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Posts filed under ‘Racing’

The Aesthetics of Racing: Toyota GT-One

June 25, 2012 by Matt

Toyota GT-One GT1 Red Le Mans Racer Race Car

With respect to what it set out to do—secure a 24 Hours of Le Mans victory for manufacturer Toyota—the GT-One was a miserable failure. Aesthetically, however, it’s a fascinating car, especially from a Japanese outfit.

Purpose-built to conquer Le Mans, the GT-One nestled into the then-top-tier GT1 class in ’98, and the GTP class in ’99, the shift necessitated by a regulation change that required more roadgoing examples built in order to homologate a car for the highest-level class, an effort Toyota was unwilling to put forth. Although its twin-turbo 3.6l V8 and Dallara-developed chassis gave the GT-One a competitive turn of speed, it was let down by mechanical failures, tire disintegrations and just plain bad luck (read: collisions initiated by other racers). Even with the enormous resources of the Japanese giant, the car could finish no better than 25 laps back of the winning Porsche 911 GT1 in ’98. It did manage to hold on to second place overall in ’99, but that achievement was tempered by the fact that it was running in a class by itself, the other race cars having to abide by slightly more stringent rules.

Toyota GT-One GT1 Red Le Mans Racer Race Car

In spite of its lack of success around the Circuit de la Sarthe, I’m fascinated by, if not necessarily drawn to, its looks. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of its lines are their utter organic-ness. To generalize, even when incorporating sweeping, curved shapes, Japanese-sourced styling isn’t known for being the most romantic, as it were. But on a race car, no less, where form should be fully subservient to function, the GT-One’s shape looks downright fanciful. Examine the gothic curve of the nose cone, check out the insectoid headlight clusters and the rippling expanse of bodywork aft of the cockpit, terminating in a full-width ducktail and baroque spoiler. Looking so much like an idle concept exercise, I couldn’t believe Toyota had actually raced one “in anger” when I first beheld it (admittedly, in the video game Gran Turismo 2). They deserve recognition for creating a car so distinctive, if not successful.

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series examining the aesthetic merits of cars designed almost wholly with function in mind. Read the other installments here:


2012 Champion Porsche 911 Turbo RSR:
The Antihero

June 8, 2012 by Matt

2012 Champion Motorsport Porsche 911 Turbo RSR 997 Black

Funny thing about the Porsche 911—whether on the street or on the track, it always seems like the “good guy.” Yes, its mechanical configuration is unorthodox, and its owners snooty from time to time, but competing against a reckless Ferrari or headstrong BMW, the 911 is always (if you’ll pardon the non-Teutonic analogy) the Captain America of the bunch—the forthright, unflappable do-gooder in a crowd of capable misfits.

Until this 911.

Car and Driver‘s July 2012 feature story on the 2012 Champion Motorsport 911 Turbo RSR, internally known as the CMSP-38, bills the car as “the coolest 911 ever.” I’d choose a different adjective: Evil.

The price certainly is. Prepare to shell out near-as-makes-no-difference $400K for the privilege of parking one in your garage, on top of which get ready to fork over additional suitcases of Benjamins as track days—the CMSP-38’s natural habitat—consume tires and pricey specialty Porsche bits.

Which isn’t to say the car can’t be driven on the street—it can, and quite pleasantly, but as the C&D article makes clear, the objective performance numbers—640 hp, 0-60 in 2.7—while properly stratospheric, aren’t distinct enough from the plebeian 911 Turbo S’s to warrant the additional cash for bragging rights alone. No, the intent behind Champion Motorsport’s wide body, aero and track-centric modifications is to make those kinds of numbers much more usable. It’s one thing if you’ve got Roger Federer’s “liquid whip” forehand; it’s phenomenal if you can hit that forehand from anywhere on the court. Giving the performance numbers that kind of mobility is what Champion has achieved with the CMSP-38.

And then they decided to offer all that unheard-of performance bandwidth in a wrapper that looks like it would just as soon rip your face off as shake your hand. Behold the duality of the Champion 911 RSR: The German equivalent of the Batmobile; the heart of gold ensconced in a menacing shape; lethal force harnessed in the service of what’s right, in this case going very, very fast around a race track. Evil—controlled.

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A Morning at VIR

May 31, 2012 by Matt

VIR Virginia International Raceway SAARS MAARC Challenge 2012

Earlier in the month, I took my kids to the Double SAARC/MAARS club race at Virginia International Raceway, or VIR, near Danville. I’d attended the annual springtime event before, thought not in years, but it was much as I remembered it: $10 cost of entry for a ton of racing action, all different classes of cars, free and easy access to the pits, drivers and teams, and wide open areas of the infield for the kids to run around in. I bought my dad along, too, and they all loved it.

The free parade laps of the track at lunchtime were a definite highlight. The kids loved spiraling down through the Rollercoaster and up through the Climbing Esses. It was great fun.

Click on the jump to view the photos!


Red Bull’s Return:
The 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix

April 24, 2012 by Matt

Bahrain F1 Formula 1 One Circuit Track GP Grand Prix

There was far more commotion surrounding this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix than there was in the race itself.

The off-again, on-again event was finally held on Sunday in the midst of protests over the country’s crackdown on political dissent. Formula 1 being a global sport, and one that’s consistently prided itself on paying lip service to a higher social conscience (even if the main concern of the powers-that-be has been and always will be money, first and foremost), there were serious doubts as to whether the event would actually proceed. In the end, though, the race weekend moved forward and Sebastian Vettel won from pole position in his Red Bull, a bit of deja vu to anyone who followed his dominance last season.

Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean rounded out the podium for a strong showing by the Lotus Renault team. The second-place finish was particularly vindicating for Räikkönen after his single-lap meltdown last race in China. Both Williams cars retired, another setback for what was supposed to be a resurgent year for the storied British team. As for “my” driver, Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari had a decent drive from 9th place on the grid, but couldn’t manage better than 7th. At least he finished in the points, and with four different winners in the first four races of the season, is within spitting distance of the top of the leaderboard.

Spain in three weeks! Can’t wait for the European leg of the F1 season.

The drivers’ points standings after the race:

  1. 53: Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault
  2. 49: Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes
  3. 48: Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault
  4. 43: Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes
  5. 43: Fernando Alonso, Ferrari

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Mid-Pack Melee:
The 2012 Chinese Grand Prix

April 15, 2012 by Matt

Chinese Grand Prix Formula 1 One F1 Shanghai International Circuit Track Map Layout Diagram Schematic

What’s going on with Formula 1 this year? Rather than the typical domination by one or two teams, almost every team and driver on the grid seems to be in contention for a top grid or podium spot on any given weekend. At least, judging by the first three races.

The 2012 Chinese Grand Prix continued the trend, and this weekend, it was the Nico Rosberg and Mercedes F1 show. Both Rosberg and his teammate, 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, qualified extremely well (Rosberg on pole), and would have both proceeded to own the race if it weren’t for an unfortunate pit incident that sidelined Schumacher. Rosberg, for his part, soldiered on, maintaining a solid 20-second lead on the rest of the pack to clinch the win.

Speaking of the rest the pack, I can recall entire F1 seasons that didn’t contain the amount of overtaking present in this one race. Drivers were passed only to retake their lost position in the following corner or two; some drivers surged and gained 3 or 4 places in the span of one lap, while others (Kimi Räikkönen namely, on account of over-worn tires) fell 10 positions in the span of 2 laps. Apart from Rosberg, securely ensconced in 1st, it’s like the deck was shuffled every five minutes. At the finish line, 2nd and 13th places were separated by a paltry 30 seconds. It made for some exciting racing, and the drivers’ skill and gusto came to the fore. Fun to watch.

My driver, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, didn’t fare as well, being one of those who fell more than a few places in 2-3 laps, but eked out a 9th place finish, and held on to third place in the 2012 driver’s standings. Ah well. Bahrain next week!

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Unpredictable Deluge:
The 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix

March 25, 2012 by Matt

2012 Malaysian GP Grand Prix Sepang Race Track Map Circuit Diagram Layout Schematic

The second round of the 2012 Formula 1 championship at Sepang in Malaysia was an eventful one, if only because of the weather.

Most of the kinks having been worked out of the new 2012 cars, qualifying was less a parade of second-stringers than in Melbourne a week ago. For the second straight week, Lewis Hamilton clinched the pole, flanked by his teammate Jenson Button for a solid McLaren front row. If this season seemed to be shaping up to be dominated by McLaren in the manner last year was owned by Red Bull, and specifically Sebastian Vettel (who qualified 6th this week), the actual race would debunk that notion.

Malaysia’s unpredictable weather not only meant the rain came and went within the span of half an hour, it also made some parts of the circuit relatively dry while others were practically flooded. The net result was that tire strategy and driving skill came to the fore like it had in few other F1 races in recent memory.

Cars switched continually between full wet tires and intermediates, some drivers opting for slower but safer full wets, and others electing to continue on the intermediates in the hopes the rain would subside and they would save themselves a pit stop. And after much shuffling of the field and a remarkably low number of retirements given the poor conditions, along with a full stop of the race when the downpour was at its most intense, Ferrari driver and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso emerged far ahead of the rest of the field, tailed only by rookie Sauber driver Sergio Perez. The latter put up a good fight against the faster Ferrari, but ran wide during an attempted overtaking maneuver late in the race and had to concede the win to Alonso.

I was pleased with the outcome. I like Ferrari’s quasi-underdog status this year, and Alonso is an excellent, solid driver whose talent has been proven in a number of different machines. It was a hard-earned win, and will hopefully inject some confidence (as if any were lacking) back into the Maranello team after a few seasons nipping at the heels of Red Bull and McLaren.

On an aesthetic note, I noticed something about the cars that had been built into their design since the beginning of the season, but I just now caught: Most of them are shovel-nosed, like so:

Ferrari 2012 Formula 1 F1 Race Car Red Type 056 56 Alonso Massa

Apparently, there was a regulation change that lowered the maximum height of the nose, but retained the max height of the structure supporting the driver, and as a result, most constructors have adopted a “stepped” nose design. It may be functional, but good gosh, can you say “Ugliest F1 cars ever?” They’re just terrible.

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Strong Debut for McLaren:
The 2012 Australian Grand Prix

March 18, 2012 by Matt

2012 Australian GP Grand Prix Melbourne Circuit Track Race Map

No nerves for McLaren’s Jenson Button during the first grand prix race of the 2012 Formula 1 season today in Melbourne, Australia.

After all the usual off-season F1 drama (team/driver clashes, name changes, calendar shuffles, etc), Button, the ’09 F1 world champion, showed that he’s still at the top of his game by notching a solid win for McLaren, his teammate (and ’08 world champion) Lewis Hamilton taking third and sandwiching ’10 and ’11 world champion Sebastian Vettel on the podium for a star-studded victory celebration.

If the race was a more-or-less straightforward affair, marked by the usual contact and crashes (most painfully a last-lap foul-up that cost new Williams driver Pastor Maldonado more than a few places), the real surprises came during the qualifying session as the drivers grappled with their new machines under race conditions. McLaren posted a strong showing, with Hamilton on pole followed by Button, but from 3rd on down it was as if the constructor’s deck had been shuffled, with a Lotus and Mercedes in the 3rd and 4th slots, and the two Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa all the way down in 12th and 16th, respectively.

As mentioned, the race straightened things out, more or less, with Alonso completing a particularly strong drive to come in the points in 5th. The location was beautiful as well, with long afternoon shadows from palm trees gently painting the circuit as the new 2012 F1 cars—more high-nosed than last year’s, with sleeker bodywork—powering around the tight circuit. Stay tuned for the next chapter in the unfolding 2012 F1 season, the Malaysian GP, in two weeks.

A bit of a side note: I really have a bone to pick with Speed’s coverage of the race. It’s the only station that shows F1 live (or at all) here in the US, and this year they’ve decided to do away with their afternoon replays of the race. The upshot today was that the race was shown on Speed at 1:30 AM EDT, and not re-shown later in the day. That’s a real problem for those of us who don’t have the ability to record the race, and an unfortunate decision one year before the US Grand Prix returns to the F1 calendar in 2013. I understand the channel probably had to pay twice as much for the broadcast rights to show the race again in the afternoon, but it raises the question of what other programming shown on Speed is really so compelling that they’d bump an F1 race for it? Disappointing.

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Choice Circuits: Spa-Francorchamps

March 6, 2012 by Matt

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit Track Map Layout Diagram Schematic Belgium Belgian GP Grand Prix F1 Formula 1

Let’s talk about Spa for a bit. Yesterday’s post featured a clip showcasing the track’s most famous corner, the Eau Rouge / Radillion combination, but the whole circuit is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, as mentioned, many prominent Formula 1 drivers have ranked it among their very favorites.

Located in the Francorchamps suburb of Spa, Belgium (hence its name), an F1 victory at the circuit doesn’t hold quite as much prestige as a triumph at Monaco or Monza, in spite of its popularity among the drivers. That said, there are few tracks with a more distinctive layout, looking as it does like a kind of gun. It is to F1 circuits what Orion is to constellations: An instantly-recognizable figure. Measuring nearly 4.5 miles in length, Spa is also one of the longest F1 circuits, and the Belgian Grand Prix runs for a fewer number of laps (only 44) than other races on the calendar in order to reach a preset race distance. Spa is a fast track as well, with only two slow corners, the rest consisting of straights or long, sweeping bends. Apart from the aforementioned Eau Rouge corner, the backfield of the circuit, from Rivage on, can be exceptionally enjoyable for drivers who establish a kind of rhythm through the succession of high-speed esses.

All in all, a fantastic track, and one that’s maintained its status as one of F1’s premier venues through all the regulatory upheaval of the past 20 years or so, having undergone notably few alterations compared to other circuits such as Silverstone. As far as I know, only the Chicane has been significantly reprofiled (previously it consisted of a pair of back-to-back chicanes and was named Bus Stop), the rest of the track layout remaining largely the same.

Watch the clip below as Jenson Button delivers a flying lap in his ’04 BAR-Honda:

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing legendary and notable racing venues from around the globe. Read the other installments here:


The Speed of Formula 1:
An Utterly Different Reference Frame

March 5, 2012 by Matt

F1 Formula 1 Onboard On Board In Car Cockpit Driver Renault

I thought of the idea for this post the other day, just running errands with the kids in the back of the minivan. Pulling away from a stoplight, all the cars accelerated at roughly the same rate, and I thought, “There’s an expected g-force envelope that all cars fall into, more or less.” It’s true—even high-end sports cars with hundreds more horsepower than our lowly van still only “turn it up” a few notches over the average family sedan. They still play by the rules, so to speak; they’re just really good at the game. Driving or riding in one is fun and impressive, to be sure, but the experience isn’t different enough from an ordinary commute that it’s something our brain has trouble relating to.

And then there’s F1. Play the above video, if you haven’t yet. The location is the famous Eau Rouge corner at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium, a track many famous F1 drivers have listed as a favorite.

In the left frame, track-prepped sports cars navigate down the hill, around the bend and up the hill to the Kemmel straight. Were any of us to ride shotgun, we’d feel g-forces throwing us around in our harness as the car skirted around the edges of the traction circle. It’d be fast and violent, but we’d still be able to keep our wits about us.

The right frame, on the other hand, holds a different world. Late model Formula 1 cars literally blast through the bend in a fraction of the time it takes the already-capable “regular” race cars to make it through. It’s just…I can’t even conceive of what it must feel like to be behind the wheel. Neither my daily commute nor even the most extreme “automotive situation” I’ve ever experienced offer me any kind of framework for understanding that kind of speed, that power, that neck-breaking grip… When I first saw the clip, I was sure the F1 half was sped up, but no; it’s real-time.

Watching F1 on television, it can be easy to become numb to the otherworldly racing environment F1 cars and drivers inhabit. Viewing a clip like the above is something of a reality check, and if anything, increases my esteem for the athletes that participate in the sport.