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.

[blackbirdpie id="124222866723049472"]

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:

[blackbirdpie id="122917348792479744"]

Just for fun, I cheekily replied:

[blackbirdpie id="122917459014590464"]

They responded!

[blackbirdpie id="122917576102780928"]

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 »

Sebastian Vettel foam finger

That’s what I’m talking about. My index finger is extended in honour.

Suzuka is a proper place to become a World Champion.

Standing at Hangar Straight

The morning of Saturday 20 August 2011 at Silverstone was warm and sunny. It was difficult to imagine that the weather would be a problem. As I was staying in a campsite just a stone’s throw away from the circuit, I thought nothing of just heading there in a t-shirt.

The morning was brilliant. As outlined in a previous post, I had a brilliant time wandering around the circuit and watching the qualifying sessions that were taking place.

The big race that I was looking forward to, the Formula Renault 3.5 race, was approaching. A breeze picked up, and it even began to rain. There was no way I could nip back to the campsite to pick up some warmer clothes. I had to sit it out, high up in a stand, with the bitter wind blowing right through me.

I didn’t actually feel too cold. The buzz of watching the race allowed me to ignore it more than I otherwise would. I did have a cold for about a week afterwards. But it was definitely worth it.

We opted to sit in the stand at Maggotts, where you can see the cars twice a lap. Early on in the race one driver dropped back significantly, so for almost the entire race there was always something to see.

I had worried about what it would be like trying to watch a race from the side of the track rather than the living room. Television has the obvious advantage of being able to follow the cars all the way round the track, rather than simply making do with them blasting past.

Of course, watching a race in the flesh is an exhilirating experience. But it requires a bit of skill. Sure, there are are the commentators on the public address system. But you can’t hear that when there are cars in the vicinity. So it’s a matter of taking the bits you can see with your eyes, and the shards of whatever you hear from the commentators, and piecing them together.

For Saturday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race I could almost never hear the commentators. My interest in the race did not wane though.

The main interest at the start of the race was watching Jean-Eric Vergne make his way back through the field. Vergne had to start from the pits after an apparent electrical problem on the grid. But his class was clear to see as he was able to make up several places during the race.

A clear top three emerged, with Robet Wickens, Alexander Rossi and Daniel Ricciardo opening a significant gap to the next small group of cars. For a couple of laps it looked like Rossi was capable of passing Wickens. But in the end, Ricciardo in fact got the better of Rossi, and the promising American had to make do with third.

I assumed that Wickens had won, because I couldn’t hear the commentators and we were nowhere near the finish line. I was only while I was walking round the circuit again after the race that I managed to find out for sure!

(I trudged back to the campsite to retrieve my jacket. Right on cue, the blazing sun came out again.)

It was a crushingly dominant weekend for Robert Wickens. He turned up late for Sunday qualifying after being stuck in traffic on the way to Silverstone, but that still didn’t stop him from taking pole and another win.

For Sunday’s race we opted to sit on the outside of Copse, opposite the sole television screen in the circuit. The idea was to get a fuller picture of what was going on in the race. This location has the added bonus of being at the pitlane exit, so we saw the moment when the weekend got from bad to worse for Jean-Eric Vergne!

Vergne breathes down Ricciardo's neck

The start of the race went well for him, as he was running in second place. But a wide range of different strategies were used by the drivers, and Vergne ended up behind Ricciardo after his pitstop. The pair had a pretty good battle, and Vergne had a good look at Ricciardo going into Copse.

They were so close that it was impossible to imagine any car separating them. So imagine the sensation when Nathanael Berthon emerged from the pits just in front of Vergne! From looking set for second, Vergne ended up in fifth! Definitely a weekend to forget for Vergne.

But a weekend to remember for Robert Wickens and his team, Carlin. They wrapped up the Teams’ Championship at Silverstone.

Formula Renault 3.5 wasn’t the only category to provide major excitement though. After our visit to the village, we emerged to see Mégane Trophy Eurocup cars completing their qualifying session. They were instantly captivating. For me, these cars were the surprise highlight of the racing action.

The championship may be crushingly dominated by one man, Stefano Comini, who has won 10 of the 12 races so far this season. But that doesn’t matter because these cars are so entertaining to watch. They look fantastic, but best of all they sound fantastic.

Later on in the day we watched race from Vale. Stefano Comini had a poor getaway but soon made his way up to second, behind his teammate Niccolò Nalio. The battle was hugely exciting to watch. Comini was clearly superior on the brakes, and I am sure at one point they even touched here at Vale.

Comini finally passes

It was only a matter of time before Comini would pass. In fact, I wondered if Comini’s advantage was only at Vale, because it was inconceivable that he could be so clearly superior, yet still unable to pass.

I later spoke to someone who watched the race from another part of the circuit, and he confirmed that Comini also looked stellar there as well. It just goes to show. Catching is one thing. Passing is another matter.

Comini did manage to pass Nalio in the end. A class act in the Méganes.

The new qualifying format for the World Touring Car Championship was revealed today.

The format used in 2011 was simple. For race one, drivers had to draw a number between one and ten, multiply it by 2×Π, then aim to complete their lap in that many seconds. The grid was based on how close to the time drivers got, with faster drivers being penalised extra. Race two used the same system, but with an upside-down grid for the top seven.

However, this system was not deemed successful enough. So for 2012 the system is being revised.

The new format will see drivers do a handstand for 30 seconds before they start their hot laps. Anyone deemed to be going too quickly will be given a five place penalty. However, to give drivers an incentive to perform well nonetheless, they will be given points for the style of their handstands. Race two will be an inside-out grid.

As I described in my previous post, early on Saturday morning we ventured underneath the tunnel at Copse to head towards the World Series by Renault ‘village’. This is where all the bustle is.

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’. There is so much to do here. World Series by Renault is a great event for families, with plenty of stuff for kids to do.

There is a Renault F1 area, where they fire up the engine and get it to ‘sing’ God Save the Queen.

It’s mildly entertaining the first time you hear it. But this engine is so loud you can hear it for miles away and the novelty soon wears thin!

Étoile Filante

Another draw in this area is the stand of classic Renault Sport cars. The highlight is the awesomely streamlined-looking Étoile Filante, an experimental car that drew heavily on aeronautic technologies.

Mégane Trophy V6
Renault Fluence ZE concept car

Across from the classic cars is a stage with display versions of each of the Renault cars that were racing at Silverstone that weekend — Formula Renault 3.5, Formula Renault 2.0, Mégane Trophy V6 and the Clio. Alongside them are a couple of concept cars. These are a bit too stylish-looking for their own good, but interesting to see anyway.

Romain Grosjean signing autographs

I was beginning to wonder quite why this area was so crowded. Someone was banging on about how if I wanted autographs I need to join the queue at the back. A little while later I turned round, and there was Renault F1 reserve and test driver Romain Grosjean shaking a Sharpie around!

I am quite sure that, even across two days, we did not see everything that was worth seeing in the village.

Just next to the village is the paddock, where you can wander pretty freely. Here there were loads of Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup cars parked up after their qualifying session.

A moderately expensive car park

I was tempted to stick my head into the Fortec Motorsports garage. But just as I was about to crane my neck, an angry mechanic stormed past me and slammed the door behind him! I played things more conservatively from then on.

Côme Ledogar waits in the pitlane

When we visited the paddock again on the Sunday, I managed to have a peek into the pitlane. There we saw Côme Ledogar waiting to go out during the qualifying session. He always seemed to be on the verge of getting going, but never did while I was there.

The World Series by Renault organisers also put on a great show on the track in between the races. The schedule is jam-packed on both days from 9am until after 6pm. The track is almost never empty. Combined with the attractions in the ‘village’, there is no way a petrolhead will get bored. This is especially brilliant considering the tickets are free.

Between races, a number of demonstration runs take place. There were at least five demonstration runs of the Renault R30 F1 car, driven by Romain Grosjean and Jan Charouz. It is the first time I have ever seen an F1 car driving at speed, and it is quite something else in comparison to everything else I saw during the weekend.

Doughnuts

Romain Grosjean put on a good show, doing lots of doughnuts for the fans on the pit straight. Unfortunately I never managed to get myself in a really good position to see it. I managed to get a slightly hazy photo from Copse.

There is also a ‘Renault Sport Show’ (which is basically synchronised swimming on wheels) and Jean Ragnotti doing his automotive magic tricks in his Renault 5.

But the main draw of the weekend is of course the racing itself. That will be the subject of my next post.

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.

It is hard to believe that the 11 September attacks were ten years ago now, when I was only 15.

I was at school, waiting for my German Writing lesson to begin. It was probably my least favourite subject. As such, I didn’t especially mind the delay in the lesson beginning, thought it was quite odd.

My teacher kept on going between the classroom and the staff room. Eventually he wheeled a television through and told us we should watch this because it would have pretty big implications. If I remember correctly, we saw the second plane hit as it happened.

I thought I was pretty switched-on for my age in terms of knowing about politics and current affairs, but Islamic extremism of this nature was new to me. At the time, I mistakenly thought that the fact that the Pentagon had been hit was the biggest story. In isolation it would be bad enough.

But the resonance of the images of the World Trade Centre was incredible, and the scale of the loss of life was unimaginable. I seem to remember the news reports talking about the potential that tens of thousands of people may have been in the World Trade Centre at the time.

It was difficult to comprehend. There was one person in my class who had to have the concept of a suicide attack explained to him several times. We laughed at the time, but his attitude was right. Why would you do that?