Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Top 10+1 Deceased Racing Venues

*WARNING! This article contains opinions and is a biased one. You have been warned.*

Since the first cars rolling out of the manufacturers' garage doors, people have been racing cars and motorcycles. To do that, they needed some sort of environment to sacrifice at the altar to their passion. Empty fields, public roads in the country or in cities, then purpose built venues all have been serving as arenas for petrolheads and motoring enthusiasts since then. Some of these venues have been there since motoring Genesis, some of them are not. Here is a list of the top 10+1 of them.

(Editor's note: All images are courtesy of Google. click the images for the actual Google Maps/Streetview spot.)

10. Circuit Bremgarten
The Bremgarten Circuit - in the outskirts of the Swiss capital, Bern - was designed with motorcycles in mind, although when opened in 1931, motorcars soon took over and become one of the most fearsome tracks, especially under wet conditions - largely due to having virtually no straight lines and a chain of public roads. It was on Formula 1 calendar from the beginning, but the disastrous accident at the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours lead to banning all motorsports in Switzerland. To this day, no racing was held at the venue, nor in the country except a few non-track events.

9. Bridgehampton Race Circuit
Bridgehampton, NY, USA has a long history of motor racing, dating back to 1915. Early road races proved to be such a success that lead to the establishment of the permanent Bridgehampton Race Circuit in 1957. In its prime time it served as the scenery of World Sportscar Championship, Can-Am, NASCAR, IMSA GT Championship, and it saw the return of the legendary Vanderbilt Cup in the late 60s. Few, but technical turns for sport cars. Unfortunately, due to a lack of finance, the track was was dating out quickly, and by the early seventies there were virtually no pro-events held at this place. In 1999 it was converted to a golf course. Slowing down the pace a bit, right?

8. Daytona Beach Road Course
The sands of Daytona, Florida is basically the birthplace of American motor racing. In the late 1800s, early 1900s it served as the spot of land speed record breaking, but due to the narrow dry area it quickly became unfitting as speeds were growing higher and there was a constantly decreasing forgiveness for mistakes. Thus, speed hunters moved to the Bonneville Salt Flats, racing enthusiasts went on to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and those who lacked money started racing here. The Prohibition gave rise the 'moonrunners', who, after the amendment was erased, joined the races with their tuned, outlaw cars and so NASCAR was born. The venue consisted of one long straight line on the beach, and another one on a public road, with two sharp turns. As the success of NASCAR races were growing in the fifties, the scenery was proved to be too small, only to be replaced by the Daytona International Speedway in 1959.

7. Brooklands
The first ever purpose-built racing venue, preceding IMS a few years, opening in 1907. A banked oval with three turns, also serving as an airport for smaller planes. The track is of unpaved concrete panels and was a perfect venues for V-max attempts and Grand Prix races. There was a vibrant scene until WWII broke out in 1939, and racing was stopped, moreover, it never returned for the track. Parts of the circuit are street roads, or just decaying slowly.

6. Pescara Circuit
The Pescara Circuit is the longest ever in the history of Formula 1 World Championship with its near-26km length. Two long straights meeting in an almost 90 degree-corner and zig-zag pieces of roads connecting the open ends, through towns. The track has been not unknown to Italian drivers as it was holding local races since the 1920s, and later non-champ and one official Formula 1 race event in 1957. As with every lengthy course, it proved to be too dangerous, and racing was ended in 1961.

5. Reims-Gueux
It's the beauty of the countryside, the endless hayfields that captures the eye of the trespasser between these small French villages. It hosted sports car and Grand Prix events, too, including Formula 1 races, from the late '20s all the way through the early '70s. The old grandstand and the pits are still at where they are supposed to be, would simply be a perfect backdrop for any vintage racing event.

4. Rouen-Les-Essarts
Laid out on public roads near Rouen, France, the track was a state-of-the-art one concerning its infrastructure along with its 'Nürburgringuesqe' characteristics - running deep in the forest with high-speed blind corners and its roller coaster-like height differences. Opening in one of motor sport history's greatest year, 1950, it saw several French Grand Prix races, and was considered to be technically highly demanding. This resulted in the unfortunate death of Jo Schlesser in 1968. The circuit was still open for F2 races, but ultimately it had to be closed in 1994.

3. Tripoli Circuit
Around the airport of Libya's capital, you can still find stretches of public roads that once belonged to the then-Italian colony's monstrous Grand Prix venue, opened in 1925. Everything was big here. The track with its 13-km length and few and fast corners it was designed for sole flat-out speed. This made it one of the most important events among racing tracks in the horsepower chasing, top speed seeking period. So much, that Mercedes took their regular test track, former motorcycle racetrack and converted it to a similar to it in character - thus Hockenheimring was born. The Tripoli track was an amazing sight with its enormous grandstand, the palm trees, the sand. The motoring proving grounds of the fascist-nazi regimes closed its gates in 1940.

Along with the Nürbirgring, the AVUS in Berlin was an important part of Nazi Germany's propaganda. Conceived in the early 1900s, and after interrupted years' of building, it was completed in 1921, as the first stretch of Autobahn. Two long pieces of roads running in parallel, connected with a sharp turn at the Southern and a bigger one in the Northern end, making up 19km of length. The track went through several changes by cutting it in half and constructing a highly banked brick-paved 'Wall of Death' on the Northern part. Average speed was higher than of the IMS, standing for decades. Later, the 'WoD' was demolished, cutting the track in half again, and once again, concluding in 2.6km with chicanes added. Every major German race was held here, even the 1959 Formula 1 German Grand Prix. 40 years later, in 1999 it all came to an end and races were moved to the new Lausitzring.

1. Montjuïc Circuit
Maybe not the most demanding one, not the fastest, but one of the most classic one. Situated in the park of the same name in Barcelona, Spain, the venue was a host for tragedies, supreme winnings and yet the only female-obtained points in Formula 1. Just think of Jackie Stewart flying through the corners in a Tyrell and you'll see why it is number 1.

+1. Népliget
I have no excuses. I am biased. But I have common sense too, hence +1. Read more here.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Why Formula 1 needs non-championship Grand Prix races?

Not long before the Spanish Grand Prix I went through some older F1 footage to see those mythical races people keep talking about. I came to the conclusion that it is not that difficult to extract awesome scenes from selected races of several decades-worth TV screenings. In fact, everything seemed just the same as nowadays, except the thrill of the possibility of drivers getting killed during races. Actions, moves, wheel-on-wheel battles. That is what you see from YouTube videos and that is what you will remember of recent races twenty years into the future.

Either way, something is missing indeed I had great fun to watch, and I'm not talking about teams, cars, drivers. What is missing are races. Almost for fun. For no consequences. We lack a pitiful amount of non-championship Grand Prix races, that were left to die with the 1983 Race of Champions.

Not long ago I managed to exchange tweets with Peter D. Windsor about this, and almost no surprisingly we share virtually the same opinion:

P: 44 years ago today Lorenzo Bandini crashed at Monaco. I was there. "L'accident a la chicane!" He passed on 3 days later. Very sad. #f1 G: @PeterDWindsor You were there in 1967? That was a great year. One of the best years of the sport. A simulator, GP Legends is based on it. P: @geehalen That year I also saw the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone (Mike Parkes) and the Oulton Park Spring Cup (Jack Brabham). #f1 G: @PeterDWindsor I do sorry there are no non-championship GPs these days. There could be Olympic races, for example. P: @geehalen Yes, it would be nice again to have non-champ races. Special venues and charities, etc, etc. Some guest drivers.. #f1 G: @PeterDWindsor Definitely there's room and need for special races at e.g. classic tracks or streets. They don't need to be 300km long either

That basically sums up one aspect of the importance of non- champ races, but Keith Collantine came up with another ingenious solution on the f1-fanatic website:

A three-day, non-championship race weekend could include all the testing time teams need on Friday and Saturday, followed by qualifying and a race on Sunday.
There would be other benefits such as allowing them to test changes to racing rules outside of the championship: such as getting rid of the ‘use both tyres’ rule or changes to the Drag Reduction System.
Resurrecting non-championship race could allow teams to give testing opportunities for young drivers but also participate in a competitive event which will offer far more opportunities for promotion than a dreary eight-hour test.
It would be F1′s equivalent of a ‘friendly’ football match.

What a brilliant idea! F1 is trying hard to get messages through, recently supporting green solutions by downsizing and going hybrid. So, by being socially relevant, the event could be used as a means of fundraising for any matters in the world. Also, as a double feature, test restrictions that have been causing serious headaches for all teams so far, 'simulating' a whole race weekend may support more relevant data than a week of testing.

Current series of Race of Champions is rooted in and heavily influenced by rallying with F1 cars making a guest appearance as a part of the show. Why not making it serious and turning it into more than a gala-event?

In fact, where have all the during-race fun from F1 races gone?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Hungarian Grand Prix Drivers

May 15th, 1938 was a sad day for Hungarian motorsport. László Hartmann died of his injuries suffered at the Tripoli Grand Prix. With him, a great amount of hope had died as well. No one seemed to follow him down victory lane. With post-war communism blowing the doors on the country a decade later, Grand Prix and Formula 1 remained a legend no one was allowed to talk about. Until one day.

This is the brief story of the Hungarian Grand Prix drivers.

While Hungary has always been successful in rallying, touring car races, Grand Prix competitions seemed truly like a Nirvana out of reach of the imagination. This was a false belief, though, as the Central European country started off with the biggest bang motorsport has seen up to this day.

June 26, 1906. Unknowingly, there is history in the making for motorsport in general. The first French Grand Prix is about to start at Le Mans. The origin and prototype of Formula 1 and the Le Mans 24 hours as well.
Hungarian driver, Ferenc Szisz - great friend of the Renault family and racing engineer and of the factory's competition department - is waiting for the start. He has a great racing experience by completing various motor racing events in recent years, including the Vanderbilt Cup in the USA. This time it is different, as Reanult is in top shape and they are on their home ground at the first event organised by the French Automobile Club.

A two-day endurance event torturing drivers and cars as well, the Renault and Szisz make their stand.

Unbelievable and surprising result for Renault, France and Hungary. With a half-hour lead, Szisz wins the race, with Michelin's ingenious input in the tyre-design.

This single event marked a major blow in motorsports as factories realize the great marketing opportunities in such events. Szisz himself returned for next year's French Grand Prix as well, finishing second. Shortly after he retired racing at such big events and motorsports in general, later on. He died in peace in 1944.

In the years to come there seemed to be noone continuing the legacy of Ferenc Szisz. Partly because history stepped in with WWI and Hungarians weren't much welcomed on international level. There were private competitors in the late '30s, like István de Sztrika (1938 Swiss Grand Prix competitor - Alfa Romeo) or Count Ernő Festetics (10th at the German Grand Prix of 1937 - Maserati) - son of the then fascist leader. Interestingly, the latter got into a bar fight earlier with the son Dunlop Tyres founder, James Dunlop junior in a Budapest night club, both rolling down the stairs.

László Hartmann hadn't been considered much. Even his driving instructor advised him to get a chauffeur, he was that terrible. In the late '20s though, he evolved into an unbeatable champion of the hills surrounding Budapest. In the early '30s he got his chance to qualify to a Grand Prix event with his newly acquired Bugatti, and from that moment on, every race he entered and finished was regiestered around the 7th-8th position, right behind the huge factory teams of Germany and Italy.

 Hartmann in his white Bugatti T35B, at the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix

In 1935, he switched to Maserati 8CM cars, competing on the hardest tracks yet seen. His fame was so high in his own country, that the first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1936:

In 1937 he finished 7th on one of the most fearsome tracks ever built, the AVUS, which made Maserati thanking his achievement personally in a letter. He was everywhere from Sweden, through the Copa Ciano,the Nürburgring, South Africa, etc. On 1938 it all ended in a crash at the Tripoli Grand Prix, breaking his spine and dying in the hospital later on.

It was a mournful day for Hungarian motor racing. Especially because history put its death penalty on all future  international Grand Prix hopes. Following WWII, the communist regime took over and dissociated itself from such 'imperialist opium'. The walls were holding tight for decades, but the cracks soon appeared.

Following the 1956 revolution, the Communist Party found that endless supression cannot be viable, the leash was let looser. So much, that in 1986 the first Formula 1 Grand Prix was held behind the Iron Curtain on the newly built Hungaroring, marking the second Hungarian GP.

Hopes were in a return. Will there be another Hungarian Grand Prix driver again? And right then, in 1987, something miraculous happened.

Csaba Kesjár was a fearless gokart driver and hill climb racer. His passion was clearly drawing him towards single seaters. The '80s was a golden age in Hungarian motor racing (especially inrallying). The government was putting money into sponsoring young, talented drivers, entering them into international events. Kesjár was clearly an F1 driver in the making, as he was seen in Formula Easter, Formula Ford and the German Formula 3.

At the weekend of the 1987 Hungarian Grand Prix, it all came full circle. his dreams were realised as he got his chance by sitting in the Zakspeed Formula 1 car, giving it a few laps.

Csaba Kesjár in the Zakspeed Formula 1 car on the Hungaroring in 1987

It was history on wheels: the first Hungarian driver in a Grand Prix car half a century later, and the first driver in a Formula 1 car. Unfortunately, this dream was short-lived, too. Due to a brake-failure at the Norisring F3 race in 1988, he suffered fatal injuries, crashing into the tyre-wall.

When Csaba Kesjár was a star in Formula cars, Zsolt Baumgartner was just learning to walk. In the late '90s he was following the same path as Kesjár, and fortunately for him, he had the family background to make his dream realised. In 2002 he was granted a chance to test drive a Jordan F1 car, and in 2003, he became a regular test driver. At the Qualifying of the Hungarian Grand Prix, something terrible and fantastic happened. Ralph Firman crashed and was taken to hospital for an examination. The very first F1 start for a Hungarian driver at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and the second Eastern European in the sport.

Jordan sacked him et the end of the year, but a new contract (highly supported by the state-owned Hungarian Oil Company (MOL)) was in the way with Minardi. Minardi was one of the smallest teams in F1, but many future starts started here, like the two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso.

...and then, in 2004, something truly unexpected happened at the United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis. The first Hungarian F1 point was wainting at the Brickyard. Watch Hungarian commentator, László Palik, losing his mind as Fishicella's car is giving up:

That is history, right there. Later, he joined the Minardi ChampCar team, but the team later retired from the series.

The question is still open since then: who will be the next Hungarian F1 driver? Norbert Michelisz WTCC race winner? Pál Tamás Kiss GP3 racer? That is a story still to be told.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Vanishing Point - The Future of Formula 1

There has been a lot of talk and discussion about the upcoming 2013 regulations for F1. Which is not surprising, as the sport prepares for a major overhaul - the return of turbocharging, a proposed 1.6l l4 engine configuration and a greater emphasis on the KERS system. What IS surprising is that this will be the second major revision within less than five years. The question arises - what is to come in the future?

Obviously the sport is in a depression at the moment and FIA tries everything to keep up the interest of manufacturers and the audience as well. Unfortunately these two seem to be constantly on a collision course and in recent years tension has built up enough to decide in favour of one party - although this was not intentional.

As far the cars themselves concerned (that are interested in policy the least) they are constantly formed by technical advancement, but from time to time, they get harnessed by motorsport and other policy.

So I made a little investigation into F1 regulations and developments to see the progress in cars in order to set up a trend that may manifest in the next 10-15 years.

At the very early of my research I came to realise (as I suspected previously) that major overhaulings came about every 10 years - almost exactly at the very end or the very beginning of a decade with some minor progress in the middle.

So let's see a little overview here briefly. In brackets, you can see the reasons:

Early '50s - 4.5l N/A or 1.5l supercharged formula quickly dropped in favour of F2 2-litre N/A regulations. Engine in the front.
Mid '50s - 2.5l N/A formula introduced, awakening attention of major manufacturers.
Late '50s / Early '60s - F2 formula introduced again, 1.5l N/A engines. Mid-engine cars start to appear - probably the most important development in F1.
Mid '60s - Engine displacement expanded to 3-litres, remains a general engine formula for decades.
Late '60s - Wings appear, torsion bar suspention introduced (note: the 1967 season is considered to be one of the greatest in the history of F1 as there was virtually no downforce yet but very high output) - the second greatest change in the sport.
Late '70s - Beside the 3l N/A engine regulation, the 1.5-litre force inducted formula is allowed for engines - the beginning of the legendary turbo-era. Aerodynamics makes its second strike as ground effect is introduced (along with the legendary, one-off Brabham "fan-car").
Mid '80s - Ground effect is banned - the first major restriction (SAFETY).
Late '80s - Turbocharging is banned (BUDGET).
Early '90s - Electronic driver aids make their move.
Mid '90s - Driver aids banned (only to be lagalized and banned in subsequent years), safety regulations highly restricted (SAFETY, BUDGET, COMPETITION)
Late '90s - Cars shrunk in width, effect of aerodynamics and grip on tyres decreased (SAFETY, COMPETITION); Bridgestone enters F1, creating a competition with GoodYear.
Early '00s - Engines are expected to last for 1-2-3 race weekends, gradually. Michelin enters F1 (BUDGET)
Mid '00s - 3l N/A V10 engine formula is dropped in favour of 2.4l V8 N/A; Michelin enters F1, Bridgestone leaves (BUDGET)
Late '00s / Early '10s - the biggest overhaul in decades: aero effect tremendously cut down, engine development frozen, Pirelli enters F1, slick tyres reintroduced (note: increasing mechanical, decreasing aero downforce), gearboxes are equal, mobile body parts introduced (F-duct, DRS), KERS introduced; (BUDGET, COMPETITION, ECO)
Mid '10s - 1.6l, turbocharged  4-cylinder engines to be introduced, increasing the role of the KERS system; talks about all electric engines in the future (ECO, BUDGET)

So this is where we are now, and we can see some factors trending: safety, budget, competition and eco influences, with eco and budget getting stronger and budget staying constanty low.

Where is this heading to by around 2020?

The 'competition' factor is an issue, viewer-vise. Due to the nature of open-wheel, winged cars, there's a high amount of aerodynamics involved that makes overtaking difficult. Thus supplementary body kits were banned and slick tyres reintroduced to enhance mechanical grip in favour of aerodynamics, supported by the DRS (Drag Reduction System) to make overtaking easy.

I suspect currently this is the direction the sport is heading to at one point. Reducing aerodynamics, the cars can get closer to each other, pleasing the audience with more 'wheel-on-wheel' action, and bigger manufacturers may be interested if there was more mechanicals involved (with the fear that a budget cap could destroy that hope any moment).

If we take that, we should list the 'items' that are strongly recommended to create greater mechanical grip:
- bigger tyres (wider across and bigger in diameter)
- even less aerodynamic downforce (the front wing could serve as an item only of saving the front wheels from aero-drag), moving the creation of downforce to the rear wing and the body mainly (see the next point)
- four-wheel drive - Now that's something that seems to be truly unexpected, but it's not. I'll explain: in other motorsports, KERS systems are used to drive the front wheels as well. In corner exits this could serve well, if it's an electronically controlled device. If the electric motor is put somewhere in the front, wedge-shaped body designs could be introduced again, creating the missing downforce from the front wing; I do not believe this would make a much higher budget in design than any major revision would. Overtaking could be easily solved by revised DRS systems.
- allowing driver aids - traction control, ABS, launch control, CVT transmission. I mean - let the computers do some work, let's not pretend F1 is in the stone age. If drivers are free from various controls on the steering wheel, they can concentrate on racing more. CVT transmissions can extend engine life and efficiency at the same time.

In other words: let mechanicals and computers create grip while the drivers are busy racing each other.

Another factor in racing is the nostalgy awaken in recent years: drivers like Rosberg, Senna and Piquet racing, classic liveries revived: Reenault, Williams, and two Lotuses. The reintroduction of the turbo is another flashback to 'good ole days'. Revision of some classic tracks could be also a demand in favour of recent Tilke-tracks. Everything was tried lately: night street-race, semi-night race in an arena with a tunnel involved, but in the face of preliminary expectations they didn't prove to be competitive tracks enough.

Also, a move to the arabic world had been made, another move to South Asia recently (India, South Korea), and by their heavy input in F1 teams, a Russian GP should be manifested soon, followed by an African race afterwards. But then F1 still needs to revive some of its old tracks if there is that much nostalgy involved. A Grand Prix of Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Holland, etc. should be reintroduced on the old tracks, revised.

Now, I don't think this all could lead to the days of the late '80s and early '90s, being 'too fast to race', since there is a heavy influence of electric drive involved. Full electric drive is very compromised yet (and will be for a while), but being pushed that much, there is going to be a hybrid league for a long time, and endurance will be more of a question as opposed to speed.

I may be wrong big time, but clearly there has been a shift from flat-out speed to a strategic game for a while now. F1 needs to get messages through: i.e.: it is still cutting edge, they still use the best solutions, they still can be cheap and eco, and they still have the best drivers in the world.

F1 is heavily formed by policy and expectations - as every king would be suspiciously scrutinized. Surely, old-school is not Formula "1". Most efficient technology is (whether if it is the biggest power output, the highest speed, the lowest consumption - whatever policy and expectations dictate), that is built up of many factors as I detailed above. If something is lost there, it will not be F1 anymore.

Agree? Disagree? Comment, if you wish!