Do We Really Need This?

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Can we ever have too many places to go racing?.

 

By: Mike Sullivan/RaceCanada.ca
December 21 2014 
 
 

Every time I see a new press release waiting in my inbox, touting a new racing series or class, the first question I ask myself is, “Do we really need this?” It turns out I've been asking that a lot this winter, with several announcements being made.

In Canada, Nissan announced a new Micra Cup, racing only in Quebec to start, while Mazda announced a global MX-5 Cup for their

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 The MX-5 Global Cup should get all the usual Mazda support

wildly popular MX-5 Miata (Do they still call it a Miata?) and the SCCA announced a new open wheel formula class to run in the US, Formula Lites. Also just announced was the new NASA spec prototype series, but I haven't had much of a chance to look into that, so we'll leave that one for another day, and concentrate on the first three.

After surveying the current racing landscape, I'm not sure too many people would have stood up and exclaimed, “Wow, there aren't enough places for us to go racing, we need more classes, we need more series...”, and certainly that was my first thought.

While there may be some interest from Toyo Tires F1600 and Formula Tour drivers in the new Formula Lites series (or maybe not), I suspect for Canadian's, the Micra Cup will be of most interest, followed by the MX-5 Cup.

Starting with the Formula Lites, their press release claims the series was “created to fill a longtime void in the United States open-wheel market...” I'm still trying to figure out exactly what longtime void this is filling. The Road to Indy, with tremendous direction under Dan Andersen, pretty much has the open-wheel ranks covered. As well, clicking on the link to the car pricing article on their web site gives us “Sorry, but the page you requested could not be found.”. This leads me to believe that the original pricing is changing already. Not good before the series has even turned a wheel.

Under Andersen, the Mazda Road To Indy series have filled just about every void that needed filling. The launch of the new Indy Lights car very nicely completes the top wrung of the open-wheel ladder, while Formula 2000 and Pro Mazda are the right steps up from the various F1600 and Skip Barber series throughout North America. They have great support from Mazda, and champions up and down the ladder are given opportunities to move to the next level.

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 SCCA Formula Lites - A solution in search of a problem?

To me, the last thing we need is another mid-level, open wheel spec series to to fight over those few drivers with both the desire and the budget to spend between a quarter and a half million dollars (or more) a year on a series that will get very little publicity. The SCCA has been very successful with the Pirelli World Challenge and Trans Am series is experiencing a renaissance, but can they repeat those successes with Formula Lites? Do we really need this?

The Global Mazda MX-5 Cup looks to be an interesting series. Mazda has a great history in supporting motorsports world wide, and especially in North America. With the announcement that the new Indy Lights engine will carry Mazda badging, the entire Road To Indy is now powered by Mazda, add in the great support for ex-pat Canadian Sylvain Tremblay and his Speedsource team get running their Mazda-powered prototypes, as well as the great contingency support to drivers in Mazda's all over North America, and I think you will see that Mazda truly puts their money where their mouth is.

With the series not slated to launch until 2016, there is not a lot of specific information available yet, other than the general concept of the series and a car to look at and photograph. We are told the cars will be supplied, race ready, by a single supplier, but that supplier hasn't been named, nor has a price for the car been announced, and of course it is way too early for anything remotely resembling an accurate schedule. I guess there is a lot of time still to put all of this together, but I'm a fan of having most, if not all, of the answers ready for the original announcement, but I think Mazda has done this often enough that we can trust that they will get it right.

I suspect this will be a successful series, based on the popularity of the Miata Cup in North America, and hope it will have some kind of presence in Canada, ideally with Mazda Canada getting behind it in some way.

Which now brings us to the series of most interest to Canadians, the Nissan Micra Cup.

When I saw the email for this, reading the headline only at first, I was thrilled. I thought now maybe we have a replacement for the long gone and much missed Honda/Michelin Series, a truly inexpensive entry level series that gave so many drivers their start in racing throughout the 70's, 80's and early 90's.

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 Can the Micra Cup live up to it's potential

As I got a chance to read the full press release and look a little more into the series, my excitement began to wane. We contacted series promoter Jacques Deshaies with a series of questions in an effort to put aside some of our fears. Unfortunately, the answers we got really didn't make us feel any better about this series. I'm hoping we simply caught them at a busy holiday time, and that there will be further clarification on a number of issues regarding the series early in the new year.

We first asked Deshaies where he thought this series fit into the Canadian racing landscape, and at least here we see eye-to-eye. Deshaies sees the series as a bridge between karting and higher series, such as the Canadian Touring Car Championship, and that is a sensible goal for a series like as this.

The first concern for me was the fact that this series will only run only in Quebec. I guess I get the rationale for this, after all Quebec is much more racer-friendly than the rest of the country, certainly more-so than here in Ontario. If the plan was to launch the series in Quebec, judge it's acceptance by drivers and teams, build the series grass-roots in racing-crazy Quebec, then move it out to the rest of the country, I could see that as a sensible plan. However when we asked Deshaies if there was a measure of success that the series will have to reach before a decision to move outside of Quebec will be made, the answer we got was simply, “No”. I get the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that this series will never run outside of Quebec, that there really are no plans to move it to any other province or nationwide.

Another serious concern for me was the price. It's a $10,000 car being sold for $20,000 in racing trim. I'm looking at an entry level car, destined for an entry level series, with $10,000 worth of racing modifications. That strikes me as fairly expensive, not only to purchase up front, but also to maintain and repair throughout the season. We asked about the costs of the three components most likely to be damaged in the event of a crash, tires, rims and shocks, and despite there being a cost on the final car, component costs for some reason are not yet available. On the component costs, Deshaies says, “Not yet. We are working on the costs right now. We always keep in mind to provide the lowest cost possible.” For me it's hard to see how they can have a final purchase price for the whole car without having costs figured out for the key components yet. I truly hope the cost of the components are released before people start buying cars as it would be unfortunate to see people ending up with cars that are far more expensive to race than they have been led to believe.

After watching the video (see below) I noticed the test car was running on slicks, which is also what the series is will run on. Sometimes a new series will make their debut on slicks for appearances, but end up running on street tires. That's not the case here, the series will run on Pirelli slicks. When asked why slicks were chosen, Deshaies answered, “professional series are racing with slicks and we made this decision after discussion with all our partners.” I'd really love to know how long the slicks will last and how much they will cost before passing judgement on this, but slicks are generally not the first choice for entry level racing for a number of reasons, cost usually being right at the top of the list.

One of great aspects of the old Honda/Michelin series was the racing school a few weeks before the first race of the season to get new drivers licenced and up to speed. Granted, it was run by the competitors, but there was a recognition that, in order to draw new drivers in, they would have to licence them and thus an inexpensive, pre-season school. The school was run in your own car, meaning that it remained inexpensive, but also that you got licenced and significant lap time behind the wheel of the car you will be racing in a few weeks, not behind the wheel of some open wheel formula car you may never race again. Thinking that perhaps the Micra Cup would take this lesson to heart, and open the season with an inexpensive licencing school, the answer is “at this time, no.”

Hopefully this is something that will change. If a new driver has to come up with $20,000 to purchase a car, then another $3,000 or $4,000 dollars for a 3-4 day racing school, a whole slew of new racing safety equipment (suit, gloves, shoes, possibly helmet), then first year drivers in the series will be out close to $27,000 dollars, after taxes are included, and will have not have turned a wheel in the Micra. In racing terms, this really isn't a lot of money, but as an entry level series, hoping to draw drivers from the karting ranks, it might be a bit steep. Obviously, the purchase price of the car will come down for first time drivers as used cars come to market. Of course how many used cars will be available will depend on on how many new cars are purchased and whether or not purchasing a new car makes sense to the “big”teams. In Honda/Michelin, the big, dealer supported teams usually bought new cars every year, or every other year, ensuring a good supply of used cars for new drivers.

Another concern with the two street-based series is the bigger picture, the overall health of Canadian racing. Will they draw drivers and teams away from regional racing or the Canadian Touring Car Championship, or will they add to it by giving drivers and teams more options and places to race their cars, with the additional opportunities to generate sponsorship?

We spoke with CTCC's John Bondar, and he was philosophical about the two new series and what effect they may have on his series.

“It's not a bad thing to have some new series as long as they generate additional interest in motorsport and help to grow the sport. In the case of the MX-5s, I believe that Mazda is just extending an already solid brand and racing platform to other countries, and that cannot be a bad thing. As with the MX-5 program, the goal of the Micra program is to sell cars. So at the end of the season, there will be a calculation of money spent versus cost of sales and growth of sales which will determine the level of success.”

Bondar does question whether the Micra Cup will have the lowest running costs of any series in the country as they claim on their web site. He points out that a season of B-Spec competition in the CTCC will cost you less than $10,000, and there are plenty of used cars, either in race trim or donor cars that can be converted into race cars. Unfortunately, without any component costs or a schedule, it's impossible to put this Micra Cup claim to the test, at least at this point.

The higher stature of the MX-5 Cup could also see an increase in CTCC entries, as 2014 saw the first MX-5 entered in the series. “We finally had one (MX-5) enter the CTCC this season and it performed

very well. Martin Crisp entered the Shannonville round and was on the podium in his first race. He will be back for next season. And he gets to take advantage of the fabulous Mazda Canada contingency program.” Hopefully the MX-5 Global Cup and the Mazda Canada contingency program will spur more CTCC entries for the new MX-5 in years to come.

One positive regarding the Micra Cup I did take out of the conversion with Bondar was his discussions with Nissan about the Micra Cup. When I asked if he had any discussions with Nissan about the series, I fully expected a flat out no, but that wasn't the case. “I had an opportunity to present a variety of options to them, including preparing the car to compete in other series, however they decided on a different approach.” At least they asked, and they listened. To me this shows that Nissan could be serious about making this work. I can't help but think that a Micra Cup car that could be upgraded to CTCC spec for minimal cost and effort would be a bonus for both the Micra Cup and the CTCC.

One knock I have about all of these series, including the new NASA prototype series we will look at in the future, is that they are all spec series, and I'm not sure spec-racing is good for racing in general, but that's a rant for another day.

So, at the end of the day, do we really need this?

Formula Lites is a definite “No” for me. After finally clearing out a few of the lower level series and getting some decent grids again in Pro Mazda and, hopefully, again in Indy Lights, I just don't think we need to muddy up the slowly clearing waters of North American open wheel racing.

Mazda Global MX-5 Cup is a yes, we need this. Mazda is such a good supporter of all they do in motorsports and the MX-5 is such a popular car that I can't see how this could be a bad thing. I really see this as a series created for people who know they are not going to be the next World Driving Champion, but still want somewhere to race that is safe, reasonably priced, high profile and well supported. This series could be just the ticket for that.

Nissan Mica Cup? I really want to say yes to this. We really need a truly economic, entry level series to replace the Honda/Michelin series of so many years ago. I really hope this is going to be it, but I'm just not sure. The red flags for me include the initial price of the car being too high, the choice of (likely) expensive components such as Nismo suspension and racing slicks, and what seems to be no plan at this point to extend the series outside of Quebec. The good side is that, unlike the Echo Cup in Quebec and the Sentra series in Ontario, Nissan Canada is behind the Micra Cup, not just dealers or dealer networks. While it didn't turn out the way I would have hoped, Nissan did have a meeting with John Bondar and listened to his idea's, and hopefully they have stashed some of those away for future growth. So, do we really need this? I'm going with a very tentative (and perhaps overly optimistic) yes, we need this. It looks as if it could be reasonably cheap and is backed but a manufacturer, and those are both good things. Let's just hope it turns out for the best and is successful in bringing new drivers into the sport, whether they are karters or auto crossers, and not just plucking teams and drivers from other existing series. We will definitely re-look at this as new information on the series becomes available.   

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