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Porsche debuts on Formula E podium

Porsche debuts on Formula E podium

Sitting on the sofa after the Sunday night dog walk, flicking through the TV channels to pass a few minutes before some antiques programme got started (saddos r us), I chanced across the highlights from the Formula E racing at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has put an estimated $260 million into a ten-year deal to host the Formula E season opener: part of developing an improved cultural infrastructure and staking out a green future as it diversifies from oil. Watching the event, I can’t say that I was struck by the wedge. A quick search revealed that, despite investments of almost $150 million last year, the series reported a $29 million loss for its fourth season, bringing Formula E’s total losses up to circa $160 million. Wow.

Andre Lotterer on the podium for Porsche

Two races were held in Riyadh at the weekend. Porsche driver, Andre Lotterer, came second in the first race, but was penalised in the second race for overtaking a damaged car just as the race went to safety car. He was classified fourteenth overall in race two, with team mate, Neel Jani, finishing just in front of him.

Royadh (or Diriyah) circuit was a bit better than some of the Formula E tracks I’ve seen. The surface was dusty and the layout was tight in places, but that made for some interesting moves. I’ve not found Formula E particularly entertaining to watch in the past but, as I’m keen to see how Porsche measures up, I’ll follow the series for a few races more and see how my views develop.

Watching any sort of racing always gets the blood up a bit and Formula E is a roll call of star drivers, but the more obvious names don’t always finish up front. Watching drivers that I’ve never seen before taking on names I know well from other series is interesting, even if the combination of unfamiliar liveries and squirty tracks with choppy TV edits makes some of the action a bit tricky to follow. That should get easier.

Former McLaren F1 driver, Stoffel Vandoorne, had a good weekend in Saudi, finishing on the podium for Mercedes in both races after taking a surprise lead. “This is the most competitive series I have ever raced in,” Stoffel said. “One can enjoy pure racing here, as opposed to Grand Prix racing, which is a bit of a fake world in which everyone gets along well but above all has their own interests to defend.”

I hear what Stoffel is saying but Formula E looks plenty fake to me in places: fountains of money tend to have that effect. A friend has just moved from endurance racing into Formula E and she is not enjoying the culture that much. “I work between two silent accountants and a group of engineers, all of whom spend their time creating ways to spend truckloads of money. It’s bollocks.”

Sebastian Vettel has also spoken about being nonplussed by the series and claims many Formula E drivers are just in it for the money. “To me, this is not the future,” the four-time F1 world champion told a Swiss newspaper, as reported by WTF1.

“E-mobility is currently very popular in the world, but anyone who is honest and identifies with motor racing does not think much of Formula E. The cars are not very fast and many drivers who drive there tell me that the driving is not very exciting.”

I thought the racing in Riyadh was a bit more exciting than previously, but maybe I was talking myself into that because Porsche had entered a team. My mind is not made up as yet; I need to watch more of it.

I will either get over the soundtrack or it will put me off forever. Whirring motors and cars ramping over temporary kerbs sounds like an indoor electric kart track, but without the funs of watching karts in full drift around every corner. If the racing is actually good, then I guess it works out, but I’m still not sure it’s my cup of tea. That does not surprise me too much, as the series is still pretty new and everyone knows about new things for fifty year-olds. You probably know Douglas Adams’ rules on our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Formula E winds me up a bit on many levels: the money that manufacturers are throwing at the series instead of designing better road cars (Jaguar has thrown something like $40 million at it to date), the short races, the lack of outright speed and the small city tracks and convoluted add-ons. Extrapolating that bandwagon to the industry as a whole, the marketing surrounding electric mobility seems to vastly outweigh the amount of affordable technology: where are the electric superminis that do a week on a charge and cost £10k to buy? I’m ready to buy one of those right now – I’m sure most of us are.

As for the racing: well, my kind of racing pits head-to-head speed and reliability over races taking anything from two hundred miles to twenty-four hours and I don’t know that Formula E will ever match either of those things.

Maybe that is good for the planet, and I am all for that, but we are allowed to lament the slide that manufacturer defection will inevitably weigh on what older generations will come to call “proper” motorsport. People say that shorter races make the racing harder, so maybe I just need a shorter attention span. Maybe if this is all there will eventually be, we should either get used to it, stop watching racing or get into some kind of ball game.

I am fully aware that this may come across as some some old bloke moaning, but I did enjoy some of it: it’s just nothing like as good as what I usually watch! We will see how the season pans out.


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Ferdinand blogs my freelance adventure with Porsche at the centre. To support the blog or engage with me in other ways, you can:

Norbert Singer turns 80

Norbert Singer turns 80

There are some big family birthdays this month. My eldest sister turns fifty tomorrow and youngest daughter is fifteen in a fortnight. Between the two is a big birthday for Norbert Singer, the most celebrated race engineer in Porsche history.

It’s no coincidence that Singer is a name now known for a certain type of 911s. Singer founder, Rob Dickinson, is one of the many Norbert Singer superfans. Recordings of my first interview with Rob where he talks about the genesis of his company feature a geekish delight in the fact that Rob was both a successful singer and a disciple of Singer the designer.

Big ideas in Bohemia

On November 16, 1939, Norbert Singer was born in Eger in the Sudetenland, one year after Hitler had reclaimed the disputed region split from Germany as part of the creation of Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of Versailles.

Having annexed neighbouring Austria in March 1938, Hitler called for a plebiscite across the Sudeten Mountains of northern Czechoslovakia, to allow the millions of German-speaking Sudeten Germans who had been “trapped” by the creation of Czechoslovakia to decide their own fate, threatening invasion if the request was ignored and building a force of some 750,000 soldiers along the Czech border.

To avoid war, England and France acquiesced to the demands as part of the appeasement set out in the Munich Agreement and convinced the Czech government to cede the territory. Hitler sent the Wehrmacht into the Sudetenland the day after the agreement was signed, on October 1st, 1938. Six months later, he invaded the rest of the country.

German expansionism (known as Lebensraum or ‘space to live’) was the climate that welcomed young Singer in November 1939. Eger (now Cheb in the Czech Republic) was again part of Germany and feeling good about life: it was time to think big and plan for the future.

Norbert was all about the future: he grew up fascinated with space travel and dreamed of a career as a rocket engineer. He watched a lot of racing through his university years studying aerospace and automotive engineering in Munich and saw Jim Clark race at the Monaco Grand Prix. A professor convinced him on the idea that “rocket engineering is for Americans: in Germany we are all about cars”.

No letter from Porsche

Singer learned that Porsche was looking for engineers, but his father was not convinced that the small sports car firm would be Norbert’s best option. Other small firms were all going under: what hope could Porsche have of being any different? Singer’s fascination almost came to nothing as, after interviewing with Porsche, he heard no more until a phone call in early March 1970, asking why he hadn’t turned up for his first day at work. Stuttgart had neglected to send the letter confirming his appointment.

He turned up for his second day and was immediately set to work on simplifying the 917’s fuel system, under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch. After that it was gearbox cooling, then aerodynamics. The 917 won its first Le Mans later that year and Singer began to build a reputation. His work on the 911 RSR took the car to victory, as it did with the RSR Turbo, the 935 and the famous 936. But it was the 956 that really put Norbert on the map.

Following the introduction of the Group C regulations in 1982, Singer proved his tremendous ability as an aerodynamicist, providing Porsche’s new Group C car with exceptional ground effect. The car’s winning sure-footedness came from a special underbody design with air ducts and the legendary “Singer dent”, but Norbert notes that success was not guaranteed.

Norbert Singer: “You can trip up over your own feet”

“I was cautious going into the race,” recalls the chief engineer. “The 956 was a completely new car. You can’t go into every race saying, Hurray, we’re going for the win! You have to see how things go – getting through 24 hours is no easy task. This win was perfect and actually somewhat surprising. We had taken our job very seriously. A few years before that we had made a mistake.

“In 1979, Ernst Fuhrmann was still with Porsche and he said to us engineers, ‘What do you say if we drive Le Mans this year? There’s practically no competition.’ Basically, we just had to show up and walk off with the victory. And what happened? We didn’t reach the finish line with either car – we lost even without competition. You can trip over your own feet as well. Having experienced that, I really enjoyed the win in 1982. The 956 went straight into the museum. It’s the car that hangs from the ceiling.”

The 956 and its successor, the 962C, won five driver titles, three manufacturer titles and two team world championships between 1982 and 1986, also clocking up seven overall victories at Le Mans. From 1970 to 1998, Singer played significant roles in all of Porsche’s race wins at Le Mans with the 917, 935, 936, 965, 962C, WSC Spyder and 911 GT1 98.

Until his retirement in 2004, Norbert Singer was the project manager for most of Porsche’s racing cars. After leaving Porsche, he continued to consult with customer race teams, also serving as an advisor to ACO: the Le Mans race organisers. Singer’s knowledge of Porsche racing history has also proved invaluable to the factory when restoring original race cars, such as 917 chassis number 001 or 965 number 005.

Porsche says that Singer has been lecturing at Esslingen University since 2006 and continues to do so. Whatever he is up to these days, his place at the top table of Porsche history is without question and it is a delight to see him reach the grand age of eighty. Happy birthday Norbert!

Fassbender, Porsche and the Luck of the Irish

Fassbender, Porsche and the Luck of the Irish

“I suppose the German side wants to keep everything in control, and the Irish side wants to wreak havoc,” claims Michael Fassbender. I’m not so sure about that. When I am with Germans, I’m generally the one keeping things under control, while the rest run amok. I guess it depends on the Germans you know.

Weg mit ihren Köpfen

The Irish missionary Kilian went to Germany in 689 AD. It was a big mistake. When Kilian suggested that a local lady was not the most suitable bride for a newly-baptised duke, on the basis that she had once been married to the duke’s now-dead brother, the Germans chopped off Kilian’s head, and those of both his companions.

But times have changed. When Fassbender smashes his GT3 Cup nose-first into the Hockenheim pit wall right in front of the Porsche crew, they run through what went wrong and roll out a spare car. A few weeks later, he has another sizeable accident and another spare car is wheeled out. German-Irish relations have definitely evolved.

Anyway, this story is all about an actor en route to Le Mans. Yes, that old chestnut is back, except this time it is rather more interesting (for us Irish, at least). After a two-year learning curve racing Ferraris, Michael Fassbender is training with Porsche for a shot at the 24-Heures. His teacher, Felipe Fernandez Laser, is a VLN winner with Frikadelli Racing and should be capable of helping a decent amateur find their way up to the level of a quick GTE-AM driver.

So far, Fassbender appears to show decent potential. A ninth place finish in a Porsche Sports Cup race is no mean feat for a rookie and there are flashes of speed all the way through Porsche’s latest Youtube series, following Fassbender’s Road to Le Mans. The biggest test will be whether he can put it all together, but this is man knows what it’s like to do 10,000 hours.

Heidelberg to Aghadoe

Fassbender arrived into the world just 100 kms north of Stuttgart in Heidelberg, Baden-Württemburg on April 2, 1977. His German father, Josef, was a chef and his Irish mother, Adele, raised the kids. The pair had met while working in London but ended up moving to Germany. Adamant that the Republic would be a better environment for their kids to grow up in, Adele convinced Josef to move the family to Ireland. So, when Michael was two, they settled just outside Killarney, in County Kerry.

Killarney was rally central in the 1980s, so young Michael got into Group B. Then followed the age of Michael Schumacher and, as a young German who spoke the mother tongue fluently, Fassy followed Schumi: he’s often now found on F1 grids with Crazy Liam Cunningham and the pair met Schumi at one such weekend.

 

The youngster struggled to find some direction until he discovered drama in school. He immersed himself in acting and staged Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ over two nights for the craic. He eventually moved to London to study the craft. Things were tough in the smoke and Fassbender was living on a few quid a week, working two minimum wage jobs and battling exhaustion to do as many auditions as possible. It all took its toll and Michael quit drama school to go it alone. It would not be the smoothest path to success.

When he quit his bar job after landing a part in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’, the boss advised him to keep in touch, as the work might come in handy again. Fassbender laughed it off, feeling he had hit the big time, but, after a spell in LA trying to crack Hollywood, he ended up back in the bar.

Bit parts on British TV followed, leading to more and more screen time and the emergence of a fan base amongst critics. Eventually, things took off: he delivered an exceptional performance as IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands, in the film Hunger and then Tarantino came back into his life, casting the German speaker as a British spy in Inglourious Basterds.

While the actor-turned-racer premise may initially feel like Fassbender is buying his way into racing and walking in footsteps we’ve all seen before (not that there’s owt wrong with that), there is more to this story than the same old thing and Porsche has scored big with Youtube viewers. Part 1 alone has 700k views and Porsche’s channel has 800k subscribers, so that should tell you all about the reach of this.

I am also a fan of the documentary: the way this is shot is just perfect. Fassbender is given the full expression of his Irish upbringing with no bleeps or edits and we see things exactly as his driver coach sees them. “I’m so bummed about the fuckin’ smash there behind the safety car,” is Fassbender’s first line in part 1. It’s hard to resist parts two and three after that.


Ferdinand blogs my freelance adventure with Porsche at the centre. To support the blog or engage with me in other ways, you can:

Think Fast: Porsche 911 GT3 R at the Nürburgring

Think Fast: Porsche 911 GT3 R at the Nürburgring

The 2005 US Grand Prix in Indianapolis came at the peak of the tyre wars between Bridgestone and Michelin. When Ralf Schumacher crashed during practice, Michelin picked up a problem and advised teams running its tyres not to race unless a pre-banking chicane was added, slowing the cars down and lessening the tyre loads.

Ferrari and the FIA vetoed the plan and all the cars came to the start grid. At the end of the warm-up lap, the Michelin cars pulled into the pits and retired. Six Bridgestone cars completed the race and F1 and Indianapolis canned their agreement.

Quick Thinking: The Grid Walk

Former F1 Driver , Martin Brundle, was the man chosen by ITV to develop the idea of a live TV “grid walk” before F1 race starts. Broadcasters had tried it before, but run-of-the-mill TV presenters were not the right people to get in the faces of drivers in the final tense minutes before lights out. Brundle blended his understanding of the pressures that came with the job, a good sense of humour and a lightning fast ability to think on the spot and became the de-facto gridwalk persona.

The 2005 US Grand Prix gridwalk is a great example of why Brundle has been so successful. In the midst of a media frenzy, he quizzes F1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone, at length, making several points on behalf of the fans without losing his cool. Brundle’s talent shines through when he asks the man who can famously arrange anything why this problem can’t be easily solved.

“Surely we just all need to take a sensible pill and then go motor racing?” says Martin. “Tell me where we can buy the pills,” replies Bernie, giving Brundle a playful dig. “Okay, we need to talk to Mrs Ecclestone,” Martin says: cheeky and quick all in one.

Thinking fast under pressure is common skill in racers. The speed of change on a racetrack means that most reactions to an emerging situation must be assigned automatically, living sufficient conscious capacity to make quick, confident decisions when faced with a series of options.

Of course, the skill is not always full developed and we often see things going wrong when a lesser decision plays out. But unforgettable moments are made when a champion driver focuses their ability to think fast and run against the odds, pulling off something that rails against our instincts.

Think Fast: when events are coming at you quickly, how good is your ability to react effectively?

One such moment was made at this year’s Nürburgring 24-Hour. After leading the early part of the race, Manthey Racing’s lead 911 had a puncture and was forced down the order. When Kévin Estre took over the sister car, he set a series of incredible laps, pulling more than twenty seconds back on Dirk Müller’s Black Falcon Mercedes.

Eventually the cars were line astern and fighting hard for the lead. The Porsche’s pace was mighty: Estre picked up the slipstream on Dottinger Hohe and decided now was his time. As the leader drifted left to lap a backmarker, Estre calculated that the verge would be dry. Putting two wheels on the grass and not lifting the throttle, he swooped to the lead.

The team of Estre, Christensen, Bamber and Vanthoor stayed in front until a five-minute time penalty for missed yellow flags put the Porsche out of contention. Having led the race for 105 of 157 laps, the Manthey car was forced to settle for second position. Two weeks after the ADAC Total Nürburgring 24-Hours, the number 911 car was retrospectively disqualified by DMSB officials. Manthey issued the following statement:

“The engine in our inspected #911 car complied with all the key points of the homologation. The only thing that was not consistent with the prescribed 2 x 34.6-millimetre diameter of the restrictor, which was the size we used, was the performance value calculated by the ADAC technical committee. We must accept that we did not check the plausibility of the value calculated by the organiser, neither on the test bench in Weissach nor on our chassis dynamometer in Meuspath. We accept the judgement and will not lodge an appeal.”

Disqualified from second place – does anyone really care about that? Winning is a statistic: proof you existed. But writing a move like this into the culture of motorsport is proof that you lived. Long after people have forgotten the winner of the 2019 Nürburgring 24-Hour, they will remember this pass, and Kévin Estre. So far, it’s the Porsche move of the year.


Ferdinand blogs my freelance adventure with Porsche at the centre. To support the blog or engage with me in other ways, you can:

Michael Ammermüller is 2019 Supercup Champion

Michael Ammermüller is 2019 Supercup Champion

I caught the first Porsche Supercup race of the Mexico Grand Prix weekend tonight. While I haven’t missed a Grand Prix in over ten years, it’s been a while since I watched a Supercup race. Unsurprisingly, not much has changed since last time.

Michael Ammermüller has been a smooth operator since coming to Supercup in 2012. A former Red Bull Racing test driver, he raced single seaters before Porsches, so, when he does not start on pole, he has a way of getting to the front without inflicting too much collateral damage en route. This is not the Supercup norm.

The first race in Mexico exemplified the contrast between the man from Passau in Bavaria and most of the rest, when the championship leader took an early lead and wasted no time building a gap. Meanwhile, the young hot shots who have vied for Weissach’s attention and championship honours all year were dropping bodywork and running miles beyond track limits to ultimately slow each other down and finish well off the pace.

Holding on to positions by cutting corners and chicanes is amateur stuff: they could all do with watching how the champion brought his third title home. It was a surprise that the race director did not pull them up a bit harder. I guess that is probably fair enough in the title decider for a one-make championship but, if drivers knew they would be penalised for running off track and gaining an advantage, then they might drive accordingly.

Ammermüller is now just two races off a new record of wins in the series and has matched René Rast for total championships won. Four would match Patrick Huismann and five would set a new benchmark. Onwards and upwards, Michael.

Porsche Supercup renews F1® contract to 2022

Porsche recently renewed its contract to run Supercup races as part of Grand Prix weekends up to and including 2022. “We’re proud to forge ahead with this close and long-established partnership,” said Fritz Enzinger. “Formula 1® offers an exclusive setting with a unique flair. This fascination and high media importance represent an ideal overall package for our racing series.”

Supercup has been part of F1’s support programme since its debut season in 1993. Famous and fashionable circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Monte Carlo are regular fixtures on the racing calendar of the international one-make cup. Drivers compete in 485 hp Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars: the racing vehicles are technically identical, as are the tyres and the fuel, guaranteeing equal chances for all.

“We are pleased to extend our long-standing partnership with Porsche for a further three years,” said Ross Brawn, F1’s Motorsport Director. “This one-make series provides some of the most spectacular racing of any series and contributes significantly to the show that’s on offer over a Grand Prix weekend. Furthermore, in the thirty years during which it has run alongside Formula 1, the Porsche Supercup has provided an excellent launch pad for many drivers who have also made their mark in international races at all levels.”

Porsche works driver, Earl Bamber, is so far the only Supercup champion (2015) who has gone on to win a World Endurance Driver’s Championship title (2017), although 2014 champ, Nicki Thiim, did win a World Endurance GT Driver’s Championship title with Aston in 2016.

René Rast was one of the most thrilling Supercup champions to watch. He has gone on to win the 24 Hours of both Spa and the Nürburgring, as well as DTM titles in 2017 and 2019. Double champion, Richard Westbrook (2006/7) went on to win the 2009 FIA GT2 championship, while 2001 champion Jorg Bergmeister won the 2003 Daytona 24 Hours and the 2006 Rolex Grand-Am championship.

In recent years, the Supercup series has become a bit of a proving ground for Porsche Juniors, with Sven Muller winning the 2016 title and Dennis Olsen running Ammermüller hard in 2017. I like to see cut of the Juniors in Supercup, but it does give me a thrill to see a proper gentleman-racer-with a-day-job like Ammermüller take the title. His trademark speed and class is what Supercup is all about. What a great job.


Ferdinand blogs my freelance adventure with Porsche at the centre. To support the blog or engage with me in other ways, you can: