Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 4: Nürburgring 24 hours

Of the nine 24-hour races that my work for radiolemans.com enabled me to attend this year, the highlight is obviously the one that gives its name to the show, Le Mans itself. With its massive global audience and standing in the sporting calendar, it is the one race of which most people have heard, and it is the race that I look forward to the most each year.

Since re-vitalising this blog last month, I have looked in turn at the races organised by Creventic, SRO (in particular the Spa 24 hours) and VLN. However, I have made only fleeting reference to the ADAC 24 hours of the Nürburgring.

This year was my tenth at the Nürburgring 24 hours, and it is an important date in my diary. Partly, this has to do with the fact that it is the only truly stand-alone 24-hour race that I go to. All the others ‘belong’ to a championship, or a series in some shape or another, and I find this changes its complexion somewhat.

It has not always been thus, of course. Le Mans has often been a stand-alone race, but the current alliance between the ACO and FIA seems strong, so chances are that the Nürburgring will remain unique in its standing as a one-off race, at least for the foreseeable future.

Having written about the VLN series lately, there is much in common between that series and the N24 race, and the opportunity to drive on (or spectate at) the mighty Nordschleife is certainly a common thread. But the 24 hours raises the whole profile – you only need to be in the area during the time of the 24 hour race and you know something is up. It’s almost as if you can smell the 24-hour race in the air. (Actually that is probably more true than I realised as I wrote it).

What the Nürburgring 24 hour race has in common with the VLN series is its attainability. With such a large grid and four drivers in most cars, there are opportunities aplenty for drivers who have acquired their ‘Nordschleife permit’ to race in one of the world’s greatest races, alongside some of the world’s greatest drivers in some of the world’s greatest GT cars.

The Nürburgring 24 hours is a bit of a moveable feast. It nearly always happens across a bank holiday weekend, sometimes the Corpus Christi holiday and sometimes Ascension Day. Both of these fall on a Thursday, providing spectators an added incentive to spend anything up to a week in their tents, camper-vans and motorhomes, nestled among the woods of the Eifel mountains.

Back at my first N24 in 2008, the ADAC accepted entries from 230 cars, but safety concerns about speed differentials arose, leading to the elimination of the less-powerful touring cars for the 2009 race. Since then, entry numbers have gone down, although never lower than in 2015, when a mere 151 cars lined up on the grid, and an unpopular speed limit at various points of the track was imposed. The two-stage ‘Nordschleife permit’ may also be unpopular in some quarters, but was probably a necessary compromise.

Through all this, the race continues to deliver. In 2016, there was a right old dust-up on the final lap as Maro Engel (against Mercedes’ team orders, apparently) forced his Black Falcon-entered AMG GT3 ahead of the similar car from HTP, driven by Christian Hohenadel, as the two headed out onto the Nordschleife for the final time.

This year, the Eifel weather intervened with less than an hour of the race remaining, after the long-time leader, the Land Motorsport Audi, had fallen back with an electronic problem. Whoever it was in the team that made the final call to fit wet-weather tyres at the final stop was responsible, in the end, for the car’s victory, as others slithered off the track – again, all on the final lap of the race.

Although the racing these last two years has been worthy of a Hollywood drama, it is actually the atmosphere of event that makes it a highlight for me. Media parking is in a wooded copse just opposite the famous Dorint Hotel that overlooks the start-finish line. Once you’ve crossed the road and walked past the famous bronze statue of Fangio and his Maserati 250F celebrating his 1957 win, you then pass through the old paddock. For the duration of the weekend, this becomes a rather noisy and smelly ‘drift arena’, but nevertheless, echoes of the past can still be heard. The historic Fahrerlager was erected with the circuit in 1927, but restored in 2011 and is now a valuable part of the circuit’s heritage. It puts you in the mood as you pass under the track, past slogans commemorating various highlights from the circuit’s history, a wall containing the names of winners and a statue of Wolfgang von Trips in a small garden of remembrance, planted with trees in memorial to other personalities from the past.

Once in the modern-day paddock you enter a seething mass of people, awnings and transporters; hooting tyre trollies, beer-swilling locals and leggy ladies in a constant battle to get to somewhere else. It is easy to get swept along by the tide and impossible not to feel like you’re at some kind of sixties’ funfair.

The sense of chaos continues on the grid – up to three hours before the start, cars are pushed out onto the start-finish straight, and to mill about, as everyone else is doing, is a great way to prepare for the 24-hour marathon ahead, although quite why this might be the case, I can’t explain. Everyone is full of high hopes, agitated with nervous anxiety.

The build-up to Le Mans has become a well-choreographed TV bonanza these days, to my mind at the expense of the enthusiast. If you want to feel part of the event, I suggest you give the Nürburgring a try.

True, some of its sharper teeth have been pulled and I can only imagine that this trend will continue. So the sooner you experience it, the better. There is something very special about endurance racing, especially races over a 24 hour period. The fascination of observing machinery, drivers, engineers and spectators overcoming the fatigue that through-the-night racing offers is a lot of fun, and difficult to describe to those who haven’t experienced it.

Look in the eyes of those who have, though, and you see a connection, an understanding of a common interest. The good thing, is that whatever happens to the World Endurance Championship, there are still races offering all the elements – some would say more – albeit on a slightly less influential stage.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 3: VLN

It has been interesting – and fun – for me this year to be able to follow, in some detail, the goings-on in the VLN series of endurance races on Nürburgring’s Nordschleife. Just like Creventic’s 24h series that I wrote about recently, the VLN consists of a myriad of classes, with the fastest cars – and overall winners (usually) – being GT3 machinery, but with large fields made up of various other GT and Touring Cars, the speed differentials during races are significant.

The VLN is a funny series, which I have struggled to get my head around at times. The fact that radiolemans.com was asked to provide English language commentary for the live TV stream is an indication of its increased profile this year. But consider that the average entry for the nine rounds held this season has been over 150, and with at least four hundred drivers taking part in each race you can see that for those involved, it is a very big deal indeed.

The status that goes with the championship positions should not be overlooked either, although you may be forgiven for saying “who?” in response to a look at the leading championship contenders. Be well-assured that the efforts made to lift the various trophies in the VLN are serious indeed.

Prior to round 8, at the beginning of this month, the lead of the championship was held by Marcel Manheller, but following a fierce battle in the so-called “Barbarossapreis” (VLN-8) the lead for the V4 class changed on the final lap – possibly more than once – and he finished less than half-a-second ahead of the Pixum Adrenalin team car. Despite his maximum points haul of 9.72 points, however, Manheller still dropped from the lead of the championship to fifth in the standings as the drivers of the V5 class winners (for larger-engined “production” cars) Norbert Fischer, Christian Konnerth and Daniel Zils took over the championship lead (by 0.09 points) going into the final round.

This was due to the fact that drivers had to drop their two best scores, and meant that as the cars lined up for the final round last weekend, the championship favourite was Michael Schrey, who had driven all but one round alone in the Bonk Motorsport BMW M235i.

Because more points are available in classes with more starters, Schrey’s objective was to seal the championship by winning his class in the final round, regardless of the efforts in the other classes which had fewer starters.

But even that wasn’t simple, as after just two laps, Schrey brought the BMW into the pits, in order to switch to the TCR-class VW Golf of the Matilda Racing team, co-driven by Andreas Gülden and Benjamin Leuchter. To score points, Michael had to complete just one timed lap: which he did, and ended up winning the championship by a mere 0.2 points (67.47 vs 67.27). Schrey’s championship win was his second in two seasons: he won the 2016 title alongside Alex Mies.

As I said before, the names may not necessarily be familiar ones, but the intensity of competition is no less fierce for that. What I find truly staggering is that no less than 875 drivers’ names appear in the 2017 championship table!

VLN stands for “Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring”, which roughly translated means “Association of Organisers of Endurance Trophy Nürburgring”. The point is that each round of the championship is organised by a different club. In global terms, this is not really important, but it does mean that the administration of the series is easier – although a lot of responsibility inevitably falls on the VLN organisation itself, and its chief representative Karl Mauer. A great deal of the credit for the success of this year’s series lies with him.

All but one of the rounds take place over a four-hour race duration, the exception being the six-hour ADAC Ruhr-Pokal-Rennen in August. I have had the pleasure of covering five of the rounds this season, in addition to the six-hour “Qualification race” for the ADAC 24 hours, and what has most surprised me is how quickly the time passes, even though we have been watching the races on a TV monitor in London with a sometimes rather flaky link to the timing systems.

The races themselves are an eclectic mix of professional drivers and teams along with the VLN trophy hunters and the weekend warriors, all out on the Nordschleife together.

Another aspect – and a reason why these races are attracting more and more attention – is that you need to have raced on the Nordschleife to get the licence required to participate in the ADAC 24-hours of the Nürburgring: and there are a lot of drivers who want to have that particular box ticked on their CV, whether it be for a chance of outright victory, or just as a wide-eyed participant.

If you should happen to find yourself in that part of Germany when there is a race going on, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no admission charge to get into the circuit, except if you want to visit the paddock or the grandstands in the start/finish area. Even then, the charge is a “family-friendly” €15.

If the atmosphere is anything like it was twenty-five years ago when I spent a lot of my time there, then it is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon – especially if the weather is kind.

You might also get to see some of the ‘experimental’ cars that have graced the series this year: Mercedes AMG gave their GT4 car its competition debut in the VLN this year (running in the SPX class, as it was not properly homologated as a GT4). Then in the final two rounds, we saw Manthey Racing with their Porsche 911 GT3 (also running in the SPX, non-homologated class) with Fred Makowiecki and Lars Kern (in round 9) and Kevin Estre and Matteo Cairoli (in round 8) giving the eagle-eyed an opportunity to spy what Stuttgart might have on offer for its 2018 customers.

It is difficult to disentangle the VLN from the ADAC 24-hours of the Nürburgring, but my plan is to do exactly that and to reflect on that race in another post in a week or so.

But before closing this entry, I really want to mention Ben Lyons and his crew at Viken Motorsport, who wrote to me after VLN-4 when Jonny Palmer mentioned a “very-standard looking” BMW being passed by the leaders in the closing stages of that race.

Ben used social media to get in touch, and explain how he had been driving that BMW, and was inspired to enter the VLN following the coverage of endurance racing provided by radiolemans.com over the years. Their car is prepared in a tent in Scotland and brought down on a trailer for the three rounds in which Ben competed. He finished 413th in the championship table – nearer the top than the bottom! Check him out on facebook here

I have no doubt that Ben will be back. So will many others, although they will most likely take their inspiration from loftier ideals than radiolemans.com. But it is the series itself that is the greatest inspiration, and the opportunity it gives to compete on one of the greatest circuits in the world with some of the best drivers in GT racing.

In 2018, the reins of responsibility for the VLN will pass from Karl Mauer to Ralph-Gerald Schlüter and Michael Bork. It is to be hoped that they will continue the tradition and that the VLN continues to thrive.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 2: Spa

I wrote last week at length about Crevenitc’s 24H Series, which accounted for five of the 24-hour events that I attended this year.

I also visited Spa-Francorchamps in July for the ‘Total’ Spa 24-hours, the highlight event of the Blancpain GT Series, but also part of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. The Spa race is also a round of the Blancpain-backed Intercontinental GT Challenge, which also comprises the Bathurst 12 hours, the California 8 hours (held last weekend at Laguna Seca) and the Sepang 12 hours (in December). Creventic is not alone in having multiple and complex championship structures!

Despite the role it plays in various championships, series or cups, for me it is a bit of a stand-alone event, as this year I haven’t visited any of the other Blancpain races.

I always enjoy Spa, it is one of those places from which history oozes all over the place. It is similar to the Nürburgring in that respect, and the two tracks share more than a geographical proximity. Both have been neutered from their original ferocity, but while the Nürburgring is perhaps a little more hardcore (and entirely suitable for its devotees), without any snobbishness intended, I find the towns and villages of the Ardennes surrounding the Spa circuit a touch more cultured and refined.

Just as Creventic achieves a particular ambience at its events, so too there is a ‘Blancpain’ feel to the Spa 24, which is definitely different. The Blancpain series is managed by SRO – Stephane Ratel Organisation – and there is no doubt that the personality of the man at the helm has a role to play. There are some things that SRO treats very differently compared to Creventic – internet connections and timing system data are specific examples – my impression is that the two organisations march to the beat of very different tunes. I know which I prefer, but variety, they say, is the spice of life so in that sense I embrace both.

Back to the race though. The 2017 Spa 24 hours had 63 starters, all but two of which were GT3 cars and as a result, speed differentials were simply not on the same scale as in Creventic races, or the races at the Nürburgring. On the other hand, the parity of competition is part of the appeal of Spa - it was mighty impressive to watch the field thunder through Eau Rouge – or anywhere else around the circuit, come to that.

The Blancpain series comes in for a fair amount of criticism because of the way that the sporting regulations (allegedly) prevent innovative use of strategy. The maximum stint length (65 minutes), the ‘pit stop delta’ (meaning that at Spa this year, the length of pit stops was not allowed to be between 1m 33s and 2m 13s) and the ‘technical pit stop’ (a minimum five-minute stop between the 12th and 15th hour of the race), all reduce the options for team managers.

There are perfectly good reasons for these ideas, but like a lot of ideas with the best intentions, unintended consequences often result. I spoke to one team manager who felt that he was being penalised because the ‘short’ pit stop time did not allow the team to get a full 65-minutes-worth of fuel into the car and thus prevented the team from being able to double-stint the tyres. The fact that his car could easily double-stint a set of tyres (he said), while others were struggling to get a set of Pirellis to last a single stint was an advantage that the organisers were quite clearly trying to neutralise.

To be fair, he had a point, but the whole basis of the Blancpain series is to level the playing field and prevent anyone having an advantage. It is a strategy that has, over the years, ensured the series’ success, at least in terms of numbers of entrants.

It does mean that the effort of individual drivers comes to the forefront: a driver can end up being the thing that makes the difference. No doubt the driving technique required for a GT3 car, with its traction control and ABS, is somewhat specialised, and might also be compromised by the need to have a car that suits the needs of each of the drivers on the crew, but the guy (or girl) at the wheel has to deliver, lap after lap, throughout their stint.

For Stéphane Ratel, it is the cars that are the stars, but for the teams, it is all about the synergy within the team. The mechanics, engineers and drivers all have their part to play, and the differentials are so small that tiny things can have big impacts. Those who excel in SRO racing tend not to be the star names from the WEC or elsewhere, but their expertise is nevertheless sought after, and in my view their efforts deserve to be recognised.

The fastest lap of the Spa 24 hours was set by Markus Winkelhock in the winning Saintéloc Audi, but in terms of average lap times, it was Kevin Estre (Bernhard Porsche 911) and Maxime Soulet (M-Sport Bentley) who were the quickest. Most astonishing of all though, was the endurance shown by Raffaele Marciello in the Akka Mercedes AMG, who was at the wheel for a total driving time of not far short of 14 hours.

What the Blancpain series may lack in terms of class differentials and household names, it more than makes up for in the breadth of different manufacturers involved. Ratel likes to call them ‘brands’, and the off-track involvement of Audi, Mercedes, Nissan, etc. is a key aspect of the marketing of many of the major marques involved. Ratel’s passion has always been for road-going supercars, and he certainly has a knack for attracting paying players to his series.

In return, there is live television coverage, some great circuits and plenty of attractions for spectators who attend the events, whether they arrive in a Ferrari or a Ford.

Historically, the Spa 24 hours was a touring car event, rather than one for GT cars. However, since it has been in its current format, it has blossomed and now occupies an important position in the international racing calendar. Stéphane Ratel surely understands that Spa is the premier event in his portfolio; but he also runs SRO as a business, and will be ruthless if economics demanded. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the event continues to succeed, despite those who don’t hold it in such high esteem.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 1: Creventic

Is it just me, or has there been even more of a proliferation of endurance racing this year? Certainly, in terms of the races that I have been asked to work for on radiolemans.com, there has been more to do this year than ever before.

Hence I find I have been to nine 24-hour races this year, five of which have been organised by Creventic – and if you haven’t heard of Creventic, and yet are reading this, I can only suggest you visit their website at www.24hseries.com and come back when you’ve finished!

I don’t think that there can be much doubt that this year Creventic over-stretched itself rather. After an enormously successful 2016 season, the Dutch team decided to create a separate series of races for Touring Car Endurance cars and also launch a prototype series in an attempt to provide long-distance races for owners of LMP2, LMP3 and CN cars who didn’t fancy the higher profile (and shorter distance) of the European Le Mans series races.

Although there seemed to be sufficient interest before the season started, with 17 cars on the grid for the trial 3-hour races at the Dubai Autodrome in January, the Proto series fell somewhat flat, forcing the cancellation of races up to Spa-Francorchamps last weekend. Even then, a paltry seven cars sat on the grid, two of which were Porsche 911s, and aside from Jordan Sanders crashing his LNT Ginetta beyond repair at Raidillon on the first lap of the two scheduled races, there was little in the way of action for ten hours.

There is optimistic talk of twenty cars for 2018 and an eleven-round championship (at five events) but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Clearly, the jury is still out, but Creventic has a habit of getting things right, if not at the first time of asking, so maybe they’ll be able to turn this one around too.

The Touring Car Endurance Series fared rather better, although the mood in the early rounds was soured by some scrapping over Balance of Performance limits and class assignments. Grid sizes were variable, from a disappointing dozen at Misano to a healthy forty at Barcelona and a whopping 48 at the final round at Spa.

To be fair to Creventic, the dissatisfied competitors were listened to, the disaffected were appeased and the issues were sorted out – typical, I have to say, of the Creventic approach.

Despite the series being advertised as being for Touring Cars, GT4 cars were welcomed into the SP3 class, but were handicapped by a ‘minimum reference lap time’. In general, the balance was not too bad, and most of the races were close contests between the TCR-class cars and the theoretically faster SP3-GT4 cars. Only at Barcelona, (ironic rather, in Seat’s back yard), were the TCR’s beaten, however, with the win being taken by Nil Monserrat’s locally-entered Ginetta G55 GT4.

However, the best of the Creventic events this year have been the races for GT3 cars – or A6, as the Creventic class structure calls them. The 2017 season took place over six rounds, three being of 12-hour duration, and three over a full 24 hours. The 12-hour races were all run as ‘split’ races, with an overnight intervention, in which cars were held in parc fermé. A similar split timetable will be applied for the non-championship 24-hour race at COTA next month, with the first part on Saturday running for 14 hours, and the final ten hours running on the Sunday.

Although the COTA race is not part of the International Endurance Series, it does count for the Championship of the Continents, in which teams score the total of their results from Dubai, COTA, and their best of the European rounds.

Over the season, Herberth Motorsport’s Porsche 911 has taken three outright victories; Scuderia Praha with their Ferrari 488 took two wins, and there was one win for the Car Collection Audi R8 LMS. But the A6 teams’ championship went to the Hofor-Racing Mercedes, which ran in the A6-Am class and benefited from consistent points-scoring finishes throughout the season.

Scuderia Praha will not be at COTA, instead Ferrari’s colours will be carried by Risi Competizione, but Herberth, Car Collection and Hofor-Racing are all entered. Entries from Black Falcon (Mercedes AMG), Manthey (Porsche) and Grasser (Lamborghini) show how seriously this end-of-season jamboree is being taken at the sharp end of the grid.

Creventic’s races are streamed on the www.24hseries.com web site, with the camerawork being performed by 0221 Media Group from Cologne, Germany. Originally more used to televising music concerts, the company has quickly learned about motor-racing and a friendlier and more fun-loving bunch of people you could not wish to meet.

Creventic has just announced its 2018 calendar, which is ambitious, but has sensibly bitten off far less for next year. While there will continue to be two separate championships for GT cars and Touring cars, they will generally be run concurrently at the same races. The notable exceptions are Silverstone in March (brrr…) where there will be separate races: 12 hours for the GT’s and 24 for the touring cars; and Navarra (Spain) which is scheduled (provisionally) as a GT-only race.

Dubai and COTA will top and tail the season with 24h races in January and November, respectively. Not much time for a winter break then!

The other thing to mention about the Creventic races is their timekeeping partner, TimeService.nl. With the exception of the Barcelona 24 hours, which is the preserve of local firm Al Kamel, TimeService looks after all of the 24HSeries races. Run by Harald Roesle, and ably assisted by Rob Oude Luttikhuis and Floortje Snoek, they are extremely helpful and provide a great service. Their approach has always been rather different to that of most other timekeeping teams, largely because of their roots as a software firm, and their presentation of live timing on the internet is unsurpassed.

I expect most of my readers are already familiar with their website http://raceresults.nu, but if not, you can find all the results of past races there, plus a link to the live timing website for each event (normally http://livetiming.getraceresults.com/24hseries).

Hopefully, 2018 will be another successful year for Creventic and the 24h-series. Importantly, there will be changes to the regulations which include the removal of the dreaded ‘Minimum Reference Lap Time’ in all the classes, enabling a return to ‘pure racing’.

It should be good.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Starting Again: the New World Endurance Championship

I knew a lot of time had passed since I last managed to write anything here, but I was somewhat shocked to find that more than six months has slipped by since my last post. It was never my intention to make this a regular affair, but still, it feels rather awkward, sitting here writing after so long away from the blog.

It is not as if there has been a shortage of topics. I keep a little notebook of ideas that might make suitable subjects, and looking back, I find various entries. Some are typically Truswellian analyses of races; some are reflections on things I’ve been up to (and there have been many), still others are more whimsical thoughts on cultural and historical aspects of the sport – but in all cases, I try to keep to my Golden Rule of not writing anything that you can find elsewhere. Although I try to keep to facts and reportage, rather than fiction or scurrilous rumour and speculation, I do find that a lot of the things I want to comment on are covered perfectly well elsewhere on the Internet leaving little space to address my particular niche. There may be no shortage of burning issues, but I wonder why you might want to read my take on such things rather than anyone else’s?

Having said all that, the World Endurance Championship seems to have gone through such an upheaval in the last six months that maybe readers might want to comment on a few of my own thoughts.

The announcement by Porsche that the factory LMP1 team will be withdrawing at the end of the 2017 season forced the hand of the WEC. Action was needed – although there is a good argument that action was necessary regardless of the decisions in the boardrooms of Stuttgart. On the other hand, in the early 1990’s, when the FIA brought World Championship-level sportscar racing to its knees by forcing the use of 3.5 litre normally-aspirated engines and shortening race distances to be more TV-friendly, we were left with no World Championship for 1993 and a rather ad hoc look to the Le Mans 24-hour centrepiece.

It may have seemed like the end of the world at the time, but by the end of the decade not only had we FIA-sanctioned Championships for both Sportscars and GTs, but we had a Le Mans 24-hour race with entries from seven different manufacturers, contributing 20 out of the 48 starters in 1999.

It was certainly a difficult transition, but the point is that nature took its course, (or perhaps more accurately some visionary entrepreneurs had the space to innovate) and without FIA intervention or direction, the sport found its feet and headed into the new millennium.

We are not talking ancient history here – the fact is that the foundations for today’s endurance racing formulae (prototypes and GT cars) were laid only twenty years ago – but the culture of the sport (indeed everything generally) has changed since then. Laissez-faire as a doctrine may have had its origins in the late 18th century, but doing nothing is simply not an option in today’s world. Gérard Neveu (CEO of the FIA WEC*) felt that he had to take some decisions and act. Having made the announcements in Mexico about the direction of the Championship, there may be some ‘clarifications’, but there is no going back.

Unfortunately for him, and for Pierre Fillon (President of the ACO*), the future of the World Endurance Championship will be directed as much by the actions of the major motor manufacturers and the teams that enter the cars as it will by their decision-making. Whether the 2018-2019 ‘super-season’ will be regarded as a success or not will depend largely on who takes part, and how good the races are.

Readers of this blog will surely be sufficiently knowledgeable to understand Toyota’s dilemma. Effectively, the Japanese manufacturer needs to decide now whether to participate, at enormous cost, with a strong chance of being handicapped out of contention, or to walk away, from both the Le Mans 24 hours and the World Endurance Championship. I suspect a decision has already been taken in Japan, if not yet made public.

Personally, I don’t really mind. In my opinion, the success of the 2018-2019 season will depend on the quality and parity of privateers participating in the premier class. The possibility of a win at Le Mans, never mind a unique World Championship, must be tempting.

As far as the GT classes are concerned, there has been less decisiveness from the organising bodies. Or at least, with six manufacturers likely to be represented next year, the obvious tactic is to ensure stability. For the immediate future, I wouldn’t argue with that. Yet in the longer term, I would like to see the fastest of the GT cars being able to compete for overall victories. Consider that the current pace of GTE-Pro cars could have enabled them to win Le Mans in the mid-1990’s. I was there, and I wasn’t thinking how slowly the prototypes were going.

There are ways and means of controlling pace: larger tanks, faster refuelling, different tyre allowances; it need not always depend on changing technical regulations, although it is clear that the technical ability exists in the FIA and ACO to manage that.

My biggest misgiving however, is the proposal that Le Mans should be the final round of future World Endurance Championships. I also see this as being the most difficult decision to change, at least from the political point of view.

The problem with Le Mans being the decisive round in the championship is that decisions could be made, either at a corporate level or even within a multi-car team, which could – no, will – impact the outright result of the world’s biggest endurance race. It happened in 1966, but every other year in the history of the race (except, I suppose in the first few years in the 1920’s when drivers had an eye on the biennial and triennial cups), the race has been as pure a race, as free from commercial or political intervention, as any sporting event there is.

Porsche has demonstrated this year its willingness to manipulate races in the WEC to ensure it secures drivers’ as well as manufacturers’ championships. What if such ‘team orders’ were put into effect at Le Mans? Not a thought that appeals to my particular taste, I must admit.

Or suppose that Toyota, having won the 24 hours in 2018, gets to the 2019 race needing only to finish fifth (say) to secure the World Endurance Championship’s inaugural ‘Superseason’. I can imagine Pascal Vasselon (not Hugues de Chaunac, admittedly) telling his drivers to slow down, preserve the machinery, and not even attempt to win, that finishing the race at all costs was more important than winning. Would anyone else find that distasteful?


*Footnote: I mention Neveu’s and Fillon’s specific roles since I think (some might disagree) that the distinction between the ACO and the WEC (which belongs to the FIA) is important. The ACO was founded in 1906 and has organised the Le Mans 24 hours since its inception, whereas the WEC (as an organisation) was established by the FIA in 2012.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

John Surtees

I was saddened to hear of John Surtees’ death at the end of last week.

For one thing, I didn’t know he was ill – indeed the last I had heard of him was that he was still working hard ‘at the coal-face’ of Buckmore Park, which has undergone something of a face-lift since his taking over of it a few years ago. It has been a face-lift that I been able to watch at first hand as my son and I regularly visit the place. He had been due to attend their annual awards dinner last year, but had to cancel at the last minute, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed – not least because Robin had been there to pick up an award, and even if it was no more than a name to him, at least to have met the man would have given him something to tell his children about.

There are a couple of other reasons why ‘Big John’ was particularly relevant to me, in the way that he seemed to be an oft-recurring theme in my experiences of motor sport.

It is odd the way that these things stick in the mind, but he was the first racing driver that I ever saw. I remember that day at Brands Hatch in 1967, at the Race of Champions: his Honda (number 7) was the first car out onto the track at the beginning of the day, even though Surtees qualified second-fastest and therefore would start the first Heat from the middle of the front row. In those days there was no left-hander at Brands Hatch named after him – what we now call Surtees, was then South Bank Bend, taking the cars out of the Brands ‘bowl’ up the hill and out into the country.

As only road cars had been making relatively slow laps of the circuit at that point (I later realised it was the marshals heading to their posts), the speed of the Formula 1 cars heading out of paddock and up the hill to Druid’s seemed to my young eyes as truly breakneck. Forever more, Surtees was the one, despite Dan Gurney’s win and Jack Brabham’s fastest lap in the final, who took my racing virginity, if you’ll pardon the indelicacy of the phrase.

Fourteen years later – in 1981 – he was present again, at another ‘first’ for me, again at Brands Hatch. It was the ‘John Surtees Days’, a two-day event, the first of which was for motor-bikes and the second for cars – and my first ever visit to a commentary box. The whole event was the brainchild of John Webb, and featured a ‘parade of champions’ in which Surtees made only his second public appearance on a motorcycle (inevitably, it was an MV Agusta) since his retirement from the two-wheeled sport in 1961.

Since then, he has been an ever-present force on the motor-racing scene; giving interviews and speaking often on a wide variety of topics. Always lucid, sometimes controversial, and usually right, in his frankly-expressed views.

The last time I saw John Surtees was at the Motor Sport ‘Hall of Fame’ awards last year, where he was inducting Valentino Rossi into the exclusive club of which he himself became a member in 2012. The fact that The Henry Surtees’ Foundation will be the official charity partner for this year will be especially poignant. I was indeed impressed with the grace with which John handled the whole business last year. Those who were there will know what I mean.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Fifty years...

In just over a week, I will reach another of those significant birthdays. I have written before that I don’t make a particularly big thing about celebrating such things, but this birthday will also (almost) coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of my first visit to a motor race, at Brands Hatch, which you can read about here, if you are so inclined.

It was also at Brands Hatch, as a result of the encouragement of Brian Jones, that I first became involved in public address commentary, and the place has always been close to my heart. Chas Parker, in his excellent book on the history of Brands Hatch, describes it as Britain’s best-loved motor-racing circuit and he does have a point.

For those wanting all the details, then I can do no more than recommend Chas’s book, which is still available and not overly expensive. However, as I have not found the following piece posted anywhere else on the internet – I’m not saying it’s not out there, just that I couldn’t find it – I thought I would share it here.

It is taken from the official programme of the RAC British Grand Prix, 1966, and is written by Duncan Measor*, Motor Sport Correspondent of the Manchester Evening News.

FROM GRASS TRACK TO GRAND PRIX
The most powerful pair of legs in Kent swung over a farm fence and picked a careful path through the dense crop of mushrooms. It was the moment that began all that we see here today, for the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested youth who stopped where the meadowland dipped into a natural amphitheatre was walking into history – just as he has slipped quietly out of it.

From that memorable moment the seed was planted which was to grow into Brands Hatch, the great circuit which is known throughout the world wherever enthusiasts talk about racing machines. The Army had stamped and manoeuvred its noisy, grass-crushing way around those fields. Now it had gone the white Brands Hatch farmhouse stood silent again in the undulating meadowland… until Ron Argent, a 9s-a-week engineering apprentice, and his fellow cyclists stopped that day in 1926 and saw the potentiality of this land beside the main road from London to Maidstone. With the farmer’s permission, they started to use the Brands Hatch ‘bowl’ for cycle racing and pacemaking. The idea caught on rapidly and soon cyclists from 50 miles around were making it their Sunday Mecca. An afternoon of furious cycling would end with them sitting on the grass with their families and having tea served by an old couple who turned an Army hut into a café.

Jimmy Newson, a venerable pioneer of Woolwich Cycling Club, recalled the first experimental speed event at Brands Hatch – a four-mile race between cyclists and cross-country runners. The runners won. Peter Barnett, of Belvedere, Kent, another club member, told me: “The ‘Hatch’ was covered in mole-hills and many hours were spent chopping off the tops. The world champion, Jackie Hoobin, of Australia, raced there. We used two-thirds of the present straight, Paddock Bend, down the hill and returned parallel to the straight.”

No sound of engines broke the silence of Brands in those days but already its history of breeding champions had started. Ron Argent, now a wealthy businessman with a hotel in Wateringbury and an engineering factory and seven cycle and motorcycle shops in the Maidstone area, became the first and most famous of the cycling aces. From 1933 to 1939 he was the unbeatable cycling champion of Kent, winning 70 trophies and many of them at Brands Hatch.

By 1928, the motorcycle boys were interested and when the cyclists wheeled their machines away for tea the bowl became a grass-track. “I remember thinking”, Ron told me, “that as we first looked around the finest mushroom crop in the area, there was something about the shape and situation of this land which made it a natural race track. Several of us had the feeling that what we were starting was going to keep on growing – but we never envisaged that it would become so fantastically successful.”

With the dark clouds of 1939 back came the Army and out went the regular residents – but the motorcycles roared back in force as soon as the war ended and there was petrol to be saved for sport.

By now the land that had been pock-marked with rabbit warrens, violated by Army vehicles and developed eczema through its dry underskin of chalk, was still further scarred by bomb craters. But there was no denying the keenness of the helmeted devotees who incorporated the craters in their track and turned it into the finest and most famous grass circuit in Britain, so much so that in 1947 it became organised as a commercial proposition when Brands Hatch Stadium (later Circuit) Ltd., began to run it.

But on a bitterly cold day early in 1949 a new sound was heard – the deafening hammer of 500cc engines in chunky little racing cars. Out on to the rutted motorcycle track went a straggling line of enthusiasts with a great idea. Among them was the fiery scramble ace Ken Carter, now a Sidcup estate agent; a youthful John Cooper (in a Cooper, of course); Ian Smith, now chairman of the British Racing and Sports Car Club which, as the 500 Club, made Brands Hatch its home circuit and blasted its name into the headlines; and Ken Gregory, a mainstay of the Club in its early years.

It was Ken who later worked ceaselessly with other officials of the Club and with Joe Francis, then managing director of Brands Hatch, to arrange for the first car race there. And he is always generous in his praise of Stan Coldham, the driver who first tipped off the club that the circuit they were needing was in striking distance of London.

But what of that first car trial? “We all thought it could be used for pure track racing”, said Ian Smith. The historic decision was taken and that year £14,000 was spent on laying a one-mile tarmacadam track – but the first intention, before the 500 boys pricked up their ears, was that it should be used primarily for motorcycles.

On April 16, 1950, the half-litre bangers rolled out on to the new track – and 10,000 people turned up to see the circuit’s first and thrilling car race. Ken Carter, Don Parker and Bill Whitehouse won races and a happy John Cooper, with his family’s cars among the winners, recalls: “It was really a homely club affair”. “It was just a big garden party compared with today’s highly-organised meetings”, said Ian Smith. “If a car broke down the driver would chat over the fence until the race ended.”

The greatest racing-driver nursery in the world had been born and at the head of the 500cc ‘babes’ who were to learn their racing in elbow-to-elbow scraps round the exacting Brands ‘kidney’ was to be Stirling Moss. Next came a move which made the circuit unique among British tracks – and all because housing developers took over Northolt pony-trotting course.

Representatives of Brands Hatch and the BRSCC called at the defunct track, bought a stand “at a bargain figure” and had it taken down with every girder numbered and then reassembled to give Brands Hatch the first Continental-style permanent grandstand in the country. A year later every marshal was linked by telephone to race control and the finest track hospital in Britain was fitted out, even to an operating theatre.

The rest is modern history known to all knowledgeable fans… in the winter of 1959/60 the circuit was extended to 2.65 miles and, a year later, the new owners, Grovewood Securities Ltd. began to pour in money for facilities to increase the comfort and safety for spectators and drivers.

All the years of work and foresight paid off in 1964, when the highest accolade was awarded – the staging of the British and European Grand Prix. A huge crowd saw one of the most thrilling and close-fought classic races of all time with Jim Clark’s Lotus just pipping Graham Hill’s BRM by less than three seconds after 212 miles.

Today sees history being written once more in the shattering roar of massed 3-litre cars handled by the world’s finest drivers. It is the first British Grand Prix to be held under the new formula which has doubled the capacity of the engines.

And as the lions scarl down in the colourful arena and the twentieth-century gladiators prepare to do battle here this afternoon, it is worth giving perhaps more than a passing thought to how it all began… back to the day in 1926 when a bunch of ruddy-cheeked cyclists, on their way home after a 150-mile ‘spin’, stopped to contemplate a field whose only claim to fame had been its mushrooms.

Barely nine months after this graceful prose appeared in print, my parents took me to Brands for my birthday treat, and I attach below a photo from our family archive. For good measure, I have included another, again from the Race of Champions, and then one that I found on the internet and simply could not resist! Thank you for your indulgence.


*Measor died in 2009, at the age of 84.
1967 Race of Champions - my first race!

Jackie Stewart wins in 1970
Much later - the other side of the fence!