Friday, 30 November 2012

When The Saints Go Merging In

2012 saw some extraordinary changes in motorsports. Some series thought it was time to put the racing slicks up on the shelf, while others thought it was a good idea to occupy the neighbour's backyard with eventually moving in under a common roof. Whether it's good or bad, it is happening now with some very intriguing results. Let's see what the year of the London Olympics had up its sleeves for the motor racing fan not associated with.

Whoever thought the credit crunch was all bad was either an estate agent, a CEO of a major company, some millions of average citizens, or an F1 fan. It all started with the IRL/ChampCar merge back in 2008. While the unification had nothing to do with the credit crunch, as it happened almost a year before that, it set the template for the year of thin calves to come, and outlined some of the DOs and DON'Ts to be considered, which were thrown out of the window in this example. Rewinding the clock, IndyCar split to CART and the Indy Racing League back in the mid-'90s with CART having all the teams, all the media coverage, all the know-how and sponsorship, leaving the IRL with some souped-up go-karts, a calendar with about four dates among which, though, one was the Indianapolis 500. I am sure all of you played those car card games where you have a single car that is unbeatable by almost any parameter (older packs: usually a Ferrari of some sort, newer ones: a Veyron) and you can turn around the game and win from only having three cards left with this Joker in hand. Well, the Indy 500 is something very similar. CART (later ChampCar) was very impressive, fast and exciting, but it lacked the heart the clumsy IRL had. This, combined with the lack of interest caused by the split with fans wandering off to NASCAR, ChampCar had to bow out as neither the teams, the manufacturers or the sponsors slowly realised it was a series of lost values and drifted to the one that still had some. Thus, ChampCar went out of business, and all of the assets were acquired by IRL with the promise to appeal to the fans of both series.

Unfortunately they got it all wrong. The first time at least.

They took the worst of two worlds and boiled it down in a tub to make a mash no one was particularly in favour of. The one-make cars that were designed to go fast around ovals while being raced mostly on street circuits was not something that went through without major question marks, but - cutting to the chase - the now unified IndyCar heard those criticisms and added some more ovals eventually, encouraged manufacturers to take part, new chassis developed with parts to be self-developed later on. It all seems to be recalling the glory days of Indy racing. But it is too late, the damage was done, after almost 20 years. NASCAR is king in the US.

So out of all this, what the ALMS and GrandAm have to learn? Before I would get into that, let's sum up another similar, although potentially lot more successful story.

The Intercontinental Rally Challenge was conceived by EuroSport as a made-for-TV alternative to the WRC. It all seemed to be working, however, there were a few problems. Apart from the fact that it wasn't really intercontinental. Nor it came with a too prestigious title at the end of the year. Still, the exposure it granted was enough to attract teams and make a spectacle. However, as an old, forgotten brother in the closet, there hang the FIA European Rally Championship, challenged for the same spot. So the question was rather obvious: why shouldn't the privileges of media pass on to the series that had the history, making a unified European challenge. And this is exactly what happened. Or at least what should be happening from 2013.

Cutting back to American sportscar racing - there is a bad example and a rater positive example to follow here: how to incorporate the best of both worlds without all the setbacks.

Givens are: one series that baldly embraces its European ancestry, and another one - sanctioned by the country's largest body, owning the biggest motoring spectacle, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - creating something of their own and recalling some of the atmosphere of the Carrera Panamericana ,where European sportscars were put alongside American stock cars for an epic challenge through Northern Mexico, all these manifested in the Daytona Prototype cars running at the Daytona road course.
This time the situation is a lot more complicated: how to keep those values at a balance? What to  throw out and what to keep?

Especially that NASCAR is going to be the sanctioning body, it's easy to assume with a told-you-so attitude that it would go down as the longer, slower and uncut version of NASCAR, however this seems not to be the case. They are even crowd sourcing a name for the new series.

Push comes to shove, some things have to be eliminated. Tracks, teams, even categories. The single biggest question is that whether DPs (top GrandAm category) or LMP2s (same for ALMS) should go. It has already been decided that the GT class would come from ALMS, which would strongly suggest that DPs  take the top step, ditching P2s. Or maybe not. Just think about it: the link missing between full-blown prototypes (as P1s) and GTs are the cars with production-DNA. Which are the P2s and DPs (with production-derived engine blocks). In that order. Why not have P2s AND DPs, with DPs renamed "P3"s, or P2s as "SP"s as in "Sebring Prototype". Of course FIA and ACO would have a say or two about this, but it would be the logical step to do as their power output, technology and rice would suggest. Or taking the matter even one step further, DPs have a slight stock car DNA with their attempted mimicry of actual production cars, even they are very subtle touches as the headlight-decals or some vague attempt to resemble the basic silhouette of the "donor" car.

There is something primarily engaging with racing cars that - at least in part - look like production models. That is partly why NASCAR is successful ("everyday" cars running around 200mph, "I have one of those"), that is why the V8 Supercars, DTM or the SuperGT evokes some sort of instinctively tribal phenomenon.
Funnily enough, DTM and SuperGT announced the unification of their specifications, which creates an almost WWII-grandeur alliance in motorsports, the "Axis of Silhouette". Did I mention that Daytona Prototypes are welcome in the GT300 category in SuperGT? Did someone just say there's an intercontinental thread of stock cars, sport prototypes and silhouette touring cars, making perhaps one, worldwide-spread, unified series somewhere down the line? If this is not destined for epic greatness or miserable failure, I don't know what could touch this anyway. Talking about credit crunch and necessity: creativity cannot be bought.

There are marriages in times of need where romance is left outside the building with surviving being the keyword. These never go down without bitterness (as no marriage does), but that doesn't mean there can't be really extraordinary children out of them.