Bitter, sweet

This weekend has been one of the starkest contrasts imaginable.

Two fathers are in my thoughts at the moment, for the very worst of reasons and the very best – John Surtees and Jaime Alguersuari. One lost his only son in the most tragic of circumstances, while the other celebrated the news of his only son’s impending Grand Prix debut.

Both Henry Surtees and Jaime Alguersuari raced in last year’s British Formula 3 International Series and I am sure that Jaime Sr. will be deeply moved by Big John’s tragic loss.

That Henry should lose his life in a modern, Grand-Prix standard car is bitterly ironic, given that his father survived not only an illustrious single-seater career at a time when death stalked almost every grid, but was also a multiple World Champion on two wheels before that.

Tragic, too, that after struggling to combine a flourishing racing career with his school-work, Henry was starting to reap the rewards of his toil. With his last A-level completed before the second race weekend in Brno, Henry and John were looking forward to a summer of racing, racing, racing.

At Brands Hatch, Henry was in his element. Putting the disappointment of Brno and Spa behind him, he qualified strongly and snatched third place in Race 1, becoming the first British driver to stand on an F2 podium.

After claiming the British F3 title last season, Jaime Alguersuari graduated to World Series by Renault for 2009 – a logical progression, given that he cut his teeth in the same paddock in the Formula Renault Eurocup and that his dad’s company administrates the World Series weekends.

At just 19, Jaime has been called up mid-season to Formula 1, following in the foot-steps of fellow Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel and he will become the youngest driver ever to sit on a Grand Prix grid, breaking Mike Thackwell’s long-standing record. If he has understandable nerves before his debut, I doubt they will show in his dark eyes.

Henry and Jaime’s paths crossed only briefly yet their young lives were both dedicated to the same end. That Henry tragically perished in the pursuit of his goal won’t be lost on Jaime, even as he seizes his opportunity with both hands.

Two proud fathers, two talented sons.

My thoughts are with them both.

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Ban the Blazers

Sport has moved on a great deal in the last 30 years. No longer are the world’s top sportsmen gifted amateurs or wealthy thrill-seekers, they are utterly dedicated professionals.

Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Valentino Rossi, Michael Schumacher: to a man, legends in their respective fields and all bywords for single-minded dedication to the pursuit of their chosen sport.

In motorsport, it’s not just about the sportsman, there are teams involved too. From Formula 1 down, they’re packed with equally dedicated men and women, who live and breathe their sport. Utterly professional.

And yet, the sport is administered by amateurs.

While this may have been (almost) understandable in the ‘30s, or even, perhaps, the ‘60s, it is utterly unacceptable in the modern era.

When Federer questions a line-call, there is recourse to camera replays and electronics to decide whether the line-judge’s call was correct. No longer does the Umpire in the chair have to second-guess.

Slo-mo video decides who won a stage on the Tour de France, even when there’s barely a single tyre’s width between the contenders. No reliance there on somebody who’s been standing out in the sun or rain all day (or worse, been well-lunched) to decide the fortunes of the race in a split-second.

So, how is it that in motorsport, where there are millions of dollars (or hundreds of millions) at stake, lamentable decisions and penalties are doled out willy-nilly, seemingly without any recourse from the competitors or any retribution for the officials who conspire, through inattention, lack of understanding or plain incompetence, to ruin races for teams, drivers and – crucially – fans?

Let’s consider Formula 1. We have a permanent – and competent – Safety Car driver. We have a permanent – and competent – Medical crew. Surely it’s time to have a similarly proficient College of Stewards to rule on the on-track activities.

Former drivers have an understanding of the sport that mere bystanders cannot possibly achieve and will see incidents in ways that you and I cannot. They have lived the life and their eyes see things – like all competitors – that we mere civilians don’t. A former pro should be a permanent part of every race weekend’s group of Stewards.

Like diving and shirt-pulling in football, everyone laments questionable on-track tactics sometimes used in motor racing. Because no Steward has ever raced at the top level, they don’t  appreciate where intimidation ends and dirty driving begins. We may argue about the pros and cons from our sofas but most of us Armchair Experts can certainly see moves in most races that we’d, at least, question but which go seemingly without mention in F1.

Fans want to see wheel-to-wheel racing. What we don’t want is some well-fed and inexpert old duffer in a blazer penalising drivers for close, clean racing. What we wouldn’t mind is seeing drivers who use back-down-or-crash intimidation being pulled into the pits for a thorough dressing-down.

Imagine how Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher’s attitudes might have been changed, had they been pulled into the pits during a race and given a public telling-off for woeful driving tactics, in full view of the cameras.

If a driver knows he’ll have to choose between holding/making up a position by dint of some ‘questionable’ driving and serving a long stop-and-go penalty, with the cheek-burning embarrassment of a public dressing-down, then the standards might well creep back up.

But who, in the current system, is even remotely well-placed to make such decisions? No-one. And there’s the problem.

It’s not just the driving standards that would be improved by having ex-pros, properly paid, as Stewards. So would the racing. How? By not having good close race battles broken up by stupid penalties.

Like that imposed on Lewis Hamilton in the wet Spa race. Not giving back enough of his advantage after a failed overtaking manoeuvre on the clearly-struggling Ferrari? Pathetic, whether you’re a Lewis fan or not. For goodness sake, don’t dissuade racing in Formula One!

The GP2 Sprint race in the Nurburgring this weekend started on a wet track that, very slowly, became drier, leading to some – no, make that a lot of – very exciting wheel-to-wheel action, all the way down the field. But Vitaly Petrov’s chance to win the race was taken away from him by an ever more unfathomable decision.

At the (very wet) start, Petrov – shot away from 5th and, in the scramble through the streaming-wet Mercedes Arena first-corner complex, the Russian drove around the inside/outside of everyone else to grab the lead.

Feature-race winner Niko Hulkenberg fought his way pretty swiftly from 8th into second place but by the time he set off after Petrov, the leader was getting on for 8 seconds up the road.

A fantastic battle ensued, with the pair swapping fastest laps as the lead slowly but surely shrank, for which the cameras barely had time, as there was frantic, multi-car action just about everywhere down the order. Just as it seemed the fight for the lead was about to be properly joined, however, it was over before it could begin, courtesy of the Stewards. Petrov was handed a Drive-Through penalty.

A replay of the start, from the camera of second starter Lucas Di Grassi, showed that, as Petrov had jinked past the Brazilian (and everyone else,) the Russian’s right-rear tyre had made glancing contact with the front-left of Di Grassi’s car. The penalty, therefore, seemed to have been for ‘Causing a Collision.’

Pur-lease!

To come to this stupendously idiotic decision had taken the Stewards 13 laps. That’s around 35 minutes.! Presumably breakfast was over-running…

And the result was to kill the thrill of the lead being fought out tooth-and-nail into the closing laps stone dead.

Never mind the effect it will have had on the championship race. Never mind the effect it may have had on the fortunes of Petrov and his Barwa Addax team. Never mind the effect it will have had on the team and driver’s sponsors. Decisions like this – crucially – affect the fans.

The very people who pay for the racing and, through the FIA, fund the over-paid nincompoops who continue to ruin our enjoyment of the sport on an almost weekly basis.

No more. This nonsense MUST be stopped, as a matter of extreme priority.

Ban the blazers and give us the professional administration that the sport is crying out for.

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Because you’re worth it…

When the annals of great sporting achievement are written, my name will be revered in the Pantheon of greats. I shall rank alongside Baron Pierre de Coubertain, indeed even above him, for he only ‘borrowed’ the idea of reviving the Olympic Games from a vicar in Shropshire, whereas I have created an entirely new sport. Well, sort of.

Speed Pool. Never heard of it? Well you will.

Like the revered Baron, I have ‘borrowed’ liberally from someone else’s ideas but like so many geniuses (genii?) I have taken a concept and extended it so far beyond its humble starting point that the result is so earth-shattering as to be considered utterly different and far superior to the base that spawned it, as indeed Man is to the primaeval slime from whence he came. At least, that’s what my lawyers will be arguing.

Bercause, you see, Speed Pool makes ordinary Pool look – well, tame. Pedestrian. Lame. And please don’t quibble about starting sentences with prepositions. Or splitting infinitives. I am boldly going here, people!

The basic premise of pool, as any fule kno, is to pot all your balls and then the black before your opponent can do the same with his balls. Easy. And slow.

With the cunning addition of just one simple-to-understand rule and one legal doping agent, the game is transformed.

Surely, Martin, I hear you cry, nothing can be so simple. But yes, it is – as all the great ideas are.

Take the telephone. By speaking into a paper cone, attached to a wire, your voice can travel countless miles and a conversation may be held with a person who is not even within ear-shot. Imagine that! Better still, technology has now advanced to such an extent that there is no longer the need for either the wire or the paper cone. The two ingredients considered utterly fundamental by Alexander Graham Bell are now redundant in long-distance hailing. Astonishing!

Television is another example. Simply stand a person in a dinner suit in front of a spinning disc and, as if by magic, their image – and even voice – can be transmitted to a glowing sheet of glass in every drawing room in the land. Without adverts!

Science is truly remarkable but behind every discovery is a man. Without Einstein, racing cars wouldn’t make their peculiar sound, high-pitched as they come towards us, yet lower in tone as they depart. Without Newton, apples would have to be picked from trees and pigs in orchards would have to master ladders in order not to starve.

And so it is with me. You may consider me vain to compare myself to such luminaries but until you have witnessed my otherworldly creation, you can simply have no understanding of its over-reaching magnitude.

As you have to read every paragraph of Steven Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ twice or three times, just to figure out what he’s talking about, so Speed Pool will leave you dazed and awe-struck, wondering how it is that a mere human brain could dream up a concept so lofty.

Enough of the preamble. That can be consigned to the marketing men and ad agency creatives who will struggle to properly convey the mastery of my genius. To the rules; for this is a game you can – and will – play.

The rules of Speed Pool and simple. Pot all your balls and the black before your opponent can do the same.

So far, so normal.

Turns at the table are decided by the normal methods. Winner stays on. Winner breaks. First to put is either ‘spots’ or ‘stripes’. When a player successfully pots a ball, he has another shot until he fails to pot, whence play is taken up by his rival. Mis-cues or other illegal shots result in a free shot for the opponent. An in-off when playing the black automatically costs the player the game.

Again, so far, so normal.

And here is where the magic pixie-dust is sprinkled.

First. To play at World Championship level, all players must be doped. That is, they must be drinking pints of Guinness – with Tia Maria shots in the pints. For a National level competition, lager, bitter, red wine (or even white) are allowable.

Secondly – and here the true master-stroke is applied – each player must take his shot BEFORE THE LAST BALL ON THE TABLE STOPS MOVING.

That’s it.

In its entirety.

Oh. For goodness sake, you say, is that IT?

Yes, that’s it.

As I said, simple to understand – and with the compulsory doping rule, you understand why – and revolutionary.

When was the last time you broke a sweat playing pool? Exactly. Two frames of speed pool and you will be perspiring freely. This is Olympic-class exercise, people. Especially when you involve a racing driver.

Racing drivers, as we know, love to win. At everything.

At ANYTHING.

There are no exceptions.

Within two frames, any racing driver is a whirling Dervish of cue, pint and determination to succeed. They just can’t help themselves. It’s as much in their nature as it is for lions to rip the throats out of Wildebeest. Ever wondered why there are so few Wildebeest in racing paddocks? I think you can work it out!

And so it is with Speed Pool. They just HAVE to win. Which means that for everyone else, the game is immeasurably improved, as players and bystanders can enjoy the sight of one of nature’s most elemental forces at work.

Allan McNish is renowned as one of the world’s great sportscar drivers. But his pair of Le Mans wins pale into insignificance compared to the delighted glow of satisfaction he exudes when you mention to him his stature as the reigning Speed Pool World Champion.

Sure, Porsche and Audi pay better; but nothing can replace the thrill of that San Francisco night and lifting the inaugural crown.

Speed Pool. You owe it to yourself.

Nice slogan that. Anyone got a good font we can use??

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Sarthe-bound again

They say you never forget your first kiss.

For me, it was 1967, on the minibus to St Joseph’s Convent, Lincoln but as for the lucky girl – fortunately for her, the name is lost in the mists of time. Still, we were only six!

Some first loves do endure, however and for me 1983 marks one such. It was June and once more, buses played their part – this time transporting me to delights previously not expected… my first trip to Le Mans.

Leaving the office in Teddington on a Friday night, we caught the train to Victoria and boarded a Page & Moy coach. Onto the night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, then an early morning coach to Le Mans, stopping to change into shorts on the roadside just after dawn. Well, we WERE on holiday!

Little snapshots of the weekend habitually reappear and I can never travel through Alençon without recalling my first trip. Stopped at a set of lights by a square, we spotted an old Frenchman, in blue serge and beret, Gauloises hanging from his lip, taking his early-morning constitutional. He was holding a lead and as he passed an opening in the knee-high box hedge we expected to spy a little yappy dog. He seemed surprised that an entire coach-load of people were staring and pointing, just because he was taking his cockerel for a walk.

We met our colleagues at the pub by the gates of the circuit, grabbed entrance tickets and, after a liquid breakfast, adjourned to the champagne stand between the village and the Esses. Heady stuff to start my first Le Mans.

Of course, it was race morning, so after a Croque Monsieur and Frites, we made our way to bag viewing points for the start. We ended up on the banking outside the Dunlop Curve (no chicane in those days) and began an excited hour’s wait. Seeing the whole field rolling slowly past served merely to heighten the tension. Spotting the Porsches, checking out where the British entries were (aided by our copies of the Autosport guide) and generally soaking up the electric atmosphere…

As we triple-checked our watches, the French voice on the tannoy tested our O-level comprehension but from the restlessness of the crowd, we all knew just how close the field was…

And then it began…

The roar came swelling towards us and now, 26 years later, I confess I can’t remember whether it was the roar of the crowd or roar of the engines which reached us first. Either way, as the first cars charged, flat-out, through the Dunlop Curve for the first time, I knew that only someone long-dead would not have had that prickle on the back of their neck.

In a rush of noise, flashing colours, dust and debris, my first Le Mans started. I remember trying to pick out a number of cars as they flashed by in a long angry, snarling pack, before – all too soon – they were gone.

The Tannoy raged excitedly but we had no ears for it. Excited chatter broke out, silenced only around 5 minutes later when the train flashed past us once more.

And so it went on, for a couple of hours, before moving further along the track towards the Esses and finally Chemin aux Boeufs, to watch them depart onto the legendary Mulsanne straight.

A pause to listen to the speakers at half-past the hour, Bob Costanduros updating the positions and then we headed for refreshment and the fun-fair.

Sometime long after dark, I zipped up my coat and lay down on a patch of grass, falling easily asleep with the roar of the cars ever-present. I awoke with rain on my face and simply rolled under a nearby car, before crashing out again.

Dawn found me stumbling blearily into the village for a Café Crème and another Croque, browsing the shops (the first of many Le Mans t-shirts purchased) before heading back towards the track, walking back past the Ford Chicane to the end of the run in from Arnage.

By the time the sun was high in the sky, I had bumped into a number of equally-bedraggled colleagues (no mobile phones, of course, so we either met each other by chance… or we didn’t) and we gravitated towards the pits straight to enjoy the final few hours before the finish.

It was the first time I had invaded a track and it felt slightly odd to be doing so but since I was just one of many thousands, I figured it wouldn’t do any harm. My first trip to La Sarthe ended under the podium, cheering as the champagne sprayed down like a misty drizzle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the trip home. Doubtless, we made the coach before it left at 6pm, crossed on the ferry and rattled back from London on the train. I do recall just how long Monday felt in the office, though. Probably not quite as long for us as for the people in the adjoining offices, though, as we were loud, over-excited, over-tired and probably over-smelly.

Since that life-changing trip, I have made the pilgrimage almost every year. Travelling with friends or strangers, by coach or car or plane or train, camping, sleeping rough, in motorhomes or hotels, working on radio or TV or looking after guests. Every year is different and yet every year is the same. Echoes of that first trip always return and sometimes all I need to do is think of it and I’m right back there – 23 and in awe.

Two nights ago I once more dragged out the seminal ‘Le Mans’ DVD and yet again, it struck me how little has changed since 1971. Sure, the cars are faster, the pits are larger and the crowds are even bigger. But Le Mans remains Le Mans.

We’ve had our rough patches but it’s still the greatest motor race known to man and I love it more and more every time. I’m aching to be back there…

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This just in… Lazarus spotted

Dead and buried for a quarter of a century, superseded by the brave new world of Formula 3000 and then GP2, Formula 2 returned last weekend in Valencia.

Strictly speaking – and striking exactly the right historic note – F2 actually returned to full public gaze a couple of weeks earlier on the streets of Pau, the French city that for many years was the F2 equivalent of the Monaco GP- the race that everyone wanted to win – but the first race weekend in Valencia marked the official start of a new era.

There to witness the historic moment were the penultimate F2 Champion and the man who won the last F2 race – Jonathan Palmer and Philippe Streiff. Both won their national F3 titles in 1981 and graduated to F2 in ’82, Palmer with Ralt-Honda and Streiff with AGS. Palmer won the title in ’83, while Streiff claimed the last-ever F2 win, at a cold and rain-swept Brands Hatch in September the following year, winning a race that was red-flagged twice on aggregate over Michel Ferté and Roberto Moreno.

Both had also been present in Pau to witness the new F2 car’s first run in public, almost 25 years to the day after the final race there for the category, when the Frenchman had stood on the second step of the podium, his AGS well beaten by Mike Thackwell’s Ralt-Honda.

Palmer and Streiff – F2 rivals and later F1 team-mates – were on the grid in Valencia for the first race of the new era, along with the architect of the revival, FIA President Max Mosley, who handed the winner’s trophy to Robert Wickens, while the car’s designer, Patrick Head, was on the podium on Sunday, presenting the race two awards.

For Mosley (himself a former F2 racer and car constructor, as partner in March) it must have been a blessed relief to be able to walk through a paddock without F1’s attendant headaches and constant pressure and he looked genuinely impressed by the F2 set-up that filled half the Valencia pit-lane in one vast, slickly-detailed, open garage.

The 25 cars and a sea of impeccably-uniformed engineers and mechanics were the public tip of the iceberg that Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision concern has put in place to run this series, which differs from other high-profile championships by providing what is essentially an arrive-and-drive package and by doing it to the sort of budget that would have Luca de Montezemolo reaching for the smelling salts.

Drivers pay a set fee for the season and MSV supplies everything – from chassis, tyres and engines, to mechanics, data engineers and spares back-up. The driver simply needs to get himself to and from the races. Oh, and find the money. But, compared to £500,000-plus for national F3 or around £750,000 for GP2, £195,000 for F2 is much more affordable.

Almost entirely free from mechanical woes (I should probably have put money on Serb Milos Pavlovic being the unlucky exception) it was a successful first race weekend for the new venture and a source of obvious pride for Palmer. And it’s well-deserved: when Mosley first floated the idea, the general reaction was that the driver budget-cap was way too low for it to be profitable, professional or even possible… but Palmer has proved the doubters wrong on at least two of those counts. And knowing that his attention to the bottom line is focused as acutely as it is on the front-of-house, I doubt he’ll miss his third target.

Welcome back F2… it’s been a long time.

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