WAFFLING TOAST – GETTING WET AT CROFT, RUSSELL TO MERCEDES, ASH SUTTON IN INDYCAR AND A SWEATY DERRIERE

MOTOR RACING UK EDITOR MICK PALMER KICKS OFF HIS NEW SATURDAY MORNING BLOG WITH A LOT OF WAFFLE AND SOME ORANGE JUICE (NOT THE POSH STUFF FROM A CARTON, RATHER FANTA, STRAIGHT FROM THE BOTTLE.)

Over the Styrian Grand Prix weekend there was talk of rain, rain and yet more rain. During the time the cars were on track there was none. Well there was a couple of drops at one point but it didn’t rain, rain, if you see what I mean? I watched live on Friday and Sunday, but for Saturday I was at Croft for a Ferrari Championship meeting. It was forecast to be blazing hot on one weather forecasting app and dull on another. I thought: ‘I can’t be arsed with dragging myself around trackside in jeans again’ because on a warm day a lard lad like myself perspires uncomfortably in lower areas attired with denim, so I bought some new shorts for £45 thinking that I’d stay nice and cool. I certainly did.

Saturday morning came and the Sky box was set to record the events in Austria. I was set for Croft. Three cameras (two for stills, one for vids,) a GoPro and some audio equipment were primed and I was set for the one hour drive South. Peeking my head through the curtains I saw drizzle and checked the old weather app out. A bit cloudy in Darlington it lied to me. A 10% chance of rain before 10am dropping to less than 5% for the rest of the day (or a 90-95% chance of it not….) Shorts it was then, and fresh ventilation to ensure that everything above knee level was not going to become damper than the track surface at Donington in 1993…….

I got to Croft early – having listened to the BBC F1 podcast on the way – and the low cloud was still drizzling. I checked the apps, both lied once again claiming that a bit of drizzle would hang around until 10am, then it would clear up with some sunshine breaking through. ‘Ah’ I thought. ‘Putting the sunblock on was a decent idea after all.’ It wasn’t as it turned out.

The 750 Alfa contingent – some cracking racing – Photo: Mick Palmer

What did happen – while the F1 circus enjoyed a dry circuit (Yes, I know, it did rain at times when cars were not on track) – was that the damn drizzle kept on coming and coming  – until it ceased for 25 minutes at 4:50pm. Just long enough for the DDMC Northern Saloon and Sports Car Championship to get their 15 min + 1 lap race in before it started again. I wasn’t soaked through, but it was one of those bloody days when all of the equipment would get just damp enough to be irritating. The cloud was thick all day, yet somehow I still managed to get my face sunburned. Bugger.

On track there was a variety of lines being experimented with. Some were rather out of the way. Reminiscent of those days when you’d see a Fiesta close to the kerb while the passenger scouted the bushes on a slip road for sticky, discarded copies of Reader’s Wives or Men Only that they’d stashed out of the way of Mother. Of course their modern compatriots don’t have that problem……

Let’s be honest, the Styrian Grand Prix wasn’t much of a spectacle. I managed to keep myself awake by implementing some mildly violent techniques to keep the eyeballs active – not like the British Touring Car races on ITV3 – there was no chance of nodding off in my house as the whole family yelped and hollered at the on track action. That’s when a number of realisations hit home. They are:

1. Mercedes NEED to bring George Russell into the fold next year.

2. Ash Sutton NEEDS to be signed by Ganassi or Andretti to race in IndyCar.

3. There are times I need to pull my head out of my own anus and appreciate the fortunate position that being trackside offers, and has offered under Covid restrictions.

In watching Max Verstappen dominate in Austria we saw a driver, car and team in perfect synchronisation. Can they keep it up for the season? Can Merc and Lewis come back and take another pair of titles? Does it matter ? It’s the second title that got me thinking – the constructor’s championship. I think it’s obvious as things stand that this season and next is a two horse race as it’s currently stacked. Lewis and Max will battle it out this year and next for the driver’s crown. Sure, some teams are making progress, but even the coming reg changes is unlikely to topple the order at the very sharp end of the field. But the money is in the team competition, which when it’s this close looks like the deciding factor (and the lump sum that comes with it) will be determined by driver number two. That means Bottas against Perez.  

Sergio is still learning about Red Bull, Valteri is now into his fifth season as a sidekick/understudy to Hamilton. That has been fair enough for the team with the Finn where he is, but now that the pressure is on and Merc don’t have a competitive advantage it’s as plain as the sunburn on my face that the team need a different driver to up that game. Merc are going to have to get down to some bare knuckled action over the next 18 months, and for 2022 that means stepping Russell up to the plate. Will he support or scupper a Hamilton title tilt? It’s something that’s been on many media lips and fingertips – putting the pair together might cause some fireworks, it might not but as it stands Perez is ahead of Bottas, and it’s not just the car. Valteri was a stormer at Williams and it just hasn’t transferred. He’s had four-and-a-half years to argue differently. Perez has always been a points banker and it’s happening right now, but he’s added a race win, and there will be more. This could be  a repeat of Vettel and Webber, as in RBR could have two drivers consistently challenging for wins, but with Sergio you get the idea that there will be no hissy fits on days when the turd slops into the air conditioning. Max isn’t quite there yet. Merc need two flat out drivers who will challenge each other and  tame Red Bull. The maths of 44+77 don’t add up to that, you need to subtract a full Fernando Alonso to make the equation work. Come on, you must be able to work that maths thing out…..

While watching the BTCC, championship leader Ash Sutton was on it. Again. Now some fans are calling for TOCA to put some weight in his Infiniti, to penalise the rear wheel drive cars with engine and COG changes (again) because of the fact that he’s flying and sticking the car in places where it’s not wanted. But just no. He’s a fair way ahead of his team mates in the same car, it says something about Ash, about HIS pace and HIS skill that he’s able to outperform both with a lump in his passenger footwell. He’s been fêted as a rear wheel drive specialist over the last five years. His skills have seen him coaching F3 drivers in cars that have next to nothing in common with his NGTC machine yet also get fired from the arse end of the car. But he’s more than that, look at his Clio and TCR record. Yep. Just as good in a front wheel dragger as a rear driven pusher. He has it all it seems. There was talk of a shift to Australia a while back. If that had happened he’d have found himself up against Scott McLaughlin, only his senior by a year. Sutton wouldn’t have been one of those bloody foreigners stealing a seat from an Aussie bloke, but he’d have been a contender there no doubt. By extension that means that there is every reason to believe that he could easily match McLaughlin, who is having a belter of year topping F1 vet Romain Grosjean and seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson. Yes. I’m serious. If Penske can shift Scotty into a seat then why hasn’t Chip Ganassi or Michael Andretti appeared at a BTCC meeting with a contract in one hand and a DVD of his Formula Vee exploits in the other? In fact Chip, if you pop over to Croft later this year and sign the fella I’ll treat you to some local food. Nothing like fried blood clot and chips with a bottle of Double Maxim mate.

Inspiring the kids – Photo: Mick Palmer

Without reserve I own up. I wasn’t that happy when I landed at the circuit on Saturday. The weather wasn’t what I wanted. Sunny? Yep that’s fine. Cloudy and windy? I can cope with that. Chucking it down? Fair enough, but drizzle? It’s like that mate you see every two years. You know. That one. You share three stories that are mildly humorous each time you bump into one another, and by the third time you’ve worn out those tales you just want to avoid them because it’s just vexatious (I had to throw that word in, because I bloody hate when journalists use it – save it for the obligatory novel for the love of shite!) Now, where was I? Yep, there. Annoying myself.

Usually at Croft I’m interviewing drivers and working trackside as a photographer – and now doing some video. The beauty of the circuit from that point of view (except for BTCC meetings) is that I can hop in the car and drive through the paddock to Sunny Out, or park up near assembly or Complex or even park near Tower before clambering through the muddy wood to get to the corner. Not on Saturday I couldn’t. The Ferrari Owners Club had the circuit hired and it was their rules. They didn’t want any knacker of a motor hanging around their members pride and joy – and there was plenty of eye candy for Maranello aficionados – which I can understand. Not good for the image, but it was a little inconvenient so I had a whine about things then got on with the job – turned out to be better than I had hoped considering the weather, and having to use my legs to lump myself around. Actual physical effort, I need more to shift the lockdown stones and pounds. And yes, I mean multiples of both.

The 750 Alfa Romeo championship was on the ball. Lush cars and canny racing, which put a smile on my face. They’re Alfas, they just look the part (there was also a FIAT X1/9 in there but we can forgive that.) The Northern Saloon and Sports Cars was, as usual fantastical and multifarious (once again I delve into the big word tin to drag out some bollocks or another to look fancy.) Reports will follow in the next issue of Motor Racing UK magazine – it has to come around somewhere because not a jot popped up in any other print media. And there was the two Ferrari competitions.

Look. I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because supercars and hypercars don’t get my blood boiling. But when people see a Ferrari, Lambo or McLaren doing 20 down their high street they drop the jaw, yet the idea of seeing one on track – dissing speed limits as they were designed to – then they won’t pop along. On the road – to me at least – they’re no different to a Smart Car. Two seaters that aren’t allowed over 70, but if it’s your thing that’s cool. On track it’s usually a different matter. A field of Ferrari muscle can be a great sight. Back in the nineties being trackside for the 355 Challenge was astounding, and I was pleased to see some of those very cars still being raced, with some of them being pushed in the Ferrari Formula Classic category, but half of the cars on the grid – 328 GTB and GTS and 308 examples – were just trundling around at a sedate speed. I know that people will point out that modern family cars have surpassed exotica of 35 years ago, but the Mk2 Fiesta of NSSCC racer Simon Baker was fast enough to place 15th on a 21 car Ferrari grid. Mike Cutt would have placed fifth in his BMW E36 M3. So it had me wondering why you’d put a Ferrari on the track if you weren’t going to push. Would a Fiesta not be more fun? There is an answer to that, but we’ll get there in a moment.

Unfortunately the Ferrari Racing Series only featured six cars. Challenge variants of the 458, 430 and 360. The top drivers were considerably faster than any other car at the track, but six cars on a wet circuit had a couple of members of the paying public spurting some scathing comments we’ll just say. And for a moment I shared their frustration, before I spotted the answer as to why people race these cars. It was a couple of kids, perhaps six or seven years old, wide eyed with Ferrari caps and replica Ferrari drivers suits. Boy were they stoked and it made me think a bit more. Racing is a business, a serious business, but most of us within it forged our love with that childhood wonder and simple joy of seeing something special, and in this moment there were a couple of young uns with their parents thoroughly enjoying some Italian magic. Comic Book impresario Stan Lee used to push his staff by reminding them that each comic book was the first one for someone, and it had to serve that magic to bring them into the fold of comic book readers the world over. It was the same here. These kids one day might race themselves, or become engineers, trackside volunteers or they might even cover the sport, and it might have started here thanks to a bunch of Ferrari sportscars just being on the circuit in front of them. In the near future what are the odds that they might see George Russell win the British GP in a Merc, or even witness Ash Sutton run at the Indy 500?

The Simon Baker Fiesta that would have been competitive on a Ferrari grid – Photo: Mick Palmer

Next time I find myself spending nine hours trackside weighed down with a bunch of cameras and with a sweaty arse crack I’m going to have two things to remind myself of. Firstly that I’m in a privileged position that I’ve worked hard to reach thanks to the love and passion I have for our sport and secondly, that if I’ve paid £45 for a pair of shorts I should be wearing them to feel nice and fresh in the aforementioned crevice area……

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