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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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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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Spin ‘n’ win

Scott Malvern has been winning plenty of Formula Ford races this year, but he has also found himself in a few scrapes. Here he tries to put one over Geoff Uhrhane at Spa a couple of weeks ago.

As ever there was hard racing all the way which peaked on the run to the flag. The magnets were on and the two youngsters couldn’t help but touch each other just as they got to the line. Result? Uhrhane wins while his car is broadside, pushed along like a giant mascot on the bonnet of Malvern’s car. It’s the weirdest finish I’ve seen outside of Nascar.

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