Matters of moment, December 2013

As the American Le Mans Series rolled into action on a sweltering afternoon in Austin, David Richards’ eyes were glued to the hospitality suite’s TV screen. But the images being relayed had nothing to do with the events unfolding outside. Instead, the Prodrive boss was captivated by another race, a wet one, fought between just two protagonists who were busy scything across each other with feet to spare in a tactical game of cat and mouse. It was, admittedly, mesmerising.

Richards is known to be a sailing fan, but his enthusiasm for the America’s Cup has hit new heights, for a number of reasons. It helped that the race this September provided a sporting story of the highest order, Oracle Team USA pulling back an 8-1 deficit to Emirates Team New Zealand to secure what had once seemed an impossible victory.

It also helped that his friend, four-time Olympic champion Sir Ben Ainslie, was parachuted into the struggling US crew to become the architect of an amazing comeback that made him the first British sailor on board an America’s Cup-winning vessel for 110 years.

Then there was the award-winning TV coverage, broadcast in the UK via the BBC, which explained a complex, and for many of us unfamiliar, sport quite superbly. A spectacle played out on a large scale and at sea can only be as good as its TV coverage, and the same is increasingly true in our world. Formula 1 is about to become more complicated than ever thanks to the new fuel efficiency/energy recovery rules in 2014. It might do well to take note from the America’s Cup on how to make technically advanced sport accessible to a mass audience. F1 has its work cut out.

Reflecting on David Richards’ enthusiasm for sailing’s biggest race and Ainslie’s subsequent declaration of his ambition to chase funding for a future British entry, it got me thinking: there’s a potential technology crossover between motor sport and top-level sailing. Prodrive – one of Britain’s most respected motor sport engineering specialists – is on the hunt for new projects. Could this be exactly what Richards is looking for?

“Not necessarily Prodrive, but personally I would like to be involved,” said David when I asked him. “I make no secret of my interest in the America’s Cup. I know Ben well and would like to help in any way I can.

“I’ve always been interested in sailing and I do some racing myself. The America’s Cup this year was captivating. The TV coverage, the technology and how it is explained has made it accessible in a way it never was before. At times you almost feel a part of it. And we have the World Series now, with the 45-footers down at Plymouth drawing a crowd.

“Sailing will never be Formula 1, but it has certainly moved on and has become more commercially viable.”

It occurred to me that events played out in the seas off San Francisco will also have caught the attention of the greatest racing car designer of the modern era. It’s well documented that F1 almost lost Adrian Newey to the America’s Cup when his motivation dipped during his McLaren years. Could an Ainslie project tempt Adrian away from the F1 coalface?

It’s an intriguing question – but sadly we’ll have to wait for an answer. Newey didn’t travel to the Korean or Japanese Grands Prix, and has yet to respond to our email questions. Something to do with the trifling matter of Red Bull’s 2014 RB10-Renault, I suspect. The monumental challenges of F1’s new rules will surely be feeding his creative juices right now, so super-catamarans are probably not his priority. But in the future, perhaps with Red Bull backing? It’s surely not inconceivable.

Then again, Eric Boullier, Martin Whitmarsh, Ross Brawn and Stefano Domenicali might think about clubbin together to finance a Newey America’s Cup project themselves, right now. When it comes to beating Red Bull Racing, it might be their best hope.

As soon as Nelson Piquet was confirmed as a guest of this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, we knew we had to take this rare opportunity to land an interview with a vastly underrated triple World Champion. Mike Doodson, the British journalist closest to him in period, was the obvious choice for the assignment, and the engrossing result can be found on page 68.

The Earl of March described Piquet as “brilliantly aloof” during his visit, but as you might have heard in our podcast recording from the Festival he was certainly on good form.

Nelson has history at Goodwood – even if it isn’t entirely official. Between the circuit’s closure as a race venue in 1966 and the late 1980s, it was a popular testing ground for racing teams of all levels. In 1965 Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart left the F1 track record at 1min 20.4sec, but over the years that mark was quietly obliterated.

In 1980, prior to the British Grand Prix, Piquet set a best time of 63.6sec as he shook down his Brabham BT49- Cosworth at Goodwood. That was slower than Denny Hulme’s unsanctioned record of 61sec at 144mph, set in a Can-Am McLaren in 1971. But then there’s also a fabled Brabham test dated around ’83, which our own Rob Widdows claims to have attended. It is said that Piquet managed a sub-minute lap on that day in the BMW turbo BT52, but it remains unsubstantiated – which of course makes it all the more intriguing.

“Nelson’s done a hell of a lot of laps around Goodwood, from Formula 3 testing and so on,” Lord March told me. “One forgets it was where they all tested, so they know it inside out. Kenny Bräck tells me he used to sleep on the floor of the Super Shell building when he first came to England…

“They often used to turn up without telling anybody. Stefan Johansson told me in the Onyx days [in 1989] they turned up with a van and a trailer for a quick blast – which is of course why we ended up with a noise abatement order slapped on the track!” Incidentally, Johansson is said to have completed just one flying lap that day in the brand-new Onyx – in 62.5sec at nearly 142mph – as an interloper on a car club track day!

Goodwood’s rough-around-the-edges test heritage will be marked at the72nd Members Meeting on March 29-30 next year, an addition discussed further by Rob on page 35. We’re intrigued by the plan for high-speed demonstrations of 1980s F1 cars, including those powered by turbos. If you’ve seen Bräck’s wheel-sawing in-car footage aboard Adrian Newey’s GT40 from the Revival, you’ll know Goodwood is as tough to negotiate as ever it was. For F1 cars with at least twice the power, Lord March and his team will insist that discipline must be maintained.

So how quickly will they run? “As fast as we can go!” replied the earl. Sub-minute laps should not be anticipated… but it’s a spectacle we can’t wait to see.

As we closed for press, Toro Rosso confirmed that teenage Red Bull junior Daniil Kvyat had won promotion to a 2014 F1 race seat alongside Jean-Eric Vergne. With a Sochi GP on the calendar next year (at least for now), his Russian nationality doesn’t hurt, but his big chance has been handed to him on merit after a strong season in GP3 and a promising F1 test with the team at Silverstone. The decision is bad news for highly rated Antonio Felix da Costa. He had been considered the most likely successor for Red Bull-bound Daniel Ricciardo, but has endured a disappointing season in Formula Renault 3.5. Thus for young Kvyat, opportunity knocks.

Damien Smith