A month in the life of Motor Sport


OK, I’m sold. I’d been told it was the case and now I know it’s true. Austin is a great city to drop in on.

Not that I needed much convincing given how much I always love visiting any part of the United States, but as music fans and Formula 1 journalists already know the state capital of Texas has a character and vibrancy all of its own. As for the race circuit they’ve built about 25 minutes to the south-east of downtown, it’s probably the best new track of the past 10 years – a view also expressed by Allan McNish, following his World Endurance Championship win last Sunday.

I write from my hotel room overlooking the Colorado River and the Austin city skyline, the morning after (it’ll be quite some view, when the sun comes up – cursed jetlag). Dipping in and out of the WEC as I tend to do is one of this job’s greatest perks, although it always leaves me wanting more, to follow the story through every chapter around the world. That’s because it’s a series with great promise, even if the tough times we live in means the grid isn’t as large as we’d like it.

The rivalry between Audi and Toyota is fascinating, the strengths and weaknesses of their opposed solutions to fuel and hybrid devices offering the variables that are required for hard-to-predict high-level motor racing. Although Audi always had a performance edge in Austin, Toyota’s superior tyre-wear and fuel economy kept us guessing into the sixth and final hour.

The wheel to wheel dicing among the LMP1 prototypes was of the highest calibre too, fought out among gifted drivers who appear to have a healthy respect for each other and their sport. And next year, it’s only going to get better with the arrival of Porsche and Mark Webber, who is under no illusions that he’s in for a challenging adventure once he quits F1 to play the long game next year.

Quality is found in every class of the WEC, and each category is super-competitive. Well, almost every category. Sadly, only a single privateer has maintained a presence in LMP1, Rebellion’s Lola proving way quicker than the best of the LMP2s, but nowhere near the levels of the factory teams ahead of it. It is a problem that has hopefully been addressed by the new technical rules for next year, which has encouraged a new raft of constructors to enter the fray, including an all-new racer from Rebellion itself.

The only real downside to the weekend in Austin was the size of the crowd. Sadly, I have to say it was paltry.

On Saturday afternoon I walked up to the outside of the elevated Turn 1 to watch the American Le Mans Series, which shared the bill with the WEC this weekend. I took in the views across the circuit and beyond, and enjoyed the spectacle at one of racing’s best first corners, surrounded by perhaps a couple of hundred people. Not great, but it could have been a lot worse – and it was, the following morning.

As a home-grown national series, the ALMS has its own fanbase. But the WEC is foreign and means little to anyone in these parts other than die-hards (ie, very much the minority). This race needed strategically planned promotion and it didn’t get it. I saw one billboard for the race as I drove out to the circuit each morning, and in Austin itself there was no clue that the circuit even existed, never mind the race that was taking place.

F1 drew a fantastic crowd on its Austin debut last year, from Texas, across the border in Mexico and from further afield, and I’m sure it will do again this November. But to the wider world the WEC is a relative backwater. It needs a hard sell, and in a country so savvy to commercial needs I was surprised and disappointed at the lack of effort. So was governing body the ACO. Austin is back on the calendar for next year, but the message was it must try harder to tell people about its brilliant weekend of sports car racing.

The Austin trip concludes a September in which you could say I’ve enjoyed the ‘rich tapestry’ of life at Motor Sport. I’ve driven a Rolls-Royce for the first time, heading to Vienna for a test in the new Wraith and it’s fair to say it was all a different world for me. The smooth ride, the comfort within its opulent cabin and the assuring hush as you glide towards the horizon drew me into a reverie of calm. Then we left the motorway for quieter roads and I discovered another side to the Wraith. It has supercar performance, including an uncanny deftness around corners for such a big car.

The people at Rolls don’t like to use the s-word: sport is an uncomfortable concept for the world’s greatest maker of luxury automobiles. But as we pieced together the cover tasters for the November issue, on sale this week, it was the word I couldn’t avoid when it came to plugging Andrew Frankel’s definitive review of the Wraith inside.

From Vienna I flew to Frankfurt for the motor show – another first for me – and the irony of driving a 6.6-litre V12 behemoth one day, then attending the launch of an oh-so-worthy all-electric racing series the next could not be lost on me. I told you we experience a rich tapestry around here.

Formula E will spark (sorry) plenty of cynicism among our regular readers, and I completely understand why. We all fell in love with motor racing because of the sensory overload of V8s and V12s. The concept of silent electric vehicles of limited range and performance is all rather anaemic – although on the lack of noise, I maintain you could never describe Audi’s swooshing diesel prototypes that way.

But having listened to the people from Formula E, I’ve come to the conclusion we should keep an open mind on this single-seater series that should kick off next September. It’s new, different and genuinely innovative, which must at least make it interesting. True, it might also be gimmicky. But let’s give it a chance before we judge it. You can find out more about the series and how it will work in the new issue.

And if you really can’t face reading about eco-friendly, battery-powered racers, never fear – there’s a wonderful François Cevert cover story by Nigel Roebuck to get your teeth into. Now that’s more like it!

Cevert, of course, died 40 years ago in a horrible accident at Watkins Glen. His family and friends lost a vivacious and colourful man who was clearly easy to love, while the sport lost a burgeoning superstar who might just have had the ability to go all the way. His friend and Tyrrell team-mate Jackie Stewart certainly thinks so, and recalls the man he thought of as a brother in Nigel’s beautifully crafted article.

‘What-might-have-beens’ are common to our magazine, and for good reason. Thanks to the past dangers of our sport, there are sadly so many of them. Ian Wagstaff offers another in the story of Chris Bristow, the young British charger who lost his life on the fearsome old Spa in 1960. Like Cevert, those who knew him speak of Bristow as a future champion, although at our most recent reader evening Sir Stirling Moss was, respectfully, less convinced. Whatever, Bristow is something of a forgotten figure in British motor racing because his time was so short – and let’s face it, 1960 was a long time ago. I found it gripping to revisit his tale, and I hope you will too.

Other highlights of the November issue include some wonderful images of Zandvoort from a new book and DVD that is about to be released and an in-depth profile of the late Derek Bennett, the man behind Chevron Racing Cars who would have turned 80 this month. We, like most of the historic racing community, have a huge soft spot for Chevron, but Bennett remains an enigmatic figure. Just finding photos of the man who, in his way, was as talented as Colin Chapman took some digging.

Right, the sun has risen here in Austin and I’m off to pick up Allan McNish to head off on a Texan road trip (very Thelma and Louise!). You can read what we get up to in a couple of months from now.

I’d also urge you to keep an eye on the website and magazine stalls in WH Smiths during October, when we bring you a special extra one-off magazine. I won’t give too much away at this stage – we haven’t finished it yet! But let’s just say it is bound to cause lively debate and the odd argument. It’s been fun piecing this so-called ‘bookazine’ together and I’m confident you’ll enjoy it – so watch this space.

Click here to read more from Damien Smith

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