News and views on motorsports

Monday, May 02, 2005

WTCC Technical Regulations

The technical and sporting regulations of the FIA World Touring Car Championship were formulated to promote close racing and excitement for the spectators. This is in the spirit of the old Super Touring regulations that were a spectacular success in the 90s. After watching the Magny Cours round of the WTCC, I do notice a few flaws that otherwise would produce the best racing in the world.

Article 5 of the FIA Super 2000 regulations state that:

The minimum weight of the car.... is:

(1) 1110 kg for front wheel drive car the gearbox of which is original and homologated in Group N. (That's standard production H pattern gearboxes to you and me)
(2) 1140 kg for front wheel drive car the gearbox of which is homologated in Variation Kit (VK) Super 2000.
(3) 1140 kg for rear wheel drive car the gearbox of which is original and homologated in Group N.
(4) 1170 kg for rear wheel drive car the gearbox of which is homologated in VK Super 2000.

A gearbox homologated in VK Super 2000 means sequential 6 speed racing gearboxes to the layman. These are of course non standard. The Alfa Romeos use 6 speed sequential boxes. Being front wheel drive as well, this places their minimum weight at 1140kg.

The BMWs however, are rear wheel drive. They have opted to use standard Group N homologated gearboxes. This means they are using the 5 speed gearboxes of the 320i as found on the E46 BMWs you can buy at your dealer. Because of that, the BMWs also run at 1140kg, similar to the Alfa Romeos.

Now, I'm not a fan of Alfas for various reasons. I just don't like them and I dislike Alfa owners as well. Not all of them mind you. Some of these are friends of mine and they're nice chaps. On the other hand, I love Bimmers. OK, so they have an image problem the world over. In Malaysia in particular, its associated with cronies' mistresses. In the UK, they're slobbered upon by yardies and the like. But make no mistake, they're excellent cars and are great to drive.

Be that as it may, I think the regulations are skewed towards BMW in the WTCC and that simply isn't very sporting. Here's why.

Watching the performance of the BMWs in Magny Cours and if you have watched them in Macau, you would quickly ascertain that the rear wheel drive layout is absolutely unbeatable. Especially in this day and age of the ever tighter racing circuit. In the twisty bits a rear wheel drive car has much greater agility.

The rear wheel drive layout means that all the grip of the front tyres goes to steering and all the grip of the rears provide drive. Whereas in a front driver, the front wheels must do both steering and provide forward motion. Because of this traction advantage, the rear drive cars can brake later and use their agility to make sharp turn ins especially in the slow corners.

Even in the fast corners like the Estoril bend in Magny Cours, the rear wheel drive cars have the advantage. Its all about balance and traction. The rear wheel drive cars can simply power down earlier and carry much more speed round the bend. The Alfa suffers badly in the same situation. They simply understeer in a cloud of smoke through Estoril.

All you Gran Turismo 4 players can try it out. I'm sure you've noticed that front wheel drive completely sucks. Just compare a BMW 320i touring car to a SEAT Touring car. The BMW simply blows em away in the corners.

In places like Monza and Silverstone, the front wheel drivers can catch up. Their front drive is not such a penalty. Especially if they enjoy a weight advantage. In the 90s BTCC Super Touring, the front wheel drive Vauxhalls could simply drive away in places like Silverstone.

In short, at the circuit, a front wheel drive vehicle is at an inherent disadvantage. That is why the Super Touring regulations in the past penalized rear wheel drive by up to 50 kg. The front wheelers simply need it.

Oh yes, of course the sequential gearboxes in the Alfas makes a difference in the time saved on gearshifts. But really, that advantage isn't as great as a difference in weight. Standard H gearboxes can be modified for short shifts and throws, which saves some time anyway. I cannot believe that the sequential shifts are such a huge advantage. Give me a weight advantage any day. (In fact, thats what BMW did.)

If you compare and front wheel drive vehicle to a rear driver, all other things being equal, the rear driver will murder a front wheel driver.

And so it is in the WTCC today. Even in Monza where the long straights and fast corners should favour the Alfas, the BMWs were super quick and very nearly took both races. In Magny Cours, the BMWs were simply the class of the field. I have no doubt they will simply dominate Macau as they have for years now.

In Monza, James Thompson won the second race for Alfa Romeo. This earned him a 35 kg penalty for Magny Cours. Dirk Muller was slapped a 45 kg penalty in France for his win in race 1 at Monza. But here's the thing. Whilst Dirk still managed to be competitive at Magny Cours, James Thompson was simply nowhere. 13th in race 1 and 9th in race 2. A 35kg weight penalty on the Alfa coupled with front wheel drive disadvantage clearly too much for him to overcome. Dirk Muller by contrast had a fighting chance.

To redress the balance, the front wheel drive cars need to be given a weight advantage to offset the clear traction advantage of the rear drive BMWs. There is simply no contest at the moment.

So, in summary, I think the Alfas should simply abandon the sequential gearboxes and fit in standard ones to gain back the weight advantage. Or else, the FIA should mandate either standard gearboxes or sequential ones for all the runners together with weight advantages.

But having said that, Jorg Muller faces a 60kg weight penalty for his double win at Magny Cours. So lets see how the Alfas fare at Silverstone in two weeks time. At the end of the day, yes I like BMWs to win but I also want to see close, hard battles in touring cars. A SEAT or a Honda win would surely spice up the WTCC even more. And thats good for spectators and ultimately good for sponsors and ogranisers as well.

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