Friday, 19 June 2015

19/06/15 - 1992 BTCC Season Finale

The British Touring Car Championship is arguably one of the most adrenaline-fuelled and exciting series on the modern motorsport calendar. It certainly provides as much bumper-to-bumper theatre and ramming-each-other-off-the-track drama as you’re likely to see outside of banger racing. The mantra of the BTCC from time immemorial has been ‘rubbing is racing’, and if you see Matt Neal giving Rob Collard a gentle shove in order to cut a cleaner line through Clearways, you can be damn sure that the favour will be returned on the next lap. They jostle, they bump, they smash into their rev limiters like there’s no tomorrow, and any driver who’s seen crossing the finish line with his bumpers intact gets unceremoniously debagged in the pits afterwards. (Possibly.)

For many, the glory days of the BTCC were the late eighties, when the titles were effectively contested by two key groups; E30 BMW M3s and Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500s. Frank Sytner’s Prodrive M3 did alright in ’87, but it was 1988 when the BMW invasion began in force, with no less than six M3s running in Class B. This was countered by fifteen RS500s in Class A – not direct rivals due to the class system (and massive power gulf between them) but still, amongst the Corollas and Golfs, it was the showboating Cosworths and tenacious M3s that really captured the buzz of the era.

In 1990, everything changed. The introduction of the Supertouring rules heralded a sea change in how the series was run; 1990 was a transitional year in which Supertouring cars were entered alongside Group A cars, which were now detuned for closer racing with new entrants such as the Vauxhall Cavalier and the BMW 318is. In 1991 the series shifted to just one class, ensuring parity (to a degree), as well as much lower entry and running costs than the highly-developed, highly-strung Group A racers.

…and now we reach the crux of the matter. Twenty years ago, BTCC fans witnessed what is regarded by many to be the best motor race of all time; not just in Touring Car racing, but of any motorsport. I’m talking, of course, about the 1992 season finale at Silverstone. It was a race of such stagecraft that it could have been penned by Hollywood’s most dramatically-inclined scriptwriters; as the Championship zeroed in on its final round at Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit, the title could have been taken by any one of three drivers – John Cleland in the Vauxhall Cavalier, Will Hoy in the Toyota Carina, or Tim Harvey in the BMW 318is. There was still all to play for, and the blood was up for the title-fight contenders.

To throw a little extra drama into the mix – as if it were needed – the qualifying was dominated by drivers that sat further down the points table; pole was taken by the indomitable Andy Rouse in his Carina, Jeff Allam was second in his Cavalier, the sister car to Cleland’s. In third place on the grid was Julian Bailey in another Carina, while the fourth spot was occupied by Steve Soper in his Listerine-liveried 318is, stablemate to Tim Harvey’s steed. Steve Soper figures in bold in the dramatis personae of this race, thrice underlined in red. I’ll ruin the surprise now and say that he didn’t take his BMW to victory, although you shall see shortly why his drive was so pivotal…

So where were our Championship contenders, Cleland, Hoy and Harvey? They’d qualified in seventh, ninth and twelfth respectively, so the crowds knew that they were in for a frisky fight. Harvey and Hoy both had a strong start, with the latter passing Cleland on the first lap. Steve Soper, way up ahead, made a move on David Leslie’s Ecurie Ecosse Cavalier, but in his furious scrabble to pass - he’s a tenacious helmsman, Soper - the two made contact and the BMW span out, unfortunately to be collected on the way past by Rob Gravett’s Peugeot 405 MI16. As the pack streamed past, Soper found himself dead last with heavy rear damage to his car, his bumper hanging off at a jaunty angle. In-car footage of his charge to catch up is little short of breathtaking, applying full-lock and screaming sideways back into contention, then punching at the gearstick as if he was trying to send it through the bulkhead and straight into hell. You may well have heard the phrase ‘driving out of his skin’ applied to any number of racing drivers past and present, but you haven’t seen the full fury of a bitter comeback charge until you’ve seen Soper’s angered blitz on that grey October day in ’92.

Nearer the front of the field there was all sorts of banging and clattering going on, the three Championship hopefuls eagerly tearing after the taste of Champagne, while the rest of the field  - all at an approximate level of parity in terms of power and performance, remember – were forcing every ounce of effort towards grabbing one last podium place. In what seemed like no time, Hoy, Harvey and Cleland were sitting in fourth, fifth and sixth, each more determined than the last to eke out an extra iota of thrust, to cut a closer line through Becketts, to brake later at Bridge, to show everybody else on the track that they were the dominant force for the British Touring Car Championship. Soper, driving like a man possessed, much to the near-apoplectic gobsmackery of commentator Murray Walker, had managed to shove his way up to seventh place, his gearbox screaming in an agony as raw as that suffered by the 318is’ hind quarters, now painfully bumper-free.

Two laps from the chequered flag Harvey attempted to pass Hoy through Copse, the pair running doorhandle-to-doorhandle; Harvey, with the inside line, drifted wide at the exit and forced Hoy off the track, and in the furious mêlée Cleland and Soper screamed past. Cleland was now in fourth position which, given the number of points he’d accrued through the season, would have gifted him the Championship. Soper was hot on his tail, an unstoppable force of pure retribution, and in sixth and seventh sat Harvey and Hoy. On the entry to Club, Soper powered past the Vauxhall; the on-board footage clearly showed Cleland giving him the finger. ‘I’m going for first!’, yelled the ever-diplomatic Murray.
Exiting Abbey, Harvey used the BMW’s superior rear-drive traction to get alongside Cleland, passing him through Bridge. Soper, ever the team player, dived out of the way to allow Harvey to pass into fourth, then ran defence behind him to block Cleland. As they shot through Priory they were nose-to-tail, then the Cavalier scythed under Soper into Brooklands; Soper blocked the manoeuvre and the two collided, the Cavalier rounding the curve on two wheels. Cleland was half a car-length ahead as they approached the right-hander, so the intrepid (and clearly slightly unhinged) Soper dove across the grass on the inside of the corner, smashing into Cleland at the apex and spinning them both out of the race.
With just a lap to go, Tim Harvey eased toward the finish line in fourth place, picking up enough points to win him the Championship. Hoy finished three seconds behind him.

The podium spots went to Andy Rouse, Jeff Allam and David Leslie, but none of that really matters to the history books. What we witnessed that day – the Listerine BMW taking the controversial win, the angry Scotsman in his totalled Vauxhall, the gladiatorial might of a spurned racer on a kamikaze drive – will resonate through the annals of motorsport lore forever. You can be sure that John Cleland’s still fuming about it.

Baby vs. GoPro

Impressive reactions...

...but the cup’s full of piss. (Possibly.)

Arty eruptions

The Queen's Guard...

...certainly don't fuck about.

Friday, 12 June 2015

12/06/15 - Concrete Houses

Thomas Edison is one of my favourite people. You may just think of him as ‘that light-bulb bloke’, but he was a prolific innovator and enormously busy chap, filing patents all over the shop and creating solutions to problems nobody had thought of. Dubbed ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’ by the press, Edison invented such useful and influential devices as the motion picture camera, the phonograph, the stock ticker, the steel alkaline storage battery and the quadruplex telegraph; he’s one of the most accomplished inventors of all time, holding 1,093 unique patents.
He didn’t actually invent the electric light bulb, but he did develop the first one that was commercially practical. This is even more significant than you might imagine, because the public excitement surrounding this sensational and revolutionary new invention had the potential to be stymied by a fundamental lack of any kind of domestic electricity infrastructure, so Edison set about developing that too. Having founded the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, he then went on to set up the Edison Illuminating Company two years later, in order to build upon his own patented concept for reliable electricity distribution. If you think about the number of components and variables that are involved in using an electrical item – the flex, the standardised plug and socket, the fusing system, current conversion, underground cabling, junction boxes, trip switches, sub-stations, where the power actually comes from in the first place – it’s a hideously complicated and expensive system to build from scratch.
On September 4th 1882, Edison fired up the Pearl Street power station in New York City and shot 110 volts of direct current to fifty-nine houses in lower Manhattan. While there were the inevitable early bugs – sockets shooting sparks across the room and so forth – the system was a success, and it’s thanks to the genius (a much-overused word, but wholly appropriate here) of Edison’s systematic and scientific approach that we have the domestic electricity supply that we largely take for granted today.

And yet… even the most brilliant people can’t be brilliant all of the time, and my absolute favourite Edison invention is one that was in fact a total failure. I just love the idea behind it, equally logical and absurd: it’s the concept of moulded concrete housing.
Now, if you’ve not heard of Edison’s concrete houses, here’s a little background. In 1899, he founded the Edison Portland Cement Company in New Jersey; he’d been in the process of mining iron ore – a finger in every pie – and had discovered a lucrative market in selling all of the waste sand from the mining process to cement manufacturers. Spotting yet another string for his bow, he founded his own cement company which quickly became successful (well, in a way, although it did go bankrupt twice… but that’s another story) - the Yankee Stadium is one famous example of a structure built with Edison’s concrete.
So maybe it was that he was always thinking of innovative new concepts, or maybe it was that the success of his cement concern had gone to his head - or perhaps it was a combination of the two - but around 1910 he started toying with the idea of moulded concrete houses.

The idea was pretty simple. He’d manufacturer moulds of complete houses, into which a stream of Edison concrete could be poured from the roof downward, meaning that houses could be built in a matter of hours rather than weeks. This, in theory, would revolutionise the construction industry, in that the costs of materials and labour would be massively reduced, as would the time it took to create homes for the countless new Americans that the booming nation was relentlessly spawning. And these moulds would be incredibly sophisticated too; not just external and internal walls, but all of the details ready to make a house that was almost immediately habitable – moulded-in bathrooms, kitchens, fireplaces, picture frames, everything. Imagine that. Concrete sofas, concrete refrigerators, concrete pianos – there was no end to it, Edison’s vision of the new American utopia was solid, grey and slightly pebbly.
Experimenting with formwork moulds that would stand up to repeated usage, he had a go at building a garage and a gardener’s cottage at his New Jersey mansion and, buoyed by the success and keen to promote the idea, he announced in the press that he would give the patents to qualified builders – this concept was his gift to America. As well as being cheap, the houses would be fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and could be pre-tinted in various colours that would never need repainting.
An eminent philanthropist, Henry Phipps Jr., saw in the idea a genuinely viable scheme by which to solve the crisis of affordable urban housing at the time, proposing to build an entire city of low-cost Edison concrete houses for working-class families… but, sadly, Edison was never able to deliver the plans.
You see, as noble and seemingly simple as the idea might have been, it was in fact totally unworkable for two key reasons: firstly, the ambitiously complicated moulds were so intricate, they ended up comprising around 2,300 separate pieces, which would have been very expensive to builders both in what it would cost to buy them and in the time that would be needed to bolt the things together. Secondly, and rather more importantly, the whole notion hinged on a somewhat unfortunate misunderstanding of how concrete actually behaves. Before it hardens it is, of course, basically a liquid – this was integral to the plans, given that the idea was to pour it in from the top and let it fill the mould. However, the nature of a liquid that contains lots of gravelly stones is that all of the stones will naturally gravitate to the bottom, so it’s impossible to maintain a uniform consistency throughout the mould as it dries. And there’s no way around that, it’s just physics.

Basically, then, it was one of those ideas that sounded really good in embryo, swallowed up a lot of funds, time, energy and egos, and never amounted to anything. But it did give the world the concept of the concrete piano, and perhaps that’s enough.

Real GTA

Cracking dedication to accuracy here. Top marks.

Social Media Rhapsody

Brilliant. Must have taken ages.

Mothballed Russian spaceships

This is really eerie - click here and see. Massive, advanced entry into the space race, flew once in testing, then just left in a hangar with the birds.

The Martian - trailer

This looks outstanding.

Some unusual hats

Morale booster

Great, thanks Hollywood.