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Yesterday’s Hero – John Surtees

The other day I was taking a rare break from the computer and happened to catch the MotoGP race in Shanghai. My son is an avid motorbike racing fan and I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge from him, so the names were not completely unknown to me. Rossi is the man, of course, and the Ducatis are incredibly fast this year – that much I knew.

It was a good, exciting race but what struck me most were the interviews at the end. The riders are so young! Fresh-faced innocents playing truant from school, it seemed. Okay, maybe it’s the old fogy syndrome kicking in (everyone looks young to me these days) but it does bring home the fact that you have to be a bit insane to race bikes. And the insanity of the young is the belief that they cannot die.

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John Surtees in the Ferrari 158, 1964

It might have been that I was young at the time too, but John Surtees never looked young to me. His long list of bike racing championships prove that he had the necessary streak of madness, however. Which makes his success in converting to four wheels in 1960 all the more remarkable – few bikers live up to expectations when attempting that and Rossi probably made the right decision in sticking with MotoGP rather than taking a Ferrari drive.

John is famous mainly through being the only man to be a world champion on both two wheels and four but he actually has some claim to being as quick as Jim Clark. While Jim stuck with the design skills of Colin Chapman and so always had a competitive car, John raced for a series of constructors, some good and some not so good. Yet John was always in the hunt, often extracting more from his car than it wanted to give.

In fact, Surtees was a man ahead of his time; as well as being a fast driver, he was also interested in tinkering with the car to improve it. He was, indeed, the prototype of the modern driver, being able to sense what parts of the car needed tweaking and working with the engineers to perfect it. It was entirely natural that he should progress to building his own cars in the seventies, but not before he had supplied Honda with their first ever F1 win (Mexico, 1968).

The sixties is a decade that has gone down in history as belonging to Jim Clark; quite rightly so, since he had more success than any other driver of his era. But there was one that he raced against who should stand shoulder to shoulder with him in our memories. And that man is John Surtees.

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Nick Heidfeld on the Nordschleife

On Friday, Nick Heidfeld took the BMW Sauber F1.06 around the Nordschleife circuit at Nurburgring, as promised. You can see the video on the BMW Sauber website or (naturally) on YouTube.

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The car was shod with demonstration Bridgestones, which are slower than racing tires, and Nick had strict orders to take it easy but, even so, he looked to be trying pretty hard at some points. Not at the Karousel, however – he rounded that very carefully, understandably since it is very bumpy by modern F1 standards and the car would bottom out even with the ride height jacked up as far as it would go, as it was.

But there was a story a few days ago that he would not be allowed to take the Karousel at all so we should be grateful that he went round it at all. In the end, it was a fantastic sight and gave us a glimpse of how things might have been had F1 continued racing at the track through the intervening years.

Safety reasons have been the excuse for dropping so many circuits off the calendar but, in the Nordschleife’s case, there is no doubt that this was true. Even with the amount of money floating around in the sport today, it would be impossible to provide adequate marshaling and emergency coverage for the full 14 miles of the track. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Perhaps there should be an annual event of this type at the circuit, one to include the other teams as well; just demonstration runs by each car on its own, so that we could be reminded once again of the great circuit and its famous history combined with the sound and speed of modern F1.

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But, whatever happens, thank you to BMW for making this happen and for the video – a wonderful sight.

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VisionF1 – A Priceless Resource

Yesterday I stumbled upon a really interesting website: Vision F1. It gives replays of GPs in graphic form, little labeled dots representing the drivers going around the circuit.

VisionF1

That sounds a bit primitive and, the site having been in existence a while, it does have a retro look and feel, but in practice it is nothing short of brilliant. By looking down on the track one can get a much better understanding of what is happening throughout the field. Say a battle develops between two midfield runners – you’re not bound by some TV director’s need to slavishly follow the leader; you can watch the fight exclusively until resolved.

It is also an excellent way of examining a driver’s performance throughout the race. I watched Speed’s drive at Istanbul 2006 and was surprised at how fast he was going; did you realize he spent the entire race passing Kubica and then having to pass him again after pit stops?

A very important factor is that you can increase the speed of the replay, thereby avoiding having to watch for over an hour and a half. I took it as high as 20x, searching for the maximum, but things are happening so fast at that speed that it’s useless for practical purposes. Six times actual speed is a good compromise, cutting the time element quite drastically but still allowing you to see what is happening.

There are several other options available and various statistical information on other pages. But the preservation of races going back as far as the German GP of 2005 is the most important factor. It is such a useful facility for the history of F1 and I hope it continues for as long as GP racing does. YouTube is great but video can only record what the camera happens to be looking at; Vision F1 is a full account of the whole race.

Have a look at the site and play a bit. If you love F1, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is an excellent resource.

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Avanti Minardi!

Stuart Garlick has written the definitive article about “Minardi-cool” – it’s over on PitPass dot com and thoroughly recommended for its insight into the heart and soul of the diehard F1 fan.

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The quintessential Minardi driver, Pierluigi Martini, Detroit 1988

I have been thinking about Minardi-cool and its importance for the sport. There was a time when I was a Ferrari fan, way back in the sixties, but that was largely because John Surtees was driving for them at the time; when he left, I moved on too. Even then, however, I had a soft spot for the no-hopers, those small teams who stood no real chance of success but stayed in the game because they loved motor racing. Hence my support for ATS, both the Italian Automobili Turismo e Sport and the later German team with the same initials, Osella and anything remotely connected with Lola.

It’s the “support for the underdog” thing, I suppose, and certainly that has a lot to do with it. But that is not all or I would be mourning the disappearance of teams like Parnelli, Coloni and Pacific (which I’m not). No, there has to be more than the David/Goliath factor or I can remain merely an interested spectator.

And Minardi, especially in the early years, had it all. Not only did they compete on the smallest budget of all the teams but they enjoyed every moment. They could not afford the latest technology and anything other than a customer engine but, without fail, they designed the prettiest car in the field. And often they produced a chassis that could surprise much wealthier teams, making up for their lack of muscle with balance and handling.

I was a Minardi supporter from the first and imagined myself to be the only one. Much later I discovered that the team had worked its magic on many others and there was a large fanbase out there. There is hope for the human race yet.

You see, what motivated Minardi and kept them going all those years was pure love of F1 racing; they were delighted to be in the sport and never became jaded or disillusioned. That takes some doing when you’re a team running on a shoestring budget – F1 regulations are conspicuously mean to the poorly-funded. Minardi was a constant reminder of what the sport is really all about.

Now they have gone forever and Stuart Garlick is not the only one who searches for a replacement, finding some hope in Spyker, but it’s really not quite the same. He is right that the FIA should ease the passage of new entrants into F1 but at the moment that seems as likely as Max Mosley admitting that his tenure has been a disaster for the sport. We have little option but to hang on grimly and wait for a miracle.

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