Motorsport Thoughts

Monday, December 08, 2008

F1 - Honda's pull-out and the future

Yesterday, Honda announced plans to withdraw from Formula 1 racing if a suitable buyer for their Brackley-based team (formerly BAR) cannot be found. Whether than happens remains to be seen – the Jaguar team were of course saved by Red Bull, as later were the Minardi team, now Toro Rosso – but whatever the ultimate outcome it throws a lot of issues about the sport into sharp focus.

First off let's start with some numbers. It is alleged that Honda spend about £250M on their F1 program each year, which is a similar number to that spent by McLaren, Ferrari and Toyota. We understand that BMW and Red Bull put about £150M a year into their teams, with Renault and Williams at about the £100M mark and then Toro Rosso and Force India at about £50M. Force India didn't score a single point this year for their money (ironically, Adrian Sutil was nerfed out of fourth place at Monaco by a wayward Kimi Raikkonen, the only time Force India were near the scoresheet) and half of Honda's meagre total of 14 points was due to a wet weather podium for Rubens Barrichello. That's a lot of money for little or no return. And everyone on the grid is spending a lot of money just to participate.

Let's have some more numbers. We currently face the prospect of nine teams competing in 2009. If we rewind twenty years, there were twenty teams trying to get onto the grid. There were so many cars that we had to have PRE-qualifying to weed out cars that wouldn't be allowed to qualify, and then more were cut to get us down to a 26-car grid. We've more than halved the grid in two decades, and the grid is currently lower than at any time since the 1960s. Honda's withdrawl may be due to the current economic climate, but that's hiding the real issue – the grid size has steadily declined in size since 1990 during which time we've had long periods of economic greed, the kind of thing that the fat cats of F1 have fed on while leaving nothing for the runts of the litter.

This all points to massive worry for someone who has watched every form of motor racing during that time. I've seen series boom and series dwindle and fade out, and from experience a grid size of 18 cars is warning time (See F3000 2003 ish, CART 2003 til the end, IRL last year, Indy Lights final two years in 2000-1 – all times that brought massive changes immediately after that). But when you're talking about F1 rather than a lesser series, the amount of money involved is higher, the technology more complex, the publicity much more widespread and therefore the issues involved in resolving the difficulties much more fraught.

Question from the back: “Why is a grid of 18 cars a problem? We only see the leaders on TV anyway.”

It's a problem because there's less entertainment for the fans at the track to watch. Simply, less racing. It's a problem because if you're sponsoring a car and they're 17th in a field of 18, they're second to last. 17th in a field of 30+ is well in the midfield. Differing perception of how you're doing. If you're a car manufacturer and you're last, you're not selling your product too well. If you've got people behind you, you're not doing so badly – again, perception. If you're second to last in the pecking order of a series and the guys behind you drop out, you've got to be worried. If there's less cars on track, there's less for sponsors of events and the people promoting them and reporting on them in the media to get worked up and generate publicity and attention about.
The last time a true privateer team entered F1 was the Stewart team (which became Jaguar, now Red Bull) in 1997. (BAR being effectively Reynard, at the time the world's largest racing car manufacturer, BMW coming in with Williams and then Sauber, and Force India being a buyout of what was the Jordan outfit. Super Aguri were also Honda-backed). A decade is a long time without a non-manufacturer entering the sport when a big-spending manufacturer has now bailed out.

Where do we go from here, then?

Everything described so far points to a massive need for a sweeping change in the culture of what Formula One actually is. If manufacturers aren't willing to spend big money to participate and smaller private teams can't step up to the plate (teams like Carlin, Racing Engineering, Campos etc would be the sort of team who would be possible step-ups) then something has to give.

Costs HAVE to come down – enormously so. If £50M – an amount no junior team has anything near – won't get you a point in F1, the numbers are clearly silly. So how do we get the costs down to an amount where the sport is genuinely sustainable in any economic climate, recession or not? That's a much more difficult question to answer, owing to the ingrained culture and traditions of what F1 has become since the early Eighties.

As an F1 historian, you spot trends developing within the sport (although it has to be said, I'm a textbook historian of the sport pre-1994 since I didn't watch it on TV as a youngster). Since 1980 when Bernie Ecclestone got involved in the promotional side of things there has been a massive increase in the amount of money involved in the sport, the publicity and media interest, and the level of professionalism which today is pretty clinical indeed. Pre-that time we could still see genuine 'privateer' efforts with hand-built cars of weird and wacky design, or more to the point teams leasing a chassis or two off a bigger car-builder and going racing. Frank Williams himself started out by leasing cars from the Italian de Tomaso builder and March Engineering (who featured amongst its staff one M. Mosley) during the early Seventies. In 1980 that all stopped with teams having to build their own cars, and from 1992 onwards teams have had to field two cars so singleton entries have stopped and a greater financial commitment has been involved. The culture of what F1 is has changed from those days of car-hiring in the Seventies, and many people have always watched F1 with things pretty much as they are now (in effect, I should be one of those people). Therefore to a lot of people the very idea of going to leasing of cars or – gasp – F1 becoming a spec series like GP2 or WsbR is horrific in itself simply because of ingrained tradition of what they're used to watching.

But it runs a lot deeper than gut feeling of fans, of course. You can't ever ignore the path that something's taken to get to the way it is, and as one looks through the F1 history books and sees money flowing into the sport one also sees corporate entities coming in wielding large chequebooks to go racing. Very large chequebooks. A lot of this money helps get F1 into new countries and markets, for one. One other facet of the technologically-advancing face of motor racing – not just F1 – is that things are developed on racing cars that filter down to road vehicles. Safety enhancements. Anti-lock brakes. The best demonstration of the way diesel cars have come on has been the Audi A10s winning at Le Mans. People nag me incessantly about 'needing to get rid of traction control' from racing motorbikes particularly (but also cars) because 'it takes the skill away'. It's true, it does take a little of the skill away but the basic need for forward progression means it won't go away, because that's the pathway of change. It was supposed to have been taken away in F1 this year, but funnily enough no-one's mentioned the 'massive changes' they thought it's removal might bring, simply because they haven't happened. How on earth can you take away electronic engine management when EVERY engine is electronically managed? That's what traction control is, after all. As well as simple self-promotion, everyone's in this to progress their road technologies, if they're a car manufacturer.

Technology costs money, there's no getting away from it. That's why despite everyone's wise words, it's not simple to find a way to get the costs of competing in F1 down. Remove the technology and you'll get costs down, but you also remove some of the incentives for manufacturers to be involved. You also run the risk of angering people who have an ingrained tradition of what F1 'should' be. Like it or not, having car-builders involved has built F1 up to it's 'pyramid' of which it's currently sitting rather precariously on top of – remove them and everything might collapse to nothing very quickly. I'd love to see the return of weird and wonderful amateurs or wealthy individuals funding an 'out-there' new F1 car as in the Seventies particularly and indeed as a lot of what went before that was (Cooper, Brabham, anyone? McLaren started out that way too), but the way things have moved on means that won't happen.
I love GP2 – it's by far the best car racing series of the moment for a racing purist – but Formula One shouldn't be a spec series in my humble opinion. So there goes that idea. And we're still in the same position – we still haven't got any new teams involved.

So how about this: in some forms of Japanese racing (I think) there's a rule where after a race any opponent can put in a bid for your car or engine and you HAVE to sell it to them. That idea needs a little tweak, but a simple change to the current rules could really get F1 motoring again. If a team wants to buy your current chassis or your engine if you're an engine builder, there will be a set price and set time prior to the start of the season by which time you will have to have produced the chassis or engines for the other team, so they can get testing and racing. Furthermore, if the regs remain pretty tight for a few years, how about the previous year's chassis for a set lower price? None of these ideas are new; they've all been done before in F1 and for a long time were the norm. They've been semi-done in the past few years with Super Aguri and Toro Rosso (although in both cases the junior team was/is part-owned by the parent concern, so it's not quite the same) and both teams were in the mix. How about seeing a couple of Campos Toyota-Ferraris on the grid? Or a Carlin Williams-Cosworth? If you're a genuinely separate entity from your car or engine builder and simply buy from them (I dunno, £5M for a pair of cars, £2M for some engines? Going to the manufacturer for their R&D budget, so you don't have to) then 'team orders' shouldn't be an issue. You still get the technological development; you still have the manufacturers, you have more teams on the grid if you get the prices right. In theory the big guns could get benefit back from others racing their cars, and if not they can always go with the 'well, it's not the factory team' line. Maybe put a limit of four extra cars per manufacturer to prevent the grid being clogged with McLarens and Ferraris etc and ensure a good spread.

Another proposed rule change is the 'medals system' with things being changed from a points system to simply award the title to the driver with the most wins through the season. You don't need me to explain to you why that idea is a load of nonsense, and instead let's occupy our time with a better points system that does indeed reward the winner more but also encourages more competition throughout the field.

Motorbike racing awards 25 points to the winner, 20 to second, 16 for third, 13 for fourth then 11 for fifth scaling down to 1 point for fifteenth. All of a sudden your winner is getting a bigger benefit and even if you're 15th, it's worth your scrapping for that extra point. Or how about even a NASCAR-style system where points are awarded all the way down (to 43rd, now there's a grid size I like!) so even if you've crashed it's worth getting your car fixed and trying to get as high up as you can (although it should be noted that NASCAR's beasts are rather more sturdy than F1 missiles!). Any points system that rewards you passing the guy in front wherever you are has to be good. It gives the Hondas, Force Indias etc of the world something to play for. How can that not been a good thing when the worry is that teams are dropping out? The medals system is the absolute antithesis of what are good scoring system should be – if you're in eighth you've got nothing to play for ('trying harder' as Bernie puts in won't suddenly make up for your car's deficiency of even half a second a lap – which'll put you 30s down at the end of a race). Or for another good scoring system, how about the Club 100 one which more strongly rewards the winner and goes down to 35th (shameless plug there).

So there we have it, those are my ideas. The technical rules do need some tweaking – less aero grip, more mech grip with slicks, etc, abolish pitstops, etc but I think when combined those rules I've suggested would go a massive way towards solving it.

Over to you, FIA.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No Agenda

I've been meaning to write this article for some time, but the recent spate of activity in the media about F1 has finally provoked me into it. The topic of today's article is media reporting on motorsport, although it has massive relevance in all fields outside that.

The modern world in which we live is dominated by information – it's everywhere in all forms of varying accuracy, quality and opinion. We can't get away from it – it's on our mobile phones, emailed to us, posted on our Facebook walls and handed to us in the street and on the bus and train. It's the same with music, film and media besides news – in my gran's house there's a small selection of books and records, but I have a massive pile of CDs and DVDs plus a computer full of information. Having access to so much 'stuff' is good in a way – because we've got so many options of things to do – but we're definitely seeing the downside in the 21st century.

The devolution of media from a few specialised outlets to anyone (obviously including, by posting this article, myself) has made the competition for an audience fierce, and since we live in a world where we all need to make money to survive and possibly prosper then media outlets need to attract viewers and make money out of what they're doing. It seems that the best way to do this is 'sexing up' your reports, as we see every day from stories full of hyperbole. If you read the Daily Mail, you probably get up every day thinking that the world's about to end.

There is certainly a much wider debate to be had about what the point is of pushing a certain opinion is in many cases in the media at large - indeed it's probably the most important debate in the developed world in the modern age - , but for the purposes of keeping this article below ten thousand words I'll just be concentrating on the world of motor racing.

Formula One has, in the last few days as I write, been rocked by the scandal of Max Mosley being involved in an allegedly Nazi-themed prostitution orgy. From Mosley's response to this, the only part that is denied is the Nazi element to the story. The story was broken by The News Of The World and the other paper which has produced the most coverage of the story is The Times – both papers are owned by Rupert Murdoch's group. It seems fairly likely that Mosley will be forced to step down from his FIA Presidency as a result of the story.

To say “fair enough” to the likely outcome is a no-brainer, but if as suggested the Murdoch group did go out to catch Mosley at this kind of thing, then the question 'why?' has to be asked. The FIA is a large non-profit organisation representing not just motor sport but motorists all over the world – it has a legitimate job to do besides anything to do with F1 and any of the other motor racing championships. In fact it's more of a committee of over two-hundred national motoring organisations with Max Mosley as the figurehead. Whoever's the figurehead in an organisation with clearly defined objectives will do a lot of delegation – Max only has the same number of hours in his week as you or me, of course. Whatever your thoughts on Max Mosley are, the bigger question that remains unanswered is 'why would a news group want to remove him from his position?' The trivial answer is 'to make money out of a story' and if that's the reason behind then it's a very worrying indictment of how public figures have simply become a pawn for the media to make money from.

Some observe that reality TV and reports of celebrities cracking up serve to show us everyone's imperfections and in a way make us feel more placated about our own, but there seems no logical reason for that within motor racing and indeed any sport.

Is there really much money to be had when the outcome of a sporting event is changed in whatever way after the event? Every time an athlete or Tour de France cyclist is caught taking drugs, it is a victory for the fight against cheats but nullifies the spectacle of the event – which is what the public were supposed to watching on the TV or at the venue. The most famous Olympic event since 1936 was the Seoul 100m men's sprint, won by Ben Johnson who was a drug cheat and the memory of Johnson winning the race is more than that of Carl Lewis finishing second who was subsequently awarded the gold but the sporting value of that memory is now zero. Competitions only become popular if people enjoy witnessing them at a base level, surely? You wouldn't care about the outcome of a competition in something that wasn't exciting to watch. People get worked up about the results of football or racing or cricket or anything if they enjoy the action – there wouldn't be any point or passion otherwise. The thrill of watching an athletics race on TV should be pretty much the same thrill as watching a friend race in one or thinking back to a school competition.

Motor racing should probably make another appearance here. In the 2007 Formula One season we had the most media-dominated season ever, by a long way. Opinion, rumour and hyperbole are nothing new in F1 – in fact they're often used benignly to mask the lack of anything interesting on-track – but 2007 saw the Spygate scandal and a similar action against the Renault team. These actions saw a lot of money thrown about and nothing but detrimental effects on the racing, and the viewer's perception of the outcome of races being fair was thrown into question. Ironically enough, many of the thoughts on the handling of the cases came back to the aforementioned Mr Mosley, although of course as one man he was not solely responsible for the outcome.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is about perception and 'feel' when you're watching a sporting event – it has to be believable to be worth bothering with. If you see a horror film and the scene is disrupted by a backdrop falling down, the atmosphere is ruined and it's hard to take it seriously. If you listen to an album supposedly full of intense emotion and then the singer rhymes 'ghost' with 'toast', you burst out laughing. Motor racing works in the same way but you can only feel anything if you believe what's happening. Journalists who want to throw everything into doubt are completely undermining the things they're supposed to be promoting. Of course it's up to a governing body to make the competition fair and in the correct spirit, but they should be doing that behind closed doors. Public image needs to be reclaimed in the information era in far too many cases.

Opinion and agenda are two very different things and it's paramount that people who make themselves heard are of benign intent. It's absolutely fine to say that there should be more support given to backing Brits or Aussies in motorbike racing or deservedly praise someone who's done well like Lewis Hamilton or Troy Bayliss, as it's a fair opinion or benign agenda. It's quite another to push a malignant agenda without reasonably justification in the world of soundbite journalism where the headline is more important than the facts, and that's where so many people in this world go wrong.

Malignant intent simply leads to a departure from reality in many cases, and can foster an unreasonable lack of respect for the people involved. There are some figures within Formula 1 at present who are extremely unpopular mainly due to media hyperbole from various sections of the press, and without good reason. If one of them had been involved in the terrible tragedy that befell David Leslie, Richard Lloyd and their crew, the people who've been involved in this irrational hatred would surely hang their heads in shame at the way they've been behaving and rightfully so. A look at the bigger picture and a fair show of respect never go amiss.

We need governing bodies who get on with doing a good and fair job quietly – FGSport (who run World Superbikes) are fantastic in this respect. Transparency is fine and the truth is vital but airing things in public should be an absolute last resort in sporting matters – public image should come first. We need journalists who report the truth, and interesting and fair opinions. If we can keep or have that, we're in the right place.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Champ Car and it's place in the market

Firstly, hello. I don't usually post in here, but as you can see I'm a Mod so I do look in here and know the state of play and who's who. [, Champ Car area]

And a quick summary of my motor racing supporting background: F1 in 1994 (shortly after Imola) started me off watching racing, then British Touring Cars from later that year. CART came in about late 1996 although I'd seen some IndyCar in 1994 when Nigel Mansell was racing. At some stage in between then and now I've watched just about all forms of racing in varying amounts. From 2000 onwards it's been all about MotoGP, World Superbikes and still Brit Superbikes – unsurprisingly you'll find me over in the Motorcycle Racing forum as the resident Mod. My second love is GP2 which superceded F3000 of course, and I'm also getting into the World Series by Renault and A1GP gradually. I race karts in my spare time too.

I've followed CART/Champ Car for over ten years in detail now and obviously am aware of the current situation as well as having read a lot of this forum despite staying quiet. In case you're wondering, it's not because of the people – I've barely missed an F1 race in 14 years – despite it being racing-wise, pretty dull! - but have never made a single post in there either. Many of the points about what has gone/is going wrong in Champ Car don't need to be re-stressed, so I won't do.

But a few thoughts have struck me since watching some A1GP yesterday. Champ Car's on-track decline has been since 2001, where the racing was still brilliant. You still get some half-decent bits of action these days, but in 2001 I mean it was the best (open wheel) car series on earth for pure racing. In my humble opinion GP2 has had that honour for the last few years, and Champ Car certainly isn't second behind it. Which is a crying shame.

Off-the issue of the series management is extremely well-covered on this forum - things such as the lack of manufacturer backing (not helped by Reynard surprisingly going belly-up in 2001, plus the pop-off valve saga starting the process of alienation for the engine manufacturers). Penske's move did hurt a lot too, since he took a lot of heritage and track connections with him.
The off-track stuff has led to probably the decision which is doing much of the damage to Champ Car, and that's the decision to take the series in the direction of GP2, A1GP and WSbR and specifically the European focus. The thing that excited me about CART when I started watching was the ovals, the variety, and the insane speeds the cars could get to. (Gil de Ferran's quali lap at Fontana, anyone?) In a way, being a Brit and thus having started out with F1 and all that surrounds it, the CART way of doing things was so refreshing and exciting. Since 2002 those things have gradually disappeared from Champ Car, along with half an entry list.

Many people have said that taking Champ Car to Europe is good because that's where the passionate fans and the sponsors are. Well, in a way that's correct but the fact also is that the European market is crowded with other series for the fans to get worked up about. F1 clearly has a higher European presence than it does in America, likewise all the bike racing series. GP2, WSbR and A1GP are – despite the Asian A1GP races – primarily focused around Europe. Then there's the F3 Euroseries, national F3 series and downwards through the pyramid of motorsport plus all the touring car and GT series – which, NASCAR aside, outnumber the US equivalents by a massive amount. If you step into a crowded market and you're not up to the task, you'll get found out and slayed. There's nowhere to hide in European motor racing, and no easy money either.

As I've got older – I'm 26 – other things come into play and motor racing has probably been trimmed down a little in my interests, simply because of other responsibilities. Part of growing up, really. Anyway, it means that I follow some series with a passion and many others – which aren't bad per se – have become marginalised and I don't have time to catch up with any more. So a series has to be stunning for me to sit in front of a TV and watch it even though I live and breathe racing.

By Champ Car moving into a position where it's competing in the middle of the GP2/WSbR/A1GP melee (in car spec terms, they're ranked in that order with GP2 at the top), it's lost what was special and unique about it. Technically I don't think it's up with GP2 anymore, when the late-nineties CART missiles were way ahead of stuff like F3000. And since that edge is lost, you then look at the grid size – 26 GP2 machines vs 17 Champ Cars, a no-brainer there. There's no area where logically Champ Car scores higher. Last season there were thirty WSbR machines on the grid (the FIA trimmed it to 26 for 2008, boo!) which is nearly twice the size of the Champ Car 2007 field – again you'll obviously get more 'bang for your buck' with WSbR. Personally I think part of enjoying a race is that it just 'feels' right when you're sat in front of the TV or at the track, and Champ Car just doesn't have it anymore for reasons like that.

With the move to Europe also comes the push for European drivers. Now as a European, I knew who Neel Jani and Tristan Gommendy were before they set foot in a Champ Car, but guys in the USA don't. And they're certainly not 'household names' in Britain for one (neither, may I add, is Justin Wilson). To be honest, barring Valentino Rossi and a select few others, there are very few household names outside of the F1 grid in motor racing in Europe. GP2, WSbR and A1GP can accommodate the quick changing of bums on car seats, because the first two are career-path series with big manufacturer backing (Renault in both cases) and A1GP is nation-orientated as opposed to driver-orientated. They are also more traditionally footed within the European (and Asian) market for sponsors. Champ Car dies on it's arse by not holding onto drivers and building their reputation in the US amongst its core fan base. The fact that they're European isn't the problem – it's that the US only sees them for one season. Alex Zanardi (absolute hero, that man) worked out pretty well in the past, yes? And Oriol Servia has gained fans with time, but the likes of Bjorn Wirdheim, Ronnie Bremer, Ricardo Sperafico and Antonio Pizzonia to name but a few – all talented drivers who could have gone onto big things given a decent run in a car – disappeared without trace within a season.

I feel I could write on for ages here, but I think the point's been made. Champ Car's identity crisis isn't the only thing wrong (certainly not), but it's a big part of the problems. If Europe is to be where the focus is – not entirely sure why people would think that, American fans are passionate and enthusiastic as you can see at a NASCAR race, along with knowledgable as you can see on this board – Champ Car needs a massive overhaul to get it anywhere near GP2, WSbR and A1GP. Unless that happens, I can't see how Europe will be Champ Car's saviour.
I usually wrap up with a positive endpoint, but that would require another lengthy explanation!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

125s and 250s - the future

Last month we saw the publication of the entry lists for all the GP classes – check out the lists on or – very soon – the Fantasy League price lists in that thread.
One big thing stood out in the 250 and 125 lists – and that was the almost total departure of Honda from those classes. Two 250 Hondas for Yuki Takahashi and Ratthapark Wilairot plus a 125 machine for class debutant Louis Rossi – no relation – is all that's on offer from Honda for 2008 in the development classes with Aprilia dominating and KTM increasing their presence correspondingly.

Now that isn't a criticism of Honda at all or indeed anyone – the fact is more that it's a signal that times are changing.

I love the 125s in particular – they're my favourite class in general. Brilliant wheel-to-wheel racing, tons of overtaking, close finishes (including that Dovi/Jorge dead heat), equality and of course all the young talent coming through in a class with massive grids of more than 40 riders at some events. Our first glimpse of the future MotoGP champions – when I started watching GPs, Dani Pedrosa hadn't even debuted in 125s for instance. In terms of out-and-out racing, I don't want the 125s to end – and neither does anyone with an appreciation of what great competition is all about.

But as I say, things are changing. Two-stroke engines are on their way out in production terms, and as such the 250s and 125s have lost relevance with regard to road bikes. And being support classes, there isn't enough money going round to support prototype bike development for them. Fair enough. Somewhere – possibly on this forum in the past – I read something about the 2-stroke class rules being renewed til the year 2015, but it appears unlikely (and I have it on extremely good authority) that we'll have changed over to new classes some way before then. The new classes may well be 450 and 250 four-stroke categories.

This thread is all about what I hope the FIM and Dorna can create with the new classes. It is a positive look at things and a good look to the future to support classes that can be genuinely as good or even better than what we currently enjoy.

There are some great teams running in the little classes, and of course it's important to keep hold of them so we will still have the big grids that there are at the minute. This will mostly be down to cost of the new classes. Manufacturer parity has also been very good, particularly in the 125s with Aprilia (and badged versions thereof), Honda and KTM (and other Bartol-designed projects like past Derbis) taking wins. That's down to regulation management. The FIM know what they're doing with this. The relevance of the classes to road-going machinery should be back – as the 450 and 250 four-stroke engines are in dirt-bikes. The promotion of the classes should remain as it currently is – which seems pretty good. Dorna know what they're doing after all.

The tricky bit is getting them to race as well as the 125s currently do, we'll have to wait and see on that one but I've got faith that we'll still get the entertaining mayhem we're used to. Hopefully they'll also still prove a great training ground for future MotoGP stars, as the 250s have shown recently and look to do in 2008.

There is an area where the new classes have the potential to improve on the current classes, and that's to do with their relevance and accessibility to domestic level series. Year upon year we see wildcards show up at various GPs and they're usually all at the back or not even on the grid – which is hardly a good sign of who should be coming into the class the next season of the national riders. As a example – although it's certainly not the only one – at Donington all the wildcards will be at the back. And it's down to the disparity between the machinery available – in the wet things even out, as Brits saw with Dan Linfoot taking top tens in 125s and 250s, and Rob Guiver storming past Marco Simoncelli for 6th a couple of years ago before falling off. The talent's there in many of the national series, not just Spain's excellent CEV championship. A look at the 125 GP field and the British 125 champ easily identifies the problem – a pack of Aprilias of various levels of tuning, versus a pack of exclusively Hondas of lesser tuning in the British series. Some money injected into national series for some reasonably equal machinery would give national championships so much more relevance to the GP support classes and opportunity for a greater range of up-and-comers to experience more highly tuned bikes earlier without having to sell the family home and move to Spain. If such an injection could happen as the new classes came in it'd be a real boost for national championships. It could also bring a greater opportunity for national level teams who wanted to move up to GPs.

The other thing to sort out is the gap in 250s between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', which has lead to some strung-out races in that class (although there've also been some very good ones there too)

Part of me was a bit scared when I realised that the 125s would be ending within the next few years, but having a think about it has made me realise that I shouldn't be. The ingredients for great support classes are already in place and the FIM/Dorna are very good at getting their head down and having things planned out nice and quietly in good time (is it just me, or did the 800s get very fast very quickly?) - as opposed to Formula 1 for instance where even non-news gets dragged out into the open immediately. I'm confident about the proposed new formulas.

Bring on the future!

Friday, November 16, 2007


A couple of days ago, it was announced in Britain that the members of a website ( were to purchase a controlling stake in an English football (soccer) club, Ebbsfleet United. [for those in Britain, Ebbsfleet were known as Gravesend and Northfleet until this year, and are based on the eastern outskirts of London]. The deal is to be completed in the next few weeks. Here is a link to the story:

The details of this are pretty interesting reading. Fifty thousand members of the website expressed an interest in buying the stake in a football club (none specifically mentioned), and there was a vote on which club to buy into and after removing the unrealistic options they went for Ebbsfleet. The members were then told that it was time for them to stump up some money or back out, and twenty thousand of them went for it with £35 each (about $80 AUD). The 20,000 people – including one of my mates who lives over 200 miles from where the team is based - of them have therefore spent £700,000 ($1.61m AUD) between them which gives the fans a 51% stake in the club. It is anticipated that the fans will be asked for more money year-on-year, so the initial payment is not a one-off. However, as a stakeholder the fans now have the deciding say in all major club decisions, transfers [which are big news much like in motor racing], and even team selection – effectively taking some of the manager's powers away.

For those of you not in Britain, I should mention a bit about football (soccer) and who Ebbsfleet United are. Football is the most popular sport in Britain, which isn't the same elsewhere. We get an enormous amount of press coverage in our media, and the top players are able to attract massive salaries. Over the past 15 years the English Premiership has opened its doors to limitless numbers of foreign superstars, and the game is ruled by TV money from all the coverage as it's become kind of an international superleague. The top footballers in England can earn about £130,000 (about $300,000 AUD) per WEEK. The premiership consists of 20 teams, and many of the players from there will earn at least half the amount just mentioned per week. To compare with another current topic of discussion, Shakey Byrne and Tom Sykes were reportedly offered £70,000 and £35,000 a YEAR respectively by Paul Bird to remain with his team in British Superbikes. That shows just how much money is going around in football in the UK.

Admittedly football is like everything money-wise; i.e the fat cats at the top have it all and the majority below them have comparatively little with the gap seemingly getting wider as time passes. The English Football League consists of four divisions totalling 92 teams, with lower divisions after that stretching right down to complete amateurs and pub teams. Ebbsfleet are just below the auspices of the Football League – as I write they're a close 9th in the division below, so 101st best club in the country if you will. Players in that division could be paid about £500 a week at the better teams (, so not small potatoes but a massive drop down from Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal & Chelsea etc. About 1,000 people turn up to watch Ebbsfleet play their home matches every two weeks. People who follow football would know the team name, but not a great deal about the club and most likely never see a match on TV.

So why have I just written four fairly hefty paragraphs about football?

Well, it makes you think...if 20,000 people – nearly all of whom only have a minimal level of knowledge - are willing to put up £700,000 between them to purchase half a small football club, could the same work in racing? Obviously not for a big team, but what about a national Superstock team or something? I read an advert in Motorcycle Racer magazine at the start of this season for places in the European Superstock 600 championship costing about £18,000. National championships would surely be less, with much-reduced travelling for the team. Motorsport clearly has much less coverage in Britain than football (as demonstrated above), but with the amounts involved and complexity being less, surely it could be a possibility.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Career Progression - the Brookes/Ellison Effect

At this time of year there's a lot of chat on the Rumour Mill thread about what's happening next year - who's going where and all. Some of it turns out to be totally true, some of it happens a year later than was rumoured (like Max going to WSB), and much of it turns out to be complete rubbish and is swept under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Understandably a lot of rumours centre around young up-and-comers being promoted up the ranks very quickly, and this hardly ever turns out to be true. It's understandable because we all want to see the talent come through and progress – watching the same guys hold the same seats every year would clearly be boring and would render the lower series pointless. And to an extent it is sometimes a little disappointing to see someone hogging a seat who should be replaced by fresher blood – take a look at some of the guys over in F1 who are taking a grid slot and little else despite years in the sport.

There are all kinds of reasons why things are a little more cautious than what we often hope for – having a 'name' driver/rider can boost your brand compared with an unknown, the risk of someone lacking in experience, canny contract negotiations by the guy already in the seat, sponsor favouritism, etc.

Another reason is the point of this thread, and it's to do with the career development of young riders and taking the right steps and risks at the right time particularly in terms of the world stage. I call it the Brookes-Ellison effect, after Josh Brookes and James Ellison.
Josh Brookes' two years in World Supersport and Superbikes make interesting reading. He came to most people outside Australia's prominence by winning the Philip Island WSS round as a wildcard in 2004, and then backed it up taking the Aussie domestic Superbike and Supersport titles a year later. So far, so good – certainly enough to get onto the world scene somewhere. Sure enough, he was picked up by Caracchi to run their Ducati in WSS in 2006. He took 6th at PI but things didn't go well overall, and he departed fairly early in the season to step up to WSB with Bertocchi Kawasaki. Again this wasn't a good move – he only scored a couple of points. The team acquired new backers and Hondas for this year to become the Alto Evolution team, and to be fair he's had some promising runs although in midfield mostly. Again he's departed [following the team woes] and is back to WSS with Stiggy Honda which has only left him with five races in total to make an impression to find something for 2008 – a big ask. It's fair to say that his undeniable talent is in danger of being snuffed out.

James Ellison is another guy who's had some interesting moves through various series. He's won the European Superstock Championship (in 2000 and 2001, I believe) before taking the World Endurance title in 2003 after a year in WSS. World Endurance isn't usually seen as a route upward in short-format racing, so James was off back to Britain in 2004. He competed in the BSB Cup class – that's for year-old machinery running within the main race – and took the title as well as 11th overall in the standings. At the end of that season the WCM MotoGP team gave him a run out and signed him for 2005 where he got a few points. He then got the call from Tech3 for 2006, and we know how that turned out. He now races mid-pack in AMA Superbikes for Corona Honda.

The point is that Josh and James are two amongst many guys who could be in a better position than where they are because of the progression choices they've made. With the best will in the world, probably the best Josh can hope for next year is to stay with Stiggy and try and get a full season under his belt, which will most likely be quite successful. I would be amazed if he got a Ten Kate chance, simply because he's not stuck somewhere for a full year in Worlds and so his name barely registers on the standings. James grabbed at two MotoGP chances which came his way and have now left him over in the States after they didn't work out and not with a top team – in an alternate version of events he could be a pretty successful guy in World Superbikes right now (riding as a wildcard in 2004, he took 5th at Brands in WSB on a year-old Yamaha in fact). I've maligned James Ellison as much as anyone but that could genuinely be possible – James Toseland wasn't stellar until 2002, for example.

I make no apologies for focusing on mainly Brits in this thread, simply because they and BSB are more familiar to me.

Two examples where the opposite is true – and guys have made fairly good decisions – are Neil Hodgson and Shakey Byrne. Neil took the BSB title in 2000 with GSE, stepped up to WSB with them and then went to the factory Ducati team and took the title with them in 2003. His Superbike credentials are not in doubt. He then had a duff season in MotoGP with D'Antin and went to the States which went OK considering the Duke wasn't a match for the Suzukis or Hondas – and he beat both Bostroms on home soil. Now he's without a ride but this is where those years 2000-3 come in – because he's got a steady string of seasons and two titles he can still negotiate for top rides. James Ellison by comparison, jumped at a MotoGP chance that didn't yield anything – so the last success people will see on his CV is the BSB privateer Cup. Now a successful season or two in full BSB [which he could have had] instead of going to MotoGP straight away is starting to look like it would have been a good idea. Shakey won the 2003 BSB title before moving to MotoGP to ride the ApriliBeast and then the ill-fated KR-KTM. Again, they didn't work out but the BSB title in the bag means he'll always be able to get back on a top BSB bike somewhere. You can't help but the Joshes and James Ellisons of this world could have got further on with a little more patience.

There's a parallel to be drawn with F1 racing and some of the promotions from lower series there – Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton all fully earnt their spurs doing GP2, justifying their promotion up to top F1 seats. Some guys we've seen in the past have been plucked by F1 skipping several stage of the ladder, and as a result if it doesn't work you're a little lost for where to go. If Kimi Raikkonen (plucked from British Formula Renault to F1 – the equivalent of going from the British 125cc Champs to full MotoGP in one step) had turned out to be rubbish, he'd really be struggling.

So, I guess the point is – the ladder series are there for good reason. Moving up the ranks is important and it's important to do it in the correct way and at the right time – sometimes a sudden move can work but often putting in the hard graft gradually will work out better. Getting too eager can blow things if it doesn't work out. So don't be too eager to grab that MotoGP opportunity unless the time's really right.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

When Are Brits Gonna Lose the Fixation With Superbikes?

The question was asked as above...

I want to pick up on this for various reasons.As far as I'm concerned, MotoGP and Superbikes can exist very nicely in harmony. There's no Champ Car/IRL rivalry, simply because they are not competing directly against each other - MotoGP is prototypes and Superbikes is production based, obviously. Sure, things developed on prototypes get passed down to road bikes in the same way that the odd trick on F1 cars eventually get down to road cars (although with bike racing the relationship is rather closer), but they don't occupy each other's space in the market.

So far as comparing the machinery goes, MotoGP is ahead for the clear reason that it has to be (if your production machinery is better than your prototypes, you're producing some crappy prototypes ). But the gap isn't much - at Donington for instance, for a time the lap record was by Steve Hislop in BSB, faster than Rossi for a while.

In terms of riders crossing over, there's fairly good parity too. Nicky won the GP title from a Superbike background, although the likes of Colin and Neil Hodgson didn't do so well with their opportunities. Chris Vermeulen on the other hand is doing rather well. And GP winners like Garry McCoy, Regis Laconi, Norick Abe, Alex Barros and of course Max Biaggi certainly haven't had things their own way when they went over to WSB.

True, many riders want to get into GPs, JT included. But there's no shame at all in wanting a Superbike career if you can do well there (interesting one - who do you rate as better - Troy Bayliss or Marco Melandri?). We all know that there's a finite number of seats in GPs and indeed in 250s/125s, and for the GP route there's nothing outside of that.

Carl Fogarty did nothing in GPs but is a household name and with good reason from his time in WSB. If you go to Brands Hatch or see it on TV on Sunday, you'll see 80,000+ fans who don't think Superbikes is too bad, ditto the 60k at Silverstone and similar at Donington for WSB. If you tune into BSB on ITV1, the 30,000-odd people present at each round quite like it too. Over in Japan too, Superbikes is very important to the manufacturers ('Win on Sunday, sell on Monday' as it was once put), as you can see from the Suzuka 8-hour race. The AMA has a lot of money in it over in the States. If you're an Aussie, since Mick retired you've had rather more to cheer about in WSB than in GPs too. All the road races are obviously production-based too.

WSB has rather less tradition than MotoGP having only began in 1988 and taken a few years to get mainstream recognition, but it's the same for GPs. Until 2000 the British MotoGP only got about 20,000 fans on race day - once Channel 5 got the coverage and a Mr Rossi started becoming a superstar things improved but it's had lean times in Britain.

If you're a Brit or any other nationality, there's a good career with plenty of opportunity in Superbikes. The fans love it too, so where's the problem?