Modern racing is more show than go - Derek Bell Column - February 2014

3rd March 2014

If there is one thing I would change about modern-day motor sport, it would be to remove all the artifice. These days, it’s all about the show. I’ve felt this way for quite a while now, but this attitude was reinforced as the curtain descended on the Daytona 24 Hours at the end of January.

The Action Express Racing Coyote-Chevy driven by João Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sébastien Bourdais came out on top following a three-way battle to the flag, their margin of victory being just 1.4 seconds. They drove a great race, but the team’s second victory in this round-the-clock classic came after sixteen safety car periods. While there were incidents up and down the order, there were times when I wondered if I was watching a NASCAR race. There were so many yellow-flag incidents, it was more like a series of sprint races held over a 24-hour period than an endurance event per se. It was all a bit, well, contrived, but I do understand the danger factor.

I competed in this great race 19 times, and was fortunate enough to win it on three occasions, the last time in 1989 alongside John Andretti and ‘Brilliant Bob’ Wollek. The following year Lady Luck was shining on me once again but only because I was able to walk away from the wreckage of Gianpiero Moretti’s Momo Porsche after it was upended at the top of the banking.

I mention this only to make the point that I understand the elation and the heartbreak associated with racing. I’ve seen it from all sides but there were times when I’ve led races by several laps having conserved the car, kept it off the kerbs, avoided contact with backmarkers and had perfect pit stops. I would have been mightily upset if that lead had been eroded each and every time there was a full course yellow incident on-track. And I’m not talking about major crashes here. To have cars that have lost time for whatever reason be allowed to claw back a lap every time there is a full-course yellow and wind up behind you with only a few laps to go is not racing – it’s showbusiness!

Formula 1 is going the same way. For example, Nico Rosberg’s Monaco Grand Prix victory last year was a master class in winning at the slowest speed possible. It had to be, as these days the tyres are specifically designed to lose grip within just a few laps. As a consequence of this, Nico completed the distance at GP2 speeds, which is frankly absurd. Throw in DRS, KERS and all the other toys, and corners that were once challenging are no longer a challenge and drivers can fly past their rivals on one lap, only to be a sitting duck next time around. It’s all rather artificial.

The old complaint used to be that there wasn’t enough overtaking in F1 and, true enough, there were some races in the not too dim and distant past that were excruciatingly boring. But what happens when overtaking becomes so commonplace that it becomes normal? The thrill factor will dissipate and fans will look elsewhere – to motorcycle racing, most likely.

I don’t want to sound like a purist harking back to the glory days of yesteryear, but there is a really big part of me that believes motor racing is heading in the wrong direction. However, I am delighted that top-flight American sports car racing is unified under one banner for 2014. It’s too early to say if the United Sports Car Championship will flourish, with the Daytona Prototype machinery and LMP2 cars competing together via an equivalency formula, but there was no way two distinct series could continue for much longer.

It’s early days yet, but judging from the disparity in lap times between the two breeds of sports car at Daytona, the formula needs some tweaking. The LMP2 cars were quick in the corners but dog-slow on the straights. The best LMP2 lap time in qualifying was almost 1.6 seconds behind the pole-sitting Daytona Prototype. Nevertheless, fair play to Klaus Graf, Lucas Luhr and Alex Brundle for being the top LMP2 finishers in fifth place overall aboard their ORECA-Nissan.

By chance, I found myself chatting with Alex’s father Martin on the tram ride into the circuit before the start. Martin is himself a former winner of this historic race, and knows what victory there means, so I was delighted that his young son claimed some glory a day later. Judging by the number of second-generation drivers at Daytona – guys with surnames such as Gurney, Fittipaldi, Rahal and so on – sports car racing still has some currency. Long may it continue.

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