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2005-06-21 10:30

Egmont Sippel

"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper . . ." -T.S. Eliot

The shocking events of the US Grand Prix have led Egmont Sippel to wonder whether one shouldn't rather call F1 something like FIAsco? Or FIArrari? Or perhaps Mafiarrari?

The musician Chris Rea once made a movie called La Passion. It never reached the circuit; it was too long-winded and slow for such a small movie, too soppy and self-indulgent.

But it contained at least one moment of pure genius.

Visually tracing the steps that led to his love for Ferrari, Rea tells the story of his dad watching TV, transfixed, in the days of the shark-nosed car. Pictures were in black-and-white, of course. So the young boy asked about the colour of his dad?s favourite machines.

"Red, son," the elder Rea said. "Blood red."

And so they watched the blood red cars flashing by, on black-and-white TV.

On Sunday, a different spectre descended on our beloved sport. Almost half a century after the shark-nosed Ferrari?s, we again watched the red cars flashing by, this time on full-colour TV.

Yet it all seemed so black-and-white, so pale and lifeless, so dead.

And it was. F1 had at last succeeded in committing some kind of suicide. This was not a case of shooting itself through the foot; this was a point-blank cracker through the cranium, in front of a worldwide audience.

Except that it all ended with a whimper.

Massive issues

Having struggled for so long to establish the sport as a viable option to Americans -with massive issues at stake for manufacturers such as 'Benz, BMW, Toyota and Honda - F1 was barely emerging from a vicious body blow suffered via the Ferrari debacle of 2002.

And guess who was in the middle of it all again, on Sunday? In the middle of the folly? The farce? The fiasco?

Hey, do you need any more clues as to the sequence of "Fs"?

Blood red the winners might have been. And red the spectators might have seen.

But what it came down to, in the end, was a bleak and desolate F1 landscape; "blood red" without the "red".

Indianapolis 2005 was a bloody affair.

Michelin guilty as well

OK, so the gun was loaded on Friday through Michelin's miscalculations.

Now, a F1 tyre carries more than 220 ingredients. These ingredients are mixed and moulded in terms of various different philosophies pertaining to compound and construction.

In the case of the USA GP, these tyres are then raced along the longest flat-out stretch in Grand Prix racing.

But the dangerous part of the Indy straight is not at the end of 22 seconds of pedal to the metal, but right at the start, where the F1 circuit sweeps out of a purpose-built infield onto the Indy track proper.

For it is here that the cars flash - but briefly - through the only banked section of the season. In 6 000 km of racing this year, this banked curve would total less than 15 km of the distance covered by a car that completes all 19 races.

In other words, the banked section of the Indy circuit amounts to less than 0.25% of 2005's designated race distance.

That 0.25% requires very special attention, though, because it is banked by up to nine degrees, loading the rubber shoulder of the outside tyres - and especially the left rear -with a lot of unique stresses, severely heating the carcass and compound.

Track re-surfaced

For 2005 Indy has been re-surfaced as well. The new top is a rough asphalt with a diamond-shaped cut, the characteristics of which were unknown to Michelin.

Given all of this, one can understand how even a highly advanced techno company can make a mistake in its preparations.

So how come Bridgestone didn?t?

Well, they had loads of data from their sister company, Firestone, which had just raced on the re-surfaced top in the Indy 500. That's a serious advantage.

But it still does not explain Michelin's miscalculations.

For here is the nagging question: Why did Depasquier and his men not learn more from last year, when Ralf had a similar blow-out at the same corner - also on Michelins?

And was Alonso's blow-out in the same race - on the same tyres - then really the result of debris?

One wonders.

Tyre wear versus safety

Ralf Schumacher came to the USA this year, hounded by questions of fear and loathing for Indy, bad memories of the place and other such-like trivia which have no place on a racing driver's radar screen.

Or so Ralf thought.

Within a couple of laps on Friday morning the German experienced deja vu when he crashed into a carbon-copy of his 2004 nightmare.

So, here was a pattern: Ralf crashes out at Turn 13 - just like Mark Webber launched a 1999 Mercedes-Benz Le Mans car up into the air, twice in two days, both at the same spot.

Norbert Haug didn't withdraw his cars. Instead, 'Benz fitted extra front fender filler foils, which was supposed to provide 25% more downforce.

And then Peter Dumbreck went airborne in the race itself, flying over trees and miraculously escaping death - after which 'Benz withdrew.

A pattern, then, with Ralf? Or with Toyota, after Zonta had suffered a similar failure on the same tyre, the left rear?

High pressures

Michelin took the responsible option. It investigated and advised teams that it would be safe to qualify with high tyre pressures, but that the company could nott guarantee either of the two compounds to last over a race distance.

Clearly, the problem then was safety related. Many people - especially those leaning towards Maranello - now want to typify it as a performance problem, similar to the setbacks suffered by Ferrari at Bahrain and in Barcelona.

It wasn't, though.

In those cases, Ferrari had no other option to fall back onto, no other possible tyre that could be flown in to solve the problems they had, even if they were allowed to.

That's because Ferrari's problem at both these venues was one of tyre wear. Those were the best tyres they had, for those conditions.

And it is wrong, by the way, to allege that Schumacher was retired in Barcelona on safety grounds. If that was the case, all the other Bridgestone runners would have been retired as well.

But none were.


By contrast, Michelin's problem in the USA was one of safety. The solution was to fly another type of tyre in, one that has withstood Barcelona's loads, where the car also leans heavily on the left rear, albeit not on a banked corner.

The FIA's response to this was unequivocal: Not permitted, without inflicting heavy penalties for changing tyres after having qualified on another.

Which is kind of curious, because the FIA also has another regulation in place, in terms of which a tyre can be changed when it is deemed to be unsafe.

The conundrum, however, is that it will be the governing body which decides whether a tyre is, in fact, too unsafe to race on.

When the FIA's F1 Racing Director, Charlie Whiting, thus blatantly disregards clear-cut evidence and expert opinion - as he did in the USA by telling Michelin that its tyre problem is one of performance, and not safety - one starts to understand why McLaren decided not to bring Kimi Raikkonen in for a tyre change at the Nurburgring.

Good heavens, if a flat-out crash of more than 300 km/h against a solid concrete wall does not constitute a safety issue, then a vibrating tyre would be child's play in Charlie's eyes, not so?

Never mind whether the driver can't see, can hardly control the car any more, or is pitched off the track into a barrier, nearly taking another car with him.

Rules and fairness

Charlie, see, was concerned about two issues: 1.breaking the FIA's own rules, and 2. unfairly negating Bridgestone's advantage.

The latter and their teams, he felt, had done a proper job and should enjoy the fruits of their endeavours. And rightfully so; they should.

But when the "Barcelona tyre" solution fell by the wayside, Michelin runners and their supplier came up with a new suggestion to save the race: Put in a chicane to break Turn 13?s speed, make it safe for our tyre and as a penalty we will not take any points from the race.

The suggestion was supported by nine teams, as well as Bernie Ecclestone and Tony George, proprietor of the Indy Speedway and promoter of the Grand Prix.

Ferrari conveniently chose not to attend the relevant meeting. When Bernie asked them to support the resolution, they washed their hands of it and deferred the decision to the FIA.

Or, in other words, to Charlie Whiting.

Drinking buddies and altering the track

But here's the rub: Charlie and Ross Brawn are drinking buddies. Deferring the decision to the FIA is, in effect, taking it themselves -because Charlie will do what Ross wants him to do; that's allegedly well known down the pitlane.

Charlie though, has to find reasons for his actions. So he hid behind the book, arguing that it would be against the rules to change the track, blah-blah-blah, well forgetting that race director Roger Lane-Nott erected tyre barriers in Monza?s chicanes in 1996 between Saturday morning practice and qualifying, to prevent cars from kerb-hopping.

That's altering the track for reasons of safety.

Or what about Spain 1994, where a tyre chicane had been erected in the middle of the main straight for no other reason than Senna's death, a month earlier, at Imola?

That's altering the track for reasons of safety.

So, putting up a chicane would have been no problem at Indy. It could have been done overnight, on Saturday/Sunday.

Didn't attend meeting

But Ferrari, for reasons only known to itself, declined to attend the meeting at which this solution was discussed - and approved - by nine teams. It was Ferrari also which, for reasons only known to itself, declined to sign when Bernie asked it to. And it is Ferrari who now denies "having been asked about that (issue)".

It is also Ferrari - in the person of Jean Todt - which admits it would not have given permission.

Why not? To protect its tyre advantage?

Surely, the reason one would want to protect this advantage is to score maximum points.

But if the other nine teams decline to take points from the race, Ferrari would have taken all they could have, in any case.

What was there to protect, then?

A-ha, something far bigger. Like image of F1. The sport's responsibility vis-à-vis the public. The well-being of the sponsors. The future of the game in the US.

Ferrari bigger than F1?

If any proof was ever needed then, it is now clearer than ever that Ferrari is no longer the flag bearer of F1.

Under modern management and leadership it has descended into a band of self-centred isolationists, obsessed with its own success which is pursued at any cost.

Todt said it on Sunday: "Honestly, why should we compromise?" For the good of the game, Jean, for the good of the game.

And Schumacher: "I don?t know what their problem was, but this was not our problem." Hey, Mickey, it is.

It was F1's problem.

Can?t Ferrari and the FIA then ever see beyond their desperate need to make Ferrari win? They had nothing to lose; the Michelin runners had nothing to win.

But Charlie Whiting will come up with a ridiculous suggestion, asking Michelin to ask their teams to ask their drivers to go slowly through Turn 13.

How slowly, Charlie (besides slow enough to let Ferrari win)?

Asking racing drivers "to drive a little bit slower" is in any case like asking a parachute jumper with a highly suspect chute to jump a little bit slower in case it does not open, so he can land safely.

It's as farcical as to suggest that the Michelin teams should pit every 10 laps for new tyres, to side-step a disastrous calamity.

So what if a tyre blows on a driver's ninth lap, Charlie? And he is killed?

Should the technicians have informed him to pit after eight laps?

But how could they have known?

Jean is so funny (and sharp)

Jean Todt said a funny thing on Sunday. He said Ferrari would not have agreed to a chicane which "they have not had a chance to test".

But Ferrari was willing to take the F2005 to Bahrain, without the car having been tested properly.

Charlie Whiting said an equally funny - or is it sad? - thing: "If the Michelin teams had used the new (Barcelona spec tyre, which was flown in), they would not have been excluded, but rather punished heavily enough not to do it again."

And how heavy is that, Charlie?

Nobody knows. Just like McLaren didn't know whether it would have been punished if it had changed Raikkonen's tyre at the 'Ring. If so, how heavy would the punishment have been?

And this is the tragic irony of it all. Whiting says that they can?t just change the rules willy-nilly to suit certain teams at certain times.

Nobody asked for that, Charlie. These were desperate times borne out of a very very serious safety issue.

And you and Max Mosley had the power to find a solution for it.

But you declined. You refused, in fact. Because every single decision you take, you take in the interest, not of F1, but of Ferrari.

The funny thing is that the punishment that would have been dished out to transgressors is such a secret to all of F1 -which shows that you indeed make up rules and regulations, willy-nilly, as you go along.

Rules that normally happen to suit Maranello as well - such as banning berillium in engines in the late '90s, just because McLaren had the jump on Ferrari. And banning McLaren's mechanically operated brake system, just because it had the jump on Ferrari. And pardoning Ferrari's gross barge board transgression in '99, just because it is Ferrari. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

Fly off

I mean, here is an organisation that controls a multi-billion sport, but reverts to a discredited qualifying system six races after it was discarded! How's that for leadership?

So, in all honesty, can we expect this bunch of kindergarten buffoons to rise above their petty personal little infantile interests, climb out of the sandpit, let sanity prevail and take good solid decisions to save F1 from the disgraceful madness we witnessed on Sunday?

Michelin had admitted its mistake. It had no means of rectifying it. Its customers were magnanimous enough to forsake a quest for world championship points. An inelegant solution was put on the table, but a workable one, nonetheless.

It might be ridiculous to race with a make-shift chicane.

But it has been done before. And would fans still have thrown full beer cans at cars flying down the straight?

No. Which tells us that it is even more ridiculous to race with six cars only.

Yet the FIA and Ferrari told the rest - including the spectating public - to fly off, they were unconcerned with the problem; it wasn?t theirs.

It might not be, in the near future. F1 is on the ropes. A split is looming. The sooner it comes, the better.

In fact, F1 as we know it deserves to die. What else can you say about a sport that carries a gun onto the grid, points it at itself and pulls the trigger?

And we thought the Yanks were gun crazy!


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