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Why Motorsport is Harder than Ever

Courtesy of Ben Anderson at Autosport.com:

Long evenings spent at motorsport events offer ample chance for hypothetical chat. One of my favourite examples concerns a former Autosport journalist and a British motor racing commentator of fine repute.

They argue over the outcome of building a time machine and transporting Jim Clark – in his pomp – forward to the modern era of Formula 1, while sending an average grand prix driver of the current day back to Clark’s time.

The commentator argues Clark would be every bit as good in the modern era as he was in his day, and that the average modern driver would struggle to muster the requisite courage to compete successfully during motor racing’s most dangerous period.

The journalist argues that constant development and evolution in motorsport at all levels means motor racing is more difficult now than ever before, and therefore a Clark of the ’60s would struggle to compete on today’s grid without being born in this time, while the average modern driver would possess knowledge and skills that would elevate his performances above those of the stars of yesteryear.

As much as I genuinely feel Jim Clark was one of, if not the, greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, I have to say I agree with the argument of my former colleague.

Unfortunately we do not have the benefit of time travel to test the theory. The best we can do is point to inverse examples of modern pros driving old cars in historic racing. Those ‘brave’ enough to bother tend to be very fast indeed. If you don’t believe me, just ask historic ace Simon Hadfield how good BMW factory racer Alexander Sims was when he tested a Formula 5000 car at Silverstone…

That’s not to say I feel Clark couldn’t still be one of the greatest drivers ever had he been born in the modern era, with the benefits of advanced knowledge, science and technology. The point is that he might have found it tougher to stand out from the crowd. The sport is constantly evolving – and a greater number of its participants are becoming better than ever at what they do.

This professionalisation of the sport means drivers of Clark’s era would be left standing by many of today’s pilots – at many levels, not just in F1. Whenever I am lucky enough to compete in semi-professional championships I am reminded just how tough it is to succeed in modern motorsport. Even in a little-known category on the support bill to the European Le Mans Series, never mind the sport’s pinnacle.

But don’t take my word for it. Dutch racer Nicky Pastorelli is a successful GT racer, who tested for Minardi and Jordan in Formula 1 and won the 2004 European Formula 3000 championship, a series that propelled Felipe Massa to F1 after he won it in 2001.

Pastorali raced successfully at a level just below F1, against the likes of BMW DTM ace Augusto Farfus and factory Ferrari GT racer Gianmaria Bruni. Pastorali says the standard of car, drivers and teams in the Renault Sport Trophy – the French manufacturer’s single-make replacement for the defunct Megane Trophy – represents a much deeper level of competition than he recalls from those earlier single-seater days.

“The [sensation of] speed is definitely on the same level,” he says. “From the feeling it’s maybe even faster in fast corners than an F3000 used to be. You would obviously have the difference that was a 500-600kg single-seater and this is a 1200kg car, so it’s rolling more.

“The level of drivers is good, but also the level of the teams – because the car is very high-tech, so it’s not easy to run. From a set-up point of view it’s a difficult car, because you need a good engineer to be able to get the maximum out of it, and if you look at the whole field and how close it is in qualifying [0.885 seconds across the top 12 pro drivers in a 15-car field at the Red Bull Ring], every team is getting a lot out of the car.

“It feels more developed, more modern. Physically it’s nothing compared to the old Formula 3000 car: there’s traction control, you have paddle shift, you have ABS, power steering. With the Formula 3000 car you came out with bleeding hands from the shifting, and even from the pedals!

“It was very tough at the time. You had German and British Formula 3, you had F3000, and there were one or two categories in GT racing that were really tough. But now nearly everywhere you go it is really tough! The level of professionalism is way higher now. There are many more teams and many more drivers [operating] at a high level compared to 10 or 15 years ago.”

It seems there is greater depth across an increasingly broad range of championships in motorsport, as the whole enterprise marches relentlessly onward. If you drop out for some reason or stand still for a time as a competitor, the sport can leave you behind very quickly.

Even drivers who have raced at the top level, and continuously since, cannot simply fall back on their hard-earned reputations. You have to keep learning, adapting and improving to remain relevant.

Cars have improved and continue to do so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ‘easier’ to drive. As cars become more capable they get faster, which demands greater precision and technical aptitude from their pilots.

It’s easy to look at a series based around a car with so many drivers aids and think ‘well that just means anyone could do it; how could a truly capable driver possibly emerge from such a set-up?’ Well, look at 2015 champion Andrea Pizzitola. The Frenchman is now a Nissan/Alpine factory racer in LMP2 thanks to his achievements in the RST, and an impressive subsequent prize Super GT test with Nissan.

He can testify to the extremely high level of competition found in relatively unknown parts of the motorsport ladder, such as this.

“You have guys that come from FR2.0 and GP3 – [David] Fumanelli from GP3, [Luciano] Bacheta was Renault Eurocup runner-up,” he tells Autosport. “The level is high – like every championship.

“And the performance of the car makes the championship really tough. The car has a lot of power and you can brake so late with the carbon brakes and ABS. You can ask a lot of the car, but to do that every lap without making a mistake is really difficult. You have to be on it every lap.

“Last year [ex-Formula 1 driver] Christian Klien came to the last race and he was P5/P6. And we had Nelson Paciatici – an Alpine driver in LMP2 – and he was P4 in qualifying. So that shows you how tough the championship is, the level and getting the maximum out of the car. It’s not easy.”

This is something Kevin Korjus has found out since joining the series this season. He’s a Formula Renault Eurocup champion, a multiple race winner in Formula Renault 3.5 and a podium finisher in GP3, but has not been able to waltz into this category and dominate.

The Estonian sat out most of 2015 after a drive in GT racing fell through. He’s returned to full-time action in the RST and led the Pro championship for a spell mid-season, but only has one victory to his name and at the Red Bull Ring in July failed to qualify inside the top six.

“You have to have everything set up and balanced to get a good lap time,” he says. “It’s really tough to make the difference. We have a lot of drivers who are within two or three tenths in driving, and if something is a bit off – a bit of tyre pressure or tow – you can make it up with driving but it has to be the best day of your life!”

Koreas’ R-ace GP team-mate Raoul Owens, another FR2.0 graduate to the Renault Sport Trophy, agrees the general competitiveness across all levels of motorsport now means you have to take a more professional approach at an earlier stage of your career.

“Because the level is quite high you can’t afford to slack off and give any margin,” he says. “It’s very close between the top drivers. With anything at this level in Europe now, there’s no championship where you can coast.

“Unless you’re in a Mercedes in F1, ironically! I would say they have it the easiest. Because the cars are all the same [in the Renault Sport Trophy] it makes it so much more difficult. You have to give good feedback and make it very specific, because changes to the car are very limited. A lot of championships are so close because the performance of cars is so similar, and that’s what makes them so good.

“The whole motorsport world in general has just become more professional throughout. From that side of things it’s made it more difficult to come through, but it’s good because it separates those who really are committed from those who aren’t. It means you need the extra edge to get that extra position.”

The sport is arguably deeper now than ever, and just because technology has made cars better it doesn’t necessarily follow that it has become easier to extract the most from them.

This is still true in Formula 1, where cars are quicker in qualifying than ever before at some tracks. The problem there is a very severe tyre and weight limitation in the races, which makes them relatively much slower and therefore ‘easier’ to drive than they were 10-15 years ago.

But that should change next year, and beyond F1 the physical argument is still interesting. Higher cornering speeds and better stopping power means greater g-force exerted on the body, and less margin for error when tyres give up grip. Older cars are easier to control in a slide; modern ones give you very little warning.

You may no longer cream yourself against a lamppost if you get it wrong – except maybe in rallying – but the stopwatch makes you pay dearly for your mistakes, and the bitter taste of defeat is arguably much quicker to trap you if you underperform.

Motorsport suffers from a chastening paradox in its modern guise. The sport gets deeper, faster and tougher to succeed in, yet ever-improving cars and mastery of them makes it look easy to outsider. This is where modern racing simply cannot compete with its past.

“People don’t really appreciate [what it takes],” says Owens. “You can say a footballer has the easiest job in the world, because he gets paid so much money to kick a ball for 90 minutes on a filed, but if you were to play against the people you watch on TV you’d be like ‘this is unbelievable’.

“Because the level of professionalism is so high, the people who do it make it look easy. Driving this car, trying to find the limit of the car, is a very tough thing to do, even at this level. But for people to understand it is very difficult, and I think until you’ve experienced it for yourself it’s difficult for people to appreciate.

“There are a lot of things you have to consider. In F1, when you look at the whole grid you could say Rio Haryanto, for example, was a shit driver. If you were to watch a race and look at his results on paper you’d say ‘that guy is awful’. But there is a huge difference in performance between a Manor and a Mercedes. People don’t realise how high the level is even at the back of the grid.”

The gap between perception and reality is perhaps one of modern motorsport’s biggest problems, something it has struggled to overcome as grip has gone up and cockpit sides have risen.

“If somebody [without racing experience] was to jump into an old Formula Renault they’d be scared shitless!” continues Owens. “They don’t understand the way aerodynamics work, how the tyres work. People think it’s easy, because it looks easy. People make it look easy on TV, but TV doesn’t give you a true visual appreciation for speed, for anything.

“That’s one of the biggest frustrations for drivers when they talk about what they do. A lot of people get confused between racing and driving on the road. ‘I can drive my Clio through Tunbridge Wells in 10 minutes’ – well, that’s fine, but come to Red Bull Ring and try to do a 1m25s lap in an RS01, and that’d probably take you 10 minutes because you don’t appreciate [what’s required].

“O could list 100 people I would want to get in an RS01, try to do half-an-hour stint and do any kind of lap time, and I guarantee none of them would be able to. A lot of people don’t get it.

“People think it’s cool and I get a lot of good feedback, but it’s that real appreciation for the speed and everything – a lot of people don’t understand the finer details. I don’t think they will unless they do it. They don’t realise it’s one of the toughest sports in the world.”

And it only gets tougher, despite how it may look when viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.

One glance at the Renault RS01 and the immediate reaction is ‘well it just looks like another GT3 car’. When you learn it operates using driver aids such as traction control, ABS, power steering and a paddleshift gearbox, this feeling only grows.

But when you drive the car that impression changes completely. It feels more like a prototype or a single-seater, principally because the carbon brakes afford the car immense stopping power, while the downforce the aerodynamics produce (similar to a Formula Renault 3.5 car at top speed) give the car formidable cornering power.

“You have the feeling that you have in an LMP2 car,” says 2015 champion Andrea Pizzitola. “Compared to a GT car, it’s mega. You have more downforce than the FR3.5 at the end [of a straight]. I saw a graph with points on it and the highest were DTM, LMP1, F1, RS01, FR3.5 and GP2.

“With this car if you race here [at Red Bull Ring] you will feel it, but at Spa it’s just crazy. At Eau Rouge it’s flat on new tyres!”

The RS01, which mates a 3.8-litre Nissan V6 twin-turbo engine (boost-limited to 550bhp) to a Dallara carbon fibre monocoque, was nearly a second faster than the best LMP3 prototype in qualifying for this year’s ELMS round at Red Bull Ring.

At Spa the pole time for last year’s RST round was only just over five seconds slower than the LMP2 pole mark for May’s World Endurance Championship Spa Six Hours – and give seconds clear of the fastest GTE car.

Last season’s Spa 24 Hours winner Markus Palttala has extensive experience in modern GT racing, and has also tested in the DTM for BMW. He confirms the performance of the RS01 is much closer to DTM than a GT car.

“It’s a challenging car and a very fast car,” says the Finn, who races for the crack Marc VDS squad in the Renault Sport Trophy. “If you master this car definitely you are going to do well in GTs or LMP2.

“I’ve tested in DTM and it’s a lot closer to that than GT, both pace-wise and feeling-wise. When I first tested it I wanted to drive it feeling like a GT, but I couldn’t find one tenth!”

The RS01 is a prototype in a GT body. It’s a proper racing car, rather than a production supercar that’s been modified for competition. Consequently you have to drive it hard to get it to work and go quickly.

“It’s a bit between GT3 and single-seaters,” reckons Korjus. “I have quite an aggressive driving style, and with GT3 with new tyres I go flat-out and even if I make small mistakes I get a quicker lap time if I go max attack that if I just hold a bit back.

“If I do that with this car then for sure I lose the rear somewhere and my lap time is slower. You get punished more. You have to hold a bit back, be smooth, and be clever.”

The grid (15 cars took part at the Red Bull Ring) is modest, but this is only season two for a new concept for Renault. The performance and relevance of the car, coupled with a prize structure that helps drivers towards competing in Super GT and at Le Mans, should help it grow quickly.

 

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