Starting Out Part 1: Buy Japanese, its’ the obvious choice…isn’t it?

To some casual observers, starting out in motorsport is a case of having more money than sense. Well, in my case it involves having a paucity of either. I like to think that doing motorsport, competitively, on a shoestring is the opportunity to use a little bit of imagination – to channel the spirit of the great British ‘garagistes’ Colin Chapman and John Cooper. At least that is the logic I used as I was halfway through my second pint in the paddock bar at Shelsley Walsh and the world was bathed in the golden glow that somehow makes everything a good idea at the time.

Hill-climbing is the obvious answer to the first part of the cash problem – you are on your own, you only need a license you can basically send off for in the post and more importantly you are out there on your own – no one to hit, no one to hit you and no one to make you do something maybe you don’t have the capability of. Well, that’s the theory. Of course what will actually happen is that enthusiasm will overtake talent fairly quickly and an itchy right foot will probably end up seeing you in a bank wondering why you bothered – but you can’t think too hard about these things.

Because I am doing this on the cheap (REALLY cheap), a road going class is sort of Hobson’s choice. Buy car, fit timing strut – go. No need to cage it; no cut offs; no HANS device. Cheap, cheerful and cheeky. By now, the second pint is nearly empty and I am accepting the offer of a third, and without really knowing it, this is now something I am doing rather than a nice idea.

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A motoring column shouldn’t really have the need to reference Ernest Hemmingway at all, let along twice in three editions, but he did once say ‘always do sober what you said you’d do drunk, that way it will teach you to keep your mouth shut’. But what does he know? This is by now the best idea I have ever had.

My first (fun) problem was what car? The days of a chap heading to the smallest room with a copy of auto-trader are fading in reality. However, there was a lot of reasonably excited scouring of the internet – followed by a large degree of overthinking, second guessing and generally suffering paralysis by analysis.

With a car budget of £2000 though, and the certainty that I didn’t want to get myself into the above 2 litre class and just spend a year having my arse kicked by 911s, I decided that buying Japanese would be the move of an intelligent man. The elephant in the room here is the Renault Clio 182 – but I just couldn’t get excited about buying a hatchback. I don’t want one and there is an end to the issue.

I kept having my head turned by Mazda RX8s. A manufacturer headline figure of 231 bhp is attractive for the money. However, there is the traditional rotary engine reliability issue….those graphite tipped rotors are an achilles heel. Every single thread on every single forum you visit has a post saying ‘oooh I hope you are ready to replace the engine’. Now some will argue that these issues are either a myth (they’re not!) or that they only impact the examples that haven’t been loved (that may be, but if you think this isn’t an issue I will refer you back to my budget and ask you to reflect on your opinion).

So I took the easy way out. BHP and success be damned. I was a moral coward and decided that I am just not in a place where I can treat the engine as a consumable item, like the brakes for example – which may actually outlast the engine.

I stuck with what I know. I never thought this would happen to me, and this is possibly not a sentence that any petrol head should ever say, but I am a Toyota man (by accident). My old Mk3 MR2 was a jinxed car, it never went wrong (stuff sort of just happened to it – it was never its fault) and the Celica I replaced it with just won’t die.

So it was time to embrace a grey oblivion and choose a Mk2 MR2 in British Racing Green as my weapon of choice for the coming season.

At 175 bhp (…when new) it’s not too far off the Clio – however it is a heavy old hector if I am brutally honest – and this isn’t great for gravity defying motor racing. However, this goes back to what I said about ‘Garagistes’ earlier – the opportunity for the application of imagination and creative engineering in the art of the automotive crash diet has appeal. Simplify and add lightness!

The one thing I was absolutely convinced of however is that my car would…not…break. I would not be the mug that bought a Mazda and had a car that wouldn’t start because of crap compression. I was wise.

I was also very smug. I spent £1400 on that car (I knocked some money off due to some parts of the sub-frame that were corroded to the point of actually doing nothing) and I had £600 of budget left to spend on overalls, gloves, a nice set of tyres. This was just getting better and better. It even had had its alternator belt replaced recently…and yes, I am going somewhere with that.

I even took it to Shelsley Walsh’s driving school. However, the fact that they recommend putting 5 psi more pressure in the tyres than normal for fast runs and I actually had to take air OUT of the tyres should really have given me hints about the previous owner’s level of mechanical sympathy.

Anyway – you all know where I am going with this one. The car goes well, it really does. I very much enjoyed my morning crawling around under it replacing the rotting sub-frame as well (the rest of which is fine incidentally).

knackered frame

But, it’s not the component failure itself that bothers me, it just seems so unheroic. A man is delivering a sofa to HQ, so I move the car off the drive to be helpful. Hell of a screech on starting the car, but it subsides and so I move. Its only when I park it back on the drive the screech reaches a crescendo and then abruptly halts and suddenly I’m in a cloud of smoke coming from the engine bay. I am not extracting myself from some mangled wreckage at the top of Eau Rouge, I haven’t blown and engine in pursuit of a bitter rival. I am on my drive, at home. Having moved for a delivery van. It’s not a swashbuckling story.

The smell of burning rubber now coming from the engine is no longer a tedious sporting cliché, just the dismal bringer of bad tidings and a reminder that sooner or later (in this case sooner) motor sport will find where you keep your wallet.

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(Problem, and short term solution)

New alternator belt my arse. I should have bought the Mazda.

For KC.

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The sad story of Justin Wilson, and just how many more ‘1 in 1 million’ injuries will people tolerate?

In this information age in which we now live, news travels so quickly and travels to people who would never have normally received it as recently as ten years ago.

Public displays of grief were historically reserved for very, very few – Princess Diana is a good example.  It is now 20 years on and with the sheer level of information generally on offer to everyone basically meant the world woke up to the news regarding Indycar driver Justin Wilson as one.

Justin Wilson at 2007 San Jose Grand Prix: credit Allan Hack
Justin Wilson at 2007 San Jose Grand Prix: credit Allan Hack

The big difference is that Justin was a recognised name amongst the initiated, but a comparative stranger to the masses.

As the world absorbs the events surrounding a third single seater driver to die following serious head injuries in 2 years, what will this mean for the sport in general? Given its’ now truly universal exposure, can it continue on with open cockpits as it has since people started racing cars?

I recently wrote about the modern business world intruding onto the grand old traditions of the sport.  The modern world is now intruding in a different – and more important – way.

Whatever you may think of the now ubiquitous #hashtag effect, it is now a fact of life. I have seen opinion fall both ways over the #JB17 and #CiaoJules campaigns for young Frenchman Jules Bianchi. Whether it allows people to express their sadness, condolence and support better, or whether it cheapens it into a throwaway gesture – like an emotional fashion statement – has caused much, often heated, debate. However, what it undeniably showsis that interactive media is set to have a profound impact on how the sport behaves in relation to these events.

Since 1950 motorsport has had a handful of real watershed moments: The 1955 Le Mans disaster, where 83 spectators and a competitor died when a car crashed the engine entered the crowd enclosure; 1968 saw the crescendo of a dangerous decade with the death of Jim Clark; and in 1994 the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, along with a litany of other serious injuries shocked a world of 3.5 litre V10s with cut down cockpit sides into deep soul searching and a safety overhaul which evolved to several years in the making.

21 years on and the deaths of Maria Di Vilotta, Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson in a 2 year period (the last 2 closer than 2 months together) look set to make another.  Their demises were very different in their nature: Maria Di Vilotta went on to live a full life after her accident until a sudden trauma related to her injury claimed her life; Jules Bianchi (and more significantly his family) endured a protracted and very public ordeal between his accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014 and his death last month and Justin Wilson’s was as sudden as it was shocking.  However, what they all have in common is a significant head injury incurred whilst sat in an open cockpit car.

In the single working day since the news about the most recent incident broke, the debate over cockpit canopies has been dusted off for the first time since 2009 when the seemingly luckless Felipe Massa copped a heavy spring in the head in practice for the Hungarian GP. However, of course, his luck held when it mattered most and he made a full recovery. But Henry Surtees, son of World Champion John, had died the previous month after being hit on the head by a wheel in a Formula 2 race.

Felipe is starting to look like a worrying minority.

The FIA (including Charlie Whiting) have issued statements, those skilled with Computer Generated Imagery are already speculating on what a covered cockpit grand prix car could look like and images are all over the internet.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there were only 3 real sports anymore; climbing, bull fighting and motor-racing. However, in the modern world this opinion is seen as irrelevant and outdated.

The internet age, the sheer profundity of information around and the ability of everyone to take their opinions out of the pub and into the wider public arena via social media is starting to make its presence felt in a significant way. This new democracy has the potential for public opinion to rock the historically insular motorsport community like never before.

Whether it will or not remains to be seen. But interesting times are ahead and it feels like enough will soon be declared to be enough.

Photograph: Allan Hack – https://www.flickr.com/photos/aehack/ – used under creative commons license.

Will The Last One Out Please Turn Off The….Oh Sod It, I’ll Do It.

When history and business collide in the modern world, there is only one winner. The ongoing charade that is surrounding the continued inclusion of the legendary Monza circuit in next season’s Formula One calendar is merely the symbolic confirmation of this depressingly self-evident truth.

In many ways no one would be surprised by this. In a sport where you pay around £20 million a year for your engines, something similar to host a race and ticket prices just to stand on a grass bank at Silverstone are over £100 – the imperative of the financial squeeze is never far away.

By looking at the situation totally rationally, if that is your sort of thing, it makes sense. You can’t go racing for free and F1 teams are not a charity. Full time employees work the big hours and give the big commitment – all small cogs in one massive machine. Money funds the pursuit for perfection and ultimately, arguably, this is what the pinnacle of motor sport should be about.

And yet…

I’d love for it to have been a great poet who once said ‘where is the love?’, however it was Will.I.Am – but the point is valid. Maybe it is that at heart I am a hopeless romantic, with an emphasis on the hopeless, but I just cannot get excited about the clinical march to the future the sport seems so ruthlessly engaged in- at least not in isolation.

I am not entirely sure what got me in to motorsport – I think it was probably my father.  However, I remember being bought up mostly on stories of daring do. Formula 1 echoed with the great names of Fangio, Clark and Senna.  Historic marques like Ferrari, Maserati and Lotus reverberated through the record books and between the concrete walls of Imola and trees of Hockenheim – before the latter was made into an anodyne shadow of its former majesty.

With its current clean cut, media savvy pin ups, what mystique is there to capture the imagination of the next generation of youngsters?  Keke Rosberg was always synonymous with the image of his era, the irreverent gladiator, smoking and stroking that fantastic ‘tache. The clean shaven Nico however takes his answers straight from the PR playbook, with all the interest and controversy of an accountancy seminar.  But at least the Mercedes PR bodyguard hovering no more than 1 metre away won’t have any fires to put out later on.

I used to stare goggle-eyed at racing when I was young. It all felt so important, so laden with atmosphere and the weight of half a century of rich history that it couldn’t fail to be captivating.

However it feels like this has now been eschewed. With 20 races shoehorned into the year, there are nearly as many races in a season as there are games in the Rugby Union Premiership.  It isn’t special. It isn’t an event. It’s just another fixture.

Two weeks time sees the visit to the sport’s most venerable and romantic venue, the home of Ferrari and the last bastion of true racing passion – the Tifosi. Autodromo Monza’s historic banking is haunted by the ghosts of Jimmy Clark, Mike Hawthorn and the other proper boys own heroes of history.

Once apon a time in Monza

However when the F1 circus congregates in that famous Royal Park to the north of Milan this year, after featuring in every season of Formula One, it may be for the last time.

Bernie has spoken and Monza, it seems, cannot pay the bills. The sponsors, makers of energy drinks and grids full of celebrities will follow the new money and head off to the welcoming arms whoever can afford a race this year. But they’ll move on again when, like Korea and Valencia, the money runs out and the cycle will go on.

In the meantime, us historians and hopeless romantics are left behind with only our memories for company; running our fingers through the dust of history.

The price of progress.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/88134187@N00/6201252476″>Once upon a time in Monza</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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