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That Was The Week That Was…..part 1

Things have been in suspended animation on SCP for a few weeks……….aside from the natural sloth habitually exhibited by Morse and myself there have been changes behind the scenes, the most important of which is the fact that we no longer have available the services of Frank Ford, who has been our guide and mentor during the formation and running of the site. For personal reasons he is moving on to pastures new………Kerry and I would like to say a big THANK YOU……..Frank, you have contributed more than can be imagined or quantified to this project……….you will be sorely missed.

So a few things will change……..or rather knowing our pace, evolve………regular columns like this may be one new direction…….with Morse and I involved who can tell? Rock erosion may be quicker. Almost certainly.

The 2007 season for me starts as so many have before with a trip along the precarious British motorway system to the Birmingham NEC for the Autosport International Show, which most of us in the business regard as a depressing prospect. Mind you in passing that comment on in an email to a colleague he reminded me that there are worse times and places…….he was stuck in the middle of a 14 day stint at the Detroit Motor Show. OK he wins that one.

The NEC is one place that any sane person would avoid like the plague being a manifestation of all the things that old farts like me see as wrong with the UK……I could go on and given the slightest encouragement will……….but perhaps I should  spare you all.

On a positive note the Show is always a place to catch up with old friends, exchanging insults and gossip………amongst those of us in the sportscar parish the subject of the Peugeot launch was exciting much comment and speculation. The news back from France was more encouraging than expected. The project is reported to be around a month behind schedule, which is no way to prepare to take on the fantastic Audi oil burners, but the shake down at Paul Ricard went well by all accounts and all the indications are that closed coupe will be quick, very quick.

So if judgment was suspended about the car the jury was less inclined to not guilty in considering the driver line up announced last week in Paris. Absolutely everyone agreed with the choice of Nic Minassian and Stephane Sarrazin………top line guys at the top of their game. Nic has carried the Creation Autosportif project for the past 3 years, always giving 110% whatever the circumstances; this is a quality that will stand him in good stead during the first phase of the Peugeot campaign. Sarrazin is a throw back to era of drivers such as Vic Elford, racing at the highest level in all disciplines, F1, WRC and Le Mans, another team player who will just get on with the job whatever shit is flying around.

As for the other drivers in the line up reactions were a little more mixed. Sebastien Bourdais, drafted in only for Le Mans given his commitments in Champ Car, where he has ruled the roost for the past three seasons, should end up on the credit side of the ledger despite being vilified by some hysterical Brit commentators for his part in a notorious 2004 Le Mans incident with Martin Short. Leaving that aside he has considerable endurance experience in prototypes and GTs and will bring a significant contribution to the team. The other Le Mans only recruit is Spaniard F1 test driver extraordinary, Marc Gene. It is no secret that Spain is Peugeot’s most important market after France so a driver of his profile and talent makes perfect marketing sense, whether the qualities that bring results to a Grand Prix test programme will be the right ones for Le Mans remains to be seen…….more of that later.

The regular pilots of the other Peugeot will be Pedro Lamy and Jacques Villeneuve. Pedro has been outstanding in the GT class during the past few seasons, his epic drive at Dubai in 2005 will pass into sportscar legend in time, though on the other hand his actual prototype experience is limited, “Scoop” Watkins reckoned it was only 7 races and experience tells me not to question that particular source.

That leaves Jacques…….well what can one say? Villeneuve (French Speaking of a sort, F1 World Champion, Hipster/Rebel at least to those trapped in suits) obviously makes sense to the marketing gurus whose endemic cluelessness blights much of our lives these days. There is no doubt that JV is fast, no one wins the Formula One World Championship or the Indy 500 without huge amounts of raw speed, balls and talent, especially if your rival is one Michael Schumacher. But that was back in 1997, since then the chosen path has led to BAR, which even in an era of conspicuous consumption for F1 was regarded as particularly profligate and latterly to Sauber BMW where he was dumped mid season for a rookie. Rumours of joining Juan Pablo Montoya in NASCAR’s wrestling ring have come to nothing so now he washes up on the sportscar beach, at least for now.

For those few who have ascended to motorsport’s Everest the question becomes one not of talent but of motivation for future efforts or to put it into terms that one Le Mans veteran expressed at the Show……How will JV feel around 3.00am Sunday morning at La Sarthe; a slippery track, on old tyres, during the middle of a triple stint while running down in 23rd overall, 15 laps adrift of the leading Audi, the only motivation left being pride and sense of being part of a team with the collective responsibility that brings. F1 drivers are used to having everything handed to them on a plate and Jacques has a reputation for being more assertive than most in that respect; single mindedness is certainly one of the most important characteristics for such folk but how does that translate into the requirements of a team ethic? Those who been successful in both disciplines such as Martin Brundle or Stefan Johansson or Allan McNish tend to have had experience of the rigours of long distance racing before their F1 careers, they knew what to expect before returning to the fold.

Nevertheless JV has always marched to a different drumbeat than that expected by armchair commentators such as I, so just to be contrary he just might prove the doubters wrong, one is for sure after F1 he is in for a culture shock.

Catching up with those who ply their trade across the Atlantic or in F1 is certainly one of the better aspects of the Show for those of us who tread the LMS/WTCC/FIA GT boards…….I had not seen ex Motoring News Editor and F1 Super Scribe, David Tremayne, for several years so sharing a few lattes while putting the world to rights helped to while away an hour or so. His latest book The Lost Generation: The Tragically Short Lives of 1970s British F1 Drivers Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce  is enjoying a critical acclaim and is on order by yours truly, his previous books on such subjects as Donald Campbell have been required reading in this house. One problem that we are both facing is the ever increasing cost of doing business as a motorsport media professional set against the rising tide of internet yogis undercutting the market rates. This seems now to be as big a threat in F1 circles as it undoubtedly is in endurance racing. The genie is out of the bottle so the consensus is that old dogs have to find new tricks…….no point in hoping that things will be once again as they were. Giving a further expression of this trend Peter DeLorenzo writing in his excellent and must-read site
www.autoextremist.com nailed it succinctly again this week “the relentless Internet explosion - where anyone with a half a brain and a keyboard can show up and lay claim to an excruciatingly faux gravitas overnight” Amen to that Brother……..

Another fixture of the Show is Jim Bamber, whose acerbic view of the “Sport” is rather too close to reality for the comfort of the shakers and movers, especially in F1. As usual I scrounged a copy of his latest collection The Pits 14, once more essential reading for the more discerning punter….that means you, so go out and buy a copy today
www.jimbamber.com ; anything that has a Morse inspired forward from Tom Kristensen is a must have fashion accessory in any situation. Honestly, women will hang on your every word and you will be at least two seconds a lap faster……..(Jim, is this what you had in mind when you gave me the book?jb).

I was lucky enough to bump into old mucker, Robin Liddell, who is now one of our most successful exports to North America, having rides in the ALMS and GrandAm for Tafel Racing, chasing both series’ GT Titles and of course the Porsche Cup. I got to know Robin well during the ELMS campaign back in 2001 when he and Mike Youles took top spot in GT. Some memories of that time are hazy and some suppressed the last I heard Mike Pickup, the long suffering PK Sport team owner, was still paying off Hertz Spain after some unspecified off road antics near Jarama or did I dream it? Robin has followed the path beaten by so many other drivers, who discovering that the concept of actually paying professionals is alien to most teams in Europe, find the opposite is true in the Land of Opportunity. He was at the show with former housemate Michael “The Baron” Vergers, who is looking forward to a LMS campaign in the Barazi Zytek. Over lunch some of the stories of their past association shows that the spirit Ditton Road Flyers is alive and well………probably some of youngsters that I saw rushing around in their Nomex gear at the Show were up to the same old tricks that their antecedents outraged the local populace with……..you have to have some sympathy with those who live in vicinity of Silverstone.  Imagine a bunch of young racing drivers moving in next door……..the horror, the horror. It is also comforting for me to see that some remain constant to their traditional values in the way that Robin does, despite his many successes……….when it came time to pay for lunch all he could do was helplessly display a handful of Dollar bills, largely singles, mumbling some excuse and leaving those of us still trading in Sterling to settle the account.

There were a number of comments/ themes that seemed to run as a constant background hum being raised by many of those I spoke to……where was the F1 contribution in the Show? When politicians are being tapped up for money to upgrade Silverstone to a level acceptable to the Formula One Lords of the Universe or Ministers of the Crown are justifying their freebie VIP Passes to the British Grand Prix with an interminable ramble, we never cease to hear about the importance that F1 has to the British economy and how it represents the peak of a thriving and vibrant motorsport industry. That all may be true but as far as the leading exhibition of the sport in the UK, Autosport International, F1 was by its own standards almost invisible.  No launches, no drivers and a low profile presence, a group of show cars pretending to be a grid at the back of one hall, a Renault celebrating the back to back World Championships and an inverted Ferrari on the ceiling of the Dubai Motor City stand seemed to be the limit of the sport’s pinnacle’s contribution at the NEC.  That and a single static display in the Action Arena…….

There were a few positive signs in the sportscar world, the launch of the GT3 Jaguar marking a significant return for one of the sport’s most charismatic brands…..let’s hope that this acorn grows. A steady increase in the number of the ranks of the LMS was also reported with Melchester Racing being the latest recruit plus a mystery Lola LMP1. There was also an interesting theory regarding the Le Mans invitation to the FIA GT Champions, Vitaphone Racing; the story was that they will take up their opportunity with a Michelin-shod Pescarolo……sounds a little far out but I was assured that this is happening.

Le Mans and endurance racing, basking in the glow from the Peugeot launch, was much better represented than of late with the stand-out display of the Show, celebrating the forthcoming 75th edition of the 24 Hours du Mans. In this exhibit there was something for everyone, from a Bentley “Blower” of the 30’s era to the Bentley EXP Speed 8 that triumphed in 2003; among the usual suspects that had been rounded up were Porsche, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ford, Ferrari, Toyota, Nissan, McLaren, Matra, Lola and Audi. It was an impressive collection of metal and judging by the numbers of folk that crowded onto the stand very popular with the populace at large. For most of us in that part of the business it was a chance to recall campaigns now past, memories flooding back…..for some that meant going back to the 50’s and 60’s, others like me recalling later decades……..nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Nor would it seem is the publishing business……..doom and gloom were pretty much the order of the day as sales of magazines printed on dead trees seem to be in freefall.  Horror stories of Autosport’s latest newsstand circulation may just be stories but similar tales were being heard of most other motoring publications, too many to dismiss as the usual Show scuttlebutt. How have we reached this situation? The Internet would be the obvious answer; in the same way that 40 years ago a weekly publication like Autosport eroded the huge circulation of a monthly periodical like Motor Sport, albeit aided by management that were unable/unwilling to adapt.  The Internet feeds the insatiable desire for instant news that today’s attention-span deficient public has. It is true that there are a few websites out in the Ether that offer more than endless cutting and pasting of PR releases but most are pretty thin fare and should not offer a threat to a well run voice of the sport. The Internet has had one other insidious effect, everyone expects to receive all the goodies for free. So actually selling a magazine is problematical……..I know the issues having tried to drive down that road myself.

While acknowledging the Internet factor I would suggest the problems of Autosport in particular lie also with a simple case of bad brand management. The inhabitants of the NEC on trade/press days of the Show should be the core constituency of a magazine such as Autosport and yet person after person said that they no longer bought copies except rarely. Most felt that the direction taken in the Mansell Mania era disenfranchised them in favour of the lager and face paint brigade with Formula 1 noise drowning out everything else; pursuit of short term profit is always a tremendous temptation to management, the annual bonus will always kick the butt of the pension fund, but the long term damage can be catastrophic and is very hard to put right in any reasonable timescale.

The sad thing is that if you look at the recent issues of Autosport the magazine is in a much better state than in the recent past; Damian Smith and his team have addressed the problem areas and produced a better looking, balanced and considered product with a natural bias to F1 but with other features to read……..Gary Watkins’ excellent piece Sportscars That Never Raced is a good example of the new direction. I hope that these guys are not made to pay for the sins of the past.

So another Show over, which raised as many concerns as it did positives…….as I headed down the M40 towards the Aston Martin factory for a reception there was a definite sense of unease at the direction that the sport is headed in 2007.

More on that later………..

John Brooks
January 2007

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