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Racing’s dark days

Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi is in critical condition after a crash at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, and I’m wondering, again, why I’m a fan of auto racing.

According to media reports (here and here) Bianchi’s Marussia left the track at Turn 7,  the same location that Sauber’s Adrian Sutil crashed a few laps earlier, with just nine laps to go in what would be a rain shortened race. Bianchi’s car collided with a tractor that crews were using to move Sutil’s car. Bianchi, 25, underwent surgery and was being moved to intensive care, where at the time of this writing, his condition was listed as critical.

At  its best, racing for me has always been about watching drivers put their considerable skills to the test; about technologically advanced machines that might, just might, make their way to my driveway someday; about high drama and minute details that could spell the difference between winning and losing. And even from my earliest days of being a teenaged fan, and before I began writing about the sport, racing drivers seemed to be colourful characters. Not just jocks, but people who had real opinions and weren’t afraid to express them. People like Jacques Villeneuve, Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe to name just three.

Then, someone gets seriously hurt, as happened this weekend. Or worse, as happened this summer and has, unfortunately, happened many times before. People are mortal. Race car drivers are mortal. And sometimes bad things just happen to good people.

But there’s more to it than that. Incidents like the Bianchi crash raise more questions than answers and make me, and probably others, question why I watch auto racing and why I’m interested in it. Why do I give my tacit approval of the risks that racers take? Part of the answer is that I still believe that there should be a place for risky behaviour in the sanitized, controlled world we often find ourselves living in. Yet it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for a sport knowing that something terrible could happen at any moment. Still, for some, and I’ve counted myself among them, that’s precisely why they go to races or watch them on TV.

As Road & Track‘s Marshall Pruett points out auto racing is facing a battle for relevance, apart from any concerns around its inherent dangers. Racing fans are getting older and fewer younger people are interested in the sport; TV viewers are down. I suspect that when non-fans hear about another racer being injured they might wonder why the sport still exists at all.

Am I being too pessimistic? Maybe. But it’s better to consider questions like these instead of not acknowledging them at all. As fans, we owe at least that much to people like Jules Bianchi.

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Women in the driver’s seat

Watching the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey games over the past few days made me think about car racing.

Hold on, stay with me. The women’s gold medal game was a fantastic nail-biter. Part amazing comeback by the Canadian women (after being down 3-0 in the third period) and part epic collapse by the U.S. women’s team.

Then the Team Canada men beat the U.S. 1-0. Good result for Canada but a bit of a boring game by comparison. (Then, speaking of an epic collapse, the U.S. team lost 5-0 to Finland on Saturday in the bronze medal game.)

But, when the Olympics are over, the Canadian men will go back to the NHL and resume their careers. The women will remain hockey players but won’t play in the NHL. But why can’t they? It’s not the Men’s National Hockey League, after all. And, one of the best aspects of the Olympic games has been the speed and the playmaking. No fighting, no unnecessary stops in play. Maybe that would continue if women and men played on the same teams.

There are few sports where men and women compete on an equal footing but auto racing is one of them, although the sport could benefit from more female racers at the sport’s top levels. It’s partly because in racing success depends in nearly equal parts on athlete and machine. The physical differences between the genders don’t matter as much as they might in hockey or other full-contact sports. But, if professional hockey evolves to become more about speed and skill those differences might not matter.

My guess is that as more girls take up hockey, they’ll eventually begin knocking on the NHL‘s door. And if they’re as good as Team Canada’s women’s team has been in Sochi, it’ll be tough to keep them out.

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Canadian Touring Car Championship gets F1, NASCAR spotlights

Gary Kwok and Bob Attrell duel during the Victoria Day Speedfest at Mosport International Raceway

Published in Globe Drive on July 4, 2012

For the 2012 season, Canadian Touring Car Championship drivers have forsaken IndyCar in favour of NASCAR and Formula 1.

Series president John Bondar says “scheduling difficulties” prevented the series from competing in a supporting role at the Honda Indy Toronto. But those difficulties meant that the mix of amateur and semi-pro drivers will have competed twice on Circuit-Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal by the end of the season – as a supporting event during the Formula 1 weekend in June and in the upcoming NASCAR Nationwide series weekend August 16 to 18.

Driver Damon Sharpe summed up the racers’ feelings about competing before an F1 crowd just prior to the race: “There is so much history here over the years and everyone just wants to do well here.”

Plus, they’ll head for the first time to the Circuit Mont Tremblant in Quebec on July 6-8. The eight-event season, with two races at each event, began May 18-20 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park near Bowmanville, Ont., and ends at Calabogie Motorsport Park, near Ottawa, Sept. 1-2.

Going into Mont Tremblant, Sasha Anis of Mississauga, Ont., leads the Super class with 671 points in his G1 Racing Hyundai Genesis Coupe, followed by Philip Fayer in a Pontiac Solstice with 576 points and Anis’s G1 teammate Jonathan Rashleigh with 516 points. Atop the Touring standings sits Michel Sallenbach of Roxton Pond, Que., and his Mini Cooper S JCW with 664 points followed by Jocelyn Fecteau of Mont St-Gregoire, Que., in a Scion tC with 550 points and Paul Gravel of St-Guillaume, Que., Sallenbach’s teammate, with 536 points.

Anis credits consistent driving and a bit of luck for putting him at the top of the Super class standings. He was helped by two race wins at the ICAR circuit near Montreal on June 23 and 24 and he notched two second places in the season’s first two races at Bowmanville, then a pair of thirds during the Formula 1 weekend in Montreal. But he’s more concerned about maintaining that consistency than thinking too much about whether or not he’ll be on the top of the standings at the end of the season.

“The most important thing is winning the races and not worrying about the championship. I’m enjoying the racing,” he said. “My luck has changed this year and we have a really good car. If we’re running well and we drive well and win the championship, then great.”

Bad luck and mechanical gremlins plagued Anis last season –from being hit and spun out during a race at ICAR, to having a tie rod break and hitting the wall at Bowmanville. Then there was a turbo failure and a differential that fell off his car. “It was some really weird, crazy stuff,” he said.

Anis also has praise for many of his fellow Super drivers, especially brothers Remy Audette and Mathieu Audette in their Acura RSXs: “They were faster at ICAR and they really pushed me – they’ve got really great cars.”

Trust among drivers is key in any racing series, as drivers get to know each other and respect individual driver’s abilities, which allows them to compete and give each other racing room when necessary. But Anis admits maintaining that level of trust can be a challenge in fields of 37 cars, some driven by part-time racers who don’t compete in every race. Then there’s the crop of rookies to deal with. This year, there are 11 new drivers in the series.

“The first race all the series regulars were trying to figure out what these new guys were all about,” said Bondar. “But so far, so good.”

Some of those new guys (and at least one woman, Valerie Limoges of Shawinigan, Que.) are competing in the new B-spec class, an entry level class for subcompact cars like the Mazda2 and the Honda Fit. While Super class cars are heavily modified with advanced aerodynamics and Touring cars have some limited modifications, the B-spec cars are nearly showroom stock racers.

“They’re really low-modification, 98-101 horsepower puddle jumpers, ” said Bondar, who created the class as a low-cost entry point for new racers. The cars require safety modifications (such as a roll cage) and an aftermarket suspension kit, which runs about $2,500. “You can just bolt that on and go racing,” he said. “At the very top end, you could only expect to spend about $10,000.”

The B-spec class has proven unexpectedly competitive. The 2009 and 2010 Super class champ Nick Wittmer, of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que. leads the B-spec pack with 694 points, followed by Simon Dion-Viens of St. Joseph de Kamouraska, Que., with 643 points and Greg Pootmans of Toronto with 437 points. All are driving Honda Fits.

Bondar admits having a former champion potentially run away with the B-spec class wasn’t the intention of the class when it was created. But, he’s pleased that it can showcase the skills of a driver like Wittmer.

“It’s all skill – he really knows how to drive. He brakes deeper and carries more speed into the corners, then he’s faster on the entrance and exits. He really is putting on a driving school.”

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Is racing still relevant?

I asked myself that question as I watched the closing laps of Sunday’s Bahrain Formula 1 race – an event that became a lightning rod for protesters who say it was simply a PR exercise by the ruling Sunni party to mask its totalitarian regime.

Media reports said many F1 teams were “quietly uncomfortable” about taking part in the race but went ahead with it anyway. It appears of the drivers spoke little about, or even acknowledged, the protests in Bahrain, adding fuel to those who criticize them as pampered automatons.

Oddly enough, Bahrain was a pretty good race, in the sense of diminished expectations that most of us have for an F1 race. The pole-sitter won yet again, in this case it was Sebastian Vettel, trailed by Kimi Raikkonen about three seconds behind. There were some daring passes, pit lane miscues and some pretty impressive driving, which is not always on display in F1.

Still, I wonder how relevant F1 and even auto racing in general is anymore. It’s murky at best whether new technology used in race cars finds its way into road cars; the environmental cost of burning through barrels of fuel (NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel only in 2008) and piles of tires is rising and younger generations are less interested in driving, let alone racing.

So what becomes of it? I still believe that it’s important in our often sanitized world to appreciate those people, like racing drivers, who push the boundaries of control and put themselves at risk for the sheer joy of taking that risk. But is that risk worth it anymore? Haven’t all the boundaries been pushed? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like the environment and human rights?

I don’t expect Formula 1 team owners, sponsors or drivers to have all the answers. But, if they hope to have a sustained connection to their fans they need to at least ask themselves those questions.

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Globe Drive story on racetrack designers

From Indianapolis to Daytona to Monaco, famous racetracks can take on a life and mystique of their own. How they’re designed and built can be as complicated and circuitous as the twists and turns that they make race cars endure.

Some tracks, like the Indy course at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, aren’t so much designed as simply laid out and constructed.

From Indianapolis to Daytona to Monaco, famous racetracks can take on a life and mystique of their own. How they’re designed and built can be as complicated and circuitous as the twists and turns that they make race cars endure.

Some tracks, like the Indy course at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, aren’t so much designed as simply laid out and constructed.

As vice-president and general manager of the Honda Indy Toronto, Charlie Johnstone is also the de facto track designer – he didn’t map out the track, but it’s up to him to maintain its design and update it as necessary, working closely with officials from ASN FIA Canada, the Canadian representatives of the FIA (International Automobile Federation), motorsport’s international governing body.

The first Indy-style race took place in Toronto in 1986, making this year the 25th anniversary of the race (there was no race in 2008). The 11-turn, 2.824-km (1.76-mile) track makes use of both Canadian National Exhibition grounds and city streets.

Street circuits present a unique challenge to racetrack designers in that designers need to figure out the best vantage points that allow fans to see a race, while allowing race cars to safely manoeuvre around existing buildings and other structures.

“On a street circuit, it’s not like we can build new roads, and we have to accommodate the fans,” says Johnstone. “The overriding factor becomes safety; of the drivers and the fans.”

Johnstone believes when an Indy-style racetrack was first discussed for the city in the late 1970s, initial plans called for the Lakeshore straightaway to extend to the western edge of Exhibition Place, well beyond its current location. But, says Johnstone, that would have meant an excessively long straightaway that would be great for drivers testing the red line on their cars, but not so great for fans who would have had to wait too long for the cars to make a return appearance.

An ideal time for a complete lap is between 60 and 90 seconds. (In 1999, Gil de Ferran recorded the fastest pole time registered for the track with a lap of 57.143 seconds.)

“It’s pretty unique to have a back straight like Lakeshore on a street course,” he says, especially compared to notoriously tight street courses like Monaco, which offer drivers too few passing options.

The track’s design is also inspected by FIA officials every year and if there’s wheel-to-wheel contact during a race. “We look at every accident that happens to see if we can make any improvements to the course,” says Johnstone. “The cars are analyzed, as well as the walls and fences, to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

The track will get some new walls and fences in time for this year’s event, partly funded by the federal government. They were redesigned to meet FIA specifications for height, thickness and weight.

“We’re the only sport that builds our stadium and tears it down every year,” says Johnstone.

Roger Peart knows all about motorsport “stadiums” such as the Honda Indy racetrack. Peart is the president of ASN Canada FIA. In addition to his work inspecting racetracks and working around the world for FIA, Peart can also lay claim to designing what became known as Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, in 1977.

At the time, Peart was an engineer by trade and a part-time race driver. Labatt held the sponsorship rights to F1 in Canada and had decided to move the race from Mosport. Peart, who had also become involved in track safety and race officiating, took it upon himself, with Labatt’s support, to design a track on Ile Notre Dame. At the time, the Expo 67 buildings were languishing on the site and some were ready to be condemned; so Peart thought it would be a great spot for a racetrack.

But an island presents its own unique challenges.

“We had a lot of water, but not much land,” he says. “I would have liked to take advantage of the grandstand that faced the (Olympic) rowing area, but that was impossible. So we had to squeeze both directions of the track behind that grandstand.

“We ended up creating the hairpin, which has become a very popular spot.”

The track came together over just a matter of months – the design was approved in May, 1977, and the first F1 race took place in November. It received the perfect opening-day gift when Canadian Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve won the first Grand Prix on Nov. 13, 1977.

Since that time, Peart has remained active in track design and safety and became a member of the FIA Circuits Commission in 1979. All his work on track inspections hinges on safety, the definition of which has evolved from catch-fences to gravel traps to systems using sophisticated computer models.

One such system is in use by FIA. Making use of CAD drawings supplied by tracks around the world, the system can plot the ideal racing line around a particular track, using data from a selection of racing cars, with Formula One cars setting the fastest benchmark.

The system can plot the escape line of a car that has lost control and is leaving the track, mapping how far it will go before coming to a stop. “It will allow you to look at the amount of runoff room, and make modifications (to make that portion of the track safer),” he said.

Like Peart, designer Alan Wilson was a driver first and a track designer second. He also worked at the Brands Hatch circuit in the U.K. in the late 1970s, became involved in track safety, which led to track design and eventually to full-time work as a track designer. The process of seeing a racetrack from concept to design to construction can be long and difficult, yet he still gets about three requests a week to design one, and has designed about 100 in his career, with 31 tracks completed and operating.

Wilson says the requests to design a racetrack usually originate with an enthusiast or business person looking to develop a parcel of land. Often, he adds, they have “strong pre-conceived ideas” of what they want the finished project to look like.

Wilson’s first task is make a general assessment of the business aspects of the project and get a sense of the environmental impact a racetrack would have on the area – it can’t be near wetlands, for example – and he’ll look at overall terrain and identify infrastructure issues such as proximity of access to sewer and water services and ease of access for pedestrians and motorists.

From that point, he’ll try to find the flattest piece of land to situate the paddocks and the main straightaway along with the main entrance.

Tracks are typically built to accommodate a variety of racing machines, from motorcycles to vintage cars, so the main straightaway should be about 2,000 feet in length. Like other designers, Wilson keeps safety a top priority as the design begins to take shape, but he also tries to take into account harder to define elements such as where the sun will hit a driver’s eyes at a certain time of day.

Wilson designs the track with motorcycle racing in mind – cars can race on a motorcycle track because of their width and huge runoff areas. Typically, Wilson says customers will ask for one 150-mph (240-km/h) corner, and he tells then they’ll also need a 2,500-foot straightaway that will allow the cars to build up the speed necessary to take a 150-mph corner. They then also need a large safety zone and a wide radius near the turn, in keeping with FIA guidelines.

Early on in its development, a track will begin to develop its own character as the designers and their teams begin to adapt the track to the natural terrain. Wilson is currently working on a new motorsports complex in New Orleans (which will be part country club, race track and private driving facility). The terrain there is mostly flat, with some of it below sea level, which means the ground is fairly soft and it’s difficult to add weight to it.

At Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa, a track he also designed (based on an old track) and which remains one of his favourites, designers and construction crews had quite a different challenge. They had to work around the rocky terrain – a turn is named Big Rock.

“At Calabogie, it’s an organic track. It’s the only one I didn’t design on a computer,” says Wilson. “The terrain was so different that I actually walked through the woods with a bulldozer behind me pointing out areas to avoid.”

Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on June 8, 2011

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Jacques Villeneuve: A Man for All Seasons

My interview with Jacques Villeneuve: former F1 world champion, CART champ and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Villeneuve interview (pdf)

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NY Times F1 Year in Review

A story by the Times’ Brad Spurgeon on a lacklustre, yet unusual F1 season:

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Stewart’s lament

Back to Jackie Stewart. A passage in his autobiography, Winning is Not Enough, about getting easy access to drivers at Grand Prix races, rings true with me: “…it is a pity that the modern  [F1] drivers seem to have become so remote from the enthusiasts. In 1953, I was walking up to drivers asking them for their autograph, standing and watching mechanics prepare the car, seeing, feeling, smelling and hearing the power and glory of this extraordinary spectacle and…. I became hooked. Nowadays, a 14-year-old boy can only experience a Grand Prix through television coverage, through the media or through his binoculars.”

He’s right. Of course, the sport has changed immensely since Sir Jackie competed, but this passage made me think of Lewis Hamilton and his complaints that he needed to move to Switzerland to escape all the fan adulation and media attention that dogs him in England. It’s ridiculous that a professional athlete thinks so highly of himself that he feels the need to isolate himself from his fans, further depriving a young follower of a chance to experience a moment that could set him or her on a path to racing passion.

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Honda’s F1 dream

Honda’s Formula 1 effort has yet to pay real dividends, and this season looks to continue that trend. But that hasn’t stopped it from promoting itself, and its green agenda.

Honda wrapped the March 5 edition of the U.K. trade magazine, Marketing with an eight-page wrap, with the question “Sport’s most innovative positive marketing programme? under the Earthdreams header and a green and blue shot of Earth.

Inside there’s a shot of Jenson Button’s F1 car, along with a brief explanation of the earthdreams marketing effort/green campaign.

Ads like this aren’t cheap. And. while they look great, any racing fan will tell you that it really doesn’t mean much if it’s not accompanied by some success on the track

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Formula 1, Round 2

Formula 1, round two
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I was actually glad to see Kimi Raikkonen win the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, despite my fears that thought alone will usher in new era of Grand Prix dominance by Ferrari. It was mostly because Lewis Hamilton seems a bit smug to me, and Kimi’s win took the wind out of the sails of the blatantly pro-British ITV race crew.