FLAT SPOT ON
Commentary by Jonathan Ingram
After spending the weekend in the breezy, bracing and invigorating Canadian air at Mosport, I had to laugh when I heard a mid-week interview by Valencia winner Felipe Massa. He told the BBC that F1 should consider more races closer to the population centers on street courses, an absurd position most likely taken because he feels confident about winning on such circuits. With a few obvious exceptions, most of the world's remaining great road course races are in the countryside, where they belong.
Although it's been over 10 years, I once had a conversation with my editor at Sports Illustrated that cast more light on street circuits than anything I've encountered before or since. The editor had watched the CART race in Miami won by Jacques Villeneuve on TV in preparation for producing a special advertising section for the magazine. "Is there something I'm missing about racing?" he said afterward. "I just don't get what all the excitement is about."
I was reminded of this conversation when I woke up early on Sunday morning to check out the Valencia race. After watching a few laps through concrete canyons lined by fences, I went back to sleep thankful that my day would be spent watching the sports cars of the ALMS 50 miles from downtown Toronto in the forested, peaky terrain north of Lake Ontario.
This is not a diatribe about eliminating street races from the planet. Besides, a young Brazilian driver with the world by the tail is not to be taken too seriously. Massa's comments were reminiscent of all kinds of soap boxes stood on by those better off running the cars, not the sport. (He wrote from his soap box.)
Even great road circuits far from the madding crowds can have relatively boring races, such as the IndyCar event last weekend at the Infineon Raceway near Sears Point (as opposed to anywhere close to San Francisco). And, I'd get up early in any time zone to watch the F1 guys at Monaco, where I've also witnessed the action from Le Rocher. The track at Montreal is fabulous, too, because it's in a park setting accessible by the subway in one of the world's great cities.
For the most part, street races in major populations centers are borrowing the heritage of the real road circuits to generate publicity while teams are imbedded with the local media. (Plus, there's a fee paid by the promoter to the sanctioning body that varies according to who's bilking whom.) The races attract dedicated fans already inspired by performances of the cars and drivers at their best on true circuits. The other half of the crowd is composed of the home town boosters looking for the "big event" who could care less where the teams race the week before or after.
Rustic Mosport is the kind of place where everybody feels like a camper and a racer, no matter which side of the fence you're on. Under brooding clouds, blue skies and the occasional threat of rain from an ever-present summer breeze, it's worth the price of the weekend admission to watch a few laps by major league race cars and drivers at Turns 1 and 2 -- during the Friday practice. Just watching the prototypes or GT's cornering solo during qualifying is compelling, too, because of the phyiscal challenges presented by a course that follows the terrain instead of a series of manhole covers through a trail of fences.
In the case of the ALMS, there are four classes to watch with the inevitable overtaking in the race, not to mention the series' trademark frenzy among the Audi, Acura and Porsche prototypes.
Make no mistake. Mosport is scary fast. The drivers look forward to Sunday evenings with good reason. And though Don Panoz, who bought the track 10 years ago, has re-paved it, widened it to 40 feet (from 26), modified the pit lane and improved a couple of runoff areas, the drivers would prefer to use some of that ubiquitous geography found in Canada to increase the runoff areas in the name of safety.
Given the improvements in car construction, driver safety equipment, barrier design and placement, circuits like Mosport for now seem to enjoy the same benefits of major ovals when it comes to sheer speed with a relatively good standard of safety. At Mosport last weekend, three drivers went off big time at the steep downhill Turn 2 -- a blind kink taken in sixth gear by the prototypes -- with only damaged cars to show for it after hitting the barriers. That's the same corner where Manfred Winkelhock was killed in a Kremer Racing Porsche 962C two decades ago.
Host to F1, the Can-Am, Trans-Am and USAC stock cars among others, Mosport has claimed the lives of 15 since it was opened in 1961, including one vintage racer this summer. By comparison, the relatively younger Ile de Notre Dame circuit in Montreal has seen one fatality. The grand dame of countryside circuits in America on the far side of the lake, Watkins Glen, has been witness to nine fatalities.
So is it the danger that enhances the true road course mystique? All I can say is that LMP2 class winner David Brabham's pass of Romain Dumas at Turn 1 near the race's conclusion in his Acura was not only a thing of beauty, but a remarkably brave piece of work.
These same ALMS guys are now headed for Detroit this weekend as the co-stars in Saturday's race preceding Sunday's IndyCar drivers. It should be a great event for the Motor City. And, when it's over, I'll tip my cap to Massa during the relatively short drive to the airport!
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.