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Scott Speed and the Indianapolis GP

With free practice for the United States Grand Prix starting today, I thought it was about time I learned a bit more about F1′s sole American driver, Scott Speed. Having dug around a bit, I have discovered that the man is more than just a racing driver; he’s something of a hero too.

His resumé is impressive, with many national and championship karting titles between 1995 and 2001, the Russell Racing Championship in 2001, and being selected for the Red Bull American Driver Search, which he won in 2002. That same year he won the Barber Dodge and Formula Mazda Championships and then had a few races in British Formula 3 in 2003.

Scott Speed

Scott Speed

And it’s at this stage that Scott’s career was interrupted by a serious disease, Ulcerative Colitis. For most of the year, he was forced to forego racing as he battled the disease and it was not until he consulted an Austrian specialist that a cure was found. Determination and a program of rehabilitation ensured that he was able to test for the Red Bull Cheever IRL team in 2004, as well as gain the Formula Renault German and Eurocup Championships.

In 2005, Scott won several GP2 races, finishing 3rd in the Championship and then graduated to the Toro Rosso F1 team for 2006. In F1 terms, even disregarding his struggle with Colitis, that’s a career in the shooting star class.

Scott’s public pronouncements since entering the F1 stage have been low key and modest, but the extra coverage he is getting in the media now that the circus is in the States is thoroughly deserved. His performance in the Toro Rosso car has been solid and professional, with best finishes of 9th in Australia and 10th in Canada. America should be proud of him.

Will he prove the surprise of his home GP? It’s unlikely, as the Toro Rosso is reputed to be down on power and not suited to fast circuits therefore. But it must be added that it was one of the two fastest cars through the speed trap in Canada, a circuit that is similar in characteristics to Indianapolis.

To learn more of Scott’s battle with Colitis, go to his website (very Flash and super cool), Scottspeed.com.

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Teams That Time Forgot (2)

Chris Amon Racing

I have mentioned before that Chris Amon was probably the best driver never to win a World Championship event. If good luck is a crucial part of winning a championship, Chris was the living proof that bad luck can ruin your chances forever. He drove for many good teams in his career but had an uncanny knack for leaving them just as their fortunes were about to take an up-turn. Time after time he led Grand Prix, only for something to go wrong (in the Italian GP of 1971, he was robbed of victory by losing his visor!). Yet his record shows just how good he was: 16 front row starts, 7 pole positions, 3 fastest laps.

Chris Amon

Chris Amon

By 1973, Chris was thoroughly fed up and decided to start his own team, Chris Amon Racing. A couple of cars for himself and Larry Perkins were designed and built for the 1974 season, taking the usual small constructor route of the time – Cosworth DFV engine and Hewland gearbox. But funding was almost non-existent and it soon became apparent that Chris’ luck as a constructor was even worse than as a driver. Although the car featured some innovative features, such as titanium suspension, it was hopelessly uncompetitive and appeared at only six Grand Prix.

The Amon AF 101

The Amon AF 101

The team’s statistics make dismal reading:

Race presences – 6
Race starts – 1
Did not start – 1
Did not qualify – 4
Retired – 1

Perhaps it is no wonder that Chris’ attempt at an F1 team is almost totally forgotten now. One of the cars was rescued and restored to be driven occasionally at historic events but otherwise nothing remains of a project that had such high hopes to begin with.

Chris folded the team that year and drove a BRM for a while, eventually going to Ensign for whom he put up some sterling performances before retiring in disgust in 1976. Over the 14 years of his career, he had 97 starts and scored a total of 83 points.

I have mentioned before my fondness for the might-have-beens of F1. Unfortunately, when it comes to Amon’s team, it’s more a case of was-never-going-to-be…

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BMW Sauber and the Flexi Wing

The on-going saga of the flexi wing row continues – but now that Ferrari have fixed theirs, the spotlight remains firmly upon the BMW Sauber team. Photos taken at the Canadian GP seem to indicate that their rear wing is still flexing and some of the teams are annoyed that they are getting away with what appears to be a breach of F1 rules.

BMW Sauber

BMW Sauber and the wing…

So what is this flexi wing and why is it such a contentious issue? If we look closely at the rear wing of any F1 car, we will see that it is actually two or more wings held one above the other. The gap between the wings increases the amount of downforce available, for some arcane aerodynamic reason. Which is very nice in the corners but increases drag down the straights; F1 aerodynamics is always a trade off between downforce and drag and the fine tuning done before each race is mainly concerned with attaining the right balance between these two.

The flexi wing, however, is forced down by the air pressure at high speed so that it closes the gap between the wings down the straights. This reduces drag and allows the car to attain a higher speed than it would otherwise. But it can also be defined as “a movable aerodynamic device”, something that has been banned in F1 for more than thirty years.

In point of fact, it’s a grey area and this is why it has the potential for so much arguing between teams and rulemakers. In my humble opinion, Colin Chapman’s introduction of skirts in the late seventies should have been outlawed immediately, instead of after the several years that it actually took. They were aerodynamic devices in that their sole purpose was to prevent air getting beneath the car from the sides, thereby keeping the low pressure area that had been created by ground effect. And they moved to stay in contact with the ground regardless of the clearance of the car. If that isn’t a movable aerodynamic device, I don’t know what is.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that all wings used in F1 flex to a greater or lesser extent. Watch them closely during a race and you will see that they wobble around quite a bit, understandably so when one considers the enormous pressure being exerted upon them. Stick your hand out of the car window at speed and you will see what I mean.

So it becomes very difficult to legislate against wings that are designed to flex sufficiently to provide an aerodynamic advantage at high speed. Are the FIA to specify just how stiff a wing must be? Will they have to insist upon particular materials for the wing’s manufacture? Take a look at the F1 technical regulations and you will see how precise and specific they are already. That’s 59 pages of highly detailed specifications, folks!

We really don’t need any further complications in the technical rules. I believe that the FIA are trying to simplify them at present with a view to cutting costs in the future and I think this is the right way to go. The flexi wing controversy comes at an unfortunate time, therefore.

The FIA has yet to rule definitely on whether BMW Sauber are breaking the spirit of the rules with their wing. They were allowed to get away with it in Canada, probably because the car’s performance was not particularly wonderful, but there is mounting pressure for something to be done. And, if the FIA say it’s okay, you can bet that every team on the grid will soon have a similar wing.

Personally, I don’t see why they don’t just insist on a spacer being inserted between the wings at their mid-point. But maybe that’s too obvious a solution…

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Bernie and the United States Grand Prix

Bernie Ecclestone’s comments on the future of F1 in America are beginning to cause much comment as the teams head for Indianapolis for what may be the last Grand Prix held there. Many are saying that the States should have two races, rather than none, as Bernie is apparently happy to accept.

Of course, everyone knows that this is Mr Ecclestone trying to improve his bargaining position for the GP contract, but it worries and unsettles the small band of F1 faithfuls in America. As I wrote a few days ago, we need stability if F1 is ever to become big in the USA. Silly statements made merely as a strategem for financial bargaining do nothing to build confidence in F1.

Much is made of the farce that the US GP became last year, when all of the Michelin runners withdrew for safety reasons, this being used now as the reason for the Indianapolis circuit’s reluctance to stage the GP in the future unless the price comes down. And Bernie’s feigned indifference is a part of his determination that the FIA will continue to fill its coffers.

This is about as stupid as the FIA’s refusal to implement any of Michelin’s sensible suggestions for changes that would have allowed the US GP to proceed with a full field last year. If Bernie is really so concerned about the limited number of F1 fans in the States, he ought to be finding out why it has failed to grasp the public’s attention, rather than pretending it doesn’t matter to him. And a large part of this dearth of support is the perceived inflexibility and political nature of the FIA.

A few years ago, the professional baseball players in America went on strike for higher wages. Baseball has never recovered from the blow this dealt the sport in the eyes of the viewing public. America happily switched to other sports rather than watch grossly overpaid sportsmen who demanded even more money.

There’s a lesson for F1 in this and for Bernie especially. Sometimes the sport is more important than the money. Sign up Indy for another five years, Bernie, and let’s have another GP in the west too. Build the sport and the viewers will come.

This is a great time to enhance F1′s reputation within the States. For the first time in many years, there is an American driver in F1: Scott Speed (with a name like that, how can he lose?). He is doing a competent job for the Toro Rosso team and F1 should capitalize on his presence. Meanwhile, there is only one American driver involved in Champ car racing. Surely this is the moment when F1 should be presenting itself to television viewers as a stable, well-governed alternative that gives American rookies a chance.

Scott Speed

Scott Speed

Instead of which, Bernie mutters into his wallet about not really needing America at all. Sure, that’s really going to impress whatever following F1 has managed to build in the last few years.

I know I am a voice in the wilderness and that F1 will continue to become more of a business than a sport. It is true, too, that the influx of money into F1 has been necessary for it to remain as the technological pinnacle of motor racing. But there comes a point where the sport is lost and all enjoyment squeezed out by the bean counters. It would do us good to see the FIA bringing F1 back to its priorities: competition between man and machine and never mind the money.

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