status of Formula One.