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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Tracks like Mt. Tremblant and Elkhart Lake keep the challenge and the spectacle alive

by Gordon Kirby
If you find yourself left cold by the latest, Herman Tiljke-designed modern Formula 1 track, antiseptic beyond belief, translatable to anyplace, anywhere in the world, you would enjoy talking with Justin Wilson. The tall Englishman is one of those guys who's a bit of a throwback. For one thing, he's a gentleman, well-mannered and sparing with his words. He never whines or complains and just tries to get on with his job regardless of circumstances.

Wilson has raced in Formula 1 with both the Jaguar and Minardi teams, of course, and over the past three years he's become one of Champ Car's leading lights, finishing second to Sebastien Bourdais in last year's championship with Carl Russo's RuSPORT operation. But Russo pulled out of the sport last year and Wilson is having a bit of an uphill struggle this year with the reconfigured RSports team, co-owned by Paul Gentilozzi and Dan Pettit.

"This joint team under RSports has taken a bit of time adjusting to," Wilson commented. "There have been a lot of personnel and team changes. For the first four races there were changes every race to the personnel and how things work, and it just slowed our progress down on working with the new car. It's been a very tough situation. Fortunately, all the crew on my car are the same and my car has been very reliable considering it's all-new. We've had one mechanical problem which was at Vegas in the race.

"Other than that, we've been on top of reliability but we've been a bit slow to get on top of the performance. We've been a little bit hit and miss. We're not consistently there. We're still working on that area. We don't know enough things for certain about this car. There are still a lot of question marks."

As anyone in Champ Car will tell you, this year's Panoz spec car has taken more time and money than was imagined to get running reliably and well. "The new car is quite a nice car but it's taken a lot of work to get it there," Wilson acknowledged. "Everyone's been in the same position. They've had to spend a lot of time and a lot of money making it ready. By my thinking it was a bit of a false economy, but I'm not involved in the business side. I'm just a driver and we're working on trying to get the setups better and nicer. We're close to the weight limit now, but it's just taken a lot of hard work to get this new car ready and up to speed."

Despite his problems this year Wilson remains a true fan of the sport and a pure racer who's a bit skeptical of many of the modern trappings of racing. Our conversation came to life when the talk turned to the subject of Mt. Tremblant, the great Quebec road course which has been rejuvenated by owner Lawrence Stroll. Champ Car brought a taste of big-time racing back to the track for the first time in almost thirty years this summer and Wilson loved the place.

"It's a fantastic circuit, very quick and flowing with a lot of elevation changes," he commented. "Inside the car, it's like a roller-coaster. It's cool. I enjoyed the track. It's a good challenge and a lot of fun."

Some drivers, Sebastien Bourdais in particular, complained about the track's safety shortcomings and the lack of run-off room at some of the track's fastest points. But not Wilson. "It bothered me a little when I first went out at the test," Justin admitted. "But when we went back there for the race someone pointed out that it's not much different from Elkhart Lake. Actually, there's more run-off in places than there is at Elkhart. It gets your attention at first, but that seems to be the way most of the road courses are over here. There's not a lot of run-off."

Indeed, since the seventies, Formula 1 or foreign drivers have frequently complained about the standard of track safety in America compared to Europe. Many changes and improvements have been made in recent decades to classic North American road circuits like Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, Road Atlanta, Mosport and Mt. Tremblant, but they haven't been razed or disfigured with chicanes or otherwise entirely redesigned (Laguna Seca excepted) as has happened to so many European tracks.

Wilson isn't one of those who complains about American track safety standards. In fact, he believes many modern European and international tracks have gone way over the top on expansive run-off areas and an excess of safety. He believes there is supposed to be an element of danger in racing which shouldn't be completely removed.

"Not that I'm promoting danger, but a lot of the new F1 circuits are all the same," Wilson remarked. "You can't tell them apart on TV. They're full of constant radius corners into a tightening or opening corner, and so on. They're shaped so it's impossible to pass."

Indeed, so many of the Tiljke-inspired, super-safe modern tracks are bland and identical with acres and acres of paved run-off areas. And too, they produce boring races, so to my mind, they are the worst of all worlds. Wilson recalls changes made at Magny-Cours in the name of safety which he believes reduced the challenge of the French track.

"I remember the first few times I went to Magny-Cours with a Formula 3000 car," he said. "It was a challenging track because it had some quick chicanes and if you dropped a wheel off as you went through one of the chicanes into a tightening, long hairpin you were going to have a big moment, or you were going to hit the wall. However you went through there, it was tough to get it all sorted out and get on the brakes for the hairpin."

When Wilson went back to Magny-Cours the next year however the run-off area had been paved over. "So you went through the chicane five mph quicker," Justin said. "Everyone could get through there just as fast because you could run wide and weren't worried about making a mistake through the chicane or when you got on the brakes. To me, that really took the life out of that track. Suddenly, everyone was committed at the same level.

"We don't want to see drivers getting hurt," Wilson added. "But at the same time we want to see the difference between the ones who are out there going for it and someone who's just out there driving."

Over the past thirty years automobile racing has been transformed by a sea change of improvements in all aspects of safety and by a concurrent need to restrain the performance of the cars--to try to slow 'em down. This antithetical struggle between the sanctioning bodies versus the designers and engineers has become a defining element of modern motor racing. This year each of Formula 1, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, the ALMS, and the IRL are trying to determine their future formulas, and the questions about making the sport too safe and sanitized are important parts of those equations.

Steroids and their like apart, most sports remain their elemental selves, determined by issues of man against the essential physical forces of nature. But racing always been about the machine as much as the man, or woman.

Motor racing has always been about technological development and improving the breed with the result that over the past hundred years the sport has been completely transformed. Other than having four wheels and an engine, today's racing cars bear no resemblance to the leviathans from the early days of the twentieth century. Physical strength and a dose of bravery are common traits shared by the drivers from these distant eras but the rest of the skills required are very different.

For those trying to devise racing's various formulas for the future therefore, one of the great challenges is to find a way to keep the sport exciting and relevant, as well as safe and responsible, while maintaining at least a whiff of danger. Both drivers and fans want to see and feel it as they are able to at tracks like Mt.Tremblant and of course, Elkhart Lake, where Champ Car and the ALMS race together on a combined card next week. Anyone looking to enjoy road racing at its most challenging will be there.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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