Monday, 15 April 2013

Women in Formula 1

There's a buzz, currently, about female drivers and Formula 1. This happens every few years when a likely candidate emerges and the media start to get excited. The current buzz is about Susie Wolff - a very talented 30 year old race driver from Scotland.

She got a BBC2 documentary (shot by her brother) on Sunday evening. And she will also feature in a Radio 5 Live debate tonight (Mon 15th April) at 9.30pm.

Conveniently for Susie's "people", Stirling Moss has made a statement saying that a female will never win an F1 race - and this is largely backed-up by the sport's supremo, Bernie Ecclestone.

Cue much frothing of the airwaves. When the fuss dies down, let's see if Susie can proceed beyond her one-off test driver stage and maybe get a race in a competitive car. The fact that she raced in the German Touring Car Championship for Mercedes last year and that her husband is now overall boss of Mercedes GP, might help.

But I doubt it.

In the mid-70s I worked for the rather brilliant John Webb. He was then Chief Executive of 4 UK race tracks including Brands Hatch. He was a motorsport enthusiast - and, crucially, a marketing man ahead of his time. His feisty, fearsome wife Angela was one of his directors - and between them they made many changes for the better in UK motorsport.

I was their wet-behind-the-ears PR man, running the press office. But I became very much their right-hand man and was put in charge of their growing stable of female racing drivers. OK - I was 20, single and it seemed an attractive offer. I soon learned otherwise.

I worked with Divina Galica at first - ushering her through single-seaters as far as Formula 5000 with an old Surtees F1 car. Eventually, "Divi" got signed to James Hunt's manager-brother, Peter and Olympus Cameras and tried to make it in F1.

Did she have what it takes? I believe so, yes. Immensely strong as a former GB Olympic skier. She trained and trained, raced and raced. But in F1 unless you have the right car under you run by the right team, you don't stand a chance. She badly needed a break with McLaren or another front-runner. That break never came. There was no way that the major sponsors of the time (Marlboro, for instance) would countenance "risking" their brand image on a woman. And if the sponsors don't want it, then the teams can't have it.

John Webb, always with an eye on the column inches, radio & tv slots which he tasked me to generate, knew he'd struck a winning formula with female drivers. The crowds at Brands Hatch definitely showed a big interest in them, and new spectators were drawn in by the type of media coverage that few male drivers could ever generate.

So we tried a few more - former showjumper Ann Moore, South African Desiré Wilson. We would stage "female only" races for media stars of the day in identical Ford Escorts. Each entrant would be put through the racing school and their progress would be reported back to John. He was looking for those who had the gift - those who had the killer instinct on the track and could be nurtured to success.

It never really happened. Desiré was the most successful of them all, actually making a season in F1.

Now, nearly 40 years later in our very different world, Danica Patrick has set the racing world on fire with enormous success in the USA - in both single-seaters and the frightening NASCAR. She has got "it". In simple terms, a female Schumacher. Fearless, talented, fast, strong and with the crucial killer instinct.

The USA will keep her in a living she could never get in F1. I don't think Danica will ever join Bernie's circus.

However, we have female racers in this country who could have the same success if they got the break with the backing. I was at a kart track a few years ago. It was wet and I stood on one chosen corner to watch races. It was corner which demanded a driver's attention in the dry, let alone the wet. I was mesmerised by one kart carving up through the pack. Out-braking, out-thinking, out-driving all the others. Then I saw the ponytail sticking out from the back of a helmet. After the race I went into the paddock and found a little family team - with a 12 year old daughter who had just won that race.

She had "it".

I just wonder if she ever got the sort of backing that talented boy kart racers get?

To the team owners & sponsors in F1 (mainly male) : c'mon fellers, give a girl a break! There's a whole new world to discover.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Eco cars. Good or bad?

A month has passed since my last utterance via the blog. Not a totally happy month - but we said a fun-filled goodbye to Harryboyo, my spoon-playing father-in-law. Every guest at his burial was given a set of dessert spoons to play at the appropriate moment - as Sarah introduced a childhood tune that Harry sang to her. Tiddly Widdly Winky Woo. On You Tube if you fancy a burst.

And as his casket was lowered, the entire gathering broke into a round of applause.

'Bye Harry. The world has come a long way in your 90 years.

Which is a thought that crossed my mind on a slight incline on the M25 this week. I remembered back to my mum's first car - a boxy, blue but lovely Ford Prefect 100E with a 3-speed gearbox - and the accelerating power of an F1 car chained to a concrete post. Mum would deliver me to school, on occasions, in this car. Of course, I was 8 or 9 at the time and every journey was fun. (Except the ones where she left the choke out too long and fouled the plugs - I went on to win a prize at primary school for inventing a "choke warning light". In reality, a switch with a pea light.)

And except the ones where she was required to downshift a gear and overtake an invalid carriage. Finding the gear without mashing the other 2 in the box was an ear-splitting experience. Eventually, with a noise like a circular saw going through human bone, the gear was found. The old non-synchro, sidevalve 100E would cough & fart its way forward (hopefully) trying desperately to produce enough power to out-sprint whatever we were overtaking.

That was the 60s. The Prefect was from the 50s. Cars were rubbish, compared with the 21st century.

Or not.

Last week, I had a 100E/Mum moment on the M25.

Now - you may not like this. My usual wheels these days are German, Dr Ferdinand's finest and not a Beetle. My 911 Porsche (of the 997 variety, for enthusiasts) is 3.8 litres of flat-six joy that makes me feel so good and safe that I want to grow an inordinately large belly, wear 1980s jeans and shout loudly out of something that resembles a mouth - but is more often regarded as an arse. The 911 has enough reserve power to get you out of trouble, if you have a brain. If you don't have a brain, it's power will kill you in a number of exciting but, ultimately, numbing ways. You see speed doesn't kill - what kills is senseless driving by idiots.

A car can kill you at 8mph, or 80mph. Just depends who's holding the wheel. Or not, in the case of phone users, nose-pickers etc.

The Porsche is also frowned upon by the environmentalists. Look - I'm not going to get into a slanging match here about green-ness and its apparent godliness. But let me simply state that, in the past 15 years, the environmentalists have been winning the battle for control of government minds all over Europe and beyond. The power of "green" is so great in Germany, for instance, that manufacturers call their eco-cars "Blue" for fear of committing a political crime. (Even more confusing is that most German cars are, in fact, silver....something to do with - ah - heritage, I think.)

Green (or Blue) is almost the sole reason why your electricity and gas bills are climbing beyond reason - because energy companies are now legislated to spend gazillions of your money on things other than - er - energy. Whilst the Chinese keep opening coal-fired power stations at the rate of ONE every WEEK, you and I are being heavily taxed & fined by an EU that seems to have lost all its senses. Do they honestly believe that cars can make that much difference? Have they seen the environmental maelstrom on other continents caused by globalisation and industrialism?

This same EU is comfortable that the world's most polluting transport - marine & aviation - pay no tax at all on their diesel-like fuel. Weird. (See footnote) Ever been near Heathrow or Southampton Docks on a nice day and tasted the yellow air?

And we all know that the real rise in the price of Unleaded for your car is due to environmental taxes.

Unleaded itself was a total lie introduced to this country after much lobbying by oil companies. Back in the late 80s, under the Thatcher conservatives, Ford had invented a beautiful piece of technology for petrol engines called "lean burn". This used less petrol, more air and the UK government initially agreed it was a good idea and gave Ford some financial incentives to start producing lean-burn engines in the UK.

Big oil didn't like it. Big oil could only see it producing less consumption. And so, bastard Unleaded was introduced. Unleaded actually produces more CO2 than Leaded fuel. And consumption actually climbed, yet lean burn was killed. A chance to really make a difference was swept under the carpet due to commercial lobbying.

Anyway, I love driving. Always have. Always will. Learned at the age of 9 sitting on my Dad's knee in that 100E on an old Irish airfield. Raced around fields at 14. Rallied & rallycrossed at 17, raced from 18. BMW factory driver in 1988, BTCC team owner and driver 89-91. I used to regard driving on the roads as a great freedom. However, not long ago it ceased to be a freedom.

The "safety cameras", the average speed limits, the constant monitoring and restrictions placed on the motorist took away the total enjoyment. It's a rare day when I can enjoy my chosen vehicle on the public roads. And by that, I don't mean speeding or anti-social driving. I mean that I constantly live in fear of my life as confused drivers try to take onboard everything they now have to process. Multiple useless signs instead of simple ones that actually help, random speed limits, traffic news, red lines, white lines, yellow lines. Lordy, the picture through your windscreen most days is so confusing.

What suffers is safety. The very thing that is supposed to be enhanced by some of the distracting items listed. Drivers distracted from their sole purpose - guiding the vehicle safely with full respect for other road users - is something that no longer happens without distraction. Throw-in loud audio and the dreaded GPS - and you just know that an accident will happen.

Like water torture or or a dripping tap, eventually the greens got to me. I started to feel guilty about my 911 freedom. And I noticed that other road users display about as much respect for Porsche drivers as M Thatcher did for the Belgrano.

So, the time arrived last week when we needed to purchase a little runabout for my filming business. Public transport in and around most UK airfields is completely non-existent unless your name is Heathrow or Gatwick. At our little jewel of an airfield, there's one bus which passes the entrance twice a day. When I see it, there's always the same 3 seniors' faces staring forlornly out of the windows - and one them appears to be the driver. It also goes nowhere near the local rail station. Very joined-up.

We are inside the M25 - yet I once tried to commute by public transport from my home in London 20 miles to the office. (Don't ask me why - I'd probably been hectored by a BBC Attenborough documentary the night before). That 20 miles took 90 minutes, not including the 20 waiting for a cab to take me 2 miles up the hill to the final destination.

So - when clients come to visit, we try to ensure their day out doesn't also include an overnight, and collect them from the station. And we also have several company errands that need to be run to places where they never see buses.

And so I found myself in a Toyota showroom doing a deal on a slightly used iQ 2. This vehicle, glowingly sold to me by a very enthusiastic man who turned out not be telling the entire truth, is an environmentalist's delight. A little 998cc engine that appears to have its roots in the Singer sewing machines of the 60s. It breathes petrol at over 43mpg, no matter what I do to it. There's no Road Fund Licence payable and, big bonus, it qualifies for Boris's Greener Vehicle Discount on the dreaded London Congestion Charge. Or does at the moment. See footnote.

It has smart keyless entry and start, clever design features and appears to be very well engineered. It has a smiley face, is very comfortable and has a radio that almost makes Jeremy Vine listenable.

But it's not a car. It's a deathtrap in the name of saving the planet.

The small incline on the M25. The HGV in the inside lane, the iQ trying to overtake. All going well until I got caught by another HGV which appeared to be fitted with an old Space Shuttle engine. He wanted past both of us.
He completely misjudged his closing speed and nearly exercised a fine, unique iQ feature - the only car with a rear window airbag. Mind you, the rear window is so close to the driver's head in an iQ, that the front airbag would also protect it.

I determined from this almost Darwinian experiment that environmentalists are going to kill us unless they apply the same power-restricting rules to all forms of road transport. The amount of restrictions being placed on private motorists is making them an endangered species, when other vehicles have so many exemptions.

As an example, look at the London congestion charge - an environmental tax in all but name. (Ask the US Embassy..). The list of exempt vehicles tells a story. Taxis and buses are exempt.....yet they cause more pollution than cars. Taxis are still running around with very old, inefficient diesel engines - but other motorists are being forced to buy low emission vehicles. And the goalposts keep moving. See footnote.

So - eco cars. Yep - I see the point. But they need to come with special awareness for the drivers. They are gutless with no power reserve and you will have to accommodate that in your driving style or risk a serious accident.

Which takes me back to my mum's Ford Prefect in the 60s. Good old MDR 939 - ahead of its time.

The footnote
Transport for London snuck out a "consultation" last November. I, a registered CC user, was not notified and only learned about it after the consultation closed in February. The nub of it is that the current Greener Vehicle Discount may change in June - lowered from 100gms CO2 to 75gms. This will knock-out a lot of currently exempted vehicles which private motorists and companies have bought purely to comply with the existing regulations. We await Boris' final declaration - but the London Assembly is pushing the change forward. Details here. And remember - what happens in London guides other cities around the UK.

Aviation fuel: jet turbine engines use Jet A1 which is untaxed "for business purposes". Smaller planes and helicopters like the ones we use are on 100LL. This is a refined petrol at 100 octane with low lead. We pay the same environmental taxes and other fuel duties as motorists. Figure that one.