Zurich Gnome

The journal of a Swiss-based motor-racing enthusiast.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Valentino Rossi

I started reading Valentino Rossi's autobiography the other day. My wife bought it for me at Christmas, as part penance for taping over the race at Philip Island when Rossi won his first 500c World Championship.

It's an interesting read so far, and deals a lot with his reasons for changing from Honda to Yamaha for the 2004 season. And it's very reminiscent of Michael Schumacher moving from Benetton to Ferrari in 1996 (can it really be 10 years ago?). Both men were world champions and needed to prove it was them that was the best and not just the machine. So they opted to move from a proven successful team, to a team with a great name, but no recent success. Rossi won his first race with Yamaha, and went on to win the championship. To me it seems that Rossi will need another challenge soon - there's no point to him moving to another team, or staying at Yamaha. Which leaves cars.

Rossi is due to test an F2004 at Valencia next week, and you can bet that Ferrari aren't just doing it to amuse themselves. There's been a lot of talk about Rossi driving for Ferrari in 2007, but since I've started reading the book, I'm a lot more inclined to agree.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Hot Stuff

Williams have released some interesting facts about their new F1 challenger. For me the most surprising revelation was that the brake temperatures can reach 10,000 degrees, and at that level it doesn't really matter whether you're talking Centigrade or Fahrenheit. (It's Centigrade)
That is just so incomprehensively hot! A hundred times hotter than boiling water, I suspect that the old ploy of claiming that water was being used as a brake coolant and could therefore be replenished after a race wouldn't even be contemplated these days.

One of my cars has an oil temperature guage and I get worried if the oil runs hotter than about 100 degrees. Compare that to the gearbox of the Williams, which gets up to 1,500 degrees during a race. I guess that's why oil companies get involved with F1, and why they claim that "racing improves the breed". Even if the products will never be used for normal road cars, it means that engineers can use new technology to make cars ever more reliable. I really wouldn't like to be the poor guy that has to change the gear ratios at the circuit though.

I wonder what temperature the engine runs at these days?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Good News, Bad News

First the good news. he FIA have officially accepted Super Aguri's entry. Which means that the team now have six weeks to get the cars built, through the crash tests and transported to Bahrain. It must be frantic there at the moment. They're also planning to get to the Barcelona test which starts on Feb 21, so all I can really do is wish them luck. As I've said before, all they need to do is turn up, but even that will be a big achievment.

The bad news is that the race at Spa, the best circuit on the calendar, is still under threat. Given that normally you'd be able to book tickets for a major sporting event a long time in advance, it's a pretty poor show. Max and Bernie are always going on about the professionalism necessary to be active in F1. It's amazing how they are prepared to treat spectators though. They claim that contracts are in place - so that if anything goes wrong it's someone else's fault, but it seems to me to be basic supply chain management to have an alternative promoter in place. The FIA has a duty to all stakeholders to make sure that all races take place (and this is just about money, not safety). As a fan I'm not happy, if I ran a hotel nearby I'd be more annoyed, and if I'd already bought grandstand seats and airline tickets I'd be livid. Sort it out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What's in a number?

The new Ferrari F1 challenger has been announced and it's called the 248 F1. That might not mean much to many of you, but to some of us old Ferrari fanatics, it marks the resurrection of an old naming convention.

When Ferraris were powered by V12 engines back in the early 50s, they were known by the capacity of a single cylinder. So the 166 was a 2-litre engine, the 250 (as in the 250GTO) was a 3-litre engine, and so forth. Hence famous cars such as the 275 GTB (the 275 GTB/4 was a four camshaft version of the 3.3 litre engine) and the 330P4 (Fourth version of the 4-litre prototype).

But the 248 is not a V12, it follows the other convention started at the end of the late 1950s, which was epitomised by the Dino 246. This had a 2.4 litre V6 engine, and if you can remember back to the Ferraris of the 70s and 80s, as used by Magnum (TV detective) you may recall that those were known as 308 or 328 (depending on whether they were 3.0 litre or 3.2) GTBs or GTSs (Berlinettas, ie closed roof, or Spiders, ie open). Are you still with me?

Well in the 1980s numbering conventions seemed to go out of the window with the 126C. The C was "straightforward" in that it meant the car was super/turbo-charged (I vaguely remember that the Italian for supercharger is compressore) but the 12 apparently means that the engine has a V-angle of 120 degrees. Then we moved on to the 412, which although it had 12 cylinders, didn't (unless they were cheating) have a 4-litre engine. Although I suppose if you round 3.5 litres to a single digit, you could argue that it was correct to call it 412. When the engine size was reduced to 3-litres, the 310 again made sense (I assume that not many people would expect a 3.1 litre zero cylinder engine) and then Ferrari moved to numbers like F2004, which seems self-evident.

But now we're back to 248 and I know where I am again. But frankly, does it help? After all, most F1 petrolheads probably know the engine capacity for any given year of car, but you can't work out the year from the capacity. Unless, that is, Max Mosley goes completely loopy (sadly we can't rule that out) and changes the engine capacity every year for "cost-saving" reasons. So, even before the 2006 season starts, I'm really curious to know what they will call the 2007 car. 248 F1B? Any thoughts?

Picture © Ferrari

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Masters of the Universe

I'm not sure about this GP Masters thing. I was quite excited when I saw the news on pitpass that the dates for 2006 had been announced. But then I looked closely and saw that there are only five races currently planned, and that they do not appear to form a championship.

Now obviously the drivers involved are busy chaps and have other interests, but there aren't many races of any import that take place as single entities; Le Mans being a clear exception, as is the Indy 500 even though it's part of the IRL. Otherwise a race is a bit like a football friendly. Quite good fun, but if you lose, so what? And as the cars are all the same, there's no real interest there. So am I going to bother looking at the results for the race in Qatar, even if I intend to go to Monza? Again, it's like friendly matches. I'll have a passing interest but I don't think I'll care who's quickest in qualifying.

On the other hand, the Thoroughbred Grand Prix series (TGP) is run as a championship. There, we have the old cars, but driven mainly by people we've never heard of. Businessmen that have made enough cash to be able to buy and run an old F1 car. So with TGP, you get to see the cars, but not the stars.

I can't help but think we're missing a trick here. Famous drivers in famous cars is the way to go. But then, that's the Goodwood revival meeting, albeit only for pre-1965 cars. Given the choice between driving to Monza or flying to Goodwood, I think the Sussex countryside will win hands down.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What's in a name?

It had never occured to me that the BMW Sauber F1.06 was BMW's first ever F1 car. To be honest I'll still think of it as a Sauber, in much the same way as I occasionally think of the engines in the back of the McLaren being Ilmor engines, rather than Mercedes. Obviously in the business world there's lots of name changes when companies change hands, as well as a fair degree of freedom to keep names or replace them depending on the new owner's perception of the relative brands.

Ferrari, for example, remained Ferrari even when FIAT took over, and Aston Martin are still around despite being owned by Ford. But Mercedes chose the other route with Ilmor. Either way, the F1.06 is a BMW even though its inception was handled by the Sauber design team (who are now BMW employees). Pretty much the same holds true for Honda, and of course, Renault.

In fact, Toyota and Williams are the only teams that really reflect their names. And coincidentally Williams are now back with Cosworth, the manufacturer that originally supplied them with engines back in the late 70s. Of course, the ownership of that particular engine maker has changed a few times, but then, what's in a name?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Crime Doesn't Pay

After yesterday's refreshing news that Peter Sauber has been recognised as a decent and honest businessman, comes the announcement that a couple of fairly big names in the F1 world are about to be prosecuted in Germany. The two men concerned are Ove Andersson and Gustav Brunner, both formerly of Toyota.

Brunner has recently signed to work for Scuderia Toro Rossa (Nèe Minardi, where he used to work after leaving Ferrari) so I guess management there won't be too happy, and may decide to make changes in the design team. That's a shame because I believe he's a talented engineer and would work well with Adrian Newey.

Andersson; however, was formerly Team Principal at Toyota and is now retired. Toyota Motorsports GmbH was actually formed from Andersson's own Motorsport venture in the early 90s so the links there are pretty solid. Andersson was in charge when Toyota was excluded from the 1994 World Rally Championship for cheating, so he's no stranger to being investigated, but he is generally considered to be a decent and honest chap.

The charges this time relate to the use of a data analysis programme developed by Ferrari, and this is clearly an area where a team can make great inroads in the development process, and potentially make its cars significantly more efficient. It's a fine line that anyone treads when they change companies. You can't forget what you've learned, but on the other hand you can't take a finished product with you. Not even one that fits nicely in a CD case. Surprisingly, no charges have been made against the Ferrari employees that moved to Toyota, just against those that are alleged to have used (or authorised the use of) the software.

As the Toyota press machine has pointed out, the charges are against individuals, not the company, but when mud is being thrown, some will stick in the wrong place. The timing also seems a little cruel, with the announcement coming in the same week as the launch of Toyota's new F1 challenger.

The next stage is for the German courts to decide if there is a case to answer, and it could well be that it all comes to nought. For the sake of F1 I hope so. That said, it might just be time to purchase a copy of Cheating by Tom Jensen, which is one of the best books to cover the topic of "rule-interpretation" in recent years. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Man of the year

I guess this probably won't make most of the racing websites in the world, but Peter Sauber was voted "Businessman of the Year" at the Swiss awards gala ceremony last night.

Not only that, but he was also voted "Swiss of the year". That's pretty impressive especially when he's up against Roger Federer (the all-conquering tennis star) and Tom Lüthi, who won the 125cc Motorcycling world championship. Unlike Federer, Peter Sauber is unlikely to figure at all in the "International Men of Sexiness" list (who thinks these titles up?) but he was recognized for his achievement in running a Formula One team out of Switzerland since 1993, and also securing a future for the team in Switzerland when organising its sale.

Peter Sauber has often been rated as the "Nicest Man in Formula One" and it's just reward that his efforts have been recognised. He has shown that business ethics can go hand-in-hand with Formula One, and you can't say that about many people. Tom Walkinshaw as "Briton of the Year" anyone? I think not.

Photo copyright Tages-Anzeiger www.tages-anzeiger.ch

Friday, January 13, 2006

Maranello on Monday?

In recent years, Ferrari have introduced their new car relatively late in the season. In 2004 for example, it was three races into the season before the new car came out. But this year, it's thought that the new car will run as early as next week.

Of course, even in 2004, the all-conquering F2004 was seen on the Fiorano test track in February and March but with the changed regulations, there's a need to get the new car out early. The interim Ferrari with the 2006 engine fitted has been fastest of the V8 runners all this week, so there's hope for fans of the Scuderia that 2006 will have the red cars running closer to the front than last year.

I know it's not worth getting excited about testing times, but when the F2006 runs at Jerez for real, it'll be interesting to see how it compares against last year's car.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Wellness of Spa

I'm not sure whether wellness is really an English word, but it's in the Merriam-Webster dictionary so that's good enough for me. Here in Switzerland there are loads of wellness clinics, or spas, and although I'm not a fan of Saunas or Steam Rooms (you can't read the motor racing news) I do like a good thermal bath. But I digress from the main theme, what is going in Belgium?

It appears that the Belgian GP is now safe. And Miraculously, Bernie Ecclestone will step in to promote the show. Last year, the promoter lost a significant amount of money. Does anyone think Bernie will lose out? Well, I guess he might not actually make money from the takings on the gate but overall, he'll still cash in. Here we have another classic example of how money leaves the sport. Last week Bernie was in Greece, investigating whether there is a possibility to create a circuit near Athens. Is there no end to the appetite to extract money from a sport that really needs to get back to the business of pleasing the fans?

Of course it's ok to make money from motor racing, but please, make sport the main priority.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Shy and Retiring

As I mentioned yesterday, testing has started in earnest for the new season. Testing has often been called the “Winter Championship” because some teams seem desperate to impress new sponsors and run fast, while other teams tend to run with heavy fuel loads and run slower than they could so as not to give the game away. Sandbagging, in other words.

So we really can’t draw many conclusions from what is happening in Jerez, in that sense it’s very much like Friday mornings at GP weekends. The cars are going round, the teams are learning and making decisions, but we have no idea exactly what is happening. But at least it’s possible to say that if someone finishes at the top of the timesheet that they were probably trying fairly hard. If they are over a second ahead, either the car is good or the driver is fairly committed.

Which is good news for Michael Schumacher. On the first day's testing of the year, he was out putting the new Ferrari through its paces, completing more than a race distance and setting fastest time by more than a second. Normally at this time of year, Michael would be in the Alps skiing, or up in Norway, but this year he's down in Spain and he's not just there for the weather. It's been reported that he will make a decision mid-season on whether to retire when his contract expires at the end of the year. But it appears to me that he wants that decision to be to continue racing. So he's putting in the effort now so that halfway through the season, he'll be leading the championship and he'll have no trouble deciding. The last thing he needs is a season like last year. On yesterday's form, and with continued commitment, there's a good chance he'll still be racing next year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Anyone for Sherry?

Jerez de la Frontera in Spain has two connotations for me. First of all it's the home of Sherry, that excellent drink commonly associated with the elder generation which I seem to be getting ever nearer. I suspect the reason we call the golden liquid "sherry", is because early British consumers wouldn't have been able to cope with the Castellano pronounciation after a couple of pints of product. But that's neither here nor there.

Because there's also the race track. Scene of the great 1986 Spanish GP, where Senna beat Mansell by 0.014 of a second. Except Senna wouldn't have won if the finish line hadn't been moved on the day before the race, as Mansell had passed him by the time they'd got to the original line. But before conspiracy theorists start getting excited, I don't think anyone really expected such a close finish - I just wanted to mention the heritage of the track, and to say that testing of this year's GP cars started there today. If you're really keen, you can check out the pictures.

The Future's Orange

It hadn't occured to me that the McLarens wouldn't be silver this year. The Silver Arrows, as the Mercedes racing team was known both pre-war and in the short period of domination from 1954-1955, have become almost as much as a fixture on the grid as the scarlet Ferraris.

Except of course that the Ferraris are not quite as scarlet as they used to be. Over the last few years, the marketing men at Philip Morris have requested that the colour be changed, making it more orange, so that it more closely resembles Marlboro red when seen on television. And now the Mclarens are appearing, albeit temporarily, in a new colour scheme.

Echoing the original scheme favoured by founder Bruce Mclaren (shown here in an M7A) the cars are currently painted orange, and frankly, I'm very happy about that. I remember after Bruce was killed while testing a Can-Am car at Goodwood, that his wife sold the company. I also remember being told was that one of the conditions of sale was that the car should continue to have some parts of the car painted orange. Whether that's true or not I don't know, but I remember my Mother telling me, and you don't get more reliable than that.

Of course, commercial interests make promises like that tricky to keep. When Yardley came along, I was happy, part of the M19 remained orange. Then came Marlboro, and as we've seen with Ferrari, you can spend a long time discussing whether orange is red or not. So still I was vaguely happy. But with West sponsorship came the rebirth of the Silver Arrows and no significant orange on the car. Very sad. But today, even if it is only for a few tests (but hopefully longer) the Bruce McLaren heritage is being restored. Thanks Ron.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Minardi at Le Mans

Paul Stoddart, ex-Minardi chief, has apparently been talking about the future of F1 on British radio. If you read the article on pitpass, you'll notice editor Chris Balfe's thought that Paul could create a new sports car team, in order to run at Le Mans.

I think that's a great idea and, if I'm honest, I can't help but ask myself why sportscar racing isn't watched as much as it should be. I certainly don't watch it myself, except maybe every couple of years when I go to Le Mans for the 24 Hour race. But that's as much a social event as a race; I go to meet friends, and eat and drink much more than I should. Apart from the Grand Prix, there are never more than 30,000 spectators at a UK car racing event. But double that number of Britons get in their cars and catch ferries or use the channel tunnel to go to the classic French event. There's clearly an interest, but it's just not developed into a watchable, sustainable series.

Chris may be right that Paul Stoddart should start a sports car team. But maybe he should go one step further and organize a viable sports car racing series. Wresting control of Le Mans away from the ACO would be impossible, but it must be possible to work with them. Wouldn't it be great if Paul could use all of the experience he's gained dealing with Bernie Ecclestone, and give us a competetive sports car series to watch too?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year Alex

It's nice to start the New Year with a bit of good news, and I have to say that hearing that Alex Wurz has signed to be the third, or "Friday" driver at Williams counts as good news.

Alex has had a bit of a checkered career, never really capitalising on his early talent. Most pundits will remember spectacular crashes like the first corner incident in Canada in a Benetton, but while standing in at McLaren this year, he showed he still has what it takes. It's very difficult to estimate the importance of the third driver role. As he doesn't race, he's not restricted by the engine-change rule, and can consequently pound round gathering data. The fact that Williams have chosen to pay someone to do this, rather than take a few million dollars from a pay-driver, indicates that it must be a vital role. And obviously, they believe Alex can do it. Let's hope it helps them get back into the fray with the other big teams, so that we end up seeing closer racing.

And finally of course, a Happy New Year to all of you kind enough to read this. Posts should now go back to being regular after the break.