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?