sportscarpros CottonBalls

Michael & Andrew Cotton

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Postcards from the edge


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Flat, Flat, Flat…………..

We may hail Nicolas Minassian as one of the great sports car drivers of our era, Spa as one of the great circuits and the Audi R8 as one of the great sports cars, but at the Petit Le Mans 2007, each of these titles was challenged. Romain Dumas, Road Atlanta, Porsche RS Spyder. Anyone who stood by Turn 1 during qualifying (and there were only a handful – the rest of the paddock missed out), will know what I mean. Out of Turn 10 up the hill the throttle was nailed, under the bridge and down the hill to Turn 12 the speed rose rapidly. On the pit straight, the Porsche was a blur of yellow, the silver helmet inside lifting in the 180mph breeze. A slight turn of the wheel, brush the brakes, and flick down a gear, mind-numbing speed carried into the turn. “No!” corrected Dumas afterwards. “I did not brake, just lifted…” Bloody hell.

Hit Parade
During the race, it was Dumas again who stole the show, but Allan McNish was right when he claimed that this was Dindo Capello’s best drive. The Italian’s hair may be the same colour as Dumas’s helmet, but the old man (tenderly aged 42), carried the Audi R10 TDI to its first win since St Petersberg in March. The Porsche was just one tenth of a second behind in qualifying, its speed coming in the tight, twisty and thrilling first half of the lap, while the Audi just blew the doors off everything on the main straight. Sadly for Porsche, overtaking in the twisty stuff was too difficult. Jan Magnussen’s Covette was pushed off track by the Andretti Green Acura in the first hour, and Marco Werner came off second best in the Audi shortly afterwards having hit Max Papis in the other Pratt & Miller car. The straight was the best overtaking opportunity, and that was where Audi ruled.

Big Bang Theory
As darkness fell around the 2.54 mile circuit, Audi led but unlike Porsche, the R10 TDI needed to stop one more time. The team elected to bring in Capello early anticipating a final safety car period but there was no driver change, meaning that Capello finished on a double stint, plus 12 laps. The full course caution came as a result of  Andrea Bertolini crashing his Maserati at Turn 12. Maserati guessed that some water had leaked onto his left front tyre, causing Bertolini to understeer into the wall with such force that the impact could be felt in the press room. The safety car negated Dumas’ Porsche’s 30 second lead which Capello later admitted could not have been made up under normal conditions.

It was then that the drivers showed their true colours. Dumas sliced through the traffic trying to keep the Audi at bay, but on lap 379 of 394, the Audi got close enough to breeze by on the straight. Dumas responded, keeping up the pressure, taking huge chunks out of the left hand kerb of 10A as he made the most of his car’s superior handling. There was nothing Capello could do but drive the wheelnuts off his heavy Audi, taking the same risks in traffic as the Porsche snapped at his heels. One mistake, and the yellow car would be ahead again. Logically, the Audi always had the advantage. No matter how close the Porsche got in the twisty stuff to Turn 7, on the straight the torque of the diesel pulled it clear again, and would have been able to take back the lead. But it made for a great race.

Dumas’s best chance came in traffic on the pit straight on lap 385. With Ferraris, Porsches and prototypes all around, Capello tried to find a way through and just touched the back of the Creation, giving it a puncture. Dumas closed to one tenth of a second, but then got caught behind Chris Dyson, allowing Capello to stretch the lead to five seconds. That closed again at the line, Dindo believing that team- mate Lucas Luhr was behind him and so was comfortable to allow the white lights to close…and then the Porsche pulled alongside on the straight after the flag. 0.923s was the margin of victory and Capello’s heart skipped a beat. He waited until the press conference to let co-driver McNish know what had really happened.

The King is Dead…….Long Live the King………..
If Audi is to bring in its brush and sweep out the old, it would be criminal to lose Capello after a drive like that. But Audi has a young pretender in the shape of Lucas Luhr. Luhr was down to drive for the Petersen White Lightning Ferrari team with Dirk Muller and Peter Dumbreck, but Emanuele Pirro crashed heavily in practice at Turn 1 and on Saturday morning was diagnosed with concussion. Some wondered how the doctor could tell given his normal state, but he withdrew from the team on this occasion and in stepped Luhr. The 26-year-old had not driven the R10 TDI since Le Mans, had only limited testing in the car, and had never in his life completed a lap of Road Atlanta in the diesel. Having raced the RS Spyder there last year he had an idea of the braking points, but with a race pace of 1m10 in the Audi, ten seconds faster than the GT2 Ferrari he tested, it was still going to be a challenge. His first lap in clear air? 1m11.5s. Lap four, 1m10.8. By anyone’s standards, that was some going. He has asked to be released from the DTM to drive in the ALMS for Audi next year and if he needed to add to his CV (double class winner at Le Mans, winner of his class at Daytona, ALMS drivers’ GT champion in 2002, 2003, FIA GT Champion 2004, ALMS LMP2 champion in 2006 with the RS Spyder, winner at the Nurburgring 24 hours) this was his bid. There are those who consider that he only has a head to stop rain going down his neck, but even his detractors couldn’t fault this performance.

Smokey Back Rooms
Off track it was less engaging and thrilling, but no less interesting. The ALMS will not adopt Stephane Ratel’s GT plans, and the ACO is likely to turn its back too. Does that mean that there will, once again be a split between the FIA and the ACO rules? Not likely, says Porsche’s Motorsport Director Hartmut Kristen. Is there a chance that the manufacturers will unite and come up with their own plan? “Don’t worry” was his reply, followed by a slight smile.

Porsche was supposed to be the benchmark pace for the GT3 class, the car against which all others were measured to be performance balanced up or down. Yet now the Porsche is the slowest, and a Euro100,000 upgrade package has been made. The car now costs Euro250,000 and is still too slow. Porsche cannot react fast enough to Ratel’s 90 day limit on whether or not to commit to the new GT regulations, or risk being locked out for five years. “They have to protect their trademark,” says IMSA’s Chief Executive Doug Robinson in support of Porsche’s threat to sue anyone who prepares such a car.

Run With the Big Dogs
Robinson is also keen to push Porsche and Acura into the LMP1 class, but how? They must stick together or risk having their customers annihilated by a factory team. There is still time for one more LMP1 car to be built before the rules change for 2010, and IMSA is working with the ACO to try to come up with a solution. While Acura and Porsche sit with their arms folded, says Robinson, nothing will happen but “that is going to change.” Can they offer an extension to the prototype classes beyond 2010? No, says Allan McNish. The logistics involved in running two programmes, one for the ALMS and another for Le Mans, would be prohibitive. Why not just make LMP2 so slow that they have to make the jump, he asks. That would lead to more arm folding. If they moved to LMP1, they would need a bigger incentive than that. The ACO has announced that petrol cars will have a three per cent larger air restrictor, equivalent to a three per cent power hike, and dropped the weight of the cars back to 900kg (the LMP1 gasoline cars raced at Road Atlanta at 880kg). Those of the petrol persuasion don’t think that this is enough. Those of the diesel persuasion think that this is plenty, and already puts them in jeopardy. The ACO’s stance is that Porsche and Acura can bitch and moan all they want, but until they build an LMP1 car, they cannot criticise because they just don’t know how good, or bad their car will be.

Cost Co?
The prohibitive factor is that they can’t sell that argument to their board. If they are going to build a prototype to take on Audi and Peugeot, they have to be able to win. And no one can guarantee that. A true stalemate. Perhaps the new regulations, due out in November, and the GT proposal due to be presented to the FIA World Council in December, will unlock some doors.

In the mean time, the current regulations give us great racing, and truly memorable moments. Love it or loathe it, I will remember that Porsche RS Spyder at Turn 1, the battle for a race win over 1000 miles that finished with less than a second to spare, and the drivers who stepped up to the plate.

Radio Ga Ga
I’ll start by sending out a plea to those listening to the radio in Guernsey who may know, or encounter one Andy Priaulx on the airwaves in the coming few weeks. Please, if you do, switch off your radio. Let me explain. While searching for Andy on Saturday I was unfortunate enough to meet with a couple working for a Guernsey radio station and they thrust a microphone under my nose. Now, there was nothing wrong with either them, or their effort, indeed it was a success. It is only that, as one who prefers to drive a keyboard, being put on the spot radio-wise generally brings about catastrophic results. There is an art to speaking on radio and obviously I have no such artistic leanings.

In spoken word, unlike the keyboard, there is no delete button. You live by the sword and on Saturday that sword was firmly wedged in my mouth, along with my foot and fist.

Not that I said anything bad about Andy. It is hard to think of anything bad to say about him. A family man, worked his way through the ranks, was rubbish in Renaults before going on some mind bending course and going on to win everything the following year. Joined RBM running the BMW UK touring car team, won against the factory, got signed as a factory driver after winning the European title, tested the BMW F1 car as a thank you from BMW and did so well he made a year out of it. Then won two World Championship titles and now leads this year’s title by 12 points. And he is a modest chap, which meant that I was surprised that he asked that he be ‘bigged up’ in the preview to Brands Hatch. So I wrote about Augusto Farfus instead.

Before the interview, I was foolishly recounting a story about how the RBM team had feared about their new piece of equipment when he arrived from the BTCC. Team manager Bart Mampaey feared that Priaulx, with his single seat experience and all, could be a bit of a wanker. As it turned out, happily he isn’t. Then they put the microphone under my nose and asked me to repeat the story. A touch unkind, but fully deserved. “Er, there are worse things to call someone…” I flustered. To the question “Do all the media hold Andy in high regard,” the answer was ‘no’. Everyone has their own opinion. That is healthy. However my attempt to explain this somehow involved finding reverse having just hit sixth gear on the approach to Dingle Dell. It all went horribly wrong.

Engage Brain…………
There are those who are good driving a microphone, some who are dreadful, and some who could just make you cry. Greenlight TV’s Richard Nichols is one of the better ones, but the sight of him throwing his notes over his head in Adria shortly before the green flag is a brilliant memory. Perhaps he, like us, didn’t have television pictures and had to stare out of the window hoping for the best as the race started at dusk and conditions got dark quickly. Then there is John Hindhaugh, a bastion of the American Le Mans Series who shamelessly reads out the scores in the Premiership over the radio…in the US to hoards of terribly confused Texans who don’t care about Newcastle or Sunderland, and have no idea that football is played with a round ball by blokes wearing nylon rather than body armour. Still, his enthusiasm, knowledge and longevity (he has been doing the radio gig for many years now) means that these Texans know to calmly accept his eccentricities and don’t go to his (unlocked) portakabin door to ‘discuss’ anything. He can do that job better than anyone else.

David Leslie and Martin Haven share the commentary booth for the WTCC and I gather make a fine fist of it. I rarely see their efforts on the box as I am either at the race already, or I am at another race somewhere, and miss it. Still, in conversation with the two over a beer, it is always an illuminating insight into the world of the commentary booth. Leslie works things like points out in the background while Haven gives it full throttle either on the mic, or over the phone to his bosses somewhere in Europe who haven’t told him all that he needs to know. Like when the ad breaks are. And when they come back.

Trousers on Fire
Walking around the track at Brands on Saturday, it was hard to figure out what was going on despite the best efforts of commentators David Addison and Ian Titchmarsh. My stereo system at home has a delay for the speakers furthest away so that the sound is synchronised. Admittedly, the system doesn’t work because I programmed it, so no sound comes out at all, but Brands Hatch obviously had a similarly talented technician. It has tried to cover the ground itself with erecting so many speakers that you are faced with a wall of Addison noise, and no clue as to what is being said. The only decipherable words are “SIDE BY SIDE!” but who, what and where are lost in the din of echoes. In the press room it all makes sense, but you can’t fit the crowd in there. Brands Hatch also misses a giant scoreboard.

I do remember going to Brands as a boy to watch the likes of Will Gollop driving his Metro in rallycross events. It was nearly always wet, muddy and cold, and far, far away from our house so what precisely we were doing there I fail to recall. But it was fun, and we could easily follow what was going on. There were no artificial pit stops. Green light, go; chequered flag, stop. Fast forward 28 years, and I stood at Paddock Hill bend in June to watch the DTM race which was baffling for both me and my companion, a high ranking Audi employee who similarly lost track of the race, and we went back to the hospitality to figure out who was leading. It turns out that those commentating and watching on television thought it was a great race. Compulsory/unnecessary pit stops do not make better racing, particularly if those who paid £25 cannot clearly hear or see what is happening.

The WTCC put out a figure of 32,000 for the weekend at Brands Hatch for the two non-stop races, a good haul, and certainly a better show than the pit stop heavy DTM at the same track. Andy won again, leads again and hopefully is travelling for the next few weeks with his entire family, and all of his friends. Every single one of them. Enjoy Monza, anticipate Macau.

Andrew Cotton
October 2007

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