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I recently learned about a Twitter account that campaigns against Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee’s excellent culture hub in the centre of the city.

Typical tweets include:

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I went to see Friends with Benefits a few weeks ago, and it was pretty awful. The highlight is one funny joke about iPads in the middle. The rest is just mush. No harm in that of course. But the great thing is that I saw it in Dundee, at the Odeon, which is about a ten minute drive away from the DCA.

It’s funny because I was only just thinking about how extraordinarily well-served by cinemas Dundee is. I live about a 40 minute walk away from three cinemas. Two are “mainstream”, and the other is the DCA, which usually shows films that the others wouldn’t. The DCA shows some films that I really like. While the two mainstream ones may not be in the “town centre”, at least they are there.

Where I used to live, in Kirkcaldy, no such luck. There is the Adam Smith Theatre, which shows a small selection of films that were on general release six months ago. Besides that, you had to go to Dunfermline, a half hour drive away, then drive to the outskirts of that to get to the nearest cinema.

Off the top of my head, I think I have seen six films at the cinema this year. Three of them were at the DCA; the other three were at the Odeon (one of these films was also shown at the DCA). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I’m just a snob. But the three I saw at the DCA were by far and away the better three.

I understand the arguments against the public subsidy for the DCA. But the idea that, if the DCA wasn’t there, a multiplex Odeon would magically sprout up in the city centre, is a tad fanciful.

Cinemas are rare beasts these days. It’s no conspiracy. It’s because commercially it doesn’t add up the way it used to because of changes in society (for the positive) over the past few decades. With this in mind, I have felt lucky to live somewhere with as many as three cinemas nearby.

After moving to Dundee a year ago, the DCA quickly became one of my favourite things about the city and I celebrate its existence. The great thing is that, for those who do not like what is shown at the DCA, there are two other cinemas that are just a stone’s throw away (even if they are not in the “town centre”).

I would hate for the most unique cinema of the three to go.

Today it was announced that the Asian rounds of Superleague Formula have been cancelled. This is on top of the earlier cancellation of the South American rounds. The original 2011 calendar also contained races in Russia, the middle east, Australia and New Zealand. None of these took place.

In the end, the only two races that took place were at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. This means that the championship was decided way back in July — but we only learned that today!

It was already quite an effort for those two races to take place anyway. Superleague had seemed worryingly dormant over the winter, and many suspected that it was dead.

Following in the footsteps of A1GP

The parallels between Superleague and A1GP (another failed attempt at an ‘F1 alternative’) have always been striking. Both have core concepts that are slightly alien to motorsport.

A1GP described itself as the “World Cup of Motorsport”. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t even win races. Nations did.

Meanwhile, Superleague was designed as a cross between football and motor racing. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t win races. Football clubs did. Any football fans I ever spoke to about Superleague were not very interested in the series. For this reason, the format was always going to be a loser.

But on the plus side for both A1GP and Superleague, they both provided some quite entertaining racing. And it is on this basis that they both attracted a cult following — a small but loyal fanbase. But this clearly isn’t enough of a fanbase to sustain a series for more than a few years.

A1GP lasted for four years. Cunningly, the series was run over the winter. Not very traditional for a motorsport series, but this meant that they could draw in motorsport fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was moderately successful, and it led to GP2 (the closest thing there is to an official feeder series to F1) creating a spin-off GP2 Asia series that was run in winter. (GP2 Asia has since also been wound up, having had a troubled 2010–2011 season of its own when it was affected by the unrest in Bahrain.)

Not a super formula

When A1GP closed down, Superleague opened up and has so far continued for three seasons. Superleague runs with the same type of car, with the same type of drivers on the same types of circuits. For want of a better phrase, these are a B-class car, with B-class drivers on largely B-class circuits.

I have nothing against this personally, and I personally enjoyed watching A1GP and Superleague whenever I got the chance. But you have to question whether it is a formula for success in terms of bringing in an audience.

Sad but true: the standard isn’t high enough

There are lots of brilliant series below Formula 1 that provide real appeal. It is a sad fact that the motor racing world revolves around Formula 1, and the most successful sub-F1 open-wheel series are all about finding the F1 stars of the future. GP2, World Series by Renault, GP3 and the many Formula 3 series all stake their claim as being a testing ground for the stars of the future.

But series like A1GP and Superleague Formula cannot make this claim. As a result, their appeal is sadly limited. A series like Superleague is populated by drivers who aren’t good enough to progress further up the ladder. Some drivers almost made it to F1, but didn’t quite have the last bit that was required. If you’re lucky, there might be the odd ex-F1 driver like Jos Verstappen. But the world isn’t exactly set alight by the prospect of a battle between Neel Jani and Craig Dolby.

It is true that A1GP has been a stomping ground for a few future F1 drivers like Nico Hülkenberg. But these drivers had to make their way through GP2 aftewards to get to F1.

Because let’s be fair here. It is generous to describe the drivers in Superleague as ‘B-class’. B-class open-wheel racers can be found in IndyCar. IndyCar struggles enough to survive as it is. But at least some of its drivers are household names like Dario Franchitti or Takuma Sato. Jobbing open-wheelers whose sights haven’t extended to IndyCar end up in a series like Superleague.

While I have always found the concept of Superleague Formula to be shaky, I do hope that it is able to survive this embarrassing season and come back stronger in 2012. But I sadly doubt it will be the case.

There are lots of great things about the railway, but the industry’s use of language is not one of them.

I have often been amazed by the linguistic tangles conductors often find themselves in when they try to “talk posh” during announcements. Clearly they are not trained about the importance of plain English. This problem was covered excellently by the Guardian’s Mind Your Langauge blog calling for railspeak to be terminated.

Another recent article on the BBC News website looked over some of the dodgy phrasing of railway delay excuses. The cryptic but common explanations include “tanking train toilet” (the loos won’t flush) and “poor railhead adhesion” (the track is slippery).

On the ubiquitous “signalling problems”, the article notes that this is usually caused by cable theft.

I don’t know why they don’t say ‘It’s because some so-and-so has stolen 150 yards of cable.’ That’s going to get people on-side.

This evening my eyebrows were raised by a tweet I spotted from the National Rail Enquiries ScotRail Twitter feed.

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This “DISRUPTION CLEARED” is a dead body. It can’t just be me that feels that there could be a more sensitive way of describing this than “DISRUPTION CLEARED”.

Early on during this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso overtook Felipe Massa. Massa didn’t make it difficult for Alonso — not that you would expect him to.

Scuderia Ferrari immediately tweeted on their official Twitter account:

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Just for fun, I cheekily replied:

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They responded!

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I have to admit to doing a little victory dance in my chair at having riled Ferrari enough to provoke them to reply.

I wasn’t being terribly serious with my tweet. It’s not especially that I thought Massa let Alonso through, or even that doing so would be wrong. Nor was my tweet about team orders. It was more about how Alonso can assert his authority at Ferrari.

But it’s interesting that Ferrari are touchy about the suggestion.

All good banter though.

Beneath the jump, an image of the tweet for posterity.

Click for more »

Last month I attended the World Series by Renault event at Silverstone. I have become a big fan of the World Series by Renault. I have already recently enthused about its centrepiece event, the Formula Renault 3.5 series. So I was pretty excited to go and see it for real.

Despite having been massively interested in motorsport for over 15 years now, I have never managed to get myself to any kind of motorsport event before. I haven’t even been to watch a race at Knockhill, which is an hour down the road. So I was pretty excited to be making a trip to Silverstone to see some top-class international motorsport action.

First glimpse of the Wing

We entered the circuit on Saturday morning at the new Wing pit complex. It is a very impressive building to see in real life.

Daniël de Jong goes for a spin

While this is the location of the new international pit straight, World Series by Renault was using the old start–finish straight, so there was no bustle here. But the first piece of excitement was watching Daniël de Jong spin at Club corner during Formula Renault 3.5 qualifying.

My friend’s mission was to walk round the perimeter of the circuit, which I was all for. For this World Series by Renault event, you can freely walk in and out of almost any grandstand you choose. So during the qualifying session we made our way round the circuit, travelling anti-clockwise (the opposite direction to the cars).

Here is me posing at the bridge at Hangar Straight as though I am standing next to the pyramids of Egypt.

Standing at Hangar Straight

It is amazing how close you can get to the circuit at some points. I was dead proud I managed to take this photograph of Felix Serralles at the apex of Aintree during the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup qualifying session.

Felix Serralles

We continued on to Copse. Here there is a tunnel that goes underneath the circuit and leads to the inside. This is where most of the World Series by Renault action takes place. World Series by Renault is as much a festival of motorsport (or, more accurately, a festival of Renault) as a day at the races. That is underlined in this ‘village’. But I will write about that in a separate post.

After visiting the village, we walked along the national pit straight. All of the World Series by Renault pitlane action happens here. However, it is very difficult to see what is going on in the pitlane, even from high up in the grandstands.

But a little creative thinking enables you to see what is going on in the reflections from the pit building! This photograph is of Kevin Korjus being wheeled into his garage following Sunday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race.

In the pits

Bridge corner

We then went round Woodcote to visit the old Bridge corner. We were able to freely walk around this disused part of the circuit. It is pretty cool to walk across such an amazing, historic corner.

But it is also a bit sad. While I was taking a photograph of Bridge, I didn’t notice that a wheelie bin would be the most prominent feature of the photo! It kind of sums up what has become of Bridge.

I found the newer parts of the circuit harder to access. When walking round the perimeter, it is easy to completely skip past the new inner section. We didn’t manage to properly explore the Loop section until late on in the day.

You might wonder if we managed to watch much racing given all this wandering round! That will be the subject of a separate post to be published in the near future.

But the wandering round was certainly beneficial. We got a good feel for the best places to view. I can’t imagine there is a better place to sit than the stand at Becketts.

Views from the stand at Becketts

This photograph doesn’t demonstrate the best view available from this stand. I later discovered that by sitting further to the right, it is possible to see the entry to Maggotts, through Becketts, Chapel and the first part of the Hangar Straight. Then you can also see the ‘opposite’ end of the circuit, when it doubles back on itself at the Loop, then all the way along the full length of the Wellington straight. The end of the Wellington straight is very far away, but you can see it nonetheless.

When we sat up here for Saturday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race, there was almost always a car in view. Neatly, these two parts of the circuit are at exact opposite ends in terms of lap time, so you get an update on a car’s progress twice a lap in an even fashion. Brilliant stuff.

The second leg of my trip took me away from nature. I decided to go out of my way to visit Steam — the Museum of the Great Western Railway.

I am not an extreme railway enthusiast, although I do find railways quite interesting. I only knew that Steam existed when I happened to pass it on the train a few weeks earlier on a separate journey.

I decided I wanted to visit, and it was quite convenient that I managed to incorporate it into my holiday. It is very easy to get to by rail, being just a stone’s throw away from Swindon railway station.

The museum is very comprehensive. It is not just a collection of old trains. The very first thing you see when you enter is a mocked-up back office. I wandered into a small room to find myself walking in on a worker being given a row by his boss for turning up late for work! Quite amusing.

From there, you go on to learn about the processes of building a steam locomotive, step by step.

Caerphilly Castle locomotive

Then, finally, you are presented with the finished product. This is Caerphilly Castle.

The underside of Caerphilly Castle

This is just one example of the excellent way exhibits are presented at Steam. A staircase allows you to walk straight underneath the locomotive to give a view of the underside.

After that, there are exhibits about the building of the railway itself. You learn about the Box Tunnel, and the Great Western Railway’s original unusual, but superior, broad gauge.

This is perhaps the most fun part of the museum. There is an awesome train driving simulator, and games that demonstrate the difficult job signalmen had.

Then you pay a visit to a mock GWR railway station.

The mock railway station at Steam

Train-shaped coffee pot

The station contains objects like clocks, benches and vending machines of the steam period. But the highlight for me was the brilliant silver-plated locomotive-shaped coffee pot.

This was used at Swindon railway station, which apparently was notorious for its awful refreshments. Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself complained about it, with audio of his complaint playing out in the mock railway station. The display describes it as a “foul brew”, but you cannot deny that it was gloriously presented.

"See your own country first"

After you have looked around the railway station, it is time to enter ‘Speed to the West’, which is all about the efforts made to attract tourists to use the Great Western Railway. Among the exhibits are old slot machines, which you can still try out for 20p.

“See your own country first,” one poster implores. “There is a great similarity between Cornwall and Italy in shape, climate and natural features.”

This was another highlight for me. I have a particular fascination with the visual identity and graphic design of railways.

It would have been really great if I could buy some prints of old GWR posters from the souvenir shop, but sadly they didn’t sell anything like this. I made do with a GWR keyring and three bottles of beer that were brewed by the Box Steam Brewery, based near the Box tunnel.

I also pressed a penny to emboss it with the GWR logo. I haven’t done that in years, but it is always quite a nice and inexpensive souvenir of a visit.

All-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Steam, and would highly recommend that you pay a visit if you happen to be in the Swindon area.

After my adventure on the Struggle, I parked at White Moss to embark on a walk up Loughrigg Fell, which Nick Barlow recommended to me.

Although I enjoy walking up hills from time to time, I hadn’t done it for a while. But this was a good reminder that I really do enjoy it.

Does this mean I'm halfway?

I found Loughrigg Fell to be a particularly rewarding walk. As with the area around Aira Beck, there are lots of different ways you could go about it.

There are a few different summits to explore and for a while I couldn’t work out which one was the one to climb. All the more opportunity to see some of the fantastic views.

Also like Aira Beck, it was very quiet for the most part, but with more people at the main attraction. People who came up to see views like this.

Lingmoor Fell

Inevitably, my photographs do not come close to conveying how lovely the views are up there.

I went down in the opposite direction to the way I came up, and saw the people milling around on the beach at Grasmere lake.

Above Grasmere

Since I had a bit of time on my hands, I decided to go for a wander round part of Grasmere lake as well.

Small building at Grasmere

That topped of a brilliant day. It began with an early start in Dundee, setting off for a four hour long journey to Aira Beck. Then from there, via the Struggle, up a 1,000 foot hill and round a lake.

It’s a lot to cram into one day if you haven’t had much sleep. Inevitably it unravelled a bit after this. I kept on getting lost on the way to my accommodation for the evening, and ended up not eating anything in the evening.

I guess I needed a rest, but watching television in a Travelodge for several hours is quite a comedown.

After my visit to Aira Force, I hot-footed it towards Loughrigg Fell to try and fit in as much as possible before the end of the afternoon. Handily, I had printed out some Google Maps before I left Dundee, so I didn’t have to worry too much about how to get there. Or so I thought.

Looking over the route before I set off, the journey seemed simple enough. All I had to do was continue on the road round Ullswater, then keep going until I take a “slight right ontto Kirkstone Pass”, which would take me straight to Ambleside. The instructions could hardly be more benign.

Kirkstone Pass on Google Maps

But what the vast off-white expanses of the default view on Google Maps don’t show is just how hilly this area is. I knew I would be driving between hills, so I should have guessed. This was almost too much for my poor wee Panda to cope with. It hadn’t struggled like this since I drove up to the car park at Cairn Gorm last year.

Even more worrying was the road sign that basically instructs you not to drive on Kirkstone Pass during winter. Moreover, the sign called the road “The Struggle”. I was beginning to doubt whether I should take this route, or follow the alternative, longer, but presumably easier road.

Luckily, I was travelling downhill. I can imagine that taking the road in the other direction truly would be a struggle, as the gradient is apparently 25% at some points of this extraordinary road.

My eyes will have been on stalks as I made the descent. There was no risk of me disobeying the signs advising to use a low gear. It’s difficult to imagine how this narrow, twisty, and exceptionally steep road could have been more challenging — especially as I was not expecting it.

It was a bit scary, but also brilliant fun to drive. I very rarely derive pleasure from road driving. For me, driving is a function necessary to get from A to B and not much more; about as fun as washing the dishes. But the Struggle gave me a taste of how it feels to really have fun on the roads.

Yesterday Toyota pulverised the electric car lap record around the legendary Nürburgring Nordschleife with its TMG EV P001 driven by Jochen Krumbach (via Axis of Oversteer).

Peugeot’s old record of 9:01.338 is in the bin. The new benchmark is 7:47.794. To put it in perspective, the official lap record for any car round the Nordschleife is 6:11.13.

It is not difficult to guess what Toyota’s goal might be with this project. As their press release says:

Such performance shows TMG’s electric powertrain is ideal to power any future single-make electric motorsport series…

With the FIA planning its Formula E Championship for electric cars, due to start in 2013, who can bet against Toyota playing a role?

Many wonder if the lack of noise would be a turn-off to motorsport fans. But I think the sounds of electric cars are fascinating. Everything is not drowned out by the engine sound. There are new sounds to be mesmerised by. Listen to tyres squeal. The wind rushing past! To my ears, it sounds more dangerous and exciting.

And what about the crashes?!


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