My thoughts on Danica Patrick and her Daytona 500 pole position

Oh, this title…

Danica Patrick working that poleDanica Patrick has leapt back into the motor racing headlines by becoming the first woman to secure pole for the 2013 NASCAR Cup opener at Daytona. Previously, the highly popular 30-year-old American, who is stealing the show at the pinnacle of US motor sport, has insisted she has little interest in exploring her options in Formula One. But could more doors open now?

Good grief, I don’t think so. And neither do those in the know:

Sebastian Vettel : “First of all, hats off to Danica for her achievements. But motor sport in the US just has a completely different culture.”

Helmut Marko : “You have to look at Danica’s results in the road races. It’s not enough. We are looking for drivers based on performance, not by quota.”

Niki Lauda : “For ten years. I’ve told Bernie Ecclestone he’s dopey for not getting a woman into Formula One. If we could get a woman into the top six, you would immediately have twice as many fans in front of the TV. It has to be said that the technical level in the US does not compare to the level in Formula One. This is also reflected in the drivers. The last American who had success in Europe was Mario Andretti — and that was in my day!”

The sad thing is, Lauda is right. Chuck a hot woman into the mix and you’re gonna get bums on seats and eyes on the TVs. Take a look at Anna Kournikova who, while a competent tennis player, never won a Grand Slam title and often was never seen after the first round. But her hot little ass was guaranteed to sell more tickets and get higher TV ratings and so she was always invited to tournaments in which she had no chance of progressing to the final.

Murzik

The list of female F1 drivers is pretty short and unfortunately the latest candidate, Spaniard Maria De Villota, crashed and lost an eye while testing for Marussia last year. She was talented, and at the end of the day I’d rather watch talented drivers than attractive drivers in the World Drivers Championship.

Cars 2: The Lemon

I started writing this back in July but never finished it. So “last week” is more like “last quarter”.

I took a day off work last week and took the family out to see Cars 2 in 3-D at the local cinema. Perhaps we’ve had it too good for too long with Pixar. They consistently produced brilliant, imaginative animation with engaging characters. I mean really, you can’t fault Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Wall-E or Up whether you’re judging though children or adult eyes. From the start, Pixar cast the right voice actors, wrote brilliant stories, composed great music and employed brilliant visionary directors.

In comparison, their biggest competitor in Dreamworks has been a bit hit-and-miss. Below is a graph showing rating scores from RottenTomatoes.com for Pixar movies (in pink) and Dreamworks movies (in blue).

First thing you can see is that, for the most part, Pixar rates higher than Dreamworks. And, Pixar always has rated highly from their first movie Toy Story back in 1995, following up with greats including Mosters Inc, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The only aberration, funnily enough,  seems to be Cars from 2006, making a score of 74% their “bad movie”. Dreamworks seems to be a roller coaster on the ratings ride, with great shows like Chicken Run, Shrek, Shrek 2 and How to Train Your Dragon being interspersed with stinkers like Shark Tale and Shrek the Third.

But what’s this on the end there? It looks like Pixar took a nose dive off a cliff face after taking a long run up and crashed spectacularly. That, my friends, is Cars 2 with a score of 38%, making Cars 2 the first Pixar movie to get a yellow sticker. True, it’s as visually stunning as any other Pixar movie. More-so, given the “locations” and the 3-D treatment. But none of it could disguise the leaky seals and smoke coming from under the hood. Could it be because Cars 2 was was less about Lightning McQueen, a good strong character, and more about Mater, who, let’s face it, is pretty weak? Could it have been marked down for trying to cram in too much action, like car chases, explosions, guns and violence at the expense of a good story? Could it be because of the weak story pandering to the lowest common denominator, and being too obvious as a vehicle to sell more toys?

Personally, I think it’s a mix of all these. After the movie I think the whole family felt disappointed in the movie. Certainly, Jett no longer regards McQueen as as favourite character but expresses his admiration for Finn McMissile. I don’t know what’s in the pipeline at Pixar, but I hope they can redeem themselves with the next movie. I really hope that they don’t try to revive it and make Cars 3. Even if that engine was fully restored, the body was given a new coat of metallic paint and a new genius director was given the keys I don’t think it’d come out a winner. It would probably never been forgiven for past failures and would forever be known as the Sporty Corvair of animated feature movies.

Speed bumps

Don't mind me, I'm just making sure you go slowWhy is it that people will release the brake pedal right as they get to the speed bump? Never a moment before or after, but right as their front wheel is about to go over it, and then just hope the car has enough momentum to keep going. Everyone I’ve ever observed does this. It’s like the axle will somehow break if the brake is still on when you go over the bump. The back wheels don’t matter for some reason. I mean you never see anyone brake after the front wheels get over the bump. Once the front of the car and the driver are over, the rear axle doesn’t get anywhere near the same love.

Which is cheaper: Regular or Premium Unleaded fuel?

The table below represents all the fuel I’ve bought for my little car for almost the last 12 months:

I only use my car to drive between my home and the local train station, and occasionally I pick the kids up from sports after work. Other than four traffic lights and expected annual weather/temperature changes there isn’t a lot of variance in conditions. Sometimes I’ll get all four lights green, sometimes all four will be red. Of course stopping and starting light this effects mileage. I try to run my car to as close to empty as I dare and then fill it to the brim every time, although sometimes I break this pattern by necessity.

Given this data I want you to tell me if it’s cheaper for me to run my car on Regular Unleaded (highlighted in green) or Premium Unleaded (in yellow) which can be anywhere from 2c to 10c more per liter, or even if a solution exists.

I’m not interested in fuel use. I don’t care if I use more volume of one fuel than the other per kilometer. I want to use less dollars per kilometer.

I’ve discussed this with some workmates who have come up with various results, all of which are a bit wishy washy for my liking. For example, it was found that I seem to be buying my Premium Unleaded cheaper than the Regular, on average. I guess this is because I was buying more Premium before Christmas when it less expensive than Regular is now.

If you take simple averages, then it’s costing me 35c per 100km less when I run on Premium than when I run on Regular. But I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t quite know how to go about it.

Any mathematicians out there want to give me a hand with this? Never mind the whole “if you don’t run your car on the right fuel it harms your engine and costs longer in the long term” red herring. I just want to know which is the cheaper fuel per kilometer traveled.

Kubica out of action for 2011

It’s sad new indeed that Robert Kibica was injured in a crash in opening stage of the Ronde di Andora rally on Sunday. This article has most of the details. He has true grit and great determination and I’m sure he’ll race again but it will take him a while. The good news is that he’s out of an induced coma and can move his hand which was in danger of being lost.

Thoughts then turn to his replacement. My money is on Nick Heidfeld, who was a team mate of Kubica in the BMW Sauber team. Another option is Nico Hulkenberg who is currently a third string driver at Force India. Hey, he scored pole at Brazil in his rookie season but failed to keep his drive when he couldn’t bring sponsorship to the team.

Beyond these, desirable contenders are a little thin on the ground. Bruno Senna is a short term option, but he surely doesn’t rate as a primary driver. It’s a bit sad, because Renault feel they can make a good push on the championship this year with their new R31 and it seems Kubica was the only one who could make it happen.

Fast Karts

I went Karting last week as part of a team building exercise at work. It was quite a day. It was at a place called Warren’s Ultra Fast Karts, at a place called Barbagallo Raceway north of Perth. We were all excited. The Australian Festival of Speed had been held the previous week which was a once off petrol-head dream showcasing the best of Australian motor sports. Mark Webber had even driven a few laps in his top of the line RB6 Red Bull Formula 1 car.

Now, were were led to believe that we’d be racing on the actual raceway in twin engine super-pro karts at more than 100km/h on the same track that you see the V8 Supercars competing. Something got lost in the translation somewhere, and we ended up on a shorter track in smaller karts. We felt a bit disappointed, but looking back it’s probably just as well we were in smaller underpowered karts.

The marshals explained to us that we were under a mix of official international race rules and house rules, which meant a “strike” system. If you broke some of the “cardinal” rules, you would be shot on sight, no questions asked. These rules included taking your helmet off, getting out of your kart and generally doing something completely unsafe and idiotic. There were also “crash and burn” rules, which involved ignoring directions from the officials, overtaking while under the yellow flag, causing contact. Three of these strikes, and you’d be thrown out on your ear and never invited back.  And finally, there were “points rules” which meant race points would be deducted from you for spinning off track and generally making racing mistakes.

The only thing they didn’t explain was scoring. Being a competitive guy that I am, I really wanted to win the respect and admiration of my peers as well as a shiny trophy. If I had known how we were to be scored, it would have changed my whole strategy.

Anyhow, we had a ten minute practice run and five races. The first four races we were lined up on the grid by car number, once in order then once in reverse order. I was in car 20, the highest numbered car and so I started last in the first race. I was cautious as well, because I could remember the last time we did indoor karting. My workmates couldn’t tell the difference between real life and X-box gaming and I wanted to stay clear of everyone. In the second race I started on pole, which was good. In the first race we were all a bit cautious and apprehensive, even with the ten minutes of practice were were given to familiarise ourselves with the cars and track. During the second race you could tell everyone was going hell for leather, pushing the envelope and beyond into the kitty litter. Seeya, suckers. Unfortunately I was involved in an “incident” and managed to bend one of my wheels. Three wheels wasn’t going to cut it. The marshals were unimpressed, citing the “crash and burn” rules and the fact that there was only one more spare car for the entire event so I better take care of it. Man, it wasn’t even my fault! That was on the second to last lap so I didn’t manage to get any more times in.

We pulled in after the second race, and had a look at the results. I came last in the first race and first in the second. Between all of us we kind decided that it was all just a fun, noncompetitive scoring scheme since those who started at the front generally finished in the first three positions, and those who started towards the rear scored only minor points.

We had two more races, again starting in car order then reverse order. I was being pretty cautious because I really didn’t want to wreck another car so I was holding back a bit and not doing much overtaking.

Then for the fifth race we were handicapped according to points. I started third last, and I felt ok about that because I knew I was in the top three racers. Knowing that it was a handicap and remembering how some other guys raced I knew that everyone would bunch up about three quarters of the way around the track and there’d be havoc so I decided to take the last race nice and easy. No way was I getting close to those other Kamikazes. The race ended with more spins than a Dead or Alive song.

After the race the final results were announced. I ended up coming fourth. We also found out that points and positions had been decided by fastest lap times, race by race. Not by finishing order. There were transponders in each car which registered every time the car went over the start/finish line. Man I wish I had known that at the start. I still could have won the last race by holding back for a lap then blasting away at a couple hot laps with nobody in front to slow me down.

It was a good day and we all had fun, but I hope we can try something different next year.

The motion blur is real man, not photoshopped.

Wheee!

Brazil F1 GP was fantastic

It was Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend in Brazil yesterday. Due to the difference in time zones I wasn’t able to watch any of it live, but I did watch the qualification replay on Sunday afternoon and let me tell you it was one of the most entertaining and impressive qualifying battles I have ever seen.

Coming in to qualifying, we saw a mixed bag in practice with Robert Kubica posting the fastest Practice 3 time, but Vettel had the fastest time overall with a 1:12 in Practice 1. This is all pretty meaningless but can be a good indicator on driver mindsets and team improvements since the last race.

Q1 saw the usual suspects drop out, along with Adrian Sutil in the Force India. Sutil laid a lot of the blame on his teammate, Vitantonio Liuzzi who he accused of blocking him every inch of the way along the track. I’m not sure he was right and he probably should have found something else to blame in front of the cameras but at ultimately he found himself sitting out Q2.

The surprise of Q2 was defending world champion Jenson Button finding himself in P11, and watching another nail in his 2010 coffin being hammered into place. without a win this weekend he had no chance of remaining in contention for the championship.

And so the stage is set for the final showdown in Q3.  It had been wet all morning, but it was starting to dry up and Kubica was the first to fit slicks with 4 minutes to go and this is when qualifying just came alive. He suffered a little bit being the first, but everyone followed. Hulkenberg set a fast time and was mid range in P6 but as expected Vettel, Webber and Alonso bumped him down. Then Hulkenberg posted an amazing lap to take provisional pole. Everyone had at least one more lap and while they improved their own times, they were unable to beat Hulkenberg.  But Hulkenberg had one lap left and went round like a man possessed and managed to post an even faster time than his last hot lap. He just completely pasted everyone, and along the way did great things for his career and next years contract. It was amazing to watch.

All the other drivers (except Alonso, boo Alonso) congratulated him and you could tell it was all heartfelt and genuine. It was interesting and exciting, but Hulkenberg’s performance didn’t really have any bearing on the championship at this point and nobody lost out on anything because because he got pole and would get a clear track. One commentator said it was “a curve ball, but not a monkey wrench”.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be a fairytale for Hulkenberg, as duing the race he was overcome by Vettel and Webber before the end of the first lap. To his credit, though, he didn’t get lost in the moment and do something foolish like find the wall on the first corner. He succumbed to Hamilton and Alonso a few laps later and managed a respectable eigth.

Vettel ultimately won the race, with Webber second, Alonso third and Hamilton fourth. Button, who needed  a win to remain competitive, finished fifth. It was daylight to the also-rans with 20 seconds between Button and 6th place Rosberg.

Once the points were distributed, it still left Alonso in the lead but Webber took a small bite out of it. Vettel moved himself the third ahead of Hamilton:

That gives us a very exciting final round in Abu Dhabi next weekend as any one of these four can take it. It’s a long shot for Hamilton as he’d have to rely on a win and the other three not finishing but, as Hulkenberg showed in Brasil, anything is possible. For Webber to win the championship, he has to win Abu Dhabi and have Alonso finish no better than third. If Webber wins and Alonso is second, Alonso will win by one point. If Vettel wins, with Webber second and Alonso fourth or more then Webber will share the championship with Vettel which isn’t such a bad result. If anyone other than Vettel wins and Webber comes second, then he has to hope that Alonso finishes fifth (in which case Alonso and Webber share the championship) or worse (in which case Webber takes it).

Too bad Red Bull have no standing “team orders” like Alonso benefited from in Germany where Massa was told to let Alonso by with a few laps to go. The thing is he wasn’t told outright, but given an encoded message while leading along the lines of “Alonso is faster. Do you understand?” Nudge nudge, wink wink. This is illegal and shouldn’t happen and as we can see it becomes tremendously important towards the end of the season. So, here’s hoping for an Abu Dhabi win for Webber. In speaking to various fans it’s pretty obvious he’s the sentimental favourite. I’ll be glued to the TV next weekend from Practice right through to the chequered flag.

How to make Formula 1 better

F1 is the greatest motorsport in the world. It’s fast, rich, sexy, glamourous and high tech. Based on any one of those attributes it beats the hell out of NASCAR. I have enjoyed watching it for 25 years. But does F1 need an overhaul?

Yes. And no.

The 2010 championship is currently as close as a championship has ever been. Red Bull-Renault, Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes are all serious contenders with Mercedes GP an outside chance. There’s nothing worse than seeing one team of two cars win every race by more than a lap. So the current balance of rules is doing something right in keeping it close and making sure that the champion will not be known until the end of the season. So there’s a valid argument against meddling with the rules; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Rule changes are introduced every year with the intention of improving the cars and making the racing more exciting and safer. The tech is expected to trickle down from the racetrack to the street, and indeed top of the line Ferrari sports cars make use of things developed in F1 that are now illegal on the track like movable wings. And turbochargers. The F-duct is a fantastic example of out-thinking the regulations and developing a system to alter the aerodynamics to give a speed advantage in the straights. Also, some teams have developed a flexible wing system that seems to defy the current static load tests but allows flex on the track which means they’re still legal because, hey, they passed the established tests. But I feel there’s too much reliance on aerodynamics in F1.

A serious attempt at taking the grip away from the upper aerodynamics and putting more of an emphasis on ground effects would definitely help. It would allow cars to run closer to each other. Currently, a car with front and rear wings is modeled on and runs best in clear air. The closer you get to a car you’re trying to overtake, the more you’re at the mercy of the turbulent air coming off it. Your front wing doesn’t work as well. This affects your grip, especially coming into corners where most overtaking is done. Allowing ground effects is one thing that would allow the cars to run closer together, and would allow more passing on track rather than in the pits.

If I was ever in charge of F1, and God willing it will only be a matter of time, I’d give each team two shells and as few design rules and regulations as possible. Hire the biggest engineering brains you can find and see what you come up with, working within a framework of some standardised aspects such as, for example, tyres. The only goal is to get around the track as fast as possible. I’m sure that even allowing ground effects and turbochargers in current F1 cars you could take 20% off the lap record of each track. I mean, when you sit down to a racing game, trying to build the fastest car possible to smash the track lap records is the most fun part of the game. Take the leash off design and you’ll see more innovations like F-Duct and KERS, new tech which can then be matured for street cars. You’d probably also need to hire drivers with no fear of death.

Thankfully, I’ll never be in charge of F1 and I think the current rules system almost has it right. Challenges such as restrictions to power could be introduced. Perhaps a small displacement turbo engine would be attractive and would make F1 more culturally and environmentally relevant. Whatever happens, I’m enjoying 2010 and hope that Mark Webber can keep is lead for four more races.