Tag Archives: F1

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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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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Hollywood’s rush to the racetrack

Niki Lauda at Watkins Glen 1976

Can Ron Howard's Rush do the 1976 Grand Prix year justice? (Steve1828)

So motorsport is the current topic du jour in cinematic circles. Three documentaries are currently stoking tinsel town’s interest; Senna has been a global hit, TT Closer to the Edge was a stunning insight into the mortally dangerous side of racing and the Moto GP movie sequel Fastest is opening tonight in London. Meanwhile both Ron Howard and Michael Mann are dipping into the history of the sport for their latest projects. Good times.

Of course we with petrol in our veins have long known of the allure and inherent drama of racing. I distinctly remember sitting with my parents as Ayrton Senna delivered his monologue after the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix and declaring that it was as if we were watching a movie. Little did I know that it would become a part of one. Hollywood hasn’t always done the sport justice; Grand Prix looked and sounded the business but lacked the script it deserved while Sylvester Stallone’s Driven was pure drivel. The recent spate of racing documentaries, including a quartet on the small screen courtesy of the BBC, has quenched the thirst for racing stories but now it is time for the auteurs to fictionalise some of the greatest battles from the annuls of motorsport.

First up will be Rush, Ron Howard’s movie based on the 1976 Grand Prix season. As a topic I could barely imagine a better one. The set up? The first of many edgy championships contested between Mclaren and Ferrari, the battle was as much a clash of ideologies as it was a sporting contest. James Hunt the playboy taking on Niki Lauda the savvy professional, the earnest Brits taking on the passionate Italians. The confrontation? A championship that appeared to be going the way of the red team was shattered by Niki Lauda’s horror crash that signaled the end of Grand Prix around the Nordschleife. The resolution? Lauda’s heroic comeback, Hunt’s memorable championship. Sorry for the spoiler, but there is your three acts – and what a movie it will make.

Rush is due to be an independent film, albeit one with a healthy budget and a heavyweight director. Nonetheless it may mean that Ron Howard and company will be mooching around looking for distribution as the cameras roll which is not something he is used to. Howard has made the odd trip to a modern Formula One race for research which is about as useful as a fact-finding mission to a modern day Afghanistan when attempting to write a war movie set 50 years ago. It is more likely that this was a courtesy call on Bernie Ecclestone who is clearly backing the movie as the first in-depth interview with Ron Howard about Rush was a feature on the Formula One website. His stash of historic Grand Prix machines will come in handy too. This endorsement shouldn’t be taken lightly – Ecclestone not only rebuffed Stallone in the 1990s, he also rejected David Cronenberg’s Grand Prix movie that was due to film in the late 1980s after the director was inspired by the brilliant 1986 season.

Last week the first shots were filmed on Rush, although these were merely tests for the shoot proper. This involved the Nurburgring and some historic cars which will have been a fun day out for all, including British Touring Car’s rising star Rob Austin who tweeted that he was a part of the crew. Let’s hope Plato and Neal aren’t the other drivers, I don’t remember Hunt and Lauda giving each other the finger or moaning about turbos, although Hunt the Shunt was known to throw a punch in his early days…

On writing duty is Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan while the driving seats will be occupied by Thor star Chris Hemsworth and promising German actor Daniel Bruhl. Both exhibit a reasonable likeness for their characters, so that is reassuring. Ron Howard is adept at masculine emotion and has proven his salt by tackling real-life tales with no more embellishment than is needed.

I’m hoping that they look closely into James Hunt’s story, he fascinates me more than most racers. You often picture the hairy, lairy 1970s Formula One driver as being fearless but Hunt was not. While being the arch-party animal he was a man who would throw-up immediately before every race and quit the sport abruptly in the middle of the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix. Unlike the Mclaren drivers of today, Hunt was permitted to meet the great and the good in t-shirt, jeans and not-uncommonly barefoot. We are all unique, some of us just break out of the mould a little more than others. A movie about James Hunt was touted by Dreamworks earlier this year, but Rush has beaten them to the punch so it is doubtful we’ll ever see the English world champ’s very full life told in its entirety on celluloid.

Meanwhile there is Michael Mann’s Go Like Hell which was originally rumoured to be a movie for 20th Century Fox but could now appear as a drama series for TV. Sharing its name with AJ Baime’s book about Ford and Ferrari’s high-stakes duel at Le Mans in 1966, Go Like Hell could be quite a treat if and when it appears. Mann has long looked at filming a motorsport movie, his name has been linked with an Enzo Ferrari picture for years now. Let us hope that it gets the green light soon.

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Bernie gets something for nothing

Bahrain Grand Prix returns for 2012

A first - Bahrain pays out for having no Grand Prix. (LG)

Bernie Ecclestone could be the greatest salesman of all time. It could be said that this is a man who could sell sand to the Arabs, but he’s even smarter than that; it seems he has managed to sell nothing to them.

The canceled 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix still brought in more than twenty million dollars to FOM’s coffers, despite the F1 Czar claiming he offered to return the money. According to Bernie they just told him to hang on to it, like you would do if your mate borrowed a t-shirt off you. The likelihood is that there is much more to this story than meets the eye, like so many other seemingly simple arrangements at the highest echelon of our sport.

Anything that comes from the Ringmaster’s mouth needs to be treated with a pinch of salt; in the same interview Ecclestone dropped this gem, “Greece are also trying to do a Formula One race. The Germans will lend them some money” which I can only believe to be a joke for fellow billionaires to chuckle over while swigging port on their artificial island. Were he a comedian Bernie would need to work a little on his material, but this is a telling insight into how seriously he takes talking to the press. The quote has been reported by respected sources, sites and papers with all the deadpan seriousness that Bernie no doubt delivered it in. I sometimes wonder if they shouldn’t get somebody with a sense of humour and a little current affairs nous to duel with him. Paxman verses Ecclestone, now there’s a thought…

I look forward to hearing Bahrain’s take on the story. Perhaps they’ll say it was just a little goodwill for causing Formula One a political headache earlier in the year? Maybe they were contractually bound to pay it? They certainly aren’t in a position to mock Bernie so I doubt they’ll deny the story if asked. The fact is that rich folk don’t get that way by giving away a penny, let alone a few million pounds, without getting something in return.

The cynic within me can’t help but think this payment could be a sweetener ahead of the mooted return to Bahrain in 2012, assuming Ecclestone wasn’t yanking our chain. In that case the question has to be whether Formula One needs to expose itself to criticism from the wider world for effectively being paid double to go back to a place that we now know to have a shocking disregard for humanitarian principles. Of course there are other stops on the Grand Prix world tour that wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny of their government’s actions, though none have had their misdemeanours splashed around quite so publicly in recent times. Bernie also mentions Cancun in Mexico and Cape Town in South Africa as potential Grand Prix of the future, so why even bother with Bahrain when there are some tourist hotspots waiting in the wings? It’s not like the die-hard fans have missed Sakhir in 2011.

Although I look at motorsport through a rose-tinted visor there are many others who do not. Burning oil, spending tax dollars, involvement with court cases – there is enough ammo out there already without the Bahrain situation becoming any more debatable than it already is. I guess if FOM did genuinely offer to return the cash then they will take the view that their hands are clean, others may not see it the same way.

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The best of the best

Eau Rouge at Spa 2011

Hallowed ground - fans descend down Eau Rouge after the race. (Raul Soler)

While the glitterati and the glamorous declare Monte Carlo to be the jewel in F1’s crown, the true fans know that it is Spa that is the greatest Grand Prix venue of them all. The sweeps, swoops and straights of the longest circuit on the calendar provided yet another memorable race for the faithful, albeit one that saw a one-two finish for the rampant Red Bulls which did the prospects of a close finish to the season no good at all. Sebastian Vettel’s seventh win of the season all but assures him of his second title but it was a race that could so easily have gone to any driver from the top three teams.

Qualifying was a thrilling mix of wet and dry that didn’t faze pole-meister Vettel who duly lined up first on the grid – he is certainly the speediest Saturday specialist we’ve seen since Mika Hakkinen. The young German put in a calm and committed lap to land the top spot while an older German lined up at the opposite end of the field. Here is where Michael Schumacher made his debut 20 years ago, won his first race 19 years ago, took perhaps his most thrilling victory 16 years ago and claimed his record-smashing seventh title back in 2004. This weekend he added another milestone – starting last on the grid after a wheel went walkies from his Mercedes on his out-lap in qualifying. Not the ideal way to celebrate the start of his third decade at the top level of the sport, but he turned things right around come the race.

Bruno Senna was the hero of Saturday but became the first villain of Sunday as he squandered his excellent seventh place on the grid by running into fellow surprise front-runner Jaime Alguersari at the start. This triggered the traditional first corner calamity from which the Mercedes drivers came out smiling. While Schumacher negotiated the chaos to move right up the field his teammate Nico Rosberg took second place out of turn one and used the straightline pace of the silver arrow to power past Vettel down the Kemmel straight. The lead wasn’t to last, but Nico stayed in contention for the podium until his final stint when Schumacher who was enjoying his best post-comeback performance took fifth from his teammate after an encouraging race for Mercedes.

The Mclaren drivers are never ones for quiet races. The British pair battled hard after a somewhat trying Saturday that saw Button lining up 13th and Hamilton hauled in front of the stewards. From where I was sitting on the sofa Pastor Maldonado’s tackle on Lewis was an instant red card – driving towards another driver after the session has ended just isn’t on. But the aggressive action rated less of a punishment than an engine blow-up according to the stewards as Maldonado’s lunge into the side of Hamilton’s Mclaren warranted a mere five-place grid drop while Lewis got reprimanded for it too.

During the race Button made his way through the field with aplomb. He finished third despite changing a front wing after the opening lap. Jenson
overtakes so coolly and calmly, thoroughly deserving his podium appearance. He may have received help from a safety car but he also suffered hindrance from a damaged rear end.

The aforementioned safety car was for Hamilton who clumsily clipped Kobayashi as the pair diced for position. The resultant knock looked nasty as Hamilton lay prone for a few seconds before getting his breath back and slowly rising out of the car. To his credit Lewis has apologised publicly to the Sauber driver, although it is his Mclaren team who he should be saying sorry to – they gave him a competitive car and now their championship chances are all but gone.

After battling hard in the early-going, Red Bull took their first one-two since May and now look unassailable in both titles. Even more ominous is the fact that the team have completed every lap of the season so far, an astounding feat. Mark Webber looked quicker than Vettel at times although yet again he was compromised by a shocking start. A Red Bull clean-sweep may look ominous but Button was just as quick as them and even Rubens Barrichello in the Williams turned in a faster lap than Vettel giving a little hope to those competitors who usually have none.

There were some cracking overtaking moves, the best of which was surely
Webber’s move on eventual fourth-placed finisher Alonso into Eau Rouge. It was the most daring pass of the year, no question. It brought to mind another heart-in-the-mouth moment between them back at the magnificent Japanese Grand Prix of 2005 when Fernando took to the grass to pass Mark back when their cars weren’t quite so evenly matched. Another DRS-free overtaking move of note was Vettel’s on Rosberg around the outside of Blanchimont – perhaps the quickest corner in F1. It went someway to disproving the doubters assertion that Vettel’s weakness is his ability in traffic. A few more of those and he’ll have us convinced, although I quite like him having at least one fault…

Before the race there was a bit of a bluster over blistered tyres with Red Bull and others lobbying to be allowed a fresh set of Pirelli rubber before the start without the need to start from the pitlane as the rules decree. The Beeb featured some interesting footage of the famous Vettel finger being used to make a point with a Pirelli employee but the powers-that-be rightly told the teams that the rulebook needed to be followed and the tatty tyres held together well enough to give Red Bull the result it wanted. To me there didn’t seem to be much of a problem. Due to the changing conditions the cars were out for the whole of Q3 on the same tyres which were due to start the race. That meant at least ten minutes of quick running along with a long warm-up lap on Sunday afternoon, it seemed obvious that Pirelli’s edgy compounds would be past their best by this point. The fact that Red Bull went beyond Pirelli’s guidelines on camber meant their argument was a moot one anyway. Still, it only added to the intrigue and action as the Red Bull’s appeared more cautious than they might have been in the early running, exactly what the fans wanted to see.

The viewing public were treated to tremendous spectacle all afternoon, Spa is the perfect fit for a Grand Prix machine. While an F1 car around Monte Carlo is akin to a killer whale confined in Seaworld, Spa remains the natural habitat for the world’s most sophisticated racing machines. The fact that the talk of Spa becoming a bi-annual event continues is shameful for F1. While Monaco is given a nearly-free ride the other traditional tracks are being squeezed for the sake of investors in the sport that are clearly only here for the short-term. Anybody with their eye on the long-game would surely accept a compromise that would see a guaranteed place on the calendar for the most inspiring and exciting venue on the calendar and leave the Tilke-dromes to play the swapping game.

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A tantalising taste of F1 on Channel 4

F1 puts on quite a show

F1 offers a lot, it seems Channel 4 would have treated it well. (Infiniti)

The emergence of Channel 4’s proposal for their Grand Prix coverage is intriguing, if you haven’t seen it then take a look for yourself here. Sharing a title with a BBC documentary on the history of racing (The Power and The Glory) made me groan, but from there on in it looks stunning thanks to Darren Heath’s perfect photography and some understated design. More on F1’s history sounds great too, the Senna movie proves that tales from the past can attract new interest in the future. Channel 4 have done a cracking job with cricket and cycling in the past, I would love to have seen what they could have done with Grand Prix racing. TV brings value to a sport, not just the other way round, so let’s hope that the BBC and Sky delivered a better product to the doors of FOM rather than just the extra £5 million they are rumoured to have stumped up.

There has been a lot of doom and gloom surrounding the new TV deal for F1 in the UK. Looking at the viewing figures for other sports that have shifted to Sky Sports does not make reassuring reading – even the national obsession of Premiership football does not have the viewing figures you would imagine – it is only the BBC’s Match of the Day highlights show in the evening that gathers comparable viewers to a Grand Prix here in the UK, the live matches are often seen by thousands rather than millions despite the total saturation of soccer in the media. There is an argument that putting a bitesize F1 programme early in the evening on the BBC could actually get new casual viewers on board rather than lose them, though it will also put F1 in the firing line of the X Factor and soaps.

Before dismissing Sky we should remember that they cover some sports very well, although motorsport is not currently one of them. While they may not have dedicated much production budget to them, Sky brought live coverage of the Indy 500 and Nascar to the UK, promoted Speedway and they popularised World Superbikes making Carl Fogarty into a star. Since the 1990s their motorsport coverage has stagnated badly, but don’t underestimate them.

The cost will naturally deter many fans and the BBC have done a near-perfect job since 2009 so it will require some serious commitment from Sky to encourage fans to shell out. I’m hoping that this rubs off on their Indycar coverage and encourages them to pick up other motorsports, but we’ll see.

My ideal would be for all the support races to be shown too, creating a complete race day like bikes on Eurosport or touring cars on ITV. Somebody needs to rescue the WRC too, but now I’m just getting greedy. Or I’m simply hoping that they justify the sacrifices many will need to make if they want to see all 20 races live in 2012. As many have pointed out you could go to all three days of a Grand Prix for less than it costs to get Sky Sports in HD…

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The drizzle-meister strikes again

Jenson Button

200 not out - that was vintage Button. (pic ph-stop)

So F1 produced another thriller, yet that man Vettel still moved further ahead in the driver’s standings while Red Bull’s advantage was barely dented in the constructors. The 2011 season puts me in mind of Alex Zanardi’s CART championships; exciting races but no one clear challenger to the main contender. All this action is making Sebastian’s job easier. If Lewis or Fernando had produced the goods then we would be looking at a clear-cut rival to Vettel, instead it was the plucky Jenson Button who took a win at his 200th Grand Prix.

I have a confession to make here – I haven’t seen the full Hungarian Grand Prix as I was working. Oh how it pains me to say that, it was the first F1 race I’ve missed since 2002 – and that blip was due to being at a race meeting myself so it wasn’t such a disaster. So I’ll steer clear of ruminating too long on the event, suffice to say it was classic Button – changing conditions, keeping a cool head, confidence when others were lacking. He’s maturing into the thinking-man’s driver.

My second and final observation is that the stewards love him so much that they appear to have invented a new penalty just for Lewis Hamilton. I’ve never seen a driver punished for spin-turning the car in traffic or not. To be fair it was a dangerous move, it just shows how the FIA are clamping down on driving standards which is for the most part a good thing. Although dragging an exploded car the wrong way down the pitlane right into the championship leader’s path did rather make a mockery of their “make roads safe” campaign…

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