Taking it to the Vax!

Down the years there have been countless French drivers that have been blessed with great racing versatility. Think of the rich and varied single-seater/sportscar exploits of Henri Pescarolo, Francois Cevert, Bob Wollek and Yannick Dalmas.

Seldom though is there such a youthful multipurpose racer than 20 year old Matthieu Vaxivière, who in 2014 dovetailed full-time campaigns in top level single seaters – Formula Renault 3.5 and sports cars – the burgeoning FIA World Endurance Championship.

Vaxiviere in action at Interlagos for Prospeed last November - Photo by Jakob Ebrey
Vaxiviere in action at Interlagos for Prospeed last November – Photo by Jakob Ebrey

If this were not enough then young Vaxivière has spent the current winter sampling electric racing technology….. on ice, in the Andros Trophy. As the 20-year old himself attests, he gets impatient unless he is behind the wheel of car, any car. This he well knows, because after an accident at last season’s Formula Renault 3.5 series race in Monaco, he was forced to rest and recuperate for six weeks after sustaining damage to his spine, legacy of an airborne shunt going up the hill toward Casino Square.

“I am not happy unless I am in a race seat, so it was tough after Monaco,” says Vaxivière. “I broke a bone in my back which meant I had to miss Le Mans and also the 3.5 races at Spa and Moscow. It was hard to miss two beautiful race tracks like Le Mans and Spa of course, but I felt I came back stronger and more mature. This was because I had time to think about everything and how I would make up for the lost time when I was in hospital.”

This re-assessment of his season, while laid low paid dividends, as strong performances at Nurburgring and Paul Ricard netted his first podium positions in the ultra-competitive Formula Renault 3.5 series. Success in the FIA WEC also followed with a first podium visit at the Fuji 6 Hours in early October.

After just a few seasons of karting, Vaxivière took the plunge in to single seaters in 2010, racing in the French Formula 4 series. A year later he was champion. Graduating to Formula Renault 2.0 litre in 2012 he endured two character building seasons before being snapped up by the Lotus F1 Junior team, which is operated by the Czech based Charouz operation.

A jump in to Renault 3.5 followed in 2014, where the rookie handled the brawny single-seaters well and initially stacked up favorably against his more experienced team-mate – Marlon Stockinger.

Vaxivière’s diverse approach to his racing seems to be paying dividends and the man himself freely admits that the knowledge and experience he has soaked in 2014 has been valuable to an accelerated maturity. Sharing a Prospeed Porsche 911 RSR in the FIA WEC with veteran sportscar racer and former Williams and Tyrrell F1 test driver, Emmanuel Collard, has been formative.

“It was an amazing year in 2014, a tough one of course in many ways but still amazing to do a double programme like I did. I learned so much, especially from this old guy here (pointing to Emmanuel Collard).

“Seriously though, it has been great with ‘Manu because the experience he has is very valuable and I have seen closely what it takes to be quick and also consistent in a sportscar. He is very good on the set-up of the Porsche and the changes we make on the car are usually good ones.

“I think I have proved you can do both (single seaters and sportscars) quite successfully,” he continues.” The stamina in endurance racing helps from the mental side of racing. It gives me a lot of good advantages to my driving.”

And so they have. Immediately after the Shanghai 6 Hour FIA WEC race in November this writer ventured down to the Prospeed pit to get reaction from Vaxivière, who had starred in a spirited run to fourth in class. However, I was told by his team manager that he had dashed off to the airport as he was testing his Lotus 3.5 mount. By the end of the following day at Aragon, he was heading the times, half a second ahead of the opposition. So much for jet-lag!

Displaying the usual swagger and confidence associated with young chargers, Vaxivière is nonetheless keen to acknowledge the rarified protagonists he was up against in FIA WEC last season. A lot rubbed off as he went up against some of the world’s finest GT talent such as Gianmaria Bruni, Frederic Makowiecki, Stefan Mucke and Richard Leitz.

“I noticed, especially after coming back from the Monaco injury, that I picked up a lot more detail about racing strategy, particularly against the top guys. It is one thing having a great driver like Manu as a team mate but I have also learned a lot studying our opponents on the track.”

Vaxivière is keen to replicate his busy 2014 this season and has confirmed a full programme with Lotus in Formula Renault 3.5.

“I also have unfinished business at Le Mans for sure and I would love to race in the FIA WEC again because it is such a growing championship and now there are lots of ex F1 people racing in it like Webber and Hulkenberg.

“But my real aim for 2015 will be winning the Formula Renault 3.5 championship. 2014 was a learning year and this year will be a winning year,” he states with assured conviction.

As ever though with budding talent, when asked about his ultimate and preferred objective, the topic turns to Formula One.

“Ultimately I want to go there (F1) but as we all know it is complicated to achieve that just now. But for sure this is my goal. But the opportunity in the FIA WEC gives me an advantage at an early age to see what racing is all about and to make sure that I am competing in front of some big manufacturers and some influential people. Whatever happens, I want a long career at the top level and always race with the possibility to win. Why else would you get in a racing car?”

This article first appeared in the March edition of Motor sport magazine

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A Middlebridge over troubled water

As modern professional sports go, Formula 1 has consistently proved to be one of the hardest to enter, let alone succeed in. As 2015 testing cranks up and new stories break, the ghost of Caterham grows fainter while Manor/Marussia struggles to be reanimated.

It is no secret that F1′s current constitution is a wholly unsuitable environment for running a lasting independent and healthy team. With at least three current midfield F1 teams currently facing unsettled and largely uncertain futures, three-car teams have been mooted as a possible solution in the latter part of the current decade.

The last time a third chassis came close to entering a grand prix was in 1987. Pretty much all of the necessary ingredients to make a competitive debut appeared to be in place. But it was more complicated than that.

The Middlebridge Benetton B186 completed in the workshop - Photo with thanks to Ed Taylor
The Middlebridge Benetton B186 completed in the workshop – Photo with thanks to Ed Taylor

Halfway through that season Middlebridge Racing planned to enter a sole, year-old Benetton-BMW, but it was eventually denied a seat at the F1 table. That was not because of any financial constraints, rather an arduous course of sporting political hurdles that could not be sufficiently cleared.

The deal to run the B186 chassis, which had brought Benetton and Gerhard Berger their first F1 victory in Mexico the previous autumn, was set in motion during the early spring of 1987. The then well-known commercial agent Luciano Secchi had introduced Italian fashion house Trussardi to F1, initially via Bernie Ecclestone.

Secchi brokered a deal and Middlebridge team principal John Macdonald approached Benetton boss Peter Collins to acquire two of the B186s. After the deal was done the cars duly appeared in crates at Middlebridge’s base in early June.

“The original plan was to just do the Japanese Grand Prix for Mr Nakauchi [Koji Nakauchi, owner of Middlebridge Group],” says Macdonald. “But then the Trussardi deal came out of the blue and I thought we could do it earlier and do the second half of the season.

“We originally intended to race the car with a Hart engine but then we switched to BMW and it all became a lot more complicated because of that particular decision, which led to a whole lot of politics with the other teams, mainly because we had what was potentially a really potent package.”

Under the expert ‘spannering’ of former Arrows chief mechanic Dave Luckett, the cars were soon resplendent in a unique half-black and half-white livery. The driver for the planned testing and the first six races was Emanuele Pirro, who had some prior experience with both Benetton and BMW.

Pirro had almost made his F1 debut two years previously when Brabham dispensed with the services of Francois Hesnault mid-season. The Italian impressed the team greatly in testing but Marc Surer was favoured at the last minute, chiefly because of his deeper and longer relationship with BMW.

“I had a test in 1986 with Benetton at Donington Park,” remembers Pirro. “It all went very well and just after this I got a works BMW deal in touring cars as well. Whether or not this helped with the Middlebridge plans I don’t know.

“I was also racing in F3000 (for Onyx) and I also stayed in touch with Bernie quite a bit. Through all of these contacts I was of course aiming to get into Formula 1.”

Ecclestone, increasingly focusing on FOCA matters rather than his Brabham team, which he was looking to sell, was well aware of Middlebridge’s financial clout via its group of companies owned by Nakauchi. But it would take a further three years and many messy and convoluted episodes for Nakauchi and Middlebridge to acquire Brabham.

Ecclestone and Macdonald were old associates and it is a relationship that endures to this day, since Macdonald is currently employed by Formula One Management.

“Bernie was always a good ally,” says Macdonald. “But there was a lot of stuff going on, especially with Arrows. I remember that [Jackie] Oliver even put Trussardi stickers on his car at Silverstone, believing that he had a deal with them.

John MacDonald in 1987
John MacDonald in 1987

“He was soon told to take them off by a load of lawyers. So I suppose he was never going to do us any favours, was he?”

With both cars completed, a test programme for the ex-Berger Benetton B186 was planned to begin in early August – but behind the scenes, all was not well.

The year-old Benetton chassis was deemed to constitute a breach of the original Concorde Agreement since it was a third chassis, but more importantly it was to be run with a different engine to the contemporary ‘works’ Benetton B187s of Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi, who were powered by Ford V8s.

Frantic negotiations went on between the Hungarian and Austrian Grands Prix, and for a brief period it looked like the Middlebridge Benetton would make its debut at the Osterreichring in mid-August. A Pirelli tyre deal was provisionally agreed and plans made to rehomologate the entry as a Trussardi-BMW, if that would guarantee the team some track action.

But the most immediate sticking point was that with Middlebridge hoping to join the 26 cars already present, and only 26 sanctioned to start a grand prix, Macdonald and his associates needed the say-so of every team in order to be granted a race start.

Since a second iteration of the Concorde Agreement was due at the end of the year, some of the other teams were not in the mood for compromise. But after some progress was made in Austria, particularly with Tyrrell, Lotus and Ligier, the Middlebridge mechanics received their itineraries for a launch at Trussardi’s Milan headquarters on the Wednesday before the Italian GP, and all seemed to be in place for their first grand prix.

The mood of optimism was soon dashed, though. Arrows team manager Oliver refused to give any leeway to the Middlebridge entry regarding a 27th entry for Monza. Then BMW began to have misgivings about the whole circus it was becoming embroiled in; and, as the Middlebridge truck was about to leave the workshop, news came through that BMW ECUs to run the engine would not be released to the team – the dream was over.

What made it all the more galling for Macdonald and his team was that they had also signed a provisional deal with Aguri Suzuki to make his debut at his home race of Suzuka.

“I had the feeling that John was relying on Bernie’s help on the run up to Monza,” says a still-wistful Pirro. “I wasn’t in the loop at all, but felt sorry for John because he and the team had worked very hard.

“It was right at the last minute I got the call that I was not going to drive at Monza; I think it was on the Wednesday afternoon of race week. One minute it was, ‘We are doing it’, the next, ‘We’re not doing it’. It is easy to say it now but at Monza I am convinced we would have been in the top 10, even with no testing.”

Unlike the car, everything was far from black and white for the Middlebridge F1 programme. Much like F1 in the modern age, the intricacies and politics detracted from the spectacle itself, denying fans and the paying public the chance to see new drivers and teams in action.

HOW MIDDLEBRIDGE FAILURE SPAWNED PIRRO’S McLAREN DEAL

Emanuele Pirro’s (almost) entry into the cut-throat world of F1 appeared to be an ungainly career-stalling farrago. At the time it didn’t do much for Pirro’s state of mind but, as the four-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner explains, it eventually opened more doors than it shut.

“The closer it got to Monza the more anxious I got,” he recalls. “We had not run the car at all, not even a shakedown.

“But actually I wasn’t that worried because it was a proven car and had a great engine, so it should have just been a start-up-and-go experience.

“I was calling John Macdonald every other day and I was quite nervous. I remember he used to say in his funny London accent, ‘Be patient… be patient, Bernie is helping us. JUST BE PATIENT!’”

But from what looked like a bodyblow to his nascent F1 career, Pirro’s luck was actually in. A lucrative – financially as well as in terms of air-miles – deal to become the resident test driver in Japan with Honda was soon to be sealed.

“In 1988 I ended up driving for Middlebridge in Japanese F3000 as well as doing the Honda F1 testing,” says Pirro today. “I didn’t actually know how the F3000 deal was done but I always got the impression that somewhere along the line John and Koji [Nakauchi] had set things up, and possibly with Bernie’s help, to get me the Honda deal.

“If that really was the case then I am grateful because I worked with such an unbelievable company in Honda and of course also McLaren with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

“It is difficult to look back with regrets. I tend not to think like this really – it’s funny how things work out in F1 and life in general, isn’t it?”

This article was first published in the 12th February edition of Autosport magazine

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Ricardo Rosset: Better than you thought!

He was a much and quite unfairly maligned racer, tagged with the journeyman driver tag, at best.

Ricardo Rosset however was much more than the three wretched F1 seasons he took part in from 1996-1998.

When I say took part, 1997 doesn’t really count after the dismal Mastercard Lola project stumbled in to ignominy and eventual administration after just one Grand Prix.

As the man himself states: “In 1996 I was up against Jos Verstappen who already had two F1 seasons of experience and was bloody fast. The Footwork team was in turmoil then too as (Tom) Walkinshaw took over. Then the Lola thing happened before the Tyrrell chance came along in ’98. Like Footwork the team was having problems and BAT (British American Tobacco) bought the team halfway through the season. That was my F1 career!”

It’s not exactly chockfull of opportunity is it? Rosset had shown promise in the lower formulae. He won a British F3 round at Snetterton in 1994 against Jan Magnussen and Dario Franchitti and he took a debut F3000 victory at Silverstone in 1995 on his way to finishing runner-up to Super Nova team mate Vincenzo Sospiri. What many didn’t know was that while he was racing, Rosset also had a day job!

An intelligent and skilful businessman, Rosset ran his companies in parallel with his professional racing career from an early age and only started racing when he was 21. When it stopped abruptly at the end of that difficult 1998 season he put all his energy back in to his sports and leisure wear business – Track & Field.

Ricardo Rosset at Interlagos last November - Photo: Sam Smith
Ricardo Rosset at Interlagos last November – Photo: Sam Smith

“I was always told to have two options in my life and I had business and F1,” Rosset told us. “You know when I stopped racing I didn’t miss it all. My business was taking so much of my energy. Then when it started to get more and more successful I got the racing hunger again.”

After making Track & Field in to one of South America’s leading sportswear brands, Rosset returned to racing in 2008, exactly a decade on from the chastening experience with Tyrrell.  This time it was fun though and he was soon winning races in the Brazilian Porsche GT3 Cup, eventually becoming a double champion in 2013, following up his initial success of 2010.

Here, Ricardo recalls his day of days when he vanquished the International F3000 field on his debut in 1995.

Ricardo Rosset – Race of my Life – 1995 International Trophy, Silverstone

I was close to choosing my Grand Prix debut at Melbourne in 1996. I had very little testing with the Footwork team but managed to finish in 9th place which would have been some points today. I even have that car now in my office, along with a Tyrrell chassis I drove!

But I have to choose my International F3000 debut at Silverstone in 1995. It was the perfect weekend as I took the pole, the race win and fastest lap. I was really surprised it happened liked that because there was some really tough competition and also my team mate at Super Nova was Vincenzo Sospiri, who was very quick but also very experienced by then. There were also many telaneted guys like Allan McNish, Kenny Brack, Tarso Marques and Marc Goossens.

RR

I remember that I was able to pull out a good gap over Tarso who was on the front row with me. But soon Vincenzo was up to second place and almost at the same time I started to have a pretty unusual problem.

At about half distance I became aware of something uncomfortable in my seat around the neck area. It turned out to be my headrest which had worked loose. It was just becoming a big issue for me when it came away completely and flew of in to the gravel trap!

After that I was able to maintain the gap to Vincenzo and took the chequered flag about seven seconds ahead. It was an unbelievable feeling and I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to achieve that result in my debut race.

I had the best engineer I ever worked with – Mick Cook. We worked together very well and he was very creative and a master at reading the set-up. In fact when I went to Footwork for 1996 I tried to take him with me but he stayed in F3000 and ended up winning more races.

I suppose that result gave me lots of confidence but it was also tough to keep up the level of performance like that. The start of the season in 1995 was fantastic and I went on to win again at Enna and I was really close to Vincenzo in the championship at that stage. But when it came to tracks that I did not know like Pau and Hockenheim the experience of the other drivers showed. Ultimately Vincenzo went on to win the title and he deserved it. We then ended up as team mates at Lola but the less we talk about that experience the better I guess!

I won races in F3 and F3000 against some great opposition. F1 was a different story and each of the three teams I was with in F1 were in a lot of trouble and going through big changes, but I guess that is just the way it goes sometimes.

However, I will always remember that perfect day at Silverstone when the only problem I had was that loose headrest.

The Race of my Life article first appeared in the 28th January edition of Autosport magazine

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That Was the Year that Was…..

As the year is just about to be indexed in to the great ann(u)als of our time, it threw up a great tapestry of memories for me as I sit here gazing in to a log-fire nursing a bottle of Cotes Du Beaune.

First the stats. I visited 24 circuits in 2014, 6 of them new to me, which in turn ratchets up my total number of race circuits visited to 68. I saw one 24 hours race, 6 x 6 Hour races and 5 x 4 hour races. I also saw my first ever all-electric race too.

Amid the new there was also the old, as I reported on three rounds of the often maligned but oddly engrossing Auto GP series. It was a season of real contrasts and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m not one of these people who always say I am lucky to be doing what I do. The reason being is that this is my profession and not a hobby. Yes I love it and in that sense I am fortunate but I prefer to quietly mouth the words ‘you lucky sod’ under my breath when the time is right rather than offer up the usual faux-modesty. Believe me there are many, many times when you feel like mouthing the exact opposite. Anyone who denies this is frankly lying.

As ever, what makes the job for me are the people. The cars are great; brilliant, complicated, extreme and often hard to understand. You can use the same four adjectives to describe some of the fascinating people in motorsport too and that is exactly why it is so captivating to me.

There are many highlights but seven that I especially enjoyed are noted here.

Lotterer at Le Mans

His mighty early morning quadruple stint had to be seen to be believed. A different level entirely. Most of what he achieved that early morning in has been well documented. What I remember vividly is seeing a 3m22.567s on the timing screens, turning to my colleague Gary Watkins and mouthing an expletive before rolling my eyes. At about the same time Gary did something similar. It was an astonishing canvas that Lotterer was painting. It ultimately won himself and his team mates, Benoît Tréluyerand Marcel Fässler, a third Le Mans 24 Hours. I will never forget it.

The Quick Man - Photo by Skippy
The Quick Man – Photo by Skippy

Tinckell at Silverstone, Le Mans, Red Bull Ring, Estoril……..etc,etc……!

Harry Tincknell? Harry Tincknell? Some bloke who was ok in F3 and won a few races but didn’t blow the world away! This was my unconscious opinion of H.Tincknell as we rocked up to the Paul Ricard ELMS test at the end of March.

I, like many, felt the need to almost apologise to one H.Tincknell at seasons end. The main reason was that he simply crushed his immediate competition in 2014 and was, by a long way, the most exciting British sportscar rookie to emerge in years.

His qualifying lap at Silverstone was an early marker. 1.152s faster than everyone, including Karun Chandhok, Christian Klien, Franck Mailleux, Tristan Gommendy and Nelson Panciatici. These were ex-champions, ex-F1 drivers and established LMP2 stars. They were being vanquished.

I was fortunate enough to witness first hand Tincknell’s first laps in an LMP1 car at a secret Misano test in August with Audi Sport Team Joest. He had very few laps but the ones he did complete were good. But what was more impressive was the way he conducted himself around some big names; Dr Ulrich, Marcel Fassler, Leena Gade.

Harry T with Leena Gade at Misano in August - Photo by Sniffer
Harry T with Leena Gade at Misano in August – Photo by Sniffer

I have a feeling that Tincknell will be a big shot in the FIA WEC in 2016 after another year with Jota Sport in the ELMS and aiming for a Le Mans LMP2 double. It will be fascinating to see which manufacturers ‘twist’ first on his services.

Emmo at Interlagos

This one is complicated and hard to go in to detail but I will let you join the dots!

As we all know, the great double World Champion and Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi returned to the cockpit at Interlagos at the end of November.

Thanks to Dailysportscar.com editor, Graham Goodwin, I was in the possession of the recent book on Emmo – ‘A Racers Soul’ ghost written by current McLaren F1 Comms Manager, Matt Bishop. A perfect Christmas present for my father, who witnessed many of the great man’s races in the 1970s.

Two of the greats. Emmo and Tommy K on the Interlagos grid - Photo by Sniffer
Two of the greats. Emmo and Tommy K on the Interlagos grid – Photo by Sniffer

However, some complicated circumstances necessitated me conducting an elaborate and covert operation to get the ‘be-sideburned ones’ signature on the inside cover.

I had to strike swiftly and chose my time perfectly on Sunday morning as he enjoyed a coffee at the back of the AF Corse pit. However, hawks were circling outside and if ever there were a time I did not want small talk with a hero, it was now.

“So how old is Papa Smeefff….”

“Well, he is just a bit younger than yourself Emerson and……and…….I appreciate the signature…..bye….bye….thanks!”

I exited stage left….then right and then down the middle, almost taking out a stack of tyres as did so before squirrelling the bounty back in to my suitcase in the palatial Interlagos press office.

Emerson must have thought I was a little odd, but little did he know my need to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. I do so hope that I meet him again, although many of my FIA WEC colleagues may not share this opinion!

Giacomelli at Monza

Staggering out of the Monza press room after filing an exhaustive 300 words for Autosport.com for the Auto GP race on the last day of May, my mind was focused on nothing more than the litre of Chianti Rufina that Enzo Coloni was protectively nesting for me at the paddock hospitality.

Then to my left I noticed a squat man who was stood talking, quite animatedly, to a few others. It was racing talk because the latin gesticulations were in freestyle, freeform and the volume was rising in synch.

Ahh Bruno! It was indeed Signor Giacomelli and he was talking to former F2 journeyman racer Alberto Colombo, who remarkably had exactly the same hairstyle as he had 35 year ago!

Ciao Bruno! Ciao Alberto! - Photo by Sniffer
Ciao Bruno! Ciao Alberto! – Photo by Sniffer

We chatted for an hour from paddock to car park and it was enthralling. Among the topics were his favourite racing car and you can read his rationale behind choosing the great Lotus 72 in this publication which I was delighted to contribute to in 2014 – http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/magazine/from-the-editor/great-racing-cars/

Buemi at Austin

Agog! We were agog at the Swiss as he destroyed everyone for the first 35mins at COTA. Utterly sublime, Buemi was by far the benchmark in the FIA WEC this season at in Texas he reached his zenith. I’m not sure there are many more superlatives to use here really. You had to see it to believe it! He even spun and still handed over a big chuck of a lead to Ant Davidson. A mesmerising display, bordering on the paranormal.

Mesmerising pace from Sebastien Buemi - Photo by Skippy
Mesmerising pace from Sebastien Buemi – Photo by Skippy

Da Costa at Punta Del Este

Ever wondered what a Daddy Long Legs on Speed would look like driving a single seater racing car? Well, Antonio Felix Da Costa was as close as I have ever seen to this feverish sight at December’s Punta Del Este E-Prix, my first taste of FIA Formula E.

Now, of course I am not pertaining that the talented young Portuguese was high on anything other than raw reflex skill in his free practice session but the way he was hustling his recalcitrant Amlin Aguri Spark-Renault around the sinuous street circuit had me, at ground level just a few feet from the wall, in complete wonder.

A great place to end the season, Punta Del Este - Photo by Sniffer
A great place to end the season, Punta Del Este – Photo by Sniffer

The Formula E season is three races down now. You can read my impression of it right here – http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/formula-e/formula-e-seeing-and-hearing-is-believing/

Berger on Imola 89

You can read the full account here http://www.sniffermedia.com/blog/2014/04/03/imola-1989-the-full-remarkable-story/ but in March I spent thirty minutes on the phone to one of my favourite drivers and characters from my youth – Gerhard Berger. He was a real gentleman and erudite in describing his horrendous incident at Tamburello in 1989.

Berger's charred helmet - Photo with thanks to Gerhard Berger
Berger’s charred helmet – Photo with thanks to Gerhard Berger

What I wasn’t prepared for was his memories from a test later on that spring in ‘89, at the same venue, when he and his soon to be team mate, Ayrton Senna, went to the corner to see what could be done about the run-off.

Gerhard’s words were haunting and lingered movingly. The man went through the most gut-wrenchingly awful weekends in racing history five years after his own brush with death at Tamburello. His words, many of which I chose not to publish, will stay with me forever.

Sobering and Not So Sobering….!

Then there was the moment where I and many others froze, as the shattered image of Loïc Duval’s Audi R18 e-tron quattro flashed on to the screens after just an hours practice running at Le Mans back in June. The scene was ghastly and thankfully swiftly cut by the director. That horrible eerie silence descended over the whole circuit. Thankfully it was soon punctuated by the news that Loïc, a day before his 32nd birthday, had escaped serious injury. The collective exhalation in the press room was palpable.

From sobering high drama to the opposite end of the spectrum now. As the FIA WEC post-season party in downtown Sao Paulo got in to full swing, I somehow decided it would be a good idea to challenge recently crowned LMP champion Sergey Zlobin to an arm-wrestle (after four or five Caiprinha’s anything goes with me apparently!). The result, as if it were ever in doubt, is captured lovingly by John Dagys of www.sportscar365.com

Sniffer v Zlobin – http://instagram.com/p/wFmTO2ziE0/

Of course being on the road you do get to see a fair few off the record moments. Perhaps my favourite from this year occurred in a Shanghai hotel when two FIA WEC drivers decided to ride bicycles in to a 16 story lift. There was a shunt and there were grazes. At breakfast the next morning there was also copious mirth at their tales of daring-do. Thankfully there is no grainy smart-phone footage of this one!

You can follow all our adventures in 2015 at www.twitter.com/sniffermedia

Happy New Year!

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Discovering Interlagos with Allan McNish

They say a racing driver never loses his edge and even if they are just watching the action after a successful and decorated career they are pin-sharp. Allan McNish is living testament to this as he watched the action with us in Free Practice 2 at Interlagos yesterday evening and gave some fascinating opinions.

McNish studies the form with the author and FIa WEC snapper Richard Washbrooke - Photo thanks to David Lord
McNish studies the form with the author and FIA WEC snapper Richard Washbrooke – Photo thanks to David Lord

From the very first moment the three time Le Mans 24 Hour winner and reigning FIA World Endurance champion set his eyes upon the action, he was making key observations about the cars and circuit in this important ninety-minute session. We are stood just after the awesome Ferradura right hander which sweeps in to the tight T7.

“I was here for the F1 only three weeks ago and I walked the track to see what the new surface was like and you could feel how smooth it was,” said McNish. “The other thing that struck me was how it retained moisture. I even tested it by pouring a bit of water on to it during the trackwalk and it was still there when we came round again even though the air temperature was so high. It will be giving a lot of grip.”

“The track temperatures can fluctuate massively here,” continued McNish. “At the GP there was a 14 degree fluctuation throughout the weekend. This has a huge effect on tyre performance obviously. There was blistering with the medium tyre in the F1 on the right front. It will be different here of course but management of the tyres will be a factor, it always is.”

“The first thing I have noticed is that the track has rubbered in massively but the circuit will still evolve,” he continues. “Marbles will be less of a problem here. It is always an issue but it will not be like Fuji for instance.”

McNish instantly picks up that the Porsches’ are riding the kerb well at the tight T7 and that the KCMG Oreca-Nissan appears to be running very stiff and to be adjusting the brake bias a lot in to the tighter right hand corner. The next lap he spots the KCMG car without its front bodywork from miles away as it exits T4. The famous 20/20 vision McNish put to such good use in his career is still as sharp as ever!

Mark Webber exploring the limits at T4 - Photo thanks to David Lord
Mark Webber exploring the limits at T4 – Photo thanks to David Lord

As the session progresses McNish sees that the LMP1 cars are taking a variety of momentum through the Ferradura sweep.

“Aero wise the Audi’s seem to be quicker through the high speed corners,” he says. “This corner (Ferradura) is challenging and is actually two corners in one really. You can see that on entry and exit there is a visible difference in the way the drivers are attacking it. This session is all about tyre data but the Porsche seems not to be able to carry as much momentum in, but on the exit it seems to make up for it and it looks neat and stable. Obviously the lap times indicate this as they are P1 and P2 at the moment.”

“Sector two is the sector that hurts the tyres because it is slow corner after slow corner, apart from this one here (Ferradura). You really need mid-corner front grip and very good traction. It can be a double-edged sword for the set-up because if you have too much understeer you use your rear tyres more because you have to go on to the power at one point, so it crosses over. The final sector is all about pure traction out of the last left hander and then how much power you have up the hill.”

McNish, who is hooked up to the Audi comms in the pits knows as soon as the drivers do that a light rain shower has begun.

“Marcel (Fassler) has just said it is raining on the main straight,” he states as he looks up to the sky at the same time. “The weather changes really quickly here as we are only a few miles from the sea. But the forecast at this stage is for a dry race so this might compromise the long runs a little.”

The rain eases off and there is no real disruption to the teams preparations. McNish climbs the grass bank at the top of T7 so that he gets a simultaneous view of the front straight as well.

“A few of the cars are bottoming out on the bumps just before the start straight. The new pit entrance shouldn’t be an issue with any potential penalties because the chicane is not severe and they have opened it out. Generally it seems to be a change for the better here from a safety point of view.”

As the session draws to a close we walk back to the pits. McNish remains alert to what the cars are doing now that the circuit has properly rubbered in and just like the fans who follow the FIA World Endurance Championship he is ‘wowed’ by the performance of the most energy-efficient race cars in the world.

“I haven’t been down here at this level and at this corner before,” he says. “It is good to see the cars performing at this point. You know, even from when we unveiled the R10 in 2006 the technical progression of the LMP cars has just been phenomenal. These things are like spaceships now and they are very, very impressive when you see them this close.”

Many thanks to Allan and Martyn Pass

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Great Racing Cars by Motor Sport magazine

Sniffer Media Ltd was delighted to be part of this fabulous tome – the Motor Sport special edition Great Racing Cars bookazine, which went on sale in September.

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We interviewed the likes of Rob Smedley, Karun Chandhok, Mark Blundell, Sergio Rinland, Bruno Giacomelli, Dindo Capello, Charlie Whiting and many more for the publication to find out their personal opinions on what for them is their greatest ever racing car.

The book features 164 pages of some of the most legendary cars in motorsport and also features Damon Hill, John Surtees, Derek Bell, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Martin Brundle and Dario Franchitti.

The magazine is still available from WH Smiths, Sainsbury’s and Tesco and is priced at just £7.99.

Subscribers to Motor Sport magazine get a discount here http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/magazine/from-the-editor/great-racing-cars/

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Glory and the Pox!

Olivier Beretta Race of My Life – Rolex Daytona 24hrs – February 5/6 2000

This article first appeared in the September 25th edition of Autosport magazine

I am lucky because I have had a wonderful career in motorsport competing in a big variety of categories and teams. So there are many races I remember very fondly and with some big successes.

But the one I remember so well, for a real contrast of reasons, is the 2000 Daytona 24 Hours. Most people will remember it for the first ever time a GT car won the race. It was a massive achievement against some strong prototype competition from Riley & Scott, Lola, Ferrari and Cadillac.

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But I also remember it because it was already one of the toughest races to compete in, but in 2000 I added to that by contracting chickenpox the day before the race!

My team mates were very good. Dominique (Dupuy) and Karl (Wendlinger) were a pleasure to work with. The problem for me was my health because just before I flew to Florida I knew there was a chance I could get chickenpox from my own child. I was frantically asking my own mother if she could remember if I had already had it when I was a kid. She wasn’t sure, so I thought maybe it will be ok.

Sure enough the day before the race I started sweating and feeling really bad with a big fever. I looked in the mirror on race morning and there was the evidence all over my skin! No hiding place. Shit!

I knew that Hugues (De Chaunac) could swap the drivers around the car or even leave me out completely, so I had to prove to him and the team I could be on the pace. It was a massive effort as we were fighting with one of the Corvette entries. I felt so bad but the one thing that helped was it happened to be one of the coldest Daytona’s in years, so I was lucky in that respect.

The prototypes all fell away and going in to the last hour we started to have a problem with the gearbox. Everyone was really tense and we were not sure if we were going to finish.

We just made it, Karl in particular doing a fantastic job. The margin was about thirty seconds which then was the closest finish in the history of the race.

Nobody expected a GT car to win that race. To do it in an American classic like the Dodge Viper was fantastic. It was also great to win it for Hughes De Chaunac and the ORECA organisation that I had raced for four years already.

The team celebrated like crazy. Me? Well, I was so sick and exhausted that I couldn’t really enjoy the moment as I should have done. I went to straight to the airport and fell asleep in the lounge. I looked so bad that I was worried they would not let me fly back to Monaco!

But I had that watch in my luggage so I was still able to manage a big, big smile.

About Olivier Beretta

The Monegasque was a race winner in French F3 and European F3000 in the late 80s and early 90s before making 10 Grand Prix appearances for Larousse in 1994. A long sportscar career started in 1995 which has brought six GT class victories at Le Mans and multiple FIA GT and ALMS class titles.

Photo with thanks to Peter May

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Legends of Larrousse

Acting as the honourary grand marshal for the fourth round of the FIA World Endurance Championship, endurance racing legend Gerard Larrousse gave us his impressions of the Circuit of the Americas track and reminisced about his own sports car memories in North America.

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Gerard, what was it like being the Grand Marshal for the FIA World Endurance Championship race at COTA this weekend?

Yes it was a great honour for me to have been selected and to flag this amazing grid away for the start of the race. I have a great passion for endurance racing and it will be fascinating to see how the race goes this evening. It was fantastic.

The COTA circuit is very interesting. Yannick Dalmas took me around in an official car and it was nice to see the different corners. A very impressive facility.

What do you make of the FIA WEC from what you have seen?

So far I have to say I am impressed by the job everyone has done from the organisation, ACO and FIA. The Championship has great teams, great drivers and some very interesting rules and technology. All of the ingredients are there for sure, so I am sure it will grow and grow.

Do you have fond memories of racing in North America during your career?

Yes, I do. Especially at Sebring and Watkins Glen where I won races with the Matra. I remember the races so well but I also have good memories playing golf with Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Francois Cevert. Good times for sure.

Gerard Larrousse

Larrousse started his career of in rallying in the early 1960s before moving on to endurance racing, most famously with Matra where he famously won the 1971 Sebring 12 Hours and the Le Mans 24 Hours two years later.

Larrousse also made two Grand Prix appearances and ran his own F1 team between 1987-1994.

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The future face of Ferrari?

A spectacularly young and quick Canadian at Maranello? We’ve been here before…

But while the legend of Gilles Villeneuve arguably grows by the year, a relatively unknown 15-year-old from Montréal is hoping to continue that unforgettable legacy. Spotted by a Ferrari talent scout while karting in Florida during the winter of 2010/2011, Stroll was snapped up by the Scuderia and joined what was then its all-new Driver Academy. Stroll competed in the 2011 Italian Karting Championship, before winning the Andrea Margutti Trophy and placing fifth in the 2012 CIK-FIA world karting championship.

Lance Stroll at Imola - Photo by Sam Smith
Lance Stroll at Imola – Photo by Sam Smith

His promotion to single-seaters came at the tail end of 2013, when he entered the Ferrari Driver Academy’s Florida Winter Series, his first car meeting. This season he undertakes a concentrated assault on the Italian Formula 4 Championship powered by Abarth, with the crack Prema Powerteam.

Now based in Geneva, Stroll commutes weekly to Maranello for training, driver development, the obligatory simulator sessions and engineering workshops. He dovetails this prime preparation for his future career with the more mundane task of continuing his education.

As we chat in the Imola paddock, he typifies the maxim of having an old head on young shoulders. “Being part of the Ferrari family is obviously amazing and the support structure is helping my career massively,” he says, “but at the same time I try not to think too hard about it and just get on with my racing. I do my work, enjoy it and I stay focused, so hopefully the results will continue.”

Stroll made an assured start to the F4 campaign, with four wins from the opening nine races and a further three podiums. His weekend at Imola proves ruthlessly efficient, with two victories and a strong run from 10th to second in the reverse-grid race. He went on to take the title last month.

“The races were good and went the way I planned,” Stroll says “In the second race, when I started 10th, I realised I had to be a little bit patient.”

On the grid at Imola - Photo by Sam Smith
On the grid at Imola – Photo by Sam Smith

Also at Imola are Ferrari Academy director Luca Baldisserri and former Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, looking lean and refreshed after a few months away from the F1 cauldron. “Lance is a very impressive young man, both in and out of the cockpit,” Domenicali says. “His racecraft is developing of course, because he is just out of karts, but the talent is there for sure. He has shown great maturity in his racing. He should be a big asset to Ferrari’s future.”

Stroll also has the advantage of coming from ‘billionaire’ stock, as his father – Lawrence Stroll – accrued enviable wealth through retail business. Stroll Sr is a collector of vintage Ferraris and the family connection with the Prancing Horse goes back to the 1990s, when the Tommy Hilfiger brand, then a Ferrari partner, was managed by Lawrence and his business partner Silas Chou.

And what about the Villeneuve legacy? “It was well before my time,” Stroll says, “but my father has told me many great stories. He was obviously an unbelievable talent and if ever I am half as good as him I will be happy.”

Stroll is not 16 until the autumn, but there is already talk of him stepping up to FIA Formula 3 in 2015, although one of the European Formula Renault series is also an option.

Whatever, the pressure of being a Ferrari-backed driver will increase incrementally. But, as one of four Ferrari Academy inductees (the others being Jules Bianchi, GP2 graduate Raffaele Marciello and FIA F3 star Antonio Fuoco), Stroll is creating a buzz of excitement in Maranello’s corridors.

This article was first published in the November edition of Motor Sport magazine

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Letter from Il Commendatore

Autumn 1980, Formula One is slap bang in the middle of civil war. FISA v FOCA got so complicated and bitter that some unlikely people attempted to act as intermediaries or even peacemakers.

Of course Enzo Ferrari, imbued with Machiavellian politics and agendas for half a century and more, penned this letter to Bernie Ecclestone, then chairman of FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association).

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The letter, a copy of which came in to Sniffer Media’s hands earlier this summer, was circulated to delegates of the FISA Plenary Conference in October 1980.

The Ferrari/Ecclestone dynamic was always a fraught one. They were a generation apart and as opposite in personalities to a severe degree.

However, there was also some mutual respect. As Enzo entered his last decade, even he could see that the future of the sport rested with the son of a Suffolk fisherman rather than any of his own minions, such as the fiercely ambitious Marco Piccinini.

One can only imagine Bernie’s reaction to it; such was the loaded and skewed logic, which smacked of anything but a conciliatory agenda but more of thinly veiled threats. It probably fed one of Bernie’s office bins fairly quickly.

Dear Mr Ecclestone,

I would like to confirm my availability to cooperate in order to achieve a stable administrative organisation for the FIA F1 Championship founded on an agreement the points of which are resumed hereinafter.

I will make every possible effort in relation to FISA, Alfa-Romeo, and Renault to bring about this agreement, thus ensuring continuity in financial relationships in the interest of all those taking part in the FIA World Championship.

I would however remind you that this availability on my part is conditional on an immediate undertaking by FOCA to drop all legal actions already undertaken or envisaged against FISA, thus accepting definitively its role as the sole technical and sporting power as well as all the regulations already published or to be published.

This agreement should be put into concrete form in a ‘Protocol’ deposited by your organisation with FISA, which will then intervene as a guarantor representing the ASNs to which all Grand Prix organisers and competitors belong.

This ‘Protocol’ will be made available to all those who enter the FIA World Championship, competitors as well as organisers, at the same time as the technical and sporting regulations. This ‘Protocol’ should contain the following points:

  • For a period of three years, your organisation will assure the financial management of F1 Grand Prix within the framework of the FISA technical and sporting regulations and in accordance with its decisions.
  • Your organisation will conclude a standard type contract with all the organisers. These contracts will take into account the financial conditions of current contracts harbouring the best ones already obtained.
  • For the different geographical zones (Europe, North America, South America etc,) financial ceilings will be fixed valid for the contracts of all the 1981 Grand Prix. These ceilings will be indexed for the following years on the basis of the inflation in the country the currency of which is used to fix these ceilings.
  • At the end of each Grand Prix, all the money received will be immediately shared out between all the participants according to a scale similar to the one used by FGCA at present. These sums will include the amounts of prize money, the refunding of travelling expenses (if foreseen), radio, TV and advertising rights. Possible extra sums, available over successive periods, will be shared out globally, on the basis of the final classification points of each championship.
  • Your organisation will have the right to a quota percentage to be agreed drawn from all the sums received. Compensation will also be fixed for refunding the expenses which will allow FISA to ensure the management of the F1 World Championships, with a single starter, safety delegate, scrutineering delegate etc.
  • All the participants in the F1 World championship will undertake to associate themselves with your organisation in order to obtain the contracts mentioned above and to have them respected by the various parties.Should you think my intervention worthwhile, please confirm by telex your willingness to adhere to this plan.

Best Regards

E.Ferrari

September 18, 1980

 

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