Monte-Carlo or bust.

The blonde and I have knocked up another video of the upcoming rFactor 2 beta, once again in the historic F1 car around the tight and twisty streets of Monaco.

The rendition of this historic track is sublime and over many laps I found myself going into an odd trance state given the concentration required to keep it out of the walls/lamp posts/harbour.  I hope you all enjoy it, not long now…

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Posted in rFactor 2 | 5 Comments

Remember when your sims came in a box?

Some of them still do, I know, but who can remember those huge, chunky cardboard boxes with a sleeve and a manual that weighed as much as a housebrick?  Where did it all go?

Ever since the late 1990’s there seems to have been a big focus in the simracing community for racing online.  It’s a natural thing, in the days of VROC racing with other humans in online races was a relatively new and exciting thing, and, for many of us, after racing AI robots for years this seemed the natural progression for the genre.  The result being that sim developers started to push more and more weight behind their online components, abandoning the way sims of old had been made for ten years or more.

The template laid down by Crammond in 1992’s F1GP was what defined racing sims for a decade after it. An immersive experience, where one racing series (In the case of Crammond’s game, Formula One) was reproduced in great detail, that allowed the player to  race alongside the same drivers they saw on TV in a full season of racing, set around the parameters they desired.  Simracing masochists, like me, could disable all drivers aids and set race distance to 100%, practice sessions to full length, and live a race weekend in their own home, going wheel to wheel with Schumacher, Alesi and the gang.

Not long after, in 1993, Papyrus Design Group arrived with their follow up to 1988’s “Indianapolis 500“, “Indycar Racing” (ICR).  ICR upped the game for graphics presentation and driving physics, but gave us that same structure of an immersive game where we could play the role of an Indycar driver in the current season, going wheel to wheel with Andretti, Fittipaldi, Scott Goodyear (I seemed to find myself mostly racing virtual Scott), and the rest of the pack.  I remember at the time being so immersed in my little world that I would think all the way home from school about how I was going to prepare for the next practice session, where I hoped to qualify, and what I was going to try with my setup.  These games had atmosphere, they let you feel like you were really taking part in a campaign that kept you focussed for night after night, your own private racing series.  Papyrus then went on to release Indycar Racing 2 and the NASCAR Racing series, each largely evolutions of one another in terms of the driving experience and the eye candy, but all offering this same feeling of immersion that defined what racing simulators had become.  Then came Grand Prix Legends, and with it’s great AI, historic tracks and endearing ’60’s feel many who had no idea about historic F1 fell in love.  That atmosphere, that sense of fantasy, left many finding themselves evolving their enjoyably rare diversion into a passionate hobby.

Jump to 2012 and it’s all change. With sims like Live For Speed, rFactor, netKar Pro and iRacing the focus moved away to multiplayer racing, with AI becoming a background interest for developers and players, or, in some cases, not there at all.  The online simracing community was born and leagues were setup, governing bodies established, forums filled with tantrums and obscenely acronymed magazines written.  So did we all stop playing offline?

The consensus would say not.  A rudimentarily hobbled together series of statistics I was made party to revealed that for every racer regularly competing online there are ten or more racing offline, but why?  Isn’t racing online fun?  Of course it is, but it comes with far too many constraints for the average human.  Not only do you have to turn up at a certain time, but you may have to obey certain rules, race for longer than you can, and put aside hours of practice to build up speed and setups so that you don’t disgrace yourself.  You may find that you are simply not fast enough to compete at the top level and race consistently for tenth place, you may find that your five year old kid comes in to show you his Lego mid-race, you might find that someone turfs you into the wall at the first corner and all that build up was for nothing.  You might find the whole thing, as a leisure pursuit, just far too stressful!

So where are Papyrus Design Group now, with their glorious offline sims that oozed atmosphere and immersion, covering the racing series we all wanted to fantasise about racing in?  Well, as I am sure you know if you’re bothering to read this, but they have made iRacing, which is without doubt the best sim out there for online racing.  It’s official races, rule base, licence structure, iRating, social networking features and hosted sessions are organised through a web interface, they have myriad licensed cars and tracks to race and even a huge forum where people can complain about things.  David Kaemmer and the team have embraced the online sim revolution and thousands of players enjoy their sim day in, day out.

But what about all those offline simmers?  Should they not get to enjoy the work of a development team that defined the genre for so long?  I found myself wondering why not.

iRacing have some major series licences: NASCAR, IZOD Indycar, Grand Am, links to the V8 Supercar series, American Le Mans Series and some others, can these not be exploited a little?

Could you cope with a boxed Grand-Am sim?

Would it not be great for a boxed sim or two to be released, using the base software that iRacing already uses to provide, say, a Grand Am simuator?  Using the template of the sims that came before and bolting in the laser scanned cars and tracks seen in iRacing, letting us race against AI in an offline simultation of the Grand Am national series?  Perhaps even with a Daytona 24 hours add on allowing AI driver changes and day to night transitions?  Sounds too much?  How about laser scan a few street tracks and give us IndyCar Racing 3?  I’d pay full dollar for that one.

Players could choose the length of their race, the time that they race, choose whether they want to get a stop/go penalty, and pause the sim when some Lego is thrust into their face.

This not only would allow the offliners to get some fun out of iRacing’s superb content, but also may encourage them to sign up for a subscription to iRacing as a whole.  After two full seasons offline against AI, many drivers may have had time to build the setups and pace they need to feel comfortable racing online, so why not make the offline sim bolt into the iRacing online component, letting drivers use the cars they already own in the online sim.  Perhaps even tie up their offline gaming career to reflect against their online Safety Rating and iRating?

Could this work? I think it could, and with a few doorstep manuals we could be back to living the sim dream of the 1990’s with the bonus of being able to enjoy the online simracing dream of 2012.

Posted in iRacing | 8 Comments

The good old days are back.

In the next week or two there will be a new issue of AutoSimSport released on http://www.autosimsport.net for you to feast upon.  For this magazine I have been working on a few things, most notably this, a piece on the upcoming rFactor 2 beta.

This video is a couple of laps of Spa as it was in the late 1960’s, an extremely fast and unforgiving place that put hairs on the chest of any who took to her:

The thing that has kept running through my mind, running this old ’68 F1 car around here is: “People actually used to do this!”  Especially during the small “excursions” I ended up enjoying.

Posted in rFactor 2 | 6 Comments

Should Frank go for Kimi?

One of the few interesting things to come out of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend was the rumour that Kimi Raikkonen had been spotted visiting the Williams F1 factory in Grove.

Presuming he wasn’t just popping down there to cut the breeze after a day out in Wantage, one comes to the conclusion that the 2007 world champion could be looking for a drive next year in F1.  The doors are closed at Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull for 2012, and so Kimi is looking further down the grid to get a new lease of life in the sport.  Williams, as one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport, seems good choice, and some are duly tantalised at the idea of there being an unprecedented six world champions on the grid.

Many, however, are not so convinced.  In Raikkonen’s later years in F1 before he gave it all up to go rallying, there was a strong perception amongst the F1 fraternity that his mojo had gone, that after winning the title he had done all he set out to do in F1, and was bored of the sport, and fundamentally bored of the politics and sponsorship commitments.

Kimi is a man of few words, as a result, most of this was conjecture, it had to be, when no words are coming from the man in question, how can a journalist qualify their suspicions?  As a result the popular opinion is that Kimi left F1 because he could not be bothered with it anymore, so what has changed?

Well, his WRC performances have levelled out, and he has no works drive on the horizon.  He has spoken openly, since a return to wheel to wheel racing in NASCAR, of a desire to get back to being on track with other people.  Naturally, this would lead him to F1, where, as mentioned, he has a reputation as a driver that cannot be relied on to care.  is that reputation fair?

Kimi Raikkonen competed in 157 grand prix in his “1st” F1 career, winning 18 races, scoring 16 poles and 35 fastest laps, finishing on the podium in 40% of the races he competed.  Notable victories include many fighting drives from grid positions outside the front two rows. Winning the Japanese GP at Suzuka, 2005, from seventeenth on the grid, taking the lead on the final lap, being a stand out performance.  As well as this we note four wins at Spa (’04, ’05, 07, ’09), at least two of which coming in cars that were not really competitive.  In 2004, for example, Kimi beat Schumacher in a McLaren that could not really hold a candle to the dominant Ferrari F2004, from tenth on the grid.  In 2009 the Ferrari F60 was an evil handling turd of a car that, starting sixth, saw another victory in the Ardennes. These performances, regardless of press, make him a stand out talent of the last ten years.

To suggest that this man has no commitment or cannot be bothered is a misnomer, largely perpetuated by the press and not refuted by the man himself. Does his silence in the press mean that we have to believe what is written in the Gazetta? None of us really know the reason for his apparent slump in performance through 2008 (A year in which he still won two races) and 2009. People within Ferrari have suggested that as the title push went towards Massa in 2008 that his head dropped, this seemingly carried on into 2009 when Ferrari put out a dog of a car.  It is reported that during the McLaren years Kimi was the “favourite” of Ron Dennis, a man who always chose favourites, just ask Lauda, Prost, Coulthard, Montoya and Alonso; this was reflected in Kimi’s performances, that were, at times, extraordinary. Perhaps the steely exterior is not the reality of a man who, perhaps, needs more support than the press like to imagine he does.

A lot of talk was made about his pay, being the highest paid sportsman (purportedly) in 2008, about how he should produce more performance from somewhere based on this.  I don’t want to get tied up in the money thing, the fact that Kimi was paid so well by Ferrari was more a product of good management than any reflection of anything else. Getting paid more does not make a driver perform better, it might make the Tifosi seethe, but once a driver starts getting paid more than they can count it just becomes numbers, and the job is still the job.

The popular perception that Kimi “just turns up and drives” is also a curious one, his technical skills are reportedly very impressive, but he does not get tied up in minutia. Comparison with Schumacher is moot here. Schumacher was the testing king, he tested every chance he got, and he also had the ear of Bridgestone for so long, and tested their tyres for so long, that he got used to having a team biased entirely around him, and tyres custom made to his style. Had Schumacher (Who quit at the end of 2006 because he did not want to be team-mate to Kimi!) moved to McLaren for 2007 we don’t know if he would have struggled in a new team, after so many years with it all one way. Schumacher may have struggled on his return in 2010, but the likes of Di Resta or Maldonado have struggled much less with the transition to F1, immediate adaptability is a very personal thing, and people saying this and that about how much F1 has changed are largely just making excuses for Michael’s performances. The man himself has not made said excuses.  There is no cause, in my mind, to assume that the same issues would blight Raikkonen.

The other question mark about Kimi’s performances at Ferrari bear more relation to Schumacher’s work, in that the car he picked up in 2007 was very much designed around what Schumacher wanted from a car. People used to say Schumacher liked a pointy car, but Ferrari engineers were shocked by how much oversteer Kimi was happy to deal with (As McLaren engineers were with Hamilton at the same time). McLaren, for many, many years, have been making very oversteery cars, largely since the Senna days their focus had been in this area, and yet Ferrari had been producing cars that favour an initial touch understeer that for Kimi meant a lack of confidence on turn in. This, co-incidentally, is exactly the kind of car Massa likes to have under him, thus we saw Massa (Who despite his apparent emotional issues is fundamentally very quick, when someone gives him a cuddle) pulling more pace out of the car in ’08. In ’09 the Ferrari F60 was awful for both drivers, overly aggressive KERS harvesting caused unexpected results on entry with heavy coast diff locking and this, allied to the lack of turn in bite, made a car that was very difficult to be confident with on entry and skittish on exit. Look at the issues Fisichella had with this car when leaping into it at the end of the year, himself a race winner, he could not get it into the top ten in qualifying while Kimi was scoring podiums.

How much any of this justifies certain performances is clearly an item for discussion, but when the driver is asked by the press “Why are you not fast enough” and he is giving one word answers, or saying “I was having a shit” then the press can say what they like, and what they chose to go with was that he could not be bothered to even try. Lest we forget that he dared to have an ice cream once, and this was cited by an overly enthusiastic-Kimi banging-press to suggest that this ice cream was in some way a “do not care ice cream.” I find this absurd.

Perhaps he does not have the work ethic of Schumacher, Alonso or Vettel, this may be true, but it cannot be doubted that he is a stand out talent of this era of GP racing. Whilst hard work can get you so far, without talent it will get you nowhere. Is it not the case, right now, that the press are banging Hamilton quite heavily for suggesting he is not focussed on the job, and that he is squandering his talent? Is this not a typical jaunt that the press like to go on? They banged Button for it in 2001 and 2002. When results don’t come, the press have to fill column inches with perceived reasons, when the driver stays quiet, he is damned, and, it seems, when he talks, he is also damned!

Some cite his WRC performances as an example that his driving edge is not what it used to be, I don’t think this is really fair.  WRC is a radically different discipline, he never had top line machinery, and ultimately he probably isn’t as good a rally driver as he is F1 driver. He did give WRC a good go, over two years, and finished reasonably often in the lower points. When you look at drivers like Malcolm Wilson or Henning Solberg there is only so much you can do without a works drive.  Wilson has had a good enough Ford for years, yet is still fighting in the lower points. Petter Solberg does more than any of them with his own car, but he is a hugely talented WRC driver. Where would he finish if he jumped into an F1 car? It is not really fair to suggest that his WRC work involved no effort, to completely change discipline is a massive effort for anyone, in any field. Forays into NASCAR also saw Kyle Busch being very impressed with his effort and application, is there a theme here?

The theme is that the assumption that Kimi cannot be bothered to do anything is an overreaction to a few non-perfect performances. Qualifying a few tenths from your team mate is not “making no effort”, but the high profile position of being a Ferrarista, allied to press based attack means that a reputation exists for Kimi. All the while, drivers like Jarno Trulli get to be regularly outpaced by their team mate by a second a lap and yet no one bemoans their application or focus.

The facts of this matter are that for him to even consider coming back to a midfield drive has to suggest some commitment to the task in hand. If he was not going to make any effort then why even talk about it? If he really cannot be bothered to do anything why doesn’t he stay at home and work on a nice, all emcompassing heroin habit? Does he deserve a chance? Why not? Williams, don’t have a lot to lose and to run Grosjean or Sutil surely is just as much, if not more of a risk.

I honestly think that the times we have always seen the best from Raikkonen is when he is up against it in a slower car, and the times when he has been less than impressive are when the perception is that he should be winning with ease. Thus, I think for him to run in a Williams for a season could be a very sobering (excuse the pun) year and I also don’t think he is stupid enough to come back to F1 and not be committed to it. If you read interviews in serious motorsport press with the man, you can see he is not the fool that the gutter press want to make him out to be.

There is one thing that Williams can get from this, and it is a driver that, if given the right car, will win. As well as this, as they busily watch Rubens moan and moan and have a little cry about how slow the car is, they don’t know if his tears are clouding his performance. With Kimi, and a motivated Kimi, they know that he will maximise the potential of their car, that they can ultimately know how fast their car is. With a rookie they have much more of an unknown quantity.

For Raikkonen to return to F1 in a midfield car the main aim would be to get back to winning ways, this means he needs to quash the reputation he has attained. Whether that reputation is fair or not doesn’t really matter, it is clear from the responses of some of my peers the way he is regarded now, it would be up to him to prove to all of you that he deserves it. I, for one, think he at least deserves the chance to try to prove you wrong.

Posted in Motorsports | 1 Comment

F1 2011 – Mid season report.

It’s been far too long since I last posted here at all, let alone on the subject of F1. I’ve been waiting for the season to get underway properly, and settle down. As we’ve seen, the new rule changes have produced some exciting racing but ultimately dull results. When our grandchildren look back on the 2011 season they will see a tale of domination that belies the true excitement this season has given us.

As we hit the season mid-point the championship is as good as over, which is a far cry from the five way challenge that we were presented with in 2010, but does that give us reason to be forlorn for the remaining ten races?

I don’t think so, primarily because most of the races we have seen this year have had a large amount of overtaking and excitement, even if it was not necessarily at the sharp end. The combination of KERS and DRS has done its bit, but the true excitement has come from the Pirelli tyres, and their variable characteristics meaning that cars can be on very different performance levels at various points of the race, promoting overtaking and racing even amongst cars that may have tyres that are only a few laps apart on wear.  DRS has been a thorny issue for me, it appeared in both Istanbul and Montreal to be making things a little too easy for drivers to pass on the longer straights, at the same time it provided very little assistance to overtaking in Barcelona and Melbourne. The FIA have repeatedly pointed out that the system is experimental and requires fine tuning, which is fair enough. On the whole it has worked well, but you have to think that we were a little robbed of a good battle in places, such as Webber’s pass on Alonso for second place in Istanbul.

KERS has had less effect, primarily because everyone at the front has it, so everyone uses it at just about the same point and it rarely creates much excitement. I suspect that KERS is more an homage to the rise of this technology appearing in road cars than anything else, it allows F1’s green credentials to be enhanced a little and adds some complex technology to the sport in light of restrictions on engine development. After all, F1 was always supposed to be a technology showcase, and too much of the technology these days is behind closed doors and innaccessible to the fans.

When it comes to the competitive order throughout the first half of the season one thing has been abundantly clear, that Red Bull are out front, by some way. This has allowed World Champion Sebastien Vettel to steamroller a series of race wins, six from nine races, with three second places being his worst results so far. We’ve seen a new level of maturity from Vettel this season that cements his position as world champion and personally I would say that some of his performances this year, such as wins under extreme pressure in Barcelona and Monaco, have impressed me far more than many of his runs to victory in 2010.  It is easy to forget how young Vettel is, and it is very probable that his talent will be more fine honed with experience and maturity, meaning more and more winning from what has swiftly become Germany’s top driver.  I don’t relish the idea of another period of Schumacher-like dominance, and maintain hope that there is greater depth of talent in the current field than there was throughout most of Schumacher’s championship winning years.  You have to assume that if Vettel keeps himself close to Adrian Newey, however, that the wins will keep coming in.

There remains some black spots against Vettel’s skill set namely overtaking and pressure.  We still have not seen him win a race from anywhere but the front row, and while this partially reflects his phenomenal single lap qualifying pace, it still puts the jury out on the “all time great” scales.  Also, his mistake under pressure on the final lap in Montreal, as well as putting the car in the wall on Friday at both Istanbul and Montreal stand out as big errors in an otherwise flawless season.  Regardless, if I were to be writing my end of season driver top ten right now, Vettel would have to be in the top three for 2011, and definitely one of the three best drivers in the field right now.

Not quite the same can be said for Mark Webber this season, who has once again had a poor opening to the year, only just starting to gain the momentum to challenge his team mate (Albeit to seemingly be told he is not allowed to).  Two poles have not been converted to wins and while his team-mate routinely leads every race it is relatively rare to see the other Red Bull up front. This partially gives us an indication that the RedBull RB7 is not as dominant as it looks, but rather Vettel is. Webber is now running second in the championship after a run of third places in the last three races, to add to an impressive podium in China after starting eighteenth on the grid, and a second place in Red Bull’s only 1-2 of the year in Istanbul, this still leaves him eighty points down on Vettel, with no wins.  All too often, when the competitive order behind Red Bull has swung between McLaren and Ferrari, Webber has found himself behind Hamilton, Button or Alonso, and given the RB7’s pace, we can be fairly sure that the car is not the weak link.

Webber has struggled to get a handle on the Pirelli tyres so far, and routinely has higher tyre wear than his team mate, though Silverstone seemed to be the exception (China aside), where he was catching Vettel rapidly in the closing laps. As it stands Webber has looked more competitive in recent races, and as such could challenge for wins in the second half of the season. For the sake of his future career he needs to.

Fernando Alonso lines up third in the championship following a resurgence of pace from Ferrari and a superb win at Silverstone.  Alonso’s driving in the second half of 2010 was sublime and it seems he has taken that into 2011, being the only driver to have outqualified his team mate in every event this year, he has also more than doubled the beleagered Massa’s point tally so far, only finishing behind the Brazilian in China.  Ever since his first podium in Turkey Alonso has looked very much “on it”, and it has been rare that he has got to the end of a race and you could say that he had not got the maximum out of the car he was given. Runs to second place in Monaco and Valencia were superb displays of race driving, and his starts, especially in Barcelona, have been amazing.

Ferrari have quietly got closer and closer to Red Bull as the season has gone along, and whilst it is difficult to see Alonso fighting for the title at this stage, we can but hope that he can fight for victory on a few more occasions this year. If only to stop Vettel from winning them all.

The McLaren team drivers line up fourth and fifth in the standings, equal on points, via two very different routes.  Lewis Hamilton has, on the most part, looked on fire as he has driven the wheels off his silver machine, but all too often the machine in question has not been quick enough to make the difference. With three podiums following the Barcelona event, including a magnificent win in China, it looked a lot like Lewis would be the lead challenger to Red Bull’s dominance this year, but in recent races McLaren seem to have stepped backwards on pace, and this has been to Hamilton’s chagrin.  It’s almost like he feels the limelight is slipping away from him and some performances have been strewn with errors, particularly at Monaco and Montreal, where his keenness to overtake on the back of poor grid positions outweighed the need to go for gaps that were big enough for a car.  Frustration has clearly seemed to be getting the better of him, and the way he has talked about the team outside of the car has hinted that all is not well in the Lewis camp.  Enough has been written on the subject, but a low key drive in Valencia and a great attacking drive in Silverstone both maximised the car’s potential to take fourth, arguably the best anyone could have done in a McLaren on the day, and a reminder that Lewis may well be the fastest driver in the field right now. Alas, the most frustration can be born from knowing how quick you are and not having a winning car under you to prove it.  One has to wonder if he follow the mantra of his hero, Senna, and seek out the fastest car to increase his winning tally.

McLaren’s race pace has generally been faster than its qualifying pace this year, which has meant both of their drivers have had their work cut out in races to make up places.  Jenson Button has been ahead of his highly esteemed team mate on the grid three times this year and stepped onto the podium four times, including a stunning victory in Montreal, and where his team-mate has looked frustrated he has looked very much like a team leader.  Button’s performances have not always convinced this season, and you once again get the feeling that his performances suffer more than his team-mate when the car is not quite to his liking.  However, his smooth driving style and tendency to stay out of trouble has seen him finish in the points in the first eight races of the year, and along with Hamilton this has contributed to putting McLaren well above Ferrari in the constructors standings.  If McLaren can turn around their current slump it seems clear that both of their drivers have the ability to win races, but you have to wonder how much money they will want to pump into a championship that, to all intents and purposes, is already over.  At the same time, both of their drivers want a car that can win races, neither of them joined McLaren to finish fourth.

Next up is Felipe Massa, following up on last year’s low key season with another range of okay, but not great performances. Again, you could argue that his placing reflects the true performance of the Ferrari, whilst Alonso’s talent flatters it, but ultimately Ferrari have to look to the constructors championship and wonder if they could be in a better position with two drivers scoring podium finishes.  We all know Felipe has the pace, and has almost matched Alonso in qualifying recently, but on race pace he is found wanting, and if he is to end up as anything but a number two at Ferrari, he has to step up. Something tells me he won’t.

Mercedes testing promise has not come to fruit, though they have a reasonably quick car, albeit one that eats Pirelli tyres far too fast.  Rosberg has been his usual, steady, fast self though it seems as the season draws on the edge he has over Schumacher is declining. Montreal and, to some extent, Silverstone (cack-handed front wing smashing aside) showed some of the artistry of Old Mike in mixed conditions. There are still question marks in the press over whether Schumacher will stay on for 2012, but if the current upward slant keeps up we could see some more of the old magic in the second half of the season.  Though at the moment podiums seem unlikely for Mercedes in a normal race.

Being sandwiched by the Mercedes drivers are the Renault pairing, neither of whom have set the world alight.  The early promise of the Renault R31 brought two podiums in the first two races of the year, leaving us to wonder what could be done with this machine were it piloted by Robert Kubica.  Following that Renault seems to have dropped back in the development race, with slowly declining performances for lower point scoring positions. Culminating with Silverstone, where the “Who is getting blown the most” argument seemed to hit the Renault squad the hardest.  Whilst Petrov has improved on his debut season with solid runs and a whole lot less cars in the hedge, he hasn’t really done anything to make you think he should be on Red Bull’s shopping list.  Nick Heidfeld, given a last minute reprieve from retirement, has, as ever, been reliable and dependable and brought the car home in one piece, but you have to wonder what Romain Grosjean might have done in the same seat.  For the second half of the season Renault need to focus on getting back up the order, having fallen behind Mercedes and being very much in the sights of Sauber and Williams.

Whether Sauber would have those sights so fiercely trained without the superb performances of Kamui Kobayashi is difficult to say.  The Japanese has put in a series of excellent performances, finishing in the points in every race he has finished bar Valencia.  The cream on the cake has to be an excellent fifth place at Monaco, and in a very wet Montreal he was running second to Vettel for some time.  When you watch Kobayashi on track it sometimes looks as if he is constantly on the verge of an accident, but the reality is that he is a very reliable performer and has not crashed out of a race this year.  If he were snapped up by a top team it would be fascinating to see what he could do with race winning machinery.  Sergio Perez, also, has taken to F1 well, and in these times of low testing mileage it is important for us all to understand the time it should take a new driver to get up to speed.  Perez has impressed with his pace, consistency, and curious ability to look after tyres, often doing one less pit stop than anyone. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

I’m concious as to how long this piece has become so will move a little quicker as we move through the final three teams I plan to talk about (I’ll cover the “new teams” in a different post).

The two Toro Rosso drivers, one feels, are fighting for their position this season, as neither have put in the kind of performance Vettel did for the team and one has to wonder how much time they get before another Red Bull Academy driver is put in their seat.  Alguersuari has responded to this recent wake-up call well, in the points in the last three races, almost as if he can see the image of his P45 in the back of his mind as he races. He needs to keep this up.  As does the largely unremarkable Sebastien Buemi, who has also scored three points finishes this year, not that anyone noticed. Buemi is a steady performer, who has brought the car home in every race this year with the exception of Silverstone. But is this enough?  He may be on course to be the next Heidfeld, but unless he or his team-mate can turn in some remarkable performances in the latter half of the season, you have to wonder how long they will hold onto their seats.

Williams, you feel, are in a transitional phase. The promise of this year’s car has not come through, but a deal signed with Renault for next year gives them hope that next season things could turn around for the team that has had so much success in the past.  Barrichello continues to perform reliably, though is clearly frustrated at the results this year. Pastor Maldonado seems to be getting his act together recently, and has been much closer, if not ahead of, Rubens in qualifying.  Again, lack of testing shows, and personally I think I can give him the benefit of the doubt after a few dubious incidents early in the season.

Force India’s performance has declined somewhat since the heady heights of Fisichella’s near victory in at Spa in 2009.  The development race has taken it’s toll and seemingly hit Adrian Sutil quite hard as he is far too often running behind his rookie team-mate Paul Di Resta.  Di Resta has been impressive, putting the Force India sixth on the Silverstone grid was no mean feat, and of the rookie crop this year he seems to have taken to F1 like a duck to water.  You have to feel that certain other Mercedes powered teams might have an eye on these performances.

So as we move to on to Nurburgring and the German the Grand Prix the question on everyone’s lips is whether anyone can stop Vettel from winning his home race. Those of us that like to see a champion fight for his titles will be hoping that Ferrari and McLaren can take the fight to them and give us something to tell our grandchildren about.

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iWCSRR Round 2 – Phillip Island

When the teams of the iWCSRR touched down in Melbourne it was to a muted excitement.  The news of a huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan left faces glum and the paddock was not the hive of activity that normally besets any race weekend in this beautiful location.

At times like this it can be hard for us all to forget the realities of real life and the power of nature and put it aside to race virtual motor cars.  But life goes on and this expensive playground had a show to put on, so the drivers climbed into their cars, leaving their hearts with Japan.

Qualifying was a chaotic affair, with thirty two cars taking up space on a lap that is only 4.445km it was a struggle for all as dust was thrown up into the air at every corner.  Many drivers complained of traffic and being unable to get a clean lap in, but it was the same for all of them and once again it was Jesse Nieminen on pole position, clocking a phenomenally fast 1.06.111 to narrowly push out team mate Hugo Luis from the top spot (1.06.181).

Such speeds were unprecedented at this circuit, with the previous lap record being set by Simon Wills in a Formula 4000 car some eleven years back, his Reynard Holden clocking a 1.24.221.  With the outright V8 Supercar lap record being almost ten seconds slower than this it was fair to say that regular visitors to the track were blown away by the speed of Formula One machinery.

So, My3id Gaming cars claimed the front row of the grid, as well as third place with Klaus Kivekas (1.06.301).  Fourth place went to Orion Racing’s Ilkka Haapala (1.06.322), Team Redline’s local hero Luke McLean (1.06.350) started row three, with Shawn Purdy alongside him (1.06.385).  The times were close, with Ben Cornett (7th, 1.06.465), Aleksi Elomaa (8th 1.06.514), Dion Vergers (9th 1.06.573) and Matthias Egger completing the top ten all within a few tenths of pole.

Notable absences included the injured Greger Huttu and Luca Masier, Team Redline having to run a significantly reduced entry.  This played into the hands of My3id Gaming after their strong showing at Spa, and puts Greger on the back foot for the rest of the season, having been forced to take one of his two “drops” of the year.

The sun shone on Phillip Island as the field of brightly liveried Williams Toyota’s lined up on the grid to take the start.  With two stops expected over sixty nine laps, pit strategy was expected to bring something to the party in such a close field.  With the top twenty eight drivers on the grid covered by one second, things were close in the top ten, and on such a fast circuit overtaking was rendered nigh-on impossible without the driver ahead making an error.

As the lights flicked to green it was Hugo Luis that got away well as Nieminen bogged down, the chase to turn one looking to go the Brazilian’s way.  However, as the leaders prepared to turn into Doohan Corner there was a serious incident being played out in the midfield.

Matthias Egger made contact with Ben Cornett’s right rear, causing the Australian to spin across the track.  Egger himself spun on the other side of the circuit, harmlessly finding the grass.  As this played out the approaching group, from left to right, of: Blake Townend, Carlo Labati and Bryan Heitkotter arrived three abreast on the scene, Townend moved right to avoid Cornett’s car, filling the space between him and Labati, the space that fast starting Richard Towler had aimed his car squarely at as he closed from behind.  Townend and Towler made wheel on wheel contact and Towler’s car was launched into the air in a terrifying flip, the Englishman then scraping along the track at some speed on his roll bar.

Cornett meanwhile, spun back onto the track, narrowly missed by Darren Marsh and Martin Macjon, though the netcode thought otherwise and an apparent impact saw his car also launch into the air, with the fast approaching car of Marc Payne passing underneath as it slowly rotated in the air.  Coming up fast on this, however, were the machines of Daniel Almeida and Dom Duhan, side by side, Almeida moved to the right to avoid the carnage ahead of him, unaware that Matteo Calestani was heading for the small gap between him and Duhan.  Again, tyre on tyre contact was made, and Calestani’s car speared into the air, end over end, flying upside down in front of Duhan’s car before hitting the inside tyre barrier.  Almeida, having bounced off the flying Italian moved left and also passed underneath Cornett’s airborne Wiliams.

Cornett’s car eventually landed and the rest of the pack continued their evasive measures, Petteri Kotovaara taking to the pitlane exit, others bouncing across the grass like autocross drivers.  Mauro Bisceglie spun in avoidance, harmlessly.  As the three flying cars all found their way back to Earth Towler’s stricken machine landed back on its wheels in a state of some disrepair, across the left side of the track.  Ryan Murray half spun in avoidance of Towler and in the process made contact with Brad Davies, who enjoyed a sizeable accident, eventually hitting the lame and broken car of Calestani, now also flipped back onto it’s rubber.

And breathe…  Quite the multiple car accident, with Luis leading the field around to complete lap one, Cornett, Towler and Calestani were out of the running, with many others damaged in the carnage.

The action carried on at the front, as Klaus Kivekas pushed wide in turn two, McLean took the chance to get alongside on the exit and run side by side through the flat out turn three.  As they arrived at Honda corner McLean held on on the brakes and muscled his way around the outside, holding the line for the approaching turn six, where he finally completed the pass on Kivekas to take third spot.  All the while Haapala’s poor start had allowed McLean and Purdy to pass him, the order as they crossed the line: Luis, Nieminen, McLean, Kivekas, Purdy, Haapala.  Bryan Heitkotter, having avoided most of the start line madness, found himself seventh from fourteenth on the grid with My3id’s Aleksi Elomaa underneath his rear wing.  Dion Vergers and Blake Townend completed the top ten.

As the press office took a collective breath and the TV crews went in search of interviews, things started to settle at the front as everyone let their tyres bed in.  By lap four there were steady gaps in the lead group, with the exception of Elomaa, who passed the startline alarmingly close to Heitkotter, desperate to find a way past, he delved deep on the brakes into the Honda hairpin and passed the Californian in a gutsy move to put him seventh.

Nieminen seemed to be hanging back from Luis in the early stages, letting his car and tyres settle into the run, with the difficulty in passing here it was no surprise he did not want to put a sudden lunge up the inside of his team mate but as we clocked over lap twelve it looked as if Nieminen and McLean were much closer to the Brazilian.  The leaders had reached the tail-enders and Luis was being held up significantly by the Williams of Ryan Murray, who seemed to have his car on the wrong part of the track in just about every corner.  The frustration mounting as his lead slipped away, Luis finally passed the American as he went wide on the marbles in the final corner, spinning off the road as if in apology.  It was too late for Luis, however, as Nieminen was able to get a run up the pit straight and pass his team mate into Doohan, then heavy attention from McLean caused Luis to look flustered in the braking area for Honda, where McLean placed himself on the inside and took second place.

This was the way it would stay till the pit stops, the frenetic pace at the front untempered, every driver was forcing one hundred percent out of each other, as the first stops approached things had changed too at the bottom end of the top ten.  Heitkotter, running eighth, was falling back from the lead group into the clutches of Dion Vergers.  On lap nine Vergers made a move, on the inside of Honda, only to be denied, the two men then running side by side through Siberia and turn seven, where Vergers got the edge.  Heitkotter was not ready to give up though, and stuck his nose up the inside into turn nine, the crested Lukey Heights, the move was hurried and contact was made.  Heitkotter was off into the gravel while Vergers carried on.  However, it was soon apparent that he was carrying damage from the contact, as Blake Townend and Joel Guez cruised up to the back of him.  A fierce battle ensued as Vergers tried to hang on to the place, but eventually both cars passed, as did Dom Duhan,  breaking into the top ten on lap fourteen with a decisive pass on Vergers into Honda.

As Shawn Purdy, the first of the lead group, made his way into the pit lane on lap twenty three the top ten was led by Nieminen, with hometown hero McLean 2.3 seconds back in second, Luis held onto third, another 2 seconds back with team mate Kivekas on his tail.  Purdy, coming in from fifth, was only another half a second back on Klaus, with Haapala similarly close behind him.  Seventh placed Aleksi Elomaa, around five seconds back from this group was having a lonely time as the spirited battles over eighth, ninth and tenth had resulted in Townend, Guez and Duhan being over 20 seconds behind him.

With Purdy and Guez pitting on lap twenty three, the majority of the lead pack left it till the next lap to come in, with Elomaa opting to stay out longer, as did Townend, the pair coming around in first and second places on lap twenty five.  At the end of lap twenty six Elomaa eventually came in, as did Townend, the shake out bringing Kivekas out in third place and Haapala in fourth.  But not for long, as into lap twenty six Luis and Haapala were side by side going through Doohan Corner, Luis on the inside, being faced with the outside line for turn two, he moved to cut in behind Haapala but misjudged the move, his front wing’s right end plate making contact with Haapalas left rear wheel, nudging the Finn wide and allowing Luis to pass.  Luis’ front wing looking notably damaged, it was not long before Haapala was back on him, and as they started lap twenty seven it was Haapala making the inside move at Doohan, this time making it stick and comfortably taking fourth.  By this time Purdy and Elomaa were also up on Luis, Elomaa’s late pit allowing him to close back up to the lead group.  As they neared Honda Luis struggled to turn in, and Purdy took a look up the inside, but he was not close enough, and ran alongside up to Siberia corner where Purdy looked to pass Luis on the outside.  Luis held him off, but as they swept uphill into Lukey heights Purdy made contact into the rear of Luis, enough to make the My3id machine’s rears to briefly leave the ground.  Purdy speared off the track and made hard impact with the tyre wall, his race over.  Luis was off the track on the exit but was able to keep going, his car now damaged at both ends.  Elomaa, a spectator in this incident, powered through to take fifth.

As we moved into the second stint the positions in the top six stabilised, and the press corps got the chance to draw breath.  At less than half distance, this race had seen more incident than Spa saw in the whole meeting.  The second stint slowed things down, with the focus being the fall through the order of the damaged Hugo Luis as he struggled to stay on track.  Eventually he seemed to come to terms with the way the car was working and re-establish a pace, dropping out of the top ten by lap thirty eight.

As our leader, Nieminen, roared around to start of lap forty one he led Luke McLean by 5.9 seconds, with Kivekas another 3 seconds back in third.  Nieminen looked to have things sewn up to take his second win from two races and a huge championship lead.  Then, as the cameras panned to the leading My3id car, it blinked out of existence.  As Jesse had prepared to turn into the Honda hairpin, the unthinkable had happened, and network issues had struck, taking him out of a solid lead.

This pushed McLean into the lead, and bumped up the rest of the field a place.  Ray Alfalla, running solidly all race, entered the top ten as he closed on the battle between Guez, Duhan and Townend, now with only 2 seconds separating the quartet.  At the start of lap forty three, Duhan was crawling all over the back of Townend, but could not make a pass into turn two, where he dropped back a little to avoid contact, this allowed Guez to get a run on Duhan, and draw alongside through turn three.  The Frenchman then opted to try to pass Duhan through the Honda hairpin on the outside.  Duhan kept the inside line, and more speed, clearly ahead on the exit he came across slowly but Guez was still there, the two made contact, spinning violently into the outside tyre wall.  Two more casualties in this race of attrition.

On lap forty six the second round of pit stops started with the recovering Matthias Egger, now up to seventh place, coming in with Derek Wood in close attendance.  However, it was not until the end of lap forty eight that the front runners were in, with Kivekas, 3.3 seconds back on leader McLean, being first in with Ilkka Haapala.  McLean himself came in on lap fifty, leaving the long running Elomaa in the lead once again, eventually pitting on lap fifty two, followed in by Townend.

As we clocked fifty five laps in the books McLean still held off Kivekas by 2 seconds, with Haapala in third another 3 seconds back.  Fourth place was being held by Elomaa, whose long stint had once again helped him to draw closer to a podium spot.  Some 30 seconds back from this group Blake Townend continued in fifth, with Ray Alfalla in close attendance behind.  Heitkotter, Egger, Kotovaara and Payne completing the top ten.

By lap sixty the front pack seemed to be making no impression on each other, but the battle for fifth between Blake Townend and Ray Alfalla was getting very close.  Alfalla looking very racey on the back of Townend as they circulated, eventually sticking his nose up the inside of turn eight and drawing alongside.  Finding himself on the outside for Lukey Heights, Alfalla got quite out of shape and only just held onto the car, giving Townend some breathing space, but it may not have been what he needed as, rounding turn eleven, the British driver spun, leaving Alfalla with nowhere to go, the American taking to the grass in evasion.  This gave Heitkotter the chance to pounce, and as he swept past Townend there was almost contact as Alfalla rejoined the circuit, Heitkotter also having to take to the verge.  The four of them were then line astern through lap sixty one, until it became apparent that Townend could not keep with Alfalla and Heitkotter, instead turning his attention to his mirrors, where Matthias Egger was looming very large.  At the start of lap sixty three, Townend could no longer hang on, and went wide at turn two to allow Egger past.

And so it was at the chequered flag.  McLean ebulliant in taking a win in front of his home crowd for Team Redline, trailed by Kivekas only 2.4 seconds back and Haapala on the third step of the podium.  Elomaa coming in fourth, with the impressive Ray Alfalla finishing fifth after starting fifteenth.  Heitkotter, Egger, Townend, Kotovaara and Payne completing the top ten.

Such an eventful race has duly shaken things up, and Huttu must have been pleased to see so many big names suffer in the many on track incidents as he watched from his sick bed.  What he won’t be pleased to see is that he is now some 32 points behind championship leader Kivekas, who leads the standings following his fourth place finish in Spa.

It’s all to play for as we head to Zandvoort for round three, let’s hope for more on track action of this calibre, and perhaps a third different winner.

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iRacing Grand Am Sportscar Series – Week 4, Lime Rock Park

After the expansive drive in the country that was Spa, we find ourselves at a much cosier little track this week for Lime Rock Park.  It had been some time since I had raced here, and not since the early days of Solstice rookie times have I put in any concerted effort on this place.

Surrounded by the Berkshire mountains in North-West Connecticut, there is a feel of being wrapped up by the tree lined mountainsides as one laps this little place.  The Riley feels a little awkward here, like it never gets the chance to stretch its legs.  The start finish straight is over in an instant, and beyond that it’s a rollercoaster ride up and over a steep escarpment in only 47 seconds (Or faster if you’re not me!).

The laps tick by so quickly that you feel like there is no chance to breathe, as soon as you are thinking about relaxing a little after the fast and slightly terrifying final corner, you’re seeing braking markers arrive for turn one.

After my first practice session the tight confines of the place were made all too clear to me as there seemed to be Rileys off the road everywhere, and extreme patience was the order of the day with passing the Mustangs that were dropping over fifteen seconds a lap to the faster machine.  As detailed here.

Qualifying went reasonably, my pace suggesting a spot in the second split again, fifth on the grid as it turns out.  Second placed Joe DiNunzio blew his engine on grid too, making it fourth.

As we set off into the first corner everyone remained careful and quickly slotted into single file, by the end of the lap I was starting to be dropped by the leading trio, whilst coming under the close consideration of fifth placed Matteo Salmaso.

Salmaso in close pursuit of Denton as Haupt trails the pair.

Coming out of the final turn on lap two I missed my entry and went in too wide.  This corner, the fastest on the track, is called “Diving Turn” as the cars drop sharply downhill into the entry.  Where it can catch a driver out is that the conventional line is beleaguered by fierce bumps that can be very treacherous in lower, stiffer cars, meaning a tighter entry and hugging the inside kerb is the way to get a clean run through.  Sadly I had not heeded this on lap two, and skipped wide on the bumps, the car leaping into a lurid sideways moment at over 200kph.  As i gathered it up I saw Salmaso very close in my mirrors and jinking right to pass into turn one.  I couldn’t resist him on the brakes and he placed his car neatly in my turn in point to force me back into fifth.

Salmaso takes fourth.

Re-gathering my thoughts, I started to keep an eye on Salmaso as he pulled out a few tenths per lap, with Thomas Haupt in the number eight car keeping me honest a second and a half behind me.  Before long we were in traffic.  In this race there were no Mustangs, so there was no mixed class to the event, but over such a short lap it was not long before we picked up the back of the field and before I knew it I was in a constant adventure of lap after lap passing.  Every time I came up to a slower car I had no time to be lackadasical, Haupt’s bright yellow bonnet was ever present in my mirrors, and any small mistake or loss of momentum could be enough for him to make a move and get past me.  Every time I had a free track in front of me I pushed, and it felt like I could extend the gap to Haupt, little by little, but then there would be another backmarker to pass, and the rhythm would be lost  and he wold be right there behind me again.

Haupt kept a close eye on my rear wing.

Thirty minutes of racing around this busy track was frantic.  The tight third gear, double apexed right hander at turn one starts it all.  Hanging onto the grippy, re-layed concrete and sliding to the exit kerb you then dive left and late into the imaginarily named “Left Hander”, the only corner on the circuit to indulge in this direction.  Carrying as much speed on the exit as you can, keeping to the left of the road, you then throw the weighty sportscar to the right and pick up the throttle early through the last part of the esses and along the meandering straight for a few breaths before braking for the Uphill.  The track climbing steeply into the sky to the right, and throwing the car to the left on the exit as a ton of metal leaps over a sheer crest, requiring a light lift to keep the back end in check.

Before you can think about relaxing there is a short blast along the table top before jinking right again, this time a fast fourth gear run through west bend, the exit taking you back down the hill sharply into the entry to the wide and fast Diving turn, a few short seconds later on the pit straight and you’re in the braking area for turn one again and off for another tour, relentlessly clocking up lap after lap of high speed running.

Haupt tracks Denton's wheel tracks into Diving Turn

Salmaso dropped me and Haupt, but it never got more strung out than this. Haupt ran well through West Bend and Diving Turn, but I seemed to have the measure of him through the esses and it was enough to hold a gap.  Each pass of a backmarker could bring him onto my rear wing, but just as often it was me that came upon the slower car at a better part of the circuit and gained the advantage.  There is no good place to find lapped traffic at Lime Rock, the track is not too wide and especially through the esses things can get very cosy.  Keeping on eye on Haupt was often a secondary concern to what was going on in front of me.

As I came around to start lap twenty nine the timing boards put in me in fourth place, Salmaso had lost it the lap before and his car was wrecked.  At this stage it was getting tiring, I kept hoping that the next lap around was the one I would get the white flag.  At the start of lap thirty seven, that wish was granted.

As I headed to turn one for the last time, Haupt was, as ever, in close attendance, but of more concern was the yellow number thirteen car of Warren Schuur, running very slowly into turn one, the Riley keeping a very tight inside line.  Seeing how slowly he was running I almost overran him and had a brief lock-up in avoidance.  Seeing his lack of pace I knew I could not follow him through turn one when Haupt was so close on the final lap, and slipped to the outside of Schuur, relying on his co-operation as I held as much momentum as I could on the outside line, passing and being able to take a reasonable apex in the second part.

Denton locks up into T1 and opts for the outside of Schuur.

On exit I noticed Haupt had also passed the yellow car and skipped a little sideways on exit.  He was still there.

Haupt right on top of Denton on the final lap

Surely that was enough excitement for the final lap?  As I tore along no-name straight after a swift run through the esses I was faced with the sight of more traffic.  Scott McDonough’s eighth placed machine was just ahead of me coming out of the esses, fast enough to look like not being a threat, but then as we approached The Uphill the yellow number sixteen car of Nicolas Inacio came into view, the Frenchman travelling very slowly with heavy damage from an earlier collision.  McDonough was caught by surprise, slowing behind Inacio before committing to a pass on the inside, I arrived on them at full pace as we climbed up the slope, a wall of Rileys in front of me. I had to dive out of the throttle as I tucked in behind McDonough, Haupt now right on my tail.  We ran line-astern through West Bend and as we chased through the final corner McDonough moved to the inside, allowing me and Haupt to pass on the outside, the two of us crossing the line only half a second apart in fourth and fifth place.

The close and non-stop nature of this circuit allied to the constant efforts of passing in traffic made this possibly the most exciting race I have had in iRacing so far.  The consistent pressure from Haupt allowed me to keep a very high level of concentration and avoid any incident points, but fundamentally the running gave me a greater confidence with the car.  I think, mainly, that this was down to the lack of chance I got to overthink things.  The pressure was constantly on the whole race long which led to me driving the car very naturally and not getting bogged down with how it felt.  I still had some trouble with high speed understeer, but on the whole found the Riley very enjoyable to drive.

On next week to the road course at Homestead oval, not a track I am looking forward to, but that’s where the series is going so that’s where I’ll be.

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