Saturday, April 21, 2012


How Did We Get Here?

It all started when Bernie Ecclestone confirmed the news in Shanghai that Formula One will indeed race in Bahrain and that ‘assurances’ have been given the event will go off smoothly and without incident.  The news came amidst a firestorm of speculation due to the deafening silence from both the FIA and Ecclestone himself.  The FIA issued a formal statement affirming the fact, something that’s not usually done and seen as a gesture to pacify the rampant speculation that was going on at the time.

Now, on the verge of Sunday’s race in a divided nation and with the eyes of the world firmly affixed on the troubled Gulf Kingdom, Formula One risks doing its fans a huge disservice in disgracing the sport, and tarnishing the one thing it values most: Its reputation.

There is an argument that sport should be neutral, unyielding to the politics of the people who partake in it. The argument is a noble one, albeit far too idealistic.

Reality, on the other hand, has a way of failing idealism. As much as the FIA would like to remain hermetically sealed off and maintain its status quo as the bastion of neutrality, there is simply no way for Formula One to divorce itself from the politics of the nation that it is racing in. This is especially the case with Bahrain, where the event itself is devised, financed and endorsed by the Bahraini monarchy.  

Formula One isn’t the only event at stake. GP2, F1’s feeder series, is scheduled for another race at Bahrain for next weekend.

To see why the powers that be are hell-bent on making the Bahrain Grand Prix happen, one defaults back to the number one rule of investigation: Follow the money.

Many have said time and again that Formula One is only in Bahrain because of commercial interests, so it’s worth examining just what those interests are. The Bahrain organizers pay Formula One Management (FOM) an annual fee of $40 million for the rights to present the Grand Prix, and the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) and FOM have a contract in place to host the race until 2016. The economic impact, depending on the source, is estimated to be around $300 million to half a billion dollars. The circuit itself, when it was completed in 2004, cost the Bahraini coffers $150 million.  When the event was cancelled in 2011, the BIC still paid the $40 million that was required of them.  Ecclestone did offer a full reimbursement, but the BIC elected not to take the offer.

Monetary figures aside, there are also contractual issues at play. Formula 1’s sporting regulations state that any two consecutive cancellations of a Grand Prix will result in that event being removed from the F1 calendar. A cancellation to Sunday’s race will jeopardize Bahrain’s standing in the F1 Calendar for 2013 and beyond.  With Russia, Argentina and Mexico all vying for a spot on the calendar for a race of their own, it suddenly becomes clear why the organizers want the event to go on as scheduled.

What is most worrisome now is what will happen in the next two days.  Both Ecclestone and the Bahrain ruling family seem content being in a state of blissful ignorance, undeterred to the plight that has befallen the people in Bahrain.  Meanwhile anti-government and anti-F1 sentiments grow ever more popular and continue to escalate. The audacious move to go ahead with racing has galvanized much protest from the Bahraini people. They accuse the government of parlaying the race as an opportunistic public relations campaign and projecting the appearance of normalcy, when mounting unrest has proved anything but.

Ironic, then, that Formula One, the very thing that the Bahrain government proclaims can unite the people, is causing a deeper divide than ever before.

Which harks back to the original question, how did we get here? What is Formula One doing in a place embroiled in so much turmoil and wanton discord? 

In aviation, there is a colloquial term called ‘tombstone mentality’, whereby sweeping reforms to safety are undertaken only after a catastrophic incident has taken place. Formula One in Bahrain is perilously close in actualizing the same dangerous prophecy, the worst of which mustn’t dare contemplating. An uneventful race is of course the most desirable outcome. But the long term damage is already done. The unenviable ramifications of Formula One’s decision to go forth without a moral compass will continue to overshadow the sport long after the chequered flag is waved.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

SRT Viper Returns with Factory ALMS GT Program

Ralph Gilles remembered the time when he pitched the new Viper to his boss, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

“I showed the car to Sergio in the middle of a dome,” recounted Gilles, who heads the SRT Brand for Chrysler. “The dome was dimly lit. It was about 26 management teams sitting campfire style with the concept covered up.”

“When the covers came off, Sergio walked around the car for about five minutes and said, ‘This is the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen.’”

“He went in the management team meeting and asked, ‘who wants to do this?’ Every single hand went up.”

And so began the revival of an American automotive icon.

The 2013 Viper was a project not unlike the metaphorical phoenix rising. When plans for its revival came about, Chrysler was exiting bankruptcy and under new ownership with Fiat. It was also in the middle of revamping its entire product portfolio. A low volume halo product like the Viper was an unlikely candidate on the company’s list of immediate priorities.

But the Viper was special.

Marchionne revealed his plans to bring the Viper back two years ago, when he spoke before a group of Chrysler Dealers in Florida. “There are times when you are given the opportunity to give life to something which is so beautiful and unique, so just and equitable, that you pay a lot less attention to the numbers to the financial reality that surrounds it.”

“And with that I leave you with this,’ said Marchionne, shortly before unveiling the new Viper to the surprised audience.

Evolving an Icon

When unveiling the new Viper at the New York International Autoshow Wednesday morning in front of a well-fed and eager automotive press, Gilles stressed the new car was a ‘deliberate evolution’ of the breed, not an outright reinvention.  

This was true of the exterior. Although much more streamlined, the overall shape remains unmistakeably Viper.

The clamshell-style hood and the deep hood scoops remain, as does the monstrous hand-built 8.4 Liter V10 that powers the car. Lightweight carbon fibre forms the bodywork, wrapped around a frame forged from high strength steel. Aluminum cross-bracing in the engine bay ups torsional rigidity by 50% compared to the outgoing Viper.

No Viper examination is complete without a look at the horsepower figures. With 600hp and a monstrous 640 lb ft of torque, it makes the Viper one of the most powerful normally aspirated production vehicles in the world, CAFÉ standards be damned.

The interior however is really the Viper’s party piece. Chrysler benefited from access to Ferrari and Maserati through Fiat in understanding how to build low-volume interiors. The multimedia instrument cluster first seen in the Dodge Dart makes its way into the Viper with some bespoke cobra inspired gauging. Contrast stitching outline the entire cabin and new slimmer, more ergonomic seats sourced from Ferrari supplier Sabelt mean those who are taller than six feet stand a chance of finding a redeeming seating position.

“We call it the ‘Give a Shit’ factor’, Gilles said jokily when describing the revamped Viper cabin at a reception. “There’s sweat equity in the details. This is probably the best interior we’ve ever done in the company.”

A Well Kept Secret

Perhaps the most impressive feat of all, aside from the performance figures and the quality improvements, was how the project remained under wraps for so long.

“We have been working really hard to keep this a secret,” said Gilles. “We like the fact that so many people have been anticipating this car.”

The new Viper took over 24 months from conception to reality, and over that period of time, very few details emerged aside from some heavily camouflaged spy shots, a low-resolution photo of the Hot Wheels diecast, and some blurry screen caps of the Forza Motorsports presentation. SRT made use of social media and released a few teaser shots via Facebook and Twitter, but mostly for whetting the appetite as opposed to offering anything concrete. By and large, the Viper remained a secret until 7am on Wednesday morning.  To show that the company wasn't above a little humour and irony, the PR department even went in on the diecast joke and included a Hot Wheels version of the new Viper in its press kit.

But the biggest surprise was yet to come.

Let’s Go Racing

SRT announced that in addition to the road-going Viper, the brand will partner with veteran Grand-Am / GT Car builder Riley Technologies and return to compete in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).

The Viper GTS-R was developed in tandem with the road-going car under the capable stewardship of Bill Riley and his team.  The new factory backed effort will run two GT Spec Vipers at select races in the 2012 American Le Mans Series, with a full season commitment for 2013.  Gaming partner Forza Motorsports has also signed on as a major sponsor of the program.

ALMS CEO Scott Atherton was on hand at the New York Autoshow to make the surprise announcement.

“Viper rejoins world class GT Competition at a time when it has never been more competitive,” said Atherton. “The SRT Viper is joining the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette, and Lotus, all currently competing with full factory programs.”

Despite the competition, Atherton remained optimistic on the Viper finding success again on the race track.  “The fact that they're coming back concurrently with the introduction of the new production car and doing it simultaneously, we would be hard-pressed to come up with a better-case scenario. What a great way for SRT Viper to come back to racing.”

So far, Dominik Farnbacher, Marc Goossens, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Kuno Wittmer have all signed on as drivers. Two More Drivers will be announced in the near future and will complete the line-up.  Farnbacher and Goossens are both racing veterans, having driven GT cars and Prototypes on numerous occasions in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hunter-Reay comes from the world of open wheel racing and currently competes in IndyCar with Andretti Autosport, while Dodge factory driver Kuno Wittmer honed his racing cred from Formula Atlantic and SCCA World Challenge Touring Cars. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Uncertainty Persists Over Bahrain F1 Race

A troubling political climate in Bahrain casts doubt on whether Formula One will take place, in spite of repeated assurances from both the FIA and race promoters that the event will proceed as planned in three weeks’ time.

Speaking at a media luncheon last Wednesday, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone reiterated his support for the Bahrain Grand Prix and panned any speculation that the race won’t go ahead as scheduled.

"Of course the race is going to happen,” said Ecclestone. “People say to me 'There's not going to be a race.' And I say 'Well how do you know?' And they tell me they saw or read something, but it's all nonsense."

"These people were brave enough to start an event in that part of the world, and that's it. We'll be there as long as they want us."

Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed Alzayani echoed Ecclestone’s views, and said the country was ready to move on.

"There's a genuine move towards progress, getting the country back on track," said Alzayani. "Everybody has suffered in Bahrain - the citizens, the businesses - and it's time we find some hope, build on it and move back to where we were."

When asked about the possibility of further attacks, Alzayani replied, "I don't think that will happen."

Nevertheless, despite the votes of confidence, anti-F1 sentiments are growing in the gulf state.

Protesters have taken to social media to further their cause, marking their tweets with the hashtags ‘#BloodyF1’ and ‘#NoF1’, accompanied by messages and cartoons demanding the event be called off.

A video was posted online showing a hooded youth reading out a written statement denouncing Formula One’s presence in Bahrain.

"We (object to) holding a sports race that belittles the sacrifices of our children and ignores our suffering and wounds," said the protester. "Do not tarnish the reputation of the respected auto sport with the blood of Bahrain victims."

Amidst all the uncertainty, some are simply afraid.

"Some of us are still scared." Will Buxton, journalist and roving pit lane reporter for Speed TV wrote about the dilemmas of an F1 race amidst a tenuous political landscape.

"It was always going to be a case of 'Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,'" said Buxton. "It is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful."

Meanwhile, teams have taken a discretionary approach and planned contingencies in the event that the race does get cancelled at the last minute.

German publication Auto Motor Und Sport revealed some teams have made flexible travel arrangements for personnel and equipment. The cars and team freight will be flown from Shanghai, China to Dubai instead of Bahrain following the Chinese Grand Prix on 15 April. Flight reservations were also made for team personnel to return to Europe if the Bahrain race does not proceed as planned.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is slated for 20 April to 22 April at the Herman Tilke designed Bahrain International Circuit.