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Mexican Wave

From the shadows…
  There were problems in the land of the free and the brave during the month of
June, while the cash-strapped cousins across the Atlantic quietly sipped
champagne and toasted themselves in the shadows on a job well done.
The Le Mans 24-hours was attended by 230,000 spectators, who witnessed a
fine battle of the tortoise versus the hare. Henri Pescarolo’s cars should have
taken a comfortable victory, but were delayed by incidents on the track and a
gearbox problem which allowed Audi the opportunity to take a great win – a feat it
achieved thanks to a faultless display by Champion Racing, and its drivers JJ
Lehto, Marco Werner and Tom Kristensen.

  As Kristensen soaked up the plaudits as the only man ever to have won Le Mans
seven times and the driver holding the finest of strike records having started just
nine Le Mans, disaster was looming in the USA. The old joke of “why did the
Irishman wear two condoms? To be sure, to be sure,” could be applied to the US
GP. Why did Ferrari stage a finish two years ago, and Michelin make such a
monumental mistake in 2005? To be sure, to be sure.

Max Headroom
  A stunned press room in Le Mans on Sunday night bore witness to the events
unfolding in Indianapolis, the US Grand Prix once again shot itself squarely in
both feet, and both knees, just to be sure.

  I can only approach this as matter as a fan of racing because I was not there, but
I am glad that Michelin held up its hand and bit the PR bullet. That took more balls
than allowing its teams to run with an tyre that Michelin could not guarantee would
stand the beating. The company screwed up, admitted its fault and tried to find a
solution other than the FIA’s idea of having all Michelin runners slow down on the

  Though I can understand that you cannot change the rules to accommodate
such a balls up, there were options available – a non-championship race with a
chicane and a stop-and-go for all Michelin runners, or simply a demonstration
race which Ferrari in particular has excelled in the past. What happened badly
upset those in the stands, and opened a gaping wound that even Bernie may find
hard to sew up again.

  The old salts in the Le Mans press room who were treated to the parade lap, the
start, the opening lap or two, and then a news bulletin about something
completely unrelated. Some channels continued to broadcast the procession and
it is debatable whether or not by doing so caused F1 more harm than good.
Kristensen’s record was thankfully not buried in the surrounding furore, and
newspapers in the UK gave his momentous achievement some of the credit it

Globe Trotting
  One week later, and we were all back in action, jaded, tired, and ready for a
holiday. One word of advice for those eyeing a luxury break in Cancun – if you fall
foul of the food in Mexico do not, under any circumstances, stop at a roadside
toilet. The one I had the misfortune to frequent had spotless floors (the lady was
still mopping it as I hurtled through the door at 6am) and an enormous cow-pat in
each of the two traps available. And no paper, but don’t go Indian either – the taps
were not connected to anything.

  The Mexican circuit of Puebla was newly built and new to the championship, and
there was considerable debate as to what on earth we were doing at an
unfinished circuit. The bare facts are that, during a promotional day eight days
before the race, the asphalt started to break up as road cars pounded round. It
was claimed by organisers that a solution, developed in Britain, was always
intended for use on the circuit, consisting of 20 per cent liquid asphalt and 80 per
cent water, which speeded up the bonding process. The asphalt needed 200
days to cure, you see, and had only 126 before the race meeting.

  The solution was applied, and a layer of cement dust was added to the circuit as
the high temperatures brought out the water from the solution, but the net result
was one hell of a slippery track for the first day of running. The FIA had
homologated the circuit as a category 4, suitable for touring cars and single
seaters up to two litres, but were still relying on gut feeling when laying out the tyre
barriers around the track and that indecision cost BMW and Honda’s JAS team

Roadrunner Baby
  Friday’s running consisted of the WTCC drivers lapping in road cars to clear the
dust, before they were sent round in three batches rather than all run on the circuit
at the same time. Organisers hoped that enough rubber would be laid on the
circuit, but there was only one line and woe betide anyone who went off. During
the drivers’ briefing on Friday night, one corner in particular was singled out for a
tyre wall; yet on Saturday morning, nothing had been done.

  Jorg Muller was the first to go having taken avoiding action as Guiseppe Ciro
spun in front of him. The damage to the BMW was so severe, the sixth-placed
driver in the championship standings could not qualify or race. Adriano de Micheli
was the next to go off-line, and into a wall, and similarly was out of the
proceedings for the weekend. Nothing happened in second practice, much to
everyone’s relief, and rubber was starting to go down. That did not help Nicola
Larini, whose Chevrolet team watched as their man got off line and hit the same
wall as de Micheli. Larini went in backwards, and the RML team was able to
straighten the car enough for it to race but before Saturday lunch time, we had lost
two competitors.

  No one questioned whether or not that wall was in the right place, but the wall
Jorg hit was the one singled out for the extra protection in the drivers’ briefing. Not
that the tyre barriers themselves were particularly safe as installed. When the tyre
barriers were built, they were not bound together conventionally but placed one on
top of the other before being enveloped by material resembling roofing felt. If
anyone burst the envelope, tyres of all shapes and sizes would scatter

Five P Rule
  There was much discussion over how much slack the media should cut the new
circuit, which was bound to have some teething problems. The races passed off
without so much as a safety car, and there was grip to be had off-line – exploited
in particular by Roberto Colciago who overtook almost the entire field during race

  The Mexican workers had performed miracles to prepare the circuit for the
weekend’s racing, accommodating the teams’ needs, and those of the
timekeepers MST, who found themselves specifying what they needed power-
wise in their office in the days leading up to the meeting. Teams had 240 volt
sockets installed, tyre barriers were placed where required by race day and it was
agreed and noted by all, that the level of effort put into making the race a success
was exemplary.

  Nearly 50,000 people were expected at the race, though grandstands were not
heaving with bodies, and there were some gaps, but there was no doubting the
passion felt by these people for this race.

  The problem was that the circuit was not ready to host a round of an FIA World
Championship. Circuit owner and promoter Jose Abed promised that it would be
better next year. With more races to lay rubber, and lessons learned from this
weekend, next year’s event will be a resounding success on a circuit ideally
suited to Touring Cars. “I love to see touring cars on the banking,” said WTCC
organiser Marcello Lotti proudly, and a great sight they did make, but this year the
circuit was not ready to host an international racing event of World Championship

Czech Mate
  Back in Brno, another great GT race was taking place, with the Maseratis
dominating the dry qualifying and the Larbre Ferrari 550 making the most of the
wet weather to take a well-earned victory. In five races, Gabriele Gardel and Pedro
Lamy became the first driver pairing to win two races so far this season, and
Ferrari the first manufacturer to have done so too! Stephane Ratel’s plan, with
Peter Wright of the FIA, is working to perfection as performance is balanced and
some fantastic racing is staged.

  The crucial point was that the WTCC and the FIA GTs, which have run together
since the inception of the WTCC in 2001, had their first run independently of each
other. Lotti is planning to run six races with the FIA GTs next year, and the more
the better for the Italian promoter. The problem is that the WTCC wants to take
over, and is likely to split with the GTs at Spa, for example, in 2007 because the
24-hours is a bigger event than the touring car races.

  Regardless, the series have always complemented each other, and any shift in
the balance now will be to the detriment of both series. Both will survive, and may
flourish if all the plans fall into place, but as Bernie would say: “If it ain’t broke,
don’t fix it.” While F1 gets to work fixing a globally-exposed problem, and the
WTCC recovers from a difficult weekend, the Le Mans 24-hours remains a
powerful and abiding memory, the FIA GT Championship was celebrating yet
another great race, and the LMES has a grid of 50 cars for its next round at Monza.
Funny how things look in the summertime, isn’t it?

Andrew Cotton,
May 2005

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