Ciao Marco, grazie Loris, wow Casey

After a torrid two weeks for the sport Moto GP has found that the remedy is noise, action and some truly memorable racing. The entire Valencia race meeting that closes the season was run in dedication to Marco Simoncelli. All the bikes from the three classes were led by Kevin Schwantz around the track for a parade lap in Super Sic’s honour before an enormous banner was unfurled and the traditional Valencian fireworks combined with the revving engines to make two minutes of ‘casino’ which sure beats a minute of silence. The Simoncelli family suggested this gleefully raucous ceremony, they knew better than anybody that somebody as exciting as Marco wouldn’t really enjoy everybody being miserable, there has been enough of that.

So that was the official tribute, but with every rider carrying a number 58 on their bike, leathers or helmet there was an atmosphere of appreciation for Marco’s talents and personality all through the paddock. The Gresini pit featured a shrine to their fallen star, the number 58 Honda was placed in its garage exactly as it should have been. Marco’s helmet sat proudly atop its steed, the scene looked like a ghostship where everything is present as it should be except for the people. A lovely touch.

However, there is no better way to celebrate Simoncelli’s short but brilliant career than a win for his team, and that’s exactly what Gresini’s Moto2 arm delivered. Michele Pirro took his first ever victory in the class and looked stunned at this magical feat. The Gresini bikes lined up one-two on the grid but Yuki Takahashi took a terrifying tumble out of the lead to deny them a lockout at the front, luckily the Japanese rider suffered a hit big enough to knock the memories of the race clean out of his head but he will be fine. It could have been worse and Gresini will be relieved. He wasn’t the only faller, even Bradl had a vicious crash on a day when spits of rain made the Spanish track even more tricky than it usually is.

On Saturday there was another nice moment that sums up the good feeling that there usually is in a racing paddock. After Stefan Bradl took the championship his father never quite managed to tame, the young German had secured the crown by default when the white-hot Marc Marquez had to give best to his injuries for the second race running and decided not to compete in qualifying. Bradl headed over to the Repsol pit to commiserate with Marc and his team, a really welcome sporting gesture that will have pleased Marquez as much as it was possible to, I’m sure. Marquez will get another shot at the Moto2 crown as he is racing there again in 2012 before stepping up to Moto GP the year after where he will undoubtedly become the next great Spanish hero.

Before the Moto2 encounter there was emotion of a different kind as the 125cc World Championship bid farewell after over 60 years. Although the bikes will live on in national championships and some will form the basis for the new Moto3 bikes, this will be much-missed formula. In 2011 alone we have seen dead-heats, passing, crashing and a championship battle that went down to the wire as Terol took the final crown while his rival Zarco fell early in the running. Maverick Vinales took the win ahead of Terol to go down in the record books as the final 125cc winner, the youngster recording his fourth win and installing himself as a favourite for the new class before the bikes have even turned a wheel.

Moto GP has not had its most glorious year, but the sparse grid that already lacked local hero Jorge Lorenzo put on quite the show for the final race for the 800cc bikes that haven’t proved to be a hit. The field was decimated further as Bautista and no less than three Ducatis including the works bikes of Rossi and Hayden were down at the first corner. With Casey Stoner out front it was up to Dovizioso, Pedrosa and Spies to entertain us in the early laps. They kept riding hard in the damp conditions with passes being made on nearly every lap, this 190mph dance continuing right until the chequered flag.

Ben Spies came on stronger as the rain fell heavier, exploring the limits of his Yamaha’s brakes. All the riders resisted taking to their wet bikes, staying out there with Spies looking like the quickest and bravest as he took Dovizioso with six laps to go before closing rapidly on Stoner’s Honda that had enjoyed a ten second advantage at one point. With three laps to go the Australian champion was under real pressure and ran wide as he encountered the wet stuff which handed Spies what looked set to be his second Moto GP win. However it was not over. With Stoner’s balls-to-the-wall riding style and the big speed of his Honda he powered back past Spies on the run to the flag to claim the win by a scant 15 thousandths of a second. A more thrilling remedy for sadness you could not ask for.

Meanwhile we said goodbye to Loris Capirossi, the most experienced Moto GP rider of them all having rode in 40% of all World Championship Grand Prix race meetings. The old man’s bike sported the number 58 of his fallen countryman Marco Simoncelli, Loris hustling it through to ninth to score decent points, which is a much better retirement gift than a gold clock. As the paddock said “Grazie Loris” and “Ciao Marco” the cold Valencia circuit became a very warm place indeed. Such is the power of good people and great racing.

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Don’t have at ’em boys

I’m a big fan of Kyle Busch, although sadly after Friday night even I have to admit that he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. To this Limey he is up there with Lewis Hamilton as the most exciting racer at work in the world today. Every lap Kyle drives is a thrill-ride, there is nothing more entertaining than seeing the number 18 being hustled round by the 26 year old; bouncing off walls and pulling off last gasp wins are his trademarks. Sadly he is also known for crashing, moaning and getting into off-track punch-ups. With nicknames like Wild Thing and Rowdy you know what you are getting, but on Friday night he became stock car racing’s public enemy number one with a shocking display of petulance that would be bad at any time let alone after two weeks of analysing the dangers inherent in racing.

Early on during the Camping World Truck Series race at Texas the arch-villain Kyle Busch was roughed up by a clumsy Ron Hornaday, the veteran meant nothing by the rub and by Nascar standards it was barely even a tickle. In the ensuing caution period Kyle did the unthinkable, pushing himself and Hornaday into the wall with frightening speed. It was enough to damage not just the truck but also the engine in Hornaday’s machine. Worse than that, it took lost Ron a chance at the title. Both Hornaday and his team owner Kevin Harvick had strong words for Busch and rightly so, but instead it was Nascar officials that took it upon themselves to sort this one out. They duly parked Busch for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races, effectively ending Kyle’s quest for the premier title.

This isn’t quite an unprecedented punishment, but it is certainly an unusual one. Nascar has employed a ‘have at ’em’ rule that goes beyond ‘rubbin’ is racing’ and opens up the possibility of on-track revenge being exacted. Leaving the officiating of driving standards up to adrenaline-pumped young men and women is a disaster for safety but a hit for at least some of Nascar’s many fans. The flaws of one driver hunting down another at 190mph does not need explaining, except to the people who run the sport, or so it seems.

I personally believe that it’s the ‘have at ’em’ rule that should be parked along with Kyle Busch. The list of Nascar racers who have taken revenge using their cars or their fists is a long one, the list of those punished for such actions is somewhat shorter. At Talledega in 2009 Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski came together in the most almighty shunt that scattered debris into the crowd. Was this a warning that even fans were in being placed in danger by over-aggressive driving? Not to Nascar it seems, they proceeded to let Carl and Brad carry a grudge onto the racetrack on more than one occasions since then, including this massive airbourne wreck last year. A totally unacceptable state of affairs.

If we hadn’t have had such a horrid few weeks for motorsport I suspect Kyle’s stupidity wouldn’t have been punished by anything other than Ron Hornaday’s fists. However much I enjoy seeing the Wild Thing at work, I’m glad Nascar has taken a stand. I just hope that some sensible rules are drawn up that outlaws racing revenge all year round. If that doesn’t happen then we are just counting down the days until somebody does something that they truly regret. In such a litigious country I would picture that Nascar could find itself in a massive legal case if a non-accidental wreck results in casualties, which despite SAFER walls and HANS devices it could very well do. Now it is up to Nascar to make bans such as Kyle’s a standard punishment for all drivers, not just the ones playing the role of ‘baddie’ and nor should it just be a card that is played in sensitive times. No matter how large or small the wreck is, whether it is behind the pace car or under green, this cannot go on – it may come to threaten the entire sport.

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Marco Simoncelli – a star falls

Marco Simoncelli Silverstone 2010

Marco's story was just beginning, now it's over. (Silverstone)

Marco Simoncelli, the most exciting talent of his generation and the heir apparent to Rossi’s crown as Italy’s favourite  son, has passed away after a crash in the Malaysian Moto GP. Another Sunday, another tragedy;  I didn’t think there could be any more tears left to shed. 

With a riding style as distinctive as his hairstyle, Marco was a hit with fans all over the globe. Riding the Gresini Honda he had shown potential in spades, already reaching the top of the pile in qualifying earlier this season and having achieved his best ever finish only last week at Phillip Island where he followed Casey Stoner over the line to take second place. With Honda very keen to nurture the 2008 250cc World Champion there seemed to be a long and successful career ahead of Marco but destiny had other plans.

We are all unique, although some of us are just that little bit more so than others. Marco Simoncelli was his own man despite the obvious parallels that could be drawn with Valentino Rossi. Blessed with good looks, humour, charm and an ability to bully a motorcycle into going faster than it wanted to, Marco’s life may have been a short one but it was one hell of a ride. After a successful junior career that netted a world title and many wins Marco spent the last two years shaking up the establishment at the top level of bike racing. He appeared to be on the verge of racking up his first Moto GP victories as he edged his way further up the field and started to tame his wild streak. This should have been his time.

The loss of the 24 year old Italian will hit the Moto GP paddock hard, one cannot begin to fathom how Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi feel today, no matter how unwitting their role in the accident may have been. Watching Rossi, my all-time sporting hero, in such a state of despair was almost as heart-wrenching as the awful accident itself. He and Marco were peas-in-a-pod, the two were friends with a lot of common ground between them. Although few could ever really rival Rossi as an ambassador of the sport, it was hard not to believe that in Simoncelli we had another Italian who could play the role of both the king and the jester.

Marco’s potential seemed limitless, he could have been the shining star of the show over the coming years. He routinely rattled his rivals with an edgy style that put down a marker post that made it clear he was not going to be overawed by the champions around him. This confidence and charisma would be nothing without the speed to back it all up, something Simoncelli had in spades. Here was a Moto GP champion in the making if ever we saw one.

The world has been denied seeing Marco blossom into an iconic superstar of sport, his Moto GP podiums this year should have been the beginning of the story rather than its final chapter. Only a week ago he appeared on the verge of going from good to great after his best ever result in Moto GP. We have been denied seeing this most exciting of racers entertain us by the cruelest twist of fate. Now only seven days on from this great moment all is lost and another cherished motorsport champion has been taken from us. The titles that surely would have been his will now be fought over by others, although Marco Simoncelli will always be in the thoughts of his friends, rivals and fans.

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Forgotten success

Several motorsport titles were decided on Sunday

Reflecting on 2011 - titles were sadly overshadowed on Sunday. (Paz Chauhan)

The motorsport world was busy handing out trophies last Sunday before a lovely day of racing was cruelly ruined by the terrible events in Las Vegas. While I can’t quite bring myself to deliver a full review of each it is worth noting the titles won and lost over a packed yet bleak weekend for the sport.

Formula One saw another Sebastian Vettel victory at the somewhat sterile environment of Yeongam in South Korea. More importantly but no less inevitably Red Bull wrapped up the Constructors Championship with Mark Webber finishing third after a thrilling duel with Lewis Hamilton who came home second after starting on pole for the first time this year, a great effort from the 2008 champion.

Unfortunately Moto GP was a little disappointing for all but the Aussies as Casey Stoner romped to a home win at Phillip Island and clinched the final 800cc title in the process. Good on Casey and Honda who have been the class of the field in 2011, but the edge was taken off the race by the non-starts for Yamaha’s Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo, the latter’s hopes of defending his title were left in tatters after a very nasty finger injury on race morning.

Back home at Silverstone the BTCC boys had a refreshingly respectful end to the season despite heading into the final triple-header of the year with five still in title contention. Matt Neal’s win in race one set up an all-Honda duel between himself and Gordon Shedden as Plato and Jackson suffered punctures while Nash just didn’t quite have the ultimate pace although that didn’t stop him taking the indie trophy in his dated Vauxhall Vectra. Shedden seized the initiative with a win in the second race but it was Matt Neal who kept it cool to take his third title in the final race of the day as Tom Chilton won the reverse grid race.

Honda have fought against a competitive field, a certain moaning rival and even against themselves to take the crown with a rich variety of different machinery chasing them. I just wish the final rounds were held at Brands, Silverstone is too smooth and fast to lend itself to truly thrilling touring car racing in the modern era.

Then there is the crown that is destined to be forgotten; Dario Franchitti’s Indycar title. It is a trophy he will barely be able to look at, champagne will be toasted to the memory of a fallen comrade rather than sprayed in celebration. He is the Indy driver du jour, but this isn’t the moment to dwell on that. It was already a rough year for Indycar even before the horror of Sunday, let’s hope for a brighter 2012 for the fastest and friendliest racing series of them all.

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This time was different

Dan Wheldon at Goodwood 2011

Close to home - racing touches many of us. (toomuchracing.com)

It is around 48 hours after the tragedy of the Las Vegas 300 and I’m going to share a few of my own thoughts along with links to some lovely tributes and images of Dan Wheldon.

I’ll start by applauding the power of the internet. I’ve been watching racing my whole life so inevitably I’ve seen some terrible accidents. My parents were long ago bitten by the same bug so back in the days when we lived together we could talk things out when a bad accident happened.

We were eating dinner when Senna’s death was confirmed on the news. We sat on our sofa and spotted the giant Stars and Stripes being lowered as the cars continued to race at Fontana in 1999. We were actually there at Daytona in 2001. This time around was different though.

In the online age the word community is shifting its meaning. No longer simply a description of people who physically live in close proximity with one another, instead a community can be groups of thousands whose only common denominator is a shared passion and access to the web. For us that passion is racing, just as it was for Dan.

As the tears started to clear I came to realise that this little box of wires and silicon was connecting me to the most intimate and intense statements from others who shared my love. Sometimes they vocalised what I couldn’t, sometimes they offered memories as a comfort. Others shared news, nothing but the facts mind you, there was no tittle-tattle in my timeline; I discovered that those I follow on twitter are a good bunch. In the thousands of messages that expressed shock, sadness and affection I never saw a single unfounded rumour or tasteless statement. Not one.

It was a dignified collective response to surreal events that surprised even somebody like myself who has witnessed thousands upon thousands of races across almost all disciplines. To my eyes it was the single most violent accident I had seen; the sight of multiple cars flying through the air like darts disturbed me in an instant, my much-better half rushing to comfort me within seconds as I was already shook up by what I’d seen. As she left for bed I was alone, save for a snoring dog, in a dark room. A problem shared is a problem halved, not that this is really my problem, but like many of you I invest a lot of passion into motorsport and feel a part of its community even though I was sat thousands of miles away vainly hoping that a man I’ve only seen in the flesh a few times would pull through. The sense of loss was tangible even at this great distance, the look on Dario and Tony’s faces as they realised their friend’s fate was too much to bear.

It was the online race fans that offered me nearly as much comfort and insight as my own family had during similar Sundays past. I’m grateful. These are people who know what May the first means or why a racing driver is honoured to carry the number 27. These fans fall silent on lap three at Daytona, they trek into the woods surrounding Hockenheim to show their respect. They don’t just know who is on the grid, they know who is missing from it too.

Then came the mass media reaction. While the specialist press told the story with class and precision the wider world of journalism showed questionable taste, little knowledge and the kind of amateur-hour scrutiny that makes me doubt just how much they know about their staples of politics, war and crime. I won’t name and shame as this isn’t the time, but suffice to say that I now know which papers to read and channels to watch. There were notable  exceptions, but back in his home country the lack of understanding about Dan Wheldon and his chosen profession was profound. A shame, if not a surprise.

Amongst the many tributes shared over these dark days were a few that moved me to tears and even the odd one that briefly brought back a smile, here are a few for you to read if you haven’t done so already. The obvious ones are from Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller, two very personal and touching accounts. Roy Hobbson offers an ‘inside-out’ perspective from a man who finds himself in the paddock but for whom it took a tragedy to enlighten him about something that previously left him puzzled – the good-nature that I’m proud to say is the bedrock of our sport.

Meesh Beer was on fine form, Joe Saward showed the restraint that the tabloids couldn’t and all the recent posts on popoffvalve.com are worth reading. The picture above is courtesy of toomuchracing.com where you will also find another considered and reflective post. Even if the photo was taken at Goodwood, it neatly illustrates how close the Indycar paddock will let you get to its stars, something that amplifies the occasional losses it suffers.

There are many more of course, feel free to share yours or your favourites with me. Other heart-warming and heartbreaking images and insight have also emerged since Sunday. As predicted by Robin Miller, Dan Wheldon had signed a contract to return to the team that brought him the most success. Greg Moore’s father Ric was at Las Vegas for what has been said to be his first trip to a race since his son was lost. And the most poignant of all, Dan and his wife had matching tattoos done just before the fateful race.

Another lasting tribute that was called for by James Hinchcliffe and thousands more will be that the 2012 Dallara Indycar will carry Dan Wheldon’s name. This stronger, safer and more advanced machine will carry the hopes and dreams of those who wish to follow in Dan’s footsteps over the coming years. It was Wheldon who led its development from the driver’s seat, what a shame that he will never see it race.

Of all the lovely images shared over the past couple of days it is this one that moved me the most. Probably the two greatest motivations in Dan Wheldon’s cruelly short life are there to see.

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Goodbye Dan Wheldon

The terrible news of Dan Wheldon’s passing has barely had time to sink in, maybe it never will. Like so many racing drivers he died doing what he loved, what he was born to do. Forever he will be frozen in time as a winner and as a star of his chosen profession.

This awful day will also be viewed as a final tragic chapter in true open-wheel oval racing, an era that met its end not with triumph but with heartbreaking tragedy and poignant tribute. After 100 years we only needed to see out two more hours of racing before the introduction of the new, safer Indycar that sees semi-enclosed wheels designed to prevent this kind of accident ever happening again. That Dan Wheldon was the test pilot for this new breed of oval racer is beyond ironic, it is simply tragic in the truest sense of the word.

I often get tearful over this sport of ours. I shed tears of joy at the British Superbike finale last week, sharing in the euphoria and excitement of a man and a team I’ve never known. Motorsport has that power, it is loaded with tales and characters that are so appealing. Few sports can match the drama inherent within this distant descendant of the chariots of Rome.

If the victories can be so sweet you can almost taste the champagne from the stands or on your sofa, motorsport can also be so bitter it makes you question this most burning of passions. There is no other entertainment on Earth that serves up such life-affirming experiences, nor is there one that has the potential to show tragedy unfolding before your eyes. Even the news will shy away from showing death in the raw, often coldly simplifying the darker side of life. If you watch racing long enough you will experience a day like this one; the Sunday that should make your week breaks it instead.

I first saw Dan racing in Formula Ford and Vauxhall Junior back in the 1990s when his contemporaries included Jenson Button and Mark Webber. I was impressed by him, but no more so than any other young-gun of the time. Quite unlike his peers Wheldon eschewed Europe to take a totally different approach to his career, something that endeared him to me. Other drivers who landed in Indycars were rebuilding their careers after failing in Formula One whereas Dan moved Stateside at an early age and started at the bottom of the US racing ladder with the aim of seeing the winner’s circle at the Indy 500.

Now it is relatively common to see foreign hopefuls lining up against homegrown talent in the States, back in 1999 it was a move as brave as any Dan had pulled on the racetrack. “It was very difficult to start with,” he told The Independent in 2007. “Formula One is everything when you’re brought up in Europe. It’s what you aspire to. All I knew about Indycars was Nigel Mansell, who came out here when he was forced to leave Williams. But when you come here and your heart’s still set on Formula One, it detracts from your programme. It was affecting my performance and there came a point where the team owner sat me down and said ‘you have to commit, otherwise you will lose what you have here’. So I am committed, I turned down an opportunity at the end of my last contract [to join BMW-Sauber]. I enjoy the racing scene out here.”

It seems trite to bring up the bravery needed to do what the Indycar drivers do, but it cannot be underestimated. Pulling 230 miles per hour inches from other cars and in-between unyielding concrete walls takes a unique talent that is seldom appreciated in Dan Wheldon’s home country. Britain largely ignored his rise from Formula Ford rookie through to Indy 500 and Indycar champion. Only in Europe would we ask an Indianapolis winner if they regretted their career choices as if they have failed. Like Dario Franchitti, the winner of 2011’s now hollow championship, Dan appreciated the history of a branch of the sport as old as any other motorised contest. “It would be great to win Monaco, or the Daytona 500 in a Nascar, but the heritage, even of Monaco, is nothing like the Indy 500.”

Since the heady days of 2005 with Andretti Green Racing when Dan took the Indy 500 and the championship, he went on to compete with the crack Ganassi squad, coming within a point of another championship, before finding himself at Panther Racing where he failed to win in 2009 and 2010. This slight slump left Wheldon without a ride for this year, a shocking state of affairs. He headed into a one-off appearance at the 2011 Indy 500 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports as an unlikely winner, a man with a point to prove.

Dan’s seat at Panther had been taken by the hotly-tipped young American JR Hildebrand. In the closing stages of the 500 miles Hildebrand found himself leading the race only to lose control on the final corner, his car sliding towards the finish line on two wheels. Through the wreckage came the man he replaced to sweep to one of the great Indy wins. Right there Dan Wheldon’s standing went up, his career lurching from the brink of ignominy to the edge of something new and exciting. Fortunes can turn so fast in this business.

Fast forward from the spring to the autumn and Dan Wheldon was suddenly a man in demand. After endearing himself to the fans with his excellent commentary during the races he wasn’t competing in and buoyed by his second child, he had never seemed more content and happy. The Las Vegas 300 was to be only his third race of the year, one where he was being unashamedly billed as a star attraction. He alone was deemed eligible for a $5 million bonus if he was to win the race, a gamble fit for Vegas. He had been leading development on the forthcoming new generation Dallara Indycar and as such was seen as a key asset to whomever he would drive for in 2012. Sadly this new era for Dan Wheldon will forever be a ‘what-if?’ question to be filed alongside ‘what if Greg Moore had driven for Penske?’ and other such unanswerable conundrums imposed on us by fate.

Alongside Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon will be remembered as the master of a turbulent era of Indycars. It seemed certain he would also play a key role in the sport’s reinvention in 2012 too. Sadly it is a safer new era that he will never see. We hope that the car he helped develop and the events that took his life will at least conspire to become a ‘Senna moment’ for Indycar racing that will see more heroes step uninjured from shattered racing machines in the future. That is the legacy the sport now owes him.

I’ll leave the final word to the US commentary team that did such a sterling job of keeping perspective in the midst of a disaster.  American sports have a sense of theatre that stands above other so-called events, which undoubtedly formed part of the appeal which drew Dan Wheldon away from the scientific world of European racing to the glitz of the Indy 500. Broadcaster Jack Arute greeted him after his first Indianapolis win with the words, “Mr Wheldon, welcome to immortality.”

That is the perception of an Indy 500 winner; the pages of history will carry their names forever, their likeness standing proud on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside the Unsers and Andretti, Foyt and Fittipaldi, Clark and Hill.

There were  further profound words in the video above, this time about Dan rather than addressed to him, uttered in mourning rather than celebration, but they are no less powerful. The hastily arranged parade of cars was truly heartbreaking, a simple and appropriate way for Indycar to pay their respects. Please watch the video above, it is as much a tribute to the spirit and unity of all motorsports as it is a tribute to a man. “Goodbye Dan Wheldon.”

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Tommy Hill’s lap of his life

Tommy Hill wins BSB Showdown for Swan Yamaha

Ups and downs - BSB champ Tommy Hill has seen it all. (Motorsport Vision)

Epic is an over-used word these days, for Tommy Hill it is nowhere near enough to describe the day that will come to define his life. While F1 crowned its champion with four races to spare the British Superbike title was settled in somewhat more dramatic fashion. After 26 races the championship came down to a frantic last gasp duel at Brands Hatch between local hero Tommy Hill and American superstar John Hopkins. The points were so tight that whomever reached the flag ahead of the other would take the season. Appropriately they found themselves together on track battling for second place, the stopwatch telling us they were a scant six thousandths of a second apart with Hill being the man in front. Watch that magical lap here.

Many fans have a soft-spot for the mercurial John Hopkins, but even his staunchest supporter can’t help but applaud and savour Tommy Hill’s title. With little money behind him Tommy took the Virgin Mobile Cup in 2003 to propel himself into the British Superbike series until 2007. It was a time when he showed flashes of extreme speed over a single lap but he never had the machinery or the maturity to keep the fast laps coming over a race distance.

During 2006 Hill made appearances in World Superbike which included a shock pole position as a wildcard at Silverstone. He also made a few starts in World Supersport in 2007 and signed for Hannspree Altea Honda in what should have been the deal that propelled him onto the world stage. Instead he endured two bone-shattering accidents that meant his big chance passed Tommy by as he spent more time in hospitals than on the track. During his early off-road career he also suffered life-threatening injuries for which he is still treated to this day; all motorcycle racers have painful stories to tell but few are as wince-inducing as Tommy Hill’s.

It was during this appalling year that Tommy lost one of his friends, the World Supersport young-gun Craig Jones. Tommy was by his bedside as his pal lost the battle against injuries sustained in a crash while battling for the lead at Brands Hatch in almost the exact same spot where Hill was to seal the title last Sunday. While stood on this stretch of tarmac he tearfully dedicated his success to his late friend.

Lap 20 of the 26th race of a thrilling British Superbike season will go down as one of the single greatest laps of any race anywhere. Tommy found himself ahead of Hopkins by less than a bike-length as they started it, they came round to complete the lap and the season even closer. They passed each other six times on that epic tour, the destiny of the title swinging with each move. Sporting drama gets no higher. The ensuing photo-finish had the crowd on its feet, the commentators screaming and the Swan Yamaha team crying.

Despite the stakes being sky-high this was a battle for second with the race win going to Shaky Byrne on his HM Plant Honda. It was bittersweet for Byrne, the British Superbike’s play-off style Showdown denied him the crown – under a more conventional points system he would have taken the title by a handful of points from Hill and Hopkins. This is the second year of the Showdown in BSB and so far it has been a success. 2010 was the first year it was used and it helped Byrne’s teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari to his third title to become the most successful BSB rider of all time. This year was a totally different story for Kiyo who was a distant and inconsistent sixth in the points and was sacked as soon as the team returned to base this week.

Until Sunday I wasn’t a big fan of the play-off system used in BSB or Nascar. With Jimmie Johnson mastering the last few races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup he has made Nascar title-deciders somewhat predictable by winning the previous five titles. Shortly after the BSB Showdown thrilled us Jimmie Johnson took the win on the Kansas oval to temper my new-found enthusiasm for the practice of leveling the top contenders points tallies late in the season to ensure a tight finish. But if Nascar comes down to a last-lap shoot-out of the kind we saw at Brands then maybe I’ll be a convert to this contrived method of spicing up the show.

For now let us enjoy the thrill the Showdown has brought us in 2011. British Superbikes are astonishingly competitive, the envy of the world. With the spiraling budgets of the World Superbike teams it is Britain that strikes the best balance between high-level racing and something that young talent can realistically aspire to. Tommy Hill is a shining example of what kind of racer can be nurtured in such a demanding but accessible arena, a place that allows a kid from Kent to take on a Moto GP superstar in a formula that tests even the best. Expect Tommy to finally get the full-time ride he deserves on the world scene, although it will be hard to top last Sunday no matter what successes lay ahead in his life.

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Making history – Vettel style

Sebastian Vettel 2011 champion

Double digits - Vettel joins the greats and rewrites the records. (Infiniti)

There can be no more fitting place for a Grand Prix coronation than Suzuka. Yesterday Sebastian Vettel became the 11th driver to be crowned World Champion at the supremely challenging Japanese venue by taking much more than the single point he needed to do the job. His third place sealed the title and made the Red Bull star the youngest ever back-to-back champion in Formula One, booking himself a seat amongst the greats. Throw out your history books, Sebastian Vettel is rewriting them.

There can be little doubt that the Red Bull racer has driven a near-flawless season, I can barely recall any significant errors with the one exception of losing the Canadian Grand Prix to Jenson Button on the final lap. Not bad for the ‘crash kid’ as Martin Whitmarsh of Mclaren dubbed him little more than a year ago. So he has added consistency to formidable speed, a sobering prospect for anybody with designs on a Formula One title over the coming decade. Not only is he eradicating errors Vettel has also pulled off a few daring overtakes, something he was less adept at in 2010. It is fair to say that the guy has taken the step from good to great as he strides to become the benchmark athlete of F1 for years to come.

Of course the title was as good as settled before the weekend begun with Jenson Button needing to win the final five races with Vettel out of the top ten, an impossible task despite the Briton being on the form of his life. Button did everything right, winning a tense race in front of the adoring Japanese fans with Ferrari’s Alonso a surprise second and Vettel taking plenty of points to seal the deal with a third place. This prompted Seb to do that most un-Formula One trick of celebrating with a couple of donuts on his slow-down lap while an overjoyed Button stood atop his car and waved to the Suzuka faithful who mean so much to him.

Both Jenson and Sebastian are as amiable and jolly as top-line drivers get but the start of the race saw a glimpse of title-tension as the Red Bull swept across from pole to ruthlessly cut off the fast starting Button on the run to turn one. This isn’t unprecedented in modern Formula One, although the fact that the two cars overlapped as Vettel ushered Button onto the grass did at least warrant an investigation from the stewards who concluded that it was a fair move. This view wasn’t shared by the English driver who had a quiet word with the world champion before they climbed to the podium.

Behind them was Mark Webber who was hampered by a damaged wing, a legacy of a glancing touch against Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes who scored more solid points in sixth. An already glum Lewis Hamilton suffered a puncture and yet another collision with Felipe Massa but soldiered on to finish fifth with the Brazilian down in seventh. Sergio Perez who battled hard with his fellow midfield runners and with his own health after a nasty fever threatened to ruin his race. Like his rookie rival Paul Di Resta he was looking and sounding rough but the natural painkiller of speed helped the Mexican to score more points in eighth, another sparkling showing. Petrov came home ninth and Rosberg rose from 23rd on the grid to tenth to edge out the frisky Force Indias and Kamui Kobayashi who couldn’t capitalise on his seventh place starting position after a bad getaway.

As in China this year there was only one retirement; a Torro Rosso that shed a wheel. At Shanghai it was Alguersuari and by a bizarre coincidence it was his teammate Buemi this time around – both dropped out of on lap 11 to really add to the symmetry. One safety car punctuated the race to pick up the pieces of Massa’s and Webber’s wings at mid-distance, a sensible move. Aside from that it was another mesmerising display from the class of 2011 who are proving to be one of the finest fields ever, their collective ability to finish races is unprecedented.

None of the new breed epitomise the phrase ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ better than Vettel; third represented one of only two times that he hasn’t appeared on the first or second step of the podium this year. Despite having Adrian Newey in his corner the German richly deserves this second season of success. Mark Webber is no fool but he has been soundly beaten by the boy wonder, a sure sign that there is a lot more than a quick car behind Vettel’s success. At 24 years and 98 days old he becomes the sport’s youngest double world champion. Let’s put those numbers into sharp perspective; Vettel’s childhood hero Michael Schumacher had only taken one of his 91 victories by that age…

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The Singapore Flyer

Bruno Senna Singapore Grand Prix 2011

Formula One cars shine under the Singapore lights. (G.W. Wang)

The Singapore Grand Prix is the video game made real – and for Sebastian Vettel’s rivals his ninth win of the season means it is game over for their championship chances. Although Red Bull Racing are clearly in possession of the fastest machine on the Grand Prix grid, the very young double world champion-to-be deserves high praise for shading perhaps the most talented grid of drivers we have ever known. Despite flashes of supreme speed, it seems that after retaining top spot at the start he was cruising around Marina Bay whilst leading every lap.

That doesn’t mean Seb didn’t have competition; second-placed Jenson Button is on the form of his life in 2011 and Singapore was no different. It was a precise and determined drive that saw the Mclaren man tantalisingly reeling in the runaway Red Bull during the last 15 laps. If I was sat on the pitwall instead of my sofa I would have been sorely tempted to skip that final stop and take a chance on Button’s famed ability to keep a set of tyres together. It’s win or bust time with Vettel now only needing one solitary point to earn his second crown in Japan. I may not be party to the reams of information flowing through the pitlane, but I can’t help but wonder if the tyres were really degrading badly or whether drivers going off line were fooled into believing they had lost all grip. The marbles were plentiful and it was often after being passed that drivers started visibly sliding around. Pirelli insisted that the tyres could run for up to 45 laps – that’s well over an hour’s running. Still, what do I know?

Paul Di Resta certainly made the most of his rubber, running one less set of tyres than the five cars ahead of him. His sixth place was the most convincing performance of his fledgling Grand Prix career despite missing most of Friday practice, this time through mechanical woes rather than reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg getting the oh-so-valuable seat-time. This ability to jump into a car and perform in no-time at all marks the young Scot out as well-endowed in the talent department and it seems he is learning to keep his cool during races. There must be a few people in the works Mercedes squad who wish that Michael Schumacher would retire a second time to give Di Resta or The Hulk a go in a Silver Arrow.

Red Bull’s Mark Webber again had some great dices with Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver missing out on the podium and the championship after looking rapid and more than a touch edgy on Friday. As ever Webber started badly while Alonso shot off the blocks brilliantly which set up a nice squabble between the two which lasted most of the evening. Webber twice found unusual spots to get past the Spaniard, including a cracking dive under the Ferrari approaching the vicious turn 10 kerbs on lap 34. It’s easier to be brave when there is trust between drivers, these two have put on quite a show between each other on a few occasions this year.

If Webber and Alonso showed how to overtake, once again it was down to Lewis Hamilton to show us how not to. Clipping Felipe Massa’s rear was clumsy but
ultimately it is just the price that is occasionally paid for being the most exciting racer of his generation. It was a very minor discretion, although clearly not if you are Felipe Massa who suffered a puncture and ranted about Lewis’ on-track conduct after both qualifying and the race. You can’t blame the Brazilian for being frustrated but Lewis nails far more moves than he fluffs so the criticism won’t be taken too seriously in his corner. Indeed, Hamilton fought back to finish in fifth despite taking five trips through the pitlane including a penalty for ruining Massa’s race.

As ever the Singapore Grand Prix was punctuated by the safety car, this time for a frightening incident involving Michael Schumacher who was running quick times but his Mercedes tendency to eat tyres left him desperately dicing for the minor points. After a squabble between Rosberg and Perez ahead of him the seven-time champ misjudged his move on the rookie Mexican and Schumi was sent skywards. He came within a few feet of the fence but luckily he stepped from his shortened Mercedes despite a very hard landing, let’s hope his back isn’t too sore tonight.

It may not have been a classic race by the lofty standards of 2011 but a longer and more arduous test doesn’t exist on the F1 world tour these days, nor is there one with quite such a spectacle for TV. The unique look of Marina Bay was the glittering, flickering, pulsing, neon cherry on top of Formula One’s cake. Vettel didn’t quite seal the title, but after his first lights-to-flag victory of the year you can be sure he won’t miss the match-point at Suzuka, a track that should suit him perfectly.

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Formula One in the wild

It is easy to forget just how impressive a Formula One car can be. Seeing the thoroughbred machines around a demanding section of circuit such as the slalom of Silverstone’s Becketts or the big dipper at Eau Rouge is one thing but taking them completely away from their comfort zone is the only way to truly appreciate how viciously fast and edgy a Grand Prix steed can be. The video above features David Coulthard taking a 2009 -vintage Red Bull around the ranches and the streets of Texas before heading to the forthcoming Circuit of the Americas of Texas, the pompously-titled track that will herald the comeback of Formula One to the USA. It currently only exists as a life-size outline in the dirt, who needs to see another F1 car on tarmac anyway? With all the Tilke-designed tracks dominating the Formula One decade we have become numb to the appeal of wide-expanses of flat grey roads, this is something a touch more exhilarating. The glorious slow motion shots convey the energy expended by a racing car even when the driver is being told to reign in the horses and temper the urge to tread the outer-limits of physics in the pursuit of speed.

OK, so driving on dirt, ice or on a beach is only done in an F1 car for show rather than sport, but there is the occasional circuit that takes Formula One into the unknown and gives us a glimpse of their fury, none more so than this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix. The track around Marina Bay is the video game made real, the kind of venue that F1’s futurist ethos and extreme excess deserves.

With the demise of true road racing the street circuit has been elevated to the ultimate challenge for man and machine. Walls reach out and touch the fleet cars, the usually unmoved suspension bucks on the drain covers that we barely notice in our daily existence; it is the morning commute on fast forward. Nelson Piquet once likened driving at Monaco to riding a bicycle around your living room. That must have been muttered by the Brazilian after a dry race, throw in some rain and it becomes even dafter than that. If the weather forecasts are to be believed then the Marina Bay track could become more trying due to the seasonal downpours in that part of the world. Greasy, bumpy city streets lined with solid walls are tough enough in the wet but Singapore’s joker is the fact it is run well into the night under powerful artificial illumination that threatens to dazzle the drivers as it reflects off standing water. The floodlights could very well live up to their name.

There are few scenarios short of Red Bull’s antics in Texas that will turn the F1 car into as much of a fish out of water as what awaits them this Sunday. Even without the added complication of rain the DRS system and Pirelli’s adventurous tyre compounds will provide extra excitement in a race that scarcely needs more livening up unlike the other modern cookie-cutter tracks.

Although Red Bull are due to wrap up the titles sooner or later, Sebastian Vettel is likely going to have to wait to be crowned for a second time. If Vettel wins then Alonso and the Mclarens will need to be on the podium with him to keep their slim hopes alive. There is a great chance of this; Fernando has been the driver to beat here with while Lewis Hamilton is the ultimate street-brawler who exhibited admirable restraint last time out at Monza when faced with Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes which failed to show up on the radar of race control. Whatever the result Singapore has fast become one of the truly great Grand Prix hosts, if nothing else it will be great to see the grid battling for glory in as unique a setting as any. There won’t be any cowboys or lassos, but if anything I think it will be more of a spectacle.

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