Sunday, 13 March 2011

X-ed Up: Going For A Spin Around Silverstone

If you ever get the chance to be whisked around Silverstone in a KTM X-Bow do it. Don’t hestitate, climb in (avoiding the fire extinguisher which will nestle betwixt your legs once your seated) and strap in (or get strapped in, that’s closer to the truth).

It was exactly this privilege I got at the annual media launch for the British Formula Three and GT Championships, thanks to the SRO Motorsports Group who run the series, the nice people organising the day and Marcus Clutton – the all-important man in the driving seat.

Now, in the spirit of total disclosure I have been a round Silverstone at pace before – in a Lotus Evora. However, that was a road going sportscar. The KTM, while you might still be able to drive it on the road would stretch the definition of “road car” to new lengths.

The sensations are totally different to the Lotus. In the KTM Marcus is less willing to take to the teeth chattering kerbs, particularly on corner exit. There is none of the feeling that you need to brace your feet against the footwell under braking I remember for the Lotus, though that is replaced with simply incredible wind noise and force as your head forces its own unaerodynamic way through the air. My be-helmeted bonce is chucked every which way down the Hanger Straight, including the disconcerting amount of lift as the air tries to take the helmet off.

One think you notice around Silverstone is that the corners all appear very tight compared to when you see them on TV. The Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel sweeps look like little more than mild inconveniences to straight line speed for an F1 car. Approach them in a KTM and they all look like hairpins – it gives you a whole new appreciation for the downforce allowing F1 cars to change direction the way they do.

Having been around Silverstone last year, there is one piece of track I’m particularly interested in as it’s new – the new Arena section.

Blitzing past the new pits – now only a few months from their official opening – the right-hander at Abbey is preceded by a lift, maybe a dab of brake for an apex speed of about 100mph in the KTM (I haven’t a clue how quick that is compared to a proper race lap), it’s about the same pace through left kink at Farm – it’s all too apparent why the high-speed corner loving Red Bulls of last year were so suited to these corners.

At the twin hairpins at Village and The Loop the road suddenly seems to narrow – if drivers are brave enough to run side-by-side from the first corner to here, then expect accidents a-plenty. There is also the chance of a bit of controversy – find yourself in an untenable position on the outside, and a straight hop across the run-off misses three corners and takes you out onto the Wellington (nee National) straight.

Out of the The Loop the left-hander at Aintree is simply an acceleration zone. It’s down into Brooklands that I notice the fastest speed – just shy of 120mph. It might not be that quick, but it’s more than enough to get the juices flowing.

The run into Stowe is almost certainly faster, but I’m too busy trying to keep my head still to glance at the digital speedo’ on the centre of the dashboard.

Running into Copse at the start of the third lap, the speed again, is just over 100mph….

Then it all goes a bit wrong.

Spinning from the passenger is a strange sensation – there’s obviously none of the steering feedback to gauge the car on, so as the back comes round a little, then snaps round the rest of the way, your balance has to race to catch up. I distinctly remember pointing sideways, maybe backwards, across the track, then rolling backwards across the tarmac run-off, me glancing over my shoulder to see where the strip of gravel on the outside is. I will never say ill of the FIA’s massive run-offs again.

As Marcus spins the tyres to get going again he lifts his hand off the gear lever in the centre of the car in apology. I couldn’t give a damn!

The spin, leads to a more cautious approach to the rest of the lap. Speed into Stowe the final time is dampened by the need to remove the run-off crud from the tyres (and even then there’s the merest hint that another spin is not very far away) and turn in speed at Abbey is down on the lap before.

Braking for Brooklands Marcus swings the car out wide and the black Predator Ferrari 430 swings up the inside. The car dwarfs the KTM – like being passed by a lorry in a normal road car – but was whoever is in the driving seat brakes for Luffield a fiery glow and lick of flame point back at me from the 430’s twin exhausts.

Nerdilly magical.

Online Streaming Should Go Pirate Radio

So Indycar have moved to stop the online streaming of races on their official website….

Now, the role of the internet in broadcasting and journalism in general is a pet topic of mine – wind me up and watch me go, sort of like one of those monkeys with a pair of cymbals, but I digress massively.

OK, let’s gloss over the fact that whenever I happened across the online stream for Indycar races it ran less than smoothly and made the race near impossible to follow. What Indycar had - officially sanctioned streaming is exactly what every sport should be doing to combat worries about the copyright infringement rife when anyone can hook TV to internet and stream coverage for all to see.

There are some people for whom online streaming is the only way to follow a race – or indeed any sport. These are not the people who simply don’t want to shell out for a subscription, these are the people who live in countries where there is simply no broadcast available.

If they wish to continue to follow moving images (when the stream’s actually running half way to decent) of Indycar they will be forced onto sites that offer less than legitimate streams for free.

In doing so Indycar, and its broadcasters, are missing out.

Bring people onto your site for an official, smooth, no-risk-of-the-man-shutting-it-down, stream and you can add them to you viewing figures. They should not be seen as counting instead of TV viewing figures, but counting towards TV viewing figures. If you’ve got an online audience, you could pick and choose which ads they see as the stream loads, or even during standard commercial breaks. The sort of people who watch an online stream are likely to come from a fairly small area of humanity. They’re not likely to be casual fans and they’re going to be tech and computer savvy. That sort of viewership offers a clear audience to go and pitch to advertisers. Money is the important thing here.

Sports broadcasters need to stop seeing internet streaming as the enemy. It has the potential to bring your product to whole new audiences who have no way of otherwise seeing it. Yes, the suits in Network Towers see an overnight TV rating as the be all and end all of everything, but they should be thinking of the potential online audience that they’re not reaching.

There is clearly an audience for online streaming. Watching the aforementioned illegitimate streams of the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duels ahead of the Daytona 500, there was talk from South America, Europe, even Australia.

If they’ll watch a grainy, laggy feed for three hours, during the middle of the night what would they do if they were offered a proper, official stream during the middle of the night? And once into the official site they can stand up and be counted as those visiting the website and watching the coverage.

The UK Pirate Radio of the 1960s proved popular, so the BBC created Radio One.

Why shouldn’t online streaming follow the same pattern?

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Rolex 24 - America's 24

I began my Rolex 24 preview on by trying to find a place for the race in the pantheon of endurance racing - alongside the races at Le Mans, Spa or the Nurburgring. You can read the preview here, or just take my word for it.

At the time it made sense. Le Mans is the 24 hour race, Daytona is just a 24 hour race.

However, somewhere during SPEED’s TV coverage of the event I realised that trying to put the Rolex 24 into the same bracket as Le Mans is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

It was the first time I’d followed the race as much as I did. Spurred on the presence of ex-F1 drivers Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, the fact the race is full of stories and British talent – Ross Kaiser, on both counts - and the fact that I have to sound like I know what I’m talking about occasionally.

The difference is this, and it sounds so simple. The Rolex 24 is America’s 24.

Strip away the international list of drivers and you get (eventually) American cars from American teams on an American track.

Everything at Daytona is so different from the European races I was trying to shoehorn it in with. And I’m not just referring to the fact that Reba McIntyre had her own press conference at the track.

Firstly, in the Daytona Prototype class you have cars that are not raced outside of North America. OK, so they’re not exactly automotive oil paintings, but I can give you worse, and it doesn’t matter that their not – in the overall scheme of things – that fast because they’re only racing against similar cars. There are the teams – what are the chances of Ganassi, to pick the obvious example, ever showing up at Le Mans.

Slim to none.

Secondly there is Daytona itself. The ‘roval’ track running on oval and road course could only really happen in America (yes, pedants I know about Rockingham, Lausitz and Calder Park). The stupefyingly high banking, and the images it produces, are almost the trademark of the race as the oval – so disparaged by Europe – is the trademark of American racing.

Of course bundled in with the fact the race it is so inherently American is that it is owned by NASCAR. And yes, the near endless parade of debris cautions got a little tiring, though it must be noted that the final one-lap shootout was exactly the right decision. Once the Spirit of Daytona Coyote had expelled it’s bodywork all over turn 6 with eight minutes to go there was little alternative than to throw a final caution flag.

The number of full course cautions is something that grates on some fans of European endurance, but Daytona doesn’t exactly lend itself to local yellow flags – who fancies running over the infield to pick up that piece of debris from the bottom of the banking? Secondly, the close racing it generates is something entirely different from what can be found in Europe.

When was the last time Le Mans finished with the top four cars on the lead lap?

When Joey Hand copped a 30 second stop-go penalty late on in the race it put the eventual winners 50 seconds behind, having been in the lead. In all but the closest battles at Le Mans or Spa such a penalty would only be a minor inconvenience before the car returned to pounding round the track in isolation.

I can appreciate the metronomic precision of car and driver needed to simply keep going for 24 hours, but throw in wheel to wheel racing for the lead right into the final minutes and you have me hooked.

The Rolex 24 is American endurance racing the way Sebring or Petit Le Mans never will be (at least under the ALMS banner). I’ll watching whatever I can of both races, but they will be different – more European – even the ALMS name concedes something to continent that gave the world croissant, bratwurst and Kraftwerk.

The Daytona 24, on the other hand is America’s endurance race.