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Steptoe and Son

Minor Offence
  The Bahrain race had everything organisers of the FIA GT Championship could
ask for: A new team winning the race overall; a championship decider between no
fewer than seven drivers, drama from the start as two of those championship
contenders retired with gearbox failure; the other three battling out a tense
strategic race to the flag. The chequered flag flew, Gabriele Gardel was champion
and then…nothing. Was the Swiss champion or not? No information. No
confirmation. Nothing.

  The next day it turns out that, despite reaching the finishing line, Gardel’s co-
driver Pedro Lamy had run out of fuel having completed a two-stop strategy. It was
a risk that initially appeared to have paid off, but in post race scrutineering, the
team was found not to have the required three litres of fuel left in the tank.
Regulations are regulations, and Larbre team manager Jack Leconte knows
them as well as anyone, but surely the essence of the championship is that the
race lasts for 500km, or three hours whichever comes first, and that is just what
the Ferrari did.

  If the scrutineers want a fuel sample, take it from the fuel tank in the garage –
that was the stuff that went into the car; that is the stuff they would find in it at the
end. That way, the teams can afford to take great risks in pursuit of glory. Surely
that is what motor racing is all about? These days we do not play so much with
the lives of the drivers, thankfully, but strategy has always been at the heart of
endurance sport. On Friday in Bahrain, Leconte rolled the dice and won. Both
Gardel at the end of his second stint, and Lamy at the end of the race, were
marginal on fuel. So what? They did the three hours, they had done enough to win
the title.

It’s in the fine print........
  Races and championships should not be decided by men with clipboards who
drink coffee throughout the race – they should be won or lost in the pits, on the
track and by the men who pedal these 600bhp machines. I had a ride with Andy
Priaulx around Hockenheim a few weeks ago in his 275bhp World Touring Car.
Now, that was not particularly quick, but the amount of slip sliding going on
underneath us was notable and Priaulx explained afterwards that the BMW drivers
were running with around 10 per cent of drift at nearly all times.

  Imagine braking from 140mph into a hairpin with the car sliding and slithering,
having hit your braking point spot on, Alfas, BMWs, Seats and Chevrolets all
around you trying to pass you, prepared to go through you in the case of some, a
World Championship at stake. You execute this corner, and every other, perfectly,
you take the flag, bring the car home, and voila! The place is taken away because
you don’t satisfy the pen-pushers.

  There have been several instances over the past few years where the result has
been decided in the scrutineering bay. In 2003, when the Ferrari 575 won at
Estoril, on its championship debut the car failed its airbox test according to some
in the pressroom, yet the result was allowed to stand. When Fabrizio Gollin and
Luca Capellari’s 550 Maranello failed its test in Enna in 2003, they were kicked
out. The team, BMS Scuderia Italia, claimed that the scrutineers had broken the
airbox while conducting the test but that was not good enough. Others have
claimed accident damage caused a weakening of the material which later
collapsed under scrutiny.

  This year, the GL PK team raced for 24 hours at Spa, finished, and were then
thrown out because the data logging box was not connected. They had been let off
such an indiscretion when they won at Imola, and second time they were out, but
did it not occur to anyone to check the car before the race. Or during it, when it was
in the pits under repair? There are other ways of doing this than waiting to the last
minute, letting all the work be completed, and then waving your wand over the
results sheets.

  The amended results that regularly come cause those who are filing on deadline
to bang their heads off desks in frustration; sometimes the amendments do not
come out for several hours and media who were struggling to take interest in the
sport turned their backs on it with such regular re-writes.

Coach and Horses
  Of course, there are some who attempt the illegal and flagrantly break the rules
in which case I rather like the idea put forward a few weeks ago of how NASCAR
allegedly handles these situations; if you win a race and your car is found to be
‘properly’ illegal (i.e you have turned up with a deliberately manufactured illegality),
the race result stands. However, you are required to carry a rear wing the size of a
barn door (or some similar handicap) for the next four, five or six races, and you
won’t stand a chance of winning any of them. Sorry pal, the crowd saw the race,
they saw you win, but you are going to have to wait a long time to do it again, we
have our eye on you!

  Lamy drove several exceptional races this year in the Ferrari and the major regret
I have of the season is that, if Larbre is successful in its appeal, he will not be
champion with Gardel. Two races with the Aston Martin Racing team, including
victory at Silverstone, meant that the two partners were separated in the point
standings and Lamy was not eligible for points when he drove for the factory
team. In Dubai, he and Gardel drove an extraordinary race from the back of the
field to the front, running out of fuel on the way, yet victory was theirs. If ever there
had been a champion drive, that was it, and his rivals accepted that fact.

  Instead, the drivers’ title has provisionally gone to Michael Bartels and Timo
Scheider in the Vitaphone Maserati team which also claimed the team’s title. On
the podium at seven out of 11 races, including two wins, one of which was at the
Spa 24 Hours kept them in the hunt. As much as that record points towards the
two being deserving champions, and anyone who drives such a dominant race at
Spa in the awful conditions does deserve the credit, neither ever put in a
performance like Lamy at Dubai. For instance, at Oschersleben, instead of taking
time to change a battery, Bartels tried to bump-start his car exiting the pit lane
when electrical power was low, failed, and rolled to a rather pathetic halt at pit exit.
They bounced back with two second places, and then finished fourth in Bahrain
after making double the number of pit stops to the Larbre car, but it is not really
the same, is it?

Andrew Cotton
November 2005

True Grit
  I went to the cinema on Friday, to see a John Wayne movie. I always liked the
cowboy films, the goodies and baddies, but there was something not quite right
with this production. True to legend Wayne shot all the gangsters in Dead Man’s
Gulch, mounted his horse to ride into the sunset…then one of his victims rose on
one elbow, levelled his pistol and shot Wayne through the heart.  Bang. Dead.
Hero lying in the dust.

  Women were leaving the cinema in tears, men heading for the nearest bar.
Surely a good movie shouldn’t end like this?

  Surely a good motor race shouldn’t end with the champion elect lying in the dust,
either? What happened in Bahrain on Friday afternoon was a travesty of the sport,
an insult to all the top drivers and all the spectators who went home having
witnessed a race, approved the result and applauded a champion, Gabriele

Courtroom Drama
  I have nothing against Maserati drivers, nice guys all. I would have been perfectly
happy if Michael Bartels and Timo Scheider had shared the FIA GT Championship
for Drivers, fairly won according to the outcome of the race. But they did not.

  No race result, never mind a championship, should be settled in a courtroom,
weeks or months after the final event. There is something inherently wrong in the
system that allows this to happen. All cars are, after all, scrutineered before going
on the track for the first practice. Certain checks, like weighing and air box testing,
are performed during practice and qualifying.

  If a team deliberately cheated prior to the race, or during the race, say with a
leaking air box or removing ballast, then I agree that the result would have to be
overturned. But Larbre Competition did not cheat. There was no violation of any
rules of competition, merely an unfortunate closure with half a litre of fuel
remaining in the tank of the number 11 Ferrari, in contravention of article 60 of the
Sporting Code which stipulates that three litres must remain in the tank, for
checking. “Three litres?” Tony Hancock almost said, “That’s an armful!”

No Fairy Tales
  My first reaction was “bloody scrutineers, they know how to f**k up a perfectly
good race.”  On Saturday morning I learned that the FIA stewards had deliberated
for six hours, and thrown the Larbre Ferrari 550 out of the result. My wrath was
transferred to the stewards.

  But what a stupid rule it is! The whole essence of endurance racing is strategy,
playing your strengths, disguising your weaknesses.  Gardel and his
outstandingly talented partner Pedro Lamy had completed a brilliant season,
master-minded by Jack Leconte.

  They were the underdogs, overcoming the four-strong Maserati onslaught.

  In Dubai, and again in Bahrain, they came from behind, literally won the
championship on the last lap of the last race. It was a thrilling result, a story-book
ending to a super championship.  The drivers had eked out their fuel to perfection,
making two stops only and finishing with half a litre in the tank, after the cooling-
down lap.

  Great stuff, we all said. All, that is, except chief scrutineer Jean Vinatier, and then
the stewards. Great scot, if they wanted more fuel for checking, they had only go to
go the Larbre pit and draw some from the reservoir! Perhaps they should have
done so before the end of the race. Why not?

  Their hateful decision echoes one made by the stewards at Macau, disqualifying
Alain Menu from third position (Chevrolet’s best result) in the final round of the
WTCC. Chevrolet lodged a protest immediately, as did Larbre Competition at

  This horrible, discriminatory rule should be scrapped. It serves no useful
purpose, other than to overturn a result that was achieved and applauded at the
track. Of course cars may run out of fuel on the final lap, or just beyond the
chequered flag. Motor racing has always been like that. The perfect racing car is
one that falls to pieces after it has won the race, someone once said. I say again,
there was no suspicion of cheating, which would have deserved a harsh penalty,
and a fuel sample could have been taken at any time of any day.

  What happened on Friday evening is a disgrace to the FIA, and a damned
shame for the Larbre Competition team. I doubt if Bartels and Scheider will feel
too comfortable, either, about earning a championship in this fashion. Did the
outcome serve to support Stephane Ratel’s untiring efforts in promoting the FIA
GT Championship? I doubt that, too.

  A plague on officialdom!

Michael Cotton
November 2005

Joy and Pain
Work Station
Sliding and Slipping
Over the Hills
Arabian Nights
Open Top Living
A man among princes
A litre, a litre, my kingdom for a litre
French Connection
Drive West on Sunset..........
Double V
Tower Records
Down to the Sea
And in the End....................