The Balance of power

At the two-thirds point of the 2011 FIA World Touring Car Championship, as the teams waved goodbye to their cars and equipment, following the Valencia race weekend, it seems there has been a major sea-change in the race for the title. Early season leader Rob Huff has been caught and passed by his team-mate, defending champion Yvan Muller, the Frenchman enjoying a searing run of good form while misfortune has stalked his English rival.

It’s an old truism that you don’t win Championships with luck alone but you do need luck to be on your side and that’s especially true when your sternest rival is in identical machinery. The sort of luck that keeps you safe when accidents happen around you; that sees other cars pick up crucial problems; that allows your momentum to build. – that’s the luck you need.

It’s at the stage when luck is on your side, when things are going well, that drivers are at their most confident; when races seem to flow, when decisions made with engineers prove to be a step forward, when rivals unwittingly hand you an advantage, when you feel you can do no wrong. That’s when drivers say ‘you make your own luck’ because, to a degree, you do: freed from the need to over-analyse everything, the driver is at his very best, making instinctive decisions that almost invariably prove to be correct.

Conversely, when that form has deserted them, drivers agonisine over decisions, they start to rethink their instincts, second-guess their rivals’ moves, try to change something – anything – to reverse the situation. Remaining zen-calm and ignoring what the results sheet is telling you can be hugely difficult and it may be that ability, as much as anything that the driver does behind the wheel or peering at the laptop, that decides the fate of championships.

Winning races is hard enough in the WTCC, winning the title requires the driver to maintain his speed, his form and his calm from March 20th to November 20th – eight long months of trials and tribulations, of highs and lows, of frantic activity and periods of waiting. No wonder that the men who have taken the crown are rightly regarded as the very best in the business.

Let’s chart the season’s meandering path and spot the major landmarks…

Curitiba, Brazil, March 20th: Rob Huff claimed the opening race of the season, Yvan Muller and Chevy guest Caca Bueno ensuring the blue cars’ first 1-2-3 of the season. Alain Menu claimed win number two of the season, with Tom Coronel in second and with Muller and Huff 3rd and 4th, it was the man from Cambridgeshire who left South America as the Championship leader. This was something of a change in form, as Muller has made a habit of winning the opener and leaving Curutiba atop the points. Indeed, only once has a Muller not won the season opener – in 2006, when Andy Priaulx triumphed on Curitiba. Alright, so Dirk and Jörg won in BMWs, but Yvan has almost made Race 1 in Curitiba his own, victorious since 2008.

Zolder, Belgium, April 24th: Huff was on form again, claiming victory in Race 1 at the Belgian track and, although he went off after clashing with Gabriele Tarquini in Race 2 while battling for the lead, he managed to recover to 6th place, as the Italian won, from Menu. Muller failed to score at all, so Rob managed to maintain his Championship advantage, Menu moving into second place, just one point behind. No question, Huff enjoyed a slice of luck, when his car remained largely undamaged by the clash with Tarquini.

Monza, Italy, May 15th: The Italian track gave Rob Huff no breaks last season, the Briton battling Tarquini for the lead, before punctures on the final lap hobbled first the Italian’s SEAT, then Rob’s Chevy, allowing a bemused Andy Priaulx to sneak through in the Parabloica to snatch the win, the Chevrolet driver hobbling home in 3rd. In 2011, however, those lessons about front wheel camber angles had been well and truly learned and there were no disasters – well not for Huff anyway… As Rob romped to a double-race-winning weekend tally of 50 points, Yvan claimed two second places and it was poor Alain Menu who was the big loser, failing to score in Race 1 after contact with Muller put him into the barriers. Huff, it seemed, could do no wrong.

Hungaroring, Hungary, June 5th: Rob was back on the podium again on the series’ first visit to the Hungaroring, in front of more than 70,000 fervent Hungarian fans, roaring every move (and groaning with every disappointment) of local hero Norbert Michelisz’s weekend. Menu, ‘Norbi’ and GP2 refugee Javier Villa claimed the podium spots in Race 1, Muller, Huff and Tarquini the 1-2-3 order in the second encounter. Top scorer was Yvan, with 35 points for the weekend, Rob taking 30, Alain 25, meaning the Chevy drivers again swapped places in the standings, Huff on 150, Muller 119 and Menu 104.

Brno, Czech Republic, June 19th: The Czech track has often been a favourite with the BMW teams, ROAL Motorsport having a particularly enviable record of wins and 1-2 results in recent years but in 2011 – such is the competence of the Chevrolet Cruze – only one BMW driver managed to claim a podium spot and fittingly, it was ROAL’s Tom Coronel who claimed the runner-up spot in Race 2. The wins went to Huff and Muller, the Briton claiming his 5th victory of the season, the Frenchman his 2nd.

Porto, Portugal, July 3rd: And then there was Porto. The streets of Portugal may, in retrospect, come to be seen as the turning point of the season… It all started very encouragingly for Eric Neve’s men, with Alain Menu claiming a brilliant pole for Race 1, a full third of a second clear of Muller and Huff, who were seperated by just 4/1000ths. In this situation, it was vital for the trio to hold the top three positions into the first corner and so they did, Menu leading his team-mates as Tarquini, Coronel and Monteiro squabbled behind, the Chevy triumverate remaining in that order to the flag. So far, so good.

Except that Yvan Muller was not happy with his car. From the start of Race 1, he felt he had a problem with his differential and was keen to rectify that, working with his engineer Chris Cronin between the races to change the settings for the second encounter, where he would again line up on the outside of the front row, this time with the BMW of Stefano D’Aste on pole, Huff again in third.

D’Aste had been recruited at very short notice to fill the Wiechers Sport seat vacated by Swiss Urs Sonderegger after Brno and the Italian knew he had a golden opportunity to claim an outright victory – something he had never achieved in his previous years of WTCC racing as an Independent. The BMW shot away from the standing start, with Muller and Huff in hot pursuit but it very quickly became evident that his near-zero experience with the turbo-charged BMW 1.6 engine was likely to be his undoing. The 2011 BMW is very different indeed to the normally-aspirated versions he had driven before, with light-switch power delivery, courtesy of the turbo.

From the outside, D’Aste’s all-arms-and-elbows attacking style was hugely entertaining, as the BMW skittered sideways out of corners and off kerbs, power-sliding its way round the streets in the lead. In D’Aste’s cockpit, however – and those of Muller and Huff, undoubtedly – there was a very different view. Stefano was wrestling the car around, fighting its wicked power delivery as Yvan and Rob waited for him to either fall off his knife-edge of balance or destroy his tyres. Either way, Stefano looked highly unlikely to win this one.

But still, the Chevys had to find a way past on the narrow streets. Yvan attacked from the start and on lap 3 he was past, leaving Rob bottled up behind the sideways Italian. The Briton knew there was no time to waste and spent only one more lap behind D’Aste, relegating the BMW to third place on Lap 4. By now, however, Yvan was already 2.8 seconds up the road.

Next lap, the gap was 2.5sec, then 1.9, 0.9 and by the time they flashed over the line at the end of lap 8 (of 11) Huff was right on Muller’s back bumper.

Muller was struggling again with his differential and simply couldn’t find the pace to stay away but all he had to do was cling on ahead of his team-mate for three laps and he’d be home and dry. Not too much to ask on a street circuit, surely?

Huff had other ideas. He’d caught his team-mate quickly and he knew his car was faster than Yvan’s; he was determined to try and claim the win. Onto lap 9 and flying uphill towards the city, the sea at their backs, they tore along the Avenida da Boavista, towards the first – right-left – chicane. Muller was on the defensive, his car plumb in the middle of the road, guarding the inside line, as Huff pulled alongside, his Chevy nosing in front, half-way ahead as they braked in extremis.

As Huff turned right into the chicane, his right rear door and Muller’s left front made contact. Rob’s car twitched viciously and as he collected the slide, he jumped the kerbs of the first element of the chicane, foot buried on the throttle, relying on the driving wheels to pull him out of danger, emerging ahead of his team-mate, who’d managed to make it safely through the chicane.

Huff was ahead but long before the end of the lap, the Chevy team radios were alive. Yvan wanted Rob to hand the place back, since he’d gone off track to take the lead. Rob clearly didn’t.

Yvan’s engineer Chris Cronin asked Ron Hartvelt, the head of the WTCC project at RML, what he should tell Yvan. The pair conferred with team manager Stuart Cowie and Eric Neve, as they waited to see whether the Stewards and Race Director would apply a penalty.

When none was forthcoming, the decision was taken to leave the order as it was, Huff from Muller, the gap nearly 2 seconds at the line.

Chevrolet had another 1-2 result but dark clouds were immediately evident, as Muller stalked away from the podium, to see Race Director Miroslav Barthos, frustrated that the team did not want to protest Huff’s move.

Muller had no luck there, either, Mirek clearly of the opinion that minor contact between two professionals racing for the lead was incidental and it was the touch between them that had led to Huff’s run over, rather than through, the chicane.

Huff was delighted to win after what he believed was a clean battle between team-mates but Yvan disagreed and his attitude at Donington and thereafter (see my previous column ‘When the gloves come off’) was very markedly different to before Porto. Huff may have claimed 40 points to Yvan’s 36 but at what cost? He’d well and truly trodden on the lion’s tail…

Donington Park, Gt Britain, July 17th: Up to this stage of the season, Yvan had claimed two wins to Rob’s six but at Donington, all that began to change. While the Leicestershire track was new to the majority of WTCC drivers, those who had previously raced in Britain knew it well. Count among them BTCC Champions Tarquini, Menu, Muller and Colin Turkington (in the Wiechers Sport BMW that D’Aste had driven in Porto), fellow BTCC graduate Huff – plus Swede Robert Dahlgren, the 2001 British Formula Ford Champion, who also raced at Donington in British F3 in 2002 and 2003, before converting to touring cars the following year.

In very mixed weather conditions, Muller regrouped after a lurid moment to snatch a last-gasp pole by just 8/100ths of a second, with Huff and Menu lining up in second and third for Race 1. Despite the tricky conditions. The Chevy drivers claimed the fourth 1-2-3 result of the season for the team.

The trio lined up 8th, 9th and 10th for Race 2, with Menu ahead of Huff and Muller. Poleman Tom Coronel took the lead in his ROAL BMW, as a wild race began to unfold. On lap 2, a mistake by the Dutchman saw Javier Villa claim the lead in his ProTeam BMW, with Menu already up to 4th, that becoming 3rd by the end of the lap, as he passed Turkington.

At the end of Lap 2, Huff dived inside 6th-placed Darryl O’Young’s Bamboo Engineering Chevy at Goddards, the tightening left-handed downhill corner that ends the lap. Muller saw his chance to do the same, as O’Young was off-line but as the Frenchman lunged into the corner, he tapped Huff into a lurid half-spin. As Muller slipped past, Huff recovered his composure and – thanks to O’Young battling Kristian Poulsen’s BMW on the exit of the corner, crossed the line just behind his team-mate, in 4th.

Next time round, Menu came off worst in a 4-way lead battle at the Esses, after tangling with Villa’s BMW, Muller shooting by as the Swiss recovered from the gravel.
By the flag, Muller and Huff had both left the pack behind, the Frenchman making it a double-winning weekend, Huff taking second ahead of a thrilled Franz Engstler’s BMW.

Oschersleben, Germany, July 31st: Muller was on a roll, the month of July rejuvenating his Championship. He took a dominant pole for Race 1, half a second clear of anyone else, with Huff third behind Robert Dahlgren’s Volvo. In streaming wet conditions, the Chevys emerged 1-2 from Oschersleben’s hairpin first corner and – after Huff skated off track attacking Muller – that’s how they stayed, the Englishman rallying and harassing Muller all the way, just inches from his rear bumper as they raced to the flag.

Franz Engstler started on pole for the second encounter, following heroic efforts by his team to fix the front of his car in the 15 minutes repair time between races, after he’d been rudely punted into the barriers on the final lap of Race 1 by Alexey Dudukalo.
The last time the German Independent driver had started from a Race 2 pole had been in Pau, 2009, when his chance to win had been taken away by an errant Safety Car, which blundered, unbidden, into the track as the pack approached at full-tilt. This time, there was to be no repeat, though the Safety Car – in the much more professional hands of permanent driver Bruno Correia – was required after a start-line shunt mid-pack which eliminated a number of cars.

Once racing got underway again, Menu led the Chevys through the field, Engslter grabbing the lead as Norbert Michelisz spun out on lap 8. Menu gave chase but couldn’t find a way past, 47-year-old veteran Engstler claiming his first outright WTCC victory, at home in Germany, in front of several thousand guests of long-time sponsor Liqui-Moly.
Muller was again the top-scoring Chevy driver, with 35 points to Huff’s 26 and Menu’s 28; Huff’s lead – 25 points before Porto – was now a slender 6.

Valencia, Spain, September 4th: And so to Valencia, the final European race of the 2011 WTCC. A quick start from Huff, on the soutide of the front row, caught poleman Muller a little by surprise and, as the pair battled into Turn 1, the man who has made lightning getaways his trademark – Gabriele Tarquini – slotted inside them both to grab the lead, Huff and Muller chasing him. On lap 2, Muller lunged inside Huff for 2nd and, mid-corner, Huff was again in a spin, this time after team-mate Menu was knocked into him, domino-style shunting him into the rear of the number 2 Chevy. As Huff recovered, Muller took only 2 more laps to pass leader Tarquini. As the Frenchman led Menu to a comfortable 1-2, Huff rolled his sleeves up to grab 5th place by the flag.

Muller Huff and Menu started 5th, 7th and 9th for Race 2 and – after a wild defensive side-swipe from Muller to keep Huff at bay mid-way round lap1, the trio had front-row seats watching a three-way BMW battle for victory. It all went sour for the German manufacturer, however, as Villa and Coronel tangled, holding up Michelisz, allowing Muller to dive by for the lead. In the very last corner of the race, the Hungarian was shaping up to attack Muller, but saw Huff coming – fully committed on the inside – and opened his line to avoid contact, drilling the throttle on the exit of the corner, to try and re-pass before the line, succeeding only in looping the BMW into a spin, as Menu shot around the outisde, for Chevy’s fifth 1-2-3 result of the year.

Muller claimed his second double-winning weekend of the season, with a perfect 50 points, to Huff’s 28 and Menu’s 33, the Championship lead slipping from Huff’s grasp for the first time all season, Yvan on 333, Rob 317 and Alain 253 with the three fly-away weekends remaining.

Sixteen points is Muller’s advantage, with 150 still on the table but, after out-scoring Yvan for the first three weekends, Huff only managed to grab more points than his team-mate on one further occasion in the next six meetings.

What the six-week layoff will do for the morale and dtermination of the protagonists remains to be seen. But Yvan has three times gone to Macau with a good shot at the title and – barring a trivial washer failure in 2008 – has come away with the highest accolade. That said, he had to break Andy Priaulx’s string of successes to do it, so Huff will know that even the very best are beatable.

With equal machinery guaranteed, this will come down to a battle of wills and the rub of the green.

May the best man win.

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It’s a young man’s game.

The combined age of the four men who stood on the podium after Race 2 in Oschersleben was a mere 188 years. Winner Franz Engslter, the oldest driver in the World Touring Car Championship, was 6 days into his 50th year, runner-up Alain Menu and third-place Gabriele Tarquini days short of their 48th and 49th birthdays respectively, whilst J-Ten winner Ibrahim Okyay was the positive Spring Chicken of the bunch, just one day short of his 43rd year.

True, early race leader Norbert Michelisz is comfortably young enough to be the son of any of them at 25?? But Oschersleben proved yet again that – at an age when even most professional golfers would be staring retirement in the face – the World Touring Championship’s old ‘uns are very much a match for their younger counterparts.

For Engstler, victory could hardly have been sweeter. The BMW driver has been part of the touring car scene for the better part of two decades and has been a loyal BMW customer for all of that time, his fleet of cars winning chamionships in Europe and Asia both in his hands and those of others.

To claim his first WTCC win, at home in Germany, just a few days after he reached his half-century birthday, in front of 500 guests from long-time sponsor and associate Liqui Moly was the sort of fairytale of which he might only have dreamed.

Tenth-fastest in the first qualifying session earned Franz pole position for Race 2 but – as the 2009 Pau Safety Car disaster has taught him, anything is possible in the WTCC and nothing can be taken as read.

So it almost proved this time too. A late-race clash saw the Engstler BMW clattering into the barriers, damaging his cooling system. Though he managed to escape the wet grass and finish in 16th position, there was very genuine concern for the car, which was underlined as the team examined it during the 3-hour period between races.

The cars go into Parc Ferme conditions in their garages between races and any work done on them before the official 15 minutes of Repair Time (breaking Parc Ferme) results in an automatic drop to the back of the grid. The team was faced with a dilemma: break Parc Ferme, guarantee the car would be perfect but relegate the poleman to the back of the grid, or gamble – try to fix it in the 15 minutes and if they failed, Franz would be trapped in the pit-lane, from where he’d have to start. To make the decision, the Liqui Moly Team Engstler mechanics could only look at the car but that was enough to worry them. They would need to replace the radiator and associated cooling system to ensure Franz would survive Race 2 but that sort of job would usually require an hour to complete. They’d have just 15 minutes, in which time the car would also need to be refuelled, have fresh tyres fitted and leave the pit-lane. The pressure was really on.

What swung the decision to gamble was the long period between races. At a number of meeting this season, there’s been barely the 15 minutes of Repair Time between Race 1 and Race 2 but in Germany, the team had time to give the car a thorough look over, plan their assault, lay out all the parts and tools that might be required and muster enough hands on deck to get the job done.

Nontheless, it was a huge gamble. The tension was written all over Franz’s face as he sat in his car, suited, booted and belted in, as the frenzied work carried on around him. He stole the odd glance at his watch, which can’t have calmed him much.

Incredibly, with almost all his rivals already in their grid spots, the BMW dropped to the pit apron, there was a long churn on the starter, and to mass relief, it started. They’d done it! Engstler gratefully pottered out of the pitlane on the speed-limiter, onto the track, to take his place on pole. But in what turmoil must his mind have been just moments before? Hardly the ideal preparation for starting at the front, in front of a German crowd, with a golden opportunity to claim that fairy-tale first win.

On the plus side, it wasn’t raining!

As the lights changed, the BMWs of Engstler and Norbert Michelisz, who’d started third, charged away, as front-wheel-drive rivals Tiago Monreiro and Michel Mykjaer struggled for grip on the left-hand side of the grid.

The 26-year-old Hungarian made the better start and into Turn 1 grabbed the lead as Engstler tucked in behind.

The Safety Car was scrambled on lap 2, to allow the removal of the wrecked BMWs of Kristian Poulsen and Mehdi Bennani – who’d come off worst in a 4-car kerfuffle away from the grid, that also involved Yvan Muller and Stefano D’Aste – closing the field right up behind the leading pair.

A lap later, Michelisz and Engstler again leapt away at the head of the field, as Alain Menu jumped Monteiro and Gabriele Tarquini followed him through into 4th.

Michelisz never looked to have Engstler completely under control, the older driver staying clear of Menu and Tarquini as he tracked the orange and black 320TC in front of him, always in the mirrors yet never quite alongside.

For five laps, they jockeyed for an advantage, before the battle ended dramatically on the penultimate corner of lap 8.

Turns 12 and 13 at Oschersleben are a pair of critical mid-speed right-handers, treated as one long, tightening, double-apex turn, feeding onto the pits straight. The first element is absolutely critical for speed on the straight, the car exits running out wide to driver’s left, over the kerbs, shifting down before turning into the slower second element and drilling the throttle to carry maximum momentum onto the straight.

Get the first apex wrong and you’re still trying to re-balance the car, rather than pointing it precisely into Turn 13 and through onto the straight. Get it really wrong, and you run out wide over the kerbs and run-off area, onto the wet muddy grass and into a world of trouble.

There is another way. Turn in too early and the high apex kerb bounces your inside wheel into the air, pitching the car sideways, leaving you to sort it out as you spin to the outside.

That’s what Norbert Michelisz did at the end of lap 8, spinning off on the exit of Turn 12, scrabbling back on in 4th, just ahead of Tom Coronel’s BMW, as Engstler found the lead dropping into his lap.

But it was not comfortable. Menu and Tarquini has caught him by now, the Chevy a fraction over a second in arrears at the line and closing.

So, what was it to be? Would Franz be able to hold his pursuers at bay? Would be resist if they came knocking? After all, his focus is the Yokohama Trophy for Independents, not overall Championship points. We’ve seen him move over before, to preserve his Independents lead, rather than get tangled up with a driver he’s not directly battling.

What about the car? After that hasty work, was it OK? Would it last? Was he being scared by an array of flashing warning lights? Franz has led overall before, only to be denied by outside forces; mechanical woes, contact and infamously – as seen by millions, courtesy of YouTube – that errant Safety Car, driven by the local Police Chief in Pau. He must have felt that this was where the race win he was owed was finally going to be his, because – slowly but surely – he opened up the gap back to Menu, surviving his own Turn 12 apex moment, as he raced on in the lead.

Did he think of that Safety Car? Yes. Or a crash? Yes. Or mechanical intervention? yes. All of those things flashed through his mind and probably much more, as he focused on the job in hand.

The tension among the 500 Liqui Moly guests must have been all but unbearable. They’d greeted him with rousing cheers as he spoke to them at lunchtime, after that disappointing Race 1, now he looked poised to deliver an incredible result, as rival Norbert Michelisz watched, heart-broken, from the trackside, after a late-race clash with Coronel had put him out.

And, suddenly, it was all over. The Liqui Moly BMW was powering out of the final corner, Franz punching the air in delight as he took the chequered flag, the entire team on the pit-wall a mix of tears and cheers, as their boss took a historic win.

The oldest man in the Championship had claimed not only the first WTCC win in 2011 for BMW but also the first for the new 1.6-turbo 320TC.

In Parc Ferme, he was warmly hugged and congratulated by Menu and Tarquini, who could hardly have looked happier had they won the race themselves. His Liqui Moly team – his family – along with his real family, were beside themselves with joy and Franz was clearly very emotional.

Earlier that morning, reflecting on his 3rd position in Donington and his visit to the overall podium, his eyes had glinted as he’d recalled his delight. Now they were misty, as he stood proudly on the top step, at home, as the German anthem rang out.

With fellow old-timers Menu and Tarquini on the podium, Oschersleben underlined once again that age is no barrier to success in the WTCC. Age and guile is still a match for youthful exuberance.

A young man’s game? Don’t you believe it…

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When the gloves come off

Rounds 13 and 14 of the World Touring Car Championship at Donington Park may have been when the gloves came off in the battle for the 2011 crown.

Before he realised what he’d said, Yvan Muller told Eurosport’s reporter Louise Beckett that the collision with team-mate Rob Huff in Race 2 in Britain, which allowed him to take the lead, gave him back what had been taken from him in Porto.

It was not a statement he later repeated, preferring to insist that since we’d all seen the pictures, we should make our own decision on the incident.

The bare facts are these. It’s lap 2 of Race 2 and Menu, Huff and Muller have started 8th, 9th and 10th on the grid. Menu has made good progress and is already challenging the leaders, while Huff and Muller lie 7th and 8th.

Heading into Goddard’s, the adverse-camber 180-degree left-hander that ends the lap, Muller is behind Bamboo Engineering Chevrolet driver Darryl O’Young, who in turn tails Rob Huff, lying 6th. As Huff turns in, O’Young follows and Muller, popping over the rise into the braking area and taking advantage of the late-turn-in-lete-apex nature of the corner (and O’Young’s non-defensive line) lunges inside the Bamboo driver. Deep into the corner he brakes, passing O’Young cleanly but clattering into the left rear corner of Huff’s Cruze, knocking the Englishman into a lurid slide.

As the tail of his car heads off towards the grass, Huff applies Rule #1 of driving a front-wheel-drive car and keeps his foot hard in, using the front wheels to draw the car straight as he exits wide onto the pits straight.

Muller is faster onto the straight, draws alongside and is ahead by the line, Huff unable to gather enough momentum to attempt a counter-attack into Redgate, the first corner.

And that was that. By lap 3, the duo were third and fourth, team-mate Alain Menu – who had lain third before tangling with Javier Villa’s BMW – having already dropped back to 6th. A lap later, the Chevrolets had both passed leader Franz Engstler – whose prime concern is Yokohama Trophy points – without drama to take first and second.

Huff admitted after Race 1 that his car was simply not as quick as Muller and so it appeared in Race 2 as well. Try as he might, Muller could not escape but neither could Huff so much as attempt a pass for the lead. Yvan would pull out a small advantage and within a lap, Rob would have reeled him back in again. Barring intervention from the weather (possible,) mechanical woes (unlikely,) or a rabid last-lap lunge from the Championship leader (unthinkable) Muller only had to keep it on the island to claim his second win of the weekend.

And so he did, having halved the points gap at Donington, leaving him just 14 adrift of Huff, with 10 races remaining.

In Porto, Yvan was so incensed by the Race 2 contact between himself and Huff – and the team’s refusal to order Rob to hand the lead back – that he immediately stalked off to see the Race Director, asking whether anything was going to be done. Miloslav Bartos told him that in his opinion it was a racing incident and – as such – would not warrant subsequent investigation.

During and after the race, RML’s Project Director Ron Hartvelt conferred with the engineers and, to the dismay of Yvan’s engineer Chris Cronin, decided that the team would accept that decision and not protest the actions of one of their own drivers.

In Donington, too, Ron’s remit was to make the best decision for the team. Cue more pit-wall discussions with Cronin and Duncan Laycock, Rob Huff’s engineer. Once again, unable to accurately judge the manoeuvre from one look on the TV screens, the decision was to wait and see whether there would be an investigation.

Replays gave them more information and when the message came that the incident would be investigated, Cronin got onto the radio to Yvan suggesting that a possible 30-second penalty would drop him well out of the points and might he consider ceding the place to Huff?

His suggestion fell on deaf ears and Muller raced on in the lead to the chequered flag, determined – if not happy, perhaps – to take his chances with the Stewards.

The final decision of the enquiry was to hand Muller a 3-place grid penalty, suspended for the next two races. A reprimand, in other words, suggesting that he might take a little more care with his passing but not materially affecting the result.

Which is probably reasonable.

It’s possible that Muller knew his lunge on O’Young would result in him hitting Huff. It’s also possible that as experienced a touring car driver as Yvan could have probably judged – roughly – how hard he’d hit his team-mate and what effect it would have on both Huff’s car and his own.

It’s possible that diving inside the accomodating O’Young gave Yvan the ‘cover’ he needed to punt Huff off and pass his team-mate.

But all of that demands a very large degree of forethought and accuracy from Muller. I think it more likely that he was set on passing O’Young, so that Huff did not have any chance to escape and the contact – while not exactly unanticipated, perhaps – was not the primary intent.

I have said many times of penalties I considered too harsh that this is tourinf gace racing, not single-seater racing and that the Stewards have to let the drivers RACE, which may from time to time, involve some contact.

I do not wish to see Dodgems, nor do I wish to watch a procession. Somewhere, a happy medium must be found and in Porto and Donington, I agree with the decision not to sway the Championship battle with penalties.

Especially seeing as Gabriele Tarquini’s more-hits-than-Elvis Race 2 went entirely un-commented on!

Gabriele has clearly managed to find Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility, for none of the numerous impacts he was involved in registerd sufficiently on the Stewards’ radar to invoke a penalty.

His team-mates Tiago Monteiro and Michel Nykjaer might feel miffed at that, as Gabriele’s lung inside the former into Coppice cannoned the Portuguese into his Danish team-mate, firing Nykjaer off into the gravel, and leaving Tiago hobbling to the pits and retirement for the second time of the weekend.

WTCC returnee Colin Turkington – in the Wiechers Sport BMW – probably doesn’t feel too pleasantly disposed towards the former British and World Touring Car Champion either, having been fired off when on target for a podium on what looks likely to be his only race in the series this season, having started 4th. By the end of lap 2, Tarquini was 4th, the Ulsterman 16th.

One lap later, Gabriele was in 3rd – from 11th on the grid! – but, unable to pass leader Engstler, he fell prey to first Muller and Huff, then Tom Coronel’s ROAL BMW and eventually Menu’s Chevrolet and Robert Dahlgren’s Volvo.

Black rubber marks on both corners of his front bumper, a wheel mark in his driver’s door and more rubber marks on he right REAR wheel arch were legacy of how hard Gabriele was battling, on a track he knows better than most in the field, courtesy of his years in the BTCC.

Not many had raced at Donington Park before – former BTCC Champs Muller, Menu and Tarquini had, of course, as had Huff… and Dahlgren.

Eh? The Scandinavian touring car ace knows Donington?

Indeed. Robert started his track-racing career in single-seaters, after all and was a factory Van Diemen driver for 2 years, winning the British Formula Ford Championship in 2001. He also raced in British Formula 3 for two seasons, so he’s had a lot of time lapping Donington – most, probably, in similarly cool, damp conditions to those experienced by the WTCC visitors.

Little bit of trivia. Who gave the Swede his first drive in British Formula Ford and the Formula Ford Festival? Alain Menu Motorsport. Yes, that Alain Menu!

Despite that experience, Robert and the Polestar Racing team miscued at the very start of qualifying and the Swede found himself 29th fastest, outside the 107% rule on probably the only track he’ll visit this season that he actually knows well.

This season’s qualifying rules, of course, meant that he’d start 29th for BOTH races. Double jeopardy. But, in fact, he lined up 30th for Race 2, as he’d ridden spectacularly up the back of a rival’s BMW in Coppice in Race 1 and the C30 Drive needed remedial work between races, the team breaking parc ferme and taking the single-place grid drop to last as a result.

The C30 has shown on occasion this season that it’s got a sparkling chassis and the addition of more grunt from the 4-cylinder 1.6 turbo in place of the wonderfully sonorous 5-cylinder Super2000 unit has proved that Volvo has got a seriously effective bit of kit in its hands.

Doubly disappointing, then, that former BTCC champion – and Volvo works driver – James Thompson was at Donington only as a visitor and not a participant. The Yorkshireman has not yet driven the new engine, as he’s racing the Super2000 motor in the STC but what a boost it might have given Volvo’s development efforts to have two cars at Donington, doubling the work done – not to mention the undoubted PR value of adding Thommo to the field.

That much was realised, as the showcar C30 in the public area was actually liveried with Thompson’s name, rather than Dahlgren’s.

But what a second race the 31-year-old Swede had. Losing nothing, it seemed, to even the Chevrolet’s engine in might, the C30 provided Dahlgren with the tool he needed to slice through the field, charging from 30th to a barely-credible 6th. Although his rush from 29th to 8th in Race 1 – notwithstanding his aviating incident – should have given us warning of intent. Should Volvo not decide to bring a full effort to the WTCC in 2012, we will certainly have lost out!

For now, though, it’s to Oschersleben and that ridiculous handbrake-turn of a first corner, whrere contact, damage and penalties flying like broken bodywork are the norm. For our World Championship contenders, qualifying will be doubly crucial and avoiding contact especially vital. Especially contact from your team-mate.

The gloves really are off. The question is, will the blows be low?

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What’s so great about Silverstone?

The home of the British Grand Prix takes a kicking from just about everybody. It’s flat, featureless, a nightmare to get in and out of, run-down, always raining… Silverstone’s not Monza, is it? It hasn’t got the history. Blah blah blah.

And yet… Silverstone is still one of the greatest Grand Prix tracks in the world and has arguably got even better over the last few years.

Are we British too close to Silverstone? Do we only see the little niggles and forget the overall view, taking too much for granted?

Silverstone is my local circuit – always has been – and I love it. It was the first place at which I used to sit in the grandstands with my programme, faithfully filling in all the name changes. The first at which I learned to walk around from corner to corner during race-days, to get a different view. The first at which I learned to carry my own bodyweight in waterproof clothing. The first at which I raced. The first at which I watched a Grand Prix.

In fact, it was the first at which anyone watched a World Championship Grand Prix. Silverstone has history in spades. From that first faltering step in 1950, the World Championship has expanded to traverse the globe, yet a stop in Silverstone remains part of the annual trek.

Silverstone has always been a challenge for driver and car. It’s no Monaco, with certain retirement dogging every tiny miscalculation but it’s fast, demanding of bravery and commitment in equal measure.

Despite the presence of Monza on the calendar, for almost two decades Silverstone held the record for the outright fastest single lap, courtesy of Keke Rosberg’s legendary stub-the-fag-out-let’s-do-it last-gasp qualifying effort in 1985.

The Finn’s 160mph-average flyer was proper Boy’s Own stuff. It was the final moments of qualifying, rain had just begun to fall and Rosberg’s Williams was dancing on the very edge of disaster, as he screwed both courage and the boost on his Williams Honda up to the maximum in pursuit of the perfect lap.

Black smoke burst from the exhausts with every gear-change as he flashed across the line on his final effort. Down the Hangar Straight he tore, utterly committed through Stowe, the Williams straining to keep up with its driver’s urgent demands, the super-soft, single-lap qualifting tyres barely equal to the combination of a Honda near-1000 horsepower qualifying grenade of a motor and the 1982 World Champion on a mission.

Throw in the light drizzle plus (it was discovered later) a slow puncture and it was perhaps no surprise that the rear of the Wiliams was kicking up the grass as Keke wrestled it through Abbey towards the end of the lap, relishing the tail-happy nature of its set-up.

All eyes were fixed on the mesmeric sight, straining to catch the Williams as it flashed towards the line and I remember clearly the astonishment that greeted the pole-position lap-time – and the barely-credible 160.9mph average speed.

Rosberg was, by then, a firm favourite with the British crowd. Sure, he was Finnish but so was Ari Vatanen and he was ‘one of ours’ too, thanks to a combination of his relaxed command of English, dry sense of humour, time spent rallying in British teams, cars and championships and sheer, unadulterated flat-out pace.

So it was with Rosberg. Cool, laconic, possessed of wicked one-liners, a Williams driver and – above all – so damned fast and committed. The British fans loved him. Loved him even more, perhaps, for awarding Silverstone the tag of ‘World’s fastest Grand Prix Cicruit’.

But Silverstone is about more than speed. Copse, Stowe, Woodcote and, latterly, the Becketts Esses all provided a huge challenge for the driver. So much of finding a good lap on a track is about making the corners flow and there can be few places in Grand Prix racing where that is as true as it is at Silverstone, where brakes have an easier time of it than at any other circuit.

At Silverstone, keeping the speed onboard is crucial and drivers respond to the challenge, adoring the way the track seems to keep urging them on to greater and greater efforts.

Sure, it rains. Quite often. That’s part of the equation. Times without number, apologising to a driver for the miserable conditions, I’ve been met with a shrug and a ‘you expect that at Silverstone’ line but the capricious weather doesn’t make us see Spa as less of a challenge, the Nordschleife as a let-down, does it? So why do we think Silverstone is somehow a disappointment when it rains?

Part of it, of course, is our national predeliction with the weather. After all, when you’re exposed to whatever the Atlantic can throw at you, the weather has a major effort on life. Part of it is the wearing effect of two or three days in wet clothing and a wet tent. Part of it is our natural British reticence to accept praise.

We should be proud of Silverstone. Not just because of The Wing and the new layout but because, for 60 years, it has been and remains one of the world’s greatest race tracks.

So, let’s take a look at Silverstone through foreign eyes, as we do at other circuits. Let’s celebrate Silverstone for what it is – an absolutely essential element of any World Championship campaign and a track that so often produces great racing.

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Be careful what you wish for

Odd proverb, that – but one which springs readily to mind after the latest encounter of the World Touring Car Championship, on the streets of Porto. Particularly after the second race.

The grid for the first race of the day in Portugal’s second city featured a Chevy Cruze 1-2-3, with Alain Menu on pole, courtesy of a simply stunning qualifying lap which left his team-mates Yvan Muller and Rob Huff not only trailing by over a third of a second but also, frankly, a little open-mouthed at their Swiss colleague’s sheer pace in that most challenging and focusing of arenas, a street circuit.

The Circuito da Boavista was once home to the Portuguese Grand Prix and the cobbled, tram-line-strewn streets around the park and along the sea-front were undoubtedly a major challenge. In the days of Moss, Hawthorn, Brabham and the rest, the track was both fast and tricky. Overtaking was difficult and safety was pretty much par for the course in that era – you might have found a straw bale or two protecting you from the trunks of the trees that lined the Avenida da Boavista that formed the main straight.

Local enthusiasts revived the track in 2005, staging a historic race meeting on a new layout that followed in the traces of the earlier iteration but added length, winding further through the residential neighbourhood north-east of the park than did the original. The World Touring Car Championship made its debut the following year and returned in 2009 for more high-speed street-racing.

The track which greeted the drivers for 2011 is materially very similar but changes made in the intervening two years made the circuit both faster and – perversely, you might think – safer and less damaging.

A new chicane by the entrance to the pits dramatically cut down the damage quotient, while a reprofiled run onto the Avenida do Boavista changed what was a tight first-gear misery of a corner into a fast 3rd-gear challenge, feeding drivers onto the major artery that leads right to the heart of the city much faster than before.

Slightly disappointingly, two chicanes on the Avenida – which fed traffic contra-flow-style onto the other carriageway and then back – conspired a little against overtaking… there was simply not quite distance enough in which to complete a pass. More of which later…

How much faster was the lastest version of the track? Well, the 2009 qualifying mark left by poleman Gabriele Tarquini’s SEAT Leon TDI was 2m09.308s but Alain Menu’s effort lowered that to 2m04.946s. Fastest race lap (Augusto Farfus’ BMW) in 2009 was a 2m11.0, whereas Rob huff – truly on fire in Race 2 – left that benchmark at 2m05.8s. Parto fo the extra pace comes from the latest turbo-petrol engines but surely much of it must come from the changes to the track itself.

The extra speed did not, however, come at the expense of safety. Quite the reverse. As far as the WTCC was concerned, at least. Once Safety Car driver Bruno Correia has peeled off into the pits to release the field for the rolling start to Race 1, his services were not to be called upon again. A single red flag had been necessary all weekend and that only after the chequer has fallen to end the first session of qualifying.

How so? Kristian Poulsen was on a fast lap in the dying seconds of the session, desperate to put his Engstler BMW into the top 10, when he caught the cruising Yvan Muller on the entry to the final chicane. Muller clung to the left-hand wall as he come to enter the pits but as that’s also the racing line for the chicane, Poulsen’s lap was terminally compromised.

The Dane managed to scramble through and cross the line (at the exit to the chicane) beating the chequered flag by but 2 or 3 seconds, to start another do-or-die attempt. Through the first sector he was safely into Q2. By the end of Sector 2, he was still firmly on target. His was the last car on track, everyone else either cruising back or already in the pits but Poulsen’s progress was not interrupted this time and as he poured on the power downhill through the fast left sweeps to the final chicane, he was ekeing every last once of grip from his tyres, which had already given of their best on the previous attempt.

Through Turn 20, the total-commitment, flat-in-top-only-in-qualifying left-hander, his car twitched wickedly over the bumps and the tail was still jinking as he got onto the brakes hard at the 100m board. Or just after, perhaps.

Maybe his tyres had less to offer than he had hoped, perhaps he dared to brake even later than before; either way, Poulsen was in trouble from the first, left-hand, apex. He was launched off the large roll inside the shallow kerb and as the tried to sort out the car on landing for the right-left flick to exit, the BMW’s tail slewed wide.

In an instant Poulsen was on the brakes but the damage had been done and the car spun backwards across the line, clattering into the outside wall nose-first. His day was done; he’d just failed to make it into Q2. Ironically, if he’d stayed off the brakes, he might well have carried enough speed as he spun across the line to make it into the Top 10. The damage would have been considerably more severe, however. Poulsen was disappointed but phlegmatic, his mechanics doubtless relieved that the damage was not too bad.

Sunday in Porto dawned dull, grey and cool. This has been the trend of the summer, even Hungary and the Czech Republic failing to bring out the sunscreen in the paddock. Still, the WTCC escaped lightly – all over Europe, rain blighted race weekends at Imola, Mugello, Nurnberg and many more. Porto was, at least, dry throughout.

A little rain might have helped to enliven Race 1, though, which must go down as one of the least exciting in recent memory.

At the rolling start, it looked as though poleman Alain Menu had taken a flyer but, in fact, Yvan Muller had merely left enough room to tuck in behind his team-mate before they first turn, with Rob Huff slotting in behind the other two blue Chevys, leaving SEAT’s Gabriele Tarquini to try his luck around the outside into Turn 2.

Tarquini bumped Huff’s outside rear as he tried to tuck in, allowing his own team-mate Tiago Monteiro to shuffle the Italian back, as he squeezed into fourth. There was a little action in the increasingly close Yokohama Trophy battle amongst the Independent drivers but essentially, within 20 seconds, we had our podium. As far from unexpected as it was from thrilling.

Chevrolet Racing boss Eric Neve was nontheless happy and you can’t blame him. The team had done an exemplary job, qualifying first, second and third and sweeping the podium, with no unnecessary slip-ups. Even Rob Huff’s 11-lap attack at the rear of Yvan Muller for 2nd has been without real drama, the Frenchman holding his English team-mate at bay calmly, in a car which looked clearly less quick.

Smiles all-round on the podium then, especially from Alain Menu, who had his old sparkle back on Saturday morning and hadn’t lost it on Sunday. Hungary and Brno were clearly behind him.

It was a different story in race 2, though.

Thanks to the unique qualifying system introduced in the WTCC this season, the second grid is often a little jumbled-up. This time, we had a Wiechers Sport BMW on pole, courtesy of Stefano D’Aste, who made a welcome return to the WTCC, subbing for Swiss Urs Sonderegger.

D’Aste, a former Independent Champion, drove for both Protean and Wiechers in previous seasons and has been racing a GT4 Lotus Evora in 2011. He was delighted to receive a call mid-week to hurry to Porto and set about learning the tricks of the turbo-charged engine in the 2011-spec 320TC. Focusing, I’d say, given the… urgent nature of the unit’s power delivery. Urgent, in the way your light-switch is urgent at supplying power.

D’Aste showed his class, however, putting the car into the Top 10 in Q1, with a lap that eventually saw him finish 10th, and being rewarded for his efforts with pole position for race 2.

That must have been focusing too, given the difficulty all teams are having harnessing the rampant exponential power delivery of the turbo motors at take-off. Stefano had made three practice starts in practice (any more would really put the clutch in jeopardy) but stalled the BMW at the start of the formation lap. More pressure!

The Italian managed to re-fire the thing as others wriggled by him on the narrow grid and by the midway point of the lap was back in front, leading the train of cars around the streets. Surely, he’d have been sweating and trying to calm himself, as he paced the field back to the grid, checking out the patches of oil left by several support races that had filled the gap between the two races.

But he was probably still not as serene as you’d hope to be as poleman when he got to the number 1 grid spot. He parked his car a metre or so too far forward – out of his grid spot. A tiny but critical error.

As the lights went out, D’Aste took off like a scalded cat. It really was an epic start and he would have been delighted to see clear air between himself and the blue car in his mirrors as he turned onto the sea-front at Turn 2. The blue car was Yvan Muller, who’d been second on the grid, with Rob Huff already jammed up to his bumper, from third on the grid.

D’Aste may not have been racing in the WTCC this year but he’d have had to have been living on Mars not to know his predicament; the Chevrolet Cruze is clearly the best car this season and he had a pair of them giving chase.

The chase didn’t last long, Muller reeling him in before the end of Lap 1 and passing the increasingly-sideways BMW to take the lead on Lap 2. A lap later Rob Huff was also past D’Aste, leaving Tiago Monteiro and Gabriele Tarquini bottled up behind the Wiechers Sport car, as the Chevys sprinted away.

Muller was the better part of three seconds clear of Huff, as news came of a Drive-Through penalty for D’Aste. The Stewards had also noticed he’d started out of place and it was now only a matter of biding his time before Tiago Monteiro – who lives in Porto – could claim a podium spot, without risking a move on the luridly-sliding BMW.

As the drama unfolded behind, Rob Huff unleashed his speed. Yvan Muller must have felt he was back in a SEAT, so quickly was he being reeled in, the gap coming down in 5 laps like this; 2.8s (the lap in which Huff passed D’Aste,) 2.5s, 1.9s, 0.9s, 0.3s. There were three laps left, but Huff waited only a handful of corners, such was his speed.

Out of the Turns 4,5,6 sequence (essentially one long, double-apex left) he pulled to the left of Muller, powering past as they raced up the left-hand carriageway of the Avenida de Boavista, almost entirely ahead as he got onto the brakes for the first chicane.

Almost but not quite.

The left-front of Muller’s Cruze made contact with Huff’s right-rear panel and the championship leader had to gather up a major moment, as he skated across the run-off area inside the apex of the chicane, whereas Mulller kept to the grey stuff between the kerbs.

Huff was ahead, however and stayed there.

The air turned blue in Muller’s cockpit and he lost no time in demanding that the team force Huff to cede the position, as he’d gained it by ‘straight-lining’ the chicane. Huff was in no mood to give the place back, as he saw it as a genuine racing manoeuvre and the team made no demand for him to do so. By the end, he was almost 2 seconds clear of the reigning World Champion, as he swept to win number 6 of the season, from only 12 starts. A remarkable record.

One of the key moments in the film ‘Senna’ centred around the clash between the (then) McLaren team-mates at Suzuka in 1989. Senna’s move on leader Prost at the chicane had resulted in the pair tangling and stalling in the chicane. While Prost stepped out of the car, content that Senna could no longer challenge him for the World Championship, Senna urged the marshals to push-start his McLaren and, after pitting for a new nose, he completed a remarkable comeback to win and keep the title race alive. Or so he thought. Prost was filmed stalking up to the Stewards room and post-race, Senna was penalised for missing the chicane and Prost was handed the World title.

Those images came immediately to mind after the race in Porto. As Huff celebreated in Parc Ferme, Muller strode off in a state of high dudgeon, climbing the stairs to the Race Director’s office, before disappearing inside.

It didn’t improve the Frenchman’s mood when Race Director, Miroslav Bartos, told him that he saw the clash as a racing incident and Yvan ranted in the post-race interviews that ‘if you can now pass by going across the chicane then at the next race I will pass everyone by just going straight.’

Chevrolet still had their 1-2, Tiago had a hugely well-received podium finish and the order at the flag when the audience switched off has not been changed.

What has changed, surely, is the atmosphere within the Chevrolet team.

Muller’s problems, caused, it is believed, by a diff problem, left him vulnerable to attack from Huff and it seems likely that – even had Huff handed the lead back – it would have been only a matter of time before he passed the Frenchman’s Cruze again. That much is academic however, the major problem for Chevrolet will be handling their three drivers and trying to prevent a break-down in the so-far cordial relationships within the team.

Huff, Muller and Menu are not bosom buddies yet nor is there open resentment, they rub along well enough together and all have so far focused on their own third of the garage, trying to ensure that it is they, not one fo their team-mates, who will be best-place to win this year’s drivers title.

All three are now reaping the rewards of a six-year programme from Chevrolet and RML, developing first the Lacetti and now the Cruze from also-rans into winners and potential champions.

There seems no credible scenario in which a Chevrolet driver will not win the Championship but the danger for Chevy, after so many years of hard graft, is that it could so easily be over-shadowed if an inter-team wrangle breaks out.

Eric Neve has hired three of the very best drivers available, RML has engineered the Cruze into the class of the field; all seems set fair for that long-awaited success.

Halfway through the season, with 12 more qualifying sessions and 12 more races still to go, open warfare – a la Prost and Senna – will help no-one. Eric Neve may well have to be the hardest-working member of the set-up, if he’s to preserve the team spirit that’s been so key to Chevrolet’s success.

Be careful what you wish for.

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I wanna be electing…

So, here’s the thing. Imagine the British government for a minute. Don’t get too depressed, focus and stay with me.

Leading the whole thing is the Prime Minister, He’s elected as an MP by the voters in his local constituency and then chosen as his Party’s leader by the MPs in that party. Should his party win a General Election, he becomes Prime Minister. As a result, he’s removable, by his party and/or his local electorate.

Each of the MPs in the parliament also depends on their own local electorate for their positions, although power in government can be given and taken away by the Prime Minister, as he sees fit.

All pretty straight-forward and, if the MPs seem to be a more bungling bunch of inept, money-grubbing sleaze-bags then is deemed desirable by the electorate, then every four years or so, they can be voted out of office.

Compare and contrast to the FIA.

The FIA is funded by racing licence holders. Not exclusively, perhaps, but to at least some degree. And for the purposes of simplicity, let’s handily ignore the FIA’s attempts to set itself up as some quasi-NGO, responsible for the safety of every occupant of mechanised vehicles on the planet and concentrate on its first, self-appointed, remit, which is as the governing body of world motorsport.

To licence-holders, the FIA is like the government is to tax-payers. It takes your money and tells you what you can and can not do. But that’s where the similarity really ends (if we ignore trough-in-snout antics.)

The President is elected by members of the FIA but, unlike the British Prime Minister, cannot actually lose his seat, by being voted out by his local electorate.

I must admit that I don’t know whether the national representatives in the FIA can be voted in by licence-holders or not. All I can say is that during a number of years holding a British licence, I have never had a voting form for the President of our ASN (local sporting body), the MSA.

British licence fees are paid to the MSA. The MSA is thus un-elected body that takes and spends competitors’ money as it administers the sport in the UK and also has a say (notionally on the competitors’ behalf) in FIA decisions.

So, licence-holders have no say in how their sport is run and represented – nationally and internationally – despite paying for it.

Where am I going with this, you might well ask.

Well, I have been thinking about the FIA Presidency.

Max Mosley has said that he won’t seek re-election – which doesn’t necessarily mean that if the FIA votes for him, he’ll refuse the office – but, either way, it seems that there will be an election for a new President.

Several aspects of this bother me.

Firstly: non-elected (by competitors) representatives in the FIA will vote for a non-elected (by competitors) President. I can’t think of a democratic governing body where the titular head is chosen by non-elected ‘representatives.’

Secondly: Formula 1’s main paymasters (the competitors) have absolutely no say in the process, despite spending vast amounts of money supporting the FIA’s flagship event. In national governments, major industry helps to fund the running of the country but doesn’t vote in the leadership elections as corporate entities. However, at least SOMEBODY votes for the government.

Thirdly: FIA representatives do not vote according to either the wishes of the competitors that they represent (except by accident, as there is no communication on any subject) nor to the number of competitors that they represent. So that, say, India, holds as much sway as the UK, Germany, France or the USA, all of which have vastly more licence-holders and hugely larger generic motorsport industries. That’s like London and a small town in Wales having exactly the same voting power, despite wildly-differing populations.

So, why is the FIA not genuinely democratic?

Why is the FIA President not, firstly, individually elected to a national ASN by licence holders in his own country?

Why, indeed, are ASN members not voted for by licence holders at all?

Oh, I know… it’d all be too hard to organise.

Except that they manage to have democratic government elections in India, despite having a population of over 900,000,000. So organising a vote for all the racing licence holders in the UK would be a mere bagatelle in comparison.

Well then, it’d cost too much money, surely.

British licence holders could pay an extra £1 per annum to cover their ASN elections. That would cover the organisational fees. Let’s face it, if the Morris Minor Owners’ Club (membership approx 50,000) manages to do it annually, is the MSA really telling me that it’s not possible to do in professionally-run motorsport? As I recall, the FIA’s already bulging coffers were swollen by $100,000,000 after the McLaren fine, so there’d be plenty of money for implementing genuine democracy.

If the will was there.

As regards the actual voting within the FIA, again, delegates should carry at least SOME weight proportional to the size of the electorate, so that big motorsporting nations (who WILL be affected by FIA decisions) should have more sway than small ones (who won’t.)

In fact, I’d go further than that. Not only should racing licence holders be allowed to vote in ASN elections and be accounted for in FIA elections but so should holders of entrant’s licences. Then ALL the people who pay the bills would also be represented, whether it’s a small company sponsoring a junior driver or a major motor manufacturer in Formula One, as well as the drivers themselves.

There’s no good reason why the FIA should be allowed to continue in the 21st Century as a mediaeval institution. All competitors pay for their sport to be governed, yet have absolutely no say in HOW it’s governed.

That’s not good enough when it’s your taxes funding the government and certainly not good enough when it’s the pittance you have left AFTER paying your taxes, funding the FIA.

The new FIA President – be it Max (again), Ari Vatanen, Jean Todt or someone else – must address the total lack of democracy as an absolute priority.

Not holding my breath here…

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Insanity

Sometimes you wonder what’s going on.

Having ranted two weeks ago about Stewards and incompetence, perhaps I should not be completely surprised by this evening’s news… and yet…

I think that most multi-cellular organisms understand that sports teams are – and here I generalise, naturally, so bring me not your ‘Shoeless Joe’ stories – quite keen on winning.

There do seem to be obvious exceptions; the England football and cricket teams (frequently) and Toyota (how else do you explain their signings over the last decade?) but, by and large, sports teams compete to try and win.

In most sports, this is a given. It is understood that an athlete/competitor or a group of athletes/competitors will try as hard as they can to beat their rivals. In horse racing, for instance, this is not just understood but demanded; riders will be punished severely for ‘not trying’.

Many sporting rules are put in place by the authorities that govern them to try and rein in the more excessive elements of competition, to ensure safety, fair play, survivability and so on.

Not many professional sports teams go for a Sunday morning kick-about. They tend not to be doing it just to get some fresh air or work off last night’s Bhuna. The element of competition is pretty fundamental to them. They like it. Indeed, they’ll tell you, they NEED it.

Why, if not, would we have just witnessed more than a hundred men spend three weeks riding bicycles, surviving – nay, thriving under – the sort of conditions that would cause a righteous media outcry if they were inflicted on civilians? To win a race, that’s why.

Why, if not, would teams be spending the criminally obscene amounts they spend just to put two cars on a track 20 times a year? To win a race.

Given all of the above then, explain to me in words of one syllable, please – because I am having a problem understanding this one – why anyone, never mind anyone purportedly involved in the sport in any way whatsoever, would imagine that the Renault team would have “knowingly released car no. 7 from the pitstop position without one of the retaining devices for the wheel-nuts being securely in position, this being an indication that the wheel itself may not have been properly secured.”

And having done that, why would the team have “being aware of this, failed to take any action to prevent the car from leaving the pitlane….failed to inform the driver of this problem or to advise him to take appropriate action given the circumstances, even though the driver contacted the team by radio believing he had a puncture.”

Obviously, only if they were either certifiably insane, criminally reckless and negligent, totally uncaring or not at the track at all. Because NO team would, with certainty and deliberation, risk a good race finish (we should remember that Fernando Alonso, the driver of car 7, was at this stage in the lead of the race) by purposefully sending its car out with a loose wheel. No team would put a valued (to the rate of several million dollars a year’s worth of salary) employee at risk to his health, nor is it realistic to imagine that – even at Renault, a nominally ‘French’ team – having discovered that the wheel was loose, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘oh, well…’

Yet, that is exactly what the Stewards at the Hungarian Grand Prix are suggesting, as they ban Renault from the next race.

To ensure that Renault will appeal, they have come down with the most incredibly stupid decision imaginable; penalising human error by robbing the team’s former World Champion driver of the chance to race at home, in Valencia.

To suggest that is was anything other than pure human error that Fernando’s wheel was not properly attached is palpable insanity.

To suggest that the team, being aware of the problem, did nothing at all about it, is also madness.

To penalise such utterly dedicated professionals as Formula 1 teams for human error is certifiable.

What next? Drivers banned for driving too fast and crashing? Teams banned for using the wrong tyre/fuel strategy and not winning races?

Perhaps Stewards ought to be subject to Article 3.2 of the Sporting Regulations, and banned for rank stupidity.

Or is this just another element in Max’s grand plan? To force another stand-off with FOTA? Because, if Renault’s appeal is turned down and the ban stands, surely no team, FOTA or otherwise, can afford to race in Valencia. Not if the consequence of human error is to be banned from racing.

Surely this can’t get any worse?

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