Motorsport Never Sleeps –

The So-Called Off-Season

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Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh has the lowdown on some of the must-watch Sportscar events taking place during motorsport’s so-called ‘off-season’.

Formula One’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the last event of the season and, so, all of us who work in motorsport are now on an extended break – in warmer climes, obviously – until March 20th, 2016, when F1 gets the new season underway in Australia.

Er… No.

F1 has extended its calendar (again). And in 2016, there will be a scarcely believable 21 events, which does indeed push the length of the racing year from March all the way through to 27th November. For the rest of circuit racing, however, there’s nothing even resembling an ‘off-season’.

Now, I need to declare an interest here – I HATED the old days of a three-month off-season!

When I was working in British national motorsport, circuit racing was all over in October. I did Rally GB in November, Race of Champions in December and then waited until Easter for when it would all start again. If I’d had a decent year, I might be able to get a holiday in January. Like most of the industry, I was self-employed, so no work meant no money coming in.

Some years, when decisions were being made late, I – like a multitude of mechanics, team personnel and even drivers – would be wondering if there would ever be paid work again. In the worst of these Winter Blues, there might even be a consideration of trying to get what my father would call ‘a proper job’.

There are still a sizable number of people working at the sharp end of motorsport who go from season to season on single-year contracts.

For many – particularly in national series – job security and longevity in post are just not something that the sport provides.

In recent years, the same expansion that has seen F1 moving from traditional European venues to more far-flung circuits, has also opened up new markets to other forms of the sport. In addition, the growth of endurance racing has added single events and ’winter’ championships (Nov-Feb) to many employees’ calendars.

By the time F1 reconvenes in Australia in March, the Radio Show Limited team will have provided live coverage for three 12-hour races and two 24-hour races – as well as the associated practice, qualifying and support races. Add to that reports from over ten days of pre and in-season testing, and you begin to see the sheer number of events taking place. And to think we just do the ‘bigger’ series and events!

Ironically, all this ‘off-season’ action starts right where F1 has just finished – Yas Marina Circuit, in Abu Dhabi, which is hosting the Gulf 12 Hours.

This is a new venue for me, and one I’m looking forward to visiting immensely. The Gulf 12 Hours is an event which has been steadily growing over the last 4 years. Its unusual format of two 6-hour races with 30 minutes between them, has proved popular to a wide selection of teams with an eclectic mix of machinery; an event at which, just a couple of years ago, Bentley chose to debut their Continental GT3 Coupe. It’s a compact schedule with testing on Wednesday 9th December and the race itself on Friday 11th, finishing a little before midnight.

This model of ‘Blue Riband’ events at an attractive time of year for European teams – perhaps providing the chance to race on an iconic circuit – isn’t new, of course. Back in the dim, distant black-and-white days of racing, the Tasman Series attracted GP greats to the Antipodes, with the promise of great racing, great weather and often a great big pot of appearance money.

Sadly, appearance money and big cash prizes are long gone – Why and when did that happen, by the way? That’s certainly a subject for another day.

Sometimes, season-old cars would be sold on to local teams, adding another financial imperative to the trip. That does still happen, though less often now, mainly because the growth of these winter events has changed the business model for race teams.

The Hankook Dubai 24 is another such event that we can expect to see take place during the so-called off-season. It will run for what will be the 11th time in 2016. Using the full GP version of the excellent Dubai Autodrome, the event – which runs from January 14-16th – will have 100 cars on the grid. Yes that’s not a typo, ONE HUNDRED CARS.

There are classes for pretty much any car you’d ever want to race. And, whilst the majority of entrants are National Class drivers, there has always been interest from better known drivers. F1 principal Toto Woolf won the first event in 2006 driving a BMW M3 with Dieter Quester, Phillip Peter and the redoubtable Hans-Joachim Stuck. Latterly, the growth of the GT3 formula has allowed more Professional teams and drivers to come in and join the fun. Trust me, it is fun. And the Pros in the superfast GT3s are made acutely aware that they are piggy-backing on an event which ‘belongs’ to the non-career-focused entrants.

That’s not to say the competition is dulled in any way – far from it. The mix of cars, driver experience and performance creates a true multi-class endurance experience, as much for those at the back as for the 30 or so GT3 cars at the front of the field. It’s a measure of the challenge of this event that Nissan have – since the very first year of their remarkable ‘Gamer to Racer ’programme – chosen to use it as an opportunity in which to ‘blood’ their Nissan GT Academy Graduates into International Endurance Racing.

The second day-long race of 2016 is the Rolex 24 at Daytona (January 28th to 31st). This traditional start to the US season has been given renewed importance in recent years, as the two American versions of sportscar racing have now, of course, become one. This ‘Grand Dame’ of the US endurance scene hasn’t yet quite regained the lofty position it once had in International endurance racing teams’ calendars. Yet, paired with the venerable Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours in March, it makes for a formidable opening pairing of Floridian rounds of the newly-titled IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship.

The IMSA series no longer has a place for LMP1 cars, but is finding its place in the sportscar heirarchy with a healthy GT contingent in both GTD – GT3 to the rest of us – and GTLM, which is mostly comprised of ACO/FIA compliant GTE cars. In addition to this, the front running Prototype class regulations allow LMP2 cars to compete for overall honours. These two classic events are part of an ‘Endurance Championship’ that also adds the Watkins Glen 6-Hours and, later in the year, Road Atlanta’s ‘Petit Le Mans’.

The clear hope is that teams from outside the full season IMSA entry list will be attracted to Daytona and Sebring, with the draw of the big events fitting in with the potential for early season competition. The Rolex is particularly interesting this year, as it will mark Ford’s return to International Racing as their new ‘GT’ debuts on the high banks of Daytona. The speed of the car will certainly be tested there, but the bumps of the Sebring track will be a formidable challenge that will need to be overcome as the Blue Ovals plan for success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

The other ‘off season’ event I want to highlight takes place at a venue that is just as well-known as Daytona and Sebring. The Bathurst 12 Hours – which this year runs from February 5-7th – has, in the last 3 years, exploded from a quirky national race featuring mostly touring cars of all vintages, shapes and sizes, to an international event that is on the ‘must do’ list of teams and drivers all around the globe.

The Mount Panorama circuit of course needs no introduction. The 1,000km October race, now run as part of the Australian V8 Supercar Series, has for decades dominated the racing calendar down under. There was a dalliance with 24-Hour racing at the Mountain, but it didn’t quite take off. Bathurst is a cruel mistress. There’s no room for mistakes and therefore endurance racing there can take a heavy toll on even a decent entry list.

Starting early in the day, as the sun rises, a 12 Hour race was thought to be the answer. Genius! The format was a success with national competitors, but the real growth has come in the last 3 years, with the addition of GT3 machinery to the front of the field. Despite a deficit in power and a top speed to the V8 Supercars, their lap times are far quicker. The GT3s are fast and spectacular, especially over ‘The Mountain’, where the walls are close and the aero is working hardest. The racing is simply breath-taking. In 2015, over half of the 55 car entry list were GT3s – that class alone boasting more cars than the whole V8 field in Australia’s Great Race at the same venue in October.

There’s a growing GT scene in Australia right now, with three National championships required to fill the demand for 2016 grid slots. Some of that success is undoubtedly due to the Bathurst 12 Hours. National broadcaster Channel 7 had full live coverage of the 2015 event, and will dedicate another day of network TV to the 2016 race. Streaming video and audio is also available for those outside of Australia.

The addition of the GT3 cars has meant that there are fewer places for the national competitors in the touring and modified production classes. No problem. In 2016, there will be a new 6-Hour race for those cars at Bathurst over Easter Weekend. That suits me fine, as I hope to compete in that event and take the family name back to Mount Panorama!

All of this is great news for motor racing fans. All of these races are covered – in sound, vision or both – by our team at Radio Show Limited. And it’s great news, too, for many of us working in motorsport, with long ‘off season’ Winter Blues now fast-becoming a thing of the past. By the way, I didn’t relent and get a ‘proper job’ in the end. I’m delighted to have not had time for a holiday since February, 2000.

Check the calendar at www.radiolemans.com, or follow @radiolemans on Twitter for details of live coverage of all of the above events. Photo credits courtesy of our friends at www.dailysportscar.com