Sunday, October 23, 2011

Death and Modern Day Motorsport

I awoke this morning to sad news. MotoGP rider, Marco Simoncelli died from injuries sustained in a crash at the Malaysian Grand Prix, a week after Indycar champion Dan Wheldon died in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I have followed most forms of motorsport for over 25 years and something that I came to understand as a youngster was that motorsport is a dangerous business. I also recognized that motorsport was far more dangerous in 50's, 60's and 70's and it took racers like Jackie Stewart standing up for safety standards where death in racing was a fact of life. 

My first experience with on-track related death was the passing of NASCAR independent JD McDuffie at Watkins Glen in 1991. Subsequently, I have had the misfortune of having seen the passing of Ayrton Senna, Roland Ratzenberger, Jeff Krosnoff, Greg Moore, Dale Earnhardt and Daijiro Katoh. If these accidents happened in the current motorsports climate, in my opinion they would not have resulted in a fatality. That is an opinion. However, what I can say for certain is that each of these tragedies led to specific safety changes that have saved lives; whether it is better track design, better driver/rider equipment, choosing to race elsewhere or being able to have the open discussion on safety. As a consequence we have been fortunate to see drivers walk away from serious accidents. We saw at this year's 24 Hours of LeMans, Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller cheat death and basically walk away from savage accidents. We saw Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman escape injury after Edwards flew into the catch fencing at Talladega in 2009. We saw David Reutimann and David Ragan escape serious injury after plowing into multiple barriers at Watkins Glen earlier this year.

Safety advancements like improved track design, "soft" walls, head and neck restraints and energy dissipating car construction has left us with a far more safer sport than what was the standard in the 1990's let alone the 1970's. However, it has also left us with a sanitized reality of motorsports. These sorts of improvements have allowed racers to take more risks and in some cases forgo on track ethics. Back in the day drivers used to police themselves and drive with care because someone can get killed. Now the idea of self-policing (particularly in series like NASCAR) is about getting retaliation and evening the score if you have been wronged. In plain English, it means to you wreck someone. Improved safety has allowed this to become part of the show; an expectation of the viewing public and TV executives. It is commonplace to see a series promote the sport through these savage accidents on commercials. TV executives and the series sell you the prospects of injury and death with the prospects of it actually happening being very low. However, I am not looking for blame as the drivers and riders that have the most to lose are apart of that machine. They choose to accept the risks or race in a risky fashion. The recent deaths of Indycar driver Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli are concrete examples of measuring of risk. In the case of Wheldon, do you choose to race in a set of conditions that were a concern? In the case of Simoncelli, a notable and controversially aggressive rider, do you continue to ride on the very edge 24/7?  

As the hours, days and weeks pass there will be many that will analyze and dissect the state of motorsports, past accidents and these accidents. However, when I think about the risks I don't think about why do they do it? I don't think about auto racing being too dangerous and I don't take seriously calls for the banning of it.

Why do we do anything in life? Why do miners go 300 feet underground to dig for rocks? Why do people get a in car and fiddle around with a cell phone instead of drive? Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why do people literally scramble other people's brains for the sake of advancing a leather oblong ball past a white line on the ground? Why people pay to watch others plays games or race around a track?  I would say it is because they choose to. The people that choose to participate are well aware of the risks and have a better incentive than the viewing public to make it to the next day. However, that does not mean they don't receive external pressure to take on more risk, but it still means they are the ones that have a choice to make in the matter. It has been a tragic week for motorsports and my condolences all around. However, there are far more serious life and death matters in the world in which people do not have a choice in the matter.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Genii Capital double down on F1 presence

It appears that Genii Capital (Lotus Renault Grand Prix team owners) are moving to demonstrate that they are real serious about F1. Reports in the media are that Genii Capital are set to acquire a majority stake in Group Lotus whom currently have a sponsorship arrangement with the team. Genii's position and participation in F1 was discussed in August (HERE) if they would sell a stake in the F1 to Group Lotus. This was seen as not entirely plausible given Group Lotus's financial position. However, it has turned out that Genii are the ones buying in.

There is no doubt in my mind the joint venture of World Wide Investments Group (WWI) and Genii managing $10 billion USD in investments allows for more strategic thinking as it relates to the automotive sector; an area that has been identified as a target area in this joint venture. Genii's money definitely gives the spend happy CEO of Group Lotus, Dany Bahar the ability to continue the branding exercise he has engaged across multiple motorsport categories across the globe.

 With Team Lotus looking to have the team re-branded as Caterham, it stand to reason that Bahar is going to be very happy as he will be able to properly link the Team Lotus name with the Group Lotus motorsport and manufacturing activities. I am also sure that  Team Lotus owner, Tony Fernandes will be happy as he gets to cash in on selling the Team Lotus name to Group Lotus after beating them in court for the right to use the name. Fernandes can focus on promoting the recently acquired Caterham brand and build off of his other companies. Moreover, the proposed deal will most likely get Proton out from under Group Lotus which makes things work more harmoniously if you are talking about the whole concept of 1Malaysia. All the way around, this arrangement is definitely is more synergistic. If the deal comes off as it is expected to it will be curious to see how the final details shake out.

Nevertheless, one of the sticking points on the F1 side of things is this issue of re-branding Team Lotus as Caterham and LRGP as Team Lotus. For the name changes to be approved, 18 of the 26 members of the F1 Commission must support the move. The commission consists of the teams, Ecclestone, Jean Todt, representatives for sponsors, engine manufacturers and circuits. Nothing is easy in F1 particularly if it is something political. So, Ferrari, Sauber and HRT want to have a formal meeting on the subject. However, this is an example where I think it is just a matter of wanting to deal with future attempted name changes as everyone in the sport is ready to put the Team Lotus vs. Group Lotus name dispute in the past.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What to watch at the Japanese Grand Prix

This weekend brings us to one of my favorite races on the calendar, the Japanese Grand Prix at the fabled Suzuka Circuit, and it is all but certain that Sebastian Vettel secures his second world title in as many years at this race. All Vettel needs is a single point and the title is his; he can roll out of bed with a hangover from the pre-party he should be having for winning the title and get that needed point. So what else is there to look at for this race? There are a couple points of interest for me. One is the scrum between Button, Alonso and Webber and the other are the performances of Sauber, Renault and Mercedes.

The battle for the best of the rest is ultra close; Button, Alonso and Webber are separated by only three points with five races remaining. What are their motivations? Button will definitely have an emotional high of having been contractually secured for the near future by McLaren, Alonso has publicly indicated several times that second place in the championship is worth fighting for, and Webber is intent on winning a grand prix after watching his teammate in similar equipment blitz the field this season. Add to that, being at a circuit that many drivers consider to be their favorite and one of the more challenging should make it doubly fun for them and viewing public. 

In terms of Sauber, Renault and Mercedes, they are at different levels of the championship table so the interest lies in several other details. Both Sauber and Renault have admitted that they have made mistakes revolving around exhausts that have entombed them for the rest of season: Sauber expected the FIA to change the rules around exhausts and blown diffusers, which ultimately did not happen and Renault in the radical design choice of forward exiting exhausts (FEE). I want to see how these teams perform knowing that there is not much they can do to develop the cars while they are still engaged in a constructors fight with each other and Force India. Also, I want to see how Kamui Kobayashi and Bruno Senna perform. Kobayashi is at his home race so I will be interested in seeing how he bounces back after stumbling the last few races. Senna has admitted he feels that he is not fully up to speed after replacing Nick Heidfeld. So, it will be interesting to see how he goes at a real tough track while Renault continue their evaluation of him.  

In regards to Mercedes, they had issues with their exhausts and cooling but I am interested in the emotional level of the team. Do they receive an emotional boost from the very recent acquisitions of Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis as the drivers profess? Moreover, given that Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug have stated Suzuka should be more suited to the Mercedes package and that they are looking for similar performance to that of Spa and Monza, I will be interested in seeing if the drivers can deliver on that. Their performance at Spa and Monza was pretty good: two 5th place finishes for Schumacher, a 6th and retirement for Rosberg. Do they steal a podium? 

So, whether you are watching the front, the midfield or tail-enders, enjoy qualy and the race.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

McLaren lock up Jenson Button

McLaren have made the long awaited smart choice in re-signing 2009 World Champion Jenson Button to a multi-year contract. Button has certainly earned his spot in the McLaren team after initially making a curious move to the squad in 2010. Many saw the move as a reputation destroyer because he was moving in on Lewis Hamilton's turf. Well safe to say now, Button made complete liars out of those people. 

Button was nominally beaten by Hamilton in 2010, but in 2011 he sits second in the title fight behind runaway leader Vettel. Button has shown his true value with the three C's: He has been calm, cool, and consistent. With a smooth, Sade-like style, he has maximized his tires and his results while his teammate Lewis Hamilton has struggled mightily this year in the three C's area and failing to capitalize on his speed. What is most notable is that Button has been able to complete many overtakes this season without trouble, where as Hamilton has had some high profile struggles in this area.   

According to McLaren, they view Button as crucial to their future development. For me, most of it is the niceties of complementing a driver that you just signed however certainly there is something to be said about Technical Director, Paddy Lowe's view on, “having a good driver with good feedback is still essential in Formula One. Even though these days we have far more tools to work with offline - more simulation, etc. - we’re still very reliant on the driver’s feedback."

"Having Jenson on board for the years to come is a great step for us as it gives us a very solid base in terms of a driver that we can rely on for feedback through that phases that you described. And Jenson was obviously very experienced for many years before he came to McLaren, so that all contributes.”
Read into that what you will about his opinion on Hamilton's ability in this area, but given the rules package and what Pirelli is being asked to do in terms of tire degradation, you can not have much better than Jenson. He might not be the fastest, he might not be the most talented or naturally gifted, but he will certainly get the most out of the car while bringing it home in one piece.