Formula E is now almost watchable

I saw the first Formula E race of the 2018/19 season last weekend. I’ve watched parts of races in previous seasons, but it’s always felt unwatchable due to the limitations of the cars. The new Gen2 cars are a significant advance on the original ones as the battery life is sufficient to last the whole race (45 minutes, plus a lap). No more mid-race car changes. The cars are also significantly faster, with a claimed top speed of 174mph.

Embed from Getty Images

Close racing is more likely than in Formula 1 as the cars are largely standard. However, as far as I can work out, the powertrains and software aren’t, leaving room for innovation. One innovation I’d love to see is a change to the noise that the cars make. They sound dreadful – like a drill with the wrong bit working its way through plastic. I assume that the annoying lift music used during replays is the broadcaster’s attempt to mask the sound.

Even with the new cars it’s a complicated and frustrating formula to watch. One gimmick – the so-called fan boost – gives a few seconds of additional power to five drivers. The fortunate five are selected by the viewers and to my mind this has no place in competitive motor sport. However, fan boost didn’t seem to give much advantage to the lucky drivers. F1 exile and fan boost beneficiary Stoffel Vandoorne demonstrated that he didn’t need a McLaren to run around at the back of the pack. Felipa Massa also suffered two retrospective penalties for using it incorrectly.

Other penalties (drive throughs – but not always) for technical infringements concerning energy use during the race were liberally applied and poorly explained to the viewer. There’s no question that these penalties affected the result of the race in Ad Diriyah, won eventually by Antonio Da Costa.

The other main gimmick – the attack zone – is better thought out and is a genuine test of a driver’s racecraft. By going off-line at one part of the track, the maximum power of the car is increased for four minutes. Drivers must go through the attack zone twice in a race, so timing is everything. One driver managed to lose a place while trying (but failing) to go through the zone; another activated it at the start of a safety car period.

Eurosport’s race presentation (using the FIAs world feed) was mostly dire, with the honourable exception of Dario Franchitti’s contributions. His co-commentator was generally poor. At one point he even seemed confused as to whether cars could pass each other under a yellow flag. Cameras often failed to follow the action and cut away just when something interesting was happening. The less said about Vernon Kay the better, but your mileage may vary I suppose.

The next race is on January 12th in Marrakesh. On balance I shall give Formula E another chance.

Cine film of grasstrack motorcycle racing, Hopwell Hall, 1951

I recently found a couple of Pathescope films shot by my father in the early 1950s. The more interesting one is of grasstrack motorcycle racing in September 1951.

Pathescope is a 9.5mm cine film format with the sprocket hole in the centre. It was introduced in 1922 and was most popular with amateur film-makers in France and the UK. Pathescope Limited was the subject of a workers’ buyout in 1959, but went bankrupt in 1960. In a precursor to the VHS/Betamax wars of the 1980s, an arguably superior format fell to the greater marketing muscle of Kodak and the far wider range of suppliers supporting the 8mm standard. The very late introduction of Pathescope colour film also didn’t help.

When I had the film digitised (+) I thought the location may have been Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire. In 1951 Kirkby Hall was still standing, but only just (it was demolished in 1952), after wartime use by the military. The British Championships were held there on 2nd September, and this film was processed on the 25th. Grasstrack racing was held at Kirkby Mallory up until 1956. It ended when a tarmac circuit – Mallory Park – was laid for the princely sum of £50,000.

However, a closer examination of the film plus a glance through his 1951 diary instead confirms the location as Hopwell Hall (-), near Ockbrook. The racing took place on Sunday 23rd September. There’s a couple of seconds of my grandfather midway through the film, which was an unexpected bonus.

Grasstrack racing at Hopwell Hall 1951
Grasstrack motorcycle racing at Hopwell Hall, September 23rd 1951. The hall was damaged by fire a few years later and subsequently rebuilt.

(+) By the excellent TVV Productions in Newcastle.

(-) Hopwell Hall was a Special School run by Nottinghamshire County Council (in Derbyshire) from the 1920s up until the 1980s/90s. In the 1950s, motorcycle racing took place in the surrounding parklands. It was converted into a £6m, 10 bedroom house in the late 1990s and has been privately owned since.

A final lap of the Donington Grand Prix collection

Last Friday afternoon I paid a farewell visit with some friends to the Donington Grand Prix collection. Although the museum doesn’t close until 5th November, the contents of the display cabinets were already being packed away. The café was shuttered and empty. The number of cars also seems to have declined since I last visited in mid-2017. There are now spaces between many of the exhibits. If you’re thinking of going, sooner rather than later is probably a good idea. The cost of entry is £12 per adult, £5 per child. We spent around 90 minutes in the museum, discussing (amongst other things) the evolution of F1 aerodynamics.

Skipping quickly through the first two halls that are dedicated to a collection of military vehicles, the real stars are the racing cars from McLaren, Williams, Force India and Vanwall.

Early McLaren racing cars
Some early McLaren cars
A 1997 McLaren F1 car
A McLaren F1 car from 1997. Somewhere I have a picture of me with either this or the 1998 car at an Ingres user group meeting. The company I used to work for, Computer Associates, was one of McLaren’s sponsors during the David Coulthard / Mika Häkkinen era. We were provided with a car (minus the engine) as part of the deal. The cars always generated far more interest than the software we were selling, so I’m not sure that it was necessarily a good investment.
Force India F1 cars
A gaggle of Force India F1 cars, from the days before the striking pink livery in use this season. These represent the last significant addition to the collection, dating from 2016, and are presumably on loan from the team.
1950s Vanwalls, as driven by Stirling Moss.
1950s Vanwalls, as driven by Stirling Moss. There is a memorial plaque in the museum to his team-mate, Stuart Lewis-Evans. He died after his Vanwall engine caught fire at the Moroccan Grand Prix 60 years ago this week.
Helmets - Jock Taylor, Benga Johannson and Niki Lauda
There are no racing motorcycles in the collection, but they do have Jock Taylor and Benga Johansson‘s rather battered sidecar helmets on display, next to one of Niki Lauda’s. The Jackie Stewart collection had already been packed away, unless it consisted solely of a tartan scarf.
The end
The end. Outside of individual manufacturer’s premises, I can’t think of another location that had such a diverse collection of racing cars on display.

World Sidecar Trophy, Donington Park, 18th May 1980

One problem with having chemo fatigue is that I watch far too much television. This weekend I’ve managed to see some of the British Superbikes from Brands Hatch. I was delighted to see Leon Haslam clinch the championship. Back in the late 70s I remember watching his father, Ron, duel with the likes of Randy Mamola at Donington Park.

These fond memories set me wading through some reels of old 8mm cine film this afternoon. While I didn’t manage to find any of Ron and Randy in their prime, I did find a couple of minutes from the World Sidecar Trophy, shot from our favourite vantage point at McLeans. This featured Jock Taylor and his ‘passenger’, Benga Johansson. Normal motorcycle racing is daring enough, sidecar racing is terrifying. Much as the exploits of Ron Haslam appealed to me as a teenager, the real hard men were the sidecar racers. What’s noticeable in this clip is the fairly low-level of protection offered to riders, marshalls and spectators. These days McLeans has a much larger run-off area and catch fencing.

World Sidecar Trophy programme, Donington Park, Sunday May 18th 1980.
World Sidecar Trophy programme, Donington Park, Sunday May 18th 1980.

I can’t find the result of this particular race, but it would seem that Jock and Benga were leading in the number 7 Fowler Yamaha outfit at some point in the race. (See around 1m 16s into the clip). They certainly won the world sidecar championship together in 1980. Sadly, Jock Taylor was killed in a racing accident in 1982 at the age of 28.

The Donington Grand Prix Museum is to close in November

Sad news being reported in the Derby Telegraph tonight. The last time I visited the Donington Collection was during the Lotus 7 60th anniversary celebrations in 2017. The grand prix cars and other racing memorabilia held at Donington is unmatched elsewhere. The crammed-in nature of the exhibits somehow added to the charm of the place, even if it meant that viewing conditions weren’t always ideal.

Historic McLarens
Historic McLaren F1 cars displayed at the Donington Grand Prix Collection, 2015.

 

The Oulton Park monument

One of the more incongruous sights at a motor racing circuit is at Oulton Park, Cheshire.

I was reminded while watching the British Touring Cars racing on ITV4 this afternoon that I took a photograph of the monument to Captain John Francis Egerton on my last trip there in 2015.

Oulton Park Monument

It was erected by subscription in May 1846 following the Captain’s death from wounds received during the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1845. One of the more elaborate Eleanor Crosses constructed in Victorian times, it was granted a Grade II* listing in 1986.

It is fairly close to the Warwick Straight as it runs out towards Lodge Corner as can be seen by the barriers and hazard signs in the background. Fortunately it’s in a position that is likely to be safe from even the most wayward driver.