Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Motorsport can be is exhilarating

I stumbled across a gem whose sparkle I've spent all day today admiring. A 6½-hour documentary which I watched in one sitting; only taking breaks to eat and to visit the loo; it was that compelling!

It was about Tim Schrick and his exploits when he went endurance racing and it was rather wittily called "Team Schrick" because as you might imagine, he didn't do it all on his own. I say "stumbled" because when I came across it, I was actually looking for clips from a German TV show called D Motor, screened on DMAX and presented by Tim Schrick.

It's a show I fell in love with for the technical detail Tim goes into when analysing the behaviour of cars he tests. Unlike some, he has remarkable car control skills and he doesn't get confused if you start talking to him about torque.

In any case, I've watched many motorsport documentaries before, most recently, Truth in 24 about the diesel Audi R1 TDi rennwaggen and its success at Le Mans in 2008. It was a very 'slick' documentary but it was utterly soul-less. I didn't feel anything like the connection I found with the characters in Team Schrick. And I say characters because like any other good 'drama'/"real-life-with-all-the-mundane-bits-taken-out", the individuals involved in the story were all developed to fill 3D[imensions].

In contrast, the biggest persona spanning the 92 minutes of Truth in 24 is Audi AG. Because it was a promo film, there was a desire to bolster Audi's reputation for reliability, and unlike in Team Schrick, the concession to reality that in motorsport, things can and do go wrong could not be [and wasn't] made.

Team Schrick was a true emotional rollercoaster and I fully recommend it to car, motorsport and drama fans alike. The sheer ambition Team Schrick display throughout the programme and enormous desire to succeed really hooks you in.

I think motorsport has a bad habit of presenting itself as various combinations of dour, sterile and aloof (F1 moreso than all the rest). That's what's fresh about Team Schrick; all the turmoil, emotion and passion for the sport is on show. Much unlike you get with Ron Dennis batting on about passion in press releases and press conferences but only rarely displaying any.

It's a must-watch, athough if circuit-racing isn't your thing, put Engineering the World Rally on your list. It's about Petter Sohlberg and the Subaru WRC team's 2007 season and is equally as good!

Monday, 21 December 2009

What's wrong with new TopGear?

So the show-makers finally admit fans think the show is in crisis and that they think it is too. It also seems they are trying very hard to fix it but they don't know what's wrong with the show or what to do to fix it.

Well I too, like the Monk, think I have the solution! Going with the band analogy, I think they would do the equivalent of an "acoustic set".

Everyone on the show keeps batting on about the Bolivia film and how it's the best part of this series and the 'races' and 'challenges' that fans 'loved' from, "back in the day when Top Gear was good". They also seem to love talking about the presenters and their 'on-screen chemistry' and how it's a show about 'three blokes cocking about with cars'.

It's a case of their making a fuss about everything else and forgetting it's a show about cars. It'd be like spending all your time as a band thinking about the onstage show and forgetting the [real] fans are there primarily for the music.

The part of Ep 5 I enjoyed the most was the Noble test because it was about the M600 and nothing else. Cars are interesting enough without exotic locations, 'brilliant cinematography' or contrived plots and staged humour. The clips of Top Gear I watch repeatedly on YouTube are always the 8-10 minute tests where they talk about the cars and nothing else and the best film they've put together in a while was James May's FCX Clarity test.

Nowadays, I enjoy watching clips of Tim Schrick on DMAX D Motor more than I enjoy watching TopGear. The tests are done on a featureless airfield and don't always involve supercars, all speech is in German and I have to read subtitles to follow it, but it's compelling because although there is some humour every so often, 90% of the dialogue is about cars and the joy of driving them.

I understand TG need to cater to those who watch the show for 'entertainment' but this shouldn't be at the expense of those who watch it for the cars. I propose one show in each series devoted to 'power' tests, one each from the presenters. And nothing else!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

What price exclusivity?

So the production LF-A's just been shown at Tokyo. Plenty of stats to admire though the one I find most interesting (a sticking point for most); £330,000. And yet Toyota will still lose money on each if R&D costs are factored in.

Now why, I hear you ask, did they artificially limit the production run to 500. When they could have let the market absorb as many as it cared to and in turn, potentially given them back a bit more of the money they invested.

Simple: there are some for whom the very fact the that there'll only ever be 500 will be a selling point.

I asked a friend of mine once what car they guessed I'd have when I was a little bit older and I wasn't a debt-ridden student. Though they didn't name a specific car, they suggested it'd be something a little left-field. I agree with them.

I've always been taken in by the idea of owning a VW Phaeton or a Renault Vel Satis. Cars that were essentially sound propositions but suffered for people feeling they cost more than their badges were worth.

The same prejudice will be a handicap for the LF-A [and the Hyundai Equus], however much they may be statements from their respective manufacturers. From Hyundai that they can make cars every bit as good as BMW and Mercedes, and Lexus, that they can manufacture a car that can comfortably duel Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

I don't think having something could be made more satisfying purely by not many other people having it. Far more smugness-inducing to have spotted a gem that slipped under everyone else's noses.

So I would probably buy the LF-A, if I had the money, but the extra cash I'd fork out would be to demonstrate 'individuality' in my consumerism, though not, unlike some, just to secure 'exclusivity'.

Monday, 5 October 2009

What's in a unit?

I didn't learn very much about Engineering during my 3 years studying it at University but I did learn enough to be quite critical of figures when they are presented to me. I learnt that, how you choose to measure something can have a huge effect on the facts you can back up using said measurements.

McLaren claim that their M838T is the most 'efficient' series-production internal combustion engine because it happens to produce less CO2 per horsepower than any other internal combustion road car engine.

They neglect to mention that there are literally over a thousand other ways to measure the efficiency of an IC engine. No doubt they chose that metric because it paints their M838T in the best light. They could have told us for example, a figure we all understand like its mpg figure.

The scenario reminds me of a few years ago when digital camera manufacturers were in the business of quoting the megapixels their cameras were capable of shooting as if it was the be-all and end-all of camera performance. Compare a photo from a 8.0MP phone camera to an old 3.2MP SLR for example and you can clearly see how megapixels only tell half the story.

I do admire the P11 project as I think you can gather from the post immediately preceeding this one, but I wish McLaren didn't resort to such shady tactics to promote their product. That they quoted statistics we're used to and let us make our own minds up rather than manipulate the facts.

Anyone else noticed they didn't publish a final mass for the MP4-12C but still found time to make a big song and dance about their 'amazingly light' 80kg CFRP tub?

The MP4-12C - A quizmaster's boon

It is not going on sale before 2012 and it is out of reach for most given it'll cost about the same as a 3-bed semi- in 'the North', but the McLaren MP4-12C deserves column space in 2010 for the sheer technological endeavour it embodies.

After the £600,000 F1 of 1992 and the £300,000 SLR that has just ceased production, the new car can almost be said to represent McLaren's descent into the 'mainstream' retailing at around £125-£175,000. Make no mistake though, this British supercar is anything but humdrum. The painstaking approach employed by its designers in creating it, is breathtaking.
Those from outside of the walls of the space-age "Technology Centre" in Woking where McLaren are based, may not have not heard of 'the 5% rule', but it goes thus: The engineers scrutinised every single component that makes up the car, and polished off and trimmed every last bit of weight they possibly could. Then after they finished, they revisited each component and magicked up another 5% reduction in weight .
The 'C' in MP4-12C indicates 'carbon fibre', a material used to make the chassis weigh less than Jonny Wilkinson.  The brakes are not made from carbon like they are in most other supercars because the engineers found a way to make them using steel whilst still saving 8kg. 

Virtually all road cars (and incidentally, most houses) use copper wire in their electronic systems but McLaren used aluminium, yet again because it represents a more weight-conscious approach. This saved 5kg. The structure behind the dash was made from magnesium instead of steel to save another 4kg and to top it all off McLaren built their own engine and gearbox from the ground up when they could just done what most upstarts do and bought a drivetrain off the shelf. All of this to achieve "efficient performance" to put it in their parlance.
I understand I might be beginning to sound somewhat fanatical so to achieve some balance, I think it's worth pointing out where the MP4-12C leaves blots on its copy paper; it looks a bit plain.

Especially next to the Audi R8, Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo and Mercedes SLS. That said, the non-controversial looks may mean time treats its better. Its aformentioned predecessor the F1, for example, still looks fresh despite first being presented to the world in 1992.
MP4-12C will be judged on more fronts than just looks though and given the praise lavished on Ferrari's 458 Italia by those who have driven it, it's going to have to impress on many. Ron Dennis has had no qualms about publicly singling out Ferrari as their benchmark. This comes as no surprise because in motorsport they say, "To be the best, you have to beat the best". And it is in motorsport where these two great companies and their long-standing rivalry was born.
McLaren and Ferrari have traded blows at the front of the Formula 1 pack since the 1980s. In fact, between 1998 and 2008, they took all of the Formula 1 manufacturers' world titles that were on offer, bar two (stolen by Renault in 2005 & 2006). So McLaren trying to take Ferrari's mantle in the road car space isn't so much picking a fight as moving it to another arena. Only logical then for McLaren to go to so much effort to find top form with the MP4-12C and I for one wish McLaren succeed in their endeavour.
Especially because of the refreshing daring and ambition that is on display in a way that just isn't common anymore in the increasingly corporate (neutered!) world we live in. That and the potential that they might start a return to greatness for the British car industry.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The 'Bluemotion' diet

I was talking to a fellow car nut earlier today about spin and rhetoric and how easy it is to see through it in manufacturers' press releases. Having given it some thought though, I think the joke's been firmly on all of us.

I have visions of the heads-of-industry chuckling to themselves behind boardroom doors for lapping up the "downsizing" spiel they've been glibly feeding to us for years. I'll use the VW range to illustrate my point although I'm sure if I devoted the same amount of time to it, this could have worked just as well with Ford, Renault, PSA, Nissan and other 'mainstreamers'.

Very popular bit of trivia this, but the Mk V Polo was bigger in every dimension than the Mk I Golf, the original family hatch. With the Mk VI even bigger, I suspected the Polo was now approaching Mk I Passat territory so I decided to look up the figures and sure enough, the current mid-range Polo is a 1.4 petrol that pumps out 85 horses in a car that weighs about 1100kg. Original Passat? The top of the range was a 1.5 petrol with 84bhp and it weighed about 1100kg.

So Polo Mk VI, as big as Passat Mk I with current Golf, current Passat and Phaeton bigger still. Whereas the Polo used to be the smallest car in the VW range, VW have had to come up with the Lupo to file in underneath and more recently the Fox. And if Frankfurt 2009 is anything to go by, there'll soon be an 'Aye-up' joining the ranks.

So while manufacturers want you to believe you're downsizing when you opt for a Polo over a Golf, you're only really opting for the size of car you should always have had and that's why "downsizing" is so painless nowadays. Because it fundamentally isn't.

Increases in specific outputs, thermal efficiency and specific consumption have been used until now to disguise weight gain and that's why engine manufacturers have been able to find the massive gains they have in economy and emissions performance over the past couple of years.

Prime illustration? The VW Polo Bluemotion! Just by gearing that trades in performance for economy, engine electronics that do the same, stiff, skinny tyres and minor aerodynamic revisions, you get closer to 90mpg when you really should be getting more like 60mpg. Future increases in efficiency are going to be much harder to come by because all it's taken so far is a change of focus while applying the same technology.

Legislation means gains afforded by technology like direct injection and DSG gearboxes are now being directed where they always should have been rather than just towards affording us more interior space, safety devices and other creature-comforts; more road footprint for same amount of cost-to-own.

Think about that next time you're agonising over the hardship opting for a 'smaller' car might make you endure.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

Got taken for a spin in a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe" the other day. Many things impressed me, a few didn't. Get the former out of the way first shall I?

It had the heavy woods (walnut & teak), leather, aluminium and chrome that you would expect in a hand-built British luxury car, and a slab of aluminium-look plastic spanning the dash... that you would not.

I liked the panel hiding away the multimedia screen and the cameras mounted either side of the nose to let you see what's driving towards it when you're creeping out of side-streets. I loved playing with the 'up-down' button for the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet-figure and also spent a lot of time watching the 'power-reserve' gauge to see if it could be perturbed away from '100%' at city speeds. It couldn't.

All the little theatrical flourishes scattered through the interior shouted 'I'm a special car!' but £250k special? I thought not.

Some go weak at the knees for good paintwork but I am an interior fetishist. The common thread amongst objects of my fickle affection in the automotive world is without-a-doubt, a good interior. I point you to Weismann MFs for where my infatuation currently lies and for interiors that say bespoke more convincingly than any other I've ever leered at, £1.4m+ Veyron Sang Bleu excepted.

Sledging done, I have to admit to feeling the Phantom 'DC' completely possessed £250k's worth of majesty. We had the convertible roof stowed, it being sunny day it was, and I felt as self-conscious being driven through the high street as I imagine I would have done if I'd been forced to run through it instead, whited-up, wearing nothing but a mankini and golf socks.

Maybe it was how freakishly quietly it did everything or how obvious it was from the absence of either of, tweed or bling amongst its occupants, that it didn't belong to any of us. Or perhaps it was the seriously intimidating dimensions (particularly width) which meant a complete absence of drivers'-seat envy on my part.

I felt like I was dining with the Queen and didn't know my salad-fork from my dessert-spoon. I felt like riff-raff put in its place and I think it takes giving some thought to R-R's typical clientelle to understand why that's probably the right way for a person like me to feel.

You can only really relax enough to enjoy ownership of such ostentation if you're somewhere between gentry and aristocracy or if you work in an industry in which mass-idolisation makes colossal-ego standard-issue/occupational hazard.

I'm as likely to find myself in a position where I own one as I am to catch myself actually wanting one i.e. not very

Friday, 4 September 2009

Turn the new 911 Turbo up to 11 please

I was really quite disappointed when I read the tech spec of the new 911 Turbo. Chiefly because it has less power than the 997 911 GT2 for no obvious reason. It has the larger direct-injection 3.8-litre engine from the 997 II but still puts out less power than the 3.6 port injection 997 GT2.

This smacks of Porsche not turning the wick up all the way up to where they could have done so they could leave room for a GT2 version of the Turbo. I might be wrong but let's run with this conjecture. Why would they want to leave room for a GT2? Because a GT2 means higher margins and more ROI on the platform than a base Carrera 2.

It's like the Boxster-Cayman-911 C2 scenario all over again where Porsche gave the Cayman a 3.4-litre engine, coincidentally bang in the middle of the then Boxster's 3.2 and the 911's 3.6. The first Cayman S also happened to have 295hp c.f. 265hp for the Boxster and 325hp for the 911 Carrera 2.

I understand carmakers are a business and they should do all they can to direct people to the models in their range that make them the most money but I think, if Porsche did a better job of differentiating between models in their range, the underhand, artificial handicapping would be unnecessary.

When Ferrari introduced the 430 Scuderia, they were proud of the fact that it was only 1 second slower around Fiorano than the Enzo despite costing over £200k less. They jumped on rooftops to shout about it! Just like any engineer would if they'd been allowed to make the best car they could.

With the Ferrari range, you know if you want a cruiser you buy a California and if you want a road racer for similar money, you queue up for a 458. I'm not a fanboy.

I don't have the privilege, but if I had £100k plus to sink on a sports car, I'd rather that if any compromises had been made in its design, they'd been with performance in consideration rather how the choices might end up affecting Piech's, Wiedeking's or whoever's the boss nowadays' coin bank.

Update (8 Feb 2009): Because everyone loves saying, "I told you so."

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

F1 Racing Letter

I think this was essentially my first foray into writing. I wrote a letter to F1 racing magazine and it got published and made me suddenly think that there might be people out there actually interested in my opinion! I was hooked! It was published in May 2006.

I think the 2/3 year freeze on engine specifications is a good move by the FIA but I cant help feeling that they could have gone further.

Currently, engine manufacturers are frittering away in excess of £1 billion annually on internal combustion petrol engines which are essentially an obsolete technology.

Wouldn't this money be better spent in search of more ecological means of propulsion? This would be of benefit to cars normal people drive everyday and isn't seeking benefits such as these one of the reasons car manufacturers give for being involved in F1?

For as long as F1 continues to use non-renewable resources, it will not be at the pinnacle of motorsport technology as it currently purports to be.

The Styling of the Ferrari 458 Italia

I really admire Chris Harris as a motoring writer. Chris Harris of Autocar (Chris on Camera) and Driver's Republic fame. He talks about actively refusing to comment on a car's aesthetics when he's writing about it because he feels that since looks are subjective, commenting on whether a car is good-looking or not is largely pointless.

I agree with this to a degree but also feel I have to defend the looks of the Ferrari 458 Italia. I like the way it looks and that's because I've spent a bit of time studying it and trying to work out why the designers made some of the decisions they did.

It's easy to see that the creases exist to direct air towards the the opening just ahead of the C-pillar that serves as an engine intake. It's a typical layout for racing cars but the evolution from the intakes of the 360 and 430 to this are ingenious!

The rather unusual triple-exhaust is obviously an homage to the F40 [200mph+, mid-engine, V8 berlinetta] but I've also heard they're functional and form part of an active exhaust system. The middle pipe works all the time and the outer two are only activated at high revs so the 458 can be quiet when quiet when you're pootling and vociferous when you're in 'attack' mode.

I think it helps us form a more sympathetic opinion of a car's aesthetics if we try to understand why each styling detail exists. I personally like the 458's styling because it doesn't seem to incorporate any superfluous details. I'm pretty confident every little crease and curve serves a functional purpose. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, they are all influenced by aerodynamics.

Not surprising then to hear the 458 generates 140kg of downforce at 125mph.

BMW M3 coupe

I spent a couple of days at evo Magazine in the summer of 2008 and Ollie Marriage took me out for a spin in the BMW M3 that was part of their fast fleet at the time. I wrote 500 words on the experience and they follow below:

The M3 is quite frequently accused of not being the most subtle of cars. I think that perception stems purely from people knowing what it is when they see one rather than the mildly bulging wheel-arches around the shiny wheels and the M-Sport badges working together with the black roof to shout a tad too loudly. You have to know what you are looking for to differentiate it from a normal 3 series coupe, the easiest tell-tale being the shape of the mirrors. This might work against justifying its £50k plus price tag in eyes of the show-offs amongst us but it my eyes at least, the subtlety is endearing.

I'll admit to being a bit blasé approaching the car in the car park but only because I have seen so many of them on the road. The first thing that caught my attention and suggested I should perhaps revisit my opinions was the engine's idle once the start-button was depressed. Oddly lumpen, a shade too loud and really quite sinister; it gave me the impression BMW had left it that way for a reason.

On the move, at a steady 50 - 60 mph in 4th or 5th, everything is all very civilised as it would be in any modern car, sporting or not. The 'audibles‚' are the road noise from the wide semi-slick tyres and the air conditioning. 6th is present and has more work to do for economy on a motorway cruise than keeping everything hush under the aluminium bonnet. One would also expect the cabin of a 'sports car‚' to be a bit spartan but the M3 most definitely isn't. Apart from the big iDrive screen, the inclusion of cup holders was quite interesting but perhaps forgivable owing to their location on passenger's side of the cabin.

Onto exploring the more manic side of the M3 we started by rolling along, barely above idle, in third before flooring the throttle pedal, a road tester's trick it turns out. It reveals where the torque lies in the rev range. There was an obvious lump around 3,000rpm then again around 5,000rpm as the Bi-VANOS variable valve lift and control system worked its magic. Past this, power delivery was linear all the way up to the redline although I have to admit to getting a bit scared every time the tachometer needle nudged 8,000rpm.

8,000rpm meant an almost naughty roar from the 414bhp V8, appropriate really because barring 1st gear, 8,000rpm meant illegal speeds. Huge powerful brakes and super-grippy tyres meant we could lose the speed just as quickly as we'd picked it up and on that B-road today with farm traffic, blind bends and crests - not-to-mention the 'bizzies' never being far enough away, the fun‚ could only really be indulged in in bursts. Whenever we backed off and the revs fell away [accompanied by some tasty flywheel-whir], the duality in the M3's persona was highlighted.

It also existed at corner exits where catching bumps while accelerating out, made the DSC (dynamic stability control) kick in perceptibly retarding the throttle and making the dampers work in double-time to keep the body under control. The moment the bumps stopped though, the jittering stopped too to be replaced by what could only be described as 'serenity'. I was only left aware of the potential performance of the E92 M3 when it was teased out. The rest of the time, it just sat there, never nagging, waiting for you to call it up. Sitting in the same non-descript way the M3 had sat in the Evo car-park.

Back therein, engine switched off and belts unbuckled for graceful egress, the BMW M3 earned a little bit more respect and a tad more menace in my eyes. I'm glad I saw what lay beneath though god forbid if we'd ended up on a racetrack and asked it to really break a sweat. I'm glad I didn't have to do any of the driving because I'd have simply been out of my depth.

My Entry for the Driver's Republic Subaru Impreza Competition

This is my entry for a competition that ran on Driver's Republic just before it folded. A winner was never drawn but basically, the idea was to write 200 words on what you thought was 'The Essence of Subaru'. It was obviously a sponsored feature but the prize was a chance to long-term test a Subaru Impreza. My entry went as follows...

'Subaru', in my head, are manufacturer who tried rallying once, enjoyed some early success and spent the rest of the intervening years trying to replicate it and despite failing, choosing to tout their ‘motorsport pedigree' every time it came to flogging one of their road cars. I think their board realising this had something to do with their decision to pull out of the WRC in 2008. Motorsport was essentially a distraction from their raison d'ĂȘtre, i.e. building road cars.

All their road cars have had the obvious, boxer engine and AWD in common throughout the years but beneath those superficial hallmarks, lies what I think is the essence of Subaru. They have never been about pretention or class as I’m sure you’ll agree their pricing and styling policies attest to.

From what I've heard and read from those who have had the good fortune to drive them, I can't help but conclude, Subaru are about building all-weather, all-road, driving machines to afford as much driving pleasure to novice as to driving god.

In a word, the essence of Subaru is 'accessibility'.

First Post

I've decided to write a blog after working in the magazine publishing industry for a while. I'm not a journalist but I got into it chiefly because I'm a petrolhead and I have a fair few opinions on cars that I like to be able to vent from time to time.

I'm going to start with a few pieces I wrote for magazines that weren't published and another one which will form a bit of a commentary on the aesthetics of the 458 Italia. Hope you enjoy them and come back because I intend to post quite regularly!