Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My New Found Love

In 2011 you could be well forgiven for only having the time to follow Formula One. It has thrown up some classics this season. But this weekend, with no F1 on the TV schedule, I highly recommend looking to other motorsport alternatives this weekend to satisfy your hunger for good, high-action racing.

With the MotoGP having somewhat going downhill in terms of spectacle following a thrilling wet race in Jerez earlier on in the season, you might want to spend your Sunday watching something else. Hence, may I guide you towards one of British motorsport's gems - the British Touring Car Championship.

It's been a long five-week hiatus from some great action at Thruxton where the turbo-charged Hondas of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden rubber-stamped their marks on their Championship ambitions, each leading a 1-2 between them in race 1 and 2 amid some traditional touring car chaos. And that's the beauty of this Championship.

The series started to open my eyes in 2010 when I watched a few events during the season (most notably the Donington Park event where there was chaos in race 1 between the leaders) but it wasn't until Brands Hatch Indy at the start of 2011 when I've really begun to take a real interest in the category. 

The days are long, with three main races spread out across the day between 11am and 6pm, the support races are intriguing and action packed, the drivers aren't your superstar prima donnas that Formula One drivers maybe appear to be at times and, best of all, the category is very accessible. ITV4 presents strong coverage of the events, with a great commentary duo of Ben Edwards and Tim Harvey to guide you through the action. And if getting up close and personal to the action is more your thing, tickets for the whole weekend won't cost you an arm or a leg like many Formula One events want you to give these days.

But of course, the event wouldn't be the same if the BTCC didn't feature the close, hard and exciting racing that the category has become famous for. I would imagine there's been closer competition before in previous seasons (I hope you can forgive my lack of historical knowledge on the BTCC) as the Honda Civics look mighty - the Red Bull of the BTCC, if you will - but, just like F1, there are a lot of variables to consider which makes the BTCC so exciting to watch. The turbo-charged cars are a lot heavier on their tyres which brings the normally-aspirated cars such as the Chevrolet Cruze back into the fray.

The 2011 Season has been great from the start at Brands Hatch
The reverse-grid races at the end of the day are always entertaining to watch, with faster cars out of position and charging their way up the field. It leads to some spectacular action and keeps the audience hooked right until the end. But it's not just the reverse grids that provide all the dramatics. It only took two corners into the season to see the first crash, with MacDowell taking out former Champion Matt Neal, and in race 2 at Donington we saw Jason Plato exit the race in most spectacular fashion after mounting a hill and proceding to roll multiple times.

And, with all of the accidents and safety cars that frequently occur, they even add on laps to the lap count as the safety car comes in. More action for us!

Crashes and carnage aside, the racing is incredible and frantic. I wonder how there are so many different cars, from Honda Civics to SEAT Leons and to Toyota Avensis', yet the performance difference is at times marginal. The straight-line power of the turbo-charged cars mixing it with cars that typically beat them off the start, such as the BMW 320si's, is very exciting to watch. It really is a great sight to see a plucky Volkswagen Golf mix it with established BTCC racers such as the Cruze or the BMW.

I'm loving the BTCC this season. I may not be the biggest fan, or know the most about the sport, but I bloody love the show they put on at each event. And I highly recommend that you watch the race day at Oulton Park this coming Sunday at 11.30am. I promise you won't be disappointed by what you see.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Classic case of Deja vu

It's what every fan wants to see every season and every race. A unique and extraordinary race that will be spoken about for years to come, a "classic" Grand Prix. This year we've seen no less than five intriguing races out of five, all worthy of being labelled with classic status. It seems that the desire for a classic race every weekend is making the label that was barely used in the early stages of last decade become almost cliche today. It could be argued that the past four seasons alone have all had moments that stood out as a classic, but will they stand the test of time in ways that golden F1 moments such as Senna and Prost colliding at Suzuka, Schumacher infamously taking out Jacques Villeneuve or the Japanese Grand Prix of 2005?

2007 was an incredible season in many different ways. We saw some fantastic tussles for position between the Championship protagonists, intra-team relationships reaching boiling point and controversy on and off of the track. There are so many moments in 2007 that could be seen twenty years down the line as a fan's favourite.

Hamilton, Alonso and Raikkonen were at their brilliant best in 2007
The whole season could be defined as a classic season, that's just how good it was. Three drivers were at the top of their game all season long. Double World Champion Fernando Alonso made his "dream" move over the winter to McLaren in a bid to defend his crown. To Great Britain's delight, rookie hero Lewis Hamilton was living up to his reputation and delivering a series of stunning podiums and, maybe even better to the tabloids, was really grinding Alonso's gears all season long. A fascinating intra-team relationship was strained all season long, particularly at the events at Monaco, Indianapolis and Hungary. And as if that wasn't enough for McLaren, they had to contend with F1 politics and being accused of spying against Ferrari midway through the season.

In the end it all proved too much for the team and the drivers, who hit self-destruct and handed the title on a plate to F1's nearly-man Kimi Raikkonen, who had come close before but to no avail. 2007 will be remembered for a number of things - a new star in Hamilton had firmly established himself into the sport, Alonso had a weakness and Raikkonen was at his supreme best, which arguably was the last time we saw the Iceman himself at 110%.

The decline of the 2007 World Champion and the departure of Alonso to Renault meant that the 2008 title was left to the be fought out with Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. 2008 will mostly be remembered for that famous last lap at Interlagos, where the fate of the World Champion shifted between the McLaren and the Ferrari. Hamilton came out on top at the very last corner of the Championship, passing an ailing Timo Glock on dry tyres for a crucial 5th place in the race. But it wasn't just the thrilling climax at Brazil that made the 2008 season.

Seven of the twenty two 2008 drivers won a Grand Prix

The close competition between all of the teams can be highlighted, with seven different drivers spanning five different Constructors teams winning a share of the 18 races that were up for grabs. Who can forget Sebastian Vettel making his name on the world stage with a sensational maiden pole and win at Monza, Robert Kubica taking advantage of a calamitous error from Hamilton in the Montreal pitlane to deliver his first win a year on from his terrifying crash and Heikki Kovalainen getting the job done at the Hungaroring following a dramatic engine blowout with two laps remaining for the Ferrari of Massa. Don't forget the epic showdown between Raikkonen and Hamilton at Spa which spiced up an otherwise ordinary event. These races helped mould the characters of the next generation of Formula One stars.

But 2008 also had some tragedy. Popular minnows Super Aguri withdrew their Championship entry after the Spanish Grand Prix, while newly renamed Force India were on the brink of a breakthrough at Monaco with Adrian Sutil running 4th in the closing stages, and on the verge of delivering the team's first ever World Championship points, only to be cruelly denied by an out-of-control Raikkonen. The 2008 season could be regarded as a classic, with excitement, drama and heartbreak featuring throughout the year.

2009 was a very unusual year and could well be branded as a classic in some aspects. New regulations were set in place to boost overtaking, with higher rear wings, wider front wings and the introduction of KERS, which could only be a good thing. But what made the season was the collapse of Honda and the Phoenix-esque rise from the ashes of Brawn GP, who dominated the season with Jenson Button in the first half of the season, and the fall of McLaren, Ferrari and Renault who ran at the top of the pecking order at the end of the previous season. Brawn GP looked to have the titles in the bag halfway through the year, only for Button to suddenly drop in form in the second part of the season, just as Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari picked up the pace.

Most the races were processional at the front of the field, but some can be highlighted as potential classics. Australia 2009 saw the fairytale begin, with a Brawn GP 1-2 overshadowing some impressive drives from Trulli and Hamilton, with the latter being disqualified for lying to the stewards. Don't forget Mark Webber's maiden victory at the Nurburgring, overcoming a drive through penalty and taking advantage of cool conditions to defeat the Brawn of Barrichello, followed by an emphatic and emotional team radio broadcast. But 2009, for me, will be mostly remembered by the race where Button clinched the Championship at Interlagos. A wet qualifying ruined numerous driver's chances, with Vettel and Button failing to make Q3 but Jenson made a storming charge through the field, making some brave moves into turn 1 to take the Championship with one round remaining. And who can forget Kobayashi's exciting introduction to the sport? The race was most definitely one of the best of '09, with overtakes across the board and some very aggressive strategies from Button, Hamilton and Vettel to get back into the points. It was a thrilling penultimate race of the 2009 season.

Kobayashi starred but Button got the job done at Brazil 09
The race in Brazil quenched the thirst of many for an exciting Grand Prix, but the fans were in for a treat in 2010. A dull procession at Bahrain was duly followed by three incredibly exciting races in a row, particularly at Melbourne and Shanghai. Despite the extreme durability of the Bridgestone tyres limiting the strategic element of racing, the weather conditions certainly mixed things up throughout the season, with Australia, China, Belgium and inaugural race at Korea throwing up some absolute gems. Also don't forget the significance of the Canadian Grand Prix - if Bridgestone didn't make a mistake and bring tyres with high degredation on the slippery surface, would we see Pirelli making unpredictable tyres in 2011? Include the intra-team squabble at Red Bull at Turkey and Silverstone, the return of a Formula One Legend in Michael Schumacher and an epic five-way tussle for the title between drivers, who had spells of being untouchable and not being able to stop crashing, and it was quite an incredible season.

Will 2010 be a season to remember in 2030?
In most of the minds of the fans the 2010 season was definitely one of the ultimate F1 seasons in history. We were given the great pleasure of witnessing a phenomenal 19 races, where there were plenty of overtakes, mistakes, crashes, drama and a grown man breaking down in tears as the final chequered flag fell at Abu Dhabi. There can be no doubt 2010 was a classic season in every way imaginable.

2011 looks like it is building upon the successes of 2010 and more, with hundreds of overtakes in the first five races alone. But is there a point where each race has been enhanced so much by tools such as DRS and KERS that there will be a time when people say that the gimmicks have more of an impact on the racing than the drivers themselves and none of the races are particularly standout in history? The craving for a great race every weekend from the fans could turn a magical sport into something of a gimmick itself. What I want are races that make me stand back and think, "wow, that kept me on the edge of my seat all race long" and I think 2011 is absolutely delivering on that front so far.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Has Monaco had its day?

In a world where overtaking, action and spectacle is the order of the day from the fans, Formula One has delivered yet again, bringing in excitement and unpredictability to a sport once famed for one driver domination and processional races. Now as the circus comes around to the streets of Monte Carlo, one of the tighter circuits with a reputation for featuring little overtaking, I'm going to potentially bite a bullet and question whether Monaco is a suitable circuit for 2011 Formula One. 

No, I'm not coming at this with a view that I don't like the venue. Personally I think it's a spectacular circuit with incredible views of the harbour and the scenery around the Principality that provides a gorgeous backdrop to the action. It truly separates the ordinary drivers from the great. Who can forget Robert Kubica's sensational qualifying lap in 2010? And there's never usually a Grand Prix without incident. Rosberg's high-speed crash in 2008 instantly springs to mind for me. But with less emphasis being on urgently charging past and risking accident in favour of strategy in 2011, will we even see the first safety car in Monaco this season? 

So just how much of an effect will the new rules have on the Monaco Grand Prix? With KERS, it doesn't look likely that the system will generate anything too exciting, with each driver's device cancelling each other out and so the main talk prior to the race weekend has been whether DRS can be deemed safe to use around the streets where downforce is a big requirement if the drivers want to stay out of the barriers. Many drivers have been quick to downplay the impact of DRS during the Grand Prix, warning that the DRS zone down the start/finish straight will not be long enough and the braking zone into the newly-relaid Saint Devote will not able to fit two abreast. DRS has also been limited this weekend with the banning of the device in the Monaco tunnel.

And on that note, just how safe is the Monaco track? Many other blogs and websites have raised the point that the banning of the use of DRS in the Monaco tunnel is a virtual acceptance that the corner is not safe - at the very least. Who knows if the cars could or could not use DRS through the tunnel? World Champion Vettel has been an ace with the device in qualifying, using it in places where I would not have imagined an average car to use it - for example, the flatout right hander of turn 5 in Melbourne and the final corner at Catalunya last weekend. But all it takes is one accident sometimes and the FIA are fully aware of this. So why is Formula One still visiting Monaco if there are doubts over the safety of even one corner?

There is no doubt Monaco has some of the most picturesque scenery on the calendar
However, the World's Greatest Show still needs to put on a show this weekend, and it seems that the excitement factor in the Monaco Grand Prix will rest on the degrading shoulders of the Pirelli tyres. Expect a fascinating race where the red-banded super soft tyres will make it's F1 debut, which Pirelli have estimated will last approximately 10 laps. We're surely in for some exciting strategic choices this coming weekend, as teams look for ways to avoid being tangled up in traffic and backmarkers early on. One element of the excitement has been through the overtaking as well as the strategy, and I fear Monaco is not going to exceed expectations in this category. Of course, if the rules can spice up a race at Catalunya then it surely can cook up a storm in Monaco and I'm sure anything can happen, and it usually does.

But if the race doesn't deliver, what next? I'm not saying it will, and even then, the venue is incredibly popular amongst fans, teams and drivers alike so it's most likely to stay on the calendar, especially after negotiating a longer stay in Formula One for the foreseeable future. It's going to be a tight squeeze to fit in the United States and Russian Grand Prix in the next few years however and some countries are going to face the inevitable drop, Bernie can't keep them all if he wants to maintain a 20 race maximum season. If the rules have fulfilled the need for an exciting race at a track such as Catalunya then it would be expected to work at every other circuit left on the calendar in 2011. Honestly I can't ever see Monaco being dropped off of the calendar for a long time but it's going to be a great shame to lose other circuits such as Melbourne and Istanbul, should they face the axe. Do you think that, just because of it's blue-riband status, Monaco should stay? I don't think it's been exciting enough compared to other Grand Prix, but I could easily be proven wrong come Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 20 May 2011

DRS - Exciting Tech or Burning Wreck?

DRS has quickly turned from hero to zero in the eyes of F1 fans as the 2011 season has begun to take shape. Forgive the nice rhyming (but probably awful) title but I think it well represents the two sides to the DRS debate - fans are torn over how successful the device has been with regards to contributing a better spectacle, with many arguing that DRS is an effective tool which has helped mix things up across the field amongst contrasting views that DRS has generated false overtaking and, as a result of Formula One trying to make races unpredictable, made overtaking very predictable. So far, however, the only thing that is predictable is that the debate looks set to rage on all season long.

Formula One 2011 is most certainly an active and ongoing experiment and therefore things are going be exaggerated or some things are not going to be as effective as first thought. The Pirelli tyres can be marked under both of these categories, for instance. The aim of exaggerating the degredation on the tyres has achieved a high number of pitstops which really mixes things up, and that, for me, is exciting. However, as evidenced by Pirelli trying out more durable compounds in Friday Practice in Istanbul and using them at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix, the prime tyre has clearly not produced Pirelli's ambition of producing a slower, but more durable tyre to give teams more flexibility in race strategy.

DRS has contributed to spectacular races but is it too exaggerated?
The same can be said of the DRS system. Three of the four opening Grand Prix has featured at least one long straight where DRS has been extremely effective and, arguably, exaggerated to such an extent that an outbraking duel is not even required by the end of the straight. For example, at Istanbul and China we saw cars sailing past each other which hints that the system may be too strong. However, as seen in Melbourne, a shorter straight still saw overtaking but it still gave the defending car a chance to maintain track position. Melbourne demonstrated that DRS was balanced and fair to both drivers involving in a fight. But a shorter straight meant that most of the time the drivers needed to be a bit closer than 1 second to the car in front. I remember watching the TV, seeing a car pop it's wing open and not even challenge the guy in front. Therefore, you could suggest that DRS is underperforming on tracks with a shorter straight such as Melbourne. As I previously suggested, DRS is part of the F1 2011 Experiment, and it's going to take a full season to understand how effective DRS is at each circuit. As a result, we're going to get races like we had at Turkey where cars sailed past each other and races like Melbourne where DRS won't have as much of an impact.

The fans need to take into account the other rules that have been in the spotlight in 2011 which could also possibly contribute to the effectiveness of DRS. The Pirelli tyres have definitely added something special to the racing and strategy finally plays a big part in a Grand Prix again after a 2010 season where (with the exception of Canada) refuelling was banned and one stop was the norm. The difference in compounds is also clear and degredation has been a massive factor in the races as the results are not set in stone until the chequered flag falls. The difference in speed between a car with fresh tyres and a car with worn tyres has been demonstrated time and time again this season. We've seen Sebastian Vettel make a bold move around the outside of an ailing Jenson Button at Melbourne, Button and Hamilton struggling at Turkey and Malaysia respectively and, most notably, Hamilton catching and ending Vettel's unbeaten start to the season at China. Overtakes alone have been generated by cars struggling on old tyres and being caught out, which is exaggerated further by DRS. Cars struggling on the exit of turns 9 and 10 at Turkey tended to be on the backfoot which made DRS usage easy.

Let's also not forget the use of KERS and it's strategic use in Grand Prix. A combination of KERS and DRS can also be a reason why we've seen cars passing each other for fun. But it's not just on a DRS straight where KERS has been a useful tool in racing. Drivers used KERS to great effect down the start/finish straights at China and Turkey which just goes to show that DRS isn't necessarily being relied on by the drivers to get by each other. It's simply just a tool to enhance the racing on one point of the track.

KERS strategy was important in the battle for the China lead
My personal feeling is that DRS is fantastic and that it keeps the fans (I can only speak for myself really) on the edge of their seats all the way through the races. The battles have been frantic and exciting and cars passing and repassing each other is great fun to watch. Results are unpredictable until they are set in stone and the drivers, in particular Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso, believe that the system is a step in the right direction to improve the spectacle. Yes, the system does need finetuning but that can easily be done by making the slot gap smaller or the DRS zone shorter. Also, consider what DRS would be like if KERS and Pirelli tyres were not in - I think with DRS on it's own, races would not be as exciting and overtaking would be very processional, predictable and always in the same part of the track. DRS, combined with KERS and Pirellis, is part of the F1 2011 package which has made races even more fascinating than F1 2010 and the sport has generated a sense of unpredictability. It's just a shame that the only thing predictable right now is the winner.