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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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Filed under F1, Indycars, Moto GP, Touring Cars

Another anniversary at Spa

Jaguar XJR-15 in action

20 years ago Schuey arrived as TWR Jag's wild XJR-15 bowed out at Spa (Plbmak)

It is a certain 20 year anniversary this weekend at Spa, have you noticed? Of course you have, but there are more than enough ruminations on his Schumi-ness so instead I’ve been thinking about another race worth celebrating on that same weekend at Spa in August 1991. It featured 16 top drivers in identical Group C-inspired road cars with a prize of a million bucks on offer. The spectacular race was predicted to be such a ding-dong battle that the officials refused to declare how many laps it would be for fear of fisticuffs on the final tour…

The Jaguar Sport Intercontinental Challenge was short-lived but spectacular, briefly indulging the motorsport scene with a dream championship that only the mighty BMW M1 Procars could rival. The brainchild of the maverick mind of Tom Walkinshaw, despite its success the XJR-15 threatened the relationship between his TWR operation and its most famous client.

After Tom Walkinshaw Racing took the quintessentially British Jaguar XJS to considerable touring car success they made the massive step up into Group C sportscars in 1985. Their 1988 steed the XJR-9 famously took the victory at Le Mans and that’s where the XJR-15’s story began. This momentous Le Mans win was TWR’s defining moment and the first for Jaguar since the days of the D-Type.

By 1989 TWR had growing ambitions to manufacture their own road cars. They were already engineering race programmes, badging special edition road cars and were even creating a proper production line that would later be used by the likes of Aston Martin and Volvo. However their first road car was intended to be their very own statement of intent – a carbon fibre supercar that was effectively the Le Mans winning XJR-9 with indicators and a passenger seat.   The engine in the Tony Southgate-penned XJR-9 was very familiar to TWR; it was based on the same V12 that was found in the aging XJS – the engine that powered TWR to its sporting peak. This really was their wild endurance and touring car machines tamed into a domesticated yet fearsome road machine for the uber-rich.

R9R was the original name for TWR’s new creation, although it soon became clear that Jaguar would not let the car they commissioned to win Le Mans beat them at their own game on the road. In 1988 the stunning Jaguar XJ220 was unveiled in concept form. Sporting the now traditional Jaguar V12, scissor doors and a 4WD drivetrain this ultimate big cat was quickly commissioned and deposits of £50,000 were duly collected. Unfortunately the well-heeled buyers were in for a shock by the time the car reached production.

During the XJ220’s development, in which TWR took on a major role, it lost half the cylinders, half the driven-wheels, the doors no longer opened sky-wards and the interior became awash with bits out of the Ford Granada. Cue buyers backing out of their dream purchase as they became aware of the true specification of the Big Cat – what they wanted was a race-derived, ultra-exclusive, V12-powered car as promised. They liked the Jaguar name and the TWR know-how. Up stepped TWR with their fast developing R9R, yours for a cool million pounds – nearly three times more than the XJ220. Knowing how shrewd Tom Walkinshaw was you could be forgiven for thinking that TWR saw the way the XJ220 project was panning out and like a big cat they pounced.

When the R9R project became known to the top brass at Jaguar they weren’t pleased that their XJ220 statement-supercar was about to be upstaged by the people entrusted with engineering it. So the TWR R9R became the Jaguar Sport XJR-15 by the time it was publicly revealed in late 1990. The XJR-15 was heavily based on the 1988 Le Mans winning machine with a svelte Peter Stephenson design sitting atop the race-proven tub.

To further differentiate between the two rival Jags, one of which was clearly a lot racier and edgier than the other, a series for these fabulous cars was quickly organised. During the 1991 Formula One season 16 XJR-15s did battle around Monaco, Silverstone and Spa – three of the blue-riband tracks on the Grand Prix calendar. TWR offered to assist the owners in preparing their cars for racing – which involved little more than attaching a beefier rear wing, adjusting the ride height and slapping some stickers on. The XJR-15 made for an unruly road car and it was only slightly more benign as a track weapon; there may have only been three short races but they packed in as much action as Jag’s Group C racers managed in a whole year of competition.

Derek Warwick won the first round in Monte Carlo by a mere seven tenths of a second from David Brabham after a smashing debut for the XJR-15s – in more ways than one. Despite the ever-present barriers Monaco’s mishaps were mild compared to the thrills that were to follow around the sweeps of Silverstone. Juan Manuel Fangio II took the laurels exactly forty five years after his famous uncle took his last race win around the airfield venue, but the younger Argentine’s win came only after 11 of the 16 cars were damaged in a bruising encounter.

For the third and final round at Spa where the championship’s $1 million prize was to be settled the organisers decided that this already astounding event needed further spice, so they announced that nobody would know when the chequered flag would fall! This was due to dastardly drivers making deals to ensure they could take the prize money together. Eventually it was to end after 11 laps and several crashes with Armin Hahne surviving to take the big prize with his first win of the miniature season. Cor Euser started out on pole, holding the lead until lap eight when he had a wobble through Eau Rouge that allowed Hahne to pounce. Warwick also tried to take Euser as the English Grand Prix veteran was in contention for the big prize, but he was to find himself in the barriers. It was a fate shared by others as John Watson collected Tiff Needell and Thierry Tassin ended up on top of a wall after a brush with TWR regular Win Percy. After two fifth places in the previous encounters Armin Hahne scooped the million with a win at Spa.

50 cars were sold in both race and road trim although the debate between TWR and Jaguar over their love-child continued for years as both companies claimed it was the responsibility of the other to replace parts and honour warranties. Not what you want for your super-expensive, super-rare supercar. The XJR-15 was a highly-strung machine that was not for the faint hearted. In road mode it was renowned for tricky handling and an uncompromising experience, quite the opposite of the XJ220 that the Elton Johns of this world were cruising round in.

The 50 XJR-15s are mostly still going strong, although many owners don’t bother changing them from their original racing set-up, preferring to use them as track and show cars, a few still sporting their racing paint schemes. Some have sold for as ‘little’ as £100,000 and a few have even cropped up highly modified. It is unlikely that we’ll see the likes of the XJR-15 series again. Like the BMW M1 this was a championship that came about almost by accident rather than design. With GT3 racing looking particularly stable at the moment there will always be somewhere for a supercar to go and race – something that wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

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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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Mclaren test GT3, what now for GT1?

Resplendent in Mclaren orange, the new MP4-12C GT3 car has been out testing this week at MIRA and Silverstone. It marks Mclaren’s first proper steps into sports car racing since the majestic F1 was battling with Mercedes and Porsche in the late-nineties. Like its esteemed predecessor, the MP4-12C is light, powerful and is one heck of a car to base a racing machine on. GT3 is a cracking series for relatively amateur level teams, but surely the premier GT1 series it supports should be bending over backwards to get the iconic orange machine on board?

Alongside British development drivers Chris Goodwin and Andrew Kirkaldy, Mclaren have pulled the shrewd move of signing Alvaro Parente to help with their first foray into GT3. The former British F3 champ has been a contender in GP2 and Superleague over the last few years, but he’s also done a lot of miles in Ferrari’s recent GT machines. Let’s hope he gets a race seat with one of the yet-to-be-announced customer teams who are going to run the Mclaren in GT3.

Over in the GT1 series the exodus of teams during the winter is almost being offset by more star drivers joining the party. The Sumo Power Nissan squad has just announced that Le Mans winner and F1 veteran David Brabham will be joining Jamie Campbell-Walter, Ricardo Zonta and Enrique Bernoldi in what is one of the strongest line-ups in this thrilling championship. Meanwhile Markus Winklehock is leaving the DTM to race a Lamborghini for All-Inkl.com in GT1. For the drivers any series that takes supercars to the superb San Luis track in Argentina and Portimao in Portugal has to be a satisfying place to practice your craft.

The SRO-organised GT1 World Championship features great global circuits and spectacular cars, but it’s franchise system seems prohibitive. This forces manufacturers to field at least two teams of two cars, which appears to have led to champions Maserati and race-winners Corvette leaving at the end of GT1’s debut season. The multi-car rules have also led to four-car teams in all-but-name from Sumo Power and Marc VDS which leaves GT1 looking even more precarious for the future.

In a more established global series it may be wise to operate a franchise system to keep numbers consistent, but a fledgling championship would benefit from allowing manufacturers to try it before they commit too heavily. Let’s hope that the rules are relaxed at the end of 2011 when the homologation of the Maserati, Corvette and Aston Martin runs out. Perhaps some rule tweaks will see marques of great repute like Mclaren, Ferrari, Porsche and Audi all able to get involved, instead of these big hitters being confined to GT3.

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