Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Formula Fiscal

There isn't enough money in the entire world for Formula 1.

http://www.virgin.com/news/marussia-virgin-racing-testing-success

That's not just a nice bit of hyperbole, it happens to be literally true: if the entire $75 trillion GDP of Planet Earth was poured into Formula 1, we'd get some superb racing machines, sure, but the teams would still be screaming for money. There is no upper limit on spending when it's going towards R&D for a competitive activity. Only the military gives you that same crippling equation, which is why only defense can give you more out-of-control spending than Formula 1.

But on a more-practicable, less-hypothetical level, it seems that statement has become true as well: there aren't enough willing investors to keep every Formula 1 team afloat, and certainly not if you want to spend at the same level as the big teams. Which you have to, if you want a chance at winning.

So it is that two of Formula 1's backmarker teams have bitten the dust - Marussia and Caterham. Both arrived on the grid in 2010, born out of then-FIA president Max Mosely's idea to force a 30 million spending cap on the teams. Four teams thought that sounded pretty workable: Campos Meta (which became the Hispania Racing Team); Manor Grand Prix (which ultimately became Marussia); Lotus Racing (which became Caterham); and USF1 (which became a hellish mess). All of them were counting on Mosely's budget cap idea to remain in business, so of course, the established teams shot it down in flames. Mosely lost his job as FIA president, the budget cap idea was dropped, the hovering threat of a breakaway series vanished and the new boys weren't needed as insurance anymore. They found themselves diving into the familiar F1 shark tank - without Mosely's steel cage.


HRT hit a financial brick wall before they even got to the grid, and Spanish squillionaire José Ramón Carabante was forced to buy the team to protect his initial investment, naming it after his Hispania Group. He called in Colin Kolles (then running Audis at Le Mans but with plenty of hands-on experience running several F1 teams), who put together a real Frankenstein monster of a team: Italian cars ("Dallara," said technical chief Geoff Willis, "thought the car would be a super-duper GP2 car, maybe 30% better, but it needed to be ten times better"), Spanish finance, British mechanics with DTM, Le Mans and Formula 3 backgrounds, but not much actual F1 experience, mechanics trying to convey information in Spanish, Italian, German and English... a real dog's breakfast. HRT first hit the track, not in practice for the Bahrain GP, but in qualifying: Karun Chandhok felt them bolt the floor onto the car under his backside when Q1 had already started.

The first time this car ever had an engine in it.

So nobody was too surprised to say adios to HRT in 2012; by then they weren't trying to become a proper F1 team, they just wanted someone to buy them and take the financial loss, the Greater Fool theory in its practical application. They were even still running the same Dallara cars, never having had the money for new ones.

Marussia was better, but not by much. At its core was a crew of Formula 3 stalwarts, Manor Motorsport from Sheffield, with a commercial office in London and R&D from Wirth Research in Bicester. The Wirth connection was the biggest clue - in those days Nick Wirth was championing the idea that CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) would soon make windtunnels obsolete; that the digital windtunnel would soon be giving better results than the real thing. That was Manor's great flaw, trying to go Grand Prix racing without a windtunnel. Cutting one of the most basic corners in the game was a bold gamble, one that attracted Sir Richard Branson's attention and made them Virgin Racing for their first couple of seasons, but in the long run it backfired badly. It turned out CFD couldn't do the job alone (or just couldn't do it alone yet, depending on who you asked), and Wirth was given the flick. From there they were on borrowed time: Beardy Branson got out while he could and sold his stock to Nikolai Fomenko, whose Marussia sports car company gave the team its new name. Then in April this year the Marussia company itself shut down, and it was just a matter of time until we said Пока! to the F1 team.

So the loss of HRT and Marussia was no real shock; the real surprise was Caterham. If any of the Class of 2010 looked promising, it was Caterham. The team started as a Malaysian pride project, partly owned by the Malaysian government, but the frontman was billionaire AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes, with support coming from Proton who gave permission for the team to be named Lotus. The new Lotus was started from scratch ("At the middle of September ['09] we had three staff and an empty factory near Hingham," said Fernandes, although sign of the times, the first room completed was the prayer room for the team's Moslem employees). But the real mover and shaker was Mike Gascoyne, the man who'd moved Renault to the front of the grid in the early Noughties and almost managed the same with Toyota. Gascoyne wisely built a relatively heavy, conservative car that did what none of the other teams could do, finish races, and so ended the year best of the bottom four (which, because of a bet, resulted in Sir Richard Branson serving as a flight attendant on an AirAsia flight).

He rose like a phoenix to the occasion.

But then the ex-Renault factory team changed their name to Lotus, kicking off a huge legal row that ended with Fernandes buying the Caterham company, makers of the Caterham Seven kit car, just for the rights to the name (why they didn't just call the team Proton, a name easy for Westerners to pronounce and sizzling with Rise-of-the-Third-World cool, is beyond me). Yet this year Fernandes seems to have lost interest: in Monaco the team set a record for the most races without scoring a single point (just to rub in salt, the same weekend Jules Bianchi gave Marussia their first points); then 40 staff took him to court for wrongful dismissal (a sure sign the budget butchers were at work). Now they've entered administration, and although next year's entry list still shows a Caterham entry, it seems pretty unlikely.

So what happens next? There's talk of the remaining teams being forced to each enter a third car in next year's championship - a sign things are in a bad way, but sadly, not an uncommon one. You only have to unwind the clock 11 years to find that sort of talk coming up again. And the lessons from that time will be the subject of my next blog.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

When Gricey Scalped the Greats

God, I love this.

So I'm most of the way through a great video providing good insight into the time the Holden Dealer Team went to Europe, when I'm distracted by a tale of outrageous theft. This is why racing is awesome, people.


Let's start at the beginning. It's 1986, a year that started on a high note as Peter Brock's long-delayed Commodore evo  finally arrives. The car - the VK Commodore SS Group A (a bit of a mouthful, better known as "Blue Meanie") - was well worth the wait, fast out of the box and responsive to good driving and careful preparation.

The first Australian Touring Car Championship for Group A cars had been won (by a BMW), as well as the first Group A Bathurst (by a Jaguar), leading some to decry this invasion from foreign cars as a misstep. Peter Brock, however, grabbed the stick from the other end - he realised the Commodore was now eligible to race in Europe. With a brand-new "World Touring Car Championship" having been announced for 1987 (which would visit Australasia thrice, including races at Calder Park, Wellington in East Bondi, and the big one at Bathurst), it would probably be a good idea to send a car to Europe and get a taste of the opposition. Ergo, a VK SS Group A was crated up and flown to Italy for the 500km race at Monza - Round 1 of the '86 European Touring Car Championship.

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In those days the ETCC was as cutthroat as touring car racing got: a marathon 13 races, each 500km long, plus the prestigious 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps (these days it's a GT race for gran turismo cars, but back then it was for ordinary touring cars, or piccolo turismo, as I like to think of them). People who could make a living out of this were not to be trifled with, and 1986 saw more works teams on the grid than ever before (or since): BMW's Schnitzer Motorsport; reigning champions Eggenberger, who'd just signed on as the new Ford works team; the Volvo Motorsport Division, who after the breakup with Eggenberger were on the rebound with Belgian team RAS Sport; and Tom Walkinshaw Racing's ongoing stint as the Bastos Texaco Rover team.

To stand against that, Holden would have to field the very best – so Peter Brock got on the phone to his old rival Allan Moffat, who'd spent 1985 on the sidelines, unable to get a drive. Yes, do not adjust your screens, Moffat actually signed up to co-drive a Holden with Peter Brock! Despite their old rivalry, Moffat was the ideal man for the job, a driver with plenty of overseas experience and a wide range of international contacts, not to mention amazing mechanical sympathy. Moffat signed to do development work and the co-drive the famous #05, which the FIA sadly reduced to just #5 for the European events. More promisingly, as part of the global General Motors caliphate, Brock and the Mobil HDT were allowed to operate out of Opel's racing skunkworks in Germany. 

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And funnily enough, Allan Grice made the trip too, showing once again was sort of the antimatter version of Brock. Grice's car was also a VK Group A, but unlike Brock's, it hadn't been prepared by the factory. Instead, it had been put together by Les Small's Roadways workshop in Melbourne, one of two VKs Les Small built for Gricey that year and widely considered the best two cars he ever built. One of them stayed in Australia and was raced locally, while the other was flown to Europe to contest the ETCC alongside Brock. It had almost no sponsorship (just frozen chicken magnate Graeme Bailey's Chickadee logo, plus some help from Yokohama as he outlines in the video), and the car was run not from a glossy manufacturer's factory, but from Aussie expat Alan Docking's Formula 3 workshop. It was the ultimate contrast of factory glitz and gritty privateer.

And amazingly, it was advantage Grice. At Monza Brock snapped an axle within six laps, a mechanical failure unthinkable back home, while Grice led the race for quite a distance and caused quite a stir among the Establishment. The race fell to Tom Walkinshaw, but the Volvo, BMW and Rover drivers still left the circuit muttering to themselves and staring disconsolately at calendars, checking the dates for their next round of factory upgrades. It's only been okay to say it since the announcement that Broadmeadows is closing, but it now seems it was true: Aussie cars were actually pretty good.


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Oh yeah, and the theft? At Spa Gricey broke a seat, so he pinched one out of Tom Walkinshaw's unused display car. Not to be outdone, Win Percy confirms that yes he did, then goes on to describe cannibalising some poor bastard's brand new Mazda in the car park, because a Mazda team needed the parts! Tacitus once wrote, "Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity." The people in motor racing all got that memo.

Damn, I love this sport.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Zero to Hero

How do you go from never winning a single race, to completely dominating your series in only six months? With the same car?

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Yes, it is a trick question. Racing cars tend only to exist as cars on race day anyway, spending the rest of their time lying around the workshop in bits. Ship of Theseus-type questions are inevitable. But it's still the question Jim Richards, the John Player BMW Team and the BMW 635 CSi were facing at the conclusion of the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship. Nobodies in December, Champions in July. What gives?

Wise readers will already know what changed: the ATCC made the jump from the local Group C regulations to the FIA's international Group A. Frank Gardner's JPS team'd done their best campaigning the BMW, running it for four years straight without managing a win, because sometimes there's nothing anyone can do. Group C had recognised four classes based on engine size: 1,300cc (a tiny Fiat or something), 2.0 litres, 3.5 litres and a whopping 6.0 litres. Tyre regs had split the field into only two, giving the smaller cars 8½-inch tyres and the bigger ones 10½. With minimum weights up to the none-too-transparent discretion of CAMS, that really left only two kinds of car in the ATCC: big, stonking, V8-engined muscle cars, and backmarkers.

Click here for a great article by Mark Oastler on this car. You have to sign up for Shannons Club to read it, so it's up to you whether it's worth providing free market research for (hint: totally).

The BMW fit into the latter category. The design dated from 1979, and it showed, with a forward-tilted radiator grille and that fat '70s airdam (in those days engineers weren't interested in using the airflow under the car to produce downforce, they were trying to keep it from getting under there in the first place). That made the car an aerodynamic nightmare, but that was slightly offset by its smaller overall size, which kept its drag figures manageable. But it had one handy ace up its sleeve - its engine, which had been taken from the stillborn BMW M1 supercar. Since the M1 had begun as a homologation special for a defunct sports car series, that meant the 635 got its power from a racing engine that had been sanitised for road use, not a production engine that had been tarted up for racing.

That should have given the Beemer a major advantage in the endurance races, where its drivers could keep revving it hard while their rivals were falling by the wayside, but there was just no living with the V8-powered XE Falcons and VH Commodores. Bentley's Maxim - that there's no substitute for cubes - was proved right time and again on racetracks across the country, which tended to be stop-start affairs sorely lacking in the long, flowing corners the BMW was used to. By the European definition, Australian touring cars weren't so much "touring cars" as "drag cars that could go around corners."

Until 1985, that is. Suddenly the old rulebook was torn up, and a new one brought in that had been written around machines just like this one. Like Group C, Group A used an equivalence formula that matched bigger engines with heavier weight limits and fatter tyres, but in much finer increments, letting the engineers match everything up a lot more closely. Since the JPS team was a "works" effort with support from Munich, they got access to BMW's collective parts bin, giving Frank Gardner's crew a huge head start on Group A. The result? Suddenly the BMW's 3.5-litre engine was producing some 250 kW, but only had to haul around 1,185kg, and was dancing around on bespoke fully-independent racing suspension - a recipe to make any racing driver drool.

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Compare and contrast the opposition. Ford had picked this moment to kill off the V8 Falcon, leaving Dick Johnson with little option but to buy a gutless Mustang from Zakspeed in Germany. Peter Brock had it even worse - the Commodore's 5-litre donk left it at the extreme end of Group A, saddled with a beefy 1,300kg minimum weight. Even worse, the production-based engine was far from sophisticated (pushrods and carbs, oh my) and Brock's cash-strapped Holden Dealer Team couldn't have afforded custom suspension gubbins like BMW's even if Holden was making any.

Even so, Brocky drove out of his skin to win his home ATCC race at Sandown, while Robbie Francevic drove one of those Swedish refrigerators to win the following race at Symmons Plains, and the season closer at Oran Park. But all the rest - including six races in a row from Barbagallo to Amaroo Park - fell to Gentleman Jim and the black-and-gold BMW team, at last earning Jim the crown of Australian Touring Car Champion (one of those races, the Eurovox Trophy at Calder Park, appears on one of Channel 7's "Magic Moments of Motorsport" DVDs, Group A Touring Car Classics. Yeah, free plug for them, but I'm trying to incentivise them to release all the races from 1960 onwards, so go buy it already).

Wait, the best bit was yet to come. For Bathurst, tyre magnate and retired champion Bob Jane indulged both his taste for European machinery and his deep pockets in equal measure, and brought over another BMW 635 to compete with the John Player team. Not just any 635, either - one built by Schnitzer Motorsport, BMW's much-feared works DTM team, which had already placed 2nd outright in the Spa 24 Hour race (apparently Janey had wanted the winning car, but it had sported one of those famous "BMW Genuine Parts" paint jobs that advertised all the bits and pieces under the bodywork. Jane of course was going to run his Bob Jane T-Marts colours, which would obliterate the BMW Genuine Parts livery - and putting it back was going to cost $10,000. Jane swallowed, blinked and shelled out for the silver-medal car instead. It's now in the Bowden collection, and you can read the car's whole history here).

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Anyway, so there was a rival BMW on the grid for the Great Race of '85, one built by the pros in Austria and funded by one of the wealthiest men in the country... and it was still out-qualified by the locally-built JPS car of Jim Richards! Richo's Hardie's Heroes lap was a solid 2 minutes 21.396 seconds, while in the same session Jane's driver only managed a 2:22.874. One-and-a-half seconds faster in - really, truly, genuinely - the same car. That's some class. Imagine Australia's surprise when we found out our touring car scene was on a level with the professionals in Europe! Cultural cringe is a funny thing.

So to answer the original question, how do you go from never winning a single race to dominating your series in only six months? Well, it doesn't hurt to have the rules rewritten in your favour... but to make it work, you also have to be among the best in the world.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A Long History Of Blowing Hot & Cold

We need to stop buying Fords.

That was the conclusion I reached on hearing that the blue oval will likely stop funding V8 Supercars after 2015. Given that Broadmeadows is shutting down in 24 months and the deal with Fox will shrink the TV audience to nothing, it makes a cold sort of sense, if you're myopically focused on the Falcon.

But at this stage - after years of strangling Dick Johnson, the Stone Brothers and FPR - Ford's been quitting for so long I'm starting to think of them as one of those crazy girlfriends who are forever breaking up with you just to get some attention. Do they imagine if they draw the agony out as long as possible, we'll miss them more or something?

In 2009, this team were doing all Ford's winning; Broadmeadows turned off the money hose, and now they race Commodores. Stick to beat themselves with: made. (source)

Not that it should come as any surprise. Ford's been pulling this sort of thing as long as they've been in Australia. Like in 1973, after Allan Moffat won them the ATCC and Bathurst in the same year, they shut down Ford Special Vehicles within months because, "We’re selling every damn car we build and we don’t need racing." Moffat was given a racecar as a parting gift and left to run it all on his own. In 1977, same thing: Moffat gives them that famous 1-2 finish at the Mountain - probably the most photographed moment in Aussie motorsport ever - and the next year, zap, Ford and their money vanish like spit on a hotplate, leaving Moffat out in the cold again. We've got our marketing benefits, thank you very much, no need to keep paying through the nose for it. No wonder Moffat went to Mazda.

2010: This man is crowned Australian Touring Car Champion in a Ford. 2011: He's driving for HRT. (source)

I've said it before: Ford doesn't seem to like motorsport, doesn't understand motorsport, and doesn't get why the rest of us like it so much. It's not just a Ford Australia thing either - wade through Jackie Stewart's vast autobiography Winning Is Not Enough and you find a revealing conversation aboard Dearborn's corporate jet, on the flight home from the '96 Canadian GP.
There was four of us sitting together and they asked if I would help them make a decision about what they were going to do. I told them they should get out of Formula 1 because they weren’t fully committed to it. “You’re either in, or you’re out, and the way you’re doing it, at the moment, is not giving you the chance to get the success that you expect or want.” They said, “No. We can’t get out because the market will think it’s wrong and in the rest of the world, lots of countries really want it.”
Don't like it, don't want to pay for it; have to do it because the customers force them to, with the result that they come across as sulky and resentful. If that's not proof the accounting trolls are running the company, I don't know what is. Show them a racing team budget and all they'll see is red ink to be minimised. The penalty of such a short-term view is that it's trapped the company in a spiral of ever-diminishing returns, slashing funding to Ford Performance Racing so much that they - the factory team - now have to run a Pepsi livery to make ends meet. So in their attempt to minimise promotion costs, Ford are paying $2 million a year to give Pepsi an edge over Coke. Bang-up job, guys.


I'm not a businessman, but I remember one lesson from my business classes very clearly: if you have to cut fat from your budget, you slash everything except marketing. I didn't pull that $2 million figure out of the air, it comes from a very good article from James Phelps that's been making the rounds this week. You should totally read the whole thing, but here are the highlights:
[FPR] are fast, and right now facing an uncertain future because Ford can’t see the value in taking $2 million a year from a $60 million marketing budget and spending it on … wait for it … cars. No apparently it makes more sense spending it on the Bachelorette and the Voice...

Since announcing they are shutting down their Australian operation at the end of 2016 and axing the Falcon, people think the company is in decline. Some people even think that Ford will not exist in Australia soon. The company needs to be as visible as possible so what can FPR do? Well how about the 3.775 million people who sat in their homes watching a 300kph an hour advertising board win Bathurst...?

And then there are the thousands of fans who spend $60 to become mobile advertising boards themselves by buying the shirts, hats, and flags. Wait, they pay to advertise your brand? Yep.
That "$2 million a year" was jarring: "Wait, only $2 million? That's it? Why not twenty?" The rule of the thumb right now is that it costs $10 million to run a top-tier V8 Supercar team for a year: $20 million out of Ford's marketing budget there would fully fund FPR, prop up Dick Johnson Racing (useful when they've just lost their Wilson Security deal), and still leave enough to assist the handful of extras who enter Bathurst each year, putting them in Falcons instead of Commodores or Nissans. At the very least, surely there's more benefit in spending $10 million to put this on track...

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...than $2 million for this:

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Or look at it from the other side: all the bad publicity from announcing they're thinking of quitting V8s, and it's only going to save them $2 million a year? Couldn't they make one less of those cringeworthy TV ads instead, and keep FPR rolling? TV advertising is the least cost-effective way you could spend your marketing dollars these days anyway; Millennials like me are just too good at tuning it out, especially when I make that Mute button my best friend. Besides, what can you do with $58 million you can't do with 40?

So it seems to me there's only one thing we can do: stop buying Fords. They got into racing in the late 1960s because they were trying to overthrow Holden's massive market share (50% in those days. Yes, really). Desperate times, as they say. So if we stop buying Fords, maybe, just maybe, they'll get desperate enough to be that cool once again. It's gotta be worth a shot.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Race Relations 15/10/14

So this year's Bathurst was dramatic and exciting, while the inaugural Russian Grand Prix was... rather less so, if we're honest. But I'm inclined to give Sochi the benefit of the doubt - I think it was less the fault of the circuit and more a sign of how every race could've gone this year had Mercedes not allowed their dudes to race.

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So credit to Mercedes for that decision. Their first victory in Russia since Kursk brought them the 2014 World Championship for Constructors, a prize they've been chasing for 60 years and their first one ever (it didn't exist in 1954). A sign of how much times change: from Fangio's world titles in 1954 and '55 it took nearly half a century for Renault to win another title for a manufacturer team (depending on how you classify Ferrari, of course); now, only eight years later, Mercedes has won it again.

That's one sign of the times: here's another, the "Grand Prix of Russia" itself. The first time Formula 1 went behind the Iron Curtain it was 1986, the Curtain was still up, and the venue was Hungary. "No problem, Formula 1 in a communist country," said one anonymous taxi driver: "We're only communists when someone's listening." Which reminds me of one of my favourite East German jokes: "How do you know the Stasi [secret police] have bugged your house? Your block gets electricity." Martin Brundle was a young nothing driver in those days, and he recalled that,"Hungary provided a culture shock both for the locals, who were in awe of the shining transporters and their million-dollar cargos, and the teams, who were dismayed by the quality of the hire cars waiting at the airport – assuming you could get one." He went on to say:

The Hungaroring is 12 miles to the east of the city. Even in 1986, there was a motorway, the M3, which was very impressive as far as it went. Which wasn't far. It led toward Miskolc – wherever that is – but in actual fact, for some years, the motorway only went as far as the racetrack. One day, I missed the slip road, drove on for a short distance and, suddenly, it was as though I had dropped off the end of the world. The motorway stopped and, presumably, you had to find your own way to Miskolc on very rural roads. - Working The Wheel

No signs of that sort of thing in Sochi, though: Russia's come a long way since perestroika and glasnost and, thanks to some pioneers (hehe) among the finest upstanding members of the world of organised crime, has embraced capitalism with gusto. Earlier in the year, when we still hated them for bullying Ukraine, John McCain called Russia, "A gas station masquerading as a country!" - quietly ignoring how that description applies twice over to Republican BFFs Saudi Arabia. Oil doesn't generate many jobs where it actually leaves the ground, wherever that happens to be, so the money tends to pool in the pockets of whoever owns the pipelines.

Like so (source)

Which is really where modern Russia meets modern Formula 1 - never mind Tolstoy and Prokofiev, Russia today is more of a bigger, chillier Gulf state; if you want to know why Bernie did a deal with Putin and not Yeltsin, there's your answer. Not that it looked too chilly in the broadcast, of course: the Black Sea coast is a gorgeous part of the world, you can see why the Russians want it so badly. But the track itself just reminded me of a blend of Valencia (remember Valencia?) and Korea - those long, curling straights lined with concrete walls. The Sochi circuit seems basic but functional, with that long Turn 3 that must be a great place to see the cars in action, but few other spots of interest, or so it appeared on this visit at least. Next year the teams will have some data and setups ready, so everything will hunker down and become a bit more marginal and, hopefully, produce some more fireworks. Hopefully. Even if they don't, there's still a solid reason to keep staging the Russian GP:

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Okay, so moving on to Bathurst. There was no shortage of grumbling that the action was stopped when the track needed repairs, but really, I think the people on the ground handled the situation amazingly well. It could have been much, much worse. The track disintegrated before the Dallas Grand Prix of '84 as well, which was bad enough, but then in came a 50-lap Can-Am race that destroyed it completely. Dallas Fair Park was left looking like a rally stage. The Formula 1 teams were instructed to get out there and practice anyway, with predictable results: one of the Tyrrells finally lost control and rebounded off the walls, breaking the driver's legs and effectively crippling his career (that driver was, of course, Martin Brundle. Man, that guy shows up everywhere).

I don't know if that example was in the officials' minds specifically, but that's more or less what they were fearing. If you thought "just yellow flag the problem areas" was a viable solution, you've either, a) never been in a racing car and felt the forces involved in cornering for yourself, or b) you've never actually met a racing driver: if there's a competitive advantage in risking their neck, they'll risk their neck every time. With Jules Bianchi's crash only a week in the past, there was no way the race could go ahead with the track in that condition, so to me the impressive thing was that the repairs actually held: they sure didn't in Dallas.

Now watch this drive.


Saturday, 11 October 2014

And Bangers Bang

George Fury's Herculean qualifying lap bought him exactly one advantage - the inside line into Hell Corner. And even that was looking of dubious use, because at Bathurst the cars lined up side-by-side, not staggered, and sitting right beside him was Peter Brock in a very special machine - the #05 VK Commodore "Big Banger," a car with a V8 engine that'd give Brocky some serious shove off the line.

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The VK was Holden's new flagship, and more rightly belonged to the incoming Group A era than the one coming to a close. Brocky had been racing the outgoing VH in the sprint races of the ATCC and actually won two of them - more than anyone else had managed, and that despite being marked absent half the time because he was off at Silverstone or Le Mans sharing a Porsche 956 with Larry Perkins.

So I'm not sure why Holden decided to build two new cars when they only had about four months of competitive life ahead of them, but my ideas begin and end with, "marketing decision." Holden had been pushing the VH by accentuating its European-ness, a blend of luxury, performance, sophistication and... hey, stop laughing! It was too kitsch to rival a BMW or Merc, sure, but it wasn't terrible, and Holden had seen which way the wind was blowing 20 years ahead of schedule. Ford, for example, were still marketing the rival XE Falcon as just blue-collar transport for the masses.

Source.

Anyway, with those priorities Holden must have been pleased when Phillip Morris stepped in and requested the red parts of their Marlboro livery be tarted up to the brighter, almost fluorescent orangy-pink seen below. This instantly linked the HDT cars with the turbo McLarens that were dominating Formula 1 that year, and made the cars look rather splendid, almost classy. That was a moment Holden wanted to savour, because it wasn't to last: this was the VK after all; the car mentioned by name as the chariot of knuckle-draggers in that Area 7 song.

But we shouldn't get too high cosy on our high horse: the VK might represent a brand image Holden were trying to shed even back then (and are trying still, 30 years on...), but VKs are everywhere today because Holden got it right: you could drive it all day under the summer sun and it'd never pack it in - and unlike modern Commodores, it was also light on its feet and surprisingly nimble. An ideal weapon for Bathurst, in other words. Brocky's Holden Dealer Team took delivery of a pair of VK body shells and simply bolted on all heavy-duty racing stuff they had lying around from the VH era, adding a squared-off front splitter, a ducktail rear spoiler and those outrageously swollen wheel arches to the mix. The original Group C rules had required the cars to race with production bodywork, but clearly some wiggle room had opened up on that front, and with good results too: not only did the final gen of Group C cars look properly 'roided up, HDT claimed a 5km/h improvement down Conrod as well.

It was all done in a tearing hurry, though. Time constraints meant the publicity car was photographed without an engine, and the second #25 car was finished so late it didn't run until practice for the Castrol 500 at Sandown. "But," said Jeff Grech, HDT mechanic, "they were simple cars and it really didn't need it." If your cultural cringe is twitching reading that, don't: the engineering that went into Australian touring cars was absolutely world class, as Dick Johnson would prove a few years later when he'd take his Sierra to Silverstone and steal pole position from names like Eggenberger and Soper. There was nothing wrong with the workmanship; it was just the cars they started with that were primitive.

Besides, they won at Sandown, which meant they were hot favourites for the next round at Bathurst. It was a faith that wavered when Brocky failed to take pole on that icy Saturday, but Sunday dawned bright, warm and sunny - a VK kind of day.

Source.

There were any number of minor stories going on, too. One of them involved Tom Walkinshaw, the volcanic Scotsman behind Tom Walkinshaw Racing, one of the great names of international touring car racing. TWR had dominated Group A racing in Britain with the Rover Vitesse, and had brought a pair of them to Bathurst this year, where they showed the difference in speed between a Euro tin-top and an Aussie Big Banger, barely managing 2:23s to the locals' 2:14s. But Tom himself wasn't driving one of those; he'd done himself a deal with John Goss, another ex-Ford Hero and winner of the '74 race, to run a Jaguar XJS with a Group A engine. Seems pretty well certain that he was getting some early testing, assessing the XJS's suitability for the Mt Panorama circuit - with some success, it must be said, because the slippery Jag clocked a record top speed on Conrod, some 290km/h.

That was the theory, anyway. When the green flag flew, it was all much less encouraging. Tom stalled the Jag and was left sitting helplessly as half the field roared by. Nearly everyone managed to thread the needle and find a way around him, but then along came John Tesoriero in the #34 Camaro Z28, already up to 160km/h and suddenly finding himself with nowhere to go. The pile-up that followed completely blocked the track, and forced the first restart in Bathurst history.



After the restart, it was a return to the realities of Group C: crude, but fast. Even if the slippery Jag was faster coming off the mountain, nothing was going to beat a Falcodore from Hell Corner to McPhillamy. At the head of the pack sat Peter Brock in the famous #05, with Dick Johnson and Allan Grice not a huge distance behind, but definitely falling back.



It was another smooth run for Brocky, who in those days seemed to have the mortgage on Mt Panorama, winning three in a row from '77 to '80, then '82 and '83 back-to-back (in the same car, no less). In fact, if it hadn't been for Dick Johnson in '81, Brock and HDT would've taken six in a row. Such was the way of Peter Perfect: cool, calm and collected, never caning his car because he wanted it to last, but following such flowing lines he was whiplash-fast anyway. Brock (and co-driver Larry Perkins) surrendered the lead for just 19 of the 163 laps.

It helped that the opposition simply fell apart. The Walkinshaw/Goss Jag was already a casualty; by lap 70 so was the eternal bridesmaid, Allan Grice. Then the Dick Johnson/John French Falcon broke an axle on lap 107 and ended the day fuming, ending the last real opposition HDT might've had. And the polesitting Bluebird of George Fury and Gary Scott? Blew up with less than 20 laps to go. That was the fing wiv 'ese imported cars, y'see. They let ya down jes' when ya started t'rely on 'em...

As if to rub it in, Brocky actually slowed down in the final laps and backed into a formation finish with the sister car of David Parsons (who was actually two laps down). Still, a 1-2 finish for the Holden Dealer Team finally exorcised the ghosts of Ford in 1977. It was a good day to be a Holden fan.

Source.

So why is this win, and this car, so revered today? Well, if I might call the kettle black, it's because Baby Boomers are a sentimental bunch and this was the last time all was well in their world. Next year Bathurst would be swarmed by unfamiliar drivers with unpronounceable names in cars not even for sale here. Then Brock would start getting weird with that whole polariser thing, break up with Holden and end up driving BMWs and stuff, and even though he was destined to take another Bathurst win, it would be awarded to him in a courtroom after the cars that actually took the chequered flag were disqualified. And of course by then, if you wanted a hot Commodore, you had to get the one with the turbocharged Japanese engine... in a nutshell, 1984 was the last time we saw Peter Brock and the Holden Dealer Team Big Bangers in full flight, with a big V8, getting some big air, and winning by a biiig margin.

Source.

Amen.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Bluebirds Fly

Well the big one is here: Bathurst. And once again, you might have noticed a few retro liveries going around. DJR (soon to be the Aussie branch of Team Penske) are dressed in the Shell livery they wore 20 years ago when they took on a very young Craig Lowndes in the best Bathurst ever. Going back even further are the Kelly Gang's Nissan Altimas, dressed in the red, white 'n' blue of the #15 Bluebird that took pole for the great race in 1984.

Source

What's so special about a Datsun from the '80s, you may ask? Well, the 1984 James Hardie 1000 was the last to be run to Australia's home-grown "Group C" touring car regulations. The Euro-centric Group A rules were just around the corner, and the prevailing attitude to them at the time could be heard in a sneer that's still around today: "Only milk and juice come in 2-litres." This would be the last time around for the Group C stonkers, so the whole thing had a last hurrah/graduation party kind of thing going on.

Don't let them tell you Group C was a golden age though - it was only gilt, with grids so small they often struggled to break a dozen cars, and endless (and I do mean endless) bickering and protesting over the legality of this or that piece of technical arcana. Take the ever-controversial Mazda RX-7s for example: the much-derided "rice burners" with their innovative Wankel rotary engines were widely considered sports cars rather than true touring cars, accepted on a technicality only. Of course, it didn't help anyone's attitude that the cars were Japanese, either (nobody born within 20 years of WWII ever forgave the Empire of the Rising Sun. To this day, I cannot tell you how weird it is for Aussies that flying overseas often involves a stopover at Changi. It's like flying to Poland and landing at Auschwitz-Birkenau International Airport). But the final straw was that they'd poached Allan Moffat, the former Ford hero, to spearhead their attack, and in his hands they'd actually become competitive (of course, Moffat wasn't without provocation given Ford's history of blowing hot and cold...).

Source

Most of the other cars entered in 1984 were less problematic. There was Dick Johnson, for example, by now very comfortable in Moffat's old role of Ford Hero, driving a Greens-Tuf XE Falcon he'd built himself - an Australian family car, a big V8 and a lot of elbow grease done in a shed in Queensland, all very kosher and correct. Less pleasing to the public was Jim Richards, heading up the John Player Team and its brace of BMW 635 CSi's, although the public was less worried about them because under Group C they were uncompetitive (and by now firmly had their eye on the incoming Group A era). And of course there was the professional national hero Peter Brock and the Holden Dealer Team as well, but more on them tomorrow.


Which brings us to Nissan Motorsport*, George Fury, and that Bluebird.

Nissan had been assembling Bluebirds locally since '79, but they were embarrassingly primitive compared to the proper ones made in Nippon, with ox cart suspension and no fuel-injected or turbo versions... not to mention their notoriety for leaving a trail of blue smoke everywhere they went. In fact, if you came across one on the open road, it was traditional to call the driver a menace and give him the finger!

But the one entered at Bathurst, it was a completely different beast. Nissan's team boss in those days was Howard Marsden, a former Ford company man most famous as the brains behind the Phase IV Falcon, as well as the man responsible for euthanasing it when the Supercar Scare made it impossible to race. So Howard was a man who knew Bathurst and the local racing scene, and knew precisely how close to the wind he needed to sail, and knew that when you work for a massive international motor company, you're a fool if you restrict yourself to local parts. Ergo, the Group C Bluebird removed the wheezy L-series motor and fitted a tuned-up, twin-spark, 1.8-litre Z18T imported directly from Japan, good for about 260 kW on an average day. Which was a hell of a lot at the time; the Cleveland under Dick Johnson's bonnet, the biggest, best-prepared engine on the grid, was barely making 300.

But Saturday, September 29, 1984 was no average day: it was bloody freezing. Winter had come back for one last dance before summer took over, and there was even a little snow scattered across the top of the mountain before the mid-morning sun disposed of it. Fans in heavy jackets desperately rubbed their hands together and stomped around trailing their breath while waiting for the action to start, doing whatever it took to keep warm. But their fortitude was rewarded, as Hardie's Heroes got underway.

Source

Howard Marsden knew qualifying would be the turbo's big moment, and couldn't have asked for better conditions to favour it - the limiting factor for a turbo engine was heat, so the colder it got, the more boost they could use and the more power they'd ultimately have. He also knew what nobody else knew at the time, which was that the Bluebird had an illegal boost control mounted on the dash and that one of the onboard fire extinguishers had quietly been rigged to spray halon at the intercooler, bumping the power up even further (and if you think that sounds dodgy, believe me, it was par for the course in Group C. In those days CAMS didn't have the manpower to check everything properly, so anything with a plausible-sounding excuse or just failed to raise suspicion at all was usually given the all-clear)!

That said, Steve Masterton, Dick Johnson and Gricey all put in fast 2:14's, so all the Bluebird's advantage could be squandered if Fury neglected to drive it like he stole it. But they needn't have worried...


That was it: history was made. Fury's time - 2 minutes, 13.850 seconds - was an absolute bombshell. Not just the first sub-2:14 lap anyone had ever seen at Mt Panorama, but a shattering new track record. Peter Brock did his best, but even the new VK Commodore with its ferocious updated body kit couldn't deal with that turbo engine. Fury gave Nissan its first pole at Bathurst and - upsetting the Establishment mightily - took the first pole not to fall to either a Holden or a Ford.

There was murmuring as the crowds went home for a night of restless sleep, but the James Hardie 1000 was to be run over 163 laps, not just one. Sunday would be another day...

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

* Small note: the car was entered under  the "Nissan Motor Co." banner, but the team was more or less the same one that would one day become Gibson Motorsport, the team later responsible for Godzilla. I bring it up because I find it amusing nobody ever mentions the other Nissan team car at Bathurst in '84, the #16 Pulsar EXA driven by Fred Gibson's wife Christine (quite a racer in her own right) and a very young Glenn Seton. Were they aiming for a class victory, did they not have the budget for a second Bluebird, or was it just executive meddling? I don't know for sure, but surely they would've entered a backup car going for outright victory if they could. Still...
(source)

...most badass Pulsar ever.

Monday, 6 October 2014

#ForzaJules

What a weekend at Suzuka.

First and foremost, I want to wish Jules Bianchi a full and fast recovery from his monstrous crash that ended the Japanese GP. At the time of writing, the information was that he'd been through the necessary brain surgery and come out the other side okay, meaning he's breathing unassisted. So, for the moment at least, things are looking as positive as they could. Hang in there Jules, we're all thinking of you.

I didn't see the crash itself in the broadcast, just the abrupt safety car, but fan videos have begun to emerge and they're not pretty. I'm not sure if posting this is commitment to the truth or just ghoulish titillation, but nevertheless, trigger warning (you can stop it after the first six seconds though - the rest of it is indeed ghoulish titillation).


If you didn't watch it, suffice to say the cockpit of Bianchi's Marussia went right under the back of the tractor removing Sutil's Sauber, leaving his helmet to take the full impact - an impact that lifted said tractor completely off the ground. No wonder they didn't show it on TV: it's horrifying.

Jules' crash stung me pretty bad personally, because - I'm putting my hand up about this - I was on Facebook at the start of the race, posting impatiently as they circulated under the safety car: "Why does F1 even have Extreme Wet tyres? If the conditions are bad enough to need them, they just red flag the whole thing anyway." Or something to that effect anyway. I may have even called FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting "Chickenshit Charlie," for being so reticent about letting them go. I was a Roman at the Colosseum, howling for the blood to start already.

Except I wasn't expecting blood at all. The go-to example of modern F1 safety is Robert Kubica in Canada, 2007 - he hit the wall with a 70G impact, but as he was stretchered away he was giving the crowd a big thumbs up and cracking jokes in Polish. That's what we've come to expect from F1 crashes, total immunity - so when Bianchi deviated from that, it was chilling.  No driver climbing out, tossing the steering wheel aside in disgust, just ominous radio silence. The medical car deployment, the doctors checking him out and taking him away. No news from the medical centre, just the rumours that Marussia's mechanics had to break down the door to find out what was going on with their driver. It was unheard-of in this day and age; it was terrifying. I was sat on my couch watching the subdued podium ceremony, thinking to myself: "1994 to 2014: has our 20-year run come to an end?" and "Since Dan Wheldon in 2012 something has gone horribly wrong with our sport..."

Walked. Away. (source)

So I'm grateful for the news that Jules is doing fairly well. But I'm not going to join the chorus criticising Charlie Whiting for letting the race run as long as it did. In fact, I still think it should have started earlier - he held off so long it was time for Intermediates by the time they went Green Flag - but it seems clear now that an imponderable like this was what he was afraid of, why he was so cautious. He was thinking ahead. I don't know if the tractor driver broke procedure or not, but it's clear to me this accident wasn't really caused by the weather; it was a freak of probability, just like Felipe Massa's incident in Hungary '09 (incidentally, the most serious F1 injury before Jules). By which I mean, the drivers could spin off and smack their helmets against a recovery vehicle even in the dry. I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but there was almost no carnage in the 2014 Japanese GP, a wet race at Suzuka: Sutil and Bianchi were the only accidents all afternoon, and they happened barely a minute apart; the only other DNF was Alonso, and he had an electrical problem. Charlie had almost no warning that the conditions at that corner had changed significantly.

"Should F1 do more to guarantee the safety of its drivers," they ask rhetorically? I doubt there's much else they can do. A metre one way or the other and Jules would have hit the tractor with his sidepod and walked away without a scratch; the safety cell built into the Marussia would guarantee it. A smidge less throttle in that corner and he wouldn't have gone off at all - and neither would Adrian Sutil, removing that recovery vehicle from the picture entirely. You can talk about not racing in Japan with a super typhoon coming in if you like, but that's the nature of Japan: typhoon- and earthquake-prone, but possessed of a booming economy and a huge, fanatical fanbase. What are you going to do, not have motorsport?

There's more than just tragedy, after all. (source)

Bianchi's situation removed a lot of the shock from the other stunning revelation of the weekend, that Sebastian Vettel is leaving Red Bull at the end of the year. Apparently he has... not quite a contract, but an agreement or understanding that if he ever left Red Bull he'd join Ferrari, so it seems the quadruple champion will be wearing red next year. Alonso, meanwhile, allegedly has a contract with Honda, who've agreed to pay his salary. Since Honda have a contract with McLaren, that doesn't leave much doubt that he'll be back in Woking next year. But past histories mean Alonso hasn't quite worked out the details with McLaren yet, explaining why Jenson Button's still walking on eggshells - when a team keeps quiet this late in the year, it's because they're still negotiating.

Which leaves Vettel. I wonder if the chicken or the egg came first in this decision? Was this the development that started pushing Alonso out of Ferrari, or did Alonso's disquiet lead the higher-ups to start fishing for another driver? Some may wonder why Vettel would willingly go to Ferrari next year, given they're so far behind Red Bull and Mercedes, but I can come up with a few possibilities just on my own:
  • Money. I know it seems crass, but never discount the possibility that Ferrari just backed a Ducato full of Euros to Vettel's home address and called it done. This is a team that was willing to pay for Alonso, remember, even when they were still obliged to pay Kimi Räikkönen's substantial salary that year. They're not afraid of flashing money to get what they want.
  • Prestige. There aren't a lot of top-level race seats available - McLaren's all but settled, Mercedes aren't gonna change when they're winning, and Williams have Valtteri Bottas to fawn over. Everyone else is more or less a backmarker. Even if they're not especially competitive, however, a World Champion can go to Ferrari without it seeming like a step down.
  • A Fresh Challenge. Like Schumacher a generation ago, Vettel might feel he's done everything there is to do with his old team and sees in Ferrari a challenge he can really apply himself to. After all, Alonso couldn't do it, so how much glory is up for grabs now if he can?
  • Red Bull's Golden Age is Probably Over. There's no doubt Daniel Ricciardo came as a wicked shock, but that kind of talent he probably could have dealt with - if he still had the backing of his team. Mark Webber was easy on that front: no matter how fast he was, he was just a hired hand, not a son of the dynasty. But Ricciardo is also a son of the dynasty, brought up through the Red Bull Young Driver Development programme, and I'm betting it's the no-longer-being-number-one that's what really rankles. Combine that with lead designer Adrian Newey leaving to pursue other interests at the end of the year, and Vettel might just have decided the time is right to leave Red Bull.
  • Sentiment. I know, I know, this one's a bit out there: racing drivers aren't usually sentimental at all, they're hard-bitten and ultra-competitive. They don't care about a team's history, just the quality of their engineering department. Michael Schumacher was once asked about one of the few records he didn't hold, Ascari's nine-race winning streak, and said baldly: "It doesn't mean anything to me." But Vettel is different. He's very aware of the sport's history, likes measuring himself against the greats, and Ascari's record (and his name) would actually mean something to him. Climbing into a Ferrari with that red bodywork around his shoulders and the prancing horse on the nose would mean a lot more to him in 2015 than it ever did to Schumacher in 1996.
Of those, I'm guessing it's a combination of the last two: he's disenchanted with Red Bull, but moving to Ferrari when they're at such a low ebb shows it's something he really wants to do. I have my doubts about how successful he'll be - I've seen nothing from him that suggests he can drive around problems like Alonso or Schumacher, let alone flog himself to work with the team to fix problems - but I wish him well nevertheless. Driving a bad car into race wins it shouldn't have is one of the few things missing from his resume, and it's about time, really.

As long as he doesn't end up like Jules.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Bad Days at McLaren

What the hell is going on in Woking these days?

Seems like only yesterday they had a cashed-up title sponsor, the second best aero package on the grid, the outright best engine, and a pair of World Champion drivers - the sort of summary that'd make most team managers drool. Now they're switching to an unproven engine, are thinking about dropping their more valuable driver, and - most worrying of all - seemingly have no sponsors worth the term.

The good old days mentioned above were the result of the McLaren (read: Ron Dennis) way of doing things. The other teams just want to win; not particularly fussed how, just win, baby. McLaren are different: they don't just want to be the best, they want to be their best. The goal is, for lack of a better word, perfection. When you realise that, Ron's easily-mocked tendency to ask for the ultimate this and the ultimate that becomes perfectly understandable. For McLaren, winning is almost seen as a side effect of doing your job properly: when you have the best car, the best drivers and the best organisation, it's pretty much inevitable. It's an approach that explains why the McLaren team base looks like this.

Via FosterAndPartners

And I like that. When you're working with a $400 million budget and a world-class "Temple of Engineering", anything less betrays a scandalous lack of ambition. That's why I used to be such a McLaren fan, they gave me an ideal to shoot for, a point on the horizon to aid the navigation of my life. And while it was working, it was amazingly impressive: world titles for Lewis Hamilton, Mika Häkkinen, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and of course, Ayrton Senna - most of them with crushing dominance. When they're hot, God Almighty, they're hot.

But when the wind stops and the sails fall slack, the the whole ship start to look a little silly. That's been McLaren's problem in 2014: the attitude hasn't changed, the this-is-my-serious-face expression is still there, but the effect is completely undermined by being stuck in the midfield. Except the car doesn't even look midfield, it looks like a backmarker. When Vodafone decided to pull the pin at the end of 2013, it ended what I consider one of the all-time classic liveries, the Vodafone chrome-and-Rocket Red. When it debuted in 2006 there was lots of jawboning about whether was tacky or just mildly tasteless, but there was no doubt it was distinctive. In a year dominated by white-and-something paint schemes, it stood out, and after a memorable world title for Lewis and the Silver Age of Button & Hamilton that followed, the Vodafone McLarens cemented their place as classic racing cars, up there with any of the Gulf, Martini or Marlboro liveries the old'uns love to get all teary over.

But Vodafone made their announcement in March 2013. Finding a sponsor prepared to cough up enough cash to fill the sudden $74 million hole in their budget couldn't be a fun job, but Martin Whitmarsh should've been up to it. Imagine what Flavio Briatore could do with that much forewarning - a bit of hand-waving, a few pissed-off phone calls, lots of "Jesus Christ-a"... and twelve months later, the cars'd have a blue-chip title sponsor, a media blitz skiting about it, and a new paint scheme optimised to show them off.

Although... (via AUSmotive)

So what did McLaren do with their twelve-month head start? Kept the chrome, added a Johnny Walker sticker, aaand... that's about it. Even the Johnny sticker looks like an afterthought, the car overall looking like a backmarker from the early '90s, the sort shaking in their boots at the prospect of dropping out in pre-qualifying and having to explain their dismal performance to the overdraft board. And even that's now over: Bernie Ecclestone has just done a deal to make Johnny Walker the official whisky of Formula 1 - a move that usually ends the sponsorship of any particular team. So Johnny Walker has walked, and now, oh yeah, Hugo Boss as well, having realised (as I did) they're Lewis Hamilton fans and not McLaren fans after all. And this all happened just as McLaren announced they were switching to Honda power, so their Mercedes power units haven't been free after all.

Just imagine the sort of budget shortfall that must create (hint: you can't). Panic stations must be in order, and it's no wonder Martin Whitmarsh has already been thrown to the wolves. Poor Martin was in line for the job of McLaren team boss for so long he was called F1's answer to Prince Charles. When Ron Dennis finally stepped aside he managed to make exactly one good decision - hiring Jenson Button - before it all started going south. Since then, all of the above has happened on his watch. And it's not just treasure, under the Whitmarsh Administration McLaren has been haemorhaging talent as well - names like Lewis Hamilton and key personnel like former technical director Paddy Lowe.

So the question now becomes, where do they go from here? The four classical elements were Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. In Formula 1, it's more like Engine, Chassis, Tyre and Driver; getting all four in harmony is the name of the game. Thankfully, two of those have been taken care of already: Pirelli's extended their tyre supply deal for another year, and McLaren are re-opening their partnership with their bosom buddies at Honda, who've just released their first pics of the new powerplant.

Via ESPNF1

That just leaves the chassis - which this late in the year is certain to be finished already, and is probably being wrung out by the windtunnel and computer sim teams to find performance gains as we speak - which just leaves the drivers, where most of the media interest is. The rumours that Jenson Button is about to lose his seat keep making the rounds, like a mosquito as a barbecue, and there's a cold kind of logic to it. Like Vettel, Jenson hasn't found this new-gen F1 to his liking: the extra torque, turbo lag and lack of rear downforce don't agree with his driving style. It was ever the same: 2007 was one of those years his teammate Rubens Barrichello humiliated him, because the Honda RA107 was twitchy and always stepping out at the back. Rubens could deal with that, drive around it; Jenson could not, and suffered for it. As soon as the car got some rear-end grip, however, courtesy of the double diffuser, Rubens was the one struggling and Jenson was storming to that fantastic 2009 World Championship.

So these days Jenson is slow, and probably always will be. But he has other virtues: he's a former Honda-affiliated driver and knows their people, has 15 years' experience in Formula 1 (very valuable in an age without much testing), including several with Mercedes engines strapped to his back. That by itself would make him my choice: despite the media frenzy, drivers will almost certainly be the least relevant aspect of McLaren in 2015. It's going to be their first season in 20 years without Mercedes power, a transitional year of hard lessons and mechanical gremlins. In a season like that, driver continuity is a plus, especially when one of them has bags of experience with the best engine on the grid.

But at the same time, McLaren are apparently eager to bring on young Kevin Magnussen, so even though he'll be out of contract this December, he seems likely to stay on next year. So who else is in the picture, given that Honda will have opinions on the matter and the cash to back them? There are numerous Honda-affiliated drivers out there (Lucas di Grassi, Takuma Sato, Bruno Senna) but none of them really stand out. Valtteri Bottas is attractive, but Williams are sure to cling to him like a barnacle to a rock, especially when they seem likely to bring in a rookie like Simona de Silvestro next year. Alonso remains a favourite, among the media at least, although it would surely be an expensive deal - Ferrari surely wouldn't have let him have a cheap buy-out option, even if his current stint is supposed to be ending - but if Honda are willing to pay for him, they can almost certainly have him. And Alonso is a deft hand in a bad car, and has a habit of getting them across the finish line far ahead of where it should be, a tasty prospect for a team likely to build a bad car next year.

A step up from certain to build a bad car next year... (via ESPNF1)

So it seems to me either McLaren will retain their drivers for next year, or maybe - maaaaybe - they'll turf Jenson in favour of Fernando, keeping Kevin because of his excellent stopwatch-to-dollar ratio. But as I said, that'll be the least important aspect of McLaren next year. Here's the most important: where the hell will they be getting their money? The sponsor question is so huge, so fundamental, it seems daft to even ask it. Keeping your deals quiet until the official announcement is standard practice, of course, but gossips mean secrets are hard to keep, and the stubborn silence suggests either Ron Dennis has already lined up a sponsor for next year or hasn't managed it yet and doesn't want anyone to know. Would you invest millions of dollars in a team if you knew you'd be the only one? Exactly. Confidence begets confidence.

And from that perspective, it makes a lot of sense that he's keeping Jenson's future in doubt - it's a wonderful way to keep the media distracted. And if that seems too Machiavellian for Ron, remember, this is the man who first called F1 the Piranha Club.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Remember the Red Trident?

Isn't it amazing how you can drive past something a thousand times without seeing what's actually there? Look what I just noticed around the side of my local Repco:


"Neptune." Just one of many oil companies - Atlantic, Amoco, Alba, Golden Fleece - that old fogies will remember coming and going as the oil giants went The Blob on their smaller rivals. Neptune was apparently founded in 1909 and traded under the Waratah name; they were sold back-and-forth a few times until they were bought by Shell in 1926, but didn't open petrol stations under the Neptune name until 1952, by which time Shell wanted them to be their franchise in rural Australia (God knows why). I asked around and it seems that back in the day this building was home to Continental Motors, the local Volkswagen dealer and repair garage, which implied petrol retailer as well (yes, petrol stations were once garages rather than mini-supermarkets. Tell your kids).

Like this one at East Denistone, NSW (via GasSigns.org)

Why does any of this matter? Because in 1964, Neptune's Rod Troone had the bright idea to blow his entire marketing budget on touring car racing, setting up one of the country's earliest professional racing teams. Since it was class-based racing in those days, Troone made arrangements with three separate owner-drivers to form the Neptune Racing Team: Norm Beechey in the over-2.6 litre class, driving a tweaked 170 kW Holden EH S4 Special; Jim McKeown in the 2-litre class, driving a just-as-tweaked Lotus Cortina; and Peter "Skinny" Manton in the sub-1.3 litre class, driving his Mini Cooper S (presumably tweaked). All were painted in Neptune Blue, a colour that washes all over a Google Image search for "Neptune Racing Team" and one guaranteed to lower your blood pressure at least a little.

Via PerformanceForums.com

The following year (1965) Beechey traded the EH for a Mustang and won his first Australian Touring Car Championship, beginning the Aussie muscle era in earnest. The next time he won it, in 1970, he was back in a Holden, but it was now painted yellow; Troone's bold gambit had either proved a bad idea or a spectacularly good one, because in 1969 Shell had moved in and taken over all the Neptune sites for themselves. The Neptune Racing Team became the Shell Racing Team, and it wouldn't be until the '80s when they formed a partnership with Dick Johnson that the Shell colours became as ubiquitous as Neptune's were back in the '60s.

Via AussieRoadRacing.com, which is very worth checking out.
Little bits of history, hidden in plain sight. Only motorsport tragics care enough to notice.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Preview: Oh Canada


The final corner of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montréal, home to the Grand Prix of Canada, is a tricky right-left chicane. To get through there on a fast lap you have to be as deft as a cat on a shelf full of china, because opposite the pits, right on the racing line, is a concrete wall cheerily emblazoned with the words Bienvenue au Québec. In 1999, Michael Schumacher led for half the race before he fumbled the chicane, drifted wide and smashed into the concrete wall, climbing from the crumpled remains of his Ferrari with a face as scarlet as his overalls - thankfully hidden by his helmet. Damon Hill (World Champion 1996) had already retired after hitting the very same wall, and Jacques Villeneuve (World Champion 1997) followed him not too long after, so ever since then the Quebec wall has been known as the Wall of Champions.


That little story tells you everything you need to know about the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix. Even the best can be caught out by the circuit on the Île Notre Dame: the odds are there will be crashes, safety cars, flying carbon fibre and general mayhem. And no wonder:


Fundamentally, this is a fast track where the cars break 300km/h in multiple places. That means wings are pared back for top speed and minimal downforce. Normally that would allow you to soften the suspension to make the car more forgiving, except that the need to stay nimble through the chicanes and around the hairpin rule that out in Canada. For the drivers, the cars are left feeling nervous, highly strung - and the barriers are never far away. In most places, the space between the ribbons of Armco is only as wide as a tennis court. High speeds, edgy cars and hovering barriers - what do you think is going to happen?

Just for extra variety - and once again, I'm indebted to Martin Brundle and his book Working The Wheel for pointing this out - the ideal setup on this track actually requires a little understeer to keep the rear wheels planted so you can get on the power early. That means - for once - the, lesser drivers can keep up with the big fish, who can't leave them behind like they usually do (or if they do, it's because they're over-driving like crazy - see "hovering barriers" above). There's every chance that when someone else has an accident, you'll just be in it. Now throw in a dash of the downright bizarre like hitting a groundhog (although that seems to have dropped off in the last couple of decades), and the World Sports Car race in 1990 that produced only genuine case I know of of a car sucking up a manhole cover*, and you have the recipe for a truly unique race.


Although, come to think of it, we saw this all the time.

Just in the nick of time, then, for Renault's round of new engine upgrades. Renault's overheating problems in preseason testing meant for the first few races they had to devote 100% of their resources to getting some reliability - with, it must be admitted, spectacular success. Compare Daniel Ricciardo's regular podium finishes to his inability to even complete a an outlap in January, and you see just how far the crew at Viry-Châtillon have come.

The downside is that hasn't left much time to chase kilowatts and drivability, and as I said drivability is huge in Montréal. The driver who can get on the power first, wins, and the Renault's nasty habit of kicking the car sideways as the turbo spools up is about the worst trait the engine could have, either robbing the car of traction at the exit of each corner or - even worse - robbing Vettel and Ricciardo of confidence, so their throttle application becomes ginger, hesitant.

Remi Taffin, Renault's man at the track, says:
“The long straights demand maximum power for a high percentage of the lap, therefore stressing the [internal combustion engine] hugely. I expect we’ll see speeds in excess of 330kph as we did in Barcelona so we will rely on the MGU-K [kinetic energy harvesting unit] and MGU-H [heat energy harvesting unit] to boost both top speed and acceleration. With very few corners energy recovery via the MGU-K will however be pretty difficult as the cars do not slow frequently over the lap. As a result the emphasis will be on the MGU-H to recover energy through the exhaust gases - we’ll need as much energy as we can as we’ll be right on the limit with the fuel consumption here.”

No, I have no idea how the MGU-H works: I keep imagining a miniaturised cyberpunk boiler, complete with tiny engineers heating their soup on the steam pipes, but it's probably much cooler and more interesting than that. Renault Sport employs people much smarter than me, and the Red Bull otherwise seems like a damn fine chassis, so if Renault can keep up their current rate of progress I predict they'll win a race before the year is out - Hungary maybe, or Abu Dhabi after the sun goes down and the temperatures drop.

Lastly, I have to give credit where it's due - Vettel is taking this season amazingly well. No, I know nobody in Australia wants to hear that, but it must be said. We haven't seen any of that boyish Backpfeifengesicht and its beaming smile like we used to, but that's no surprise. He's losing and he's not happy about it, and - come on - why should he be happy about it? The success of the last four years is pretty easy to get used to, but now he's being shown up by his "junior" teammate, he's finding the car doesn't like him, and even if they don't admit it, every single journalist out there sees the whole situation as karma. Maybe he's let off some steam in the German press, but in the Anglosphere I haven't heard a whisper of complaint. Given how much frustration there must be under that helmet, and I have to respect that.

But I also have to admit - and not just because I called it weeks ago - the schadenfreude of finding out he's been studying Ricciardo's data is delicious.


* Yes, I know Mythbusters supposedly busted this one, but the IndyCar they tested it with has a regulation flat bottom. Those Group C monsters had venturi tunnels which, combined with their phenomenal top speeds, must have produced some truly staggering levels of downforce. Adam, Jamie, I have four words for you - re-visit with ground effects!