Sunday, October 02, 2005

The King Is Dead

Here's another old one, slightly less relevant now than when it was written... enjoy!

It doesn't take a car enthusiast to enjoy motorsport, even as a spectator. But if you are one, then you will probably devote a lot of your TV time to watching people going really fast using all sorts of machinery. Despite not being olympic, car racing is a significant force in sports entertainment. When last renegotiating the terms of his contract, the person generally assumed to be the best driver in the world got his team to shell out for a salary that dwarfed David Beckham's. Of course, Michael Schumacher's 80 million Euro deal was struck when Formula 1 was still one of the most popular shows anywhere on TV. McLaren's Mika Hakkinen had won two consecutive championships - one through technical superiority, the other through skill and luck - and Schumi was fighting back with a vengeance, to the extatic approval of tiffozi the world over. F1 was racing's royalty.

But now it's 2004, and Formula 1 is neither proper racing nor proper entertainment. For many years now Ferrari has had the best car and the best driver, which doesn't really make the series very competitive. Oh sure, we applauded Peter Sauber's kindergarten (effectively a Ferrari client team), then Renault buying out what's left of Benetton and resurrecting the triumphant smoke-sponsored blue and yellow livery, and now BAR finally getting their act together and Jenson Button getting the success he deserved years ago. We enjoyed so much having fun at the expense of Toyota, who started out with great fanfare and a budget exceeding Ferrari's, yet after a year's developing and testing were barely able to compete with Minardi, the team run on the money owner Paul Stoddard extracts from a donations box situated in downtown Sydney. But the bottom line is, if nobody can challenge Schumacher for the lead, the audience doesn't care. Last year McLaren Mercedes finally had a half decent engine to power their excellent, but outdated chassis; Kimi Raikkonen started strong with David Coulthard using up whatever he had left in him and the season looked like it was going to be watcheable. Good luck. Kimi's lead deteriorated with each race, and despite the fact that Michael won his sixth title by a couple of points only, it was a game of strategy rather than tactics - most drivers finished in roughly the order they started, any changes being attributed to differently timed pitstops. 2004 isn't looking much better. Williams BMW have some dubious aerodynamics, particularly the walrus nose cone, that will not work in the first year of development, and Juan Pablo Montoya is leaving for the Silver Arrows next year so he cannot be bothered too much; and the top gun's baby brother Ralf Schumacher is basically a loser. McLaren was to be a major force this season, with Raikkonen's boosted confidence, but the AMG-designed Mercedes engine still has to run more than a few laps in race conditions without defaulting to Batmobile mode in a truly magnificent fashion. Severe rule changes have been implemented to reduce teams' budgets, but instead of levelling off the complexity level in race car construction, this had the completely opposite effect of emphasizing the superiority of stables with great engineering talent (which naturally means Ferrari). Where before McLaren could fabricate a spare engine out of cash money after a qualifying mishap and have the car ready by Sunday afternoon, they are now reduced to playing a game of minor improvements with others. In short, from a spectator's point of view Formula 1 is effectively dead.

So what now? Who do you turn to when the on-track mediocrity of F1 is no longer outweighed by personalities like Flavio Briatore, the Renault team principal, millionaire playboy and father of Naomi Campbell's child (often seen in the paddock with a smoking black cigar in his mouth, a cup of smoking black coffee in one hand and a smoking black supermodel on the other)? The obvious answer is the World Rally Championship. For one, it is that much more relevant. You will never own anything even slightly resembling a Ferrari F2004, but if you're a fan of Markko Martin, you can put a great amount of pride into owning a Ford Focus. It is exciting in terms of TV coverage, highlights of each event made up of helicopter shots of gorgeous scenery from around the world mixed with in-car shots that leave you with the distinct impression that nobody could possibly drive that fast on real roads. But they do, and often pay the price, with even the best drivers spinning out or crashing on a regular basis. What makes following a World Rally event online genuinely captivating is not knowing whether your favourite will drop from first to fifteenth place next time the numbers refresh. And you can do that straight through the weekend, Friday to Sunday, catching the footage at day's end. Plus if your local TV station is committed, you will get highlights of Junior and Production WRC classes on alternate weekends when the big boys are taking a hard-earned rest. If you enjoyed Ford's double victory in the Rally of Mexico, you might want to know if Martin's neighbor, Urmo Aava, is still beating factory Suzuki cars in his privateer JWRC Ignis.

But if that doesn't satisfy your need for speed, if you want to see wheel-to-wheel racing, then you are looking at touring cars. There are one-make series ranging from the Mini Cooper and VW New Beetle to the Porsche Carrera Cup and Maserati Trofeo. The best of the best are the endurance racers, FIA GT in the Old World and ALMS in the New culminating in the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans - though there are day-long events held at the Nurburgring and Spa circuits as well. If you want fender-rubbing though, you might want to check out the British Touring Car Championship. The BTCC is on the rise this year, cross-specced with the European touring series to bring in more cars and more great drivers, none of whom are afraid to push the car in front out of their goddamn way. On a tight hairpin.

But that's not all. If you think Australia is a treasure trove of excellent cars, then you have not seen motor racing down under. From V8 Supercars, which pits large, RWD family four-doors like the Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon against each other, to the Nations Cup, where Oz's finest race HSV Monaros, Lamborghini Diablos, Porsche GT2s and Dodge Vipers (not to mention all sorts of Japanese machinery, SR20DET-powered Nissans and track-spec Imprezas and Evos) and points are awarded not only to driver and team, but to manufacturing country. Yet the real gem, the racing series that you absolutely have to see if you're a car enthusiast is the V8 Brutes. Imagine a modern-day El Camino, a two-seat car-based utility vehicle with no weight over the rear (driven) wheels. Now imagine it with a 400bhp V8. Now imagine thirty of these cars on a circuit in the hands of semi-amateur drivers. Sound like fun? It is. With names like "Shmacko" Griffin, "Mad Dog" Denyer or Charlie "Handlebars" Kovacs (given for the man's prominent facial hair), you can be sure that these guys have some major self-control issues. Which is what you want in a racing driver, isn't it? Oh sure, the Brutes are close to stock, with much of the interior still intact, and they aren't as fast as some of the more exotic machinery. But if you can find more exciting racing anywhere on the planet, I would sure like to know about it.

So there's a brief rundown of your options for internally combustive entertainment. And yes, I do realize that much of this is unfortunately not available in the United States. Write to your congressman.

No comments:


| More