Crisis, what crisis …

Nine races into the 2015 season and suddenly there is no crisis ... The British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend was, by general consensus, a thrilling and hard fought race. A fitting race for the "home of motorsport" and the 140,000 who turned up to witness it first hand. The end result apparently being a feeling of, crisis averted, all we needed was a good one ... But then again, I wouldn't know, having lost so much interest that I couldn't even remember to set the DVR to record my "home" race at the scene of many of my great racing memories. And this, not the occasional great race, is the real problem: even long term enthusiasts like me have lost interest, and the TV ratings are in free fall. So what are my issues? Where do I begin: 1. Stupid rules, 2. Little innovation where you can see it (see "stupid rules"), 3. Boring races, 4. Prima donna drivers, 5. Zero access to cars and drivers at races, 6. Too many drivers aids, 7. Artificial attempts to spice up the show (see "stupid rules"), 8. CVC Capital Partners, an owner who does not care, 9. Bernie E', too wrapped up in his own wealth and problems to really care, and 10. FIA, FIFA light. The list could go on and on ... Sorry Bernie and the Boys, but I think my indifference is a crisis, you just don't get it ...

Formula 1, the triumph of greed

Bernie kills the golden goose ... There was once, in the early 1970's, a business man in his early forties with little real money but high ambition, a lover of motor racing, a former driver himself and latterly a manager of drivers. A man who seemed to love racing and those around it, not for wealth, for in those days (and, in truth, now) the easiest way in racing to earn a small fortune was to start with a large one, but for the sake of the competition, the thrill of the win, the constant need to go faster, higher, better. 45 years later, at age 84, Bernard Charles Ecclestone is the fourth richest man in Britain, worth US$ 4.5 Billion. The story of how he became so rich is not for here; along the way he owned a team and won championships, built good cars, hired good people and was part of the "garagiste's", the cabal of Anglo's and Anglo commonwealth racers who were such a thorn in the side of El Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. But somewhere along the journey from there to here, money seems to have became more important to Mr. E. than racing, much more important. Mr. E. is about to kill the golden goose, or perhaps it's Mr. E's employers, CVC Capital Partners, who seem to think that owning the commercial rites to Formula 1 means that they get paid exorbitant amounts and those that compete can take what they deign to hand out. Mr. E. has carefully and craftily played the egos of all involved over the years, pitting some against others, dividing and ultimately conquering; until now ... Now there is a crisis, two teams are in receivership, not necessarily unusual, teams have always come and gone, but there are three more seriously struggling with the costs of F1 and the seriously unequal returns. Bernie seems mostly un-fazed, apart from a rare slip admitting culpability, swiftly retracted and followed by a return to the hard line. Is CVC pulling strings, is Bernie a puppet, does someone know where the bodies are buried? All good questions with few public answers ... But all questions that will get asked and which are not necessarily good for a man who has been through a bribery and corruption trial and is rumored to be under investigation for tax avoidance. Bernie/CVC are about to kill the golden goose, the fans are finally tired of all the politics, the ratings are falling, interest is waning. What price the fourth richest man in Britain Bernie; in the words of John Lennon: "how do you sleep"?

The Big Price

As you probably know, 'Grand Prix', is French for 'Big Prize', today it should more correctly be known as the 'Big Price' ... In all of my (now considerable) lifetime, I have been a fan of Grand Prix, or more correctly, Formula 1 racing. Despite both of my parents' total disdain for the sport, and a complete lack of any form of transportation, I managed to attend my first of several British GP's at Silverstone in 1971. I paid for the ticket out of my 17 year old 'pocket money' and also managed to contribute to the 'petrol' cost for the ride down and back in a friend's Mini. My guess is that the complete trip probably cost in the order of 5 GBP or less, with admission probably 3 GBP. For my money we managed to negotiate the traffic jams and arrive (just) in time for the race, and then stand at the inside of Abbey curve while Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell ran away from the field; finishing an easy winner from Ronnie Peterson's March and Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus. For me the highlights of the race were a rare appearance of the Lotus 56B, 'wedge', turbine powered car (which only raced 3 times), with it's distinctive whine, and the thrilling, hair raising sound of the two works V12 Matra's passing by at full chat, the clear memory of which still gives me chills to this very day. As a side note, I have now seen the Lotus 56B twice in the last few years. It was displayed at the Goodwood festival of speed in 2012, the year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Lotus. Then, this past week, I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum, and there it was again, displayed in a special exhibition of turbine powered cars. It's one of those strange coincidences in life, only made a little more strange that in my working life I have spent the vast majority of the last thirty-five years around the aviation version of the engine that powered that car, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine. Which, in a roundabout way brings me to the present. If we take that 3 GBP general admission of 1971 and double it a generous 3 times, we end up with 24 GBP, or roughly $40 in today's money and look at what that would buy you today at the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin TX, just 200 miles down Interstate 35 from here. The answer, unfortunately, is nothing; lowest raceday general admission is more than $150 which, by my math, is 4 times the equivalent 1971 price. So, for my 4X money, is the value better? Well that's a matter of perspective, certainly the track is much safer and the amenities are streets above the porta-potties, dirt spectator banks, endless traffic jams, muddy car parks and marginal food of 1971 Slverstone. But is the racing any better, probably not, it's the history of Formula 1 to be dominated by the best car, with few exceptions, that turn races into processions. Access to the cars and drivers today is nonexistent, even if you could get into the paddock, for the average spectator; whereas in 1971 a paddock pass was a modest incremental price, drivers were open, friendly and willing to chat, you could walk up to and touch the cars. And if you were to look at the cost of decent seats today ... well, as they say, OMG, this is a wealthy person's privilege only ... Today, as much as I find the idea of the hybrid engines technically exciting, they will never, ever replace the visceral thrill, of the screaming sound, of a French V12 passing by in a blue flash at 180 mph. Try it for yourself ... just Google 'Matra V12 sound', and listen to that glorious noise ... So, come Sunday November 2nd, I'll be watching this race, not from the stands at the Circuit of the Americas, but from the comfort of my living room ...

Track Day

20 miles South West of Fort Worth along SR 377, on the edge of rolling terrain that will eventually turn into the Texas Hill Country, is the one horse town of Cresson. Ah but wait, one horse? Perhaps not, for if one passes through (even while blinking) with the car (or truck, this is Texas) windows rolled down the distinctive sound of multiple horses screaming can be heard on many a day. For Cresson is the home of Texas Motor Sport Ranch, a member owned race track not quite visible from the highway, designed for those with too much money, or a passion for fast cars (or more likely both) to test their metal and even occasionally bend it. The facilities are very well done, with two separate tracks of 1.7 and 1.3 miles that can be joined to produce a 3+ mile track, garages, skid pads, a clubhouse and even condos with the requisite 8 car garage on the bottom floor! As a separate, but massively important, positive there's very little to hit if you manage to get it all wrong, other than other maniacs with the same passion ... sounds ideal. And ideal it is ... My beautiful better half gifted me (for Christmas) with a day at the track accompanied by a fantastically patient instructor (thanks Neil) from the Apex driving school. Fun was very definitely had by all, with the possible exception of Neil, and we will do it again sometime. In the four half hour sessions the car held up, I didn't embarrass myself completely and despite indulging in one rear end puckering 'tank slapper', which I somehow managed to collect; I avoided hitting anything that wasn't there to hit, even the Formula Mazda's screaming past at twice my speed ... Smokin' ...

Life after 7

When you are the niche producer of a fifty year old product, what do you do for an encore?  Once before, in the mid 90's, Caterham had attempted to find the answer to this question. Led by Graham Nearn Caterham would have loved to produce a mid engined monocoque chassis, Nearn was known to have favored something in the style of the Lotus Eleven. Unfortunately, time, money and resources dictated that a modified 7 chassis be used, paired with a new fully enclosed body. This project, known as the 21, was rapturously received by the motoring press, sadly less so by the buying public. It's unfortunate fate was to be introduced into a world suddenly awash with cars of similar ambitions, cars such as the MGF, BMW Z3 and, perhaps most difficult of all, the Lotus Elise. From its debut at the 1994 Birmingham Motor Show to its final demise in 1999 only 50 cars were ever built, the last one sitting uncompleted for several years until claimed by the car's chief chassis designer, Jez Coates, becoming his personal transportation. Today Caterham is a much different organization, one driven by the vision of Tony Fernandes and his desire to leverage the Caterham Formula 1 Team into an expanded car business. The first attempt is another niche vehicle, designed by Lola for Caterham, the SP300R is more LeMans prototype than 7 relation, the only connection being the use of the  supercharged power-train of the 500 Superlight. This is a dedicated track day car with no pretense of ever being roadworthy. Only 25 will be produced per year with at least half of the production going to use in a dedicated one mark race series in Europe. But, on the horizon, looms the children of the new agreement between Caterham and Renault to produce affordable fun sports cars for the masses. One can only wait and see with anticipation to find out what Caterham will become when it grows up. There is life beyond 7.  

The number 7, part 1

Seven, as we know, is considered a lucky number, but in motor racing it has a chequered history, so to speak ... In the motor racing world of the UK in the early sixties the number 7 was well known as the chosen number of England's great white racing hope, (now Sir) Stirling Moss. It could be said of Sir Stirling that he was not the luckiest driver who ever challenged for the world championship. Having finished second four times (once by a single point) and third three times Moss is frequently known as 'the greatest driver never to win the world championship'. He was certainly driving number 7 on the fateful day of April 23rd, 1962 when he suffered a near fatal accident at Goodwood in Rob Walker's privateer Lotus 19. While trying to un-lap himself, after losing time in the pits with gearbox problems, he was forced off the road onto wet grass and hit the barriers at high speed and without seat belts (which, believe it or not, were not mandatory at the time). He was cut from the wreckage and unconscious in hospital for a month and temporarily paralyzed on his left side for six more. Upon his eventual attempted return to racing the following year he decided he did not have the car control he once had and chose to retire; here is a link to his own account of the crash: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2226334/Sir-Stirling-Moss-82-relives-horrific-crash-50-years-ago-end-career.html The Seven car came by he number honestly, if not directly. Chapman originally allocated the 'Mark 7' identifier to a semi-stillborn 1954 project commissioned by the French Clairmonte brothers. As it happened the brothers took possession of a partially completed chassis and finished it themselves, calling it the Clairmonte special, which left an open number in the Lotus sequence. Chapman moved on with the Chapman / Costin designed Mark 8, and then the very successful Marks 9 and 10. By 1955 the true predecessor to the 7, the Mark 6 had ceased production after more than 100 cars had been built and delivered. Lotus' major seller became the Mark 11, the superb small sports racer, a few of which were delivered for road use but which was largely aimed at, and more suitable for, the racing market. Chapman, realizing that there was pent-up demand for a simple, light road car that could also be raced, a true successor to the Mark 6, penned the 7. In many ways the 7 is an amalgamation of the Mark 6 and the ideas seen in the Eleven, a legend was truly born. The first 7 was delivered to well-known Lotus racer Edward Lewis in September 1957 and the rest is history ...  

Jules-Albert de Dion

Comte Jules-Albert De Dion was a French Noble and founder of the automobile manufacturer De Dion-Bouton. Although the name of the manufacturer has long since passed into history the name de Dion has been immortalized in a suspension system used in a few select performance cars. De Dion, however, was not the inventor of the suspension system that bears his name; that was invented in 1894, for use in the companies' Steam Tricycles, by the co founder of the De Dion-Bouton company Charles Trepardoux. As a concept the de Dion system, sometimes known as a de Dion tube, is a step above the solid (or 'live') rear axle, swing axles (ask an original VW Beetle or Chevelle owner) or the Hotchkiss drive, but is generally considered inferior to a true independent rear suspension (IRS). The system typically consists of a tubular beam that connects the two rear uprights and keeps the rear wheels parallel, as the tube carries no drive torque the system is sometimes referred to as a 'dead axle'. The system employs a chassis mounted differential and drive shafts and is located by various links. Its major advantage over a live axle is a significant reduction in the unsprung weight of the suspension due the chassis mounting of the differential and elimination of any requirement for universal or constant velocity joints in the main drive shaft. This gives a major improvement in handling if engineered correctly without the complexity of a fully independent rear suspension. As originally conceived by Chapman the Seven had a live axle and for many years after the Caterham assumption of the program this was sourced from the old Morris company; it was the unit used in the eminently forgettable Morris Ital, a car so bad it was sold by Morris into license production in Iran. In late 1983 it became clear that production of this unit was going to cease and several management and engineering personnel, in true British tradition, discussed their choices at a local pub, the King & Queen. The production live axles available that could conceivably fit within the dimensions required, even when modified, were minimal; and not promising from an engineering standpoint. Those present pondered the inevitable conclusion that to continue production of the Seven they would have to abandon the live axle. Adoption of a true independent rear suspension was discussed, and several present pushed for the idea, but the consensus was that development of an IRS would be a major undertaking for such a small company. One of the engineers, Reg Price, suggested the de Dion solution and, as he had worked out that the cost of such a system would be around 100 Pounds Sterling less than a true IRS, the idea was agreed by all present over a pint of beer. There were some historical precedents for the de Dion, some early Lotus Sevens had been fitted with the system and some racing Sevens had been converted, so the idea seemed to fit. Price and another engineer spent several months developing the system and the first production Caterham with a de Dion rear suspension debuted at the 1984 Birmingham Motor Show. The system is now standard on all Caterham's except the Superlight CSR, and certainly works very well, ask anyone who has driven the car. So the name of a French Count, who didn't invent a 120 year old suspension system, lives on in a Caterham ...