The original 1865 Lewis Carroll (appropriately a pseudonym) children's' book "Alexis in Motorland" was deemed by Macmillan, the publishers back 150 years ago, as targeting much too narrow a global audience. So after various disruptive committee meetings such as we've come to know them at the UN, the European Union or the Pentagon, the name "Alice in Wonderland" was chosen instead, which essentially provides indisputable evidence that occasionally even a committee can design a horse and not end up with a pea-brained double humped camel. The scholarly world has long heralded this epic work one of the "best examples of literary nonsense" ever written. Just so, the following paragraphs, in time, may too be held aloft next the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution or a McDonalds menu. This work deserves the dignity of at least a Big Mac 'n fries.
The narrative that follows never happened, just like Alice probably never existed, but we have no proof of that. All investment management presentations, without exception, have lengthy footnotes exculpating the manager from implications that past results have any predictive value at all - similarly, this story is a complete fiction and no one should even pretend to believe any of this actually happened, because it didn't. Some facts, however, are used to lend credibility to my waffling irrelevancies, like the really hot weather or the fact that a Herman Tilke race track actually exists in Spain - that sort of stuff. Nevertheless, this diversionary and imaginary trip fills a void that otherwise would have existed on my way to the next important European Le Mans Series 4 hour race at Red Bull Ring this Sat-Sun in Spielberg, Austria.
Having had enough of Icelandic or Irish one-stop red eye overnight flights to Europe, this time I found an airline equipped with twenty first century planes that can actually make it across the Atlantic on a full tank of gas. Barcelona airport cuddles up warmly against the Mediterranean Sea, welcoming you with colorful promises of Gaudian proportions, art and architecture that boggles the mind almost as much as the national unemployment numbers. No nation on earth is more appreciative of Leftist Tsipras, ranting and reigning over an economy slightly larger than one of America's largest shopping malls, doing everything he can to ruin both his own country's credibility but also jeopardizing the entire European Union, than Spain. Spain has 2 significant problems to deal with: how do they divert trained economists' attention from these ugly unemployment numbers domestically and what happens when they also discover that those still actually employed work so little that the Spanish sovereign debt problems make Greece's look like a Sunday afternoon picnic in Hyde Park.
I apologize...got sucked backwards into real world events and this is just a fictional story that never happened. Chickens roast at something around 40-42 degrees Celsius and that's what Spain felt like after a 3 hour picturesque drive westwards through Catalonia. Catalonia is like Texas but without the gravitas provided by massive oil reserves. Both want to secede from their parent nations and I believe the heat is a contributing factor. Damn, facts creeping back in again. Discovering our new hotel built and run by a starving farmer-cum-hotelier was no easy task as access is provided by a thin single lane two way dirt road into obviously agricultural environs, miles from the nearest town. Stranded in the middle of fine cattle aroma laden 100 degree heat, relief was provided by a wonderful small pool, fenced in and padlocked until the farmer-cum-key gives you access. He treats his guests like his cattle. I can think of better industries than agriculture from which to start the evolutionary process of migrating towards the hospitality business, but had no choice in the matter. Checked in and headed over to the race track for the scheduled 5 PM team meeting and seat fitting, but was turned away by security at the track entrance, urging me to wait until at least 7 PM at the karting facility. Like Alice, I had no way of knowing this little Mad Hatter security desk showdown was only the beginning of an absurd journey into the equivalent of an LSD induced apparition for the next 2 days where anything that could did go wrong and logic was suspended whenever possible, making reasoned discussion of better alternatives simply impossible.
In the karting paddock there were no human beings, but there was a large unmarked Russian race car transporter (you could tell by the Ukrainian military guards) next to Don Lopp's large black and yellow truck filled with hundreds of experimental tires, round ones mostly, but not ones we'd ever raced on before. The Russian team normally runs on a famous French-Taiwanese joint venture's tire long supplied by Mrs. Lin. If your inquisitive mind has taken an unintended leap into connective space implying these manufacturers sound a lot like some renowned British and French race tire manufacturers, that is your fault and has nothing to do with this story. After chatting in Ukrainian to the unmarked guards for 30 minutes I gave up hope of finding a Murphy team member and headed back to the hotel pool for 10 quick laps totally unaware of its uncanny predictive coincidence, as that's about the number of laps each of us got to drive the newest Russian tank on both of the next 2 days, making the cool to frigid family discussion of me flying away from the July 4th holiday weekend all that much more worth it. After getting my body temperature back down below roast chicken, I walked into the hotel dining room at 7 as by now we'd all received a text to be at the race track at 8 for the 5 PMorganizational meeting. Organizational is an awkward way to try to describe how this weekend would unfold as it implies someone actually planned on an agenda that all sides agreed on before leaping down this rabbit hole. Anyway, the farmer reminded me that in Spain restaurants don't even start to open their doors until 8:30, which for some reason possibly related to the shocking condition of the Spanish economy, I'd completely forgotten, but because he's still not that experienced in the hospitality sector, like in Faulty Towers he chose to assault his chef and forced him to make me a very edible plate of chicken breast and beans. Not baked beans - really nice half-cooked green beans. If I can find this hotel in the remote arid wasteland of southern Spain again, I'm definitely staying there.
The initial 5 or 7 PM meeting was strange, unwelcoming by a hoard of French mechanics, Italian car designers, English engineers and a lot of Murphy people with similar skills who thought this was going to be a time to strut their stuff, but were brushed aside in a sea of confusion orchestrated by the Queen of Hearts or the White Rabbit, hard to tell as no one but the Burly Russian Cheshire Cat who seemed to be grinning irrelevantly and saying nothing. Even the Don Lopp yellow and black clad staff, preoccupied examining the texture of the garage floors, offered no explanation. Shaking hands with the Neanderthal ex-cage fighter Cheshire Cat was an experience unto itself and was only marginally more pleasant that sticking your fist into a vice grip and letting the KGB twist away to their hearts content. As if you needed a reminder, the word "heart" is nowhere to be found on any KGB application form, despite at least 3 key characters in the Alice in Wonderland original featuring the word Heart (King, Queen & Knave). This is an example of how the original Alice and Wonderland and Alexis in Motorland stories differ slightly. I know Wikipedia is only marginally more reliable than its founder camped out for years in a broom closet at the Ecuadorian Embassy, but our 1.7 meter 100 kilogram 40+ year old Russian brick wall with Schwarzenegger's neck, chest and shoulders stacked awkwardly atop a narrow waist and Nureyev's little ballet legs, has actually survived a car bomb attack, which a lot of world leaders can't claim to have done. When I asked Rasputin if he knew who had tried to polish him off, his eyes instantly began to display all the warmth of say a Vladimir Putin after being accused of moving unbranded military battalions into the Ukraine, immediately pretending not to follow English as well as he'd like to. I also got the sense he would have enjoyed placing a small bomb in my back pack at that particular moment, but there were just too many witnesses even for the usual Russian snuff job that tends to settle small disputes like these. The 2-3 hour seat fitting and planning session consisted of allowing Nathanael Berthon, Michael Lyons and me to sit in one of their 2 seat molds for up to 3 minutes each and change nothing, not even the mirrors - the right was cracked badly and gave a fairly useful kaleidoscope view of the right rear aero package, while the left one was pointed down onto the bodywork, providing a perfect black image of well made carbon fiber. We had not questioned the quality of the carbon fiber but were still not permitted to reset the mirrors. Compared to the Daytona Prototype of old which seats a family of six and has a fold down couch for long stints, these new LMP2 coupes are compact, tight, welcoming, enveloping and technologically crisp, while providing ample leg room, pedal comfort and air flow ducts to warm the heart of any driver. The steering wheel display reminds you of 42nd Street and Broadway at night, flashing such a myriad of changing colors at you I thought I was watching Madonna's latest MTV video. By far the nicest feature is a wireless steering wheel that essentially automatically clips into place regardless of whether your wheels are aligned dead straight or not, eliminating an often frustrating driver change detail that can waste 3-7 seconds of frantic and random angular punching in a vain attempt to hit the bull's eye connection. Easy to understand why John Pew re-signed for another Tudor season with Michael Shank Racing after the team acquired a Ligier from Oak Racing.
Monday morning's agri-hotel breakfast room was overflowing with Oak Racing's drivers, engineers and mechanics who like us, hoped to derive an enormous amount of experience from the new hard top LMP2 race cars that in short order will become mandatory for WEC, ELMS and Le Mans racing events. In fact Jacques Nicolet's team had brought along 2 LMP2 Ligiers with Honda and Nissan engines, plus their brand new LMP3. Two days later they had exhausted their Brazilian, French and Scottish drivers, booking between 700 and 1,000 kilometers a car, seemingly pulling from the pit boxes like trains at a Paddington Station rush hour. A veritable Swiss clock.
Arriving at the track Monday around 8:30 with fairly high expectations, the charming old Italian car designer inexplicably felt the moment was right to reveal to me of all people that Phase 1 was the first thing they would focus on and that it was quite unlikely all 3 Murphy drivers would get any seat time on Day 1. I urged him to divulge the secret code of what Phase 1 meant (car prep - oh the thing you should have done last night) and to remind him that flying from the U.S. over an important national holiday only to swim laps in a farm pool was not part of the original test agenda. Calling him Luigi when his name is some other equally vowel-laden series of letters, didn't help calm the situation much, but few as they were, all 3 Murphy drivers did in fact get out on track that day. None of us is much of a weather expert, but in hindsight, lapping between 8:30 and 11 AMbefore peak Gobi Desert summer temps kick is probably provides more accurate car and tire feedback than the deep bake setting that automatically controls the oven after the midday hours. So to increase the story's fictional tension, I will pretend our handful of laps was allocated from 3 till 4 where lap times are about 2-3 seconds slower than morning sessions when the track's surface has not yet been converted to lava. The morning hours were consumed with the Russian team's drivers unaided by Murphy's engineers or mechanics who had taken to playing checkers in an adjacent garage.
Having won big races on this track before, not too surprisingly, Nat put in some consistently tight laps despite track temps north of 55 Celsius (over 131 in normal people's degrees) right after Michael Lyons completed some solid lap times during marginally less overheated hours. Yes, we had a Lion in our story, but that's another little piece of fiction Disney placed in Kansas with a yellow brick road, a completely different fictional mind bender filled with tin men and scarecrows, not lizards, tortoises and eaglets on a croquet lawn. I had watched some in-car video of the track and taken 2 passenger-side laps of the track, so my lap times could predictably be compared to something below the March Hare - timid and embarrassing to be too near. I had to sleep the entire night with memories of those digital lap printouts with huge droopy hangnail lines depicting significantly slower corner speeds than my more competent partners each at least a dozen years younger than my own sons. That is not fictional. I was 3.5-3.9 seconds a lap off pace, if you accept we ever drove a car at a track we didn't visit. Until these stupid advances called laptop downloads became the order of the day, drivers could assure their engineers they were flat through corner X or had no steering correction coming out of hairpin Y - now there is nowhere to hide, not even in a rabbit hole.
Day two had to be better and indeed it was. For the Russian drivers. Not the green Irish Murphy Men who had come to realize that appealing to the KGB is best done with lips sealed and using very modest hand signals, best from a good distance so the chances of a getaway are reasonable. To put it mildly, the harmony part of the event seemed to escape most of us, but the limited time behind the wheel made up for some of the fine Russian hospitality. Our roughly 10 laps each on this 5 km track with 5 second-gear uphill and downhill corners formulaically laid into the contours of this desert geography, were once again run during the hottest hours of the day. This track, I'm told, as I've never been there in real life, is known for two very fast corners where apparently more testosterone samples have been taken than any other places in the world, tests car and driver coming out of the downhill 2nd gear chicane (a mini-Laguna corkscrew) that leads into a never-say-lift blind left hander in 4th. Done by the cookbook, everything holds together well and opens onto a Mulsanne type straight that almost gets you right back to Barcelona, but stops short by ending in a perfectly symmetrical sweeping left hander also in 4th, that stresses any remaining testosterone samples left in your body, right after a very, very late braking point that forces you to miss the first apex, change religions at least once in the corner as you go back to flat, and hope Russian race cars are as reliable as their AK-47s. A minor defect at those kinds of speeds and massive loads would not be written up by surviving team members as minor.
Anyway, times they are a changin' and Day Two afforded an opportunity to test some worn as well as fairly new development tires, in the process restoring a modicum of self-respect by ending up only around half a second off Nat and Michael's quickest lap times. Nat is normally serious about his racing and struggles to understand the inadequacies of an amateur race driver as well as many other Pro drivers, but this time when I popped out of the car he bubbled over like a freshly uncorked bottle of Dom Perignon: "Thees ees amazeen! You drive like thees at Red Bull Ring, we podium, oui, oui, we podium".
Obviously this blog can't have any pictures of race cars attached, as they don't exist and I don't have the budget to create a movie set out of nothing the way Hollywood does, so you'll just have to imagine a fairy tale race car that looks like those fancy closed top LMP2 cars we competed against at Le Mans a few weeks ago. However, making up for the awkwardness of a poorly handled test, was the Barcelona airport promise of an art experience hard to match anywhere in the world - I'd selected Jean Miro, Picasso and the Contemporary Museum of Art, plus a one hour walk along the overpopulated beach and was stunned by the fact that my time was consumed entirely by the 4,000 Picasso paintings in the museum of the city of his birth (only 400 on display) - I never got to the other 2 museums at all. One day in Barcelona isn't a fraction of the time you need to swallow platefuls of some of the world's best art and architecture on display anywhere in the world. And then there are the older men on the beach still wearing swim suits that make you think they think they're still competing on their 1980s high school water polo team in those skin tight semi-transparent male defining Speedos. Stay with the museums.
Written June 10, 2015
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