Sunday, 4 November 2012

Vettel is at the back...but will it make much difference?

It's only a few hours until the Abu Dhabi GP and what probably would have been a fairly dull affair has turned into an interesting prospect, thanks to Seb Vettel being dropped from third on the grid right to the back.

This is obviously big news but given that he'll have over 50 laps to claw himself back, it's probably not as big as the news made it sound when the penalty was announced last night.

Red Bull clearly has the best car in F1 at the moment and he'll be able to slice through the field with relative ease I would have thought. And when the red mist decends, Vettel can really be on it. 

I doubt Vettel will get on the podium, but I don't think Alonso will take the championship lead. I hope the latter does make up the points difference as we have more chance of an exciting end of season battle.

It will be an interesting afternoon of action...and I have to record it! :(

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Look out comes Pentillie!

One of the biggest disadvantages, for me at least, about being born and living in the South West of England is the serious lack of motorsport activity taking place. For example, the closest 'proper' race circuit is at Castle Combe near Bristol - a two and a half hour drive from my home in Plymouth. Don't get me wrong though; I'm not slagging the South West off, far from it. It's a beautiful part of the world (despite the weather) and I'm really happy here. But the lack of motorsport has always impacted on me.

I was out with a friend a few weeks ago and noticed a sign by the side of a rural road promoting a 'festival of speed'. This took me by surprise a bit and I didn't really think about it again, until I saw a short report on BBC Spotlight (our local TV station) a couple of days ago. Instantly I knew this was the event that the sign I'd seen several days earlier related to - the inugeral Pentillie Festival of Speed, near Saltash in Cornwall.

After my experience at the British GP earlier this year at Silverstone, where the weather had caused chaos with the car parks, I wasn't going to take any chances here. It was only a thirty minute drive to the venue, Pentillie Castle, the other side of the river Tamar from Plymouth. I purposely got there early and I was glad I did - the fields where already muddy from a horrid day the day before, so I predicted a chaotic scene later in the day when everyone started to leave. Other than a bit of wheel spin, I parked without a problem - but was less positive when thinking about getting out later!

After quite a lengthy walk with all my photographic equipment, I got to a hairpin bend and saw some of the competitors practicing. This got busier, so I moved more towards the castle once the 'crossing' had opened for fifteen or so minutes after one of the practice sessions. This was a good decision as, in addition to seeing the cars continue up a different part of the course, there were static displays of some stunning cars (an old Mercedes W192 replica, a WRC Subaru Impreza, a 1930's Bentley to name a few), all set against a beautiful setting within the fine grounds of the castle. The views of the Tamar valley were simply stunning also, particularly as the weather had stayed dry and - amazingly - featured some sun too. After completing a lap of the course and achieving some photos I was happy with, I left early to avoid the traffic issues I'd predicted as I mentioned earlier.

A modified Mini at the Pentillie Festival of Speed 2012

The amount of people attending surpassed my expectations and I'm sure it made the organisers happy. A combination of a bank holiday, good weather and a great mix of cars proved popular.  For the first year it was fantastic in my opinion - with particular highlights being the stunning location, good signage, great toilet facilities and helpful staff. Good beer, too!

There were negatives too though, but these aren't meant to be overly critical as it was the first running of the event. There should be more crossings in the future, improved access via paths and (in an ideal world, which totally depends on budget) tarmaced car parks - but if Silverstone can't event afford this, Pentillie can never be expected to do the same.

I'm just delighted that (at last) a motorsport event, which plans to expand, has been put on in this part of the world. Long may it continue! Well done to the organisers.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Putting something back...the FOTA Forum

I was privileged to attend the FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) Forum in the evening of July 3rd, held at the Williams F1 Conference Centre, in advance of the British GP.
I registered for the event quite randomly after seeing promotion on the web and I was thrilled to receive an email a few days later confirming my attendance.  It clearly was an event in demand!
After a thoroughly miserable drive up in the classic British summer weather (heavy rain), I arrived early at the gates to the Grove facility.  After parking, a small group of ‘early adopters’ and I waited patiently until a delivery van had disappeared (welcome to the secret world of F1!) before we entered the Conference Centre.  You’re greeted by a display of F1 cars in the foyer and you instantly get a feeling of the prestigious history associated with the Williams team…even their most recent trophy from Pastor Maldonado’s win in Spain 2012 was on open display!
We were all privalaged to be allowed to tour the museum of Williams cars, set in a fantastic low-light setting that gave off a real atmosphere.  Then it was up the stairs into an area that explained about the more technical aspects of F1, from wind tunnel importance to the design of the tubs. Next to this was an engaging room featuring ex-Williams driver’s helmets and a huge variety of Constructor winning trophies from down the years.  It was in this room we were offered refreshments and I must say a huge thanks for the fantastic effort put on by the staff at Williams as it made for a fantastic, memorable experience.
Lee McKenzie, the BBC F1 reporter/presenter, hosted the guests and it was a real pleasure to see Sir Frank Williams take to the stage and say a few words.  The applause surrounding this moment really gave you a sense of how respected this truly remarkable man is, by both industry insiders and fans alike.

Current Williams driver Pastor Maldonado was then introduced after signing hundreds of autographs in the Champions Gallery earlier, answering questions on his recent crash in Valencia with Lewis Hamilton, the impact he has experienced in Venezuela after becoming the country’s biggest sporting icon, and his amazing win at the 2012 Spanish GP.
As Pastor rushed off for more PR engagements, Ross Brawn (AMG Mercedes), Martin Whitmarsh (Vodafone McLaren Mercedes) and Bob Fernley (Force India) took to the stage and immediately took questions from the fans.
(L to R) Lee McKenzie, Bob Fernley, Martin Whitmarsh and Ross Brawn on stage

The focus for many of the questions were on tyres and DRS.  MW stated that the current tyres used in F1 are “massively exciting for fans”, due to the amazing change in grip levels that can suddenly occur.  I certainly agree with this…it’s made F1 very exciting.  Interestingly, when Ross Brawn was quizzed about DRS, he suggested that it is by no means a perfected system, saying that “the fans need to tell us if DRS is working”.  This underlines the spirit of the FOTA Forum to be honest…F1 clearly wants to get fans (old and new) more involved in the future of the sport which will benefit everyone in the long run. 

There were two other questions that really took my interest.  The first asked why there is such a tight gap between the majority of cars during qualifying, which MW felt was mainly down to a lack of significant rule changes this season, which has allowed more teams to refine the development of their cars and close the gap to the bigger teams.  The second question I enjoyed was to do with new technology and the fact that with sportscars allowing more freedom for new ideas (the DeltaWing seen at Le Mans this year springs to mind), is F1 still the pinnacle of motor racing?  MW felt that F1 has to remain at the top in the tech stakes and that the sportscar model isn’t necessarily a good one, relying too much on a handful of manufacturers (Audi and Toyota) which could affect its own future, certainly in the LMP1 class.
After well over an hour of questioning, the three men left the stage and went straight into media interviews.  It was time for the ‘legends’ to make their appearance…former F1 drivers Derek Warwick and John Watson, together with former Williams heavy weight Patrick Head. 
The whole Q&A was extremely engaging, with them discussing everything from their experience with turbo cars, current F1 drivers, the pressure put on them by the media and their thoughts on driver stewards.
I was lucky enough to be picked by Lee to ask a particularly emotive question which I really had just thought of moments earlier after DW had answered a question on safety.  I asked Derek what it was like physiologically getting into the Lotus F1 car at Jerez in 1990 after his team mate Martin Donnelly had a serious, career-ending crash in the same design of car that same weekend.  Derek unfortunately had witnessed a lot of tragedy during his career and it was touching to hear him explain how it was.  As a racing driver of that era, it came down to two things…you have to create an emotional detachment and, at the end of the day, it’s your job, so you carry on.  These sentiments were echoed by John Watson, with both also discussing the fatal Gilles Villeneuve accident back in 1982.  I will always be grateful to the panel for addressing this difficult question and I know that the audience were very engaged.  I just underlines the fact that the drivers of F1 cars are driven by passion more than anything else and they know the risks.
As the three legends left the stage, Lee closed the Forum and everyone left the hall gradually (via the shop in my case!), bringing to a close what had been a fantastic event.  I will hold it long in my memory.  Thanks FOTA!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Life sucks - it certainly did in 1990!

As you all know, I love my motorsport.   The current era of Formula One always brings up some points of interest to discuss.   Today however I want to go back a mere 22 years – when West Germany won the World Cup, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Glasgow was the European City of Culture  and I was a mature-yet-small 7 year old probably ferrying people about in a rowing boat.  It was also the year that Ayrton Senna won his second of three F1 World Championships.

It was a classic year of Formula One – action aplenty both on and off the track.  However, I want to focus on a story that could almost be seen as a comedy. This is the story of the Life Racing Engines F1 team.
The team was principled by Ernesto Vita and based in Modena, Italy.  It was seriously under financed from the start – something that could never happen in the era of modern F1.  The poor ingredients went on: They had one chassis, one engine and few spare parts.  The unreliable W12 3.5ltr engine was the least powerful on the grid with just 480bhp – hopeless when others had 600 to 700hp.  It was also one of the heaviest cars in the field at 530kg, meaning terrible handling. 
Richard Divila was the concept designer of the car, which originally was the meant to be for the stillborn ‘FIRST’ team in 1989.  When he saw the final design, he suggested that the car was too dangerous.  In 1989, it alarmingly failed the FIA’s crash tests, backing up Divila’s comments.  Somehow it got through for 1990, under the new chassis banner of the Life L190.  Divila was so concerned he took legal action to prevent his name being used in connection to the car. 
What was the point of the team being on the grid? Life Racing Engines aimed to showcase its ‘innovative’ W12 engine so a major team would step in and take the engine on in their own cars.  With the car and engine built by the same enterprise, they were the only team on the 1990 grid other than Ferrari to do so.  Unfortunately, race wins weren’t on the horizon - but neither were race starts as it turned out!
The first race in Phoenix, for the USA GP, Australian Gary Brabham – part of the Brabham family motorsport dynasty - was nearly thirty seconds away from the nearest car in front.  These were the days of pre-qualifying, which allowed the fastest cars into proper qualifying, which would then make up the race grid.  In other words, Life was at the bottom of the pile and would have a mountain to climb to even make qualifying. 
After the second race in Brazil, when the car broke down before even it could record a lap time, Brabham had seen the iceberg and left the team.  He was replaced by the aging Bruno Giacomelli.  This didn’t improve anything.  In what has to be the worst performance ever by an F1 car, his timed lap at the San Marino GP was over seven minutes…the pole time was one minute twenty three seconds!
The team gave up on the W12 engine by the time the Portuguese GP came around later in the year, replacing it with a Judd-manufactured V8.  It’s a wonder why they bothered, seeing as the sole aim of the team was to showcase its own engine.  When hilariously the engine cover didn’t fit over the car at the Portuguese GP, they went home.  The next race in Spain showed no better promise, with the car still almost twenty seconds off the pace in pre-qualifying. 
It appears this was the end of Life Racing Engines – an innovative concept that was fatality flawed from the start.  They didn’t fly out to the Southern Hemisphere for the final two races of the 1990 season.  
The Life L190 car (the only example in existence) did make a public appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2009, fully restored with its original W12 engine.
The most amazing thing is that the team tried to qualify for fourteen of the sixteen races in 1990, yet they never got close to even qualifying in a single one of them. 
If you look back at it, it’s a pretty funny story.
Here's a photo that really sums the car up...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Who's going to rule around the harbour?

With the most prestigious race of the F1 year coming up around the streets of Monaco, there is normally a favourite for one of the most prized trophies in motorsport.  In F1 2012 though, you'd be a fool to predict a winner.

It's been an impossibly unpredictable year so far.  McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and most recently Williams have been on the top step of the podium in the five races so far.  Both Sauber and Lotus have also come close to fact, had it not been for a slight mistake, Sergio Perez would have won for Sauber in Malaysia.  If Sauber and Lotus do win a race in 2012, that would make seven teams winning a race, which must be a record.
The team that has been underperforming this year in my view has been Force India, who were a big tip for me this year after a fantastic season in 2011.  But I'd never rule them out with a strong driver line-up.  Torro Rosso have shown pace this year too with two exciting drivers.
Monaco can be unpredictable anyway and is unlike any race on the calendar, so it's very much anyone’s guess.  I won't be putting a bet on, especially this year! 
A Senna victory at Monaco sounds right though, doesn't it?!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

F1 Bahrain GP – Right or wrong?

I write this on the eve of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix 2012. This is normally a race that doesn’t receive a huge amount of coverage from the Western media compared to, for example, Monaco.  In 2012 however, this is definitely not the case.

The focus in the media isn’t the racing though. The various political and civil unrest issues in the Middle Eastern country is the key news hook, but the complexities of this are far beyond my understanding – I only know what the media are reporting. Plus, this is a blog about the world of motorsport, so I’m going to stick to the fundamentals here.
Ultimately, what I am asking myself is whether it is right to stage the GP in Bahrain this weekend. When Force India mechanics were caught in a skirmish between police and protestors on the way back from the track to their hotel on Wednesday evening, the media began to feature the event higher up on the news agenda.  Then the ‘will they, won’t they’ debate intensified when UK politicians waded in, which in all honestly just became the usual slagging match between the leading parties arguing about what is right and what is wrong. Since the Force India incident, as far as I’m aware, there have been no further violent events affecting any of the F1 paddock.

Everyone has an opinion on whether F1 should be at Bahrain or not. It should be noted that F1 is a private business - Bernie has a contract with Bahrain and teams are obligated to attend as a result (they have sponsor contracts too remember). In theory, F1 should be in Bahrain. If anything, F1 is being used as a vehicle of exposure for both sides of the Bahrain situation, which has raised the issue to the world. 
I have no doubts that the race will go ahead tomorrow and will probably run smoothly, although the threat of some kind of protest on Sunday may rear its head at some stage.
Will the F1 race contract be renewed with Bahrain?  Probably not – and personally I don’t like the setting for the track – it’s featureless and it never appears to be that well attended.  F1 won’t be worse off if it doesn’t go back…there will be plenty of circuits queuing up to take the slot if it becomes available.