Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus: Credit Where Credit is Due

I’m not big Jimmie Johnson fan, I’m even less of a Hendrick Motorsports fan, so you know it hurts me when I say ‘Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are just very good, that’s a fact’.

Jimmie, with his crew chief Knaus, now hold a 118 point lead in NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup over their nearest rival – another Hendrick driver, Mark Martin.

Among those who are paid to know, and those who just like think they know, Jimmie’s name is already etched on the trophy for the fourth consecutive year.

‘But wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘Aren’t there still four races left this season?’

And yes there are, and 118 points over four races may not seem like a big lead where the points change per race can be as high as 150 points, but the fact is that Johnson’s results dropping to that extent is less likely than tobogganing in hell.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to Johnson’s aspirations of the fourth title on the bounce, a feat he would be the first to achieve in NASCAR, is the next race at Talladega.

Followers of NASCAR, or indeed even those who know of NASCAR, will be familiar with what can happen at the giant superspeedway in Alabama. Restrictor plates, huge pack racing with inches to spare, and ‘the big one’ accidents that can claim as many as a dozen cars in a split second.

If Johnson gets caught in one of those accidents, and his rivals finish well, his lead will be gone, and those already crowning the California native as champion again will go quiet, at least for a time. Though at this point it should be mentioned, there is just as much chance of Mark Martin, or any one of the other title chasing drivers getting caught in the carnage.

Every driver knows of that chance. Johnson himself described how he was tired of answering questions about Talladega in press conferences after last weekend’s race.

And how has Johnson got himself into this position?

Well, by just being very, very good.

You do not win three titles, and look to be heading for a fourth, by simple luck. And while Jimmie automatically takes the main plaudits as the man behind the wheel, I feel the rest of his team must get some of the credit.

Firstly, the people who put the car together. The car is fast, but also reliable. A trawl through past records will show that the no.48 team have suffered only one mechanical DNF in the past three years.

Then you come to the real brains of the operation. Chad Knaus.

While not privy to the goings-on to at Hendrick, I give a lot of personal credit to Knaus for what I see as his plan.

NASCAR’s ten race Chase system presents drivers and teams with the opportunity to just run well in the 26 race, pre-Chase ‘regular season’, before running very well at the end of the season when it counts. The artificial closing up of the top-12 drivers means that as long as you make the cut it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done since February, only what you do from October onwards.

NASCAR also does not alter the races in the car very much – yes, this year they swapped Atlanta out for Fontana, but on the scale of changes they could have made it rates as miniscule.
This static 10 race mini-season allows the teams to concentrate on getting their cars to run well on those tracks, maybe being happy to sacrifice their pace at Bristol, Darlington, Watkins Glen, Pocono or any other of the tracks that don’t host a Chase race.

This, I believe is what Johnson and Knaus have done. They both know they are good enough to take a car that is not perfectly set up, and still leave the track with a solid finish. They can then take advantage of the fact that all but two venues – Kansas and Homestead – host a regular season race alongside their Chase dates.

Is it pure coincidence that two of Johnson’s three ‘regular season’ wins come on such tracks – Martinsville and Dover?

Probably not. If he and Knaus concentrate that heavily on perfecting a set-up and approach of the Chase races, then of course they are going to run well at the same tracks, no matter the time of year.

Earlier in the Chase Jeff Gordon was quoted as saying that aside from Talladega the Chase tracks were Johnson’s strongest tracks.

But, what came first, them being Chase tracks, so Johnson got good at them, or Jimmie’s favourite tracks just happening to be the ones that constantly decide the championship.

Unless you subscribe to a colossal conspiracy theory, you’ll probably join me in believing the former.

And if Johnson, Knaus, Rick Hendrick and anyone else involved in the no.48 team are smart enough, good enough and brave enough to do this then they probably deserve four titles.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Bernie is right on the British Grand Prix

“Do we need a British Grand Prix? No.”

That is what Bernie Ecclestone, who holds the contract rights to F1 is quoted as saying in a BBC article today.

As I write the plans for the 2010 British Grand Prix are in turmoil, Donington Park, the track that secured the deal to host the race for next year have been unable to raise the money needed to improve the track and its facilities in time to meet the last of the many deadlines the track, under the control of Simon Gillett, have been given.

Silverstone, the track which looked like it had lost the race, has offered to step in and take the date at relatively short notice.

However, Ecclestone has revealed that he will not negotiate a “discount” contract with the Northamptonshire track, despite the fact that other historic races, such as the Monaco and Italian Grand Prix do.

Seemingly central to this approach is that Ecclestone does not believe that F1 needs a race on British soil, or at least not one at Silverstone (offer him that fabled London street circuit and it’d be interesting to see his stance).

And you know what, he’s right.

Firstly F1 does not NEED any particular race. There are more than enough countries queuing up to host a race. Yes, most are Far or Middle Eastern countries, some have tracks of debateable quality, but there is enough interest to keep a 16 or 17 race calendar going. Simply because there is no British race does not make the eventual winner less of a World Champion.

Secondly, and more frighteningly, F1 does not NEED a British race.

You can argue that the fact that most of the teams are based in the UK should safeguard a home race? But why should it? They already travel the equivalent of umpteen times around the world in the season, what difference would maybe having one less race in Europe make?

And the team’s wouldn’t just up and leave because there was no race in Britain, they are here because of the huge pool of talent they can rely on and top class facilities, not because there so happens to be an F1 a metaphorical stone’s throw from their front door.

Also, from what I see so far, it’s the fans who are crying out for a British Grand Prix rather than the teams.

After all, fans are what keep the sport going. Fans make the sport saleable for sponsors, suppliers and manufacturers.

And are British fans going to still be watching F1, either at the tracks or on TV, even if there is no British Grand Prix?

Yes. Yes we are.

We will kick up a fuss for a few months, but by March next year, we’ll all be sat back in our normal chairs watching the first F1 races of a new season? Compare that to what Bernie will no doubt call "emerging" markets, such as Korea or India where fans need to be introduced to F1 on their doorstep.

OK, so no-one will get the gate receipts from a Silverstone, or even a Donington, weekend but many of the same fans who would attend a British Grand Prix will start change plans to go to another race. Spa, Monza, maybe a race further afield.

Sports fans, after all, are already used to spending money on flights (or other travel) and tickets to follow their favourites. Why else would sports stadiums around the world have “away ends”, why else would the Channel Tunnel be packed with cars headed for Le Mans every June.

Bernie will still be able to rely on the British Pound reaching F1’s pocket, so on a business level he doesn’t need the British Grand Prix, he simply needs the British, and the two are very separate.

But I repeat, that’s on a business level, not a sporting level.

I suspect Bernie doesn’t care about that.


NB: I, under no circumstances, support Bernie Ecclestone, the man is a greedy, evil man with no sense of how to run a sport. And that is what F1 is - a sport.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Brawn GP win constructors' title. Remember it.

I want to take this time to congratulate Brawn GP as much, if not more, on their winning of their winning of the constructors’ crown as Jenson Button an winning the drivers’ title.

In the furore that always the crowning of a new world champion in anything the turns in the road they have travelled to get there get smoothed out. This year there are those who have bucked that trend, mostly by implying that Button is somehow a less worthy champion because he remained winless for the second half of the season.

Another fact of most F1 titles is that the winner of the constructors’, teams’, manufacturers’ (call it what you will) title is often quickly forgotten by all except the anorak community. The winning constructor is never a pub quiz question, the winning constructor is never heralded with multiple awards and the chief mechanic never gives a gushing acceptance speech. If I ask you to reel off every winning constructor of the 90s and you’d probably falter (unless you are a ‘special’ kind of fan), drivers of the same era and you’d never even stumble.

But Button is world champion.

He made the best of the situation that was presented to him, winning six of the first seven races while his teammate, by way of contrast, won none in the same equipment.

But this year it was more apparent than ever just how big a role the team and car play in scoring wins.

At the start of the Button was transformed from a man who had previously won a grand total of one Grand Prix in a career filled with midfield mediocrity into a multiple race winner.

On the other hand Lewis Hamilton, a man whose form since entering F1 made you suspect he might also be able to have a stroll across Monaco’s harbour, was left looking enviously at the top half of the grid. And that’s before all the mad too-ing and fro-ing during the season.

But Brawn aren’t just any team.

They are, of course, the rescued Honda outfit, thanks to a management buyout led by Ross Brawn, after the Japanese manufacturer pulled out after two disappointing seasons.

But even if Honda may have left useful things like designs for cars and the occasional stack of cash around Brackley, it was only part of the job.

Brawn and Nick Fry still had to build the car, get as much testing as possible before the ban fell and secure an engine deal. This is where, in my opinion, the team won the title.

Firstly Button needs to give a big warm hand shake to the man who found the loophole for the double-decker diffuser. Yes someone at Williams and Toyota found the same loophole, but no-one seemed to exploit it the way Brawn did. That may be down to the fact Honda abandoned their 2008 campaign almost as soon as it began, so had six or so months longer than everyone else to study a massive raft of rule changes.

The second master stroke made in the back room was whoever decided to give Mercedes a call over supplying engines. A marque that had not been a customer supplier before this year, was suddenly the most prolific powerplant in F1, and the fastest. There have been very few times this year when one of the six Mercedes engines has not been at (or near) the top of the speedcharts.

Even once these choices had been made and the team had taken their early successes times were tough. The residual Honda money, and any gained from sponsorship as the team’s potential became obvious, was not enough. The team had to fire several workers even after the victory in Melbourne.

Then as the season moved to Europe chinks began to show in the Brawn armour. Vettel and Red Bull already had one win in China and were now introducing updates at a rate very few, let alone Brawn, could keep up with. Other teams were getting updates, including the once crucial double diffuser, and the march Brawn had stolen in the winter had melted away by the summer.

Doom-mongers doubted the team’s means and ability to keep their car competitive as Red Bull clawed back into range over the summer.

But Brawn did introduce upgrades. A one-two finish in Monza a tour de force for the team as the brute force of the engine was complemented by strategy choices by the team that pushed both drivers past the rapid two-stoppers ahead.

That result aside the upgrades did not win races, but rather did just enough. They no longer needed to win races, a reward for their early and off season work.

And for that alone Brawn’s title should be remembered.

Friday, 16 October 2009

All Filler, No Killer - The I Still Refuse to Call it Auto Club Speedway Edition

Oh dear merciful Lord, it’s back! Just when you thought it was safe to be a NASCAR driver and do something vaguely stupid “All Killer, No Filler” returns after one it’s brief getaways.

This means that instead of being stuck with the seven dwarfs of the race before I get to pick and choose who I want from a bunch of races, so sit back (not that far back, you’ll probably need to scroll down) and enjoy the shambling, shuffling (and rather late) return of AFNK as it slips in the back door like you do when you come home three hours late after a night at the pub.

Let’s just hope they’re not up still.....

Dave Blaney
– Yes, I get to pick and choose who gets to ride the bus this week, but it just wouldn’t be an edition of AKNK without Dave Blaney, he’s the field filler comfort blanket that keeps us all warm at night. Sunday night at Fontana he didn’t disappoint (although he was still recovering from a dizzying 37th place in Dover) as he fumbled to finish 40th, completing just 22 laps before “overheating” parked the car............10/10

Michael McDowell – People of California. I ask you “was it absurdly hot on Sunday afternoon?” Could you fry eggs on the pavement? Were people breaking hydrants simply to get some fresh, cooling water that evaporated before it even touched the ground where it would have instantly boiled on contact? I only ask as there seems to have been an outbreak of overheating at Fontana, with Blaney, Mcdowell and David Gilliland all had their races ended by over-heating (although between you and me the only “heat” involved in Gilliland and the #71’s retirement was Kyle Busch’s fever and the Gibbs money burning a whole in the team’s pocket...................10/10

Michael Waltrip – MWR have gone insane! First you have Michael’s Evil Kneivel impression through the big accident on Sunday. Everyone else is crashing, spinning and wrecking around you, what do you do? a) back off until you the smoke clears or your spotter tells you the spinning, crashing and wrecking has stopped or b) floor it right through the middle, doing a combination of fervent prayer and the song your mother used to sing to you? If you picked a) you’re sensible, if you picked b) you’re Michael Waltrip (hello Michael) or you’re just being silly. Then comes the news they’re chatting up Danica Patrick about a move to NASCAR. They can’t be that desperate for publicity.....4/10

Sam Hornish – Honey, I’m worried about Sam. I think he might actually be a NASCAR driver. The artist formally known as Sideways turned in another creditable performance by finishing 12th, a result that once would have only been because of the top contenders crashing, flukish fuel economy or divine intervention. Sam may have outlived his days as a NASCAR joke, which mean we need someone to fill his shoes..........3/10

Casey Mears – And who better to move onto that Casey Mears, a man who has had every opportunity thrust upon him and has failed to do anything, other than with the help of the same divine intervention mentioned above. The TV people are obviously fearful for Casey’s future, going to great lengths to point out how he was running sixth for a few laps, which was his highest finish of the season (I wonder how many fully funded multi-car teams would be proud of that?). Casey soon slumped to eleventh, which isn’t his best finish of the season.........4/10

Ryan Newman – Perhaps it’s because I’m not American, or because I like watching racing, rather that listening to infomercials, that NASCAR constant product placement makes me squirm in my seat like I’ve just had an accident in my trousers (sorry, pants). But at Lowe’s on Saturday Ryan and Jeff Gordon will promote the Transformers sequel, but “becoming” Transformers themselves (I’m not sure but I don’t think they’re going to fit the templates somehow). The only way it could be any better is if Jimmie Johnson were the evil Megatron – actually there is no way we know he isn’t......5/10

Brian Vickers – My guess is Brian is probably hoping he didn’t make the Chase right now. That was he’d be getting all his appalling luck and bad weekends out of the way while no-one was looking, concentrating on the efforts of Kyle Busch after he made the Chase at Richmond. This weeks misfortune was a broken shock absorber, which the team overcame with the same sort of technical expertise you use when you lick a battery to see if it’s working, by shoving four spring rubbers in. Then they managed to get involved in the big crash – more on that later.......7/10

And the Brikkie Goes To............

Let us address the Brikkie by tapping into movie and/or book quotes. What, everyone are the rules of Fight Club? 1. You don’t talk about Fight Club. 2. You don’t talk about Fight Club. Now let’s compare that to the rules of NASCAR (or at least what we imagine the rules to be, the book itself being as elusive as Unicorn crap) 1. You don’t talk about debris cautions. 2. You don’t talk debris cautions. I think Kasey Kahne’s in trouble.

Next Week.

A right mixed bag. David Ragan and Paul Menard, Michael “crazyman” Watrip and Denny Hamlin, alongside the field filler trio of Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss and David Gilliland.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Suzuka: The end for gravel traps?

The various accidents over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend at Suzuka – especially those suffered by Timo Glock in qualifying and Jaime Alguersuari in the race – are likely to cause the debate about run off areas to be re-opened.

It is one of the criticisms often levelled at the new Hermann Tilke "Tilke-drome" circuits (and those older tracks that have been “improved”) that the huge swathes of high grip tarmac that act as run off areas detract something from the challenge of driving a race car round a track fast. There is no (or very little) punishment for running off track.

A driver can simply carry on, maybe flicking down a gear and losing some track position, but carrying with he and his car none the worse for wear. F1 should be difficult, and gravel traps make it more so, and that’s before you consider that more gravel traps would render the chicane cutting dilemmas null and void.

As you may be able to tell I normally count myself squarely in the group who support the use of gravel traps and walls to stop cars and punish mistakes with retirement.

But the events at Suzuka may have changed that.

The Japanese track has been improved massively since its previous F1 races, new paddock buildings, massive resurfacing and the addition of concrete run off areas.

In commentary for the practice sessions for the race at Suzuka former (and probably future) F1 driver Anthony Davidson described how Spoon Curve used to have a vast gravel trap to its outside, that any mistake would send you skipping over at pretty high speed.

A daunting experience.

However, in these days of personal injury lawyers and litigation “daunting” is not a word people like, along with “risky” and that Spoon gravel trap has given way to another sea of tarmac (save for an awkward section at very end).

But unlike the new "Tilke-drome"s Suzuka has split its run-offs between tarmac and gravel. The turn one gravel where Senna and Prost once came to a halt is gone, the outside of 130R is similarly tarmaced over.

But grass and tyre walls still flank the esses, the Degner curves and the final bend – a location not unknown for big accidents even before Glock’s impact.

But Glock and Alguersuari put a massive dent in any argument for gravel traps (and their cars).

In both cases the gravel traps did not stop the car. No matter whether we want drivers punished for their mistakes we don’t want them injured.

Even more worrying was the manor in which both cars, most noticeably Alguersuari, were sent airborne by skipping over the gravel or the change in running on grass to gravel. There are all too many accidents where an airborne car hitting the barrier has terrible consequences. Put simply you can design barriers to cope with “conventional” impacts where a car hits at the base of walls, but put a car airborne, even slightly, with all the pitching and yawing, and (no pun intended) everything is up in the air.

Now, if you still support gravel traps you can argue that the traps that both drivers encountered were narrow, meaning there was very little room between the track and the barrier. You can also argue that Alguersuari’s crash was an odd place on the track.

And it was.

But perhaps gravel just isn’t the best way to stop and F1 car. Perhaps they are just too fast, and too light, and with the skid plant tend to skim over the traps like a flat stone over a lake.

Whatever the technical reasons the fact remains. If there was no grass and gravel then the four wheels retain contact with road and higher grip levels.

And higher grip levels means more chance to scrub off speed, or steer way from the worst of the impact, which means fewer injured drivers.

Which we can all agree is good.