Monthly Archives: October 2012

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The View from Baku

Janos Wimpffen sends us an updated despatch from the shores of the Caspian Sea, as ever his analysis cuts straight to the chase. Having been fortunate enough to have fantastic imagery from Pedro, we are now doubly fortunate to have available from the organisers, some of David Noels’ excellent work I understand. NB the press manager, Rene de Boer, now informs me that the great images below are also the work of Raymond de Haan, so I am pleased to give credit where it is due.

Zero to 100 in a Few Days

The City Challenge GT race held in Baku, Azerbaijan on the last weekend of October may have been off the radar for many racing fans. It shouldn’t be. It was a great successful on many levels. In addition to some fine track activity, the organization and atmosphere was top notch. It should herald a new era of street circuit racing and has opened many eyes to how motorsport can expand its horizons to new markets and conversely, how some excellent corners of the globe can be exposed to the motorsport community.

Throughout the past few decades both Formula One and Sports Car Racing have been exported to ever more exotic locales. Each move has expanded the global horizons of the sport. The City Challenge race in Baku proved to be a success on a large scale, bringing top level GT racing to a local audience of tens of thousands and broad TV coverage of a new age of street circuit racing.

 

The short of it was that the pairing of Fred Makowiecki and Stef Dusseldorp scored a convincing win in the Hexis Racing McLaren MP4-12C. The 3.8-liter turbocharged supercar has proven to be formidable in these sprint settings. They had to overcome a persistent challenge from three BMWs entered by anotheroutfit regularly seen on the GT circus, the Vit4One Racing Team. The Z4 of Frank Kechele and Mathias Lauda was rarely more than a few seconds behind the eventual winners.

The past few seasons have proven to be both the best and worst of times for GT racing. The American Le Mans Series has revelled in the production based class as it has provided some of the finest contests in that championship. Apart from North America, the GT3 specification has become the global norm and many of the nationally based series using the corresponding balance of performance based rules have seen ample fields with a mix of professional and amateur drivers. However, the concept has struggled at the highest level with the FIA GT1 World and European GT3 Championships both foundering. The former, which despite the name used GT3 based machinery, was cancelled after a mediocre 2012 season.

Undaunted, the German based City Challenge company launched a new GT3 formula concept this October. They had previously been associated with FIA GT races held in downtown Bucharest, Romania, in 2007-2008, and now ran a pilot race for a potential series of an urban based championship a year or two down the road. The chosen venue this time was Baku. A quick geography lesson: it is the capital city of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic in the Caucasus area, bordering the inland Caspian Sea.

Baku is a quite prosperous locale, currently undergoing an oil boom with a pipeline that feeds Europe. It had seen such oil riches in the days of the Rockefellers in the 19th century as well as success much earlier as a transport hub for the silk trade. As a result there is wide mix of building styles, with some spectacular new architecture. Although there is some volatility in the region (Iran borders on the south), the Turkic Azeris enjoy a very stable setting.

The short (2.4-kilometre / 1.3-mile) circuit has been laid out near the waterfront and around a complex of government and hotel buildings. It has the usual string of 90-degree bends, interspersed by a few chicanes to manage entrance speeds. The front boulevard is wide and long enough to allow the odd pass or two.

The City Challenge is more than just a motor race with a plethora of music and arts events as well such as a Cirque du Soleil like acrobatics show. Despite the wealth, the country has no motorsport heritage at all, so an event if this stature is a rapid introduction to sports car racing at the highest level. This dearth of a past has led to some odd questions from the local press such as, “how do I sign up to drive?” No, it’s not that amateur.

All of the infrastructure, expertise, and most of the teams were imported from Germany, giving the event much of the feel of the ADAC GT Masters series, currently Europe’s most successful GT3 based series. Teething glitches aside, the event proved a great success as both the local and German organizers stepped forward to put together a truly world class extravaganza.

The format of the Baku City Challenge race included five sessions that matter. These consisted of one 30-minute qualifying period for Driver One and another for Driver Two. They set the grid for a pair of half-hour sprint races, again, one for each of the assigned drivers. Saturday’s solo events were followed by the main event on Sunday, a one hour race with a mandatory pit stop and driver change.

There was also imported star power as former Grand Prix driver Jos Verstappen joined former World and IndyCar champ Jacques Villeneuve in one of the three BMW Z4s in the field. That nearly came undone when the veteran Canadian slapped the wall during one of the free practice sessions. A local welder was summoned. Dragging his equipment into pit lane with an old Lada the BMW was repaired overnight.

Indeed, this was just one example of an amazing can-do local spirit. In the weeks before the race the German organizers were concerned about the Azerbaijanis ability to construct the course. The benignly autocratic government “urged” dozens of contractors to suspend other projects and it became a 24/7 effort to install barriers and fencing. The results were top notch. One can think of many other countries where the results would have been delayed, slapdash and met with much opposition. In the end, one could sense a keen and genuine pride from the citizenry.

Returning to the race, the sharp end of the field included Franck Kechele and Matthias Lauda (Niki’s son) in one of the other Vit4One BMWs and a pair of McLarens from FIA GT champions, Hexis Racing. Another headline driver was Bernd Schneider in one of the Heico Motorsport Mercedes SLS AMG gullwings. Two Corvettes, three Ferraris, and a seemingly endless string of Cup and R-type Porsches completed the 24-car entry. The word “entry” is important to remember as the unforgiving concrete walls of street courses have a tendency to eat cars.

For that reason it is not even worth mentioning the three Lamborghini Gallardos none of which even made it to the first sprint race.

Kechele, Sean Edwards (Mühlner Motorsport Porsche), and Fred Makowiecki traded the top spot in a spirited opening qualifying with the latter’s McLaren prevailing. Makowiecki’s co-driver, rising star Stef Dusseldorp, also claimed the pole for the second sprint ahead of the BMWs of Lauda and Nicholas Mayr-Melnhof.

All indications were that the races would be fought between the BMWs, the McLarens, and the Edwards Porsche as these three marques were alone in swapping the fastest times.The first sprint was hard to describe as anything but processional. Makowiecki led from green to checker with Edwards only able to close up briefly when the McLaren bobbled at one of the chicanes. There were no position changes among the top eight but at least everyone stayed on the island.

The same could not be said for the second sprint. There was some modest chaos at the start when the mid pack runners arrived at the first chicane. Some took to either side of the rumble strips while at least one Porsche launched over the miniature markers. All continued without any real contact. More important for the race there was also some jostling at the front with Lauda edging past Dusseldorp while Alvaro Parente in the other McLaren demoted the rest for a hold on second place.Just as it appeared that there would be a good four car tussle there was a collision further back between a Ferrari and a Mercedes. Both cars kept going but Giacomo Barri’s damaged 458 was spilling fluid and the following Corvette of Mitch Mitländer spun on the coolant and clouted the wall, bringing out a red flag. After a 20 minute delay the field was released for a second time. Again we looked set for a good fight but eight minutes later the remaining Corvette was involved in a far more serious incident. Jürg Aeberhard struck the wall hard at the lap ending Turn 16. The car caught fire and although the driver scrambled out safely on the passenger side the wall had been moved a good meter and debris was scattered in every direction. The race was stopped again—this time for good. As the nearest Chevrolet parts supply house is the better part of a continent away, the starting field for Sunday’s finale dwindled once more.

It seems that neither of the big American cars was able to get their tire temperatures quite hot enough. The results certainly spoke to that possibility.The grid of the one-hour feature was to have been based on the aggregate of the two sprints. However, the stoppage led to some head scratching as to rules interpretation. It was decided that due to a clause in the regulations the grid for the 60-minute run would be based on the results of the morning’s second qualifying and the first sprint. Thus the carnage filled second sprint was beside the point.

At least the large crowd was well entertained, not only by the circus and music, but also by a historic F1 race and a drifting demo.

The less damaged Corvette was repaired for Sunday and there was a driver change in the No. 66 Porsche. Team owner Timo Rumpfkeil stepped aside in favor of a rising Dutch star, Beitske Visser, who at age 18 is the youngest woman to have won GT races in her home country.

Here was the top of starting grid after it all was settled:

#17, Hexis Racing, McLaren MP4-12C, starting driver, Frederic Makowiecki, 2nd driver, Stef Dusseldorp

#33, Vit4One, BMW Z4, Frank Kechele, Mathias Lauda

#18, Hexis Racing, McLaren, Rob Bell, Alvo Parente

#35, Vit4One, BMW, Yelmer Buurman, Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof

#6, Heico Motorsport, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, Sergey Afanasyev, Bernd Schneider

#57, Vit4One Italy, Ferrari F458, Stefano Comandini, Matteo Bobbi

#9, Mühlner Motorsport, Porsche 997 GT3R, Karim Al-Azhari, Sean Edwards

#7, Heico Motorsport, Mercedes-Benz, Mike Parisy, Maximillian Buhk

#58, Vit4One Italy, Ferrari, Louis Machiels, Greg Franchi

#34, Vit4One, BMW, Jacques Villeneuve, Jos Verstappen.

The rules for the 60-minute race called for a mandatory stop coming within a 10-minute window. The stop had to consume at least 75 seconds during which there was a required driver change and a swap of the spec Hankook tires. Most of the teams had learned their lessons and the circuit well enough so that the start was perhaps the smoothest of the three races. Nevertheless, the Tews Porsche grazed the wall and spent much of the race in the pits having one corner repaired. The two Mercedes exchanged a love kiss which was enough to allow Mike Parisy to pass Sergey Afanasyev, but more importantly it played a role in a demon start by Karim Al-Azhari, launching his Porsche past the gullwings.

Makowiecki built up a three second lead and this diminished a bit as delicate began of lapping slower cars around the unforgiving corners. The McLaren’s position was solidified a bit when the chasing BMWs became distracted by their own internal fight. Frank Kechele was holding off the advances of Yelmer Buurman but a slide behind the Government House nearly cost the German driver second place. Most of the leaders waited until quite late in the pit stop window to make their required calls, mostly because they were all using their faster drivers at the start and wished to maximize their contribution. Kechele was the first of the leading trio to stop, handing over to Lauda. Makowiecki handed over to Dusseldorp which briefly left Buurman in the lead before the second BMW stopped for a swap to Mayr-Melnhof.

Not all of the stops went this smoothly. The crew of the Easy Race Ferrari neglected to tighten one lug nut and Giacomo Barri took the wobbling car behind the wall on the out lap and not risk catastrophe out on the circuit. One of the other Ferraris was penalized for a pit stop violation and when former GT champion Matteo Bobbi came into the pits to serve the penalty he promptly stepped from the cockpit and with an Italian gesture or two sulked off down the streets of Baku. It negated an excellent start by co-driver Stefano Comandini.

Another car that had run well at the start, the No. 9 Porsche, also had to visit the penalty box, as their scheduled stop had been too short. That squandered the fact that Edwards had set the fast lap of the race. Lauda closed on Dusseldorp during the third quarter of the race but it was clearly going to be the McLaren’s day. Bernd Schneider worked hard to recover spots for his Mercedes and after several laps worked past the No. 9 Porsche. Earlier in the race the lone Corvette had spun, stopped, and continued, but with 8 minutes to run the No. 20 Porsche was stranded on course when its engine electronics went dead. A very short and efficient full-course caution was needed while it was towed off and the balance of the race went on unimpeded with Dusseldorp winning by five seconds. The young Dutch driver expressed the sentiments of most of the participants, “we came with no expectations and are going home very impressed.”

Indeed, the real winners of the inaugural City Challenge race were the street circuit concept, GT racing in general, international motorsport diplomacy, and the people of Baku.

Janos Wimpffen, October 2012


The Sun Rises in the East

Pedro has been out and about again…….more great images from the Caucasus.

Saturday Night Special

The City Challenge in Baku continues to surprise, I am delighted to post not only another fine selection of images from Pedro.

 


Caspian Full Strength

There have been many attempts to bring motor sport to new markets, some more successful than others and this weekend sees the latest in the line. The City Challenge is kicking off in the centre of Baku, taking racing to the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Peter “Pedro” May is on duty for DSC and DDC, here is a first glimpse at the proceedings. Featuring drivers such as Sniff Petrol favourite, Jacques Villeneuve, in the feature race plus a drifting display and historic F1, the event will hopefully be the first of many such happenings.

John Brooks October 2012

The Cupboard is Bare

From today’s Daily Telegraph

The challenges facing car makers were also laid bare by Peugeot which has accepted state aid for its lending arm.

Peugeot said it was close to an agreement on €11.5bn (£9.3bn) of refinancing and had secured state guarantees on a further €7bn for Banque PSA Finance,.

In return for the funds the French group said it would suspend dividend payments, scrap stock options for its top executives, and appoint government and union board representatives.

Anyone still think that they may go racing any time soon?

John Brooks, October 2012

Gone With The Wind…………………….

Last month the news came down the Mojo wire that Doctor Don had sold the whole American Le Mans Series shebang, lock, stock and barrel, to the Good ‘Ole Boys on West International Speedway Boulevard. Predictably this transaction was spun as a merger with NASCAR, but the money went in one direction, the control in the opposite. Well all things must pass and this unification has been a long time coming and certainly makes commercial sense. That is one area that you can be sure that the France family will have done their homework on, the deal will make money.


There have been the predictable howls from the ALMS/IMSA crowd, the true believers, the Jedi Warriors of sportscar racing in North America, that the Force has deserted them and the Empire aka NASCAR/GrandAm has triumphed and maybe that is so. From my distant perch, and no longer chasing the circus as I had done ten years or more ago, I am perhaps less concerned with the future. Considering the present situation my thoughts drifted back to the beginning of the adventure, when the possibilities seemed boundless.


George Canning, a Britsh Statesman back in the time when we had such Ministers in power, famously said “I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.” And so it seemed with the birth of the ALMS in 1999. We had somehow stood by and allowed the odious FIA politicians and money men to destroy the World Endurance Championship and Group C at the turn of the 90’s.

The great GT revival that was the BPR Global GT Series morphed into FIA GT Championship and burned briefly and brightly in 1997. History repeated itself and the usual suspects were rounded up for another hatchet job. The whole edifice crashed back to Earth in 1998, why and how is a story is for another time and place. We were in the final stages of that fall, on the US trail leading us to Homestead and Laguna Seca, that was a contrast.

The week before we were presented with a vision of the future when we rocked up to a charming, if somewhat rustic, Road Atlanta. The event was billed as Petit Le Mans and was run on October 11th 1998, over a distance of 1000 miles or 10 hours, whichever came first. For those of us who loved this aspect of the sport it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Those of us arriving from Europe were in for a real culture shock, veterans of Le Mans we may have been but the rules, though apparently the same, were interpreted in a completely different way. A bit like the difference between English as spoken in the Mother Country and how it is mangled on the other side of the Atlantic. Then throw in the antics of the ACO trying to infuse their singularly Gallic approach to motorsport into this already spicy mix and a rare old carambolage was in prospect, And yet, right from day one, when the first engine coughed into life, the whole thing just gelled, this mix of New World and Old World turned out to be something special.


Today, sitting on a flight bound for Maynard Hartsfield International, I look back and give thanks that I had a small walk on part as an extra at the birth of this great adventure. Sure, like most folks in the business who are realists, I think that this weekend coming will see the penultimate Petit Le Mans and that this instant classic will disappear in the 2014 DP-fest, when we will engage in a form of automotive time travel back to the latter part of the last century, still we are all dead in the long run.


Road Atlanta in the fall of 1998 was a very special time and place to be in, I doubt that I recognised it at the time, but a week later the contrast when down at Miami-Homestead Speedway, was all too evident. I knew which one I preferred. There was a prospect of hope, the promise of of titanic battles in the years to follow of the automotive greats. Brands such as Audi, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Toyota and Viper were all whispered as being just round the corner, some actually were and did eventually show up.


Dynamite was in the air as Panoz’ men blasted away a huge area to create the new pit lane on driver’s right, opposite the traditional spot. Of course like all major infrastructure projects this one ran a bit late, so things were not quite finished. The major effect of this was for us all to be tinged reddish brown from the Georgia clay, it never did come out of my boots or firesuit. The media centre was a huge tent, probably dating from the Civil War, it was hot and noisy during the day and cold and damp first thing in the morning, the condensation fell on to our heads like the first heavy drops of the Monsoon in Bombay. The phone lines that we connected our modems to worked intermittently, if at all, but that was par for the course back then. On the other hand the track was perhaps at its annual best, with the fall colours complimenting the ubiquitous mud and the whole place having a healthy glow about it.


Down off the junction with I-85, Chateau Elan had recently been unveiled and certainly looked impressive, though a lunch there one day revealed that the local vintage was not Grand Cru. It might have been better applied to remove rust from old trenching tools but that meant there would be no glugging the stuff, and at the price on the menu that was a good thing. One bright star on the estate was the Irish Bar, Paddy’s, but more of that later. I was booked in with David Price Racing at a local Braselton hotel, next to the Interstate it was noisy, and on the first night a faulty fire alarm scared the bejaysus out of me. I was convinced that the locals were taking random shots at the hotel, and only the absence of banjo music prevented me from fleeing into the night. Of course in the cold light of dawn I merely looked foolish……plus ca change.


The entry for the first Petit Le Mans should have been mega, the winners in each class would receive automatic invites to the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours, always the pinnacle of endurance racing. Add that to the fact that the FIA GT circus was in Florida, a hop over the State line and the grid should have been bursting. Of course this being sportscar racing things are never as simple as they seem, politics are always just around the corner. The story was that the planned FIA International Prototype Championship would not appreciate the competition in 1999 that a strong North American endurance series, the ALMS, would bring. All those dollars chasing the biggest market on the planet, particularly for the luxury brands involved, would certainly made the ALMS an inviting choice. So the word came down from the FIA GT to avoid the opening event, or so the conspiracy theorists amongst us believed. To be fair, a contract had been drawn up between the FIA GT and the promoters at the two final events, so a demolition derby in the backwoods North of Atlanta would have been a major headache, especially financially. Maybe it was more a case of Deep Pockets rather than Deep Throat.


Porsche AG ignored these entreaties, sending one of their 1998 Le Mans winning type 911 GT1 98 rockets, with Allan McNish, Yannick Dalmas and Uwe Alzen on duty in the cockpit.

Another Le Mans winner, the Porsche LMP1 98 was on hand as back up to the GT1 racer, Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Jörg Müller were the crew.

Down in GT2 Larbre and Freisinger also broke ranks with their Porsche 911 GT2s plus Cor Euser’s Marcos LM600, but that was it from the FIA GT Championship.


There had been anticipation that some of prototypes from the International Sports Racing Series might make the trip, but at the last minute the factory backed BMW Riley & Scott pair withdrew, following a string of catastrophic engine failures. The project would be quietly throttled following a surprise win at Laguna Seca later in the month, not BMW’s finest hour. In the end Solution 24 sent their Riley & Scott but engine failure in the warm up ended their race before it began. Mangoletsi’s Barmy Army had a date in Kyalami the following month so most of the rest of his grid opted for that course.


The native prototype entry was led by a trio of Ferrari 333SPs entered by Doyle/Risi, Fredy Lienhard and Bill Dollahite.

Absent as a result of a squabble with the organisers were the pair of Dyson Riley & Scotts, one surfaced later at the ISRS Kyalami event. Four other Riley & Scott entries took the start (Henry Camferdam, Jim Matthews and Intersport (x2)).

A brand new four rotor Kudzu was finished in the paddock for Jim Downing to swell the numbers.

Then there were the pair of factory Panoz GTR-1s, reduced to one, after Jamie Davis clouted the wall in practice, damaging the tub beyond immediate repair.

Perhaps the most interesting, and ultimately significant entry, was the Panoz Q9, this being the racing debut of “Sparky”, the electric hybrid car. An attempt to run at Le Mans foundered on the Pre-Qualifying Weekend, the car was too new to be competitive, six months development would make all the difference.

Also in the GT1 contingent was the Champion Racing Porsche 911 GT1 Evo.

The local GT battle was a Porsche v BMW affair. So the final score card showed 33 entries, 31 Qualified and 29 to actually take the Green Flag, the quantity and quality would be enough to ensure the future of the American Le Mans Series.


The race had an unsteady start after Kelly Collins’ Porsche dumped all its engine oil on to the first corner during the pace lap, so eventually after much spreading of cement dust or whatever they use in Atlanta, the mad rush for the first corner  commenced. The McNish GT1 Porsche ran away from the field, being way faster than the Ferraris.

The first significant casualty was the Lienhard 333SP after running out of fuel, the race settled down to being a battle for second between Doyle/Risi’s 333SP and the sole surviving Panoz, with the delayed Porsche LMP1 98 a lap or so down.


McNish completed his stint with a commanding lead, Dalmas jumped in and continued the strong pace and just before the conclusion of his spell at the wheel came the moment that crashed You Tube’s servers, metaphorically speaking. Following the other werks Porsche closely over the notorious back straight hump, the GT1 98 suffered a total loss of downforce in the turbulence and the Frenchman joined the Road Atlanta Aviators’ Club.

I was in Porsche’s pit awaiting the impending stop, next to a suited and booted Uwe Alzen. Pandemonium descended as the ancient television set that acted as a monitor showed endless slow motion re-runs of the Porsche’s flight. Norbert Singer and the other Porsche crew and management struggled to make contact with the stricken car but soon word filtered through the driver was OK. Amazingly so was the car, the gearbox and engine were swapped out and it was back on duty six days later at Homestead.

That was quite enough excitement for one race but this event still had a few twists and turns both on and off the track. During a stop to change brake pads on the surviving factory Porsche I was over the wall snapping away furiously when I became aware of a voice yelling at me to get clear of the car as it was going to leave, Given that the mechanics were still struggling with the red hot smoking pads and the car was on the jacks I shouted back that this machine was going nowhere fast. The yelling had come from Dick Martin, who ran the pit lane for IMSA, a man unaccustomed to having to debate his calls, particularly with a gobby Brit. Next thing I know he is having me chucked out of the pit lane, much to my amazement. A swift intervention from the then hirsute Regis Lefebure, the famous small, but perfectly formed, photographer and world class pffafer calmed us both down. Peace was restored and apologies, mainly from me, were proffered. Later I came to appreciate the efforts that Mr Martin and his officials would make on our behalf, despite the overwhelming evidence that most, if not all photographers were a bit slow when it came to self preservation. Now retired, he will be missed this weekend coming, not least by me. I have to say that IMSA Officials set the bar high when it comes to assisting the media, especially the PITA snappers, others might watch and learn with profit.

One of the features of the first PLM was getting to know a bit better the band of American photographers. These guys would become my companions in the next four seasons as I tramped around from track to track in the USA and Canada, a camp follower of the ALMS circus. Some are still friends, some have left the scene and some I still don’t want to think about, so Regis, Rick, Pete, Hal, Bob, Rich, Tim and Dennis take a bow. I am sure there were plenty of others but these guys were around that fall of ‘98 and my memory is getting a little hazy.


Back on track it looked as if Doctor Don would celebrate a famous victory for the car and team bearing his name in the race that he created, however the engine went bang with the Chequered Flag almost in sight. Motorsport is often a cruel past time and this was almost too much to bear for Tony Dowe’s crew.


After 9 hours 48 minutes of track action the Doyle/Risi Ferrari 333SP, driven by Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard crossed the finish line just over a minute in front of the factory Porsche LMP1 98. Third was the Champion Racing 911 GT1 EVO.

GT2 honours fell to Michel Ligonnet and Lance Stewart in the Freisinger Porsche 911 GT2, while the local GT title went to the Porsche of Pete Argetsinger, Richard Polidori and Angelo Cilli. It had been a race to remember and an event to celebrate.


Celebrations……….yes celebrations, There was an touch of madness in the air that Saturday, the first example I observed was Luigi Dindo, the main man at Michelotto, who had built the winning car, singing, if you could call it that, after enjoying a good quantity of the victor’s Champagne. “Daaytonaa, Seeebring, Petit Le Mansss” he chanted, as pleased as punch with the 1998 record of the glorious sounding but frankly outdated Ferrari, we still laugh about his operatic skills. Certainly the V12 had a better song.

More celebrations were to be found in Paddy’s a little later. Remember this was the time before digital cameras, so no endless nights pumping out dross on to the World Wide Web as happens these days. No, we packed up our gear, threw the film canisters into a bag and headed out to the bar, oh happy days.


I spent a considerable amount of time while in Atlanta in the company of Porsche guru, writer and historian, Kerry Morse, so much so that we developed something of a reputation for……..well I’ll leave that to your imagination but we usually inspired a reaction from the other denizens of the Paddock. Somehow, as if by magic, we ended up after the race at Paddy’s with the DPR crew led by Dave Price himself. I recall much tall tales and laughter and the bloody bar running out of beer, they had little experience of the British and German motorsport community and had grossly underestimated our capacity for getting refreshed. After a few hours of merriment Morse and I repaired to a local establishment called The Waffle House. It was my first encounter with this chain and certainly it was an eye opener, queueing at around 2.30 am for a breakfast with what seemed half the population of Braselton. If I recall Morse was decidedly uncool and asked the waitress for separate checks.


For the next day a vague plan had been hatched to roll over with McNish and a few others to Talledega to see the NASCAR race, till the locals laughed at us for thinking that we could just rock up without tickets and get in. The lateness of the hour that we got back to the hotel also contributed to our decision to change plans and take things easy. So Morse instead headed for the airport to return to SoCal, I had Homestead on the radar, to be followed a week later by the Monterey Peninsula.


The premier Petit Le Mans had been a great event, we had witnessed a star being born. The shockwaves generated by this new kid on the block resulted in a tsunami of top quality racing down the years cresting with the 2008 ALMS season, arguably the finest motorsport on the planet that year, of any shape or size.

Perhaps this ramble should conclude here with a touch of class, God knows it needs it, so I leave you with this.
In a passage in his master work “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, one of my literary heroes, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, caught that sense of ache and regret in looking back and knowing that the land of lost content was gone forever. He was referring specifically to the scene surrounding San Francisco in the middle 60’s but this condition is universal amongst mankind as they follow their course from beginning to end.
“Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

John Brooks, October 2012

Ps Apologies for all the tilt and shift attempts at “creativity”, I put it down to prolonged exposure to Morse, that and Moonshine.

Full of Eastern Promise

The attention of the endurance sportscar world  has been rightly focused out East this weekend, to the majestic Fuji Speedway, nestling in the shadow of Mount Fuji. My mind drifts back to the last century and the previous FIA sportscar race in Japan, the enticingly titled Pokka Sweat 1000 Kilometres.

Sweat was indeed much in evidence during that event, run in baking hot conditions with nasty August in Japan humidity, a photographer’s lot was not a happy one. Another whose lot was less than joyous during that era was Porsche AG, as the AMG Mercedes steamroller beat them like a gong for the whole of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Suzuka was no exception and the lead CLK LM, with favoured son Bernd Schneider and his side kick Mark Webber in the cockpit, won easily by two laps.

The AMG pair were aided in this convincing victory by the blunder in the early part of the race by one of their team mates, Ricardo Zonta. Zonta was duelling for second spot with the Porsche 911 GT1 98 of Allan McNish (who else?) and used one of the GT2 Porsches driven by Claudia Hürtgen to assist with late braking, the result when the dust cleared was that all three cars were beached in the gravel trap. To add insult to injury the marshals got Zonta on his way first, leaving an incandescent McNish to wait his turn. The race was over as a contest, barring misfortunes for #1 AMG.

The incident cost the Porsches a couple of laps and Zonta later received a drive through penalty for his misjudgement, though this did nothing to restore the time lost by McNish.

While the Wee Scot was matching Schneider’s lap times before the incident it required something of a leap of faith to imagine that this could be maintained by Yannick Dalmas and Stéphane Ortelli over the 1000 kilometres. In the end the lead Porsche finished a lap down on the #2 Merc to grab the final step on the podium.

The second entry from Weissach suffered a number of misfortunes that first blunted, then eventually ended their challenge for the podium. Mid-race Bob Wollek had contact with a slower car in the chicane and drove the short distance into the pits against the flow of traffic to check the damage. As I wrote at the time, this eccentric piece of driving incurred the ire of the Stewards who awarded him a three minute Stop and Go penalty. That observation incurred the ire of “Brilliant Bob” when he later read it and he threatened the magazine with legal action, even by his standards he was especially touchy that summer.
Jörg Müller finished the day for #8, when once again there was contact with another car in the final chicane. This time it was Geoff Lees in Thomas Bscher’s McLaren F1 GTR who was hit by the Porsche, both crews enjoyed an early bath, Nul Points Reykjavik.

The rest of the GT1 field had a pretty nondescript afternoon, the Persson Mercedes CLK GTR pair showing their 1997 pedigree, finished 4th and 7th, while the singleton DAMS Panoz thundered round to 5th. The Zakspeed Porsche 911 GT1 98 duo could only manage 6th and 8th.

The GT1 category had a fin de siècle feel in the heat and humidity of Japan that year, exaggerated by the rumours that the FIA GT Championship, 1999 style, would be for GT2 cars only. Having invested heavily in this form of competition, Mercedes Benz were keen to go racing somewhere other than Le Mans in the following season. A month or two later we were all dragooned into a press conference in beautiful downtown Miami-Homestead Speedway. Stéphane Ratel was at his charismatic and visionary best, revealing the proposed FIA International Prototype Championship that would pit Mercedes against Porsche and possibly Toyota, Nissan and Audi. The factory contingent would be padded out by a motley crew of GT1/GT2 survivors and prototype inductees who would be press ganged in from the newly formed International Sports Racing Series. The problem was that there were not enough of the true believers, heretics and cynics were found at every turn.

Mango’s Barmy Army in the ISRS may have earned their title many times over, but even daft as they were, they would not fancy a regular drubbing from the Silver Arrows, no matter how good or guaranteed the start money was. Look at how AMG annhilated the Porsche Werks effort in ’98, the score ended up at 10-0 in Stuttgart’s favour. Porsche’s Le Mans prototype project was about to be  killed off by Dr. Wendelin Wiedeking, the CEO, who preferred to invest the cash in Porsche’s new light truck range, the Cayenne. Those of us with true grit gave him the raspberry at the time but he had the last laugh when the multitudes with questionable taste queued round the block to pay full price for this odd vision of a Porsche. PT Barnum really knew what he was talking about. Toyota had another cunning plan in mind in their quest to spend riches of Croesus on mediocre motorsport, go to Formula One. Nissan fired TWR after Le Mans 1998 and then realised that they were bust in all but name, so motorsport went out the window. Audi were in no hurry to tangle with their German rivals, reasoning that they had much to learn about the sport of driving long distances fast. So the IPC was a dead duck almost from the start and then the newly formed ALMS became the potential target for AMG and Mercedes. The aviation disasters at La Sarthe the following June extinguished that dream.

All of which meant that the GT2 battle was under increased scrutiny, as this was our probable future. The contest, such as it was, had three elements Chrysler Vipers versus the factory blessed Roock Porsche 911 GT2 and Cor Euser in his fierce Marcos LM 600.

The reality was that the 911 GT2 was beyond any further significant development, the Marcos was quick with the fearless Euser at the wheel, less so when the money men were in the hot seat and the Oreca run Chryslers were an absolutely better package than anything else.

At the start Cor did his usual thing jumped into the lead, irritating the Viper pair, but it was just a matter of time and so it proved with #51 just edging out #52 to give Chrysler a 1-2. Zonta’s indiscretion stuffed the lead Roock 911’s race and behind that it was just a gaggle of GT2 Porsches making up the numbers.

A few locals had rocked up to excite those who enjoy diversity on the entry list. The Kunimitsu Takahashi Honda NSX-S was actually faster than the Vipers in Qualifying, a result, no doubt, of a collaboration with Dome, but the engine blew early in the race.

The other respectable performance, speed-wise, from the Japanese contingent was the Toyota Supra LM that was also quicker over one lap than the Oreca entries, but it struggled to make an impact during the race.

In the end home grown honours were taken by a rather plodding Nissan Sylvia.

From the adrenaline climb that GT Racing had enjoyed from 1995 to 1997, the 1998 season was flat and rather expensive. It could not continue, especially as no one was keen to take on AMG Mercedes, and the North American market was about to offer exciting opportunities, the first Petit Le Mans was just round the corner. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

John Brooks, October 2012

 

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time in the West

American Gothic
Much trepidation over WTCC’s first USA visit.  Would we be subjected to another European export that can’t survive the crossing, a steaming helping of tripes a la mode de Caen — the chance to watch old men grinding the tires off of a gaggle of front-drive shit-box SEAT Leons that Americans have likely never even heard of?

Un-American

Sunday, a surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowd turned-up at the raceway in Sonoma to see what it was all about — and the racing was quite entertaining.  I had to scratch my head about the made-for-television format of two 13 lappers with lots of dead-time before, between, and after, but the open grid for pre-race festivities and plenty of tradin’ paint appeared to keep the youthful throng happy enough.

Trading Paint

In this age we’ve become accustomed to their short attention spans — sailing’s America’s Cup World Series was on San Francisco Bay earlier in the month, and Cup defender tech-billionaire Larry Ellison exchanged traditional blue blazer yachting’s endless hours of tacking duels for an explosion of fixed-wing catamarans contesting a series of brief high-tech dinghy races.

Future Ford

The micro-burst races of the WTCC follow a similar tack in attempting to present our old-school sport to an X-Games audience.  WTCC’s sprint-race format has the advantage of keeping the field from stringing-out, while the reverse grid assures that there is plenty of action during the brief moments during which millennial attention-spans can accept stimulation.  It’s all over before the next round of Tweets can come through.

Witness Protection Programme

Of course, I can’t imagine that the tires of a front-driver would hold-up to any more than the required 13 tours, so it works out rather well for teams trying to compete in cars employing on this unfortunate layout.  The speeds, handling, and size of the WTCC cars is quite well-suited to the Sonoma circuit.  Real racing, real teams, real drivers, well presented and organized.

G ‘n T

If the shotgun wedding of ALMS and GrandAm can be interpreted as evidence that the manufacturers are heading back to racing what they really sell, this series presents a fine showcase for the sort of car that the newly-pauperized 99-Percent are actually buying today.  Why, even Morse showed-up in a press-fleet Kia Forte rather than his accustomed Panamera Hybrid or Bentley Flying Spur.
David Soares, October 2012