Category Archives: Indycars

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. (

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 are worth reading. The picture above is courtesy of 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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Zanardi – no looking back

Alex Zanardi, Williams 1999

Zanardi - 10 years on we look back, but he only goes forward. (Marco Castelli)

Today marks ten years since Alex Zanardi had his life changing accident at the Lausitzring in Germany. In the blink of an eye, one of his finest drives turned to disaster as he exited the pits leading with an unlucky 13 laps left to run. The Reynard Honda Champ Car that had been so kind to him in seasons past, snapped sideways and was collected at nearly 200mph by Alex Tagliani. The ensuing collision cost Zanardi his legs, but it could so easily have taken his life too. Already a hero to many, his fightback to fitness and on to yet more race victories turned him into a legend.

As a teenager in the 1980s Alex was once a very real threat to Michael Schumacher in the karting arena. From there, he built a solid reputation in the junior formulae, eventually making his F1 debut shortly after Schumacher in the same machine as the German – the gloriously green Jordan 191. His raw speed in 1991 was unquestioned and his technical feedback was appreciated; the lack of sponsorship and a spate of damaged cars were not so welcome, so Eddie Jordan’s option on the Italian was not taken up. For 1992, a test role at Benetton beckoned, along with a handful of Grand Prix drives for Minardi. Neither were to amount to much. Schumacher had been impressed by his Italian contemporary during their time at Benetton, once saying that, “you’re an ugly bastard but you sure went fast” after Zanardi bettered the illustrious German’s times.

It was Team Lotus that finally picked up Zanardi’s talents full-time for 1993. Sadly, they were already long past their best, leading Alex looking for speed in the car that was never their to begin with. At Imola he went one step further than even Gilles Villeneuve went; he crashed and then attempted to continue with not only a wheel missing, his car was also engulfed in flames. At this point in his career, Zanardi was on the wrong side of the thin line between madness and genius. His usual, smooth style behind the wheel was often substituted for desperation in those early days, but when Zanardi was given the right equipment he was as good as unstoppable.

The year was already trying, but Alex was to suffer the largest accident of the 1993 Grand Prix season in the most fearsome spot possible – Eau Rouge. His Lotus struck both the inside and outside of the famous corner and he suffered the mother of all concussions. It floored him for weeks, although the Lotus team further extended his absence by drafting in Pedro Lamy and his Portuguese sponsorship. When Zanardi got the seat back after Lamy’s monster test shunt at Silverstone in 1994 the team was focused on Johnny Herbert, providing him with upgrades earlier than whoever sat in the second car. Zanardi maintains that the data shows he would have scored a shocking pole at Monza that year had he been given the new Mugen-Honda engine, though this late-season burst of pace failed to save the Grand Prix fortunes of either the driver or his team. Both were to fade from the Grand Prix world, for a while.

If F1 was cruel to Zanardi then the American scene was kind, albeit with a horrific twist awaiting. After chancing his arm with a visit to the States to press the flesh and do a spot of networking, Alex arrived in the Indycar paddock just as Bryan Herta was sacked at Ganassi. So it was that Chip Ganassi’s Indy operation picked up Zanardi, both parties unsure as to what this new relationship would bring.

The following three years brought 15 victories and two CART titles to the Italian and his new friends at Ganassi. Each win was celebrated with Alex performing donuts in his red Reynard Honda, a signature move that has been much imitated since. Along the way he made many new friends and fans, his ever-present smile winning them over as much as his daring driving.

There are few other racers who can boast of making an overtaking move as ostentatious as the one at Laguna Seca pulled by Zanardi on his Ganassi predecessor Herta as the two rivals went into The Corkscrew on the final lap of an epic encounter.

By the time of these daredevil antics, Alex Zanardi had already become a firm favourite of the Charnock household. Referred to without fail as ‘Our Alex’ (an honour considering one of my best friends is called Alex), Zanardi became our hero. I’d grown up watching Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet – so a driver that could laugh, smile and keep the politics out of view yet deliver merciless moves when it mattered was a revelation to me. CART of the 1990s was arguably more entertaining and challenging than Formula One during the same period, so we had total faith that Zanardi had the right stuff, should F1 come calling again.

After his second consecutive title in the States, Formula One did indeed summon Alex back. When Williams signed him for 1999, it seemed like he was getting in on the ground floor of their promising BMW era. Would all the hard slog first time around in F1 be rewarded? Sadly not; Zanardi was given the boot before BMW arrived and he spent 2000 watching from the sidelines as a cherub-faced Jenson Button took over at Williams.

For Alex, 2001 saw Alex head back to the happy hunting ground of CART with Mo Nunn’s new team, although the results were lean for the fledgling squad. That was until the race at Germany’s Eurospeedway Lausitz; the first major single-seater race on a true oval in Europe since before the war and a rare opportunity for the European Indycar contingent to show off in front of their old fans.

Alex fought his way through the field in a noticeably improved car that gave him the confidence he needed to be his brilliant best. With 13 laps left to run Alex left the pits in the lead, lost control and the next thing he knew he was in a hospital bed, his legs gone.

The permanent CART safety team performed miracles to even save his life; there was less than a litre of blood left in him when they made the transfusions that rescued him from the abyss. In typical Zanardi style he jokes that with all that German blood in him they should give him a passport!

Since that dreadful day Alex Zanardi has inspired the world by not just competing but winning at a world-class level. Back in Germany during 2005 he took his first victory in World Touring Cars for BMW, a momentous moment for both Alex and his legions of fans. His symbolic completion of those last 13 laps at the Lausitzring in an Indycar fitted with hand-controls in 2003 was another astounding moment in his recovery, the crowd performing a Mexican wave as the Italian ‘finished’ the 2001 race at speeds in excess of 190mph. He felt that anything slower than genuine front-running pace just wouldn’t have been inspirational enough.

Now Zanardi’s next adventure is the 2012 London Paralympics where he hopes to take a medal in the handcycle competition, a feat he describes as “a dream”. Zanardi has lived a life of dreams – and of nightmares. Motorsport produces the most extreme situations that can really test a person; Alex passes every exam it sets him. “I’m not Superman,” he reminds us, “I am just an optimist who was lucky enough to have a wonderful life, and still have that life.”

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Danica and Nascar set to get hitched

Danica is a big name

Half driver, half marketing dream - Danica is huge in the States. (LuRoGo)

AP is reporting that a deal is on the table for Danica Patrick to make the full-time switch to Nascar in 2012. The plan, according to insiders, is for her to run full time in Nationwide with the Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports while Tony Stewart will also be fielding an extra car in the premier Sprint Cup series for the world’s fourth highest paid female athlete. Considering the lengths to which Danica went to in her early career to escape oval racing this is clearly a money move – something that does her no favours in the eyes of the non-believers.

This long-predicted move to tin-tops is a blow to Indycar, but that series has far more pressing concerns as it still struggles to return to its brilliant best. They can console themselves with the fact that winning the Indy 500 remains a priority for Danica – she looks set to disrupt her Nationwide season by missing three races to try to finally fulfill the promise she showed when she came back from a crash to lead her debut race at the Brickyard back in 2005, only losing out in the dying laps.

I for one have been positive about Danica Patrick, if only for the fact that it was refreshing to see a female driver receive some proper support. Ford, BMW, Rahal and Andretti are amongst the big names who have backed her and now she has become involved with Dale Earnhardt Jnr and Tony Stewart – about the two most popular racers in Stock Cars. I remember watching her in Formula Vauxhall Junior and Formula Ford back in the late 1990s as she failed to shine in either. The one rather huge exception to that was her second place to teammate Anthony Davidson in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival – the best finish in this prestigious event for both a woman and indeed an American. Despite this I didn’t think she was much cop at the time if I’m brutally honest, but I’m happy to say I was wrong.

Between these early days and her jump up into Indycar in 2005 she was guided by Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, although a second season of Formula Ford was curtailed by not wanting to waste her sponsorship on the year-old car that was available to her. Instead Rahal lined her up to drive in British Formula 3 just as his paymasters at Jaguar removed him from their racing programme and the deal collapsed. This left Danica to race in unfamiliar tracks in an assortment of machinery back in the USA having failed to crack the European elite. During her junior career she never drove in a series for more than one season and didn’t truly settle until she took Indycar by storm in Bobby Rahal’s squad that he co-owns with David Letterman.

What was so remarkable about Patrick’s Indycar baptism was that it was her first time on ovals. Danica took to the 230 MPH challenge like a fish to water as she claimed pole positions and led races. Her performance as a rookie at Indy was startling; gamely battling for the win after a bruising spin, something that endeared her to many. Eventually she claimed her first victory at Motegi in 2008, a savvy fuel-saving final run that was typical of Danica who often out-smarts the boys even though she doesn’t appear to have the ultimate edge over them in traffic. This was her only win since a successful karting career, with the exception of a victory in a race for celebrities – a tag that applies to her more than any other driver today. At one point she was signing more autographs than all the other Indycar drivers put together – something that her rivals once threatened to strike over!

It has always seemed baffling that Danica struggled on the road courses after her upbringing on the twisting racetracks of the UK, although her petite frame wasn’t helped by the lack of power-steering on an Indycar. I actually believe that an F1 car would be more forgiving in this respect, but once Patrick makes the leap to Nascar it will be game over for her ever performing on the world stage.

This move will unquestionably be a boost for Nascar, but over in the States it could barely be any more popular as it is. Danica has performed as well as any other rookie usually does in Nationwide during her sporadic appearances this year and with the emphasis nearly 100% on ovals Nascar should be a happy hunting ground for her. Of course a few more fans may watch her progress, though the world’s most attended spectator sport is not short of all-American heroes as it is. Neither Danica nor Nascar need this deal, though both will want it. Patrick needs a fresh challenge and Nascar will gladly provide it.

This neatly opens up room for the exciting Simona de Silvestro to become the top lady racer in Indycar, expect her to get a decent seat in the new-look formula in 2012. It seems likely that Simona could deliver more wins than Danica in the future, although the US likes its homegrown heroes so don’t expect the young Swiss racer to appear in every second advertisement on ABC any time soon.

Good luck to Danica on her mission to infiltrate the Good Ol’ Boys of Nascar, she has already set new standards for female racers and there is no more testosterone-laden arena than Stock Cars. If the little lady from Indiana can continue to fight with the big boys after the switch it could be the much needed cultural catalyst that sees more girls take up racing in the future. There are many wonderful aspects of this sport of ours, women competing with men on an equal basis is something to celebrate so I will continue to cheer for Danica and Simona no matter where their careers take them.

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Senna – more than PR gold

Bruno Senna in the Renault at Goodwood 2011

Burn-outs are fun, but racing for Renault would be better. (p_c_w)

Does a famous family name really make a driver’s life any easier? It certainly doesn’t make them any faster, that much has been proven many times. It can make them richer, but not always – Damon Hill would know all about that. Bruno Senna is both blessed and burdened by the most famous name in racing, a name that frankly nobody could live up to. Bruno has been granted a go in free practice this coming Friday at the Hungaroring while his Renault team are also making positive noises about their fellow reserve driver Romain Grosjean. It’s about time that Renault noticed the potential in its own reserve drivers.

Of course Renault will be hoping neither driver is needed to step into a race seat although they are facing the grim reality that team leader Robert Kubica has to overcome many hurdles before he can return to F1 and Nick Heidfeld is solid but not able to lift the car to the highest heights. Meanwhile Vitaly Petrov has gone against type and is within only two points of the veteran, which appears to have brought Eric Boullier and his merry men round to the idea of finally considering a youngster for Heidfeld’s role – 18 months ago the quiet Russian was a far bigger gamble than either Senna or Grosjean are right now.

Some forum warriors on t’internet have been quick to dismiss Bruno Senna, many before he had turned a wheel in a contemporary Grand Prix machine. I genuinely believe that Bruno has the talent, he just needs the chance to use it. He had barely begun in karting when his exploits were cut short by the loss of his uncle prompting his family to stop his career almost before it started. Damon Hill, another man who was the second generation of a driving dynasty, also skipped the karting step and he still did alright for himself. To my knowledge Senna and Petrov are the only drivers who came from a largely non-karting background to make it into F1 in recent years, an achievement that cannot be underestimated.

This lack of a childhood spent behind the wheel meant that Bruno Senna’s very first full season of racing was in British Formula 3, a crucial distinction in his career that is lost on many. Those drivers who are multiple karting and junior formula winners often fall at this hurdle; Bruno gamely went into F3 with only seven races to his famous name. After a solid debut year in 2005 with Raikkonen Robertson Racing he took things up a notch in 2006 by winning the first two rounds in style at a wet Oulton Park, not a bad way to begin only your second year of racing. He went on to win another three races to take third overall at the end of the year, a great achievement for any driver, let alone one with such little experience who carries such great expectations. I’m struggling to think of anybody from the current crop of Grand Prix stars who was winning such high-profile races within just over a year of starting out. Nope, can’t think of any – not even Vettel the wunderkid.

After Formula 3 Senna went on to impress in GP2; in 2008 he took second in the title race to the vastly more experienced Giorgio Pantano – a guy who had been at this level of competition or above for eight seasons, far before Senna had even started his career. Testing for Honda’s F1 outfit beckoned, their emotional link with the Senna name made a hook-up between them a no-brainer. Bruno looked set to hit the big time only four years after he started car racing. Then the Japanese manufacturer pulled the plug on F1, the team became Brawn GP and they plumped for their old pal Rubens Barrichello rather than his more youthful countryman. Senna was left to compete in sportscar racing where he struggled for the first time since his early days. Even harder lessons were learned by taking his F1 bow with the woeful HRT squad in 2010. The impressive momentum built up from 2005 to 2008 was broken and Senna was passed over for this year, winding up as one of Renault’s many testers. A shame in my view. Anybody who can drive the wrong way down Eau Rouge while filming on his phone is pretty handy in a race car!

While I don’t know for certain what Bruno could do with a decent F1 chance, there is no way we’ll ever find out unless he gets the time on track. Hopefully his practice run in Hungary is an audition for a proper go at Interlagos or even sooner.

In the same week that Senna gets his run with the team Eric Boullier has been extolling the virtues of Romain Grosjean. As much as he has been a delight to watch in GP2 this year, Romain has been racing for long enough to know how to win by now, anything less would be disappointing.

What needs to be remembered is that amongst the complex web of ownership at Renault is the Gravity driver management venture. Like Flavio Briatore before them, the current management are tied commercially to drivers so it is in their interest to talk them up, although Senna is not one of them. Grosjean is part of the Gravity stable, but they need to remember that throwing Grosjean into an F1 race seat too soon damaged his market value back in 2009. In my fantasy team manager role I would leave him to focus on winning GP2, he already has F1 on his CV.

Since its rebirth in 2002 the Renault team has never felt a compulsion to run a French driver, so that is not in Grosjean’s favour as Bourdais and Montagny will testify. These days the F1 effort isn’t an outpost of the French manufacturer anyway, indeed the team wouldn’t even be called Renault if the top brass had their way.  The chassis would most likely take the title of its sponsor – Lotus – if the team could find favour with enough of the F1 paddock to allow a name change. The car is already painted in black and gold, a yellow helmet would sit nicely in there and they know it.

Group Lotus have bold ambitions which thus far are mostly based around creating a PR buzz. Right now their game-plan is more about building the brand than the brand building thousands of supercars. For the most part their racing efforts involve putting stickers on established racing teams – Renault in F1, ART in GP2 and KV Racing over the pond in Indycar. They’ve badged Judd’s forthcoming Indy engine too, although interestingly there is increasing talk that Lotus-affiliated KV Racing are not interested in running their main sponsor’s motor.  With the PR push in full swing Danny Bahar and company must be itching to see Senna race, their marketing department wouldn’t miss Nick Heidfeld at the Brazilian Grand Prix even if his vast experience is valuable to the engineers at Renault.

I can’t stand to see talent go to waste, so I would unashamedly love to see Bruno Senna get a proper crack at driving in F1 again. Hungary is a start, but surely Renault could find a proper place for Senna come Interlagos? Despite the last three years being trying for Bruno, the previous three seasons showed that he is packing more talent than the doubters would have you think. Is it enough to make a real impact on F1? Well we won’t know until somebody gives him a half-decent car, will we? Come on Renault, roll the dice.

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Designed to race, destined not to

Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma

The Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma - fated to a life of posing for pictures. (pic El Caganer)

Ifs, buts and maybes are an integral part of motorsport. Indeed, as Murray Walker would say, IF is (almost) F1 spelt backwards. Watching the radical Lotus 88 that F1 eschewed in the early 1980s speeding to the fastest time at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the hands of Dan Collins got me thinking about what other astounding machines were built to race but never had the chance to fulfill their destiny. Here are ten of my favourites…

Lotus 88 – When the Lotus-pioneered ground effect cars were culled from Formula One Colin Chapman was determined that this drag-less way of achieving serious road-holding would not die. The solution was the 88, an early carbon fibre creation that housed twin-chassis; one for the cockpit, the other for the main car itself. This allowed space for air to flow through the car and suck it to the ground. Formula One never gave the car the thumbs up, it only appeared at a few practice sessions in the hands of Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis in 1981 who gave it rave reviews.  Colin Chapman lobbied hard for the 88’s legality, his arguments falling on deaf ears.

Jaguar XJ13 – Amongst the prettiest racing machines ever built was the sumptuous Jaguar XJ13. At the start of the 1960s Jaguar had toyed with shifting the engine from up-front to amidships, although it took until 1966 for the XJ13 to finally hit the track. By this point the glorious green machine was already behind the times. As Ford and Ferrari duked it out at Le Mans with the Porsche 917 waiting in the wings, Jaguar were struggling to develop their swooping creation and after a change of ownership the company ditched the project. The new 3-litre rules at Le Mans mirrored Formula One at the time and would have forced Jaguar to ditch the 500 horsepower V12 that was peeking through the perspex panel in the middle of the car, the gestation of the XJ13 was just too long and its engine was powerful but dated. Like the TSR 2, Britain had lost a truly remarkable machine to economic pressures. Only one car was ever made and was later destroyed in a huge crash while making a publicity film in 1971. It was rebuilt a couple of years later by which time the XJ13’s moment had long since past.

Ferrari 637 – To many the Prancing Horse is Formula One, so when Maranello produced a bona fide Indycar in 1986 the racing world took notice. Sadly the 637 was just a political tool, leverage to help Ferrari get what it wanted from Formula One at a time when the rules were up for discussion. The engine eventually raced at Indy under the Alfa Romeo brand but the car itself never competed despite posing for photos on the yard of bricks. Gustav Brunner’s creation certainly looked the part and was on-the-money technology-wise, it is likely that it would have given March and Lola a real headache. Since the ’80s Ferrari has made vague threats about competing at Indy, though the words were never backed up by deeds ever again.

Allard J2X-C – OK, so this car did compete just the once, but it is still one of the great missed opportunities in racing. I was at the Autosport Show in 1992 when the Allard J2X-C was revealed – I knew I had seen the future of sportscar design right there. Sadly the revived Allard company itself was to play but a very small part in this future, the project was dead by the end of 1993 though its ideas live on at Le Mans to this day. To overcome the understeer inherent in Group C machines with huge rear wings and a tiny front splitter the Allard used ‘pontoon’ fenders with adjustable wings covering the suspension and an early example of an anhedral nose. The J2X-C set the standard for creating downforce where previously there was none, the design also encouraged air to flow around every surface of the car rather than going straight over it – a key philosophy shared by many modern race cars. The Allard even featured a rudimentary version of the current hot-topic of F1 in 2011 – exhaust blowing. Under-developed and down on power from its customer DFR engine, other teams simply sought to design their own evolutions of the J2X-C concept rather than buy one off the shelf, although Honda were amongst the initial suitors for this striking machine. With no customers the company closed and the car was auctioned for a mere £76,000 before being taken to test at Le Mans, sadly proving far too slow on the straights. Eventually the Allard competed just the once at an IMSA race at Laguna Seca, never coming near to the fighting chance it deserved.

Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car – Anybody for an F1-powered, 211mph, mid-engined, carbon-bodied touring car formula? The Pro-Car series was floated in the late 1980s as a crazy mash-up of F1, touring cars and prototypes. The series for these hyper-saloons never materialised, but Alfa Romeo had 15 cutting-edge V10 Grand Prix motors and no teams to run them, so they decided to pop one in the 164 Pro-Car in 1988 instead. It certainly looked the part, the body appeared near-identical to its road-car relative, concealing the Brabham-engineered wizardry within. Riccardo Patrese demoed the Pro-Car at the Italian Grand Prix of 1988 – the saloon car bettering the top-speeds of Senna and Prost’s all-conquering Mclaren MP4-4. Sadly there were no other manufacturers willing to join the party and Pro-Car became the series that never was.

Lancia ECV – Did you find Group B rallying too tame? Then you my friend need Group S. The S must have stood for suicidal. Group S was slated to replace the formula that spawned the Audi Quattro and the Lancia 037 with a collection of sports prototypes such as the ECV which extensively used carbon fibre to cut 20% from its already fly-weight predecessors. The 1.8 litre engine used a multi-stage turbo to pump out over 600bhp to all four wheels, although there was talk of limiting power outputs before Group S was sidelined. The Lancia ECV (experimental composite vehicle) never got to tread the forests and mountains of the world as rallying had been turned on its head by Henri Toivonen’s tragic accident in 1986 heralding a new era of safer Group A cars. Unlike the Killer Bs, Group S only required a handful of cars to be built to gain homologation which opened the door for prototypes that majored on innovation. Lancia, Opel and Toyota had already built Group S cars when the category was scrapped in 1986 while Audi and Ford were on their way to producing cars to this exciting new rulebook too. Without the shackles of designing within road car rules there would surely have been more madness just around the corner, something rallying just couldn’t afford at the time. Lancia obviously didn’t get the memo – they later made themselves an ECV2 as well…

Alfa Romeo Tipo 512 – A pre-war Grand Prix car with a flat 12 supercharged motor slung behind the driver and a gearbox over the rear axle was most commonly found painted in Silver, but not the Alfa Romeo 512. No, it was a blood-red Italian stallion built in 1940 to take on the might of the Auto Unions. Swallowed up by the war effort, the 512 was tested until 1943 but never met its rivals; by no means the only racing machine to fade away during the war years. Designed as a successor to the Alfetta 158, the 512 wasn’t eligible for the newly formed Formula One World Championship by the time it began in 1950. Ironically Alfa campaigned the once-outclassed 158 instead, winning the first two world championships with elegant updated versions of this 1930s steed.

Lexus ISF Racing Concept – When Opel left the DTM it sold a Vectra to Toyota so the Japanese giant could evaluate its own silhouette racer. The ISF Racing Concept was shown at the 2008 Tokyo Motor Show but Lexus eventually forgot all about their Opel-based beast, leaving Audi and Mercedes to fight alone in Germany until 2012. The Lexus wasn’t the only new-generation DTM car to suffer a false-start; Zakspeed also developed a Volvo for the return of the series in 2000. The car didn’t quite fit the rules and was declined the chance to race while the Audi TT which wasn’t large enough to fulfill the size criteria was granted an entry and eventually took the 2002 title, such is the fickle world of motorsport.

Toyota TF110 – Intricate aerodynamics, tight packaging and ‘adjustable’ suspension – these were some of the ingredients for Red Bull’s championship success in 2010. They are also features shared by the Toyota TF110 that was designed and ready to roll when the Japanese giant pulled the plug on F1 in a tearful press conference at the end of 2009. The company still intended to lease their services to another team, sadly they picked Stefan GP – the Serbian squad that showed up far too late in the day to get the other teams to agree to their entry. That didn’t stop them signing Jacques Villeneuve and Kazuki Nakajima, nor did it preclude them from sending freight to the first round in Bahrain. After being turned away the cutting-edge TF110 has only ever been driven around the car park at Toyota Motorsport’s Cologne headquarters, a less than glorious way to test such a machine. Who knows, perhaps the underachievers were on the verge of doing a Brawn and shocking the F1 world after losing the backing of a big Japanese manufacturer? F1 moves so fast that despite Hispania looking at buying the design it is now certain that a quick spin in the parking lot is about as much as we’ll see from the TF110 for a while.

Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma – OK, so this 1969 car was created by a styling house rather than Maranello itself and was never intended to race, but the Sigma was one of the first racing machines to put the emphasis on safety – something to be applauded in an era when drivers rarely got old. Oh, and it is well worth drooling over the Pininfarina-penned lines that dictated many a fictional Matchbox car. The Sigma featured a driver survival cell, roll-bar disguised as a wing, automatic fire extinguishers, plastic fuel-tanks, seatbelts, side-impact protection and most striking of all were the ‘fenders’ to help prevent interlocking wheels. This most visible of safety advances was the only one that didn’t find itself in Formula One in the future. The project was instigated by Auto Revue magazine and was backed by other manufacturers, though it was Ferrari that provided the chassis and running-gear to make this ice-cool car possible and will forever prove that safety isn’t just for squares.

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Driver in knowing his sport shocker!

Karun Chandhok sits in a Williams F1 car

Moments like this aren't lost on Karun Chandhok. (pic lukehmuse)

I remember reading a Nigel Roebuck column many, many moons ago that mentioned in passing that many racing drivers aren’t too clued up on their own sport. To my fast-developing sense of motorsport geekery this was akin to being a Milli Vanilli fan then finding out about their dastardly miming or being an Evertonian when Rooney put on a red shirt – I was disillusioned to say the least. These superstar drivers didn’t deserve to have my dream job! I’m sure the astronauts currently orbiting the Earth in Atlantis know exactly who Neil Armstrong is.

Every driver who drives a Formula One car is well aware of what a great opportunity they have from a career perspective, but do they know why Grand Prix racing is so magical? Do they know the legends that have shaped the sport they play? One driver who emphatically does is Karun Chandhok. He’s fast becoming my unsung hero for his encyclopedic knowledge of Ecclestone-era Formula One and his appreciation of turbo-charged Indycars. On the track Karun is not shabby either, his GP2 win at Spa was a great effort and taking a totally untested HRT out into qualifying at Bahrain last year was a minor piece of heroics. On top of that he is a pleasure to listen to on BBC 5live’s excellent commentary team, another dream job for a motor-mad man such as he, though one he must be wishing he wasn’t doing right now.

Dario Franchitti is also pleasingly aware of his place in history, the photo of him looking at Jim Clark’s face on the Borg-Warner Trophy is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Tales of Valentino Rossi watching Norick Abe on video every day before school tells you a lot about how the great man feels about his sport, that is the sort of obsession usually reserved for the anoraks. I also loved this video of Lewis and Jenson exploring Mclaren’s vaults of obsolete yet iconic racing cars, I just can’t picture Kimi and Juan Pablo ever going in there and knowing their MP4/1 from their MP4/4. They probably didn’t know what MP4 even signifies.

As ever, I digress. Senna may be the racer’s racer, but Chandhok is the geek’s racer for sure – and he got himself another page in my good books this week by putting VJ Mallya in his place. It’s well worth a click, fellow Indian star Narain Karthikeyan also has a message for Mallya. The big businessman and former amateur racer (who was a rival of Karun’s Dad once upon a time) has given the former Jordan team an Indian makeover to create the Force India squad, but Mallya’s lack of faith in racing drivers from his part of the world is a little bit disheartening. Both Chandhok and his recently side-lined countryman Karthikeyan, another fellow with a keen interest in racing’s past, have not even been invited to test with the nominally Indian team.

Karun Chandhok delivered the man with the posh yacht an eloquent and accurate dressing down saying, “I think it’s a bit sad that in one breath the chairman of our Indian ASN is talking about how much he has done for Indian drivers and then in the next breath he is criticising India’s only two Formula One drivers.”

Mallya has been accused in his brief time in Formula One of not paying bills and using Force India as a giant ego-trip. This is from respected journos and insiders, as I’ve never been invited to party on his big boat I will defer to their knowledge. I doubt very much that he’s the biggest scoundrel this sport has ever seen, nor is he the best representation of it either. Unlike the two Indian drivers who are currently within touching distance of a proper F1 chance, Mallya clearly isn’t aware of the footsteps he is treading in. He is a speed, money and glamour man, while the drivers he belittles appreciate the artistry of racing.

So here’s to Karun Chandhok for telling Mallya that he’s wrong and generally being a great ambassador for his sport and his country. He knows a lot about the past of his beloved racing, it is so apt that he is amongst the few Indian drivers to be carving out their own pages of history.


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The thin silver line

Lewis Hamilton has been in the wars lately

I called Lewis the best overtaker in April - he still is. (pic ph-stop)

It’s only been a couple of months since I last dabbled with the blog, in motorsport that can be an age. It took a split second for JR Hildebrand to lose the Indy 500, well over four hours went by before Jenson Button finally made Sebastian Vettel crack under pressure in Montreal and the Earth turned on its axis as the thrills, spills, tears and triumph at a truly epic Le Mans unfolded. It took a few more days for the Bahrain Grand Prix to go from off, to on, to off again – leaving the FIA and Formula One looking foolish.

Meanwhile it took only a couple of weeks for Lewis Hamilton to go from hero to villain, his reputation proving more fragile than carbon fibre. There are few drivers in the world who are so electrifying to watch. The moving DRS rear wings may be an artificial way to enhance the show but Hamilton’s real-deal racecraft is anything but false. In the fullness of time these indiscretions will shrink from mountains to the tiny mole hills that they really are.

As for Lewis switching teams, that seems like a load of Red Bull to me. But you can never say never. It is natural for a driver to shop around, Red Bull likewise, although with a world champion already at the wheel of the RB7 it seems that this speculation is just something to keep Fleet Street occupied, as if they haven’t got enough going on right now…

Down the other end of the timesheets Daniel Ricciardo will be making his debut for Hispania. The young Australian looks like a hot prospect (although I’m more excited about the next Red Bull Junior driver in line, Jean-Eric Vergne) so why stick him in such a struggling team? It seems that his presence on the grid is a ploy to apply pressure on the track and off it to Webber, Alguersari and Buemi. The message is clear – Ricciardo is coming so you guys had better get your skates on. You would think that if Lewis Hamilton was truly looking at making a switch there wouldn’t be any need for Red Bull to be feeding backmarker teams cash to train up drivers.  Tis the season to be silly, so who knows where this game of musical race seats will take us?

Meanwhile I’ll be hoping for more fireworks from Lewis Hamilton this weekend at Silverstone. As another Mclaren driver in a yellow helmet once said, if you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver. Mclaren don’t need to fill up the other teams with their test drivers to get Messrs Hamilton and Button to drive any better, that’s for sure.

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Great racing wherever you look

Plato rolls, Conway wins and Nascar entertains (pic Rob Dunckley)

F1 provided the race of the weekend from where I was sitting, but there was so much good motorsport going on that it was hard to keep up with it all. We had a four-wide finish at Talladega, the closest World Rally ever, a new and truly heroic winner in Indycar and the BTCC boys bent some metal. If I don’t get a chance to watch Superbikes from Assen or my beloved Aussie V8s on a wet street track then I know there was a lot of rubber being burnt around the globe…

First up was Talladega with the Sprint Cup race that anybody could win which was taken by Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the previous five championships. It may not be the ideal result for the fans or the title race, but it was certainly spectacular as the leaders finished four-wide after the tandems we saw at Daytona returned. Clint Boywer was a mere two thousandths of a second behind the winner, but I still can’t truly enjoy the bump-drafting. Nationwide saw Kyle Busch get involved in the ‘big one’ before driving his battered machine back to the front just as the race was halted for yet another big wreck. If anything the relative unknowns in the ARCA race provided the best and cleanest racing at ‘Dega, their cars aren’t built to run the whole race nose-to-tail and the extra space between them made for some far more satisfying racing that saw Ty Dillon edging out Frank Kimmel at the flag.

Astoundingly the WRC was very nearly as close and every bit as thrilling in the dust of Jordan. Sebastian Ogier continued in his winning ways, beating Latvalla by a mere 0.2 seconds – the closest World Rally to date. The event was shortened  after political and logistical problems, but it was still remarkable to see a smaller gap between the leaders after two days rallying than we saw in F1 after a mere 15 minute qualifying segment. It seems that Ogier is the real deal.

Another young driver with a very bright future is Britain’s Mike Conway who scored his first Indycar win at the Long Beach Grand Prix last night. Most Indycar viewers will know Mike best for his bone-breaking Indy 500 shunt that could so easily have taken his career away just as it started. Now recovered and driving for Andretti Autosport he drove a sublime final few laps to blast his way up from sixth place at the final restart to the lead. Conway endured a troubled pit-stop and had to dodge the now-predictable crashes to take the fight to Ryan Briscoe’s Penske that led for so much of the day. Long Beach is one of the greatest street tracks in the world and Mike Conway knows a thing or two about racing around cities after taking wins at Monaco in GP2 and Macau in F3; he’s certainly in the right series for somebody who excels at racing inches from concrete walls.

The walls aren’t quite so close at Donington Park but the BTCC boys still managed to find them. The races were won by Matt Neal, Andrew Jordan and crowd-favourite Matt Jackson, but the talking points were the slew of accidents including a roll for champion Jason Plato.  The racing was good and luckily everybody survived their crashes with nothing more than financial damage, although Plato said he “tweaked his manhood” as his Chevy Cruze rolled three times. Amazingly the RML boys got Jason’s car going again for race three and he even managed to score good points with the roof still squashed! The Craner Curves are a fine place to watch a race and for those stood by Starkey’s Bar they will have witnessed Plato’s accident, a multi-car crash in race three and a fast shunt for Neate’s Ford Focus on the final lap of the day along with a scary ride down the hill for Rob Collard too.  Wish I was there.

I will be heading to a race next week as British F3 heads to Oulton Park, just down the road from here. The F3 season is already underway at Monza where Felipe Nasr won twice for Carlin and cemented his status as championship favourite. Rupert Svendsen-Cook took a win too but it’s Nasr who everybody will be focusing on when British F3 heads back to Britain.

The best junior category in 2011 looks set to be Formula Renault 3.5 where there is some serious talent on show, not least of all is Red Bull’s test driver Daniel Ricciardo. He was absent from round one at Arragon, so whoever emerged on top from the two races on Spanish soil would likely become his main challenger for the season. It was Lotus-affiliated American hot-shot Alexander Rossi who took a win in a spectacular race one, his racecraft was top drawer as he diced with Move and Wickens in a very entertaining battle. He followed it up with a second place in the Sunday race just behind Kevin Korjus – the youngest driver on the Renault grid and a very surprising victor. Expect a bunch of these guys to follow fellow Renault World Series graduates Vettel, Kubica and Kovalainen into F1 very soon, there is a rare amount of talent on that grid this year.

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