Aug 30, 2010

Ambrose leaves Montreal empty-handed for 4th time

He wasn’t first time lucky, he suffered the sophomore jinx, and his third time definitely wasn’t a charm. Now, Marcos Ambrose has a fourth frustration in Montreal to fume over.

After taking control of the race early and passing cars at will, a mechanical failure turned another promising performance in Montreal to tears as he retired from the NAPA Auto Parts 200 on Sunday with 24 laps to go due to a suspension problem.

Instead of celebrating a win on the podium, a dejected Ambrose sat at the end of his hauler talking about what could have been — again.

It was the same old story for the likeable Australian, who has dominated each of the four NASCAR Nationwide races in Montreal, only to have something go wrong and spoil an incredible performance. In all, he has led 149 of 273 laps Nationwide has run on the 12-turn, 4.361 kilometre Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

So, when does the constant disappointment make him begin to have a hate on for Montreal?

“Oh, about now,” he said with a huge smile. “You know it’s a great track, a great city, huge crowd and I love coming here. Just because I am not winning doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. It’s just a shame I can’t get to victory lane.”

An alternator failure meant that Ambrose had to shut down all the fans in the car to conserve electrical energy as the power got sucked from the battery. With engine power falling, Ambrose needed to drive the car hard to keep up. And that was his downfall.

“We were dominating early on. I held the lead for a long time but I drove it so hard that I broke some of the left front suspension,” he said. “You can’t say we didn’t give it a good shot.”

Ambrose told reporters that he needed to sleep on it when asked whether he'd be back in 2011 to try to finally win in Montreal.

Let's hope he does come back and gets that elusive win. He deserves it.

Aug 18, 2010

Windsor wisdom?

Peter Windsor resurfaced earlier this month as a new columnist for GPweek magazine after laying low for the better part of a year during the USF1 fiasco.

As readers might recall, Windsor was one of the men behind stillborn Formula One team which never made it to a race despite his continued promises left and right that it would be in Bahrain last March.

In his first act as a GPweek staffer, Windsor did a Q&A with the magazine explaining his side of the story in an "exclusive" interview.

Bottom line he says is that "a bit of humiliation is always good for the soul," but unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the experience has removed much of the self important attitude displayed by Mr. Windsor. 

He takes no blame for the disaster that was USF1. Nope, that's the fault of Formula One, the Formula One Teams Association, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the economy, and sponsors, but not the silly decisions made by Windsor et al at the helm of USF1.

You know, like the incredibly misguided idea that the team could setup in the U.S. and build its car away from the hub of the sport and its talent. Despite being told by everyone "that Europe was the only place to do a car," Windsor and crew went forward.

Apparently the time "when an F1 car could be designed and built in America" had not arrived.

As an aside, one would think that Windsor, who has been a top communications official for several F1 teams and a working journalist for SpeedTV among others, would have understood that this kind of communication might have saved USF1 from the trash bin by quashing many of the rumours that he claimed sabotaged the operation.

But the more laughable part of the interview is his assertions on U.S. drivers in F1. He expresses disbelief at the fact that no one in F1 saw it wise to sign Danica Patrick to a contract.

Let's put aside the fact that Windsor promised up and down that he would run U.S. drivers on his team and vowed on pain of death not to go the pay driver route before signing flush Argentine driver José Maria López.

After blaming everyone else for his misfortune and making decisions that were apparently based on false assumptions, the real kicker here is that in trying to understand why Patrick hasn't had a shot in grand prix racing, he says: "You should never take anything for granted in F1 these days."

Apparently the humility thing kicks in slowly…

Aug 8, 2010

Mark Webber pays it forward

My latest column in the Globe about Formula One racer Mark Webber's help to IndyCar driver Will Power...

Formula One driver Mark Webber doesn’t have to win the world title this year to be a champion in Will Power’s eyes.

That’s because without getting some financial aid from the Red Bull racer five years ago, Power’s career might have come to a screeching halt.

Instead, Webber pitched in to help his fellow Australian keep racing and Power is now leading the IndyCar Series championship on the strength of four wins and eight top-5 finishes going into this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Although he excelled once given the chance, Power's success in IndyCar may never have happened had the pair not met in 2004 at the Silverstone circuit in England, when he was watching the British Formula 3 Series from the sidelines due to lack of funding.

Read the rest at the Globe and Mail.

Jul 2, 2010

Did fans really get their say?

With loads of back patting and self congratulations happening in the wake of the Formula One Teams Association's fan forum this week in London, I’d like to take a moment to toss some cold water on the proceedings.

Maybe I am a complete cynic, but I wouldn’t suggest that F1 fans get their hopes up that it will have much of an effect on the way the sport does business.

Only 150 fans were given the chance to attend the forum, on a first come first served basis. Those registering for the event also had to submit their question in advance. So much for an impromptu and open discussion.

In addition, having it in London meant that the forum only addressed one type of fan from one country with particular interests. My guess is a fan forum in the U.S. — provided that F1 could actually find any fans there — would have a markedly different set of concerns about the sport's accessibility, considering their experience with other forms of racing.

But the bigger problem is that listening to FOTA representatives talk shows that they seem to be finding reasons to show why the fans are mistaken with their impressions of the sport rather than listening carefully and taking notes. This has been the case with the sport’s fan survey since it began.

Does anyone know what the No. 1 want of fans has been since the survey began? Well, it is and has always been overtaking on track. And that problem has not been addressed at all by the sport.

And yes, before we start ragging on me about all the passing this season, let’s remember that the weather conditions induced most of the overtaking, not the sport’s efforts.

Look at the dry races and you’ll see: Bahrain was boring. Only backmarkers getting in Fernando Alonso’s way made things interesting in Montreal. And Valencia was a yawner, save for the FIA’s penalty lunacy and Kamui Kobayashi on brand new soft tires at the end of the race against those on old hard ones.

And having some of the sport’s key players saying they’d rather see a heated battle between two drivers without a pass than drivers whizzing by each other at will simply insults the fans who have asked for it. It’s not a question of one or the other. Maybe we can find a happy middle ground where we don’t have a choice between no overtaking and 25 passes a lap for the lead?

Fans simply want to see battles where a driver CAN actually pass another. It’s not very difficult to understand. Anyone who has ever watch MotoGP understands this idea.

Like I said earlier, Kobayashi got by two cars in Valencia only because he had a gigantic advantage. Not unlike a McLaren trying to get by a Lotus. But put two cars together that are a second apart in laps times and the chance of a pass are zero to none, unless the guy in front runs into a wall.

Now, actually making it happen it starts with a governing body that makes proper rules.

So far, the FIA has failed on that respect, but it cannot be blamed solely. There is after all a technical working group made up of the teams, which is supposed to be the expert second sober thought on all the rules. And it let the loophole for the double diffuser through last year.

Remember the double diffuser that negated all the recommendations of the overtaking working group?

It seems the solution is pretty simple. Get rid of all the aerodynamic components that aren’t wings. Then add bigger, more grippy tires that don’t last 60 laps. Next is a mandate that calls for smaller wings with a maximum of two surfaces. Write it up in clear rules that do not allow for “interpretation.”

Essentially, an F1 car should be a giant go-kart with an adequate amount of downforce and a hugely powerful engine.

The final step is to combine this with tracks that actually penalize a driver for mistakes — which they will make driving these cars — rather than let them off the hook on smoothly paved runoff areas that mean they hardly lose time when they make an error.

Jun 30, 2010

Why the Valencia fiasco was the FIA’s fault

Ok, everyone has an opinion on the safety car pass by Lewis Hamilton in Valencia on Sunday and whether the fact that he still finished second despite breaking the rules while those who played fair were essentially penalized.

It does seem that the British media — unsurprisingly of course — are finding ways to defend their boy Hamilton. Not out of the ordinary, as Lewis is the greatest driver to ever strap himself into a car if you go by them.

Meanwhile the Alonso Ferrari camp is equally adamant that their man was given the short end of the stick, going from third to ninth because he didn’t pass the safety car illegally and instead pulled behind the car as required under the regulations.

This meant he was stuck behind the safety car as Hamilton streaked away. In the end, Hamilton pitted for tires and a new nose cone without losing a place — only because he illegally passed the safety car — while Alonso and teammate Felipe Massa paid the price for getting held up by the safety car.

Now, we can argue about the luck of the draw forever, but there are two salient points here that have escaped many arguments surrouning the incident. and both point to a massive failure on the part of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

First, the illegal pass of the safety car has to be considered as one of the most egregious transgressions a driver can make. The safety car on track assumes that there is a serious situation on track where there may be an injury, track workers on the scene in a dangerous position, or huge amounts of debris on the tarmac. People’s lives are likely in danger in same way, something that is magnified by a driver ignoring the rules and driving past the safety car to speed around the track for his own gain. And yet, the proscribed punishment for such a transgression is a driver though penalty? So, fail the FIA on that account.

Second, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, the sport’s governing body failed to change the safety car rules once refuelling was banned. The rule was lifted after it was thought that a driver may run out of fuel under the safety car when they would had refuelling, but the new rules for 2010 made that point moot. But the FIA didn’t change the regulations. If it had, the pitlane would have been closed once the
safety car emerged and no one would gain or lose places because of where the safety car picked up the field. So, fail the FIA on that account too.

The FIA will now look into the regulations concerning the safety car in a meeting of the Sporting Working Group that will happen sometime before the British Grand Prix on July 11.

My guess is that the rules will change to have the pitlane closed when the safety car emerges and the penalty for passing it illegally will no longer be a drive through.

And when that happens, it will be clear evidence the FIA is guilty for the mess in Valencia.

But don't expect any apologies or regrets for a giant screw up that made the sport look like a Mickey Mouse show — again.

Jun 28, 2010

No reason to follow the rules in F1

My latest column for the Globe and Mail:

Formula One may be the pinnacle when it comes to auto racing, but its officiating continues to make it look like a bush league sport.

Time and time again, F1's governing Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) has dropped the ball when it comes to making and applying rules and Sunday's European Grand Prix only exposed further challenges to the sport's credibility.

That's the only conclusion that can be reached when the FIA allows a driver, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, to get a clear benefit from breaking the rules.

More at Globe Drive

Jun 25, 2010

Old names and new teams

Let me make myself perfectly clear: I believe that a sport diminishes itself when it allows participants to take credit for others’ accomplishments.

Now, if that makes me one of these “purists” who wants to stick with tradition, so be it.

That brings me to Lotus Racing.

Now some Formula One journalists that I respect have argued that Tony Fernandes has shown the proper respect to be a suitable heir to the legend of Team Lotus.

As they point out, the car is green and yellow, the team is based close to the old Lotus headquarters and its first chassis took a Lotus nomenclature.

And, kudos to new owner Tony Fernandes for going to Colin Chapman’s family and asking permission to use the Lotus name.

But in the end, that doesn’t make it Team Lotus. And it certainly doesn’t make it right.

In hockey here in North America, I have a similar issue with the Ottawa Senators franchise which began in the early 1990s using the name of a team that players in the city almost a century ago. There is no connection to the old squad, and the records for the new team only begin when the new franchise started playing.

Yet, the Ottawa Senators have Stanley Cup banners hanging from their rafters that belong to the original team but are displayed in the new franchise’s colours. And the team always talks about winning its first Cup in the modern era.

Sorry kids, but there’s no connection to the old team and its accomplishments except for the name. And the sport shouldn’t allow those lines to be drawn and fans should not stand for it either.

Competing, winning and finding success in the top echelon of any sport is supposed to be difficult and fans should not accept sport allowing teams to take shortcuts.

Formula One is included in that group.

Really, isn’t that why there were howls of protest when Bernie Ecclestone suggested there should be passing shortcuts designed into circuits to help drivers overtake?

If the new Team Lotus wants to keep that tradition alive, more power to them. The rub is that they can do that in many ways, such as adopting the team’s ethics, drive and spirit.

Unfortunately, the new team chose to adopt Team Lotus’ records, wins and races as its own and is now claiming that Valencia is Lotus’ 500th start and the next victory will be No. 80 for the squad.

This is not the way to go. Bottom line is that route only makes it seem to me that sportsmanship got lost along that way as the marketing folks took full branding control.

So, for me, Valencia is and always will be Lotus Racing’s ninth start and its next win will be its first. And no one can convince me otherwise.