News and views on motorsports

Monday, July 31, 2006

Spirito Di Corsa

Those who have been following this blog will know that lately I have been very disillusioned by some of the developments in grand prix racing. In particular with matters pertaining to the future rules and regulations. The new rules dreamt up and forced down the throats of teams and fans are to my mind an affront to the very spirit of racing. The question I have been trying to grasp with even as I watched and enjoyed the very human endeavour of the World Cup (in total disgust of racing) is this: Just what exactly is the spirit of racing?

Where to begin? If we look back in the distant past to the dawn of the automobile age, motor racing started with the Paris to Rouen Trial in 1894. As the title suggested, it wasn't so much racing as a trial of different methods of engine propulsion. We all know about the internal combustion engine today but back in those days there were other ways of sending a horseless carriage down the road. And that included bloody steam engines and you'd be surprised to know,even electricity was being used even way back then. As to the other technologies used, I have no idea what they were but suffice to say, they never passed the test.

The first actual motor race as we know today, that is first past the finish line, began with the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris motor race. Over 700 miles long, the race took three days to complete. The winner apparently averaged a breakneck 15 mph! But the whole point of these first few races were to provide a proving ground for automobiles against other means of long distance travel such as the horse and the locomotive.

The point to prove of course, was that the automobile was just as fast if not faster than the aforementioned alternatives. In those days, people were still very much sceptical to the whole idea of the horseless carriage. They were viewed as slow, noisy and not very reliable. The first races were held as way to prove their worth by covering large distances and in the process prove that they were superior to the horse and at least be able to compete with the locomotive as a quick enough means of long distance travel.

Even in those days, cars were being divided into classes depending on whether the vehicle were a tricycle or had four wheels and also dependent on the number of seats it had. Everything else though was pure innovation, with the emphasis being on speed. Cars had to be seen to be quicker than all other means of transport. Up until the Great War, cars turned up with a variety of engine configurations of various different sizes. Ridiculous as it sounds today, capcities of 12 litres or more were not unheard of. Those cars maxed out at a stately 1,500 RPM. Today we have 2.4 litres and 20,000 RPM.

In a very short period of time, the automobile no longer needed to prove its worth but the culture of racing had already been created. The point of those races was speed and any development or innovation that helped those cars go faster was only to be encouraged and applauded. For the next 100 years, this culture of speed and innovation persisted and has given us all many wonderful creations from some rather brilliant engineers.

Some of those technologies developed for racing spilled over to everyday road cars. Take the now ubiquitous double overhead cam engine. It was first introduced by Swiss engineer Erenst Henry in the 1912 French Grand Prix on his Peugeots and soon adopted by the other manufacturers. Story has it, it was developed at huge cost. Heck, if the DOHC engine had not been invented till today and if poor Ernst wished to bring it to play, you can be sure that Max would concoct some sort of safety and cost excuse for its exclusion. Its true that usage of DOHC technology did not appear in mass produced automobiles until 50 years later on Fiats, yet its creation was as a result of competition and the need for yet more speed and today its benefits spillover to the cars you and I drive.

Its important to distinguish between the needs of racing cars and those of the everyday automobile. The former is simply obsessed with going faster whilst the latter needs to take care of a vast variety of requirements including safety, economy, refinement and environmental protection. If racing provides the technology applicable for road cars then so be it. But you can bet that Ernest Henry did not give a flying f*** about road car applications when he thought of the DOHC engine.

If there is no application for road cars then that too should be alright for in racing we are celebrating the art and science of going faster. Racing really is a two fingered salute to social norms. There is inherently something rough and rebellious about the whole activity.

More than a racing fan, I'm also a car enthusiast. Performance car enthusiast. And when I'm fixing Toda cams, Motec ECUs or HKS exhausts in my car, I really couldn't give a goddamn about bloody fuel consumption or stinking noise levels or indeed the environment. (Though I assure you, otherwise normally I would be deeply concerned about trees and whales). When the Bilstein sports coilovers go on the car I really don't care if you think the ride sucks. The most important thing is how fast she'll do on the Sepang track day.

Fitting high performance parts generally result in better passive safety due to better grip (from the big gumball Michelin Pilot Sport - never Bridgestone), better braking (courtesy of AP Racing or Project Mu - never Brembo) and quicker acceleration but you can bet that safety was furthest away from my mind when I had it installed. A decrease in lap time is my only concern. And if Tein produces a better coilover, then you can bet that I'm going to switch to that. And if my mechanic knows how to tune it to give me greater performance, then I'm surely going to pay him to do it.

Though my exploits on my everday banger are light years removed from Michael Schumacher's Ferrari 248, yet to me this is the spirit of racing. Innovation and development for the quest of speed and beating your rivals. Of course, I'm limited to what I can afford but then that's always the case in any endevour. But nobody tells me that I should not or cannot spend my cash or indeed try to stop me from doing it. Nobody but the bank manager but even he will wait till the balance is severly in debit.

Yet today after more than 100 years, we are experiencing a fundamental shift in racing culture. Increasingly we are seeing some variation of spec formulas in nearly all branches of racing. Spec tyres, spec brakes, spec transmissions not to mention chassis and engines. In the pinnacle of racing, we see a halt to the spirit of innovation (dont' believe me? Simply read the 2006 technical regulations) and in 2008 we will see a halt to the spirit of continous development in engines and in 2009 that will be extended to bodywork and aero.

THAT IS NOT RACING. Its bullshit. Perhaps fans new to the sport will not detect this fundamental shift or in the case of the oft mentioned "casual fan", even care. Perhaps the sport is being catered to and taken over by a new generation of fans or those who think that vibrating wing mirrors represent an unfair aero advantage. Perhaps I'm turning into an old grump who can't move with the times but really I cannot bear to watch any longer.

When they banned active suspension, I thought that was fine. When they took away sliding side skirts I agreed that maybe they were a little too dangerous. When they removed the spectacle of titanium skid plates I thought that maybe it was for the best. But all the while I knew that the engineers will always have something else up their sleeves. But now, even that ability is to be taken away. Crap. It really doesn't matter too much if all these restrictions were applied to the junior formulae or touring cars (however disgusting I think it is) but to apply it to Formula 1, at the very top level simply cannot be tolerated.

For the long term, Max Mosley hopes that his rules (post 2011) will result in Formula 1 being "positioned at the cutting edge of fuel efficiency research and development, demonstrating environmental relevance to the world's policy makers and accelerating environmental benefits for the world's motor consumers." Again, perhaps I am ancient and about to be extinct but for 100 years the emphasis of racing has always been speed, speed and yet more speed. Everything else was secondary. Now it seems the powers deem a cultural shift as a necessity. I'd rather not be a part of that. And for what? To please dirty politicians? Banning SUVs would have a far greater immediate impact on the environment than trying to make racing cars go green. Racing consumes only a tiny proportion of fossil fuels on sale. And racing cars only run for a few hours on the weekend. Limos, SUVs and big barge exec saloons favoured by politicians are on the road day after day, year after year and there are inifinitely more of them on the road and contributing to global warming. Let Formula 1 and racing in general be about racing technology. And let roadcar technologies like hybrids be the domain of company laboratories and soccer mums.

The FIA should not be worried that they have lost this fan but I can assure you that I'm not alone. Plenty of people I know have stopped watching since the World Cup, perhaps never to return. But we came from the old school and as I said, perhaps its time to go. To the next generation, try to have fun then.

Whats most sad is that the FIA isn't the only culprit. The teams, the engine suppliers and manufacturers are also to blame for failing to preserve the spirit of racing in Formula 1. They talked a good fight but at the end of the day, they simply didn't have the minerals to go up against Max and Bernie. Well, the hell with you lot. Le Mans here we come.


Don Speekingleesh said...

They've lost this fan too. I'll give it to the end of the season, maybe next season if the teams do prevent Max forcing through the freeze a year early.

I'm really, really disappointed the teams and the GPMA didn't fight the FIA sooner, and drag in the EU Competition Commision, who would've had a field day.

Nicebloke said...

Real innovation is to be found in the world of sportscar racing, especially when it comes to alternative fuels. Turns out diesel cars ARE faster than those powered by petrol. There's no spec tire, gearbox or engine in sportscars, and variety is actually welcomed by organizers.

Roy ( said...

Enjoyed reading that post