News and views on motorsports

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Safety and Gravel Traps

Several years ago, a friend of mine was practising for a saloon car race at Sepang. Rain was pouring down that day and of course he wanted to have a go and get the feel of the car in the wet. Now, my friend has been accused of dubious sanity at times and so it was that day. Coming into turn 12, normally one would stay in third and power out of the turn in the wet. But not he. He decided it to try it in fourth and hope for the best. Well, the tail went and went really fast and he sat there hapless in the driver's seat whilst the car decided it was time to say hello to the gravel.

Now, anyone who's ever built sandcastles would know that a little moisture on the sand will compact the stuff. Well, the gravel on the run off for turn 12 was very wet which made it pretty firm. The car hit the gravel which then sent it rolling over. Thankfully, the roll cage did its job and he was able to walk out and back home to him pregnant wife. No sign of distress or shock, his only complaint was the roof had caved a little and touched his helmet. Incidentally, my friend holds the dubious honour of being the first ever driver to roll over his car at Sepang. Way to go mate! But the point is gravel can indeed be a little dangerous in the wet.

In the dry, it stops a saloon car dead in its tracks with no way out. And formula one cars as well. But sometimes its not unknown for a smooth and relatively flat bottomed single seater to skip over the gravel and plunge directly into the wall. Flipping over can also happen. Wings can break send shards into the cockpit and god knows what other effects incidental to the laws of physics. Which was the argument made by the driver's represented by the Grand Prix Drivers Association for Sunday's race at Monza.

The Monza officials, the FIA and even Bernie jumped in and argued that the high speed safety barriers were state of the art being able to absorb the impact of a Formula 1 travelling at 125mph and yet still be able to keep deceleration forces to tolerable levels for the driver. The Monza officials said that they had no duty to the drivers and only to the FIA. The FIA concurred and said that local officials were under orders to ignore everyone else (including the drivers) when it came to matters of safety. The FIA statement read:

"The owners of circuits licensed for Formula 1 are required not to discuss safety measures with third parties (including drivers)." Pompous arrogant shits. Howzabout they strap themselves into a single seater and crash test the barriers and see if it is a pleasant experience. The GPDA argued that high friction asphalt as used in places like Istanbul was far safer and they would have liked to see them in use in Monza.

But of course that makes sense for given even the slightest whiff of grip and a grand prix car will slow right down to a halt. But if its skipping over gravel (not an unknown occurrence) then no AP Racing calipers and pads will be able to stop a nasty smack in the barriers, which can be a very painful experience. Even crashing into unsecured polystyrene foam can hurt a driver travelling at very high speeds. I've seen that happen at Hockenheim back in the late 80s.

Whatever the case may be I think its one helluva way to treat drivers who are risking their lives out there. Yes, safety improvements have grown leaps and bounds since the 70s but no one wants to be in pain unnecessarily. I think the drivers have legitimate concerns and the FIA and circuit officials need to listen to them. Or at least give some respect to them and meet up as they had agreed at Monza that weekend. The drivers were simply ignored and thats simply not right. Remember it was drivers that started this crusade of safety that the FIA likes to take full credit for in the first place.

Well Well Well....

Very interesting story concerning Bernie Ecclestone's recent comments in The Bild. According to the article Bernie describes the Alonso penalty as a farce. Whilst not going so far as to call it a 'fix' nevertheless he admits that "Ferrari is the only team 'that gets political support' from the FIA." I'm sorry Bernie, would you please repeat that? There are some mindless scarlet fans out there who didn't quite hear you. Now, shall we wait for Bernie to give a statement claiming that his comments were merely jest?

In a related story Pitpass discusses the F-word. Perception according to them is everything and the mere perception that the sport is rigged could have serious reprecussions. Good read.

Meanwhile our friend Checkpoint10 has decided to take a little sabbatical from blogging but leaves us with his vision of racing. Something he's asked me to do once before but I have yet to come to that. Hopefully someday when I've stopped being so angry with the current situation. Hope to see you again soon mate!

Monday, September 11, 2006


It may have been an academic argument once Fernando Alonso's engine expired in a cloud of smoke in Monza yesterday but nevertheless his grid penalty after Saturday's qualifying was still the subject of some very heated words from both the world champion and his team boss. Most damning of all was Alonso who said : "I think one per cent of people here will be happy today - those who yesterday decided the race. I hope they sleep well tonight." Furthermore, he "no longer consider F1 is a sport."

No doubt Fernando is more than a little upset about the entire affair and why shouldn't he be? As mentioned numerous times everywhere, little retard boy was no where close to him either on the straights or in the corners. Even if, as Ferrari argues, that the aero turbulence caused delay to Massa, Fernando cannot be penalised for the behaviour of the laws of physics. The world champion himself was trying to catch the start/finish line with mere seconds remaining on the clock to start his banzai lap. Massa was clearly from the television pictures at least 100 metres away.

Understandably, even Flavio Briatore, who is normally sympathetic to the FIA (being of course a good friend of both Max and Bernie) was livid. "This is a world championship which has already been decided at the table," said the supermodel dater. "We have understood how things go – it has all been decided...they have decided to give the world championship to Schumacher and that is how it will be.” And , “Compared to what is happening in Formula 1, ‘Calciopoli’ just makes me smile.” He would later recant this last statement saying that it was all a joke taken out of context. I doubt if Max would actually penalize Flavio for this but he could under the heading of "bringing the sport to disrepute." I say bring it on. For the actual fact is, it is the bloody FIA that has brought the sport into disrepute.

Max though had this to say when talking to Martin Brundle. In the interview:

Brundle: "I’ve looked at it very closely, I’ve raced 158 GPs, I commentated on it live, Alonso was so far ahead that you wouldn’t have known whether it was a Toyota, Renault or a McLaren at one point…"

Mad Max: "That is exactly where you are wrong. You see we have the advantage that we have the actual data from the car. We can look at what actually happened to the car, we can see whether it was a driver error or whether it was an aerodynamic problem and so on.He was destabilised in the Parabolica because of the wake of the car in front. That wouldn’t have happened if Alonso had had more time."

In the end even Max admitted the need for a change of ruling. But consummate politician he said : "What we are thinking very seriously about is to say next season that we will only look at these questions only if there is evidence of deliberate impeding - or in other words, intent. I don't think there was intent, but what they [the stewards] did was absolutely consistent with the rest of the season." Furthermore : "Now the rule is, rightly or wrongly, that if you are on your out-lap then you move over for the man who is on his hot lap. He did not do it - one driver suffered, and he gained an advantage."

Like all good politicians Max has a wonderful way of deflecting arguments to suit his purpose. For one thing, in the Brundle interview he claimed that the Renault team was late in sending him on his way and therefore Fernando had to hurry it up and in the process delayed Massa. Or at least, his aero turbulence did.

Both arguments are spurious. For one thing, Renault's delay was caused by a puncture suffered by Fernando. He was driving on his wheel rims and shedding bodywork all the way. Surely Renault would have had to do at least a quick check and then seeing that time was still available sent him on his way. And yet, if we follow the idiot's words, Renault should have simply hurried it up and let him go.

As for aero turbulence causing delay to Massa, a driver should be penalized for blocking and not for his bloody aerodynamics. And lastly, I do not recall any other situation this year where the stewards came to this same conclusion. In the case that I do remember, the one involving Fisichella and Villeneuve, the pair was much closer together and therefore Fisichella did have some case.

Given how critical this decision was to the world championship, you can see why the conspiracy theorists are having a field day. This coupled with the whole mass damper affair gives plenty of ammunition to those who believe that this championship is being rigged for a big finale, if not to give Ferrari and Schumacher (and the legion of tifosi) one last hurrah before Schumi leaves.

In the end though, it did not affect the outcome of the race per se for as we all know the Renault engine blew up. Fernando may have attributed that to having to use more revs than needed but the fact remains that his car retired. But still it has yet again left a bitter taste and once again calls upon the need for better governance of the sport. Except that the teams and manufacturers are such cowards that they will simply let this one slide yet again.

Someone recently accused me of being pessimistic. Well, if I am then I have every right to be. Yes, FIA presidents have always caused controversy but none to the extent of bloody Mad Max. He has single handedly changed the face and spirit of Formula 1 racing with his new technical rules that have upset and alienated most die hard fans. He has made greater errors in vast numbers in applying the sporting regulations. And he has even stooped to deliberate lying and gross misrepresentation. Disrepute? If anyone has put the sport to disrepute not once but on countless occassions then it is the FIA president himself and his cohorts who should stand trial.

Pessimistic? I shall not count the ways here. But you give me a reason to smile. Perhaps if you could lend me your rose tinted glasses so that I can.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

BMW and Williams

An excellent qualifying session by Nick Heidfeld for the Italian Grand Prix prompted me to think about the fortunes of both BMW and Williams so far this season. After a messy divorce last year, BMW bought over the Sauber team whilst Williams opted for Cosworth power for this season. Mario Thiessen of course was being very cautious when he stated that Williams would probably have the upper hand in 2006.

The results so far have been very different. At the beginning of the year, indeed Williams as expected by fans and pundits alike were blazing trails with both drivers Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg. In fact, the young Finn / German took the world by storm with a great finish in Bahrain and then a remarkable qualifying session in Sepang. But unfortunately for Grove, things took a turn for the worse.

By contrast the BMW team have gone from strength to strength. Dr M. Thiessen must be grinning from ear to ear especially after reading what both Williams and the British press, most notably Pitpass, had to say about him after all the acrimony from last year. 'I told you so' doesn't quite cover it. Still, it seems that BMW are putting that super sophisticated Sauber wind tunnel and Albert supercomputer to far more effective use than Peter Sauber ever could. Of course, Peter Sauber didn't have the budget that the Munich concern can command. And it seems that BMW's expansion of the Sauber operations by bringing in lots of new staff have proven to be spot on. The results on the track do not lie. The now ousted Jacques Villeneuve still leads both the Williams drivers on points as of the Turkish Grand Prix. Nick Heidfeld looks to be uncatchable the rate he's going.

I fear for Williams. He's the last of that hard core breed of racers from the 70s. Yes I know Ron Dennis is still there but let's face it McLaren are now indistinguishable from the team that won the 1976 driver's world title with James Hunt. Nowadays they are as disgustingly corporate as Mercedes, their biggest shareholder. No, Frank is the last of the lot. And yet now after nearly 10 seasons without a driver's title and ages since their last win, they are beginning to look a lot like Tyrrell and Ligier did in the 80s. Contenders throughout the 70s, absolute has-beens in the early 80s. Williams is in danger of being well stuck in midfield. In fact, Williams' loss of prestige began quite some time ago. For instance in 2001, I remember reading a news report from Reuters termed the team as "wannabes." Oi, have you no respect??!!

Of course hope still survives in the form of Toyota for next year. The deal is expected to last through to 2009 (or was that 2008?) and for me represents the last chance for Frank to pick his team up and become contenders once more. Of course he probably needs a good title sponsor to decorate his side pods in order to do so but with Toyota power behind him, that ought to be easier. Ought being the keyword for it is by no means certain the way the team have been going in recent times and of course due to poor world economic conditions.

In Nico Rosberg they have a promising (and cheap) young talent but is he capable of being a team leader? He seems intelligent enough and this is after all only his first season. Senna was pretty much the same at Toleman in 1984 before rising as virtual commander in chief of the Lotus team in 1985 (to the chagrin of the poor late Elio de Angelis). The other driver for next year Alex Wurz to me represents a poor option. No doubt he will bring some money to the table but there is a reason why McLaren kept him as a test driver all these years. That is, he's simply is bollocks no matter some people may think. At best, he's just a journeyman.

With so many changes at Williams one wonders who really is in charge of the car these days (I'm too lazy to find out right now). But surely, the technical team is not quite what it used to be. Yes, Sam Michael is something of a genius but I'm not sure that a software systems chap should be leading the tech guys in a racing team. Not at this level at any rate. Just as I don't think Vasselon is a good choice for Toyota. Both Williams and Toyota have plenty of work to do. Williams to me have more to lose because of their proud history. I sincerely hope they succeed.

And what of Toyota? What if the Williams Toyota consistently outperforms the works cars next year? I simply wonder how that would go down in the corridors of power in Japan. Eddie Jordan did suggest recently that Frank ought to be selling up to the Japanese. But surely this is untenable. After all the investment made to their Cologne operations, surely the Japanese are not considering making another major purchase in Britain, no matter how much better that would be in fact. There's just too much sunk into Cologne. And surely no one should suggest that Frank sell out to a non-manufacturer and end up being another stupid Midland team.

Finally, I do hope BMW does well too only if to make folks like Pitpass eat their words. They certainly are showing signs of improvement technically. In Sebastien Vettel I believe they have a true superstar in the making. Not since Alonso and Raikkonen debuted in 2001 have I seen a more impressive new driver. No, not even Nico Rosberg. Of course Vettel hasn't raced yet but any guy who can jump into a Formula 3 car and end up on the podium in Macau on his first attempt has got to be quite good. Nico Rosberg was nowhere on his first try. And now jumping into a Formula 1 car and going quickest, albeit in practise, shows that this lad simply understands what's going on. And that is incredibly important in this sport.

Interesting to see what happens next year. Come on Frank. Pull your socks up.