Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Down to the Wire

With all the talk in F1 being about the championship going down to the wire, and the potential of Alonso being able to overhaul Seb “The Finger” Vettel, it seemed only natural in the Sett to look at something completely different.

Well, not completely different, partially because I know very little about, for example, Flamenco Dancing (that’s still got a Spanish theme: Ed) but mainly because motorsport is what flows through a Badger’s veins, and presumably yours too.

So I got to thinking about which championship was tied up earliest in the year, Mansell’s 1992 year sprung initially to mind, but then the 1970 Sports Car Championship came to mind.

Admittedly, this is a manufacturers’ championship, not a driver’s title, but by any standards, Porsche dominated it in style. Then, as now, Ferrari were the main competition (with apologies to any McLaren fans – their car might be quicker, but it’s not still in the title race) and the 512S/512M will go down as one of the greatest sports racing cars of all time.

Unfortunately for Ferrari, the boys at Stuttgart were determined to win, and rolled out not one of the best sports cars of all time, but two. The 917 and the 908/3. With the previous year’s 908/2 as a reliable backup.

And in 1970, they used them to such good effect that they had already wrapped up the Manufacturers’ title before Le Mans. Now, if you know anything about sports car racing, you’ll know that Le Mans is traditionally held round about the second weekend of June. It was in 1970 too. So that’s like having the F1 championship sorted before Canada – which is traditionally (and irritatingly) often held on the same weekend.

Sports Car racing was much bigger in those days, a proper championship that both teams and spectators cared about. And Porsche wanted to win it.

The 917 was one of the great cars of all time. You might prefer it in the powder blue and orange of Gulf and John Wyer’s team, or maybe the red and white of Porsche Austria from Salzburg. Or the barmy psychedelic colour scheme that the Martini team ran at Le Mans. You might prefer the short tail version, or the Langheck (long tail) version. They are all fabulous.

I still love the 908/3 though. A car, essentially an F1 car with covered wheels, built to deal with the twists and turns of the Targa Florio, still 72km (40ish miles) long in it’s later days (they raced over 11 laps) but still each lap is longer than 20 laps of the Monaco circuit. That’s a proper street circuit.

They used the Targa spec 908/3 to good effect at the Nürburgring too. Ferrari did manage to win at Monza to keep the championship alive, but by the end of the Nürburgring race on May 31, Porsche had sealed the title. Admittedly, they had more cars running than Ferrari, but that was part of the game. Teams could buy cars and race them, indeed, manufacturers had to build sufficient cars so that this could happen. And while Ferrari often only claimed to have built the requisite number of cars, Porsche really did…

Porsche 917s at Zuffenhausen. Why didn’t they swap 915 and 916 for the picture?

Two races that year (other than Le Mans, which has its own life in the Steve McQueen film) stand out: Spa and Brands Hatch. And one driver: Pedro Rodriguez.

In 1970, races at Spa were still being held on the long circuit, and I won’t bore you here with tales of the Masta Kink again. All I’ll say is that it was fast. Very fast. Pedro set his fastest lap of the race at 3 min, 16.5 secs, which sounds like a long time. But his average speed was 258 kph (160.5 mph). Blindingly quick in a long distance race. I know JP Montoya went slightly quicker than this over one lap at Monza in qualifying, but I don’t think he did in a race. Please let me know if I’m wrong – and either way, this is a much longer lap and a 30 year older car.

But it’s the Brands Hatch 1000km race that stands out. We hear a lot about driving standards at the moment – ignoring blue or yellow flags, blocking etc but that’s not a new phenomenon. It was a rain-affected race and soon after the start, one of the Lolas spun on the main straight. The yellows came out and the leaders slowed, apart from Pedro, who barely lifted. Out came the black flag (which he ignored for a good few laps, although I’m guessing that vision was not great, and there were no radios) meaning that Pedro had to come in for an interview with the Clerk of the Course. Not a drive-through penalty, not even a stop and go. A stop, get out, and go up to the Clerk of the Course’s office, where you will get a stern telling off and if you’re lucky he’ll let you go back into the race.

Pedro was furious (although he had sensibly nodded contritely whilst in the presence of the CotC) and set off into the spray determined to wring the best out of the car. This is the race for which Pedro Rodriguez will probably be most remembered; partnered with a pay driver, his job was to do most of the driving, and build up a lead that his slower partner would not lose. And he certainly did that. The race was 235 laps long, but no other car managed to complete more than 230. Despite his unwanted interview Pedro managed to lap everybody else five times. Impressive isn’t the word.

Pedro sadly died in 1971 at the wheel of a Ferrari 512, doubly tragic as his younger brother Ricardo had been killed in practice for the 1962 Mexican Grand Prix. How do families cope with that?

We have another Mexican in F1 now, and next year he’ll be in one of the quickest cars there is. If Checo does win a race next year, I hope he remembers Pedro and Ricardo during the driver interviews.

If this has awoken your interest in Sports Car racing, you could do worse than watch Porsche’s film of that year:

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bruno Senna and Williams

Yesterday I was looking at a website that I used to write for, and saw that in a poll about whether Bruno Senna is the right driver for Williams this year, only 25% of respondents said yes. Admittedly, another 25% weren’t sure, which as far as I am concerned is a better answer, but 50% seem to think that they know better than the Williams team management.

They don’t phrase it like that of course, it’s probably never occurred to them. And undoubtedly people have different reasons for saying that he’s not. So let’s take a look at a few of those reasons:
  • Rubens is doing a good job and deserves another year in F1. I’m sorry, but nobody “deserves” anything in F1. If you are not doing absolutely the best job that can be done for the team, you should be replaced with someone that can do the job better. Regardless whether you are the driver, the technical director, an aero analyst or the guy that drives parts to the airport. What’s more difficult, is how you define the role of “driver”, but we’ll look at that later.
  • Bruno is a pay driver and F1 shouldn’t have pay drivers. Some of you may know my view that Bruno, Adrian, Jérôme and Co are not pay drivers, but drivers that bring a budget. A “pay driver” is someone who is there only to bring the team money, in much the same way as Brands Hatch makes money if we pay to drive one of their single seaters. Giovanni Lavaggi was a “pay driver”, Bruno et al are not. When you accept that all drivers get paid different amounts, is it actually a big step to accept that some of those amounts could conceivably be zero or negative?
  • Bruno is not likely to drive as well as Rubens. Well, Rubens has certainly had some mega drives at various stages in his career and didn’t do too badly last year but we are simply not in a position to analyse this. We know he is “experienced” and although we hear that he communicates well with engineers, maybe Bruno is even better? He apparently had extensive time in the simulator for the team to evaluate him, and looking at his performance against Petrov, after stepping in mid-season (remember Fisichella and Badoer at Ferrari) he did well in what was effectively his first F1 car
  • Someone else should have got the drive. Well, clearly not - otherwise Williams would have picked them. I’m sure they’d have loved to have kept Hulkenberg after 2010, but that wasn’t an option, for financial reasons, but I’ll cover that in a later piece.
The driver is a figurehead of a team, a key personality and undoubtedly some drivers are better than others. But they are not just slotted into a car and off you go. Every driver has strengths, and areas that are not so strong, and these areas need to be matched to the team and the car.

When a team picks a driver, they do it for reasons that are unique to that team. The financial package, much talked about in connection with Bruno, is one of those aspects, but it's far from the only one; a topic for another time perhaps? And as Williams picked Bruno, he’s right for the job. It’s as simple as that. If you don't agree, you could always start your own team.

This piece was originally posted on where I now write a weekly comment on Wednesdays