News and views on motorsports

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Revolutionary Brabham BT55

The following video shows us some footage from testing at the Jacarapagua circuit in Rio de Jeneiro.

The Brabham BT55 was a very revolutionary car. Designed by Gordon Murray, it was the first ever Formula 1 car to feature a "flat-iron" design. This meant a very low profile that theoretically produced aerodynamic advantages, not least reducing drag through a lower frontal area. Up until the BT55 and later the McLaren MP4/4 of 1988 (also by Gordon Murray), cars were relatively tall, with drivers sitting upright in the seats. The Brabham was so low that drivers Riccardo Patrese and the late Elio de Angelis had to literally lie down in the cockpit. The low line design also necessitated in a lie-flat BMW turbo engine. Normally installed upright, the 4 cylinder engine had to be installed tilted to one side.

Whilst the car was revolutionary, it did have a host of problems. Transmissions being just one of them. Again, because it had such a low profile, it necessitated a new transmission design from transmission specialists Weismann. As with many technical innovations, the transmission kept breaking. Also, the car experienced cooling problems which necessitated bigger and repositioned radiators and additional vents which in turn increased drag and reduced downforce and because of the repositioning altered the weight balance. The resulting plumbing modifications also affected the turbo pipes which further reduced horsepower. All that theoretical aero advantage simply went out the window as a result.

In the end, the BT55 can be considered a failure and it was perhaps the last contribution of the once famous Brabham team to Formula 1. After that, team owner Bernie Ecclestone (yes him!) was too busy with FOCA to give a damn I suppose. But Gordon Murray would give the design concept another try at McLaren. The lessons learned from the BT55 would be applied to the all conquering McLaren MP4/4 of 1988 that took 15 out of 16 races that year. Significantly, Honda had produced a much lower RA168E turbo engine that didn't require any lying down design. But then again it was a V6 and that made things a lot easier.

After the MP4/4 everyone else would be using the low line concept and this continues till this day. For more info on the BT55, visit: and

Enough about the Brabham, watching the video one notices a few amusing things. Gordon Murray being interviewed in the pits half naked for instance. And so were the rest of the Brabham boys. My god, such things would never be allowed these days. Especially if it was Bernie who owned the bloody team.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Look Back At Super Touring

One for the Super Touring fan. This video below is vintage BTCC from the days when it was still running to the Class 2 Super Touring rules. I found it thanks to the folks at Chequered Flag Motorsport. This one features former grand prix runners "Our Nige" and Derek Warwick.

Here's another one from the 1992 season, which in the end was won by Tim Harvey in the BMW 318is. The video features that demon wheelman, Steve Soper in an infamous incident with John Cleland. Listen to the cars. You can hardly hear the exhausts, the dominant sound being the induction roar from those individual throttle bodies. Brilliant.

No thoughts of political correctness over here. John Cleland making his feelings known in no uncertain terms, whilst Murray Walker exclaims "I'm going for first!" Classic. Racing should always be like this.

For more on Super Touring you can also visit the Super Touring Register. Though I am a little disappointed that it only goes back to the 1995 season.

Lewis Hamilton

Over the last week much has been said about the bright eyed young McLaren protege, Lewis Hamilton. I've only ever seen him race twice on the telly. Once at Macau, which I must admit I've totally forgotten about. The other time was during the Turkish round of GP2 this year where he demonstrated some breathtaking pace and some superb racecraft. But then again, its easy to demonstrate such things when your lap times are at least a second faster than anyone else. Some, like old David Coulthard thinks he's been thrown into the deep end too early. Ron Dennis justifies the selection by saying that there was no one else better currently.

Its hard to say. Kimi Raikkonen for instance, competed in just 23 car races before landing a Sauber drive in Formula 1. A year after and McLaren was his destination. Could he have handled a McLaren on his debut year? Sure, he did well in the Sauber. But the pressure must have been a lot less for him than if he had driven for Woking in 2001. Fernando Alonso spent a year at Minardi and a year of testing before landing a Renault drive. Ayrton Senna could have had a drive with Williams, McLaren and Brabham for 1984 but chose up and coming Toleman instead. Michael Schumacher too had his debut in a Jordan, albeit for just a single race before being snapped up by Benetton. But having said that, Benetton was not yet at the time, the force it would be 3 years later and the force that it is now in the guise of Renault F1 but boy did that Schuey learn quick. He didn't so much learn. More like slipping into a pair of custom made John Lobbs. All so natural. Alain Prost made his debut in a McLaren in 1980 but in those were the days before the mighty MP4.

The point is, I think Hamilton could have been placed elsewhere to learn his craft. If he is truly the business then his speed and talent would immediately be apparent. Much like Alonso's was when he drove for Minardi. Who could miss the fact that the Spaniard could mix it with Arrows and Jordans in the lorry like Minardi? If Hamilton's talent is made of such stuff then he too would be driving the car beyond its natural limits. But that is secondary to the main point of the exercise, which is to get him used to the whole grand prix environment without so much pressure. Pressure that could otherwise break him.

Hamilton will be compared and often so to a double world champion whose pace and intelligence is beyond question. A teammate destroyer in the mould of Schumacher and Senna. If this weren't enough then of course there's the expectation of the media. The English media in particular. The ruthlessness of the British press is something I have witnessed first hand having spent many years over there. Jenson Button I bet just luurrves the attention.

Yet another challenge to Hamilton is the McLaren team itself. After a dismal 2006, I think it will be hard for McLaren to be challenging for world titles next year. I just don't see it what with the loss of so many key technical personnel. Hamilton is used to winning. He's used to dominating. I doubt if McLaren can give him a car to do this. Lets hope this will not become a source of frustration for him.

If Hamilton does succeed despite the many challenges then it will be to his credit. There will be very little doubt about his championship credentials. And we'll all know it immediately. Perhaps thats what Ron Dennis had in mind. Quickly give the lad a shot at it so that there will be no guessng by the end of next year. See, after all these years of supporting him, whether he sinks or swims at the deep end.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Macau Grand Prix Roundup

Its a testament to Lewis Hamilton's blinding speed to find that his lap record of the 6.1 km Guia circuit has stood since 2002 and has only been beaten today by Robert Streit. But once again, the Macau Grand Prix has proven to be a hard test for the grand prix stars of tomorrow. Of course, far be it for bloody Star Sports to carry the qualifying race held yesterday so I missed out on a lot of the action. Big name casualty during race 1 was one Sebastien Vettel, who had to start this race from the back.

Formula 3 Euro Series runner Kamui Kobayashi started from pole ahead of Marko Asmer and Kohei Hirate. All of these guys running in Dallara Mercedes run by ASM, Hitech and Manor respectively. But the one everyone had their eye on was Paul di Resta who started fourth is the second ASM Dallara-Merc. Having beaten Vettel in the Euro Series and taken the Masters at Zandvoort, he was in with a chance to do the triple grand slam by taking the Macau Grand Prix.

As ever, the race itself proved highly unpredictable. Going into Lisboa on the opening lap, we were treated to a highly amusing incident involving Kobayashi (favourite for the race after a storming qualifying), di Resta and Asmer. Kobayashi tried to go on the outside of Asmer, who himself was just simply too late on the brakes and simply went straight ahead. I'm not sure if di Resta was concentrating too hard on the car ahead of him, but he too went straight ahead after punting Asmer. In all the confusion, British Formula 3 champion, 22 year old Mike Conway found himself in the lead ahead of Hirate, newly signed Williams F1 tester Kazuki Nakajima, Andre Sutil (another highly rated runner) and Richard Antinucci.

Paul di Resta would restart but would crash at the end of that lap, prompting the deployment of the safety car. After the restart Sutil would pass Nakajima who attempted a fightback only to outbrake himself into Lisboa and letting through Sutil and Antinucci.

Of all the runners today, I was quite impressed by Antinucci's pace and consistency. Of course Conway was running away in front after a good restart but Antinucci seemd to have the fighting spirit in him today. The 25 year old Roman born and resident American pulling out some really quick laps and putting a really solid drive. His moves against both the highly rated Sutil and later on Hirate were particularly sweet and decisive. I think he's a little too old now to enter Formula 1 and certainly his past record hasn't been too good but today he seemed on form. I think he must have taken second fastest lap of the race and also beating Lewis Hamilton's 4 year old record.

This year's Formula 3 race must have been the best I've seen in a while at Macau. I just wished Vettel could have been up front with the leaders and I had fancied him to win. But the challenge of Macau's bumps and demanding turns is to keep it on the island in the first place. This he failed to do although it must be said he had problems with his brakes in the qualification race. However, Mike Conway is a worthy winner of this race. He had a stunning mid season in British Formula 3 with KKR beating much fancied Bruno Senna with a good string of victories. Now he's won Formula 3's premier event. Hard luck if he doesn't get a GP2 drive next year but with this victory I'm sure he will.

Macau Guia And BTCC Note

I was very upset that for the first time in years, the Macau Grand Prix was not shown live on Star Sports. They obviously thought that the premier Formula 3 event of the year and the championship finale of the World Touring Car Championship was not worthy to be up against some stupid ATP Masters Tennis tournament. I can understand a grand slam tennis tournament taking precedence but this???

Anyway, thankfully it was shown as a delayed telecast and as usual Macau never fails to serve up some good racing. Like that other famous street circuit at Monte Carlo, its hard to overtake in Macau but the circuit itself is so good and incredibly demanding. Like Monaco, it has some incredibly tight corners and hairpins but it has also a damn fine waterfront section that includes that incredible flat out Mandarin bend before hard braking into the tight and accident prone Lisboa.

If you're going to win in the Guia race then pole position is an absolute must. Just like Monte Carlo. And once again, its that man Andy Priaulx who took pole ahead of (ugh!) Dirk Muller in the BMW Team Deutschland, Yvan Muller in the SEAT Leon and Duncan Huisman. I'll never understand why BMW are keeping this overrated Dutchman. Championship leader Augusto Farfus Jr started from seventh and carrying the maximum weight handicap of 80 kilos. As Priaulx himself mentioned 80 kilos is a helluva lot of weight to bear and its just as well he came into this race with only 45 kilos of handicap, else that pole would not have been possible.

In the first rce it was Andy for lights to flag and ably backed up by Duncan Huisman who held off Yvan Muller right till the end. Fabrizio Giovanardi in the semi works JAS Honda kept these two in close contact throughout the entire race. The weight laden Farfus I thought did admirably well to take fifth spot.

In the second race, Jorg Muller made a stunning start to pass both Peter Terting and Tom Coronel off the grid. 75 kilos handicap or not, that rear drive BMW is quite a demon at the lights. And just as in the first race, the infamous Lisboa had a opening lap incident. If the first race took a number of Chevrolets, this second race proved hard on the SEAT runners. A few folks did not start this race and among them was Alex Zanardi who suffered terminal damage to his car in the first race. Andy Priaulx held off Fabrizio Giovanardi to take fifth and win the world championship. This is his third touring car title in a row and I wouldn't bet against him taking it again next year.

Of couse, Mario Thiessen had to force a smile on the podium. Whilst Jorg Muller won the race, he could not take the championship. In the end the gap between him and Andy was a mere one point. But I bet Mario is seething that yet again, his German drivers were beaten by a Brit. I do have to say that Jorg was pretty lucky at the restart of the second race because Peter Terting basically held everyone back with a broken gearbox. Else I thought the two SEATs of Coronel and Muller would have been a lot closer to him.

In a weight handicapped series like the WTCC, its hard to tell who drove well and who didn't. Giovanardi in the JAS Honda looked impressive to me hassling the works cars but then of course he would since he carried no handicap at all. I felt sorry for Farfus though as he crashed on the opening lap of the second race. Despite his 80 kilos he had done a bloody good job. Much as I hate to admit it but Jorg Muller did drive well despite that 75 kilos, though luck was on his side.

As ever on this demanding circuit the attrition rate was very high with half the field failing to finish. Famous casualties include Rickard Rydell, Peter Terting, Jan Magnussen, Gabriele Tarquini and Nicola Larini. The latter three all ex Formula 1 folks as well.

Congratulations again to Andy Priaulx. In modern touring cars, he's proving to be the class of the field. And if Thiessen wants a German win he's going to have to hire some better Germans to do it. And also a job well done to Racing Bart Mampaey who yet again despite being a lot smaller than the Schnitzer team has beaten them again. D0n't you just love it when the little guy wins?

Speaking about little people, congratulations also to Matt Neal for retaining the British Touring Car Championship in the independently entered Halfords Honda Integra. In the process taking both drivers and team titles in the BTCC and the independents trophies as well. This year, Matt was up against incredibly strong opposition from the likes of Jason Plato, Gavin Smith and Fabrizio Giovanardi who all had the full weight of the Volkswagen Audi Group behind them in the SEAT Sport UK Leons. Goes to show that there is a spot for independents in this increasingly manufacturer obsessed world. I guess if the base machinery is an excellent one as you have with the Integra beating works SEATs and Vauxhalls is not a problem.

Finally, I hope this circuit makes it into Gran Turismo 5. Its an absolute cracker.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

FIA / GPMA And Rule Making

Two articles ago, I stated that a specialist engine maker like Cosworth would not be able to effectively compete in grand prix racing's new future due to the technical challenges. Having read the Mosley/Goschel Q & A in full, I think I was completely wrong on that one. The way it looks, I think they would be able to do so on technical grounds. The difficulty for a company like Cosworth would be mainly financial and political.

In future, the manufacturers will be dominant and together with the FIA will set the technical direction and rules of the sport. Lets not underestimate what the consequences. The technical agenda for all future rules will be driven by the needs of the manufacturers and in relation to developments in road cars.

In the past it was the teams that made the rules and this was not lost in the Q & A. Repeatedly, references were made to how the teams never got anything done and how the rule making process frequently degraded into argument and shouting. Again, this is slightly deceitful. For the rule making process is defined in the Concorde Agreement, a document that Max Mosley himself helped in its formation. According to the Concorde, rules can only be made with a unanimous decision among the teams and frequently, one or two interlopers could simply raise objections and kill a particular rule. Some red coloured team apparently was quite famous for doing this.

To address this problem, the FIA itself formed a Sporting Working Group in addition to the Technical Working Group whose members include the teams, the FIA, CVC and other representatives. These working groups required only simple majority to push through a piece of regulation. And yet, wasn't it Max Mosley who recently vetoed (and in contrary to the FIA's own regulations) a motion to scrap the engine homologation rules in May of this year? And yet he says that all the teams do is bicker. Oh the duplicity of this man.

And wasn't it Max who once said that manufacturers come and go but it is the independents who soldier on in the sport and their welfare should therefore be protected? And yet here we are now, power is given to these manufacturers, all of whom have only in recently times become team owners themselves. From the Q & A, we learn that in future "we now have a mechanism for sitting down with the manufacturers at board level to agree on objectives... That is the most important point, that discussion takes place at board level and not at team level."

In future rules would be made using a "three stage process." At the first stage is to define objectives at the board level. Now this means exactly as it says. The decisions are made by the FIA and the board of directors of the manufacturers. Then at the second stage "technical experts from the major manufacturers... will flesh that policy out." At the final stage, "you would have input from the technical experts at the teams on the details of the rules.. work[ing] out how to achieve the predefined objectives." After being pressed, Goschel admitted that "if this means we bypass Ron Dennis, then so be it." Meaning to say, tough luck to the teams.

Regular meetings are planned to define future rules and objectives and "to define the next areas we should look to introduce into F1 which are relevant to the car industry." But this "has to be driven from the manufacturer level alongside the FIA, not from the teams. It will be a common working group made up of GPMA and FIA members."

So you might ask, what's the problem? Especially since teams these days are all owned by or closely associated with the manufacturers. I can't quite explain it but I always thought there was something wrong with Max ramming regulations down the throat of the teams. An FIA/GPMA board of directors alliance setting the agenda doesn't make it any better if you ask me. The teams should be the ones to come up with the rules. Again, this is back to the overall point of grand prix racing. I think it ought to be purely sport and speed but these people think there should be industrial and social relevance. And so, it is industrial captains that now set the pace.

The only good thing about this is that it should lead to better governance. The keyword is "should." One of the bones of contention in the past between the FIA and the GPMA was a lack of transparency in the rule and decision making process. The GPMA then argued that the sport was poorly governed on all fronts be it technical, sporting or commercial. This was not good for their collective image but was also costing them billions because some rules were arbitrarily decided by Max and cohorts with apparently no consideration to the costs of compliance and to the objectives of the car makers. And not to mention, rules or decisions made in favour of certain teams, which was my personal gripe. The latest developments will hopefully result in a more balanced governance.

Still I cannot help but feel that the sport has been usurped from the independent teams. I bet Ferrari would want to call themselves a manufacturer now after years of insisting that they are independents. But teams like Toro Rosso, Red Bull and Williams will not be represented at the "board level." This simply wrong, for they too should have a say in how they will compete in the future.

If one wanted to change the rules of football, shouldn't the football clubs be consulted? And of course the players themselves? If Nike, Reebok or Adidas in their capacity as equipment makers and sponsors, made the rules, you know there would be an uproar worldwide. Why should motor racing be any different? The manufacturers say that the environment are at the forefront their concerns these days. Puh-lease. This is only insofar as it projects a better image to their customers and helps them sell cars. At the end of the day, money is the real objective. And sport of Formula 1 has been truly raped and turned into a marketing tool for the manufacturers own purposes. We have forgotten that it is a sport.

Back to Cosworth and their like, I can imagine it could get quite frustrating for them if they had no say in the future direction of the sport. And would they even be allowed to compete should someone want their engines in the future?

FIA / GPMA And Future Technology

I kinda screwed up my last post. Serves me right for not reading the Financial Times. But then, I have no online FT subscription and I refuse to pay 7 bloody ringgit for a copy at my local newstand. By now of course, everyone should have seen the official Q & A (Max just loves these) with the FIA president and Herr Goschel.

In my defence I assumed that when Max spoke of green technologies and new directions, he would be introducing measures that he spoke of earlier on in the year and which I had mentioned in my last posting. But happily the official Q & A now gives us clearer indication of the direction the FIA / GPMA intend on taking.

In the short term it seems they speak of energy recovery and reuse. In broad terms this means recovering lost heat energy and reusing it to produce additional power. Of course, one would naturally assume turbocharging would make a return and in fact, the use of turbochargers had been mentioned several times in the Q & A. This is being looked at for introduction sometime in 2011. The size of the engine would be determined by taking into account power gains by recovering and reusing braking energy and the type of fuel being used. In this case, bio-fuels had been mentioned. The idea is to produce an engine size and formula that would yield similar levels of horsepower to the current generation. To this end, fuel flow restrictions have been mooted and rev limits in the 18000 - 19000 RPM range. Although no engine size had been finalized, Mosley did mention of "a 2 litre engine" giving "650 horsepower, but the other 150 horsepower comes from ... reusing the heat from the engines and turning it into propulsive energy."

In the short term, Max has spoken about the "2009 device." This is a device that recovers energy from braking and reuses it for acceleration. This is envisioned as a "very small, very light, very efficient" device that "would revolutionize the way hybrid cars are made." A device "cost efficient" enough which "the manufacturer can put on a road car." This has been mentioned in the past so no surprises here.

Massive research into aerodynamics will face a massive chop in this new future. This according to Mosley is "manifestly irrelevant to road cars" and "is a complete waste." Far better according to Max, to promote "things to do with chassis dynamics and the interactions between different systems on the car and the most efficient way of running the drivetrain." In effect, what seems to be the point here is to reduce aero dependency and recover resultant lost grip with mechanical means.

Goschel pointed out that the latest BMW X5 comes with "integrated chassis management", "combining active steering with electronic micro systems and anti-rollbars to a new functionality." And therefore, "electronics and software technology will play a major role in car technology in future." Doubtless to say that this is the direction that the FIA and GPMA are headed towards.

You would be forgiven to think that all this flies in the face of safety and cost cutting, an idea championed by Max repeatedly. Actually none of the ideas above are anything new of revolutionary. Turbochargers have been used once but was banned because of the astronomical power outputs and safety. Drivetrain developments like regenerative braking had been in development by McLaren in 1998 but was stopped on grounds of safety and cost. CVT transmission had been tested by Williams but was also banned. Active suspension as developed originally by Lotus and then Williams and McLaren went out the window as well. So did active four wheel steering. I read somewhere that way back in the eighties, turbo diesel had been suggested by none other than John Barnard (formerly of McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton).

All the technologies above had already been in development by the teams. Or more accurately the independents. All of them banned either on safety grounds or cost and because some of them took away from the skill of the drivers and therefore reduced the spectacle of "the show." It seems hypocritical to me that when it is now suggested by the manufacturers it is suddenly alright because now it is "done in a way that has an effect on our normal technology of our core business." On cost, Max Mosley said that "research on the energy recovery and regenerative braking is already happening in the car industry, so there will only be a marginal difference between that and what will be needed in F1. All in all you don't have to make enormous changes, there will be less expenditure and it will be industry relevant." Goschel added that "the main point is that this kind of research is not a waste. It is in our main research budget anyway."

I reiterate the point that some of these technologies were already under development by the teams. But it seems that now, the manufacturers want to bring them back in and claim all the credit for it. All the better for their marketing purposes I suppose.

But no matter. I'm all for technology. But up to a limit. We cannot forget that main component in any racing car. And that is the driver. The skill of the driver must be showcased for it is after it is meant to be sport. When Goschel talks about increasing electronics and software with new found functionality in chassis dynamics, I cannot help but feel that it will increasingly diminish the spectacle of that most wonderous form of traction control, the driver's hands and feet. Lets hope not.

As for aero, I'm actually one of these people who are absolutely fascinated by anything that flies. Or applies the same technology to keep cars on the ground. Max mentioned that aero development is irrelevant to road cars. Well Max, if it is so, you helped make it that way. Look at the current aero regulations. They are unbelievably restrictive. Such restrictions merely send the teams to look for ever marginal gains in aero efficiency. And also because of the way the rules are written, the aero on a modern Formula 1 car is absolutely bastardized. Given more leeway, thats not the best way to make an upside down aerofoil. Engineers are forced into such designs by the regulations. And any attempt to make a new step is banned. And also because of the current regulations, the cars are enormously sensitive to aero turbulence. But unfortunately there are no better ways to do it. What suffers is the entertainment factor.

All very well if they shift emphasis to chassis and mechanical grip. Hopefully, the racing will improve. But to claim that Formula 1 aero is irrelevant is deceitful since the FIA made it that way. Just as calling reuse and recovery systems "the future" is shifty for there's nothing really new about it.

I still stand by my original position made several months ago. And that is Formula 1 should be about the pinnacle of racing technology. Its concern should be the science of speed and the sport of driving. Road car, social and other such concerns merely corrupt that pursuit and really should be handled elsewhere. I am glad to find that some others do share this opinion.

Tomorrow is the 53rd edition of the Macau Grand Prix, and one of the highlights is the Formula 3 race. Look at the cars competing. Do you think that it makes any road car industry, social or environmental sense? Should it? I don't think so. And neither should things like Formula Ford/Renault/BMW or even that most pure of driving machines, the kart. They all exist for sport and nothing else. Formula 1 you see, is the final progression up the scale that contains these junior formulae as its base. A base of sporting machines that are irrelevant except for its sole purpose of competition. Formula 1 should hold true to these roots.

The test now is to see how exciting the racing becomes as a result of these new measures. After all, a racing driver will race with whatever car is given to him or her. The main worry is that some of these technologies will diminish the importance of driver skills but lets hope it doesn't come to that.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Latest News From The Frontlines

In the battle for the future of grand prix racing, peace seems such an overused word. Seen it too many times in the past so naturally, I'll take the latest peace declaration with a large grain of salt. Having come to terms with commercial arrangements, the GPMA have finally (or so it seems) kissed and made up with the FIA and Max Mosley. In a meeting in Munich which up until now had been kept under wraps, some significant details emerged.

Social relevance, green technologies, road car relevance were all hailed as the major objectives for the future. All very nice but significantly, the governance of the sport and decisions over the rules will be made by the FIA and the manufacturers, which indeed bypasses the teams. Of course, many teams now are owned by the manufacturers but this really puts folks like Frank Williams in a spot.

Of course they FIA and the manufacturers say they will make decisions in consultation with the teams. But then Max Mosley has rammed down things people's throats in the past in direct contradiction to clauses in the Concorde, so I doubt if teams like Williams will take it too kindly. And really, for a person who supposedly was championing the cause of the independent teams, this latest development seems like a big discrepancy. From this article in ITV-F1 :

"In future individual teams’ management will relinquish their involvement and instead be represented by the manufacturers themselves, who will discuss prospective rules with the FIA at main board level."

Though the teams may hate this but they brought it upon themselves by not uniting strongly against Bernie, Max and indeed, even the manufacturers. Though indeed many team bosses have already cashed out and made lots of money in the process. And it seems increasingly likely that Ron Dennis will be making even more money than all of them when he and Ojjeh finally sells out to Mercedes.

But there are some good points about this latest development. One of Max Mosley's plans was to see a return to the old fuel consumption formula of the eighties but with a significant twist. Consumption of fuel would be defined in terms of energy content rather than volume of a specific fuel type. Instead of limiting fuel to say 150 litres of pump petrol for the duration of a race, it would be defined as limited to say xxx Kilojoules of energy for the race. This is significant for it means that alternative fuels could be used.

Also, the engine type and configuration would be free. And this means the possibility of vastly different types of engines and of course technical innovation and most of all, variety. There would no longer be just V8s or V10s in the field. There could be a methane powered turbocharged V16 and it wouldn't matter. But of course, in focusing on energy consumption, it is the manufacturers who have the advantage. They have been researching these technologies for decades now. At the beginning, I foresee many technologies introduced will not be new ones but simply redeveloped and redeployed for racing purposes. And in the broader scheme of things, as marketing tools.

There are many factors involved with Cosworth's departure from grand prix racing but I wonder if this new future is not one of them. Though they have built alternative fuel powerplants in the shape of methanol Indy race engines, I wonder how their comparatively meager budget could cope with the full weight of different technologies from manufacturer labs, already in advanced state of development. The effort required by the likes of Cosworth to catch up would I think be too much for them.

Change can create new opportunities. There are literally dozens of small, highly innovative companies out there whose main purpose is to develop alternative powerplants. Perhaps from these companies will emerge the new Cosworths and Ilmors of the future. Personally I feel that they should simply specify a simple hydrogen internal combustion (IC) engine formula. It is far easier to adapt your road car to burn hydrogen than it is to say, methanol. In fact, BMW themselves have made significant research into this and if I'm not mistaken, some buses in Los Angeles already use hydrogen IC. Fuel cell technology is expensive so why not use a cheaper, proven technology instead? Hydrogen combustion is clean and the technology is already in use everyday by you and me. This would have been better for it meant that companies like Cosworth could still be relevant to grand prix racing.

So much for Cosworth but what of Ferrari? I mean, they are a manufacturer of road cars as well to be sure. But theirs are high performance road cars. I mean, I love Ferrari road cars (in stark contrast to the racing team) but try defining the social relevance of a Ferrari 599 GTB. Ferrari are in many ways are in the same boat as Cosworth. Though their business be highly profitable and thus affords them a larger R & D budget but how will they steal an edge over the manufacturers who, as I said, already have alternative technologies long in development. That will be interesting. And as far as governance in the sport is concerned, it will be interesting to see how they plan to get their way what with the GPMA scoring such a significant victory by being at the "board level" in future decision making.

It seems slightly sinister then that the sport will effectively become a manufacturer testing facility. What started as a championship to find the world's best driver and racing team have now been infused with new objectives of road, social and industry relevance. In the past, I have condemned this as an unnecessary corruption of what is racing's pinnacle. But I am in the minority I know. Predicting the future one way or another is often foolish, so I'll just hope that at least the (new) Establishment will form detailed regulations that bring about more spectator excitement, such as measures to improve overtaking.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Living Fast

Strange to hear drivers talk these days. Take Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. Fernando recently claimed that three world titles would be enough for him before retiring from the sport. And in this story on ITV-F1, Kimi says that his three year contract with Ferrari may be his last. One could contrast this with Senna and Schumacher. Both loved racing and in particular, winning. During their time in Formula 1, both frequently made statements that they would continue doing so until the day came when they were no longer quick enough. Who knows how long Senna would have lasted had he not had that fatal accident? And of course, Michael as everyone knows lasted a mammoth 15 full seasons in Formula 1.

One would think that Kimi at 27 and Fernando at 25 years of age, still have the best part of at least 8 - 10 years left in the sport. But it seems that it is not in their plans to remain that long. Although it must be said that at the end of Kimi's Ferrari contract, he would have competed in 9 full seasons. In Fernando's case and the way he is going right now, he should not have to wait that long for a third world title. Although if one remembers correctly, it took a while before Michael won his third. Say that Fernando does take at a least 3 seasons to win his next (assuming McLaren doesn't recover its form), he would have only done 8 seasons.

Perhaps its not just the age that matters. In 2009 Fernando and Kimi would be 28 and 30 years old respectively. Relative toddlers compared to Coulthard and de la Rosa today. I'm sure they would still have the speed and if we remember Michael, would still be at the top of their game. Perhaps the constant pressure to perform on and off the track are the major factors. Michael made his name and came to prominence at a time when commercial pressures were not quite what it is today. Kimi and Alonso on the other hand have had to deal with it throughout their careers.

One could argue that had Ferrari not enjoyed their superiority in the new millenium, Michael would probably have retired a lot earlier than he did. I don't believe him for one moment that he had Massa's career in mind when he took the decision to retire. I believe the 2005 season did have an effect on him. As Giorgio Ascanelli once said of Senna, a world champion doesn't fight for fourth place. And in 2006, I'm sure the effort it took to try and catch Alonso (which ended in failure) also must have weighed deeply in his mind. Never mind the Spaniard, there were days when even Filipe Massa could easily match and beat him. As was for Senna, I firmly believe that winning was Michael's narcotic. If the events of the past couple of years had happened sooner, I think 2003 or 2004 would have been his last year.

Michael had felt the pressure from younger rivals and I'm sure both Kimi and Fernando are aware of the new breed of drivers coming in. This year itself has seen Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica make an immediate impact. Next year, we'll probably have Lewis Hamilton and sooner or later Sebastien Vettel will surely replace Heidfeld just as Nelson Piquet Jr. seems destined to take a Renault seat once Enstone has had enough of Fisichella. All these new drivers are terribly quick and will exert even more pressure on both Kimi and Fernando. Sentiments? Bah. It all flies out the window these days (and in the pinnacle of sport, why shouldn't it?). I think Michael (but only through his speed and greatness) could command sentiment from the likes of Ferrari and he will be the last. With more young pups so eager to break in to the sport and prepared to do anything to please (and in the case of Hamilton, with the full support of the media), its only a matter of time before an increasingly critical eye is cast on the likes of Kimi and Fernando.

Hopefully, McLaren and Ferrari can both give proper machinery to Fernando and Kimi for it would be a shame to lose either of them to retirement so soon. If despite being in the position they are in, both are already thinking ahead to retirement, I wonder how a certain Jenson Button must feel? I'm quite certain with all the trouble he has caused with contractual obligations etc and with the relative lack of results, the pressure must mount on him as well.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sanctions and Licenses

Interesting story on caught my eye today. To summarize, the Toro Rosso drivers Vitantonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed have been prohibited from taking part in the forthcoming Supernationals X kart race in Las Vegas. The organisers of the race Superkarts USA have been advised by the FIA that both Liuzzi and Speed would stand to lose their superlicenses if they proceed with participation.

Wow. The similarities between the FIA and their worldwide affiliates, specifically their Malaysian ASN, are indeed striking. Allow me to elaborate further. You see, Superkarts USA are not affiliated with the FIA. This means that races organised by Superkarts USA are not sanctioned by the FIA. And the FIA it would seem frowns upon drivers competing in these non-sanctioned events. In this case, both Liuzzi and Speed who do hold FIA licenses have been told that their licenses would be docked if they did.

The question is, why should the FIA prohibit drivers from other motorsports competition? Even ones that do not fall under their jurisdiction. In Malaysia, we have had extensive experience of this type of phenomenon. The local ASN in Malaysia is the Automobile Association of Malaysia (AAM). Competitors (both the rich and well connected and the poor and anonymous), race organisers and though they would surely deny it, even the Sepang International Circuit (SIC) management are united in their hatred for the AAM. Just like its international parent, this is a very closed, autocratic and very domineering organisation run by the very egotistical. Curiously, their tagline is "Your No. 1 Motoring Friend in Malaysia." Uhuh.

But unlike the FIA, the AAM have been accused of doing very little to champion the cause of motorsports in the country. But if you run any motoring event, then they love to make it their business to take part in it, under the guise of safety (but in actual fact contributing very little to this). Oh and of course, not forgetting charging exorbitant sanction fees which they insist on doing whether you like it or not. Many a race organiser have felt their heavy handedness. And that ladies and gents, includes the SIC. Heh heh.

Even when a race organiser has obtained proper permits from local authorities and in some cases, even encouraged to do so by the local authorities, the AAM insist on stepping in. In some cases, they have even attempted to totally stop the event from taking place. AAM officials have been known to attend these events and attempted to lay down the law and in the most overbearing manner you could think of. I think that that is a little more than arrogant on their part. But thankfully, most events do manage to happen despite their best efforts to put an end to it.

On the flip side, drivers who do hold AAM (FIA) competition licenses are afraid of competing in these non-sanctioned events. The AAM, just like the FIA, have been known to issue threats to these drivers. Compete and you will stand to lose your licenses. And this happens to the dismay of many competitors. Racers being racers, any form of motorsport competition is good. Even drag and drift events. No harm in participating and its all good fun. The effect of these prohibitions are that most of these smaller events are missing the top drivers.

I say "smaller" because of the size and budgets of the organisers. But in actual fact, attendances at these local events far outstrip any AAM sanctioned race bar the Malaysian Grand Prix and the Cub Prix. Just check out the Saturday night drift events at the Elite Karting circuit and you'll know why. The MME organisers would kill for crowds like that.

The big question is why? Why should the FIA and its affiliates stop licensed competitors from competing in non-sanctioned events? Of course, they have the power to do so and its within their rights as license issuers. But is it fair? Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to their reasons. The official line from the AAM is on the grounds of safety. The AAM ensures the proper safety of competitors and spectators. Hmmm..... I should like to ask Eric Yeo (a local racer) whether he thought the Jugra event at Shah Alam was... "safe" what with that misplaced pole lying about on the circuit making a hole on his windscreen and poking right through the passenger side?

I should think the average drift or drag event is no more dangerous than say rallying, which is sanctioned. So why the big fuss? We could test it on the assumption of legal liability. The FIA and affiliates are recognised as the authorities on motorsports and motoring in general. One could, not unreasonably then, that legal indemnity and insurance is easier to obtain should a race be sanctioned by them. However, any event organiser worth his two cents would remember to paste disclaimers on tickets and signboards. And so far, no local race organiser I know of has failed to obtain insurance cover for their events, whether these be sanctioned or not. Especially since all organisers obtain permits from the police and local councils and have firemen and ambulances on standby.

Whilst insurance and indemnities do cover financial liability, there is also the question of possible criminal liability due to negligence. There really hasn't been a case as yet in Malaysia and none that I can think of world wide but to cover such cases, it is perhaps wiser for organisers to have their events sanctioned and then if anything went wrong, the FIA can and must step in for it would be their responsibility already. But surely an organisation such as Superkarts USA would already have thought about this. And surely any number of insurance companies who have provided cover for non-sanctioned events are also aware of these risks.

As for the driver's safety... well, motorsport in any form and in any event is inherently a dangerous activity. Any competitors knows this and deals with it appropriately. But really, even the London Marathon has been know to suffer fatalities.

At the end of the day, I know Max Mosley is incredibly obsessed with safety and that is a good thing. I'm not sure if the FIA affiliates are quite so passionate. To the cynics, affiliates such the AAM are only interested in the enormous sanctioning fees. You may ask, why not simply pay them? Well, with the prices they charge most organisers simply could not afford it, particularly since these organisers charge very little entrance fees. Such fees would then need to be covered by higher entrance charges that in the end keep the crowds away.

In the case of Superkarts USA, they did attempt to make their Las Vegas event sanctioned by the CIK but this, for whatever reason, simply did not happen. And as such the two Toro Rosso drivers have been forced to exclude themselves. But this is a pity for fans in the USA. And I'm sure Liuzzi and Speed would have welcomed the opportunity for a little bit of fun.