Good, Simple Racing

Thanks Mark Hughes (Autosport, today, August 3): “What was actually unfolding as Ferrari glided to an apparently effortless one-two was one of the most multi-dimensional grands prix of all time. The technical, competitive and political circumstances of the Hockenheim weekend came together in a way that could only happen in F1. It’s why beneath the surface it continues to be the most fascinating sporting endeavour mankind has devised – but on days like Sunday, it sure makes it hard for casual viewers to see this.

Hughes then spends half of his ‘race report’ explaining the intrigue: delicate Bridgestone tyres, a Ferrari number two who isn’t allowed to race his team-mate, Ferrari aero and mechanical improvements, and Renault mass dampers (or lack of).

He had to fill his race report with something else because, as usual, there was so little racing going on. But other than proving to the teams that he knows what is going on, what is Mark Hughes proving here?

The ‘GT alternative’ wasn’t too far from Hockenheim on Sunday – as the Spa 24 Hours ran to its conclusion.

No Spa on the F1 calendar this year of course, while the turgid little tracks always seem to keep their hold on a Grand Prix.

All credit to the FIA and its performance balancing in the GT Championship – the fastest four cars in the Spa 24 Hours were well-matched, very well-matched (although perhaps the Zakspeed Saleen has been hit too hard recently).

These are the ideal (best of three sectors) times for the fastest four cars during the first 12 Hours of the Spa event.

#2 Vitaphone Maserati 2:16.705
#4 GLPK Corvette 2:17.088
#1 Vitaphone Maserati 2:17.122
#5 Phoenix Aston Martin 2:17.173.

That was Jamie Davies making a difference in the #2 car, and everyone in the Vitaphone team clearly loves him to bits for his sheer pace. But look how closely matched the next three were. Three of the four set their actual fastest race laps on lap 2 or 3, the Aston Martin setting its time on lap 98.

21 hours or so after the start and things weren’t quite so finely balanced between the two rivals for the win – because the Phoenix Aston Martin had some minor accident damage, the #1 Maserati was “perfect”, and the latter had Spa-specialist Eric van de Poele at the wheel. So in ways we have explained already, van de Poele / Bartels / Bertolini took the victory – and although it wasn’t necessarily simple to follow (thanks to pit stops that didn’t coincide), surely everyone watching at Spa was aware that when Michael Bartels started his last stint ahead of the Aston Martin, those were the actual positions of the cars in the race – six seconds apart.

So the casual viewer was able to see the race unravel – while anyone really following it (perhaps with a stopwatch, and pinpointing the out of sync. pit stops) had plenty of brain teasers to think about. And it was nothing to do with anything “multi-dimensional” or “political”. It was a wonderful example of good, hard, clean, simple motor racing.

Thank heavens there was no success ballast involved (it doesn’t apply at Spa). The Renault F1 team had its own ‘success ballast’ at Hockenheim (actually a weight reduction, because its mass-damping system wasn’t used) – and lo and behold it was relatively uncompetitive (Alonso’s fastest lap was less than two-tenths quicker than Scott Speed in a Toro Rosso).

“Now we go with a lot of weight to Paul Ricard,” said Michael Bartels, after the race. And that should upset the balance of competition, shouldn’t it? That’s its purpose, isn’t it? To create a situation where someone else can win? I’ve never agreed with that principle, and probably never will.

It seems such a shame to utilise success ballast, especially in a situation where the FIA officials have created such a finely balanced situation in GT1. They’ve apparently got it ‘spot on’ even with the Maserati, a car allegedly designed to a different set of rules altogether.

Meanwhile, in several other series, the squabbling goes on interminably, as teams and manufacturers claim that the balance of performance isn’t correct. Grand Am changes the specifications of its cars regularly, the ALMS even managed to contravene its own regulations in changing specifications at Portland (and previously introduced two changes for the Corvettes without waiting to see how the first would affect the outcome on the track) and there are always rumblings in the WTCC.

The ALMS is in an unfortunate position in some ways, with limited car numbers in GT1, and acquiring as it does the rules that are specifically designed for Le Mans – and having factory cars in LMP2, a class was that was created with privateers in mind. The pressures are intense – but that series might be about to arrive at a point where LMP1 and GT1 competition is nicely balanced.

Let’s hope so – because as in F1, when the behind the scenes intrigue becomes more of a topic for debate and reporting than the actual racing, the racing fan is likely to switch off. Even with their hero likely to win at Hockenheim, the Germans stayed away in considerable numbers – perhaps an after-effect of the multiple champion’s tactics at Monaco? – but those at Spa on Saturday and Sunday saw a 24 hour race to remember, with an astonishing last three hours of competition.

The race for the win in GT2 turned out to be rather dull at Spa, in part owing to the immaculate performances of the AF Corse Ferraris. The Scuderia Ecosse Ferraris were at least as fast, but encountered niggly problems – while the AF Corse cars had one puncture between them. The Ebimotors Porsches couldn’t match the Ferraris on pace, but had their own dramas, mainly tyre-related. At least the #75 car will have its ballast reduced at Paul Ricard later this month - but its challenge for the title looks to be over already.

Now, if ever a class was crying out for equalisation, this it. Or will Porsche’s 997 match Ferrari’s 430 in 2007?
Malcolm Cracknell


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