Friday, 30 July 2010

T25 News

There’s been some more in the press recently on Gordon Murray’s T25 project. We’ve now moved from an engineering hack to pre-production prototypes (‘XP’ in McLaren parlance) and pictures of a very finished looking car. So far, so good, its supposed to be cheap to build, brilliantly packaged (for a Mum or Dad of two, a 1+2 layout is perfect) and crucially, good to drive - in spite of the diminutive 700cc motor.

Yet, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this all terribly frustrating. While Murray has talked to many organisations about putting the project into production, along with its iStream low cost production system, there hasn’t been any news of any contracts signed.

And until then, there’s no chance the T25 will be built, maddening for everyone who would head to a dealer with their deposit tomorrow.

Hubris Repeated

It only took their first opportunity for a 1-2 in two seasons for Ferrari to put themselves in the mire.

Repeating the actions of Austria in 2002, they ordered the drivers to reverse their positions to give the favoured son the benefit of the extra points for first place, and the manoeuvre was carried out in a blatant fashion by the drivers. Ironically (or not) it was 2002’s actions in Austria, and the resultant furore, that caused the FIA to introduce the ‘no team orders’ rule in the first place.

Then, as in Hockenheim, they faced booing from the crowd, an embarrassing podium ceremony and critical questioning from the specialist press corps. Then, as now, the team management shrugged their shoulders, accused their many critics of not understanding motor racing, and pretended it was all part of anti-Ferrari bias in the ‘Anglo’ press.

Then, as now, we were faced with the unedifying site (and sound) of senior engineers’ and drivers’ bare-faced lies about missed gear changes and being all the drivers’ decisions - even though the telemetry shown on screen clearly showed Massa using only 50% throttle leaving the corner where the ‘pass’ took place.

What it did demonstrate once again, quite clearly, is that Ferrari feel they have no loyalty to any concept of ‘sport’ in Formula One, or to its many supporters, or those that turn up each fortnight having paid their hundreds of Euros or Dollars to see a race.

For them, Ferrari is bigger than F1, and what’s good for the team is good for the rest. That's the way the planets should be aligned, and the Scuderia can get on with winning in order to maintain the ‘brand’ that allows them to make money from the road car and T shirt business.

We saw that in during the triumphalism of the Schumacher years, at Indianapolis in 2005, in Austria in 2002, and in their shabby behaviour during Stepneygate. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see it again in 2010.

Talk about team orders long being a part of Grand Prix racing (so was sudden death on Sunday afternoon), and being implemented by other teams (none with the flagrant arrogance of the Scuderia) show a point being missed.

What F1 shares with other great sports is that it really isn’t just about winning, it about winning well.

It’s a shame that Ferrari’s hubris blinds them to this.

Billy Fiske: King of Speed.

I took SS7 jnr and the F-in-L to the theatre last weekend. We went to see a new play by David Morris based on the life of Billy Fiske, who was killed at nearby Tangmere in the Battle of Britain. Two things made Fiske remarkable; his nationality – he was the first US citizen to volunteer for the RAF – and he was a truly gilded youth.

From a privileged background, he won two gold medals at Winter Olympics, drove a Supercharged 'WO' Bentley, set a time for the Cresta run that lasted decades, and wooed and won the wife of a British aristocrat. Not only that, he had the sheer front to be a thoroughly lovely bloke; modest, thoughtful, considerate, and with a standard of personal integrity many of the period could have benefitted from; in 1936 aged only 24 he refused to defend his title at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 in protest at the regime.

The play was a good effort, performed in front of a sadly ½ empty play house in Bognor, and fairly captured the humanity of the man and the strange existence the pilots led, facing death on every sortie, yet returning each day to a life of comfort and desperate fun. There was some anachronistic language (did 1940 RAF pilots really need to “focus” on shooting down the enemy?), but I enjoyed the evening.

There’s talk of a transfer to London and I wish the production well, but I did find myself wondering if it wouldn't make a great movie.

Billy asked to be buried near Tangmere in Boxgrove Priory. I’ve visited the well-tended grave in a quiet corner of a beautiful part of West Sussex , between the South Downs and the English Channel.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

On Automatic Transmissions

Dear reader, it will have not escaped your notice that there has been something of a revolution in the world of self-shifting transmissions recently. Starting in 2003, when VW launched their DSG system in the Golf R32, double clutch gearboxes (DCT) are now offered by every serious volume manufacturer. Even Porsche finally got their PDK transmission onto the market, only 25 years after using it first in the 956/962 sports racers.

Now I’m not disputing that DCT doesn’t offer some clear advantages over the old-style torque convertor gearboxes. There is little loss of power through the transmission (although interestingly I note that Porsche quote slightly lower top speeds for their PDK cars), the changes can be snappy as you like, and most systems offer a stack of closely arranged gears; at first 6, then 7 and now 8 speeds. DCT systems are also technically superior to the older generation automatic clutch transmissions, with their jerky changes, and the smell of burning clutch should you try and 3-point your Ferrari 360 F1 on a hill.

But inspite of various internet warriors claims to the contrary, they are undoubtedly automatic transmissions; they all lack a clutch pedal, they all have a fully automatic mode, and I’ve yet to find any manufacturer offering a PDK ‘manual’ as standard with a torque converter automatic option.

The manufacturers like to market these systems with all sorts of motorsport associations, emphasising the flappy paddles that can be used to select ratios in semi-manual mode, and of course playing on the fact that the F1 teams having been using something like it for years.

But road use is nothing like racing. In racing, there is only one objective – to reach the flag first, and everything else finds itself subservient to that goal. Add all those fractions of a second gained by gear changes measured in hundredths, and they mean the difference between a podium and nowhere. And unlike racing drivers, modern transmission CPU’s don’t miss gears, buzz engines, break gearlevers, or generally do very much else to wreck expensive and highly stressed racing transmissions.

Of course, that’s the real reason why manufacturers have introduced DCT transmissions in road cars. Its because we all use the gearboxes ‘wrong’ too. All the time. We insist in lugging along in top when we should use intermediates to gain performance, we rev the thing like blazes for no reason, we slip clutches, jolt gear changes, change up too early or too late, insist on sequentially down changing all the way through the gears when we come to a stop, and a hundred other abuses committed by the lazy, ignorant or overly enthusiastic drivers.

So DCT’s offer a much ‘better’ solution, they are more efficient, reduce emissions, are controlled by algorithms smart enough to enhance any driver, and can be overridden if desired. Just how good they have got can been seen when Audi report that 95% of DCT owners stick it in ‘D’ and let the CPU change gear, and Ferrari’s latest 458 supercar will be almost 100% DCT transmissions.

DCT is the new manual, and anyone who disagrees is a bearded old Luddite.

That’s me then. I’ve detested automatic gearboxes with a passion since I could drive, and no amount of marketing twaddle will convince me that the new tech. ‘boxes are anything better than a slightly less bad automatic.

Within a few miles, my usual happy interaction with the controls of my mode of transport turns into a one sided shouting match, as the wretched thing drops two gears to scream off down the motorway for 200 metres when all I wanted was a smooth torquey surge to ease past a truck, or changes up two gears as I ease off around the roundabout’s apex in preparation for a nippy exit. How can any algorithm, no matter how well conceived, decide if I am going to approach slow moving traffic with a view to overtake at the first opportunity, or cruise along behind because I’m turning off soon anyway? Or understand that I’ve just entered a 30mph limited village after 5 miles of flat-out hooning, so I just want to quietly potter through in 5th, not hold onto 1st until the 7500rpm red line, or a thousand other scenarios I encounter in my daily driving?

And while the DCTs might make gearchanging ‘better’ for most of us, for me there will always be the satisfaction of a perfectly timed, toed blip on the throttle as I brake and come down through the manual box, judging the amount of that blip on how many revs, how fast, and how heavily I’m braking.

I appreciate a lot of drivers won’t know what I’m on about, for them a car is simply another white good, maintained and fuelled under sufferance, and whose only function is to get them from A to B in comfort and with a suitable amount of prestige. Which brings me nicely back to Hong Kong, where almost every car you see has an automatic transmission, and the passage of every Ferrari is marked by the computerised blip of the throttle as the driver slows for another set of lights.

Perhaps it was put best in BIKE magazine recently, when the writer considered the new Honda VFR1200, which he was testing in DCT form; “So this is an option that broadens motorcycling and allows customers who haven’t got as much experience to forget about changing gear and to concentrate on the pleasure of the ride instead. Some customers won’t want this – that’s fine, that’s a choice. What we’re offering is an alternative way to enjoy riding. It’s not the future, it’s a future.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hello Again, I'm back.

After 6 months in Hong Kong I find myself back in West Sussex, enjoying the closest we've had to a summer for years. I have a friend, originally from California, who when asked "So how long have you lived here for?" typically answers: "Around 3 summers now - that's about 12 years.....".

Well Lynn, its 4 summers now!

Anyway, I do digress. Hong Kong may have its good points, but a petrolhead nirvana it is not. The interweb kept me abreast of what was happening in the world of cars and bikes, and monthly, eye-wateringly expensive, copies of CAR magazine were a regular treat.

But reading and watching video was no substitute for hands-on experience. It was like living in some post oil-age world, where motoring only takes place in virtual reality.

Perhaps that's why I found my creative juices drying up; buses and a tube system (albeit a highly efficient one) just don't do it for me, and even the odd Sunday morning bark of a Ferrari accelerating hard between the endless sets of traffic lights wasn't muse enough.

But after a month enjoying warm dry tarmac on two wheels and four, the sap is rising once again. Welcome back to the Car List Blog, sorry its been so long.