Monday, 26 December 2011

Why motorsport needs a living history

Some modern motorsport venues are gaining a reputation for being bland and uninspiring.  It takes a visit to an historic circuit to truly understand the original essence of motor racing.

There is probably no better place to go than the origin of purpose-built race tracks – Brooklands near Weybridge, Surrey, England.  Long since abandoned by the cars that once graced it, but not forgotten.  The Spirit of Brooklands Trust now holds an extensive museum featuring both automotive and aviation displays.  From 1907 until the onset of World War Two in 1939, the circuit was the main venue in Britain for motorsport and was the home of many famous races, including the demanding annual 500-mile event.  After the war the main use of Brooklands was for aviation, for which it has an interesting and (as with the automotive side) pioneering history.

Strangely, it appears the exhibits aren’t the main reason why motorsport fans go to Brooklands.  The site has clung on to some of its most important features, which helped make the circuit what it was – a truly awesome venue.

The track itself was originally a 2.75 mile banked oval but subsequently had new sections built including the ‘finishing straight’, close to the heart of the circuit and where related businesses were located.  Many of theses original buildings still exist – including Sir Malcolm Campbell’s workshop, press room and the magnificent clubhouse.  The latter building has been completely restored, including the billiard room, which instantly creates an image of the wealth that was synonymous with the early era of motorsport.

Hugh Locke-King built the circuit on his land and funded the entire project himself.  His wife was also heavily involved and she actually drove the first ever lap of the Brooklands course.  Effective project management and a team of 200 workers ensured that the entire track was completed in just 9 months. That included constructing the banking and diverting the course of the River Wey.  Sadly, the river now represents the cut-off point of the banking that remains above the finishing straight – but the track also stretches a few hundred yards the other side of the Members Bridge.  If you look at a current aerial photo, you see how much of the circuit is broken up by roads and industrial estates, although some banking still exists on private land. 

There is a somewhat eerie feeling about the banking.  Climbing up the 29ft high concrete slope is no easy task but once near the top you get a drivers eye view – and you instantly appreciate the bravery of the men and women that took up the challenge of the circuit.  There are memorials scattered around the site that commemorate the drivers who lost their battle with Brooklands.  The bravery – or perhaps madness - of the drivers is emphasised by Selwyn Edge.  He won the first 24 hour race at Brooklands by driving entirely on his own.  During the night, the track was only lit by railway lanterns and flares. The Members Banking remains in the state it did when the last race took place – cracks and bumps in the surface of mixed gravel and cement.  It is a scary enough place just to stand, let alone drive at full throttle with hardly any brakes, literally feet from potential death.

It should not be forgotten that Brooklands signifies the birth of so many things that underpin motorsport not just in the UK, but world-wide. 

The track opened on June 17th 1907, so it’s already over a century old.  The recent addition of ‘Mercedes Benz World’ on the site, the ‘Spirit of Brooklands’ is alive again and many more people have been attracted in to enjoy the experience.

What little remains of the original circuit is important to preserve as it evokes the feelings that encompasses what the motorsport is all about – passion and bravery. 

Friday, 16 December 2011

The cut-throat world of F1

Recently, Toro Rosso announced an exciting all-new driver line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.  Both of these rising stars are Red Bull protégés.  Aussie Ricciardo raced with HRT at the back of the F1 grid for part of the season just gone, gaining experience in a car that – let’s face it – wasn’t a machine that could showcase much of an individual driver’s talent.  Vergne has impressed in recent young driver’s tests driving for both Toro Rosso and the parent team, Red Bull. 
It’s great that Toro Rosso are ‘designed’ to bring in rookies into F1.  But let’s not forget that it’s not just any rookies they are designed to bring in – it’s for those who are supported by Red Bull in their Young Driver programme.  That hasn’t always been the trend in the team's driver line-up however – think the talented Frenchman Sebastian Bourdais.
Toro Rosso’s 2011 drivers, Sebastien Buemi and (part-time DJ) Jaime Alguersuari, had been with the team since 2009 (Buemi slightly longer).  They have both produced good performances.   After several years however there haven’t been many openings in the top teams, with most sticking with the same line up.  So they had limited options where to go if they wanted to move.  Now they have been dropped, just like that.  Both drivers face a rush to get one of the very few remaining seats for the 2012 season.
Let’s not forget that Buemi is 23 and Alguersuari is just 21.  At the time of writing they are both out of F1, although there are rumours that Alguersuari is all set for an all-Spanish team at HRT.  Based on this, I cannot help but feel that talent gets lost for other agendas.
Here are a few more examples - Adrian Sutil performed brilliantly this year at Force India, yet may find himself out of a seat in 2012 now he’s been dumped by the team.  Nick Heidfeld did better than his team mate during his brief season at Lotus Renault but was sacked.  Look at Nico Hulkenburg in 2010 – pole position in Brazil for the struggling Williams team and other good performances, then chucked into a 3rd driver role at Force India for 2011 (although this has turned into a 2012 race seat).
I know that these things have happened in F1 for years and it’s not new.  It’s a massively competitive and business-focused sport.  Personally however, I don’t think F1 has been crueller than it is at the moment.  If you lose your race drive in F1, a 3rd driver role brings little in terms of running.  Logically the most sensible move would be to go to the next ‘best’ series – Indycar – but this doesn’t have the global reach that F1 does.
With so many young drivers realising their F1 dreams early in life, if it ends quickly, how are they motivated to achieve more?

Friday, 21 October 2011

The tragedy of motorsport

"Racing is in my blood.  It's part of me, it's part of my life".  So said the late, great, Ayrton Senna.  It is a statement that I completely agree with, as I feel the same.  It also is a statement that reminds me of the amazing loss I felt when we lost Senna at Imola in 1994.  Despite being only 10, I still remember that day like it was yesterday.  That weekend, when we also lost Roland Ratzenberger, was utterly unbelievable for the motorsport world.  To have that much sorrow over a weekend was horrific. 

Last weekend in Las Vegas British motorsport lost a huge personality, although those not familar with the sport probably wouldn't have heard much of Dan Wheldon.  At this point it is only fair that I say that although I followed him, I didn't know him personally.  I do know people who did however.  It was Monday morning UK time as I was preparing for work when I saw the accident on BBC Breakfast News. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I had to stop everything and just sit for a while.  I still can't believe it now.  Champ Car and Indycar - both together and when they were seperate - has experienced alot of awful weekends (Paul Dana, Alex Zinardi, Greg Moore to name a few) but this latest event seems to have sent real shock waves internationally.

Despite the obvious journalistic comments about safety issues, I am amazed that more people got away with it.  It was such an intense, violent, wide-spread accident that even the safest car on the planet wouldn't have assured protection. 

I'm not in a position to make comments about safety in Indycar.  I simply have no right to.  But my closing statement would purely be that the tragedy that can occur in motorsport affects every stakeholder in the industry - from drivers to fans.  Everyone knows the risks associated with such a high speed, cutting edge sport - even spectators are reminded on all their tickets over here in the UK.  But it's a sport with a passion and adrenaline rush that I can't define.  It's the families who suffer the most as it's always so sudden.  My thoughts are with Dan's family, friends and all the many people who worked along side him over the years.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Integra takes its final bow

Lea Wood’s British Touring Car race meeting at Silverstone with his Central Group Racing Team's Honda Integra may, on the face of it, seem nothing to particularly shout about.  However, I beg to differ.

The third race on Sunday was a significant moment as it marked the end of the Honda Integra's use in the BTCC.  Since its first use in 2005 in the iconic orange colour of Team Halfords it's provided many memories for many people, including myself.  Maybe none more so than newly-crowned triple BTCC champion Matt Neal, who won two of his championships at the wheel of the Integra.

I will always have a personal connection to the Integra as I worked for a team that ran one in the BTCC a few years ago.  I even think the Integra I was involved with was the one on the grid at Silverstone. By the time I worked with it it was starting to lose its edge, but it was still a heavy points scorer.  Now, sadly, its competitive edge is over - but to still be on the grid after seven years is a true credit to the car and Team Dynamics, who built the thing in the first place.  What's even more interesting is that the car was simply imported into the UK with no manufacturer backing - it was never an official UK car.

So here ends the story of the Honda Integra Type-R DC5 in the BTCC.  May it grace club level motorsport for years to come.

Tonight I will be raising a glass to the DC5 - a true legend in the history of the British Touring Car Championship.  Cheers for the memories!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The rise and fall of Yuji Ide. Who?!

I guess most of you will not be aware of a little fella called Yuji Ide. And who can blame you.

Who is he, I hear you ask? a simple introduction…he was an F1 driver for the now extinct Super Aguri team back in 2006 for the first four races…until the FIA (motorsport’s governing body) persuaded the team to demote him to test driver.  He was pretty slow.

Yuji Ide seems to be a classic example of a driver risking his career reputation by entering F1.  Some like Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso prove their talent at handling an F1 machine from the start.  Others such as Alex Yoong, Norberto Fontana and Ralph Firman have proved a lot in other forms of motorsport but never got to grips with F1 and only lasted, in many cases, due to sponsorship interest.  The trend suggests that a noticeable performance early on means that the driver is much more likely to have a long term future in F1.  With F1 being so public, any poor performances are amplified.

Ide’s career up to F1 wasn’t world changing - between 1996 and 1998 he was hardly racing at all.  However the following year he was fortunate enough to be ‘saved’ by Aguri Suzuki and he started to perform in Sportscars and Formula Three.  He had positive and negative seasons, but his second place finish in the 2005 Formula Nippon championship persuaded Suzuki to give him a chance in F1.
Ultimately his short time in F1 counted for nothing.  There were perhaps too many disadvantages that he faced.  He had limited experience in Europe after spending just one season in France, whilst the majority of other drivers on the F1 grid at the time had at least a ‘good’ knowledge of many of the circuits that currently adorn the championship.  Another disadvantage was the car - fundamentally a four year old OrangeArrows F1 design that even back in 2002 was not at the sharp end of the grid, so would naturally struggle to get off the back of the grid in 2006.  He had hardly sat in the car when Super Aguri got to the opening round in Bahrain, so to his credit he coped well with his initial race performances, even if he was to retire from his first two GP’s due to mechanical problems.  He also faced being up against a quick team mate.  Takuma Sato may have received a grilling due to his performance in the competitive BAR-Honda in 2005, but he amassed a huge amount of F1 experience compared to Ide, and he had knowledge of ultra-competitive European racing after winning the British Formula 3 Championship in 2001.

In order to make a real impact Ide had to do it quickly, as being in his early thirties has counted against him in an F1 world that seems to be discovering a string of young superstars.  Sadly the impact he made, particularly after his incident with Christian Albers’ Midland F1 (another now extinct team) at Imola in '06, was more negative than positive.

It perhaps is unfair that Ide’s superlicence has been taken away so early in his F1 career because after all everyone makes mistakes.  Maybe it was a signal to him to learn more and develop as a driver who can really cope with motorsport’s high tier – and it may serve as a warning to other drivers who have not yet taken the step up.

Despite all this though, some could argue that he has at least raced in F1, which to most professional racing drivers will remain a dream.

(Article originally written in 2006, adapted in 2011)