Motorsports Review 2009 Part Two: The (Early) Summer Of Odd

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Motorsports Review 2009 Part Two: The (Early) Summer Of Odd
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The year of racing was underway, and so was the weirdness. As the year rounded the quarter pole, it was clear Brawn were fast, Ferrari and McLaren were not. WRC was boringly predictable and Jorge Lorenzo couldn't pass through a metal detector he’s held together with so many pins. Then Bernie Ecclestone had an idea. Brace Yourself.

 

Drip, drop, drip

For those of you that have read the first part of this review (and for those that haven’t here, is a link), you will remember the comment that most series saw a NASCAR-esque delay at some point this season.

 

April showers were responsible for two of these delays, as the MotoGP season got off to a wet, then very wet, then delayed, start in Qatar as the night race at Losail was bumped from Sunday to Monday. But then came the F1 Malaysian Grand Prix.

 

With Bernie Ecclestone desperately searching for a TV audience for Far Eastern races he had the start time back, in order to afford European audiences a few more moments of sleep. Now, pretty much every local would have told you that major thunderstorms in the mid to late afternoon are so common as to become a near certainty, but Bernie chooses what he does, and doesn't, hear and ignored the weather forecasts for Malaysia that week.

 

As it was the race got underway, Nico Rosberg taking an early lead that would eventually be lost to Trulli and Button (and forgotten—or washed away—by history) and rain almost immediately started threatening. Ferrari, agreed, hauling in Kimi Raikkonen to change his slick tyres to full wet, despite the track was a dustbowl compared to what it would become.  F1’s own websites live commentary opted for a rather sarcastic analysis: "No actual rain visible yet."

 

Now, rain tyres tend to work too well in the the not rain, and by the time the first pathfinder raindrops for the monsoon arrived, Kimi’s tyres had left their best all over Sepang’s tarmac.

 

On the other hand, making the right decision at the right time was Toyota (you can tell it was strange year in F1 when you’re holding Toyota up as a bastion of sense). They’d moved Glock from slick to intermediate tyres (yes, Ferrari, that’s what those are for) and the German soared up the order as everyone else switched back and forth between dry, intermediate, and wet tyres.

 

The sky went the sort of black you only see in movies shortly before the evil alien craft appears, or the apocalypse, producing pictures, like the one above, where only a panicked red rain light is discernible in the darkness.

 

The rain had obviously decided it wanted to win the race (and possibly drown Ecclestone—with his height it takes less rain) as it soaked the track, creating lakes at apexes and in the bottom of dips in the track.

 

The skid planks on the bottom of cars became keels as F1 cars created bow waves that wouldn’t look out of place in a powerboat races.

 

However, F1 cars aren’t meant to work on water.

 

Both Force Indias found themselves off the track, as did Sebastian Vettel, a man who had the word “rainmaster” pencilled next to his name after his Monza debut. At the time it seemed like cars paddled round for ages (and may have done), but in reality it was only for a handful of laps. The Safety Car waded out onto the track, not that it stopped cars from sailing off the track. Heidfeld was only saved from losing second to Glock, after the BMW man had drifted off, by countback when the red flag was put out.

 

When it was the race was suspended and the remaining cars all lined up in single file on the slipway (oops, I mean grid), and Ferrari made another step towards farce.

 

First, there was Rob Smedley (a man who has clearly spent more time than is healthy in Italy), reassuring Felipe Massa the team were bring him a clear visor with the words: “Felipe, baby, stay cool.”

 

Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen had taken his car back to the garage, either retiring it in frustration, or Ferrari showing supreme confidence that the race was never going to be restarted and opting to keep Kimi dry (and if that's the case you have to ask what Massa had done to be left in soak). Whatever the reasoning, it did give us one of the images of the season: Kimi out of his firesuit in double-quick time and into the Scuderia fridge for a choc-ice.

 

Bernie, having sought higher ground, was determined to get the race underway again, despite the darkness baton being handed from rain to night (Bernie presumably forgot that night gets closer when you start later), and just about everyone driving saying, "No." He made everyone wait until far beyond the point of no return before the race was finally made official. The race became the first since Adelaide in 1991 to award half points.

 

Claritin: Cleared for Take Off

First, a confession.

 

I like NASCAR’s Restrictor Plate racing. It’s sort a guilty pleasure. I know the worthy NASCAR watchers, media, and drivers don’t like it, referring to as a lottery and seemingly constantly hinting at the morbid possibilities like someone who’s just listened to a My Chemical Romance album.

 

The four Plate races every year (along with the road course races) are some of the increasingly few NASCAR races I actually look forward to watching. I know that, thanks to the inches-to-spare pack racing, a race at Talladega or Daytona means three or so hours of racing that you daren't not watch because you know that as soon as you leave the room, or switch the channel, someone will fall off the metaphorical tightrope and the actual chaos will ensue.

 

The races are devoid of the boring middle portion where drivers are just happy to log laps, or, rather, even when drivers are happy to log laps, they have to do it in such a way that it is nowhere near as boring as normal.

 

The Talladega race in April was no exception. A (very) early crash had already removed several potential contenders, curtailing the appearance of Jeff Gordon’s “Retro Pepsi Challenger,” a paint job that had been promo-ed so heavily you thought it had already won. That was followed by a late race crash, taking out another swathe of the field, including Jimmie Johnson (ah, JJ not winning again—those were the days).

 

But all this was a warm up for the big finale.

 

At the restart after the latest crash Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (a driver making his first steps in the Sprint Cup with a part-time team—though admittedly one using equipment from Hendrick) were stuck just inside the top 10, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. looked on course to push Ryan Newman to what would have been Stewart-Haas’ first win.

 

But Edwards and Keselowski were forming a pair that would prove unstoppable. With only two laps to go, they were seventh and eighth. Then they embarked on passing each one of the leaders—Joey Logano, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton—before overhauling Jr. and Newman shortly before crossing the line for the penultimate time.

 

A lap later and Keselowski darted out from behind Edwards to try taking the win. Edwards tried to block, but only found fender as Keselowski refused to yield and go below the yellow line. Edwards was turned downwards, now broadside on the track, before sliding back up the tri-oval. NASCAR’s safety-minded COT rising slowly, with both roof flaps deployed.

 

It may have ended there, if not for Ryan Newman. He tried to avoid Edwards, but failed. The Ford’s rear wheel bounced up his Chevy’s front end, sending him into the outside wall, and Edwards on a corkscrewing mid-air course into the catch fencing.

 

Now, allow me to interject here. I like a good crash. Nothing that injures anyone, just bent metal. What can I say? I was raised on VHS tapes like Havoc and And They Walked Away... . Hell, I even like Touring Cars.

 

But seeing a car twisting and turning towards a packed grandstand any immunity I had for accidents disappeared as, not in humour or irony, but in fear, a single expletive (sounds like “fit”) escaped my lips.

 

The fencing was bent and battered, though largely intact. The car was in pieces—everything forward of the firewall being bent to some extent, the roof caved in, and a chunk of the windshield was missing.

 

Miraculously, the following pack all avoided Edwards’ car as it landed wheels down and slid back across the track. Equally miraculously, they all avoided Newman’s wounded car, throttle stuck open as it slewed across the track towards the infield, leaving a trail of fluids behind.

 

Then Edwards’ emerged and tore the varied tubes and lines from his helmet. Was this to be another stand against NASCAR’s rules?

 

No.

 

Jovially, he waved off an official as he ran to the finish line. The parallels with the Talladega Nights film were obvious. Just take my word, it’s an awful lot of appalling film to get through for that moment.

 

You Couldn’t Have Written It...

Helio was innocent. He was back in the car, back in Indycar, and back in Indianapolis for the Month of May, the greatest misnomer in motorsport.

 

Of course, Helio driving for one of the two team allowed, under Indycar rules, to win on ovals, (driving for Penske, against rivals Ganassi) and having already won the Indy 500 twice, was always going to be in with a chance of winning. Still, exactly how he went about it was a surprise.

 

The Brazilian cruised to pole by a comparatively wide margin, before he and his team won the pit stop contest on Carb Day (unfortunately not a day when only pasta is served at the cafeteria and believers in the Atkins’ Diet are flogged at the yard of bricks), when the track was attended by various of his fellow Dancing With The Stars, erm stars, perhaps as guests of Helio, acknowledging the role the show had in getting him past the justice system.

 

Then came the race. Marco Andretti’s lasted no further than the second corner as he continued a habit of crashing out, though there a definite assist from Mario Moraes as the pair both blamed each other.

 

Up front it was the predictable battle between the red and white liveried cars, their four drivers (Dixon, Franchitti, Briscoe, and Castroneves) being the only ones to lead any laps through the race. In the early stages, Tony Kanaan had the cheek to try and muscle in on the action, before he was punished with car failure, pitching him into the outside wall not once but twice at terrifying speed (for all the Indy 500 is a shadow of it’s former self, you can’t knock the speed), leaving the Brazilian with two-and-a-half broken ribs (how exactly do you break half a rib?).

 

He was joined on the injury reserve (OK, so I’m mixing sports a little there) by Vitor Meira, whose tangle with Rafael Matos left his Foyt car running a wall of death around the barrier after an impact severe enough, even with the HANS device, to break two vertebrae.

 

That left the only Brazilian who hadn’t smeared his car along a wall to win the race, and demonstrate how he would have escaped prison, if he’d have been convicted of tax fraud, which he wasn’t, because he was innocent, right?

 

And that’s frankly where it got a little Hollywood.

 

After taking the merest sip of milk, spending more time arranging the combination of hat and sunglasses, Helio had a cry.

 

The post race interview transcript, together with a show of tears that would put both Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry to shame, would not have been out of place clutching an Academy Award, laced with references to people “giving him his life back,” though still managing to keep the sponsors happy by getting them in as well. Helio also got a well publicised paycheck of $3,048,005—the IRS awaits your paperwork in April eagerly Mr. Castroneves.

 

The media was filled with stories saying that Hollywood couldn’t write the story. A driver narrowly avoiding professional and personal meltdown, a replacement being drafted and having success in his own right, before the star, now with name and conscience cleared of any wrong-doing, comes back and wins the big race.

 

In truth Hollywood could, and indeed written such a story, and made it into a film starring Tom Cruise—Top Gun .  

 

Lights, (No) Camera, Action at Le Mans

There may only be one reason for the continued existence of France.

 

That reason may be to host the Le Mans 24 Hours, and if that is the case it’s fine by me (because we’d need at least 16 public enquiries before we could ever do a similar thing in the UK).

 

It remains one of the greatest races in the world, and has only benefited from the coming of diesel powerhouses Peugeot and Audi, who seem to be transforming a sedate endurance race into a day long sprint race.

 

This year was no exception, both marques having their cars in customer hands—Audi having their year-old R10s the hands of Colin Kolles (a man who only runs second to Mike Gascoyne in the “number of F1 teams I’ve worked for” stakes), and Peugeot staying suitably French, handing one of their coupes to Henri Pescarolo, a man who, should you cut him, would bleed bleu, blanc et rouge.

 

However, both were to find their challenges derailed.

 

For Kolles, the first derailment came early. Really early. Before the race, early.   

 

As Kolles driver Narain Karthikeyan thought, “I shall jump over/off that wall” he could not have imagined the world of pain he was entering. He probably had some idea when he failed and dislocated his shoulder, ending his race before even sitting in the car on race day as, although the team protested, doctors refused to pass him fit to race. It was a story with obvious similarities to a certain nursery rhyme.

 

Karthikeyan fell off the wall,

Karthikeyan had a great fall,

Though Kolles said he’s as good as Zwols-men

They couldn’t get Narain on circuit again.

 

Zwolsmen and partner, Andre Lotterer, put in one of the performances of the race, finishing seventh overall. Christian Bakkerud in the other Kolles car tried to better Karthikeyan’s embarrassment by becoming the latest to spin behind the Safety Car, perhaps the ultimate humiliation in racing (well, that and being lapped by Luca Badoer).

 

The day ended less happily for the privateer Peugeot, running well until a 908 civil war in the pitlane with Pedro Lamy’s works car sent them into the garage for a new nose (over the week the four Peugeots would have more new noses than Michael Jackson and Jackie Collins combined (it’s OK, you can’t libel the dead...what do you mean Jackie Collins isn’t dead!?).

 

But that was not to be the end. In the early hours of the morning driver Benoit Treluyer suffered an enormous accident outside of TV camera coverage (though not the ubiquitous Youtube) that reduced the car to constituent parts.   

 

But the spirit of endurance racing was summed up by two teams.

 

Firstly there was the Jetalliance Aston Martin. They had probably done enough to get a mention just by installing a full size chandelier in their garage, before their marathon performance. When the Aston gave out in the early hours of the race you could have forgiven them for giving up, surrendering to the Corvettes. But, no! Perhaps urged on by the motivational power of a dangling light fitting they repaired their car several times, returning to the track, though looking destined for a footnote finish, only to be handed a podium, when a pair of Corvettes broke down.

 

The there was the works Audi that was crashed at the Porsche Curves (a corner that would claim several cars) by Lucas Luhr. As the car was hauled out the tyre wall it had invaded you didn’t need to be a mechanic to tell the car wasn’t well. In fact you may not have needed sight. Cars tend to run very well when one wheel is at 90 degrees to the other and important parts of the engine and gearbox appeared to be hanging on by threads.

 

For minutes Luhr pleaded with the marshalls (conveniently French and armed to the teeth with a tractor) to let him limp the car back to the pits. Now, you would think that the cubist rear suspension and hand-me-down drive-train were the biggest problems. But, no! The primary concern were the fluids emptying themselves onto the track, and the marshalls forced the car to retire.

 

Teletubbies invade Touring Cars

So, maybe the greatest humiliation in racing isn’t crashing behind the safety car, but actually crashing into the safety car (or rather having the safety car crash into you).

 

That was the fate to befall Franz Engstler in Pau, France.

 

Franz runs his own team in the World Touring Car Championship, and in a series dominated by the works outfits the fact he was leading after lap one on a street track it’s notoriously hard to pass on should have had the team jumping for joy, but it was a street track.

 

And in the WTCC, like most other series street tracks result in the sort of carnage you only normally see when someone falls into a tiger enclosure (or when NASCAR drivers are confronted with a right-hand turn). So by the end of lap one two works BMWs had taken each other out at turn one, two more BMWs had crashed at turn two and Tom Boardman’s SEAT was as sideways as a fat person in a narrow door with catastrophic suspension damage.

 

All of this should call for the Safety Car, or so the person driving the safety car thought!

 

It (or rather, the person behind the wheel) decided they were needed, TV cameras picked up a marshall at the pit exit giving a Gallic shrug and the SC began to crawl out into the middle of the track, after a blind flat out bend. Just before Franz rounded it.

 

Franz’s car was bounced into the air, its right-front wheel ripped off, skating down the escape road. The safety car, apparently driven by a French fire or police chief, pulled back into the merge lane (where it should have been in the first place), a huge dent in the driver’s door and a front wheel that wouldn’t turn.

 

People from Engstler’s team were striding down pit road with a look on their face that would have you hiding all the sharp objects (and safety cars) in the pit lane. Even the normally abnormally perky grid girls looked ashamed of what had happened. Well, I was told their faces were looking ashamed.

 

The driver, and/or passenger, whichever emergency service they were in (but now both in need of the fourth one, or whatever number the AA say they are now) climbed from the car and meandered along the race track.

 

Alain Menu, driving a Chevrolet Cruze won the race, oh, and the Safety Car, that was also a Cruze...and you thought only NASCAR could give you conspiracy theories.

 

FOTA Force FIA Fudge Farce

F1 had been going far too normally, but Max Mosley and Bernie were never going to let that happen, and so invented the budget cap.

 

The idea was simple—cap the team’s budgets—and the idea made an unusual amount of sense from that pair, especially as the world continued to hyperventilate into the Paper Bag of Recession after seeing the Spider of Debt.

 

The only people who didn’t think it was a good idea were the people who would be saving money: the teams.

 

They stamped their feet like petulant children who wanted an ice cream (oh, hello Kimi) and said it was impossible. The FIA caved in, obviously never having seen Supernanny —“Bad Ferrari, now spend 59 minutes on the naughty step”—and said that current teams could use a second higher cap.

 

You would think that would have been enough to shut them up, but now they were angry that they would be competing in a two-tier system, where any teams using the lower cap would be allowed greater technical freedom.

 

They stamped their feet even harder—maybe even progressing to the prone-arm-and-leg-flailing move—in protest, and threatened not to take part in the 2010 season (despite the fact that the grown ups had already signed a big important contract).

 

“Fine,” said the FIA (I guess) and flung the doors open to new teams for 2010. That just made Ferrari, et al more angry—seeing the names of the adoptive children their parents now preferred. Ferrari began setting Olympic records with their toy-from-pram throwing, labelling the forming grid as “Formula GP3” in a press release that seems to have been forgotten.

 

In truth, the list of applicants that appeared from this point on would do little to inspire all but the most tightly anorak clad car-bore—Lola, Prodive, iSport, Litespeed, Epsilon Euskadi. It also saw the near-requirement of scare quotes on certain names that rose up out the ground like the cast of a George Romero film. “Brabham” emerged. So did “March”. “Lotus” were close behind, though eager to drop theirs, pointing out that they (like the proper Lotus) were based in Norfolk and had a few people who could spell ‘John Player Special’.

 

But all were trumped in sheer absurdity by Stefan GP. Named after Zoran Stefanovic, a baby-faced Serbian engineer and run out his box room it doesn’t take too much imagination think they’re a joke. They were so desperate to be an F1 team they even started their own toy throwing, complaining that the selection process for F1 teams was biased.  They are currently still looking to enter F1 next year, with the pickings of the Toyota carcass, and may be USF1’s only hope of not coming dead last. Three laps down.

 

Meanwhile, all was not well for the established teams. Like rats leaving a sinking ship Williams and Force India had quietly submitted their entries for 2010, Luca di Montezemelo excommunicating them from FOTA with some sort of Papal Bull.

 

Rumours of a breakaway series with the manufacturer teams swirled on the British GP weekend, like sugar being stirred into a cup of tea. FIA and FOTA representative criss-crossed Silverstone trying to find a deal, despite the FOTA teams all having conditional 2010 entries, but they found nothing.

 

Preparations for a breakaway series seemingly grew day on day, promoters being secured, before a provisional calendar appeared, Monaco, Imola, Monza, Silverstone, Surfers’ Paradise, Helsinki (presumably so Kimi could live like campus student and fall out of bed twenty minutes before the race)—basically a better set of tracks that the desert bowls Bernie (and his bankers) enjoy.

 

The next day the breakaway was cancelled.

 

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